The Opening — Chris Bentzen of Hot Art Wet City

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THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!

 

Opening crowd at Hot Art Wet City. Photo: Chris Bentzen.
Opening crowd at Hot Art Wet City. Photo: Chris Bentzen.

 

There is more to Hot Art Wet City than a catchy name: all at once, it’s a gallery, blog, and shop centred around unpretentious and exciting content. Though its origins lie in pop-up shows, its location on Main and 6th is now a permanent one. It has already housed such delightful absurdities as giant doll-heads, AT-AT mini-bars, snarling bicycle seats, and feathered Cariboo stubbies since opening its doors this April — and this is only the start.

The one-man show behind all of this is owner Chris Bentzen, who has curated, designed, organized, and videoed his way into the heart of Vancouver since putting on the very first Hot One Inch Action event in 2003. Along with the gallery’s monthly exhibitions, Bentzen is also committed to delivering weekly video interviews with local artists that are short, sweet, and to the point. In a way, this is Bentzen’s mantra: that art (and in turn, artists) should be fun and accessible. It’s one that he’s remained faithful to, and one that has been received well by the city at large. Art kids, fanboys, and curious pedestrians alike flock to Bentzen’s events, happy to engage with work that might be a guilty pleasure to some and a raison d’être for others.

I met up with Chris just as he was gearing up to open Great White North, a group exhibition about the often-hilarious kitsch of ’80s Canadiana. Though Vancouver was living up to its rain-soaked reputation, the gallery was bright and welcoming, warmed up with a the inclusion of a chalkboard wall, Edison-bulb lighting, and an array of artist-made goods ranging from prints to painted hoverboards.

 

Vancouver Is Awesome: You have a history working with advocacy groups, open-call projects such as Hot One-Inch Action, and now your open submission policy for a selection of gallery shows. It seems like you’re trying to single-handedly democratize the Vancouver art scene! What inspired you to take this particular path, and what are your motivations?

Chris Bentzen: Well, I’m not the only person doing that! I want to make that clear: there are lots of other people who do this, too. I like my space to be a stepping stone for people who are just getting started. For some people, this might be the first time they’re exhibiting because they don’t often get the opportunity to show.

I’m trying to do that more regularly, but I’m also putting on more curated shows. The next couple of shows will be more highly curated than “whoever submits gets to be in”, but I like having that balance, that accessibility.

 

VIA: Was there anything like a formative moment, at art school or afterwards, when you decided that this is what you wanted to do?

CB: I feel like I just fell into this. I did design in school and dabbled in art. After a few years, I had a show where I met Jim [Hoehnle], the guy I do [Hot One Inch Action] with. From there, we started playing with the idea of the open call; at the time, finding 50 artists was a challenge. But we’re just trying to get as many people as we can involved. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, as long as people are having fun. Hot One Inch Action is ten years old this year. Art doesn’t always have to be so serious!

I was also considering the shows that I like to go to. I don’t want to go to a show where I always see the same people every time. I was thinking, how do you get those new people to come out? They have to start somewhere! They might be shit for the first couple of years, but eventually they might be somewhere — or maybe not.

 

Stubbies for the 'Great White North' group show at Hot Art Wet City. Photo: Chris Bentzen.
Stubbies for the ‘Great White North’ group show at Hot Art Wet City. Photo: Chris Bentzen.

 

VIA: Well, that’s really cool, because when I was researching you on the internet… 

CB: Oh, no…

VIA: I found an article that was written about your button project in 2009 or something, and the writer was talking about exactly that: unpretentious and welcoming was the vibe that she picked up. What made you decide to make the move from pop-up gallery to permanent space?

CB: A little bit of stupidity… What made me decide to do that? It was — and still is — a good time in my life; I’m not currently struggling financially and people seemed eager for this kind of opportunity: somewhere to show, somewhere fun. Somebody’s got to do it! If I didn’t do it, then I was just going to be sitting around going, why isn’t anybody doing this? That’s always been how I approach things: well, nobody else is doing it, so I guess it’s me.

VIA: Well, that’s a great way to approach life.

CB: I guess so. Sometimes it’s a bit stressful. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting myself out there a bit too much.

VIA: What do you mean?

CB: It’s this weird feeling that — there are times where I’m sitting here alone and I think, oh f*ck, I’m doing this on my own, what am I doing? But I know I’m not, though; there’re people in my life who support it, there’re people in my extended group who are excited about it, and I know that there are people around who want to be a part of it. It’s just a little disconcerting at times.

VIA: But I think that’s a common feeling amongst any gallery that is trying to actively sell work in the city. It’s the fact that our collector base is rather small in comparison to the amount of artists we have.

CB: I keep having to remind myself that.

 

Bob & Doug McKenzie of 'Great White North', by Andrea Hooge. Photo: Chris Bentzen.
Bob & Doug McKenzie of ‘Great White North’, by Andrea Hooge. Photo: Chris Bentzen.

 

VIA: How about you tell me more about the Great White North show, and theme shows in general? The open call is one way of engaging with people, but why theme shows?

CB: Well, it’s stuff that I want to see, right? There’s a place for conceptual work and there’s a place for artists exploring their medium, but the work that I want to see a lot of the time is referencing the culture that I’m engaging with. It’s interesting to see what works and what doesn’t.

With this show in particular, people were more excited about the mini show — submitting stubbies. If I was to do it over, it would be more about the stubbies than Canadian pop culture from the ’80s. Maybe I was being too specific with that too, because there was a lot of work that I turned down that didn’t really fit the theme — stuff that was referencing early Canadiana, or the ’50s or ’60s.

 

VIA: The cool thing about these group shows is that it’s sort of like you’re giving an assignment to the public, and it’s interesting to see how artists take those parameters and run with it. Like you said, a lot of artists choose to work within their own sphere of ideas, but sometimes it’s refreshing to see a person that you know well try to take on something totally different — subject matter that is maybe close to them but never surfaces in their artwork.

CB: Yeah, I remember being in school and seeing people really engaged with the projects. You were given a goal, and you were excited about going out and doing that. Seeing that in school, people really engaging with that single idea — I like giving people that opportunity outside of school. Sometimes that self-guided project doesn’t always work — it’s just too much! Sometimes you need constraints.

Actually, yesterday, one of the artists that did the stubbies — he was saying that just giving him the bottle and saying ‘do whatever’ wasn’t constrained enough! He just felt like he didn’t know what to do. It surprised me, because he’s a very talented artist and I never really thought of him that way, but I guess he’s coming at it more like a designer. He needs the project brief.

 

'Loserhaus' by Ali Bruce. Photo: Ali Bruce.
‘Loserhaus’ by Ali Bruce. Photo: Ali Bruce.

 

VIA: I know that you’re doing a more curated show with Ali Bruce, Brandon Cotter, Hamish Olding, Daniel Tatterton, Tylor Macmillan, and Victoria Sieczka called Hey Loser! Can you talk to me more about that process?

CB: Ali submitted to a couple of shows at the pop-up space. I was liking what she was doing, and it wasn’t something that I had seen a lot of. At the same time, she was introducing me to her friends — and introducing her friends to my shows — who were doing similar things. I talked to Ali, saying, ‘I want to see your work in the gallery, but I’m not super interested in having solo shows because it’s not enough of a draw. Why don’t you get a few of your friends together for a group show?’

Essentially, she’s curating the show: I have a sense of where it’s going, and I knew she would be really motivated to get it done, and also work quick enough to get it done. I feel like she’s producing so much exciting work that she’s just going to keep moving forward over the next few years. I really wanted to be there in giving her this opportunity. I can’t imagine many recent grads get that opportunity — a lot of kids just go out into the world and feel like they’re done with art.

 

VIA: I feel like your space is a centre for — and I say this with love and respect — what you’d call lowbrow work in Vancouver. There are a lot of amazing lowbrow artists in Vancouver, and other than Ayden Gallery, Lucky’s Comics, and the gallery in the back of Antisocial, there aren’t a lot of official spaces to show that sort of work in. There’s a younger generation of people who have this whole history of seeing street- and folk-art fully ingrained in the art world, and seeing that interest manifested in a new ways is really exciting.

CB: Yeah, and if I can offer up a space for them to explore that more, that’s pretty big to me. Whether or not work sells, whether or not the party’s good, it’ll expose people in this neighbourhood to that work. If I had that opportunity at your age, or at Ali’s age, it would have changed the direction of my life. I guess I wouldn’t be here now — or maybe I would have been here sooner!

Thinking about lowbrow spaces, there were places here in the nineties that had that. I think it was called ‘A Walk Is…’, on Denman, and it showed work by [punk icon] Jim Cummins/I, Braineater, and a couple of other people — I can’t even think of their names anymore.

 

VIA: Why do you think they disappeared?

CB: They all got old! That’s literally what it was. It was this moment where all these guys who were doing stuff in the eighties had enough money to open spaces in the nineties, and by later in that decade they were all done.

 

VIA: But they didn’t really pass the torch on?

CB: Well, there’s Smash Gallery — that’s who that came from. 12 Midnite, he was one of those guys. But I don’t know what happened. One of those guys, actually, ends up showing in Hot Art Wet City shows. He goes by ARGH!!, but his real name is Ken. He did this in the eighties, and he brought it up for the show. It’s a colouring book of D.O.A. and other punk bands!

 

Happy campers at 'May LaForge Be With You' opening. Photo: Chris Bentzen.
Happy campers at ‘May LaForge Be With You’ opening. Photo: Chris Bentzen.

 

VIA: You were talking earlier about travelling and gaining inspiration from America. As a totally subjective thing that I put onto your space, I was thinking that it reminded me of Portland or San Francisco — it reminds me of things that I love about lowbrow art culture in the U.S. that is a little harder to find here. Do you travel a lot? Are you from the States?

CB: No, I grew up here! But: it’s the internet. A lot of the stuff that I’m looking at is showing at Gallery 1988, Spoke Art in San Francisco, galleries in Portland that I go to every time I’m down there. They’re not all doing themed shows, but they’re allowing artists to explore what isn’t necessarily ‘fine art’.  They’re giving artists opportunities to show what, say, a Granville Street gallery here wouldn’t ever pursue. It’s not always good, but that opportunity is there.

 

VIA: What are your internet homes for finding new work, then?

CB: Booooooom, Supersonic Electronic, blogs for Gallery 1988 and Spoke Art. Some of those artists live here but never show here. Bennett Slater lives in the West End, but he’s showing in LA regularly. He’s found other artists in Vancouver that have shown with him in the States, who he didn’t know lived here.

 

VIA: I know, it’s really strange. I have a friend who was showing in galleries worldwide but no gallery here wanted to pick him up because he was making decidedly lowbrow work — it’s a common story. I just thought that was interesting, for a city that is so infatuated with lowbrow, we didn’t necessarily have spaces to show it until Hot Art Wet City came along.

CB: Maybe someone else will be inspired by it and try to do something better. That’s awesome. I welcome that. There’s room for more, right?

 

Colin Johnson's AT-AT Imperial Walker Bar, at the opening of 'May LaForge Be With You'. Photo: Chris Bentzen.
Colin Johnson’s AT-AT Imperial Walker Bar, at the opening of ‘May LaForge Be With You’. Photo: Chris Bentzen.

 

VIA:What has been your best experience? Any challenges you’ve had to surmount here that were really rewarding?

CB: The biggest challenge I think was finding a space. I didn’t have time, I was juggling a bunch of stuff, and I was thinking, I need to bring somebody on, this is crazy. [The person that I hired] does lease negotiations with local businesses, helping them get started. He was looking for spaces, talking with real estate brokers and stuff. I don’t’ remember which one of us found this space on Craigslist, but he followed up and was able to get it a price which, even though it was beyond what I had been looking at, it was in a way better location.

It’s been a bit of a challenge for me feeling comfortable paying the lease that I’m paying here, but I also feel like there’s momentum. I feel like something is happening. With each show, more people are coming out, signing up for the mailing list, and getting to know the gallery. Community support is really building. And being in a random place and hearing somebody mention the gallery — that’s kind of cool. That feeling that somebody else that I don’t know is talking about it.

 

Great White North is on until July 13th. Hey Loser! opens on July 19th (opening reception from 7-11:30pm). RSVP.

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