RARE Gallery

RARE Gallery is a contemporary art gallery located in the heart of Chelsea, New York. Their aesthetic primarily encompasses artists that exude a youthful irreverence, as well as exhibit a love for unusual execution, craft, and a consideration of material and process as part and parcel of their conceptual frameworks.

DailyServing’s Sasha M. Lee recently caught up with RARE Gallery founder and president Pete Surace and director Ryan Brennan to discuss the gallery, their process for selecting artists & nurturing their careers, the climate of art gallery economics and their philosophies on the artistic practice, its role in contemporary society, and RARE’s particular contribution to the dialog.

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Installation of Donovan Barrow’s exhibition Portraits of Villa Savoye, 2009


SL: Can you talk a little bit about both of your backgrounds and how you got interested in and involved with the art world?

PS: I started as a lawyer, went into sports marketing for a dozen or so years, became a collector and then decided one day I wanted to be an art dealer. Totally nuts, but I have been enjoying it ever since.

RB: I went to Savannah College of Art and Design to study film and I popped out with a major in painting. I went on to run a non-profit gallery and performance space for 3 years in Savannah. It was a really rewarding experience. SCAD is the largest art school in the US, so it didn’t take long for us to build up a strong community, which ended up branching out well beyond our little town to work with artists from throughout the U.S.

SL: How did you come to work together, and what roles do each of you fulfill at the gallery?

PS: After meeting Ryan at a Scope art fair and speaking with him at length a number of times I came to realize that he had a lot on the ball including the experience of running a gallery and working closely with artists. He is a great resource to our roster of artists who are of the same generation, falling roughly between the ages of 25 to 35.

RB: Pete and I originally met at Scope Miami in 07. I was showing work a few booths down. We became friendly. I visited NY a few times the following year and he offered me an exhibition. Our relationship developed, the director position opened and next thing I knew I found myself at a desk next to him at RARE. I see myself as complementing, implementing and extending Pete’s vision for the gallery and instituting additional programs to keep the excitement level high.

SL: How do you think your relative perspectives and relationship to both one another, and in a larger sense, the art world, complement or work together?

RB: What initially attracted me to the gallery was how genuine and community oriented Pete’s approach is. There is a great sense of family here, where everyone’s on a very personal level dedicated to the gallery and each other. This is very similar to the atmosphere of the gallery I directed in Savannah. Being non-profit, all of our time and efforts were donated because we had faith in the gallery and it was very fun and gratifying. This kind of camaraderie is what I’ve found at RARE. We do it because we believe in the artists not because of their perceived marketability.

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Installation of Jeff Lutonsky’s exhibition Motley Cruez, 2008

SL: What’s a typical day like at the gallery?

RB: Very high-energy, always working, always trying to find a way to place our artist’s work and get them written about. . Pete also brings in lots of food and sweets so that our associate, Jasper, and I are full of carbs and performing at fever pitch all the time.

SL: Ryan, you’ve mentioned one of your favorite aspects of the job is the studio visits- can you expand a little bit more on what you love about it, and some of the recent visits you’ve gone on?

RB: The context of the studio is removed from the gallery in a way that allows for a more causal engagement of the artist and the work. It’s an atmosphere of possibility closer to the initial artist’s inspiration where you can catch an artist’s work in process before its refined and shrink wrapped for the gallery world. What I love about this experience is being able to connect with the artist; to delve into their ideas hopefully in a way that is not only revelatory for their work but for them personally as an artist.

SL: RARE Gallery was founded in 1998 in the meatpacking district of New York and is now located in Chelsea, featuring the addition of a project room, RARE PLUS. How do you see this new space functioning?

PS: Well, we’ve been at the so-called new space for six years now, and RARE PLUS has been part of the mix since we relocated to Chelsea. It’s a project room that basically serves to introduce the art-buying public to artists who are entirely new to the marketplace.

RB: For me, RARE PLUS is an opportunity to show new artists given that the front gallery mainly exhibits veteran RARE artists.The space also acts as a catalyst for experimentation. For instance, Jeff Lutonsky‘s recent exhibition, Motley Cruez, transformed the project room into a dive bar scene, where the walls were covered with wood paneling and the floor with red shag carpet. A day before the opening we held a party in the space making sure to leave evidence of all the drinking, smoking and partying that ensued.

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RARE Gallery Founder Pete Surace & Associate Director Ryan Brennan

SL: How has the gallery evolved since its inception ten years ago?

PS: While the gallery continues to be dedicated to emerging talents, we certainly have reached a point where a number of our artists would no longer be considered “emerging.”

They have been well-collected, have had museum exhibitions, have gained representation in Europe, have been written about by the critics- these signifiers or touchstones, among others, when taken together signify an artist who has passed out of the emerging category.

SL: RARE Gallery primarily showcases emerging artists that exhibit a love for craft and unusual execution, as well as a sort of youthful, playful irreverence. Can you talk a little about your gallery’s particular aesthetic?

PS: We definitely care about artists who have mastered their craft, processes, and techniques, but these are not ends in themselves. The craft needs to amplify and highlight the content of the work, its meaning. We generally like work that reflects an artist’s way of life or vision of how life should be, that deals with experiences and events that have shaped who the artist is and is becoming. These can be weighty topics, so we have sought out artists who also inject a dose of humor into their work.

RB: I’d like to add that this emphasis towards craft does not counter our interest in conceptual art but rather our artist’s craft is often part of their concept. For many of our artists the materials and processes used to make their work is an integral aspect of the art itself.

SL: Can you walk us through some of the artists exhibited in your space, their work, and how it is indicative of RARE’s particular vision and scope?

PS: Johnston Foster, so crucial to the shaping and maturing of our vision, searches through alleys and dumpsters for junk from which he makes his very rough-hewn and evocative sculptures. Schandra Singh applies a sensibility informed by her multi-cultural background to paintings that seem as though the figures are made up of shards of roughly cut, colored glass. Jean-Pierre Roy and Nathan Ritterpusch bring an unmatched technical expertise to paintings that for all their mastery are never sleek or slick. Growing up in the environmental cauldron of southern California, JP focuses his gaze on a post-apocalyptic future that offers hope for Man’s survival, while Nathan deals with the microcosm of highly fraught interpersonal relationships using images of friends and acquaintances he has photographed. Christine Gray employs both abstraction and photo-realism in canvases that propose a new definition of Nature vastly different from the sanitized version we are used to seeing in nature magazines or on television. Morgan Herrin utilizes a chain saw and chisel to transform glued together wood 2-by-4’s into Renaissance like invocations of the human form.

RB: Our artists are contemporary in their practice; their approach to art-making is very current, often using untried techniques or materials. For example, Jim Wright‘s slant towards painting is anything but traditional. Using acrylic paints poured through templates onto glass sheets, he peels off the dried shapes and then collages them onto wood panel. A brush never touches his paintings.

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Jim Wright, Bangstry’s Flafter, 2007

SL: What’s your process of selecting artists?

PS: When one of my artists says look at a particular artist’s work, I almost always take their advice and do a studio visit.

RB: I’d have to say I’m always on the look. Maybe it’s my contemporary take on the hunter gatherer instinct. Living in the city, I find that woodlands are scarce so I stake out climate-controlled galleries, rifle through online blogs and brave the underbelly, DIY spaces of Brooklyn. Unlike many galleries in Chelsea we do accept unsolicited submissions. I take this on as kind of a personal duty. Being an artist I understand the plight and stress of courting galleries.

SL: What role do you feel art plays within our contemporary cultural landscape? How do you think RARE is contributing to this dialogue?

PS: Art brings people to another place that has some relation to reality, but is not reality. It’s an alternate but imaginary plane of existence that lets viewers lose themselves in another dimension. That’s what good art does. We hope RARE is helping this process along through the artists we represent and the work we show.

RB: The practice of art is very much a dialogue.It reflects culture as much as it influences it. The artists of today are in a conversation with their peers as much as they are with the artists who came before them. Listening to this dialogue we seek out artists who have refined their own unique voice within the greater context of the discussion.

SL: In the face of the bleak economic climate, how do you think this is affecting RARE, and in a larger sense, the art world in general, for better or for worse? How do you see this unique socio-political event affecting artistic expression and the art world, from your experience?

PS: We survived our first few years when the contemporary art market stunk, we survived the economic aftermath of 9/11, and we will survive the current economic climate. We keep our heads down and push forward – we conduct business as usual, as it should be. If anything, the times require that people support the arts and artists now more than ever.

SL: When people buy for the love of art, they generally continue to buy, even if at a scaled down pace, when the economic environment is bleak. The ones who buy solely for investment, well they are the ones who generally are not good for the art market at any point and have the least concern for the economic livelihood and well-being of artists.

PS: Unfortunately, the fear generated by the media can be crippling to all markets, and the art market is no exception. It’s not that everyone who buys art has lost money, it’s that they are afraid of spending money. Hopefully the turnaround will occur sooner rather than later because it is painful to see galleries close and artists lose their home base. It frankly nauseates me when I read some art critic’s columns and can sense the gloating and barely contained glee in their anticipation of gallery closings. Don’t they understand that it means the gallery’s staff and artists are out of work, have lost their source of income, and will find it very difficult to gain employment elsewhere. I just don’t understand the awful mentality that’s out there.

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Johnston Foster, Summertime Blues, 2008

SL: Can you walk us through one of your recent exhibitions and the work and tasks that go into orchestrating something like this?

RB: A few weeks before Donovan Barrow‘s and Ryan Ford’s January 8th opening at the gallery I ventured into their studios. They pulled me into their worlds and showed me how their visions manifested themselves into reality. Filling my head with a healthy dose of their sorcery, I went to work crafting a press release for their respective shows. A few weeks later we did the little hang the artwork boogie around the gallery and the show was set. We had the opening, some laughs, some drinks, and plowed ahead with the business of telling the world about their work….end cycle, repeat.

SL: Are you working on any other exhibitions currently?

RB: Actually, at the moment I’m working with our artist Jimmy Joe Roche in establishing a reoccurring performance night at the gallery that I’m very excited about. We intend to showcase live acts that are as spontaneous as they are current and pioneering. . I hope to pull artists from various creative pockets around the US, put them together and see what kind of magic ensues.

SL: What are your ultimate goals both individually and with RARE Gallery in the future?

PS: We want to continue to be a source for what is new and significant in contemporary art. That’s what keeps any contemporary gallery a fertile and exciting place to work in, to visit, and to buy from. In addition to searching out new talent in the visual arts, we also devote evenings at RARE to other art forms. We plan to expand our offerings in 2009 to include more musical events, documentary screening, theatrical productions, performance art and the like.

RB: I intend to engage the artists by working hand-in-hand with them to keep the gallery growing in an atmosphere that is inspiring and innovative. I’m truly excited about the opportunity to be able to work with so many creative individuals in such a nurturing communal environment.

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