Johalla Projects

Johalla Projects

1821 W Hubbard St, Suire 201

By Laura Hart Newlon

I sat down with curator and founder of Johalla Projects Anna Cerniglia in early December to discuss the exhibition space, her vision and the gallery’s mission, as well as the Chicago art scene at large.

Johalla Projects is a young space.  Founded in 2009, Johalla has quickly developed as an important exhibition space for emerging artists.  After years of curating art fairs, working for Verge, as well as working at various galleries around Italy, Cerniglia moved to Chicago to start her own space. After founding and running South Union Arts in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, a performing arts and music venue, Cerniglia decided to focus on her curatorial practice.  Her goal, Cerniglia says, was to leverage her experience in the art world to create an exhibition space somewhere between a traditional commercial gallery and a DIY, alternative space.

In 2010, Johalla Projects mounted the massive 50 Aldermen/50 Artists portrait show.  This exhibition marked a turning point for Cerniglia and the gallery.  Conceived originally as a small-scale show, the exhibition meant to engage with local politics by bridging the gap between Chicagoans, artists and the city’s notoriously corrupt Aldermen.  ‘It just got huge,’ says Cerniglia, ‘We got so much attention.’  The show was written up in major national publications, including two articles in the New York Times.  As Johalla’s reputation grew, Cerniglia says she was able to meet more potential collaborators and tackle larger projects.

Johalla Projects sells work, but does not offer formal representation for exhibiting artists.  Cerniglia says that though Johalla exhibitions are popular, and openings always have a good turnout, most sales happen through Johalla’s online presence.  One of the major challenges of running an exhibition space without the strictly commercial relationship between gallerist and artist, Cerniglia claims, is maintaining funding.  In order to support more experimental programming, ‘we have to sell work,’ says Cerniglia.  Johalla Projects works with a core group of artists who mount different solo shows once a year, and who have a strong following amongst dealers and collectors in Chicago.  The rest of the year, exhibitions run the gamut, some more traditional than others.  Cerniglia makes clear that Johalla is not always the typical white cube gallery.

In order to guarantee a broad range of shows, Cerniglia, Aimee Quinkert (Assistant Director), and Tyler Blackwell (Gallery Assistant), regularly visit artists’ studios and bring artists to the gallery to discuss their ideas.  Because Johalla Projects is located in the West Town neighborhood, in the a building with studio and gallery spaces, including the popular Post Family, Cerniglia has regular access to many artists.  The arts scene in Chicago is a small, rather close community, Cerniglia explains, and it’s easy to see a lot of new work that’s being made.  Additionally, Cerniglia teaches a class entitled ‘Arts, Brains and Business Smarts,’ at the School of the Art Institute, which puts her into contact with undergraduates, graduates and faculty.

In addition to its gallery program, Johalla Projects conceives, supports and promotes public art projects.  Cerniglia says one of her main interests is facilitating good public art.  However vibrant the gallery world may have the potential to be, Cerniglia wants to expand opportunities for the general public to encounter art in unexpected places.  Johalla has funded and participated in the realization of the public art installation Deer, installed in a highly visible vacant lot off Milwaukee Avenue, with artist Andrea Jablonski in 2011.  This year, Johalla Projects oversaw the installation of two large-scale pieces at the Pitchfork music festival, working again with artist Andrea Jablonski as well as Chicago artist Matthew Hoffman. Cerniglia notes that public art is growing in Chicago, and hopes to expand Johalla’s facilitating role.  She mentions she is in the first steps of a process to build a grant program for public artists, so that Johalla might be able to offer support for larger, more expensive and more permanent public art ventures around the city.

On the day of my visit, Johalla Projects has donated gallery space to BFA students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a week-long show.  The exhibit is titled First Look at a Long Time, but I’m unable to see most of it, as students are critiquing each others work with Barbara DeGenevieve, artist and chair of the photography department at the school. Because December is a slow time, immediately following Thanksgiving and Art Basel in Miami, Cerniglia says she’s happy to be able to support students by donating real gallery space for their work.  ‘It’s good for them to have the experience of installing their own work,’ says Cerniglia, ‘And it’s a slow time for us, so it worked out well.’

Recently, Cerniglia has focused her attention and curatorial energies on a public art project with the CTA, the Wicker Part Arts Committee and local artist Ian Whitmore.  Johalla Projects has worked regularly with Whitmore, a photographer and professor in the art department at Portland State University.  Whitmore, with the help and support of Johalla, installed several large photographic prints from his larger body of work, Nowhere.  The photographs depict empty, banal spaces – an office building, a hallway that might be found in any kind of institution, the side of an RV painted with a peachy sunset—rendered in beautiful detail in the large prints. According to an interview with Fraction magazine, an online art photography publication, Whitmore describes his body of work thusly:

Nowhere is an ambiguous yet ubiquitous space. It exists in our civic decorations and our commercial landscape as irresponsible and irrelevant ornamentation. These are scenes we see every day but rarely address their functional purpose or aesthetic value.

Through these photographs I am seeking answers to questions regarding the psychology of our civic landscape. I want to examine the ironic and garish nature of the spaces that surround us and understand the attenuated value of such places. By drawing the viewer into the banal I wish to confront the illusion that these environments are important or interesting.

Hanging such work at the Damen blue line CTA stop is a rather tongue-in-cheek move.   The train stop is a major transit hub for commuters in the Wicker Park/Noble Square/Bucktown area, and every morning thousands of people make their way up and down the stairs past the photographs, headed to the very types of spaces Whitmore is critiquing.

Cerniglia claims she was a little worried about the public’s reaction once the work was installed.  However, she wanted to hang work that wasn’t the bland decoration so typical of much urban public art.  ‘I wanted people to have a reaction,’ says Cerniglia, ‘and so far it hasn’t been negative at all.’  Nowhere does seem to have a little more meat to it than many public art projects around Chicago, and perhaps it’s about time that public art pushes some buttons.

However, there are some risks in installing work in public places. The prints seem precious and dangerously exposed at the CTA stop, despite the fact they’re solidly installed in the wall and reinforced by heavy duty wooden frames.  Not only are they exposed to the weather and elements of their outdoor location, but they’re also vulnerable to constant stream of people who frequent the Damen stop.  Though no one has vandalized or damaged the work yet, Cerniglia says she has had some unfortunate run-ins with the public before.  In 2011, 2 large sculptural deer, created for a vacant lot by artist Andrea Jablonski, were stolen by drunken partiers who scaled the 10-foot fence to access them.  The pieces were later recovered in a nearby dumpster, but they were damaged.  A large mural at the Logan Square CTA stop, commissioned by Johalla Projects from artists Nick Adam and Thor Goodlife, was recently damaged and needs repair.  Such as the risks of installing work publicly, says Cerniglia.

In addition to working with Chicago Aldermen and the CTA, Johalla Projects has close relationships with other exhibition spaces in town as well as other art organizations.  Cerniglia works closely with Rational Park, an events and exhibition space on North Avenue.  Rational Park has office and studio space in the back, and a large gallery space in the front, where designers, developers, art directors, illustrators, publishers, artists and musicians collaborate on a wide variety of ideas and events that are open to the public.  A board of founding members, including Cerniglia, approves and curates shows.

These kinds of spaces make Chicago distinct from other large urban art scenes, says Cerniglia.  ‘It’s easier to work in Chicago,’ claims Cerniglia, ‘And the community is very supportive.’  While Johalla Projects embodies some of the same spirit and collective ethos of the underground, alternative apartment gallery/DIY space that Chicago is famous for, Cerniglia doesn’t feel bound by the category.  Johalla has become a more established space, garnering much more critical attention, and Cerniglia is excited to explore the potential for the space, while continuing to work with emerging and public artists.

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Cerniglia what art trends she’s recently grown weary of, particularly in Chicago.  Impending doom, the apocalypse and Native American shit, she replies, smiling wryly.  There’s a fascination with metaphysics and ‘geometric emptiness,’ she explains.  Though some artists have made interesting, original work drawing on these themes, it’s definitely a trend that’s oversaturated.  ‘My friends and I play a game,’ she tells me. ‘After going to openings, we ask, how many triangles did you see tonight in art?’

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