Inspired by the ways in which COVID-19 has limited and transformed our in-person access to and experience of galleries, festivals, museums, and other designated art spaces, Brief Encounters with Art investigates the power, potential, and complexities of encountering art in passing moments and unexpected locations. If you have suggestions, ideas, or feedback, feel free to contact us at arts@smilepolitely.com.


As someone who views and reviews visual art for a living, I have spent a lot of time considering the impact of context on the viewer's experience, engagement, and, in for-sale situations, the artist's potential sales. As in real estate, it's all about location. But within that location are dozens of variables worth considering. How the art is installed within that space, its accessibility, its signage, its connection to the overall space and its purpose, impacts how it is regarded. And during a pandemic, Is the work outward-facing so it can still be enjoyed when access to indoor spaces is limited?


I've often said that in order to fully experience a work of visual art one must linger. One must slow down and take time. Ideally, one should walk away and return with fresh eyes. But like many things these days, the art of lingering in commercial or public spaces has been limited to a safer, shorter, more efficient interaction. We mask up, head out, and do what needs to be done. We keep our distance and we keep moving, keenly aware of new occupancy limits. And all of this impacts the character and quality of our encounters with art. It impacts our engagement, our ability to create a memory, our ability to observe and respond to the reactions of other viewers. 

When the majority of in-person art viewing opportunities are unaccessible, brief encounters with art come as welcome surprises. They are often more democratic, and more welcoming of new artists. They meet us where we are. They carry the potential to reach more viewers (and create more art fans) than most gallery installations. 

I choose to begin with the newly installed outdoor gallery at Common Ground Food Co-op for several reasons. Its celebration of Black artists meets this important moment. Coming out of the CGFC's long history of installing local art, It demonstrates a commitment to keep that promise and keep it safely within COVID-19 guidelines. 

Photo of Common Ground Food Coop raised garden beds from which hang portraits of Black faces by Black artists

Location: Common Ground Food Co-op outdoor patio

Installation format: Multi-panel portraits printed on weatherproof material and hung from the existing raised garden beds. 

Artist(s): Kofi Bazzell-Smith, Keenan Dailey, Nailah F. Davis, Haiku, Mooki, Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure. 

Photo of multi-panel portraits of Black faces by artist Nailah Davis
 

Multi-panel portaits of Black women and girls by artist Haiku

Theme/Artist Statement(s):

This celebration of Black artists is clearly tied to CGFC's overall commitment to diversity and to the Black Lives Matter movement in particular. CGFC's social media team has done a good job of promoting the work and providing opportunities to link to artist statements on the CGFC gallery page, as well as to each artist's website and social media pages.
 

Artist Keenan Dailey standing in front of his multipanel portrait installation outside Common Ground Food Co-op

Viewing access:

The outdoor location, with its proximity to both Lincoln Square Mall and its parking lot, offers many viewing opportunities, some briefer than others. Its adjacency to outdoor seating is another plus, and offers the potential for longer and more studied engagement with the work. The large weekly farmer's market crowd also provides enormous audience potential. This group installation will be up through the end of the year, although engagement will likely lessen as the temps drops. 

Artist Kofi Bazzell-Smith with his installation outside Common Ground Food Co-op

My brief encounter in brief:

To be fair, I saw this installation on social media before I set out to see it in person. Score one for the CGFC's social media team. While I lost the element of surprise, the posts and photos drew me in. I was happy to see a mix of artists I knew and some I was happy to be introduced to for the first time. And that is as it should be. Whether the credit belongs to the curators, the artists, or both, the choice of portraits was a good one. The message is clear. The BLM movement is about people. These portraits present a range of lived experiences filled with pride and pain. We connect with people. We remember faces. And we are therefore more likely to revisit them, and listen the stories they tell, even if we can only do so in momentary encounters. The work itself is compelling and bold enough to stand up to the challenges of its location (cars, foot traffic, competition for attention). 

Closing thoughts: 

This inaugural installation checks a lot of boxes. It makes good use of an existing structure in a well-trafficked location. There is enough to see and consider to justify the length of time it will remain up. It is safely, outwardly-focused. And its impact is amplified by CGFC's website and social media. With such a long run, I hope the photos, artist bios, and quotes will continue beyond the initial unveiling. Ideally this will become a source of engagement and income for these six talented artists. And, CGFC, if you're reading this, it might be fun to use the online space to solicit and share viewers' own brief encounters with this work. Neither the artists, the subjects, nor the movement that inspired this work can afford to get lost in the noise. The conversation and the work need to continue.

Artist Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure with her multipanel installation featuring photos of her handmaid African-inspired sculptures at the Common Ground Food Co-op

For more information, visit the Common Ground Food Co-op gallery page
 

All photos from Common Ground Food Co-op Facebook page