934 Gallery turns five

Andy Downing
934 Gallery and its new retrospective exhibit

As Johnny Riddle, executive director of 934 Gallery, passed through the Milo-Grogan arts space in early December, it felt a bit like traveling through time.

“Beyond what each exhibition was, I remember the opening, what it was like here, the energy in the room,” said Riddle as he moved alongside the nearly 100 works by almost 50 artists that make up 934’s new anniversary exhibit, a retrospective collection celebrating the artists who have displayed in the gallery throughout its five-year existence. “Like this piece, by Lucy Shearer, it’s from our‘Synthetic Reveries’ show, which took place during our 2019 festival, which brings back memories of Dana Harper’s installation up front [in the gallery],‘Bloom Bloom,’ this red and orange womb. There have just been so many moments of beautiful art and experiences with people in this space.”

Except, of course, for large parts of this year, which has seen the gallery at times restricted to virtual exhibitions by the existence of the coronavirus. (In-person viewings resumed at 934 in late summer; reservations are required and attendance is limited to a maximum of 10 people to allow for social distancing.) 

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Initially, 934 planned to celebrate its fifth anniversary with a large summer bash, but amid COVID-driven uncertainty those plans were tabled, giving birth tothe year-end retrospective, which opens both virtually and in-person today (Friday, Dec. 4). In addition to the exhibition, the gallery will also host a roundtable talk with Riddle, former gallery directors Lisa Steward and Abigail Hartung, and 934 founders Mark Warren Jacques, Curtis Cole and Kyle Charles, who started the nonprofit five years ago while living in the neighboring Milo Arts building. The discussion takes place on934’s website at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12, and will later be hosted onthe gallery’s YouTube channel andFacebook page.

Artists currently on display are culled from the entirety of 934’s existence, from painterRick Borg, the first-ever to exhibit at the gallery in 2015, to photographer and sculptor Nicholas Warndorf, whose“Cosmology” opened this past October. Works from these bookending exhibits rest aside surrealist paintings byBrooke Zamudio, sculptural creations by Ben Yacavone, for which the artist recast everyday objects (milk crates, cigarette packs) as high-end products, and a newly created “light” painting by Joshua Penrose, where embedded electronics give the canvas a shifting, Northern Lights-like glow.

Indeed, limiting the number of pieces on display was one of the biggest hurdles to creating the retrospective, since more than 300 artists have exhibited in the space throughout its short-yet-prolific history. “And we knew we didn’t have the capacity for that [number of artists], even if each person submitted only a single piece,” Riddle said.

Riddle said the gallery didn’t put any restraints on the exhibiting artists, some of whom created new works for the show, while others selected paintings previously displayed in the space. This speaks to the creator-first attitude the volunteer-run, DIY space has continued to embrace, even as it has started to become a more official entity, at least in an operational sense. (934 is currently in the process of transitioning to a 501(c)(3), in addition to recently seating its first board.)

“We’re definitely taking the steps to make sure this place will still be here in another five years, another 10 years,” said Riddle, who stressed that the gallery has been able to stick remarkably true to the roots upon which it was founded throughout these operational changes  a belief reflected in the five years worth of art currently filling the 2,700-square-foot gallery space.

“I think everybody who has come on board understands we’re not the fanciest, and not everything is going to be spotless," Riddle said. "I mean, we have brick walls that are definitely in need of repair, but you’re not going to find a greater spirit anywhere in the city. I’m thankful for the sustainability aspects becoming a 501(c)(3) provides, but we’re always going to be as DIY as we are today.”

In the shorter term, Riddle is looking forward to the possibility of beginning to move beyond the coronavirus in 2021, returning a bit of the communal spirit that has been missing from the space for much of this year.

“It was hard when we had to cancel in-person exhibitions and go virtual, especially early on,” Riddle said. “We knew it was what we needed to do, but such a large part of the 934 experience is sharing the art with people in this space. As we started to bring people back in safely [in late summer], we would get glimpses of that, but when we’re really able to engage with one another on a more casual, less structured basis, that’s when we’ll really start to feel again what 934 is.”