Interview with Gallerist Jackie Klempay

Photos: Johanna Lenski

Jackie Klempay

During the hubbub of Bushwick Open Studios last weekend, I went to visit Jackie Klempay at her eponymous gallery on a nondescript residential side street, a short walk from the crowds gathered around the Morgan L. Inside her ground-floor gallery, which is housed in her former apartment, she was showing the work of MacGregor Harp. Stuck into the walls, alongside Harp’s paintings were cubic zirconia stud earrings, arranged in the shape of constellations. Above a sculptural installation that included a pack of American Spirits, he had arranged them in the shape of Cancer, which seemed to be a running theme in the show. A large painting depicted lit cigarettes in an all-over pattern of smoke. On the floor, in one corner, was a plastic, take-out salad bowl containing around a dozen menthol “loosies,” leftover from opening night, that the artist had given away for free. After showing me the work in the gallery, Klempay invited me into her lush backyard, which she had just partially mowed. Perhaps using his exhibition to poke fun at the idea of art as a commodity, Harp had set up a “boutique,” on the cement covered portion of the backyard, with his fiancé’s old high school clothing displayed on metal clothing store racks. I spoke with Jackie about the history of her gallery and the place of art in our everyday lives.

CS: How did you start the gallery and what were you doing before you started it?

JK: I was working in Chelsea, and then in 2010 I decided to open my own space here in my apartment in Brooklyn. I was living in the back room. With two friends, Nancy Choi and Katherine Irwin, we decided that we could provide a space to friends, and great artists, that hadn’t necessarily had solo shows. At that time, it seemed like smaller galleries were only presenting group shows.  We decided that some of these people needed a platform to show a more cohesive exhibition, rather than just putting one piece in a group show. They needed a space to flesh out an entire idea.

We started hosting quarterly shows for 2-3 years and then Katherine and Nancy went on to pursue other projects. I live in Greenpoint now, but when I moved, I decided to hold onto this space in order to keep having the exhibitions. Now I just run the space as Jackie Klempay, which is my name.  I sped up the exhibition cycle with monthly or bi-month exhibitions, having poetry readings–or Amanda Friedman had her friend Kal play saxophone in front of one of her paintings in the garden, Robbie McDonald played his custom built modular synth in the garden. So there’s a lot of experiential music and performance that goes along with the exhibitions. For Mary Manning’s show she organized a screening of rare dance footage, a couple of shorts, and we showed that at Film Anthology Archives, and then this year I did Nada Art Fair at Basketball City to pursue the commercial side of the gallery and to develop it more as a business. It might not always be in an apartment.

CS: Do you see people react differently to the art because your gallery space is an apartment?

JK: I feel like people who come here, because it is in an apartment and it’s kind of an alternative viewing space, people kind of hang out with the art and I love that. It’s like a party for these objects, which feels really good. People just hanging out, drinking beer, looking at a painting… for a couple of hours. People feel comfortable letting the artist’s ideas soak in. It’s different than going into a Chelsea space which is really sterile, and walking in and feeling intimidated, and walking out really quickly. Although I love the Chelsea galleries, people love to say disparaging things about them.

Jackie Klempay Gallery

CS: What kind of disparaging things do people say about them?

JK: Well they’re cold and lifeless and soulless, and sometimes that’s true, but I think there is room for a lot of different models.  So I’m happy they exist, and I’m happy places like my space exist.

CS: Have you heard of Little Cakes Gallery, which used to be on East 6th Street in Manhattan, like two doors down from the Journal Gallery’s original space?  This couple [David Aaron and Hanna Fushihara Aaron] used to have shows in the front room of their apartment.  But the space was even more domestic. They both lived there, so they had their books there and all their artifacts of daily living.

JK: Yeah, I love that.  It’s hard to live in New York. Monetarily, or financially, it’s restricting if you don’t have a lot of money. And if you are creative and want to have time to make art or show art or do anything else, then you are not working all the time, so it can be a little bit harder. But, I think doing things like that, using the space that you have, is a good way around those sorts of obstacles. And people love looking at your stuff.  They will be like, hmm, what kind of bread is that?

CS: Could you address how you balance the need to pay rent for the space with wanting to show interesting and perhaps not all that commercial work?  It seems like a difficult consideration to have to make.

JK: Uncompromisingly, the emphasis is on the work itself and on presenting ideas. I never organize a show or go into someone’s studio and say ‘let’s show that, it will sell’ – even if I know it will! Everyone I work with has dedicated practices, and boiling artistic spirit down to money always cheapens the quality of the work. So I encourage people to push boundaries. I’m attracted to artworks like when Michael Mahalchick cooked bacon at Canada. Of course I want my space to be able to sustain itself or it will implode. And if the artists want to frame works or buy equipment, then we need to get them some money. So whereas in the beginning I didn’t have to worry about sales as much because it was tied into my own rent (I work as an artist assistant 3 days a week), now I have to sell a few things here and there. It’s been a very slow and steady build and I’m ok with that. Money buys a certain amount of freedom, but you also have farther to fall. So the reverse is also true, having little money is equally freeing– you can take more chances without the same risks.

CS: So are you an artist as well, or what was your original interest in art?

JK: I started as an artist and I still make objects. I’m interested in the idea of a total work of art. So right now I’m working on making ceramics to replace all of the dishes in my home and all of the planters in my home. And then Frank [Haines], my boyfriend, who is also an artist, is building shelves, so that everything is kind of custom built.

CS: Are you familiar with Andrea Zittel’s work?

JK: Yeah, I like this sort of idea that things are, I don’t know, I don’t want a bunch of plastic in my house. I’d rather be surrounded by things that are made by me and my friends.

CS: Did you have her work in mind when you started the project?

JK: Well, it’s actually more of a Futurist idea. But Wagner coined the term. Did you go see the Guggenheim show [Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe]?

CS: No, I haven’t yet.

JK: They have furniture that was built by them– there are toys, clothing, plays, theatre, everything.

CS: So do you think art should be a part of everyone’s daily life?

JK: Well it is. Even if you don’t want it to be, it is. It’s unavoidable.

CS: In what way?

JK: You encounter it everywhere. Everything has at least been designed – either well or poorly. I think there is always room for more. Why not put more thought into the things you are choosing to have in your life?

Jackie Klempay CZ

CS: Do you think it’s important for people to go to galleries and museums or is it enough for them to just be exposed to the art they come across in daily life?

JK: You should go to galleries and museums. Everyone should go to galleries and museums. It’s important. It’s people–your contemporaries, or people that came before you, filtering the world around them visually. It’s super important. You can learn a lot by just looking at something.

CS: What place do you think art has in peoples’ lives?  Do you think of it as a learning tool, or something that makes peoples’ lives more enjoyable, or something else?

JK: An art object can be a catalyst for thought, which I’m interested in. I think it makes your life better, living with art objects, for sure. It makes my life better. Also when I was living in the gallery, my ideas of the exhibitions changed over time. Living with a piece of art, it can mean different things at different moments, and your ideas about it change as time changes. So, if you have a piece of art, it can be like having a really good friend, for life. And some friends you decide, you don’t want to…no I don’t want to go there…

CS: Well, that’s kind of how I’ve been thinking about art for awhile. I had a period where I would go to Chelsea galleries and not like the art, and feel bad about it. But then I just started thinking about art like people. Everyone sort of gravitates towards certain types of people. Not everyone likes everyone. I feel like it’s kind of the same way with art.

JK: That’s true. Artwork has personality. If it doesn’t have a dynamic personality, then what’s the point?

Jackie Klempay is located at 81 Central Ave (1A), between Melrose and Jefferson streets, Brooklyn. The gallery is open the night of the reception, every Saturday for the exhibition’s duration (1-5 PM), and always by appointment.  A solo exhibition by Sarah Sieradzki opens on June 7th, 2014.