Outsider Art 

Local artists' exhibition goes beyond walls.

Think you know art? You don't know Beck -- Danita Beck, that is. The Memphis artist hopes to challenge traditional ideas during an outside performance-art show Friday night in the South Main Arts District.

"It's a performance and an exhibition," says Beck to explain the "Gallery Walls Phase I" show. "We're creating an open-air gallery using -- instead of bricks and mortar for the walls -- a human chain." Beck and more than 15 local artists will stand shoulder-to-shoulder, dressed in monochromatic tones to suggest walls, with each artist holding one piece of his or her artwork. To create the space between each artist the way space is represented on gallery walls, two volunteers will stand between each artist.

The 30-minute performance will take place during the monthly South Main Trolley Art Tour, providing a built-in audience for the artists. A portion of Butler Street between Main and Front streets (where the artists will stand) will be blocked for the duration of the show. While no interaction is allowed between audience members and exhibitors, Beck says transactions are encouraged after the half-hour. "I hope the audience will seriously consider the artwork that's presented," she says. "I don't expect to hold everyone's attention the full 30 minutes, but I expect them to view the artwork, come see their friends in the show, and see the wealth of artists who are in this community."

Currently included in the show are artists working in various media, including Cornelius Carter, Wess Loudenslager, and photographer David Goldwasser. "I really like the concept of this show because it's something new," says Goldwasser. "I also do commercial photography and don't get a chance to really get feedback on my work, so it will be interesting to see people's reaction."

Beck says her idea for the show grew out of a previous "Invisible Artists" exhibition she curated at the Memphis airport in 1996 during Black History Month while working with artist Ephraim Urevbu at the Art Village Gallery. That show included artists of color who had been overlooked by galleries in the city. Now, "invisible" has been redefined to include any artist not represented by or showing in a gallery, many times due to financial difficulties. "Usually when a person exhibits in a show it costs a lot of money -- almost as much as a month of apartment rent to get the space and other things that go into a show. But with this show, we're using resources that the artists already have: their talent and their friends. That's all you need to have to be in the show," says Beck.

Although Beck is currently represented by the UniversalArt Gallery on G.E. Patterson, she still feels the hardships that lesser-known artists experience. Her artistic path includes many instances of trial-and-error and improvisation. "Sometimes when I look at my checkbook and at my framing bill I think, I'd like to go on vacation, stay in a nice hotel, etc., but I never get sick of art. It is and always has been an outlet for me," she says.

Returning to Memphis from Chicago in 1995, Beck began curating shows in unconventional settings like cafÇs and bookstores. When her New York apartment was damaged during the September 11th tragedy, Beck again returned to Memphis. "When I came back and saw the South Main Arts District and saw all of these galleries, I was amazed. It was a big change from when I was curating all these shows with African-American, Latin-American, or Asian-American artists. There was nowhere to display the shows," she says. "Unfortunately, not many people are buying the artwork, and many of those galleries that I saw in 2001 are not here anymore."

Years of experience and arts-related jobs have enabled Beck to succeed in the difficult business of being an artist, as well as garnering support for this project. In addition to her current position in art education, Beck has also curated shows at the ArtFarm Gallery, taught in Chicago, worked at the Memphis College of Art, and exhibited locally and at several galleries in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.

"Gallery Walls" is Beck's first group performance-art exhibition, but her experience as a solo "performer" extends back to the "Venus Envy" traveling exhibition earlier. Beck called her show "30 Panes" and turned her painting When Saint Valentina Had Enough She Colored Her World Purple into a performance piece. "When I had the brainstorm for the ["Gallery Walls"] show, I had ideas for five other shows," she says. "The second one I hope to do is incorporating my two loves of dance and art, called "Choreoanimation."

It would seem a difficult task, converting display art into a performance exhibition, but to Beck they're basically the same: "You just pray more than usual."

"Gallery Walls Phase I" will be held 7-7:30 p.m. Friday, October 31st, on Butler Street between Main and Front streets.

E-mail: jdavis@memphisflyer.com

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