INTERVIEW: Julie Leidner of Sheherazade Gallery on DIY art curation, working with Yoko Molotov, & Gallopalooza!

When I noticed the Sheherazade gallery, I knew we had to cover it. Self-described as “a window gallery within an Old Louisville garage that exhibits large-scale works of art and site-specific installations and is only viewable from the outside,” the venue offers a unique glimpse into not only art, but in curated spaces. In a lot of ways, Sheherazade is a living breathing McGuffin, which like the glowing box in Pulp Fiction, is a motivating factor for experience. You travel here to rid your mind of the clutter of your day and soak in an artists view of the world, even if that is just a window into their soul, so to speak.

Their next event is on April 27th and features the sublime work of Rodolfo Salgado Jr. We caught with gallery curator and artist Julie Leidner to ask her about the origins of the Sherherazade, how she curates her space, and the use of music during or as part of the creation process.

Never Nervous: Before we get started, tell us a little about you. What can you tell us about your art? What drew you to art?

Julie Leidner: I started drawing elaborate pictures at a really young age. My parents were very encouraging (and still are) and so I just never stopped drawing. I think “drawing” is at the heart of my art practice today, even if the work that I make is technically a painting or a video. Drawing is in everything I do, because it is the act of observing, of understanding, of pulling an idea out of something. Drawing can be performative and interactive too, and some of my most recent work deals specifically with that concept. I have a series of paintings on paper on view now at Lenihan-Sotheby’s—each one is a record of a personal interaction between me and one of my teenage art students. Kathleen Lolley made a video of the process of me making these works. It’s kind of intimate and awkward.

NN: What is the general aesthetic qualities you look for as an artist? Who are the people you admire and how does that impact your own work?

“I think it’s important as an artist to take your ideas seriously, but to not take yourself too seriously.”

JL: I think it’s important as an artist to take your ideas seriously, but to not take yourself too seriously. I always remind myself that an artist can and should be the butt of their own jokes. Humor and irreverence go a long way in my book, even when the topics you might be dealing with in your work are serious. Artists like Cindy Sherman and Alice Neel were my heroes when I was younger because of the way they walked those lines. Paul McCarthy, the late Mike Kelley, Chris Ofili, Kara Walker…I like the multi-dimensional tone that these artists hit with their work, and I try to check in with that feeling and those inner goals when I’m in my studio.

NN: How did Sheherazade start? What is it exactly?

JL: There was a gallery in this space before called Thinkbox Contemporary, and it was the project of artist Shohei Katayama, who now lives in Pittsburgh. I moved my art studio into the space when Shoehi left. After about a year of working in there, Sheherazade was born. Unlike Thinkbox, Sheherazade is strictly a window gallery. The exhibition space is only the 180-square-foot garage area, so 100% of the art exhibited can be seen from the outside, and there are no open hours. Sheherazade is not a business or a traditional art gallery. It’s an experimental project space that is an extension of my studio. Mainly, Sheherazade is a site where artists can be trusted to create what they want on a semi-public platform.

NN: How do you curate your pieces for display? Do you look for preexisting work that fits the space or artists that will work within the space?

JL: So far it’s been about finding artists that fit with my mission for Sheherazade. I’m aiming to work with artists who have had limited exposure in this area, but who have demonstrated in their own way that they are completely devoted to their art practice. It’s also important to me that the artists I invite to show are willing to take a risk in some way… whether that is with pre-existing work or with something site-specific for the space.

NN: What have the art shows been like so far? How has it been to work with our friend Yoko Molotov?

JL: The two artists that I’ve shown so far have been people that I didn’t know beforehand at all. But I put my trust in them completely because I had an innate feeling about them, and they both came through 100%. I think believing in people goes a long way. And with the first two shows, that was a two-way street. Norman and Yoko didn’t know me when they agreed to having solo shows in my garage. So there was a mutual risk, and a mutual trust that unfolded, which felt powerful.

The first time I ever saw Yoko Molotov, she was playing a theremin at Kaiju with the group Narrow Ellipsis. I thought that was pretty rad, so I started following her work online and found out she’s also a visual artist. Even though she has all these alter egos, she’s a very public person online, and has this incredibly confessional way of being. I felt like that suited the open-book nature of my space at Sheherazade. Yoko was on board immediately when I reached out to her, and we had an amazing opening reception for her show, with a huge pile of donuts and bananas. I think she’s a genius.

NN: How have audiences responded? More importantly, does that even matter? What types of responses do you hope are even elicited?

“As far as I’m concerned, if I’ve created an experience that makes people ask questions about their surrounding, I consider that a kind of success.”

JL: Artists and people in the arts have been very supportive of this project so far. And that does matter to me, because this is a labor of love, and the positivity helps keep me going. The reaction from people on the street who just pass by and discover the art in the window has run the gamut from bafflement, to drunken anger, to joy. Sometimes it takes people a while to figure out that the gallery is not enterable, which is understandable. As far as I’m concerned, if I’ve created an experience that makes people ask questions about their surrounding, I consider that a kind of success.

NN: What types of pieces do you hope to have going forward? Anything interactive in mind?

JL: I’d like to see a wide variety of uses of the space: sculpture, performance, possibly some kind of social practice. Part of the fun for me is to find artists who might activate those 180-square feet in ways that I couldn’t even imagine.

NN: The band Sunn O))) did a really neat exhibition with their gear set up and painted in white in an all white space (I believe), with their music piped in from the basement. Are there ever any musical components to the work?

JL: Yes, there is actually a musical component to our current show. If you walk by Sheherazade right now, you will see a video and hear its sounds emanating from the gallery. Those are the sounds of Yoko’s digital paintings being translated into music by devices programmed by Joe Frey (of the band The Endtables and 38 Barbies). We had a live performance of this visual/musical collaboration between Yoko and Joe during the opening reception for the show on March 10th. Beau Kaelin recorded the performance on video, then Joe came over and Macgyver’ed a way for us to pump out the sounds externally. Louisville has such a rich musical history, and I love that it dovetails with our current show. Now that we have the capability to do so, I’d like to include more sounds in future exhibitions.

NN: How does the forced perspective(s) of the work in Sheherazade add to the experience?

In some ways, the window format of the gallery limits the experience of the viewer, in that there are some aspects of the work that you can’t see (like the backs of the artworks) and there is a palpable distance created by the boundary of the glass. Just like with any window, you have to peer in from one side of the glass to see what’s on the other side. But it becomes a voyeuristic act for the viewer, and a form of exhibitionism for the artist, and I think something exciting can come from that dynamic.

NN: I heard a podcast recently where Penn Gillette attributed the progressive softening of humanity to a less aggressive and more empathetic culture (clearly broadly speaking) to art and the arts. What do you think about that sentiment?

JL: I haven’t heard that podcast so I don’t know exactly what that argument was… But if he is saying that people’s attitude toward visual art has become more empathetic or less aggressive over time, I do not agree with that. Consider the fact that the National Endowment for the Arts stopped funding individual visual artists after the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s, when artists like David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe were scaring the shit out of social conservatives in the government—and decades later, the NEA still gives individual grants to other art forms like performing arts, and not visual artists.

Or that in Kentucky, the Fund for the Arts has traditionally only given a tiny fraction of its funds to the visual arts, while 90-plus percent of allocations go to the performing arts. I think that by and large, our culture sees visual artists as unpredictable and even scary, and has aggressively silenced visual artists. I’m always dogging on the Gallopalooza horses that you see around town, but they are unfortunately the perfect example of the type of phony support that visual artists get: the “don’t stray outside these lines” kind of officially-sanctioned public art. Perhaps they’re intended to be public art for a softer humanity.

“I’m always dogging on the Gallopalooza horses that you see around town, but they are unfortunately the perfect example of the type of phony support that visual artists get.”

NN: Are there any subjects off bounds?

JL: I don’t think any subject is taboo for me, if it hits the right tone and is expressed in the right way. In general I welcome artists who have subversive ideas and attitudes in their work because I think that is needed. I do think it’s possible to take risks while also being sensitive, and I will strive to hit that mark as long as I continue this project. I’m not a trained curator—I’m just an artist sharing my space with others—so this has been and will continue to be a learning process.

NN: What music do you listen to while creating?

JL: I don’t have an easy relationship with music. I sometimes resent the way that sounds can be invasive to the senses. In the studio I tend to replay the same things over and over that I know will suit my creative mood—for example I’ve been listening to Odetta Sings Dylan for about ten years now.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out an awesome photo from the mid 80’s of a young Julie Leidner posing with none other than Never Nervous Pervis Ellison below. Pretty damned cool.