7Eleven gallery spins a little gold out of a lot of rubble with new exhibit ‘Alchemy’

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Dylan Lynch's "Hang Time" (Courtesy 7Eleven)
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The artist Dylan Lynch was standing on a stepladder at 7Eleven Gallery in the West Village recently, installing his work, a “self-portrait” which consisted of a pair of red pants, stuffed, with a pair of sneakers attached.

"I think it's going to be called Hang Time," he said. “I like the idea of someone trying to escape the gallery or break into it. And it’s a nice way to utilize the space.”

Hang Time (or whatever Lynch ends up calling it) is part of the group show "Alchemy," which opened last Thursday at 7Eleven Gallery, and rather than transforming base metals into gold, the gallery asked participating artists to metaphorically transmute “ordinary objects into extraordinary works.”

“Alchemy has so many definitions,” said Genevieve Hudson-Price, one of the three young curators who run 7Eleven Gallery, “and they’re all metaphorical. But art is the only one that—by definition, all art is alchemy.”

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Sabrina Blaichman, another of the curators, interjected to clarify that they had specifically selected artists who worked mostly with non-traditional materials. Hence: An intricate bumblebee sculpture made of recycled garbage bags; a set of old doors repurposed and turned into functioning guitars with built-in amplifiers; a set of Depression-era radioactive glass objects suspended in a chamber and lit by black light so they glowed like Kryptonite.

The concept of the show applies equally to the gallery itself, a space which was transformed by the curators from a disused, oddly shaped, and trash-filled space into a gleaming white-walled gallery (though the space remains quirky, with a mezzanine, a basement and a tiny third floor).

“When we first came into the space it was full to the ceiling with rubble,” said Caroline Copley, the third member of the curatorial trio. “And it was just the three of us shoveling the garbage out of here, painting the ceilings.”

7Eleven calls itself a “non-traditional, nomadic art gallery,” and is frequently on the move, not to mention on the lookout for what it calls “idle New York Real Estate" to temporarily call home.

But from the start, the gallery was a D.I.Y. project where the "Yourselves" had significant professional help.

The first place the gallery occupied when it debuted in 2008 was at 711 Washington Street, a space that became available through Blaichman's father, a real-estate developer who was to build on the site. After about a year there, the gallery picked up and moved to another space in Chelsea where it remained until 2010; last year the gallery was on hiatus, but it's now back in the original storefront at 711 Washington which, in the interim, had crumbled into a dismal state.

On its face, the gallery's model is one that seems perfectly matched to the economic climate of 2008: Open a pop-up gallery, save massively on overhead and hone in on curating shows passionately. It's a philosophy that's come to be called art-for-art's-sake, and it's been deployed by many D.I.Y. gallery spaces: Storefronts in Bushwick; abandoned factories; vacated clothing shops on the Lower East Side; some have even taken art home with them, hosting shows in living rooms and basements. Without as much of the traditional pressure to make sales to cover costs, such galleries get to be a lot more creative with what they show and how.

“My take on 7Eleven is sort of like a gallery’s remedy for real-estate remorse,” said Rod Malin, an artist and curator who recently moved from New York to Baltimore to escape the economic pressure of the art scene here and to set up his own space. “Where galleries have large overhead, they need to become more capitalistic with their program. Whereas galleries like 7Eleven are able to focus on showing contemporary art outside the context of the market. And the byproduct is being able to sell it and then open up a dialogue about it.”

7Eleven has actually cut out nearly all of its overhead, working out situations that are rent-free.

“We are in fact squatters,” wrote Copley in an email. “The real-estate developer we work with is kind enough to let us occupy the space for free until the development of the space begins. We end up putting a lot of funds toward fixing the spaces up—building walls, adding lighting etc.”

But as the real-estate developer happens to be Blaichman’s father, Charles, they’ve had a little more help than most D.I.Y. galleries are likely to get. Blaichman senior has been a partner in various building projects downtown, including the Perry Street glass towers designed by Richard Meier and the building on Ninth Avenue that is home to Spice Market and Soho House. In 2008, Blaichman offered the gallery the storefront at 703-711 Washington Street, in a building owned by his company CB Developers that was scheduled to be torn down. Which is to say that even in D.I.Y. terms, 7Eleven has had some luck.

The name of the gallery refers both to the building number, 711 Washington Street, and to the retail store and “our society's consumerism," according to Copley. Even though 7Eleven encourages its artists to make artwork in and for the space, not a lot of what was on view at "Alchemy" seemed connected to the space. Like a minimart, the various products only tie to the space seemed to be that they were in it.

“It’s doing what a 7-Eleven does,” said Malin. “It hunkers down into a real estate and needed space, without much concern for reflecting the community in its programming. It’s accessibility that passes aesthetic contextual location.”

Not just in the real estate but in the programming, it doesn’t hurt that the curators' parents are connected. Copley’s mother is a former director of Leo Castelli Gallery while her father, Billy Copley, is an artist; Genevieve Hudson-Price’s mother is an artist and her father is writer Richard Price. Yes that Richard Price. Needless to say, they have a head start.

But really the paradox of a young gallery with curators whose connections remove a lot of the pressures that created the D.I.Y. movement in galleries in the first place is evident even in this exhibit.

It’s understandable that a young gallery, eager for credibility and press, would seize on the opportunity to exhibit established artists. And there are a few pieces in "Alchemy" that reflect a kind of establishment support from Chelsea’s blue-chip galleries: A light sculpture by video and light artist Keith Sonnier, one of the first artists to use light in sculpture in the '60s (represented by Mary Boone Gallery); a mixed-media work by Michael St. John (represented by Andrea Rosen Gallery) of an unfolded Tiffany’s box mounted on wood; and a couple of photographic works by Adam Fuss (represented by Cheim & Read). And as any young gallery would, 7Eleven was excited by this boon.

“Adam Fuss was our dream artist for the show,” said Blaichman. “We were really excited that he was interested in participating.”

The two works by Fuss on display—an abstract photogram of a yellow egg-shaped object against a white background and another of a brown mass that vaguely resembled a cow’s head set against a blue background. While the former was immediately visible as you entered the gallery, the latter was easy to miss. Fuss’ work, and those of the other big-ticket names, are great work in their own right, but they felt stale in this trash-to-treasure context, surrounded by the more exciting works and the show's reason for being made from unconventional materials like Lynch’s sculptural legs hanging from the skylight, Eve Laramee’s Dustball Model of the Universe (a small, intricate globe composed of dust particles and supported by a stick, which looked like a dandelion under a bell jar); Rob Wynne’s penny made of 24-carat gold; and the bumblebee sculpture composed of recycled garbage bags by Eva Lewitt—an emerging artist whose work has been in numerous group shows like "The Open," a 2009 show at Deitch Studios in Long Island City. Some of the work felt underwhelming, even juvenile, like a series of works composed of wet toilet paper thrown at a canvas, or a television labeled as having “every channel.”

As the gallery plans to stay at its current space for the foreseeable future, and has its first solo show on the horizon, its identity may become progressively clearer. With a little finessing, there might be more gold and less rubble in the future.