Art on a shoestring hangs by a thread
by Laura Bien
The dull gray facade of a big warehouse on Michigan Avenue just east of downtown Ypsilanti hides a thriving, vibrant art colony. Through sheer willpower, the seven members of Gallery 555's managing collective have transformed 13,000 square feet of an abandoned industrial cave into an inviting, spacious gallery and a series of ministudios for local artists.
The studios, built to house the members of the collective and other artists who rent space, are the most interesting part of the building. Squirreled away on either side of the gallery, these cozy warrens brim with half-finished work and found objects, such as an old six-pane window covered with paint. Built from scratch with two-by-fours, plywood, and materials salvaged from the demolished Ann Arbor Technology Center, each cubicle is a quiet nook seemingly ideal for art production.
Steven Samuels, a member of the collective, zips by on a silver scooter. "Fastest way to the fuse box," he explains, soon hitting the lights in the airy gallery.
Eight New York artists with ties to the area have works on display, in an exhibit called Approaches that runs through Friday, March 5. It's good stuff, ranging from Sang-Ah Choi's bubbly and sensual pink anime-inspired confections to Clay Hensley's gritty gray-and-beige manhole cover rubbings and Loretta Staples's abstract inky arcs suggesting unsprung Chinese calligraphy. One of two huge Hensley canvases depicts a vague white figure in a dress surrounded by rusty blotches and rough patches of paint, resembling an antique photo in the last stage of decomposition.
A long, rough road led up to this latest exhibit, as the collective battled with the city of Ypsilanti to extend its lease past May, when the building is slated to be demolished to make room for townhouse construction. In all fairness, notes Samuels, the group knew from the outset that the building was scheduled to be torn down. He sees the temporary nature of the space as emblematic of the lack of area art
havens. Forced out of the Tech Center last summer, the group seized the Ypsilanti building as the only one available in the area that was viable as an art space. "The closing of the Tech Center forced a lot of people into basements and garages," notes Samuels. In contrast to this bleak isolation, the artists of Gallery 555 cross-pollinate each other's work with feedback and ideas, he says, and enjoy a sense of community in the welcoming space.
Around 150 people flocked to the current show's opening reception on a frigid Valentine's Day evening, more than I've ever seen at any Ann Arbor opening. The sweat-stained dedication of the collective's artists and the clear interest from the Ypsilanti community indicate there's a need for this oasis to survive the demolition of its building.
[Originally published in March, 2004.]