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For The First Time, Chuck Swanson's Own Work Is On Display In His Louisville Gallery

Natalie Weis

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to identify the assistant at Chuck Swanson’s gallery as Nicholas Cook. In a previous version of this story, he was called Alexander Cook. 

When Chuck Swanson opened his gallery space at 638 East Market Street in 1998, he joined Muth’s Candy, Joe Ley Antiques and Hugh & Ed’s Auto Repair as the only operational businesses within the three block area. Yet the beginnings of what would become a thriving gallery district were already in place.

“The second floors of all the buildings were being rented by artists as living or working spaces because it was cheap and it was very quiet,” Swanson said. “There were no restaurants. There were no bars. There were no parking meters.”

Zephyr Gallery moved into a space on East Market almost immediately following Swanson; the next few years saw the openings of Artemesia, Paul Pauletti Gallery and the Mayan Gypsy, among other galleries and restaurants, on the blocks between Hancock and Campbell Streets. The city even installed two parking meters in front of Swanson’s gallery, much to his bemused annoyance.

21 years later, the district — christened “NuLu” — not only abounds with bars, restaurants and galleries, but has also received even bigger investments in the forms of AC Hotel, NuLu Lofts and Rabbit Hole Distillery. One of Swanson’s original neighbors, Joe Ley Antiques, recently announced it would be closing; a New York City real estate development firm purchased the property.

And at Swanson Contemporary, escalating rent is causing its owner to actively consider other locations for his gallery – perhaps farther east on Market Street, perhaps in the new Logan Street Market or maybe in the Portland neighborhood, where many artists have found inexpensive studio space in an echo of NuLu’s earliest days. While Swanson is not eager to leave the neighborhood his gallery has called home for more than two decades, the higher rent brings with it an increased pressure to show commercially viable work.

“I know I could do that,” he said. “I just don’t really want to at this time in my career. I want to show what I like and not because it will sell.”

It’s an ethos that has been a guiding force behind Swanson’s exhibitions throughout the years, leading him to continually take risks in the work he chooses to show and go to inspiring lengths to support the artists he believes in. Take, for example, Jacob Heustis. Now an established artist (his next solo show opens at Quappi in September), he was barely out of college when his large-scale paintings captivated Swanson, who discovered he had to make some physical alterations to the gallery in order to show Heustis’ work.

“I had to notch my front door to get those pieces in,” Swanson recalls with a laugh. “They wouldn’t fit through the doorway. I had to have an electrician come and redo some conduit, too. I didn’t think we’d sell the work, but I liked Jake as an artist and I believed in him.”

But even if Heustis’ work had never sold, it seems it wouldn’t have mattered much to Swanson, who hasn’t lost his youthful enthusiasm for talking about art that excites him. His face lights up when he remembers first seeing Russel Hulsey’s 2002 work Conducting Silence, a holographic projection of Robert Franz, former associate conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, barefoot and dressed in white as he silently directed an unseen orchestra in slow motion.

“When he moved his arms, it looked like he had angel wings,” Swanson recalls with delight. “It was a beautiful, beautiful piece.”

At the time, however, Hulsey was still getting established in his career and couldn’t afford the $4,200 holographic projector required to properly show the piece. Swanson, hardly flush with money from the gallery business, charged the projector to his own credit card. It was an extravagant gesture, but also nothing unusual for a man who routinely finds himself storing work for artists who can’t afford space, giving of his time to mentor young artists and gallerists, and opening up his gallery to artists experimenting with work that pushes the boundaries of contemporary art.

“Chuck’s contribution to the vitality of Louisville’s art scene has been enormous,” says Julien Robson, director of the Great Meadows Foundation and former curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum.

“He created a space that allows artists to explore their ideas and to experiment without commercial pressure,” Robson said. “He has made visible much of the best work that goes on in the region and has been instrumental in developing and informing the audience for contemporary art in our city.”

Swanson’s taste for the experimental, the playful and the subversive extends to his own work as well. Though his personal artistic practice pre-dates his gallery career, Swanson was reluctant to show his paintings until a three-week gap appeared in the gallery’s exhibition schedule and his assistant, Nicholas Cook, persuaded him to exhibit his recent work, which is on view until September 7.

As Swanson explains, “I did landscapes and waterscapes for many years. Everyone loved them and they sold really well corporately and it made me not want to do them anymore. There’s just something in me that rebels. I don’t know what that is about me.”

“So I grappled for a year,” he says. “What do I want to do with? What is getting me really excited with the artwork? And it turned out to be this.”

The “this” Swanson gestures to is a delightful collection of abstract work, mostly in the form of canvas assemblages in a bright and playful palette, joined in a recurring right-angle motif. Here and there, those beloved landscapes reappear, painted over and subsumed into larger works or obliquely referenced in a minimalist, deconstructed style.

On the evening of Swanson’s opening, dozens of admirers mingle through the gallery, excited with the opportunity to see the work of someone who is most often in the role of presenting the work of others. There is a warm and buzzy energy in the space, though it’s still a far cry from the raucous revelry that closed the previous exhibit at Swanson, when three of that show’s artist-musicians performed at a volume that carried well into the next block.

“Over the years I bet we’ve done at least 60 music shows here,” Swanson said. “There’s a lot of crossover, artists and music makers. But you can’t sell art with music. When people are trying to make a serious decision about buying a work of art, the music just overwhelms them.”

So why does he host music in his gallery if he knows it will discourage sales? Swanson just shrugs and smiles. “Because it’s fun.”

“Chuck Swanson: Assemblages” is on view August 16 – September 7 at Swanson Contemporary, 638 East Market Street.

This story has been updated.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.