John Brooks, a Kentucky native, attended college as a golfer and ended up with a degree in Political Science and a minor in English from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. In 2005, he found himself moving to London, England with his parter, where Brooks was afforded the opportunity to revisit being an artist— a passion he’d had prior to college. Shortly after taking some contemporary/continuing education classes at Central St. Martins, Hampstead School of Art, Camden Art Center. Brooks submitted some work to a local group show and then began to forge a new relationship with the group of people that ran the space. For the last decade, Brooks’ work as an artist has explored themes of identity, memory, death and place, and has been centered around questions of contemplation, the expression of emotion, the transformative power and the emotional resonance of particular experiences and what Max Beckmann described as “the deepest feeling about the mystery of being.
For a little over a year, Brooks has ran Quappi Projects out of an industrial space that coincidentally houses his studio, in addition to the studios of other artists from the community. In a short span of time, the space has cultivated a reputation for exhibiting challenging work with the expectation that any and everyone is welcome to participate in its experience.
Five-Dots: You said this gallery was established last year?
JB: Yes, August 2017.
F-D: How long did it take you to prep it?
JB: About a month, it really happened very quickly. When Theo and I moved in here a couple of years ago it was a wreck due to the previous owner. When we moved in in 2016 we painted it and when he moved out last year, I had to do a little touch up work, but not much. I had been having a theoretical conversation with the first artist we showed here, Adam Chuck, who I met through Instagram four years ago. We became friends through the platform and I bought some of his work, resulting in me asking him if he’d be interested in showing his work if I ever opened a gallery. [To answer your question] the space was pretty much set, I just had to do some lighting work, which has been an ongoing thing. There was also the branding. . . Maybe it was two months?. . . It wasn't longer than that.
F-D: How long have you been with this space or in your role as curator?
JB: I've been in this space over two years as an artist, but as a curator not quite a year.
F-D: I’m assuming you don’t have anyone assisting you with exhibitions or anything. . . it sounds like it's pretty much all you?. . .
JB: It is just me. Since this is a group show [exhibiting the work of artists in the building], it has been a group effort. It was co-curated by all of us. I respect and appreciate the artists that were showing and so when they said that they had specific pieces they wanted to show, I was able to give them a lot of freedom to show what they were interested in showing. It's a very organic process. That's kind of the point in this space; I want to provide a space for art and for artists to show what they want to show. If they feel like they can't show it somewhere else for any reason, I want them to feel that they can show it here. I want it to be really free.
F-D: What did that process look like? Was it a pretty fluid conversation given that all of you are in the building? What did that dynamic look like?
JB: There are seven of us in this building, and we see each other, but it's really random. We're not a collective, it doesn’t have a communal vibe. Everyone keeps their own bizarre hours and there might be a week or two go by without seeing anyone else or you might see everyone here on the same day. I was curious in trying to find some kind of continuity between what everyone's working on, or to see if there was any, while focusing on pieces that the artists felt like they wanted to show.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to run exhibitions or did it develop organically amongst the team?
JB: When I opened the gallery I knew that I wanted to exhibit work reflecting the zeitgeist, which can be interpreted broadly. You have to have some kind of focus and for me I am someone who is, much to my dismay, a very political person and I've always been tuned in to what's happening in the world and I believe strong work is reflective of the times in which it is made. Otherwise it's outside of time.
F-D: It's void of context.
JB: Yes. I also wanted to alternate local artists with people from outside the area. On one hand it's ridiculous to open a gallery and only show artists from out of town. That doesn't make sense. You're not helping artists who live here, but to only show artists who live here feels incredibly narrow. Our first exhibited artist was Adam Chuck who's from Cleveland and is living in Brooklyn. I went to Cincinnati to pick him up from the bus stop and it was the first time we met even though we've been in conversation online for four years.
He came here. He brought his work here. It found an audience. Then he went back to Brooklyn and took with him his experience in Louisville, which he didn't have before. His next show was in Paris, so when people in Paris look at his CV, they see a reference to our space which then, arguably, raises the profile of our resident artists. We've had Vian Sora who is from Baghdad, but has lived locally for about ten years. Whit Forrester grew up in Louisville but has been living in Chicago while he was working toward his MFA at Columbia. Michael Moran, was originally from Kentucky but lives in upstate New York. The next exhibition, Vanessa Albury, is a Nashville native that lives in Brooklyn and has local ties: her grandfather lived here basically his whole life.
F-D: What is this gallery’s main goal or function?
JB: I would say that I aim to provide a space for art and artists. As an artist I know how incredibly difficult it is to find space and ways to show your work and I recognize how often commercial constraints come into play. I hope to just concentrate on the work: what work we want to show, and ideas we want to communicate. Of course I want to sell things; but I really believe Louisville could use more places for artists to show their work, and I want to show work that is challenging. The juxtaposition between this really industrial space with, what I think, is really serious work allows the viewer space to think.
F-D: Has the location of the gallery influenced your work selection or selection process?
JB: So far. . . probably not. I mean, I hope that the neighborhood knows about us and I hope the neighborhood feels welcome to come when we have an opening. We've had a really diverse group of people here, which is great.
F-D: Do you get a lot of local foot traffic?
JB: No, because we’re on a minor street and we're in an upper level of a warehouse. . . You almost have to have heard about it. You're not just going to walk up on it. So we're a little bit isolated from the neighborhood, but the gallery's only been here a year. I think time will allow people to learn more about it.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself?
JB: Every day is different. We're really only open when we have an opening reception, and those get very busy. Otherwise I work by appointment only.
F-D: Do you have a lot of people making appointments?
JB: For the first show we had a lot, at least ten. I think there is a local discomfort in making gallery appointments. If you've lived in a larger city, it's pretty common. I think for a lot of people it is a hindrance., but there really is no other way to do it because of this building. I'm more than satisfied with the amount of press we've gotten and also with the turnouts we've had for the openings. We've had five openings and they've all been packed, which is great. So somehow people are finding out about us, but I would love to have more appointments. I want people [to make appointments] and I'm very flexible. If someone makes a request, I’ll make it work. I have a workspace at home so I'm not here everyday. It just depends. Making art, in terms of studio practice goes, you do have to stick at it, and work at it almost every day, but you have to listen to your mind and your body when it's telling you to step away, while understanding that you have to do it. . . It's work
F-D: What kind of style or aesthetic do you think is most applicable to this space?
JB: That's been really surprising, all five shows have been very different and, for example, the first show we had Chuck's which consists paintings pulling imagery from social media, about the size of a phone screen. Then in January, Forrester primarily had enormous digital photographs, which were hand painted with gold leaf and were about eight feet wide in some spots. The space has really been conducive for all different kinds of work. I don't feel that it serves any particular type of work or aesthetic. I want it to be flexible.
F-D: What other programs, non-profits, or locations do you have strong ties to?
JB: I’m on the Board of Louisville Youth Group, a 27 year-old organization that serves LGBTQA youth in town. Otherwise, I have ties in London and Berlin. I don’t think any of that has effected the exhibitions, though.
F-D: This question is sort of rooted in your current locality. What does that mean for you? Considering that you have met some of the artists through Instagram or through the Internet in some way, which is a way that a lot of gallerist / artist relationships are being cultivated. What does that locality mean for you?
JB: As someone who's grown up in Kentucky, and lived in Florida, Charleston, Chicago, and London whilst traveling a lot through Europe, I feel lucky to have a very broad influence of artistic references, but also life in general. I live in Louisville now, I've been here on and off for 15 years, and I think it is easy to, living in city relative to Louisville in size, not see very far [in terms of world view]. I don't think that's healthy.
It's not a criticism of Louisville. That’s a problem attributable to a lot of places, not just in the United States. I think that's part of the reason we're having so many problems; people only see those who are around them and then anyone else is something 'Other', so they're afraid of the difference. I haven't had as many broad experiences as some people, but I've had some pretty broad experiences so I know there's a whole world out there of interesting, thoughtful, kind people, and there are a lot of amazing things happening in the art world. Louisville has had some wonderful things happening, and If i can put those two things together and bring more national or international focus to Louisville, while directing Louisville to the rest of the outside world, I’d be more than happy.
F-D: I think that's the root of my question. When you travel a lot or have the opportunity to live in multiple places your sense of locality evolves. To add, the internet makes it easy to access anyone who makes themselves digitally available. . .
JB: You can easily have relationships with people all over the world. That's a good thing. In terms of locality, place, and home, I do feel at home here, but this is not the only place I feel at home. When I go to London I feel like I'm home, when I go to Berlin I feel like I'm home. I love that. I love that I feel that in more than one place.
F-D: Can you tell us about your exhibition selection or design process?
JB: So the way it's worked so far is that when I... was doing the prep work [for opening the gallery] last July, I really just put together a list of artists that I knew and liked and wanted to work with for a variety of reasons. So we really booked almost the first year and a half, just kind of straight away, and then I stopped because that felt like a lot of pressure and too far into the future and you also want to be a little flexible because you never know who you might meet.
I'm completely open to people coming to me and saying, “Hey, I like what you're doing with the space. Would you think about letting me show [my work] here?" I love that. But I also have my own ideas about who I want to show, and so far it's been very organic. It'll be interesting to see what happens two or three years in the future.
F-D: What sort of business model are you utilizing with this space?
JB: I would classify this space as artist-run. As an artist, curator, or gallerist, of course I want to sell work. I want my work and other artists work to go out into the world and be appreciated and have a home and all of that; but that is not my primary motivator. If that were the primary motivator I would show different work. I want to show work that I believe in, that I think is compelling, and then I hope that it finds a home and an audience. Not just a home, but also an audience.
F-D: Does the history of the community or social issues affect exhibition selection?
JB: Social issues definitely affect exhibition selection. As a member of the LGBT community, I'm aware of what it is to be an 'Other.' In many ways I was privileged, but I was also brought up as a gay kid in Kentucky in the 1980s; and so I’m empathetic to other minority communities. I'm hoping to show work, and we have shown work, that has a social awareness and conscious. I'm not bounded to that. It isn't necessary that [social issues] are the primary focus of the work, but its a welcome element. Any work that's worth anything has some kind of social concern to it in my opinion.
I would like to, as I move forward, figure out ways to integrate the community more. I believe Vanessa's show will do that. But [to add] there are plenty of galleries that maintain social justice as a primary focus, and this isn’t one. I’m focused on aiding artists and the promotion of their work.
F-D: What influences outside of the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to designing exhibitions or programs?
JB: I'm interested in a lot of different subjects. I've had a lot of disparate experiences in a lot of different social groups.
F-D: I can see that. You have a lot of opportunity to be an outsider in regards to your travel.
JB: Yeah, I think I have. I use those experiences to inform, certainly my view about the world and life, but also in what kind of work we're showing. I've been pretty involved in social media in the last few years and have met a number of artists there and that expands your field division. Also, as a writer and someone who's interested in politics and music, there are many things to be interested in, and I find that that it’s not difficult to find work to show.
F-D: I think it's kind of hard as an artist to make art that's just about art [not influenced by exterior ideas, autobiographical elements, etc.]
JB: I certainly can't separate my person enough to do that. I would say, at the end of it, everything is about human experience. Everything is distilled through the human mind, eyes, and experience, and that has to have some relevance to what you're doing. The art doesn't exist on its own, in a vacuum, made by nothing.
F-D: What does having a physical space to show work within your community mean to you and how do you make it a useful, productive space for everyone?
JB: Well I think it's supremely important. As an artist I know how difficult it is to find places and ways to show your work. In Louisville specifically, we have some wonderful spaces, but we don't have enough. And I felt really compelled to do it and I've been really impressed with the response. We've had a really supportive crowd.
F-D: A lot of people are excited. Which shows that we were lacking.
JB: People are interested because they were already interested and were waiting for something to come along, but it's always nice when you make an effort and get to see that people are paying attention.
F-D: Do you see your space as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other galleries might your work be in conversation with?
JB: So far we haven't been in conversation with any other galleries, but I'm totally open to that. I guess in terms of artistic movements I would say no. I hope that that's been evidenced so far, with the work that we've shown here, that we are a socially-conscious gallery. We are plugged in to what's going on in the world and in the United States and that can be interpreted in a lot of ways. It's not a static space. I think what's going on here is very serious but it's not inaccessible. I want it to be a place where anybody feels comfortable. Adam's work is very LGBTQI-oriented and that's one of my shared lenses so we had a lot of that community here. With Vian Sora's show we had a whole Iraqi diaspora from Jefferson County, plus spill over from that first show. Those groups aren't always in the same room all the time, and I thought that was wonderful. We had a great time. We like to promote that kind of inclusion.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as a curator you live by?
JB: The wife of Max Beckmann, the German Expressionist painter, had a nickname: Quappi. That's where our name came from. Beckmann was exploring what he called the deepest feeling in the history of being. I really responded to that because I feel like, we're in the 21st century, we're able to do so many things, which no one one hundred or two hundred years ago could even conceive of, and in many ways we're incredibly accomplished. . . but we also still know nothing. That knowing nothing is ok. We just have to be aware of that and own it. So I'm interested in addressing that unknowing, both in my own work but generally in the work that we're showing; to try and get people to think or consider.
F-D: So why Quappi, why after her?
JB: When I decided to open the gallery I had to think of a name, and I didn't want the gallery to be named after me, because A) I didn't want it to be about me, it's not about me. B) My name is also super basic [chuckles] so if I named it the John Brooks Gallery you'd Google it and you'd never find anything. I am very interested in German art, German work, German history. Germany has featured largely in my life as an adult. To add, my grandfather was an American soldier in WWII and I heard a lot of stories of stories about Germany. It's just been something I'm interested in and I think that a lot of the lessons, [and] experiences of Germany in the 20th century are things that we're finding we [Americans] didn't learn or we unlearned. When it came time to name the gallery I wanted it to reference that previous experience. By the way, Quappi’s real name was Matilda, but her maiden name sounds like the German word for tadpole (Kaulquappe) so Quappi was her nickname and that's a name I had in my pocket when it came time to open this space up.
F-D: When asked, what do you tell people you do for a living?
JB: I tell people that I am an artist and own a gallery, and that has been something that I've said for over a decade. It's gotten easier and easier to say, I think.
F-D: At what point did start feeling comfortable saying it?
JB: Definitely at the beginning I thought, 'am I allowed to say this?' People don't take you seriously, I got the whole . . . “. . . but what do you really do?" thing. I'm finding that people don't ask that so much anymore, maybe, because I'm older and they figure "well you're not starving so. . .”
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
JB: I think just being an artist in general is a risk. It's not something that in the United States, particularly in this part of the country, people take very seriously. Most people [don't see it] as legitimate. I think simply pursuing that career and calling yourself that, is a bold action. I’ll also add that moving regularly makes it challenging. It's challenging to build up a clientele and keep my practice going.
I think as an artist but also as a curator, you should never feel too satisfied with your work. There has to be a little bit of friction there.
F-D: Words of wisdom?... a motto, favorite quote?
JB: There's a quote from 'A Room with a View' by E.M. Forester that I think about often. The two characters are having this tense relationship and there's a phrase in there that says 'only connect'. That thought is something that I've felt pushes me forward. We are alone and individual but it is that ability to make connections with other human beings that makes life beautiful as well as making society possible. That connection can happen without shared language, shared religion, nationality, all of those things. I just try and remember that.
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
JB: Vanessa Albury's "All Things That Are, Are Light and Soot" runs through November 4th, 2018. We will be participating in LVA's Open Studio Weekend, so on Saturday November 3rd and Sunday November 4th we will be open 12-6. Albury uses analog materials to discuss ephemerality and invites spontaneous occurrences in everyday moments as a means to access the sublime.
Our next exhibition is Deborah Spanton's "West Coast Jazz" opening Friday, November 30th from 5-9 PM
The artists included in “DON’T TURN AROUND DON’T LOOK DOWN” are as follows: Letitia Quesenberry, Rosalie Rosentha, Chris Radtke Jacob Heustis, Dominic Jarnaschelli, Denise Furnish, and John Brooks.**