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Exhibiting Signs

Contemporary Art Finds a Foothold in Oliver With the Sign Shop-Turned-Gallery Cubicle 10

Sam Holden
Ice Cube: Owners Ozlem and Billy Colbert want to make Cubicle 10 a place to chill.

By J. Bowers | Posted 7/28/2004

Cubicle 10

1431-1435 N. Central Ave.

(410) 468-0608.

The bustling Oliver neighborhood along North Central Avenue seems like an unlikely home for Baltimore’s newest contemporary art destination. But a genuine sense of community already surrounds Cubicle 10. Locals are quick to point out the rowhouse’s freshly painted orange door, and they shout hello when gallery co-owner Billy Colbert appears, radiating enthusiasm about the realization of a dream that began, as the best ones often seem to, with a few furtive scribbles on a cocktail napkin.

“I wish we would have kept all of the napkins and other crazy things that we used to draw the original plans of the building,” Colbert says, reminiscing about early brainstorming sessions with his wife and business partner, accountant Ozlem Colbert. “We’d go to the movies, go out and have a drink, and sit down and scribble out ideas, just figuring out the layout, what we were going to do, even before we found the space. And then, we just got lucky.”

After two and a half years spent scouring Baltimore for affordable, interesting architecture, the Colberts settled on the 5,200-square-foot, bilevel former sign shop at 1431-1435 N. Central Ave. Then they acquired secondhand furniture and bargain track lighting, and enlisted a handful of handymen to help them whip the space into shape. The result taps into the vein of raw urban cool previously discovered by local repurposed hot spots Gallery Four and Area 405, while evoking the laid-back, come-in-and-sit-a-spell vibe of the Creative Alliance’s old Highlandtown digs. Billy Colbert says that this spirit is exactly what he and his wife had in mind.

“It’s different from most commercial galleries, in that it’s very laid back and welcoming,” observes Colbert, clearly at home as he strolls around Cubicle 10’s spacious lower gallery. “We want it to be a place, not just a space. We want people to come in, feel welcomed, check out the art, and just enjoy being here.”

Cubicle 10’s premiere exhibit—an ambitious, wide-ranging selection of pieces by eight American contemporary artists, including mixed-media work by Billy Colbert himself—provides a compelling look at the couple’s eclectic tastes and suggests a relaxed, free-form approach to the curatorial process, allowing each artist’s work ample space to assert its identity.

New Orleans-based artist Andrew Au’s “Mechanical Animals” series of hand-drawn, digitally manipulated prints slams together Orwellian theory, classical mythology, Lewis Carroll wit, and a heaping helping of post-millennium tension to create blueprintlike images of humanity’s social ills, personified as surreal monsters. “#8 Incorporator: (Legitimus Enslaveium)” transforms an iconic minotaur into a towering seven-headed demon, surrounded by tongue-in-cheek mottos like “onward wall street warrior” and “there is always hope that you will get out of your hole: win the lottery: be reincarnated.” Multilayered and cerebral in both process and philosophy, each Au print demands full attention.

At the back of the first-floor gallery, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Maryland Institute College of Art graduate Kirsten Campbell offers “Ring Around the Rosy,” a majestic, hulking dryad circle of intertwined branches and thin steel rods. Five individual sculptures use the wood’s natural curves and character to create a palpable sense of potential energy—the entire piece seems frozen in suspended animation, caught between the lines of a children’s rhyme.

Upstairs, Jennifer Purdum’s mural “Bricoleur’s Landscape” explores urban sprawl through abstract expressionism-influenced techniques, layering stamps, transfers, drawings, and dribbling lines of paint to create circuitous images of abandoned rooms, chairs, trash, and other domestic detritus. Devoid of human figures, Purdum’s work evokes a post-apocalyptic archeological dig, shot through with a milky haze that resembles settling dust. The piece carries particular weight next to Washington, D.C.-based photographer Ken Ashton’s “Megalopolis” series, which documents Northeastern cityscapes with a refreshingly candid command of light and lines. “Asbury Park 1997” is particularly stunning, using a puddle of liquid on a warehouse floor to reflect the simple architecture of the building’s window frames.

Back downstairs, African-American sculptor Michael B. Platt draws inspiration from the “shotgun houses” of New Orleans, creating two of those Southern structures in a damp, cool alcove of Cubicle 10’s lower gallery. “House of Dreams” is wallpapered with some of Platt’s father’s losing lottery tickets, and plenty more surround the sculpture like fallen leaves. “House of Memory” has a shadowbox element, illuminating a sketch of a dreadlocked woman stretching her arms toward a summer sky. Both houses are made of shutters, scrap wood, and other found materials, cobbled together in herringbone patterns. A handmade coffin adds a touch of macabre homage to Platt’s section of the show—commissioned for the famous D.C. poet Gaston Neal and mounted on soapbox derby car wheels, “Gaston’s Wagon” actually held the poet’s body, until a glitch in cremation laws prevented Gaston’s wife from accepting Platt’s gift.

Billy Colbert’s own work explores similar ancestral concerns. Layering silkscreen, found objects, family photos, and painted elements, bright, poppy pieces like “Mommy #5” transform Colbert’s own life experiences into iconic images of the African-American experience. As a whole, his work is carefully composed and deftly executed, and one only hopes that Cubicle 10 is no exception.

“We’ve been looking, traveling, and thinking about this for a long time, and we want to go as far as we can go,” says Colbert, who plans an ambitious schedule of 12 exhibits per year. “We understand that people have a thirst for art, and we want this to be a space where they can take care of that need.

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