Interview with Great Far Beyond

by Sarah Kim

Great Far Beyond is an experimental art gallery on the 2nd floor of the Rollins Building at 319 North 11th Street. It was founded in November 2015 by artists Bowen Schmitt, Conor MacCormack, Esther Michaels, and Neil Spencer. Since it’s beginnings, the gallery has consistently presented élan, playfulness, and a surprisingly mature criticality in its monthly exhibitions, belying the relative inexperience of its small team.

Schmitt, Great Far Beyond’s director, is a sculptor and a 2016 Tyler School of Art alum. Graduating the same year from Tyler, Spencer is the gallery’s graphic designer. MacCormack will complete his studies at Tyler this year with a painting concentration and is one of the gallery’s two curators. The other, Michaels, is the sole non-Tyler member. A photographer, she received a degree in History and Art at Carnegie Mellon and completed her Master’s for Museum Studies at NYU in 2014. In spite of official titles, all of the members share duties in discovering artists and curating, leading to an eclectic mix of shows.


SARAH KIM: Could you speak about Great Far Beyond’s [GFB] beginnings and vision? How did you come up with the name “Great Far Beyond”?

BOWEN SCHMITT: It really started as this ‘Oh we can do anything’ idea. The idea came up years prior. We all went to undergrad together and had always had this idea of creating a space where we show artists who aren’t necessarily represented or getting the recognition that they deserved. The name came up definitely as an afterthought. We thought it was sort of catchy and very open and broad to all the things that we do. One of the mission statements for GFB is that we don’t want to get stuck in a niche. We don’t want have someone walk into our space and know what they are going to expect. It’s very paramount to our vision that everything you come and see in the space is going to change, alter and completely change your experience.

ESTHER MICHAELS: It also came out of how everyone involved is a maker of sorts. There’s a level of frustration with opportunities for a certain level of artist at a certain point in their career; they just can’t show, or they don’t get the chances that mid-level or advanced-level artists would get.

CONOR MACCORMACK: A big part of it was that we wanted to give opportunities to artists who weren’t necessarily fitting into the class structures that the art world has created, where it’s ‘undergrad’, ‘grad student.’ In between those it is very hard to show, and you’re almost unseen. Not in all cases, but it happens. When we present artists, we do it in a way where we don’t necessarily put their education at the forefront, that it isn’t on your mind. You just walk into the gallery first, you see the art first, and if you have questions, you come to us and you ask us after.

BS: When we did the Open Call show, we didn’t even ask what your education background was. We were happy to get self-taught artists. We were happy to get people that haven’t even gone to college. If the art was to the level that we expect, then we’re happy to show it. What Conor was talking about was that gray area of being an artist who is constantly thinking about art, but is not necessarily being shown.(1)

NEIL SPENCER: We’re all searching separately for artists. Definitely when some of us brings artists to the table, you know who picked them, just because of our distinct styles: Bowen being a sculptor, Conor being a painter, me having a very graphic approach to things. One I chose was Molly Kirchoff. She’s a fashion major, so that brought in a more design focus—more utilitarian and functional.

BS: Esther brought in Ethan Frier [Holy Ghost, January 2017] who is installation-based.

EM: It was interesting because you base your choices on things you’ve seen in the past sometimes. He’s really thoughtful and theory heavy in his work, which I think is definitely different from what they [the others] would choose.

BS: I organized Cooper Schilling and Projector Death [Grounding, March 2017]. My focus on work and sculpture has a lot to do with minimalism. Pairing the two together to create this orchestra of not only sound but feeling is really what I emphasize in my work, so I look for that in others.

EM: For the most part, it is a collaborative thing.

Untitled, July 2016. Various Works by Molly Kirchoff and Kate McCammon. Modeled by Benjamin Steeler and Jessica Willittes. Image courtesy of Great Far Beyond.

BS: We have had solo shows in the past, and they’ve worked out just as successfully as the collaborative ones, but when we started it was a lot about meshing artists that normally wouldn’t have conversations with each other, where you’re trying to connect the dots. Like with Molly Kirchoff and Kate McKammon [Untitled, July 2016]; they had never met each other, they have never seen each other’s work. We saw similarities within their works and decided that would be the way to pursue that show.

CM: It’s also important to note that we’ve been trying to not make it about who likes something specifically. It is very much about how the artists are feeling about being in here–not purely on an emotional level, but working with them so that they can fully investigate what they need to, both in the space and in their work. A good example would be Jonathan Dedecker. He created entirely new pieces just for the floor and walls, but he also had to be in conversation with Lale Westvind and Jason Herr, so that what he was creating would allow them to show their work [Life is Forever, October 2016]. We had to make sure that everybody was on the same page but that they were getting as much freedom as possible, so we weren’t cutting them off from things they wanted to do.

SK: Even though there’s so many things going on, it’s remarkable that GFB feels like it has a cohesive identity. The art is usually visually striking and lushly poetic. Despite this, a lot of the works exhibit a knowing glossiness.

EM: In terms of the gloss—it definitely is a style preference—but on a certain level it’s a thing that we’re fighting against: the expectation of what an art show needs to look like, the veneer. There are dueling forces at work; on the one hand we want it to look like it’s meant to be in the space, but at the same time, we want the work to stand for itself, not necessarily in the gallery-mindset of how it has to hang, but rather in a manner reflective of the artists’ desires and our individual curatorial intents. While we do maintain a standard for our shows, we are ultimately both process- and outcome-oriented. We’re looking for the intimacy within the monumental.

T.G.I.F., November 2015. Various works by Dan Ringenbach, Conor MacCormack, and Bowen Schmitt. Image courtesy of Great Far Beyond.

BS:  It’s very rare that we actually restrict ourselves to, oh well, “I’ve never seen this happen in a gallery”. We’ve sort of used it as a crutch, but one of the perfect examples of that is lighting from the floor [T.G.I.F., November 2015]. It was our first week, and we were still painting the walls the day of the First Friday and we realized, “We don’t have any hardware to hang these lights; let’s put them on the floor.” It ended up being this very successful thing. It’s this rolling with the punches and knowing, trusting in ourselves that we have the mentality to make a successful show from what we have.

EM: A lot of it is experimental, and there is a certain part of it where we’re rookies. We’re the newcomers to the building and in a way we have used our ignorance to our advantage. Because we’re less aware of the do’s and don’ts, we don’t have to abide by them. You can think of the gallery as a white cube, exactly like that …  literally rather than in the derogatory sterile sense. It’s a blank canvas, and you can do whatever you want in it as the artists.

SK: Your gallery also stands in juxtaposition not only with other galleries in the building but with the Tyler community.(2)

EM: In terms of the Tyler-type, we’ve totally brainstormed this in the past and continue to have similar conversations. Look, there’s a bunch of great art schools in the city and there’s a bunch of great art communities. We’ve talked about how can we merge them, even hold events at the gallery where there’s group crits to bring Tyler people in, PAFA and UArts in. I don’t think there’s a lot of comingling: they’re very individualistic.

CM: It’s definitely been something we are consciously thinking of on a regular basis because we do want to show a diverse group of artists that aren’t specifically from just one school.

NS: Especially considering we’ve had a show every single month since we’ve started, schools are always the go-to place. It just makes it so much easier as a curator. Everyone is together in a certain place. Tyler’s been great for that. If we need an artist, we just go back to school, look around, and see who’s working and what you like.

BS: Because we’re so young, resources become the huge difficulty. We’ve shown various artists from outside Philadelphia–we’ve even reached out to LA artists and even further to German artists. Because we aren’t making any money off this, the difficulty becomes, “How do we get the work here?”

SK: Is there a temptation to become a more commercial gallery, especially with the threat of political obstructions to the arts within the next few years?

EM: It’s totally a temptation. It’s not sustainable the way it is now! Making money would be great. Selling work would be great.

CM: But at the same time, it would just be a huge compromise with how we want to run the galley.

BS: The other thing that keeps me on track is that all the work that I like isn’t sellable. So either I show work that I don’t like and it sells, or we show work that we do like, and maybe it doesn’t sell. But that’s where the heart is.

EM: Yeah, it’s totally not sustainable, but that’s the fun of it.

BS: I’d rather work my ass off doing something else and put my money into something that I want to do than, like Conor said, compromise and sell out. I don’t want to show watercolor paintings of trees.

SK: To expand on that topic, why choose this location rather than investing in a cheaper space in Fishtown or South Philly, neighborhoods that also have strong arts and DIY communities?

NS: The best thing about this place is how many galleries are here. If you want to choose one place to go to on First Friday, this is the best one because you have ten different galleries to look at. It’s great having that opportunity; they might not come for us, but they’re finding us.

CM: We get an amazing amount of foot traffic, but we also get to see what’s going on in each of these galleries on a regular basis. In a way we get to see what we don’t want to do. It’s healthy competition to be able to constantly form ourselves on what’s happening in the Philadelphia arts scene just by being on the same floor. It’s an amazing experience, and it’s definitely changed things up.(3)

BS: There was a woman that came in. She was in the orchestra and absolutely got obsessed with the live music that was playing [in the Cooper Schilling and Projector Death show]. And it’s moments like that, that’s why I live for doing this gallery. It’s finding those little happy moments when you are introducing someone to something new, and that doesn’t happen everyday.

SK: The gallery is obviously a passion project. What do you think lies in the future for GFB in five or so years?

BS: It’s never going to die. We’ve established a name, we’ve established what we are and what we’re about, and we have a great group of people. Our lease is up in November, but whether it’s here or somewhere else, it’s going to be continued, and hopefully on a larger scale.

EM: Yeah, and we’ve talked about sort of, reincarnations of it, where we would move cities and try to build a community like this somewhere else.

BS: I’ve learned so much probably more from this space than I even did at school. I would be more than honored to share that and help someone else experience that. If not the gallery, that’s what the GFB wants to do in the future.

SK: To finish, how would each of you describe your ideal show at GFB?

EM: I really like play spaces actually. I like interactivity and things like that. I made ice cream for one of the shows. What I would picture for my ideal — things like a ball pit or a beach…

BS: We were talking about doing a show in the winter where we would just create a beach. We would bring in hundreds and hundreds of pounds of sand and beach chairs and heat lamps.

EM: Yeah, I like the idea of transporting people and the space somewhere else.

CM: My ideal show right now is, because there are so many problems in the painting world, is just a painting show that appropriately addresses the issues currently going on, that is actually doing something that goes outside Instagram Like Art. I don’t know, I would love to see a painting show that actually pushes forward rather than staying on the plateau.

BS: My ideal show would be… I don’t know how to ever achieve this, if it even is possible, but the perfect symbiotic relationship between aesthetic and content. I think that’s very, very rare that actually happens well, when someone has a very incredible and mind-blowing idea and pulls it off in a way where the visual is just as mind-blowing. It’s really hard to do.

NS: My ideal show would be Jeff Koons.

1 Great Far Beyond held Viceland, their open call exhibition, in December 2016, with works by 14 artists.
2 Except for Michaels, all of the members are current students or recent graduates of Tyler School of Art.
3 Great Far Beyond shares its floor with galleries Tiger Strikes Asteroid, NAPOLEON, Grizzly Grizzly, Practice, Marginal Utility and Automat. Vox Populi is located on the 3rd floor, Savery Gallery on 1st, and various studios and smaller galleries on the 4th and 5th floor.

Sarah Kim is an art critic and artist based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a regular contributor to ArtSlant Contemporary Art Network, Philadelphia Printworks, and mono.kultur (DE).