It’s a strange truth that, even as the art world expanded dramatically over the past decade, the number of truly interesting spaces—those operating in more unusual, riskier ways—remained pretty pretty low.
One that would have to be included in that small group, though, is P!, which the polymathic graphic designer Prem Krishnamurthy opened in 2012 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a bright red floor and a series of heady shows that radically transformed the space as they spotlighted a diverse array of figures, from Brian O’Doherty to Elaine Lustig Cohen, to artists one would be hard-pressed to see elsewhere in the city. Is P! a gallery, a project space, a seminar room, or a design showroom? It has been all of those things at various times, and often more than one of those things at once. Krishnamurthy, who sometimes refers to P! as a “polemical for-profit institution,” kept the experimental factor high, even transforming P! into another institution called K. for a fast-paced five-month run.
Another space in that elusive category? Lulu, which the outré-minded curator Chris Sharp and the artist Martín Soto Climent began in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 2013 as a tiny, immaculate white cube of about 100 square feet, tucked away in a nondescript building off the street. It expanded in remarkable fashion last year by adding another room of—wait for it—about 140 or so square feet with the same proportions as its original space. Despite its very modest size, it has hosted shows by heavy hitters like Nina Canell, John Smith, Aliza Nisennaum, and B. Wurtz, becoming one of the more closely watched project spaces in the game.
Earlier this year, I hopped on Skype with Krishnamurthy and Sharp to hear the thinking behind their hybrid models, how those models have changed over the years, how they interact with the market and the internet, their plans for the future (as you may have heard, P! will no longer have a physical space in New York after next month, though there are other projects in the offing), and a lot, lot more. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows below.
ARTnews: Let’s begin by flashing back to when you were founding your spaces—what were your reasons for getting started?
Prem Krishnamurthy: In 2012, when I was getting started with P!, I felt there wasn’t enough attention being paid in New York to certain types of experimental exhibition making and design, as well as alternative curatorial models. P! was a space situated at the intersection of contemporary art and graphic design—as well as architecture, writing, and music—although I was intentionally more guarded about acknowledging this at the beginning. At the same time, I was motivated to cast light on certain older, polymathic practitioners who hadn’t had the kind of recognition that they ought to enjoy.
In addition, I felt the classic nonprofit model in New York was undergoing a transition. Working with other spaces outside the city and other programs with some degree of hybridity, I thought about opening a space that could function somewhere in-between—with the ethics of a nonprofit, yet working as a semicommercial gallery, which could represent a mix of different things for different people at different moments. That felt like the right direction to pursue.
And how about for you, Chris?
Chris Sharp: For me, it was much more spontaneous and less premeditated, although I feel as if it’s gained a lot of clarity over the years. I didn’t move to Mexico to open a space. It was a quality-of-life decision and then, soon after, Martín Soto Climent and I said, “Let’s open a space.” It was really spontaneous. We had various motives. He’s an artist. He lives in Mexico City, but he kind of works all over and didn’t have much of a relationship to the city, and I have always worked as an independent curator. So both of us wanted to have a stronger relationship to the city, to build something that would allow us to participate and contribute in a kind of sustained way. Being an independent curator, I always had the sense of being parachuted into a site, curating a given show, and then being airlifted out. I had no relationship after the opening.
Also, when I first moved here I was a bit surprised by the informality of the independent space scene. There wasn’t that much activity. There was one great space called Preteen, but otherwise there seemed to be a lot of these pop-up exhibitions in semi-derelict buildings with no real curatorial focus, which seemed like more of an excuse to drink mescal than actually to look at art. Which is not a bad thing, but at the same time I thought, What if you had some really alternative and formal space to present art, like a little white cube? So that was a motive.
How did those plans change over time—how did your exhibition programs develop?
CS: One thing that characterizes Lulu is thinking about its programming as a linear group exhibition. Ideally, you could take the entire program of Lulu and stick it in a museum and you would have a coherent group exhibition. I’m not sure it would be a good exhibition, necessarily, but it would be coherent. Another big thing is sensitivity to the local scene. I am an American living in Mexico City, a context charged with a lot of colonial anxiety. So there are a lot of different things that I have to keep in mind, one of which is the local context. Like, what kind of art is legible here? How will it impact the scene? Will it generate a productive friction?
PK: Somewhat by happenstance, because of the proximity of my graphic design studio, Project Projects, P! ended up on Broome Street, where it verges on both the Lower East Side and Chinatown. It was really important to me that it have a very public presence and speak to different audiences. I’ve often referred to novelist China Miéville’s book The City & the City, which artist Roger White turned me on to years ago. In it, there are two cities that exist in the same physical space but that don’t see each other. That was a great metaphor for the fact that you have the Lower East Side with all these galleries and that’s growing, but Chinatown is also there and Chinatown is growing; there are codes that make each of these communities illegible to each other. At the beginning, we took pains to communicate bilingually, issuing our press releases in both Chinese and English, and our exhibitions took place in a storefront that could speak to the street.
The primary mode of P! is less about linearity or sequence and more focused on juxtaposition of dissimilar things. Our first exhibition featured three practitioners from radically different contexts, and placed them in a small space together. So rather than showing objects and ideas that are similar, it was about presenting contrasts and then extending this principle over time. Our second year opened with a solo show by Société Réaliste—who to my mind represent a particularly European conceptualist bent that is political, coupled with a very abstract, minimal, and design-oriented approach to display—and then followed with an exhibition by the Hong Kong–born, New York–based artist Wong Kit Yi, in which she invited a feng shui master to help choose artists and curate a show. This move juxtaposed two completely different philosophical and visual approaches to organizing a space, one after another.
I’ve often tried to create a sequence of shows that is quite disjunctive, so that different audiences come to different shows, but then eventually start to visit for the overall program.
CS: That’s super interesting, and different from what we’re doing. Lulu is very consistent for a number of reasons. One is that I feel the context of Mexico City is dominated by a very specific aesthetic discourse, which tends to be of the order of sociopolitical conceptualism. You see a lot of conceptual art that is totally embedded in language, in which form is secondary to content. One of the main motives of Lulu has been to try to provide an alternative to this mode, where there is no gap between form and content, in which artists think plastically, and in which, most of the time, language is not immediately present.
It’s intriguing that your galleries started around the same time—how did you guys first meet?
CS: I think it was in Mexico City, when you came down to do Material.
PK: That’s my memory too. When I met you there was an immediate familiarity; one of our first conversations was about what it meant to be a semicommercial or project space participating in an art fair. That was the impetus for having this conversation. We thought it could be interesting, because while there are obviously spaces trying to accomplish this in other contexts—I know venues in Asia that are similar, probably related to different funding structures over there—it’s not something that most people in the art world talk openly about. I remember a recent conversation with Brian O’Doherty about his own polymathic practice. He said something offhand like, “When people ask you what you do, it’s easiest if you just say you do one thing. If people want design, tell them you’re a designer. If people want art, tell them you’re a curator. When I used to tell people I was a writer and an artist and a critic, they didn’t take me seriously.” He probably has a good point. For some people, P! is a project space and for others, it’s a gallery. It’s easier for them to grasp that way, even if that’s only one aspect of the whole.
CS: P! helped me define Lulu. I always have a lot of visitors from the States. People ask me about Lulu and often I mention P! And they’re like, “Oh yeah!” It helps them understand what I mean when I say we’re not exactly a commercial gallery. We’re a hybrid nonprofit. At this point I would say that Lulu is neither a commercial gallery, nor a nonprofit, nor an institution, but all of the above. It occupies no single role, but all of them at the same time. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation, to define what a hybrid nonprofit is, or begin to define it, or what that means. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a new or an ideal model, but it feels special and timely, in that it is a curatorially driven as opposed to a commercially driven model, which is ultimately characterized by an ontological flexibility not currently afforded by any other extant models—models that must rigidly adhere to a given set of conventions and certainties. But these are increasingly uncertain times. It seems that the special agency of the hybrid nonprofit lies within its intrinsic uncertainty, its ambiguity.
That’s a nice way of putting it. And I think that is something that really unites you two. I’m wondering if there were models that you had in mind when developing your galleries, whether historical or ongoing.
PK: At a different kind of scale, one would be SALT in Istanbul, which Project Projects created the graphic design for—so I’ve been very involved in that institution from the start. SALT is an experimental model that is multidisciplinary and progressive, yet funded by the commercial activities of a bank. Project Projects also once designed and co-edited a book about the MATRIX/Berkeley program—the first project space within a museum on the West Coast. We sorted through the entire archive of exhibitions they had mounted since 1978. There existed spontaneity in how they thought about their program, coupled with rigor; for example, they had a mathematical system for naming each of their shows in sequence. Yet a MATRIX exhibition could be a single wall of the gallery, so there was a kind of informality and fluidity to the program that was compelling.
One space I have never visited but that has been an inspiration from afar is Eastside Projects in Birmingham, in the U.K. It has an ethos in which everything is an actor: the space itself accrues over time, with artists creating work that remains permanently or semipermanently. Elements overlie each other. The space is also very interested in artistic labor and collaboration in multiple forms. Céline Condorelli, one of the founders of that space, is an artist and I asked her to create the final show at P! in New York, “Epilogue.”
Another model I’ve thought about sometimes—although I didn’t know much about it before starting P!—is Colin de Land and his gallery, American Fine Arts. I’m friends with some of the artists who showed at AFA, but I didn’t know too much beyond the mythology until people began to bring it up in relation to P! and also through my teaching at CCS Bard, where the Colin de Land and Pat Hearn archives are. It’s interesting to see that, although it was a commercial gallery, it fulfilled many of the functions that we now consider as belonging to the nonprofit sector. De Land would run seminars there, as a way to earn money and also to gather together collectors as a community.
Absolutely. And how about you, Chris? Were there historical touchstones for Lulu?
CS: One was Castillo/Corrales in Paris. I was living in Milan when it opened, and later I moved back to Paris. It really became this kind of small alternative institution with a library/bookstore—a kind of discursive program. There were talks and then it had the kind of artists that you just weren’t seeing in Paris—it was working on a really small scale and also in a kind of hybrid mode. You weren’t quite sure where the money was coming from. It was started by four people, artists and curators, and I’ve since learned that they made a decision at the beginning to have no state sponsorship, to be totally autonomous and independent.
Another space in Paris was Shanaynay, which was started by a friend of mine, Jason Hwang, who now runs a gallery called High Art with a couple of other people. He started it with Romain Chenais. That was a really interesting program as well that was just about exhibition making.
While I really appreciate the discursive bent of Europe, there was a point when I was living there in the aughts that it felt like the exhibition or the art in the space was almost secondary or even tertiary to discussions about art. I remember there was an essay at one point by Anton Vidokle called “Art Without Artists,” and it felt like he had this anxiety about curators creating art, and thus a corresponding loss of agency. I think what he really should have been anxious about was art being totally subsumed by discourse, as in Artists Without Art. That anxiety pushed me toward curating that really focused on exhibition making and on the presentation of objects—their ability to communicate something beyond language, or plastically or phenomenologically—not through language.
Another source of inspiration is Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis. I don’t know that John Rasmussen, the founder who still runs it, is interested in this idea of the linear group exhibition so much as he’s interested in a real heterogeneity and quality. I like the way it functions—in the context of Minneapolis. It’s a model for us because that’s the only place where you’re going to see those artists in the area. And Lulu is the same thing. A lot of the artists who were presenting in Mexico City had never shown in Mexico, and some of them not even in Latin America.
It feels as if you both represent a turn away from what Vidokle was addressing—it’s about presentation and the power of aesthetics. And when you started, it felt really refreshing.
PK: I knew from the get-go that, although I am personally interested in conceptual modes, I would come at exhibition making from a very physical approach. Given my background as an exhibition designer, I’ve always been tasked with making ideas engaging and accessible. As such, I’ve never been one to curate “essay exhibitions” that are stand-ins for texts, but rather I create exhibitions that are about artists, objects, and display.
CS: And I’m not saying that I’m anti-discursive or anti-conceptual or what have you, but it just got to the point where art, for me, felt reduced to a form of communication, and art is not communication. It’s not about the transmission of information. It’s not this one-to-one representation of an idea. It’s something much more complex.
PK: I agree. P! will shift its mode after May, but spatialization will always be quite important to me. With Lulu, I think you’ve done something remarkable: you’ve created a space that is extremely precise in how visitors experience it physically, while on the other hand the institution acknowledges and plays with its second life online, for the audiences who aren’t able to be there in person.
CS: Yeah, totally. Our initial space was 100 square feet—about 9 square meters. It was the smallest place in Mexico City and it was incredibly difficult to document, but it immediately became clear to me that only a very small portion of our intended audience would be able to see the show and that each show had to be two shows, so to speak. The most important show is the one in the space. It has to be perfect. It has to go beyond the artists’ expectations in terms of an ideal presentation. And then also in terms of documentation and web presence, it had to be equal to the exhibition.
You’re in New York, on the Lower East Side, you have a lot of foot traffic, you have great neighbors. (You were there before most of them, but nonetheless.) We don’t. We get a fair amount of foot traffic, but our primary audience is international; this is a kind of paradox—not that our local audience is not super important—but when I say that our primary audience is international, I mean that’s where the discussion is taking place.
PK: I remember after I visited Lulu for the first time, I called my partner in Berlin and said, “Oh my God, I just visited an amazing space in Mexico City. Maybe I don’t need a space in New York on Broome Street that costs nearly $4,000 a month anymore. Maybe I could have a small perfect space in Berlin or another city—it might be even better.” It offered the option that, instead of my current setup, I could run a space that’s small but precise, and precisely calibrated to its local audience.
In terms of display and architecture: from the get-go, I was trash-talking the white cube. You might remember, I came out of the gate with a bright red floor and a very rough-edged, water-stained ceiling.
That was a big deal! I remember a New York dealer mentioning the floor to me excitedly when you opened.
PK: It was a big part of the space, that it represented the opposite of a white cube. But the flip side is that Lulu’s white cube really is a perfect white cube. The floating floor, every one of the details. I remember walking in there and having an almost religious experience. I was like, “Damn, Brian O’Doherty was right—but what’s wrong with the white cube, if it’s pushing the right things?”
CS: Like I said earlier, when I arrived, there were all these informal exhibitions in semi-derelict spaces and it felt like the question was, what if you introduced an extreme formality into this tradition of informality?
Another thing that you touched on inadvertently was this sense of hyperbole. I mean, Lulu is absurd. You walk into this crumbling Mexico City pueblo-style apartment, you walk down this hallway, you turn a corner, and you enter this perfect white cube. So there’s this kind of incommensurability between it and its immediate context. It’s over the top. For me, I’m not necessarily for or against the white cube. I am for finding the best possible conditions to present a given work of art, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the white cube.
PK: I had my own flirtation with the white cube when we briefly became K.—even though we did have a pink ceiling by Julie Ault & Martin Beck, which most people didn’t notice. The experience also made me recognize that no white cube is a truly white cube. It’s impossible to have a perfect space, no matter how hard you try.
In my time in New York, I witnessed spaces becoming more and more formalized—absurdly pristine. There was a moment of a kind of 1970s throwback: for example, when Artists Space ripped out all its interior architecture under Stefan Kalmár, people talked about the fact that its unfinished wood floors were reminiscent of ’70s lofts. But even this kind of roughness is assimilated quickly. I was interested in a kind of “bumpiness,” something that’s “off” enough in its architecture and exhibitions that you can’t help but notice the space in a conscious way.
Speaking about context, let’s jump to art fairs, which are super homogenizing spaces, and how you navigate them in your work.
CS: We approach context more traditionally than P! I’ve seen some pretty amazing presentations at art fairs by P! that were totally experimental. In our program, we feature artists who are both emerging and historically established—B. Wurtz, Manfred Pernice. We’ve featured a lot of institutional-caliber artists. But in terms of art fairs, we try to show artists who are still emerging and give them the opportunity to get exposure and develop a kind of economy. Ideally, we do one-person presentations. It’s funny, most galleries want to present an artist and earn some money, which goes back into the gallery, developing a specific identity for the program. But with Lulu, we present an artist one time at an art fair and then maintain the relationship as friends. If Lulu’s in a position to do anything, it’s maybe to help launch emerging artists.
How about you, Prem? I remember some wild booths from you at fairs.
PK: Art fair shows were actually a distillation of our mission, for which we organized very particular presentations. I always considered art fairs a historically significant form: the trade fair, a precursor to the contemporary art fair, was the modern venue par excellence for the propagation of ideologies. That’s what happened in the postwar period. You’d have trade fairs for consumer goods or furniture or design objects, which communicated Cold War values. Exhibition design played a large role in that.
We participated in art fairs for only two years, but we did several of them in quick succession. They often focused on juxtaposing older and younger voices in some sort of experimental installation. Our first art-fair installation was at NADA Miami Beach in 2013. It involved Karel Martens monoprints on the wall and a floor piece by Aaron Gemmill that broke as people walked on it, which would then become printing plates for a set of future works. It was a small booth that tried to juxtapose these two artists as well as presentation and production. We always tried to use the art fair booth as a way to push unusual ideas into the world. The fairs are also where people first saw us as a gallery; in New York people usually thought we were just an experimental or project space and not commercially oriented. They were often surprised when they found out that things were for sale. But this is different at an art fair: whether you’re a gallery or a nonprofit or a magazine or whatever, you’re all there to sell, sell, sell.
CS: Participating in art fairs caused a lot of confusion for Lulu. Our first was Material. When we were starting, we applied for funding from a lot of local grant sources, but we didn’t get any. Since then we haven’t applied for anything. We have such low overhead that we realized we actually didn’t need that much money to run the space, and then we began to participate in other art fairs. If we do sell, it tends to happen at art fairs. As a rule we participate only in art fairs that feature other project spaces that are trying to support this kind of alternative mode. We have been approached by a lot of large art fairs, but it doesn’t make sense. For us, it’s about maintaining a certain baseline economy so that we can present the kind of exhibitions we want to present. It’s very practical in the end.
PK: We also participated in fairs because it allowed us to support the space. Starting P! and considering possible funding sources, I realized that the people who support nonprofits in New York are also important collectors. Rather than asking them for donations, it felt somehow more straightforward (albeit quixotic) to say, “I’ll try to make the institution a place that can sell work; that’ll be the main way it supports itself.”
Our model coincides with a moment in which traditional distinctions between not-for-profit and commercial art institutions—themselves perhaps 50-odd years old—are visibly beginning to erode. Mega galleries have museum-quality education departments, and nonprofits sell prolifically on the art fair circuit; the classical divisions between categories no longer hold.
At the same time, another important reason for P! to participate in the market was because of how collections—and here I’m talking primarily about institutional collections—function to create an archive of the present for future audiences. For some of the practitioners I’m working with, especially those who don’t come from a contemporary art context, inscribing their work into the historical record is important. I sometimes say that we are a “polemical for-profit institution.”
CS: That’s a really beautiful way to put it.
When all is said and done, I’m a curator, I’m not a dealer or a gallerist or a writer. That’s how I’ve been trying to fight what I consider to be the good fight. But I’ve also realized that when we presented Aliza Nisenbaum at NADA she had no commercial representation at all. By the end of the fair, not only had I sold out the booth, I had created a waiting list for her and she had three or four galleries clamoring to work with her. Not only were we able to have a really positive impact on her career but we were able to advocate the kind of art we thought was important to be seen.
I was at NADA Miami in December, presenting Daniel Rios Rodriguez, and I ran into a number of colleagues—it’s amazing the look on their faces when they see me as a colleague working in an art fair. I undergo an ontological transformation in their eyes. My status as a curator is put in question and undergoes a total crisis, which I think is both funny and something that needs to be considered.
I think that speaks to the conservatism that still exists about the defined roles that people fall into in the art world, like you were saying about Brian O’Doherty, Prem. As you reach the 4- or 5-year point, I’m wondering how you characterize the state of hybrid spaces. Where do you want to go with the models you’ve built?
PK: I do think that I’ve had a tendency to separate my different roles over the past years. Now, I’m trying to work in another direction, to figure out a way, on a personal and professional level, where I don’t have to say I’m either a curator or graphic designer or gallerist or editor or teacher. I’d rather be able to say that I’m doing all these different things and acknowledge them equally.
The next transformation of P! is moving toward that. After P! closes at the end of May, it will continue to organize exhibitions both in New York and abroad—functioning as a kind of curatorial office, working with specific artists on projects and exhibitions. At the same time, I will continue my work as a graphic designer, directing Project Projects with my colleagues there. In 2018 I’m planning a new kind of space in another city, with a focus on experimental exhibition making. I do believe there’s more tolerance for this kind of hybridity in our particular historical moment.
CS: I think that one of the ways we can permit those selves to coexist is through the space. People go to P! and see exhibitions about designers that inform their practice as designer, as gallerist, and as curator. The actual physical space is what permits it. The same thing happens with me with Lulu. It’s obviously a very curatorially driven program. We also produce catalogues, and I typically write for every catalogue and write the press release. And if you are so inclined, in most cases, you can buy a work of art from Lulu.
After Lulu’s expansion, we’re really happy about the size of the space now. We have a street-side space, it’s a storefront, so it’s accessible that way, which gives it much more of a relation to the local neighborhood and by extension the local art community. I want us to do more publications because I think there is not a huge production of publications in Latin America. It is more like the United States—it is very different from Europe where you have this kind of surfeit of publication production. I think publications are a different way of making art exist and circulate.
Martín and I are also talking about starting a curatorial residency, because there are almost none of them in Mexico. We’re thinking of something where we would invite two curators a year. Something very simple, where they just come and do research or maybe give a lecture or some kind of presentation, but in general just to get to know the scene and make it circulate that way. We’re trying to develop the more institutional side of Lulu.