Recently, through somewhat dubious circumstances, I was able to climb the stairs at 684 Washington Street and revisit Oni Gallery. I guess I am a bit of a broken record, but as I stood there I found myself choked with emotion, bordering on tears, remembering the time I spent there. Each wall, blank and dark in the evening light, shone bright with my memories of the work that once hung there. I saw Lazaro Montano's tile installation in one corner, Jay Heikes cut paper pieces along the west wall, heard the liltingly annoying soundtrack to a video by Jenn Schmidt, saw my own photos along another wall, and mourned the absence of floating animatronic jellyfish. There were no screams rising through the floorboards from an artist-statement-slam below, and no raucus art lovers breathing heavily after climbing five flights of stairs.
Oni Gallery is dead.
I guess it took a visit to that empty room to really convince me. Like viewing the body before the funeral, I needed to see the bare walls and vacant studios to really understand what it means to lose a place like Oni. And, like a funeral, every minor incident of the past takes on a glowing significance, and the coincidences of past years now seem fated.
My first memory of Oni Gallery involves climbing those dreadful stairs for an opening reception where I knew no one. Jennifer Schmidt had been working with the Oni staff to prepare a show that I was to be involved in, and she wanted me to see the space. On a random Friday night, as we climbed the stairs through the stench of rotten food to the abrupt donation collector, I fell in love. There was no real explanation for it, and (like romantic love) it struck without warning or precedent.
Later, when we arrived to install our show, we were greeted by a confused man with a beard who had no idea we were coming. It turns out that the confused guy was Dan Hirsch, of Non-Event and the MFA, but that did not help us with our installation. Eventually we found our way to the roof of Oni, known to many as the place for a smoke during a reception and, in the warmth of that late spring, a great place for a margerita at noon. On such a noon, surrounded by those margeritas, we found Oni's crew.
The details of the six shows I did with Oni need not be discussed in detail here. "LINGO" was an ordeal of chaos, coordination and promise. "One Squared" challenged everything I knew about presenting art, and the annual salon shows made me want to be a part of Boston's scene in a way I had never felt before. Events that, on first glance, held no interest for me were often truly amazing. My willingness to experience all that Oni presented has made me the very publisher willing to start a Big RED project.
In fact, the launch party for Big RED was scheduled to be at Oni. We would have launched in late-January of 2004, except that Oni was shut down and things have changed since. Although we missed our chance, many great projects did launch at Oni, including the poetry mag BOTH and the careers of many Boston art regulars.
Oni Gallery was chaotic, disorganized, underfunded, frustrating, and worth every second I spent with them. When I undertook the task of creating their website, I didn't realize how gigantic their audience was, or how elaborate their programming. The project taught me to consider art as a living and breathing existence, happening every day and at many places simultaneously. Big RED & Shiny is the direct result of having been the 'web guy' for Oni, a fact that may make some people smile.
Standing in the empty, silent, dead Oni Gallery, I was reminded of all the other alternative spaces that have come before. I wanted to go back, to encourage them and to support them all, to revel in their brief and vital existance. Sadly, I cannot, but that is the nature of time and memory. Instead, I can only look to the future, and give the same Love I have for Oni to our current alternative spaces. My plea, my dream, is that each of us give an hour to The Berwick, Art Interactive, Green Street Gallery or Second Gallery. If you don't have an hour, a dollar (or five) goes a long way. If you can do neither, encourage those around you to do what they can.
Artists do not exist without a community to support them, and those same supporters cannot help if there is no place to view and engage with art and artists. My heart will remain broken for Oni for a while, but there is a need for others to come in their place. My money, and my time, will go to help them. What about you?
All images are courtesy of the James Manning, the last director of Oni Gallery.