The Bike Room
1109 W. North Shore Ave.
Interview with Nancy Lu Rosenheim on The Bike Room by Phil Peters, December 2012
Phil – Maybe we could start by talking a little about where the idea for your project space came from? How did this project get started?
Nancy Lu – When I was at graduate school I started out in the painting department and started doing sculpture. When I finished, I came back home and my son was in high school, and I was still making painting and sculpture, and I started to feel like my studio wasn’t big enough anymore. So the Bike Room started out as a second studio. I fixed it up. It started off as a coal room. It took months to clean. I think there might still be some coal dust on the I-beams. I used it for two years as a studio, but I found that it wasn’t working. I felt badly that I was beginning to use it just as storage. And then at the same time other people were beginning to have project spaces. There was always the suburban. It was very big in the painting department. That was Michelle Grabner’s space. Many of the other spaces hadn’t started yet.
Phil – What year was that?
NL – That was around 2009. What happens with alternative spaces is that they become mainstream pretty quickly. When I used to live in New York City it was the same thing. The lower east side was this renegade area that became mainstream so quickly. The Art Institute was churning out grad students year after year and many of them were staying here. And some of my colleagues and I started talking about opening a space together.
Phil – So the seeds of the idea were set in grad school?
NL – Yeah, just to get people an opportunity to show. For my part, there is an exclusivity about the Chicago art scene that I find really annoying. It is exclusive in a quirky way. It looks from the outside to be very homey and open, but its rough. I saw a lot of space open up with a lot of hope, and then it was the same old story with whom they were showing. In a conversation with one particular friend, who was the first Bike Room show, I just said, “I’m giving you a show!” And I’m going to do it my way. I don’t care if it’s a success. I don’t have any ego attached to this. I don’t care if it’s a project space that is on the radar at all. I show who I want, if I have a vision I’m just going to have fun with it. That was my attitude for the first 8 months. Each time I had a show I thought that it might be the last and it didn’t seem to have a strong connection to the show before it. But it started to seem like I was developing a logic about it. So that’s how it got started. The space is really young…It has been open for a year and a couple months and I’ve had 8 shows. This year I’m closing for the winter because it’s really time consuming and I need to work in my studio.
Phil – Could you talk a little bit more about your relationship to the gallery situation in Chicago? We don’t have a blue-chip gallery scene like in New York…
NL – I think that we have our own little blue-chip scene that is here. It’s not blue-chip on a global scale. Partially, and I might be wrong about this, because we don’t have the money and the history that New York has. Or maybe we do have the money? I think that the exclusivity is a small town exclusivity. In some ways its much more exclusive than New York…I just thought that this isn’t how I can have dialogue with an art scene.
Phil – In terms of curatorial decisions, do you have any guidelines you follow?
NL – Probably before next season I should come up with a curatorial mission. I mean part of the mission for me right now is still not to have one. The exhibitions have become curatorial statements on an individual basis. I think that the truth is that I don’t have a particular mission. I have been showing people that I didn’t know previously. I have been giving studio visits to people. They tend to be more conceptual than my own artwork is. And they tend to be verging on minimal. I really like using the bike room to engage a level of art practice that I don’t engage with in the studio. It’s work that I love and that I respond to.
Phil – Is there an overlap here between your practice and the gallery?
NL – With the first show there was no overlap. She was a friend and that’s how we got started. I always thought there was a bit of an overlap with Karolina Gnatowski, we were in grad school together. We were told that we had something in common a couple of times, though we didn’t know each other at the time. I have a lot of affinity for the fiber department, and a couple of the people have come from that department. With Alex Jovanvich, I consider him to be a pure conceptualist. I don’t think that there is an overlap. I just don’t think I’m capable of being that cerebral. I think that there is a strong emotional component to his work, but there is no overlap. Judith Brotman, I didn’t know before. I almost didn’t show her. Her work reflected things in my own work that I was trying to get away from. It turned out to be fantastic! There were problems with potentially showing her. Being older and having done my undergrad at a time in the art world where identity politics and feminism was really strong and its really hard for me to prove to people that that’s not a part of my thrust at all, and I saw a lot of that in her work. It turned out that it was perfect. And if there was any overlap I would be proud of that now, but at the time is was just too close to home, but I went with it anyway. I think that other than that, maybe in the future I’d like there to be an easier integration between my studio and the Bike Room. In the beginning it was totally separate. From a professional point of view I had to separate what I was doing and not say to people, “well in my own practice…” I just really wanted to be curator for The Bike Room. Jin Soo [Kim] was really the one who was pushing my to use The Bike Room in some way, and I’m not sure what that will be yet. I’ve always been greedy with my studio time. As much time in the studio as possible. But I think being that kind of artist isolated me from the art world. And The Bike Room could be a kind of vehicle to take this to another level. My life is a little different than it was without it. There is part the artist run spaces in Chicago that are still a mystery to me. Why would an artist want to do something that’s not making art? That was another thing, you have to trust that the reason will reveal itself. It has to do with an overall engagement, an overall intellectualism about art that was beyond the studio. I get an incredible satisfaction putting together other peoples shows. It’s really gratifying to me. I don’t know what other people’s reasons are.
Phil – How would you characterize the gallery space itself?
NL – It is rustic but I don’t think it asserts its rusticness. It has a lot of visual detail, that kind of gives a softness to the space, but it stays in the background when people’s work is in it. I’ve had many experiences where people say that this is the perfect space for “that” artist. So I guess it’s chameleon in that way. I find it to be kind of like a cove. It’s a rally comfortable space. The dimensions are human. It is small and people feel a scale of relationship to it. And to me it’s really hard to separate the space from the garden. It’s semi-subterranean. My own experience is that it’s in my basement in my neighborhood. I feel like it’s this little treasure, that people know about and that people come to.
Phil – You have a pretty strong neighborhood following don’t you?
NL – I have about 20 neighborhood-people who regularly come. And they are not from my block. So it’s a neighborhood following but not immediate neighbors. The following of art-people is bigger. But friends and neighbors come by as well. In fact we’ve sold work to those people. I never know who is going to come from one show to the next. I am not a pied piper. There are people who run project spaces who really are. Michele Grabner could dig a hole in the ground and have a piece of art in it and all of Chicago will come out to see it. You know, a lot of people know about the Bike Room, but they don’t all come.
Phil – Rogers park is a very particular neighborhood.
NL – Yeah its true, it’s far away. There are two other spaces here that have a very specific clientele. There is Iceberg, and he’s had some really nice shows there, and the other one actually came out of the fiber department [SAIC] and theirs has much more of a social consciousness emphasis. They are much more involved in the neighborhood than I am. They are very into art sustainability and connection to the community around them. Again, for me, I just want to show people in my basement [laughs!].
Phil – It’s a nice space, it’s formalized beyond the point of an apartment gallery, but it’s also very much yours. I do get the sense that it is a real creative outlet for you as well.
NL – Yes, I guess it is and then that perplexes me again. And I ask so why am I doing something creatively when it’s not my work. But yeah it absolutely is, and part of it is because it’s there and you want to do it well and it has so much potential! There are so many thing that I would still like to do with it.