It was a Friday night in June. I was supposed to go to an opening at 1122 Outside, an alternative backyard gallery space, but I was cozy on the couch with my best friend, the torpor of the pandemic having had its way with us long ago.
We told ourselves that since the gallery was outside, it would be easy to social distance. We were both vaccinated, but our nervous systems hadn’t yet unlearned what had been drilled into them over the previous fifteen months: Everyone is a potential murderer. We vowed to leave after a half hour. In and out. Art and run. Back to the safety of the couch.
As we pulled up to the unassuming white house in the South Tabor neighborhood, we saw an A-frame sidewalk sign, carefully painted with the numbers 1122. On the other side, written in chalk, it said “into gentle Ruin,” the name of the show by text-based artist, Alyson Provax, which we had come to see.
The driveway emptied out onto a large backyard—punctuated by a carport, a shed, a chicken coop, an outdoor shower, and a firepit—where dozens of people gathered in circles of varying densities—taking in the art, drinking, nibbling, talking. I’d only been to one other show since being vaccinated, a highly regimented affair with time slots for being in the gallery. It was a Covid precaution that I greatly appreciated, but it made me even more wistful for The Before Times because, more than anything, I wanted to linger.
In the backyard of 1122 that Friday night in June, people were lingering. And we felt like we could too.
The house belongs to Jen Denrow and Jesse Morse, both poets and writing professors, who co-founded the gallery in 2018 along with Denrow’s cousin Lauren Schaefer, who holds an MFA from PNCA in collaborative design and now works in tech. Denrow and Schaefer had always talked about creating an art space together but hadn’t lived in the same city since they were kids. When Denrow and Morse moved to Portland in 2017, where Schaefer had been living for a decade, it suddenly seemed possible.
“There were points where we were looking into traditional retail gallery spaces, but it didn’t make sense financially,” says Schaefer. “At some point, we just decided we’d do it in the garage behind the house.” The house she’s referring to was Denrow and Morse’s first home in Portland, which had the street address 1122—the namesake for their eponymous gallery. They hired a contractor to sheetrock the garage walls and held their first show in 2018.
Last fall, Denrow and Morse moved to the house in South Tabor, which had no garage or other traditional exhibition spaces to speak of. Denrow floated the idea of using the basement as a dedicated art space but Morse wanted to keep the house separate from the gallery. At the time, the shed in the backyard was packed with wood and the chicken coop was, as Denrow puts it in a tone of voice that conveys she’d discovered a lot of droppings, “full of chicken coop things.”
In a scrappy but not unprecedented move, they decided to make use of the spaces available to them. Schaefer’s husband hung plywood in the shed and Schaefer cleaned out the chicken coop of all its chicken coop things and painted its walls a crisp gallery white. The carport—open on three sides with one grey cinder block wall, a poured concrete slab floor, and a corrugated plastic roof held up by two vertical support posts—was a plein-air gallery waiting to happen. They changed the name from 1122 Gallery to 1122 Outside. (Dear reader: to avoid any Blink 182 types of confusion—it should be noted that it’s pronounced “eleven twenty-two,” not one-one-two-two, as I’d been calling it).
The opening I attended in June was their second exhibition in the new place. I asked Denrow and Schaefer if they had any concerns about the limitations that an outdoor gallery would put on the artists and on the kind of work they could exhibit. “I think Alyson’s show is a really great example. When she came, I was kind of worried,” Denrow said, in reference to the fact that many of Provax’s pieces are delicate works on paper. “She came and immediately said, ‘The billboard!’” Provax decided to install the twenty-foot-long vinyl from one of her billboards so that it would hang down over the house’s attached deck. She showed a video projection in the chicken coop and put all-weather pieces throughout the backyard. The paper works found protection in the shed.
“That’s my favorite part,” Denrow continued, “when artists come over and start to imagine how they can use the space. We focus heavily on process—if an artist is working on something and they want to try something out.” Schaefer adds, “There’s even potential for pieces that work even better outside. We work with people who want to be weird or want to experiment.”
Provax echoes this sentiment. “It was a very fluid process trying to figure out that space, which I love for a show at this moment. I literally made one of the pieces on Thursday in the middle of install—just went home and did it. Sometimes the more relaxed shows also allow for more risk.”
When I went back last week for the opening of Erika Rier’s show of figurative drawings and ceramics, I discovered an equally inspired use of the space. Some of Rier’s ceramic figures were perched so naturally in the chicken coop’s nesting boxes that it seemed the structure had been built for them. White plinths holding other figures dotted the carport and a deep rolling wall created a three-dimensional backdrop for her two-dimensional drawings.
Once again, throngs of people lingered. The opening in June had not been a fluke. It seems to be a feature of what Denrow and Schaefer have created together. Speaking about shows at more traditional art galleries, Denrow says, “You’re happy to see it and then you leave. We like that people hang out here and have a beer and sometimes we put hot dogs on the grill. Art isn’t something you see and then go back to your life. It’s part of your life, your lived experience.”
The more I spoke to the pair the more I began to see 1122 not as a gallery but as an activated community space centered on art and artists. Each exhibition, which usually lasts three weeks, includes an opening party, a closing party, and at least one event (this month they’re hosting a few evenings of sketching with Rier). At other times, 1122 has hosted voter registration drives, postcard writing events to senators, and readings for local writers.
When artists sell work through 1122, the gallery takes nothing. “The capitalism of the art world in general isn’t what we’re interested in,” says Schaefer. “We hear from artists all the time that [Portland] is a really difficult city to sell art. If they’re going to sell something, we want them to have the money. We don’t have any overhead; we live here,” adds Denrow.
The pair is invested in doing authentic anti-racist work—wanting to use art and practice to reach across communities—and using an anti-capitalist model is one piece of that. They also encourage artists from historically excluded communities to get in touch with them about how they might like to use the space.
In this time of transition, when we are all reassessing how we want things to be, 1122 seems like a model that can not only carry us together into a better future but that can be replicated by anyone who has the desire to incorporate art into their lives and their communities.
Erika Rier: Walking Mountains closes July 24th. See website for event and closing party details. Viewings also available by appointment.
Note: the carport gallery and backyard are wheelchair accessible but the chicken coop, the deck, and the shed are not.