After Gallery: a new kind of space between Riverwest, the East Side, Downtown, and Bronzeville

Vaughan Larsen at After Gallery

It is common for a teacher to learn things from his or her students, especially in the fields of contemporary and/or digital art, which are constantly shifting and changing how we think and act, between everyday culture and high- and low-, and those who make, break, and take that culture. Most recently, UWM photo student Vaughan Larsen – an Imagining America fellow, who has taken two participatory art courses with me, and is an all-around fascinating person – has taught me about some of the more interesting goings-on in my home city of Milwaukee (since 2008!). Specifically, he pointed me to After Gallery, where he was showing Peers, his series of public self-portraits exhibited as part of a group show, to celebrate the launch of After Magazine Vol. 4. Yes, that’s a mouthful; and it’s only a fraction of what the folks over at After have been doing since their launch, just five short months ago.

First, let’s talk space and vibe. With the tag line “Art, Community, Collaboration,” After Gallery is a breath of fresh air in terms of how diverse and welcoming of an environment it is. I got there just as things were getting started, 7pm on a Friday, and, although parking on Humboldt just below North isn’t the easiest, it felt neighborly – especially with several signs inviting folks in, and the Barbie cars out front (apparently from a kids’ race a few weeks before). As soon as I entered, Flow Johnson, the gallery owner and director, greeted me with a warm handshake, invited my son to watch movies in the basement, asked me to look around, enjoy the music, and make myself at home. I brought Jack downstairs, where there were kids both sleeping and playing, other artists chatting – the latter immediately introducing themselves to me as Nate and Natalie.

Back upstairs a few minutes later, there was already a crowd, Jack began playing with two dogs in the space, and I started a chat with Darius Smith about After Magazine (we were later joined by their female intern, a student at MIAD whose name escapes me at the moment – if you know it, put it in the comments and I’ll edit!). This is “a submission based artist magazine with a focus on music, art, fashion, lifestyle and social justice. [They] provide a platform for emerging artists, locally and nationwide, and ask them to share how their environment has helped shape their vision.” At $25 it is a bit pricey, but wow, it is beautiful. I bought it both to show support, and just to have it. Flow re-joined the conversation, and handed me some flowers from Flowers for Dreams, a Chicago-based company that donates 35% of its profits to charity. My partner loved them when I got home. Score.

Originally meant to be a group show, only Larsen and Johnson were on display, which was a bit disappointing. But the work was strong. Larsen is somewhat androgynous in his personal style – to the point where I had to ask his preferred pronoun early in our interactions – and takes self-portraits in public places. Rather than either hiding or flashing his identity, Larsen seems to take pride and revel in his and his surroundings’ awkwardness. The images are charming and fun, and make us laugh at ourselves in how we look and see, act and are.

Johnson’s work is a bit more diverse. Drawings and nudes, children making faces… I think he designed the After t-shirts, too. It matches the space: fun, interesting, inviting. His collaboration with Jenna Knapp is especially clever and intriguing, giving me warm fuzzies around how I interact with others, versus how I wish I did. I think on this as the music starts to blare,  a diverse group is having fun, and there’s so much more going on than I had expected when I ventured out earlier in the evening simply to support a student. Zines and chap books, fashion and mixers, games and play. Seriously, check out their web site. If anything, After Gallery may be trying to do too much. Not to say it can’t be all it wants to be – it already is, in how inviting of a space it feels like, in how a middle-aged man like me can arrive with his son early, and others can stay late and party. But rather, with so much programming, it’s a lot to manage, and a lot can go wrong this early on. Which is to say: be forgiving if things are late or imperfect (like… a group show that winds up being a duo!). New art spaces that last in Milwaukee are few and far between, especially run by young people of color, and they deserve our support. Like they say on their web site: it is our space as much as it is theirs.

After Gallery is at 2225 N. Humboldt in River West, and is open every day but Sunday, from noon-7 (later for openings).

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