“It was neither ahead nor behind the times,” says Andy Sturdevant about the Soap Factory. “It was always a perfect expression of what was happening at the time.”
History Room: 20 Years of No Name and the Soap Factory, a historical exhibit curated by Andy Sturdevant. On display through October 26 at the Soap Factory, 110 5th Ave. S.E., Minneapolis. Featuring artwork by James Gladman and Suzanne Kosmalski (June 7-29); Mark Wojahn (July 5-27); David Wyrick and Jen Bervin (August 2-31); David Lowe and David Lefkowitz (September 6-28); Emily Lutzker and Tamara Albaitas (October 4-26). Admission free. For information, see soapfactory.org.
Sturdevant is the principal curator of History Room, an exhibit chronicling the history of the Soap Factory, the near-Northeast non-profit gallery named in honor of the building’s former tenant. Located on two walls of a room off the Soap Factory’s principal gallery space, History Room tells the organization’s story through a chronological collage of posters, photographs, letters, and other material Sturdevant culled from the “boxes and boxes” of archival material he was given to work with. The exhibit also features a rotating display of work by artists who have shown at the Soap Factory and its antecedent, the No Name Gallery.
“If you find Mapplethorpe’s bullwhip up the rectum photograph unsettling, you should see our bathroom.”
Even as National Purity was sloshing out the last of its soap products, the organization that would become the Soap Factory was being founded across the river in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. No Name Gallery enjoyed five years of success in the Warehouse District; shows helped to draw attention to many emerging artists, even if the crowds weren’t always thick. (History Room includes a volunteer’s report on one day’s attendance, reading “well…somebody looked in through the window.”) In 1993 the gallery joined the exodus of artists to Northeast Minneapolis—specifically, to the newly renovated Grain Belt Brewery complex. It was there for two years before purchasing the National Purity building, a soap-stained disaster area, for one dollar.
On display next to the stove in History Room is a dirty hunk of soap residue—not the soap residue, but soap residue—illustrating the mess that had to be laboriously disposed of before No Name could open for business under its new moniker. Posters from the Soap Factory’s 1996 opening invite the public in terms typical of the No Name’s balance between edginess and accessibility: “If you find Mapplethorpe’s bullwhip up the rectum photograph unsettling, you should see our bathroom.” “See a naked man handcuffed to a chair play the banjo. Free balloons for the kids!”
Since taking root in its present quarters, the Soap Factory has continued to present diverse installations and performances—which continue to showcase up-and-coming artists—as well as annual traditions such as the Art Shanties, the 10-Second Film Festival, and October‘s Haunted Basement. Sturdevant dismisses suggestions that organizational stability has dulled the gallery‘s edge. “After working through the winter months when it’s ten below in there, it’s hard for me to see the Soap Factory as being institutionalized in the way the Walker is institutionalized. There’s still a ramshackle element.”
“See a naked man handcuffed to a chair play the banjo. Free balloons for the kids!”
For the artists and patrons who experienced this history first-hand, the exhibit is likely to be an enjoyable slide through sudsy memories. Visitors not as familiar with the institution are likely to enjoy the impressionistic display of two decades‘ ephemera, though they might have benefited from material situating the Soap Factory in its historical context. Why not, for example, display parallel timelines noting key events in the local and global art worlds? As Sturdevant suggests, the Soap Factory’s shifts—both physical (from the Warehouse District to Northeast) and aesthetic (from in-your-face politics to fanciful post-post-modernism)—have been consistent with broader changes in Minneapolis and beyond. Adding an oral-history element might also have made the exhibit more accessible and interesting. What curatorial debates took place over the years? What was it like to be in the room with that naked man playing the banjo? Did anyone ever back into the stove and sear their black Levi’s?
This exhibit is a valuable chronicle of an institution that’s earned landmark status without compromising its maverick spirit. Go check it out, and bring the kids—there are probably still a few free balloons floating around in there somewhere.
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
|The Soap Factory in the Daily Planet:
• Mark Weaver on the Ten-Second Film Festival (June 2008)
• John O’Brien on the viral marketing of Socktesting (June 2008)
• The Bridge staff on Stone Cold Art (February 2008)
• Jeffrey Kalstrom on the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement (October 2007)
• Ann Klefstad on Host (September 2007)