Maverick Square’s ArtVigor: Manning’s do-it-yourself gallery
It’s a Saturday night in February and group of hip, twenty-somethings have already found their way into a subterranean studio in Maverick Square. Improvisational music from an meandering eight-man ensemble called the Sunburned Hand of the Man greets them before they can even say “Hello.” Exciting as the sounds may be this is hardly the best way to greet one’s guests. But this is an opening night for something to see rather than hear.
The night moves on. The consensus on the band appears to be divided: some ride the groove of the outer aural fringe. Others just wish the band –led by a scary fellow with horns in his head –would just tone it down; others wish that the band could at least play a soothing tune in the key of C, which would go nicely with all those objects d’art on the walls and floor.
Before long a fiery poet, clearly unconfused about his sexuality, takes to the starlight. Clad in black with a Mohawk, this passionate flame of does to words what Sunburned Hand of the Man did to musical notes — amusing the audience with poetic bombast and a good chuckle here and there. He speaks of committing acts with Joe Camel which would definitely be illegal in Georgia and, were he to declare them loudly in Maverick Square, he would find himself facing a long walk home.
As the audience adjusts to this nocturnal atonality of voice and sound, the host of this grand opening weaves in and out of the social circles. Smiling like a resurrected Andy Warhol, the shoeless host with daffy black-rimmed glasses captures his guests and their social graces on a Hi8 video recorder, a tool far better than the great Pop Artist’s Polaroid. No one seems to mind since they’ll probably never see the tape.
For the intrepid who’ve decided to explore the outer periphery of Boston’s art scene, Maverick Square is the light at the end of the tunnel. For longtime residents introduced to this flip side of Eastie, Maverick Square will never be the same. The fabled square — once the stomping ground of aging Mafiosi and mysterious storefronts — games has evolved into a campy salon that features the occasional cross-dresser. That’s because Jim Manning and his year-old gallery, ArtVigor, is opening the door for artist and audience as the city’s artistic community grows outward.
Born in South Boston, Manning isn’t as well known as another recent Southie emigre, Ray Flynn, who moved to Eastie to add credibility to his run for Congress. But at 23 years of age, Manning, New England School of Art and Design (NESAD) student, painter, and security guard at the Museum of Fine Arts is trying to add some credibility and spunk to an arts community that needs to look beyond its Newbury Street and Ft. Point Channel borders. For Manning and his compatriots, the tony, comfortable downtown establishment is hard to crack. To open those doors, that first crack of public displays so crucial to the young artist, Manning has set aside nearly 1200 square feet of gallery space at 63 Maverick Square.
“The biggest challenge is that people don’t show young artists,” says the soft-spoken Manning as he sits at his kitchen table trying to repair the damage done to his gallery by June’s heavy rainfall. “There are not many of venues for artists to show except for the schools. But that’s a different context.”
Besides, says Manning, openings should be fun and that isn’t always the case with academic exhibitions or Newbury Street galleries — no matter how many people with tattoos or pierced noses turn out. “I like the idea of having fun rather than just having wine, cheese and crackers,” he says.And when was the last time an overwrought gallery owner on Newbury Street with Mother Nature? As Newbury Street Gallery owners wrestled with the latest rent increase, Manning was busy pumping water out of his basement gallery. The unusually heavy June storms flooded his gallery. Fortunately the rain only slightly damaged some of Manning’s own work but not that of his clients. But out of adversity comes the kind of character and hard-work that makes ArtVigor both exciting and urgent.
Since it opened last year, ArtVigor has presented five exhibitions — all of them group shows. And if the five shows share anything, it’s Manning’s method for pulling together shows. A meticulous keeper of notebooks, Manning goes out to interview artists he knows rather that relying on advertising. “There’s a lot of frustration,” notes Manning who emphasizes personal contact. “People are tired of sending their slides and resumes to Newbury Street. ” In addition, the commission charged by dealers and owners downtown approaches 50 percent; too much of a compromise and a burden for the new artist, he notes.
“There’s really no commercial pressure (at ArtVigor) but it’s a professional setting,” he remarks. Beyond the economics of buying and selling, Manning also considers his audience whom he likes to entertain. Group shows bring in a sampling of the artists’ friends and families. And a group show is likely to sustain an aficionado who’s less bound to walk out if the solo artist’s exhibit fails to make it to first base. Even the most discriminating lover of art is bound to find something.
One would expect a certain degree of flamboyance to go with a younger generation of painters, sculptors and multimedia artists. But Manning, who derives his influences from Van Gogh, Max Beckmann, early Henri Matisse as well as Jackson Pollock and Warhol, aims for sophistication over shock value. “There’s not much you can do to shock people visually every body part has been shown. I’ve seen that people today are turned off by that. The things that drive people are more and more subtle, ” he explains.
“I like playing with the diversity of the artists. It’s always a group show,” he says. “There’s something for everyone.” And that’s important to young artists. Manning often likes to work across generations mostly because he speaks from experience.
“When I first started out at NESAD I started interning with gallery director Addison Parks,” recalls Manning. “He did all these group shows with different artists and he liked to sneak in a student now and then just to give someone like me a chance.”
In the same vein, Manning has built upon that experience. For example an emerging multimedia artist such as Meryl Hamilton can show side by side by with award-winning photographer Bonnie Porter, whose work has been shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art and the DeCordova Museum.
“I kept hearing Jim’s name but I wasn’t putting his name to his face,” says Hamilton, who recently participated in the Torn Apart show which concluded in June. “I went to one of his openings and I thought it was a great idea. Here was this young person who has the gusto and genius to turn his apartment into a gallery and I thought how important that was to artists.”
For Hamilton, ArtVigor offers an intimacy, a bridge between patron and artist. Hamilton pieced together 980 wishbones to resemble a wedding gown for an untitled work that’s part of her Wishful Thinking series. As an installation, her work speaks to the traditional fairy tales handed down by her family.
“It’s nice to have people come up to me and talk to me about my work and what it was about,” says an illustrative Hamilton, a soon to be graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology.
One of those clearly impressed with Hamilton’s work is East Boston’s Charles Giuliano, the artist, teacher and critic who also lent three photo collages drawn upon his visits to Spain and Germany to the recent ArtVigor show. Giuliano, who taught Manning art history at NESAD, believes the painter/curator’s dedication to networking is essential to the city’s arts community.
“He’s made a real contribution in terms of opening up his own living space to give opportunities to an interesting mix of established artists as well as very young experimental artists,” explains Giuliano. “It’s a great tribute to him that veterans have been willing to show with him with little prospect of sales or media attention.”
ArtVigor is merely the latest edition of the unfurling of East Boston’s arts community. ZuMix, a multidimensional arts group, got its start almost a decade ago in the same building that now houses ArtVigor. In 1995, a group of roaming Reclamation Artists turned the decrepit Boston East site into an outdoor gallery of open art. Two years ago, the Kougeas Gallery opened in historic Eagle Hill and is renown drawing an art-buying public from across the harbor and a stable of artists from across the country. The Reclamation project and other connections drew Manning to East Boston.
“Its a good thing that any time that youthful energy is applied to further the borders, to push the institutional limits,” says Mauricio Cordero, educational coordinator for the Institute of Contemporary Art who visited ArtVigor recently. “We never know where the artists who take us to the next level will be found.”
Manning says he would like to interact more with East Boston arts organizations like ZuMix. But for now he’s offering some inspiration for those young artists who face limited choices.
“I haven’t shown my stuff in a show that I haven’t curated,” he remarks.
Editor’s note: In early 1999, Jim Manning moved ArtVigor to South Boston.