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Art In The Cafes

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■M iH. h LílIlSI We take the changing art displays in local coffee houses for granted these days, but a recent event at the Packard Espresso Royale Caffe highlights our unusual luck in having these displays, and the problems inherent in trying to show fine art to a general audience. Loralei Byatt's show of largerthan-life photographic self-portraits went up without anything seeming to be out of the ordinary. The store manager, Harth, remembers that when he came in the next morning he mmediately noticed the new work, which had an especially strong presence on one long wall. As customers came in there was immediate comment. At first this didn't seem to be a problem, but over the next couple of days the majority of people who came in made some negative remark. People sat away from the work and business went down. Harth says, "Shocked as I was that first morning, taking it down never crossed my mind," but by the third day his employees were begging him to do just that. Understanding that the Caffe had to do what was best for business, the Ann Arbor Art Center (formerly Ann Arbor Art Association) and the artist withdrew the work and another show was hastily hung. Problems like this don't come up as much when art stays where only art fans can see it. Coffee houses and other public locations are the only place most people in Ann Arbor regularly see fine art - gallery shows and the U-M Art Museum are just not that welt attended, in comparison. There have always been stores displaying art for sale as a decoration of the premises - for example, the Del Rio Bar has long had ongoing exhibits. But a few years ago in Ann Arbor artist organizations and regular galleries began actively seeking outside locations that would host regular exhibits. René LaMar and the Ann Arbor Artists' Co-op ntroduced the idea of the "Roving Galleries" to Ann Arbor in the late '80s. With regular rotating displays at up to 30 locations, the Co-op grew to several hundred members in its brief existence partly because the Roving Galleries offered artists more posure and more sales opportunities than a typical gallery situation. With wall space less at a premium, more artists and more types of art could be displayed, including beginners and amateur artists without enough work for one-person exhibits. The Artists' Co-op had displays in stores, public places (like the lobby of Community Televisión Network), and in most of Ann Arbor's coffee houses. Once in rotation, an artist's work would be seen by thousands more people than would see it in a gallery show, and with more repeated exposure. When work sold, it was usually to people who rarely go to galleries. When the Artists' Co-op went out of business the Ann Arbor Art Center managed to piek up the three downtown Espresso Royale Caffes as off-site galleries starting in October 1993. The Art Center also shows at Oasis Hot Tubs and St. Joe's Hospital's Michigan Heart and Vascular Institute. Around the same time the Matrix Gallery established itself in Sweetwaters Cafe on W. Washington, lately showing only there. (The next show in Matrix itself starts Jan. 13 - see below.) Galerie Jacques has a display in Main Street News. The Art Center"s program is better than the Artists' Co-op's in some ways. Art was commonly damaged in transport by Co-op volunteers. The Art Center has the artist transport the work, and only one piece was ever damaged in a show. The 85-year-old Art Center has a bigger group of professional artists to choose from. It juries artists, while the Co-op tried to give all artists a chance, hanging even bad art. The Art Center has mostly oneperson shows, which are difficult for artists to get at regular galleries. The Artists' Co-op program began as a f ree service to businesses, with sales from art intended to cover costs, but as the real costs became apparent, the Co-op began charging for the service. The Art Center charges an amount comparable to what plant decoration services charge. In its time, the Artists' Co-op often had to remove art from shows. They obeyed requests for "no nudes" and so on. In a previous Art Center Packard Espresso Royale show two drawings of nude men showing penises got some strongly negativo comments, but the manager left them on the wall. An intriguing painting by Mark Homola with témale frontal nudity is currently hanging in the Main St. Espresso Royale. Byatt's show was unusual only in the strength and unexpectedness of the audience response. After seeing the work any art crowd would be surprised by the reaction - certainly nobody at the opening reception could understand it. In the photographs Byatt is looking directly at the viewer. The 30" squares are half filled with Byatt's face. She says the work is about stereotyping and roles that women have to play. Each has a different prop - in one a large fish is stuck head-first into her mouth. Honey is dripping all over her face in another. One that the store manager said looked like an abused woman achieved its affect with a nylon stocking pulled over Byatt's head. Throughout, she looks angry or oppressed, not cute. The work appears to be an assault on the ideal of beauty which is promoted by the commercial media and deeply ingrained in the anorexic fashion-consciousmindset. Byatt's theme is common beginning with feminist art in the 70s, and art fans have long been accustomed to much more extreme work. Although two of Byatt's selfportraits had previously hung in the State St. Espresso Royale with no comment, it seems that the large group of work posed such an assault on the world view of the majority of customers that it broke through and actually managed to offend them. They couldn't ignore it as they sat drinking coffee and studying. Rejection by this audience shows Byatt's unusual success in creating challenging art that can help us outgrow our expectations of how women are supposed to look. Even though the Art Center picks work primarily for artistic, not decorative value, it can't really do much when the public wants some art to stay in the galleries where it can be ignored. We must remain thankful that the Art Center, Matrix Gallery and Galerie Jacques continue to enrich our environment as much as possible. Their programs are a valuable resource, but business' need for safe, inoffensive decoration sometimes makes t mpossible to show the best art. ■


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