A conversation with Kevin Rubén Jacobs about his art space, Oliver Francis Gallery.
When it comes to avant-garde type of art, the popularity tends to wane quickly, and attendance at showings is low. Recently, however, Dallas has seen a growing interest in the avant-garde, conceptual art that pushes limits and breaks boundaries. Evidence of this new wave can be found at the experimental art space Oliver Francis Gallery; a greyish brick storefront in a very trodden block along Peak Street in Deep Ellum. At any given showing, you can find an eclectic mix of patrons, from the street-wise slacker in his dirty t-shirt, puffing away furiously on a fag, to the hat-wearing socialite stepping daintily around the spilled beer.
Kevin Rubén Jacobs opened the gallery last year before graduating from University of Texas Arlington with a BA in Philosophy and a minor in Studio Art. Rubens is making no excuses for the art he exhibits and dares you to consider what is happening. Good or bad, the local art scene is abuzz about this little space with the mighty vision.
Arts+Culture writer Rachel Van Horn met with the young provocateur on several occasions this summer to find out the back story behind Oliver Francis.
A+C: You seem to be everywhere these days, in the paper, in the magazines; you snagged the highly sought after position of Exhibitions Manager/Collections Assistant at Michael Goss Foundation after a short internship, curating a group show at Angstrom, participating in panel discussions about art in Dallas, even hosting a tea and tour at Michael Goss Foundation. Who do you know and how did this happen?
Kevin Rubén Jacobs: (Laughs) There were no secret back doors or family connections. I come from a modest family. My parents were never seriously into art with the exception of attending the opera or theater. For the first 15 years of my life, I lived in an apartment. One of my favorite memories was when we moved into our first house in North Richland Hills and being allowed to run without disturbing the neighbors below us. There were no neighbors.
When it came to college, my mother and father didn’t give me a choice; it was never “if” you go to college, it was, “you are going to college”. What they did allow and support was whatever I wanted to study.
My whole life my dad worked hard in harsh conditions, and he didn’t make excuses or complain; he worked and continues to work. He is my hero. He has allowed me all these opportunities. Both my parents always supported and continue to support my interests unconditionally. I was never really interested in art or the art world until my third year at the university (2009). Once I became interested, I immersed myself in art theory, practice, and markets. I was obsessed.
A+C: What were your perceptions of what you were seeing at the time in terms of local art?
KRJ: When there are these conventions in terms of rules in the local art scene it gets dry — I found the art reflective of that. From the beginning, I was disenchanted with the art. There were some really cool shows like Modern Ruin and Professor Stephen Lapthisophon’s work.
Stephen was one of my professors at UTA and one of my biggest influences. I believe what is happening right now would not be happening if I didn’t have him as my professor. Stephen is very experimental. He wants you to do something you never have done before. Being in his drawing class for instance, I ended up scraping cinder block on paper and messing around with sand and spray paint. Basically, he encourages unorthodox ways of creating art by using objects to create a language.
For me, the language is limited using solely graphite and oil. I wanted to expand my language. Stephen allowed our vision and mindset to open. Art makes you see things differently, but Stephen makes you look at art differently. Phenomenology played an influential role in learning from Stephen. This practice gave learning about art a depth and perspective that motivated me to learn more and share that with everyone else.
A+C: In your opinion, what is great art? What catches your attention?
KRJ: It is all a part of this weird order of things. I think about that question a lot. Like, why do I like what I do? I can’t say. I know when I see it; I don’t second guess my choices. The art that I am showing and the artists I show speak for themselves. I met Michelle Rawlings while visiting a friend at RISD, as well as other artists like Arthur Peña. When I visited Michelle’s studio I didn’t have the gallery, but months later at a RISD cocktail party I bumped into her again and offered her a show.
I want to create that place of intrigue, make people think and engage. I want people to come to my website and spend time. I’m not catering to the public needs. You have to realize the type of art I am showing if you want to show at my gallery. Again, I am not showing good art, I am showing great art. If someone wants to show at my gallery they have to show the kind of work I am showing. The work has to be there. What are the artist’s intentions? I want to be part of their growth and help support them.
A+C: I find it fascinating how your gallery, opened less than a year, has the city’s most influential art leaders singing your praises. What is your secret?
KRJ: I don’t second guess myself. I believe in what I am doing, and I don’t limit myself. I respect and appreciate their interest. I look forward to spending more time learning from them. The art leaders like Peter Dorenshenko, Jeremy Strick, Michael Corris, along with others, we are lucky to have here, and I value what they have to say.
That is the thing about owning a gallery – there is no one telling me what I can or can’t do in my space. I can put anything I want on my homepage and show anything I want in my gallery. I love that I get to choose; I am the boss and that is what I have wanted since I was a little kid. I have always wanted to be the boss. Another awesome thing is I don’t have any employees to pay. Right now, I am establishing the gallery and experimenting. Eventually, I can see the gallery expanding and the need to hire employees, but right now I am enjoying the energy of unexpected possibilities and showing great art without anyone limiting the process — I am the boss. The boss gets to make the rules, create the terms, and execute the action as they want.
A+C: Talk to us about how you use technology to advertise shows and connect with artists and galleries outside of Dallas.
KRJ: For the Rachel deJoode show (now showing) we were able to talk while she was in Berlin and New York. Adding the voice, you get to hear inflections and attitudes — you get to know more about the personality working in new situations. I have this guilty pleasure every morning of checking to see if anyone new liked my gallery page.
A+C: How many likes do you have right now?
KRJ: 437. What is really cool is that less than half are people that are not directly connected to me; I really like that. There are people from all over the world visiting my website and liking my gallery page. I know it has to do with some of the connections to other artists that I want to bring to OFG. What is great is there are already certain kinds of audiences that are connected with the artists that I am bringing in. Hopefully, they will see what my gallery is doing and begin creating more connections within the world community to Dallas.
I want this sense of Avant Garde to be attached to the gallery but I don’t want that to override everything. There are things that I like that are not necessarily Avant Garde, like doing a painting show. I always want to consider traditional work within the NOW framework and not necessarily traditional.
A+C: Who do you see as your audience in Dallas?
KRJ: I hope artists, first and foremost as I consider myself an artist, new contemporary artists in their 20-30s, my generation, anyone who is tuned in to what is happening globally. I don’t want this to seem rude in terms of other galleries in Dallas — I feel like my audience is more tuned in to what is happening outside of the Dallas world and tuned in with the international art scene.
A+C: What are your thoughts on art for profit vs. nonprofit?
KRJ: I like thinking in the middle. In my position, I have a full-time job that provides me with enough to run the gallery, which is great, but I would like the gallery to become self-sufficient plus I wouldn’t mind a little extra to put into funding projects and future shows (and shipping charges!). The for-profits seem to get molded into a system of repetition, and I am aware of that situation happening to OFG, but I want to disrupt the idea of a gallery and who it belongs to at times, as with closing Oliver Francis Gallery and opening Dick Higgins Gallery temporarily, which I was not a part. The (art) nonprofit model is either centered around grants and the ability to get funding, or a board, broadly speaking. I don’t have time to write grants or the money to pay a grant-writer and I don’t want to be told what to do or have interests bestowed upon me by a board. I want total control and no control from time to time.
A+C: What role does OFG play in the local community and economy OR what role do you see OFG playing?
KRJ: I see Oliver Francis supporting the role of a space for complete and total experimentation. After a year, I want even more experimentation. There are spaces in Dallas that are doing great things, but that number is very small. I’d love to see that number climb. Dallas just doesn’t take risks as much as other cities, which is a reflection, in a sense. I want to exhibit risk-takers, artists and thinkers that are conscious of their surroundings and their place within the contemporary art world and the modern world as it exists today.
A+C: For perspective, who would you say is your favorite painter?
KRJ: There are artists that blur the lines to the extent that if I said their name, people would be like, “they are not a painter”. The classic painter that I love, that everyone knows but wouldn’t consider a painter, is Dan Flavin. For me, the work he does is using all the elements of painting and design but utilizing it in a three dimensional space. You have physical light and color, emanating from fluorescents in a space, bouncing off of floors and walls; it’s like a painting made with light waves within a room. He is a minimalist artist from the 60s, but still saying that Dan Flavin is a painter still seems really new and shocking to people now.
A+C: You show art not just in the space but also curate shows online, too.
KRJ: I am using OFG’s homepage to do exhibitions. The current show is Sara Ludy and the one before that was Alfredo Salazar-Caro. Anytime I come across an animated .gif that gets my attention, I am going to exhibit them on my gallery page. It’s not like I knew the current artist, Sara Ludy. I came across this amazing collection of .gifs and sent her an email saying, “I really love these works; would I be able to exhibit them on the main page of the gallery website?” She was all for it and I let her know I would credit her and it is the first thing people see when they go to my gallery page. Even the web space becomes a space for art. It’s another simple idea.
A+C: That’s pretty innovative and offers a space for new media artists to have their work seen.
KRJ: It made perfect sense to me because on her website she tiled the .gifs just I have them on the web space. I used to add random .gifs I would find but they would make no sense. I like ironic elements to .gifs, like failure over and over again. LeBron James playing a really small violin.
A+C: So, this can just change at will.
KRJ: Right, there is no set times, no dates, no champagne to serve. It just happens at will.
Works by artist Rachel de Joode are on view through September 11, 2012.
The next show will be a group show opening October 6, 2012.