By John Henry Scott
On June 3rd, artist Annson Conaway and his partner, writer Kelly Karivalis, drove a 1992 Chevy G30 box truck from their home in Reading, PA to 11th and Callowhill for the First Friday art openings. Inside the truck’s box was Conaway’s mobile art gallery, a collection of his work displayed in a gallery setting fabricated by the artist.
The couple arrived hours early, sitting out front of 319 North 11th, a large commercial building which houses galleries such as Vox Populi, Marginal Utility, Practice, and Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Patiently, they waited for parking spaces to clear, in time scoring a prime spot, right in front of the building’s entrance. The plan was to capitalize on the high-volume of foot traffic the building receives on First Friday.
With his position secure, Conaway threw open the roll-up door and waited for the crowds to arrive. And, slowly, they did. Friends came first, standing around the truck’s gate, talking and drinking beer out of blue solo cups. Then strangers began to wander away from the more established galleries to check out the exhibition parked curbside.
“Can we, like, go inside?” was a common question.
“Sure!” said Karivalis. “And this is the artist right here.”
“Is this a U-Haul? Do you own this truck? Are you fucking with me?” The assembled crowd wanted to know more about this unconventional display. It was outside what they had come to expect from a First Friday.
A man in a beat-up yellow car, doctored with yellow duct tape, screeched to a halt by the truck gate.
“What, are you selling paintings in there?” he yelled.
“Let me give you my card,” said Conaway.
“I have someone that you really should meet,” said a person at his elbow.
The atmosphere was just like that of a successful opening inside of the building – except this exhibition was on four wheels and required no one’s endorsement. The idea of needing permission to show art had recently become a major frustration for Conaway.
“In the past year or so, I’ve had a lot more time to paint and I’ve really been churning it out,” said Conaway. “And I just couldn’t get a show anywhere. I’d been striking out left and right and sitting on all this work. I was like, what do I do? I can’t throw it out.”
Conaway thought about starting his own gallery but it didn’t seem realistic when he considered his resources and location. Reading, PA doesn’t have a thriving art scene. If he started a gallery there, it would be pretty hard to get people to come out. But what if he came to them?
Conaway bought the box truck from a friend. The size was perfect, 14 feet long and 8 feet high with wood floors in good condition. The color, an orange-red, fit with his aesthetic.
“I really lucked out with this truck,” said Conaway. “It was so far along toward what I wanted when I bought it that I already had a lot of momentum toward getting it ready to show work in.”
He put up walls made up of one foot strips of luan (¼ inch plywood), paneling the inside of the box and painting it white. Sheetrock would have been ideal, he said, but the physics of the truck in motion would have caused it to crack and crumble. Luan gives with the motion of the truck, acting as a shock absorber.
Conaway also put up three fluorescent lights which run off of a deep cell battery. For the time being, his gallery was complete. It would serve its purpose for his first show but Conaway made clear that the truck is still a work in progress.
“The gallery and how it’s set up will change with the work that’s displayed inside it,” he said. “It began as a platform to show my own work and that’s what it is right now but I can see down the road maybe doing some group shows.”
Conaway’s frustration with gallery protocol has been festering for quite a while. Upon graduating from Cooper Union in 2012, he decided to leave New York City for Philadelphia, which he imagined would be more suited to his personality. But moving didn’t help Conaway’s disillusionment.
“I just started working a lot, making money,” he said. “I would refer to myself as a Sunday painter, because I would just do it on the weekends.”
While Conaway came to this idea independently, mobile galleries have been around for years, especially in New York City. A 2014 article in the New York Times reveals that many of these galleries were started for reasons similar to Conaway’s, specifically to “[avoid] the confines — and politics— of the gallery system; to help people think about art in different ways [and] to reach more communities.”
Last year, he moved to Reading where he found his lowered cost of living allowed him to work fewer hours at a day job and paint more. As he describes it, his life began to revolve around his creative process, as opposed to his creative process being simply a part of his life.
Conaway says he’s influenced by figurative art as a tradition. His paintings frequently depict an interaction between figures and objects but these subjects, though convincing in their own right, appear to be drawn from the mind of the artist. The work is certainly representational but there is a strangeness and sense of play in these representations that serve to distinguish Conaway’s work as his own.
His paintings, at times, seem to address the difference between a photographic snapshot and an image one conjures while listening to an experience recounted. The scenes Conaway paints are exaggerated and embellished, the way a person tells a story to a group of friends. Above all, there’s a playful quality to the work. Conaway’s paintings look like he enjoyed making them. While some are somber, many are funny, and they all lack stiffness and self-seriousness. None are boring.
The work featured in this show explores with some new territory for Conaway. Many of these new paintings deal with intimacy and sexual relationships, featuring characters engaged in graphic sex acts. Almost all of the work features nude or scantily-clad figures with asymmetrical bodies, rounded shoulders, and drooped breasts. The human quality of these imperfections allows the viewer to forget that the figures themselves are cartoonish abstractions. The characters’ bodily ‘flaws’ make them more real and because of this the scenes rendered feel more intimate and honest.
Brick backgrounds feature prominently in many of the works, giving them a gritty, urban quality. In ‘Bushwick, Handjob,’ a woman has the letters ‘NYC’ tattooed on her left breast. The eyes of both figures gaze into middle distance, detached and vacant, despite being involved in the very personal act described in the title of the piece, reminding us that we always separate from each other, even in our closest moments. Even in intimacy, there is distance.
“There’s something about this that reminds me of why we all got into art in the first place,” said Karivalis, speaking about the mobile gallery.
“I have a rock and roll kind of attitude and I want that to carry over into the way I show my art,” Conaway said. “I want to go on tour with [the mobile gallery]. As a gallery artist, you work for a year and then you have your one night, your opening night. Maybe the show is up for a month but what matters is your opening night. With [the mobile gallery] I get a little more mileage out of the whole thing.”
Conaway plans on visiting Baltimore with the gallery sometime in the near future. For updates on where the truck will be stopping and for a more complete gallery of his work, visit http://annson.us/ or follow him on Instagram @anns0n.