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WHEN IT COMES to buying fine original art at low, low prices, the best place to shop might be the "starving artist" shows held at hotels near the airport. You can find them advertised every few months on late-night TV. Here are your weeping clowns, placid ponds, and gambling canines. Though such clearinghouse sales may seem silly, they do raise an interesting question: What price beauty?
Can you put a dollar figure on the spark of creative inspiration that covers a canvas? Does the delicate curve of a collar bone correlate to a finite fiscal sum? Can an artist be compensated for her intense labors and all the flirtations with failure that came before the finished product?
For the commercial gallery curator, the answer to all those questions is an emphatic yes. While the calculus the curator uses to value a piece of art depends on the reputation of the artist, the scale of the work, and sundry intangible and unknowable factors, one common fact is apparent nearly everywhere: Art is damn expensive.
One of the first things you might notice about the "Salon 500" show currently on view at Gus Lucky's Gallery is that someone seems to have dropped a zero or two from the price tags on every piece. Rory Sparks's sculptural books decorated with printed dragonflies cost $75. Joseph Smolinski's etchings, featuring thick lines and bold graphics, cost between $80 and $140. Jenny Jenkins's digital prints, with their unexpected interior views, are priced between $100 and $200. These inexpensive selections are but a few of the more than 100 works hung in salon style on the gallery walls, including paintings, prints, photographs, and drawings. The exhibit's title, "Salon 500," describes the concept at the heart of the project: None of the works costs more than $500, making this collection accessible to a wide audience. This art is priced to move.
The show is presented in collaboration with the local arts zine Push, whose first four issues over the last year have promoted involvement in the small and independent arts scene. Editor Ben Lacina describes "Salon 500" as advancing the same goal among newer--and cheaper--audiences. "Students usually buy reproductions of famous artworks," he says. "We want to show students and the larger community that art is not so unapproachable....We want them to step back and think of themselves as art buyers."
"Salon 500" also represents the agenda of its other organizer, Jonathan Whitney, who is Gus Lucky's curator and director. A soft-spoken 26-year-old, Whitney has a recent B.F.A. from St. Cloud State University. As a featured artist and a volunteer, Whitney became involved in the gallery in 1997, shortly after Virginia Becker bought the Lake Street building from Gustavus Adolphus College and established a café and gallery in the space. Last November, Becker, who still owns the building and continues to support the gallery financially, turned the operation of the gallery over to Whitney.
The final show of Whitney's first season running Gus Lucky's, "Salon 500" achieves the gallery's goal of representing an eclectic mix of formats and styles, with five works each by 20 artists. Some pieces are refined in form and presentation, like Jerry Mathiason's powerful black-and-white photographs of a water's edge, and Larry Miller's meticulously fashioned surrealistic images. Other selections feel spontaneous and understated, like Daniel Kaniess's quickly sketched calligraphic drawings. Pure abstraction is the guiding style in numerous works, including the swirling and colorful paintings of Phillip Hoffman and the organic and improvisational canvases of Adam Considine.
While the aesthetic range of "Salon 500" is diverse and ambitious, Whitney hopes to make the presentation as accessible as the pricing. In this vein, Gus Lucky's hopes to remove the impression that fine arts galleries are hushed, intimidating spaces. As Whitney puts it, galleries "often don't make people feel comfortable, especially if the work is a little difficult to access. If I am expecting the viewers to challenge themselves and look at the artwork, then my job is to make the gallery a comfortable space."
Taking his cues from coffeehouses--some of the most inviting spaces known to slackerdom--Whitney has arranged couches and lounge chairs throughout the spacious, sun-filled gallery, inviting viewers to sit down, relax, and contemplate the art on display. Whitney may be on to something here: With art prices lower than a month's worth of double espressos, Gus Lucky's might give Starbucks a scare.
"Salon 500" is on display at Gus Lucky's Gallery through May 22; (612) 728-9668.