A Picture of Discontent

A series of artist showdowns paints an unflattering portrait of the diStilo Gallery

Ehrsam and Murray parted ways with the gallery immediately. Rand and Vrieze followed a few weeks later, after lining up new studio space. Of the original core group that rehabbed the warehouse space, only Aschenbrener remained.

Not surprisingly, Burek offers a different account of what took place at the end of 2000. He asserts that Ehrsam and his fellow artists were, in essence, attempting to mount a gallery coup d'état. The woodworking shop that Ehrsam and others were using initially took up one room, he notes, and then a second. Burek believes that they ultimately wanted to take over the lease from Bennett Lumber and push him out of the picture. "[Ehrsam] moved in lock, stock, and barrel and started expanding his woodshop, and then he brought in all his cronies," Burek asserts. "The more we grew, the less these people were happy because they thought it was their own private playpen."

Ehrsam says he contemplated suing Burek and diStilo but figured there was little to gain from further extending the dispute. "It had already cost me too much money and time," he says.

Forging a new collective: Former diStilo artists Cathan Murray, Holly Vrieze, Chris Rand, and Brad Ehrsam
Tony Nelson
Forging a new collective: Former diStilo artists Cathan Murray, Holly Vrieze, Chris Rand, and Brad Ehrsam


David Aschenbrener was a squatter in the current diStilo Gallery space when he first met Patrick Burek in late 1999. There was no hot water or heat in the dilapidated storage facility. Trash was piled everywhere. "It was brutal," Aschenbrener recalls. "I didn't have a lot to my name."

Burek had recently begun renting the space that Aschenbrener had made his temporary home. When they ran across each other, Burek inquired about the bronze sculptures that belonged to his new de facto tenant. Rather than kick Aschenbrener out on the streets, Burek gave the recent Chicago transplant his first break. "I got a show from him, like, two days later in the International Market Square, so it worked out pretty well," Aschenbrener recalls. "Patrick's been great."

Aschenbrener has stayed on through all the drama at the diStilo Gallery, from the opening-night euphoria of "Metamorphoses," to Sean Doyle's clumsy break-in. "It's been an interesting experience," Aschenbrener laughs, seated in his studio on a Saturday afternoon. "I thought I left drama behind in Chicago, but I guess not."

On the walls of his studio are a series of vintage refrigerator doors that have been chiseled with cartoonish, animal-like figures. He's currently working on a sculpture that features a rusty pickax and an amorphous bronze form mounted on a hunk of wood. Aschenbrener calls the piece "Nothing Worth Doing Is Easy." The artist's dark tan betrays the fact that he has not quite made the leap to being a self-sufficient artist. "I'm painting houses with my art degree," he laughs. Despite the day job, he's had considerable success finding outlets for his work. In addition to shows at diStilo, he has displayed his sculptures at galleries in Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee.

Aschenbrener is at a loss to explain the constant infighting that has plagued the diStilo Gallery. "To me it kind of blows my mind, because what I've seen is people trying to help people and then things just happen," he says. "I just try to stay out of that stuff. I try to stay neutral."

Aschenbrener is not alone in defending diStilo and Burek. Philip Hoffman, a painter who helps run the gallery and has had a studio there since March 2001, also praises the group's work. Hoffman says that he had been laid off by a frame shop and was without a studio space when he met Burek. "Patrick opened this whole world to me and got me out of my shell," he says. "I'm actually living my dream." Hoffman charges that artists like Considine and Doyle have simply taken advantage of Burek's generosity. "We just need to learn not to let people abuse it," Hoffman says.

Michael Williams, who's served on the gallery's board of directors since its inception, echoes those sentiments. "A couple of the artists thought they were in charge, and frankly, you can't run an organization where you have all kinds of people in charge," says Williams. "They started resenting that Patrick was the leader of the organization."

He blames the problems on immaturity and greed. "Could things have been handled differently? Well, probably," Williams concedes. "That goes without saying. But in the overall view, what happens is, people come to a point in their lives where they have opportunities, and responsibilities to go with it. Some embrace it and some just look for someone else to blame for their difficulties."

Perhaps the chief lesson to be learned from the problems that have plagued diStilo is that informal business arrangements--even among people who share the same goals--often lead to misunderstandings and ugly disputes. Nicholas Harper, who owns Rogue Buddha Gallery in Minneapolis, says that he's careful to put everything in writing and to go over the contract with his clients--who also come from the ranks of younger and unseen artists. "Fifty percent of the responsibility goes each way," says Harper. "Ultimately, it's the artists' responsibility to protect themselves and to get things in writing. But at the same time it's the gallery owner's responsibility to create a corporate climate that's very on-the-level and straightforward, and putting it in writing creates that."

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