A fenced-in canine, '90s pop culture and a global pandemic inspire a groundbreaking online art show from No Place and GMO galleries

Just before the pandemic forced shutdowns and closures across the country, No Place Gallery Director James McDevitt-Stredney and his fiancee moved to Harriet Gardens, an urban farm in Columbus. Once stay-at-home orders went out, McDevitt-Stredney would stare out of his home office window at the backyard crops while trying to come to terms with the pandemic.

Often, his gaze would land on a house across the street that had a fenced-in area where a pit bull lived. “I couldn't really figure out why he was in this fence. And he seemed to be happy. He seemed to be well taken care of,” McDevitt-Stredney said. “But I just could not get around the separation between him and this fence and me and the rest of the world — all in this pandemic, living within this isolated space.”

At the same time, McDevitt-Stredney began contemplating how the art world would respond to the pandemic. Gradually, galleries and institutions began moving their programming online, but overall, he wasn’t pleased with the livestreams, virtual tours and other attempts at bringing online viewers into the various brick-and-mortar spaces. Few places seemed to be seizing the opportunity to radically reinvent the way art could be experienced in the online realm.

GMO Gallery was one exception. New York City-based gallery directors Sean Kennedy and Michal Cihlar were aiming to digitally reimagine the white cube. “They had done a few shows where the viewer is in a basement. I was super into the style that they were doing. They had a soundtrack overlaid, so it was this beautiful thing where it brought you out of the normal context of a gallery or an institution … and placed you in this really strange, almost fantasy realm,” said McDevitt-Stredney, who partnered with GMO to work on a virtual exhibition that would be accessible to everyone during the pandemic.

The collaboration resulted in “The Pit Bull’s Garden,” featuring the work of several artists — Bora Akinciturk, Ben Quinn, Hyun Jung Jun, Cory Pappalardo, Alake Schilling and Jake Kent — and available to view online via the No Place Gallery and GMO Gallery websites (for the best viewing, use a laptop or desktop with headphones or speakers). The virtual show will officially stay up through Oct. 10, but it will also live on the No Place website in perpetuity afterward.

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Upon entering the digital world, viewers find themselves inside a space with the same dimensions and layout as the physical No Place Gallery, with art hanging on the walls and a sculpture in the middle of the room. While navigating the space, using the cursor keys to move and the mouse pointer to look around (and, just for fun, the space bar to jump), a disturbing video collage by Bora Akinciturk begins playing on one of the walls.

Venturing outside of the walls reveals a garden surrounded by hedges and filled with various objects: twisted, burning candles; stuffed animals; a red dog bowl; a floating pea pod. Ambient music with sinister undertones — courtesy Los Angeles musician and CCAD grad Ben Quinn, who records as Guillotine Silver Wolf — soundtracks the outdoor realm. Turning back, viewers realize they just emerged from a doghouse.

The graphics and aesthetic of “The Pit Bull’s Garden” recall video games from the 1990s (think “Wolfenstein,” “Doom” and other early first-person shooters), resulting in a disorienting experience that reflects the uncertainty of the times.

“We're dropped within this foreign space, like we were in the early stages of the pandemic, where we're like, ‘What do we do? I've never had so much free time. This is so crazy,'” said McDevitt-Stredney, who wanted to explore the idea of turning inward and coming to terms with one’s self. “We’re accustomed to this 9-to-5 grind, where we're feeding into this exterior life outside of ourselves. That dark and eerie tone is representative of our inner reflection on ourselves, which has been deprived for so long.”

No Place and GMO galleries also play with ideas of scale in “The Pit Bull’s Garden,” which further encourages that shedding of the exterior self. While navigating the doghouse and the garden, there is nothing to identify the viewer — no hands, no feet, not even a face. Participants are formless entities moving through the space. Are we the dog? Are we big? Are we small? Are these objects oversized or have we been shrunk?

“A lot of that has to do with this curiosity of mine over the past year with early ’90s cinema, and this obsession during that time of playing with scale. I'm thinking of ‘Indian in the Cupboard,’ ‘Stuart Little,’ ‘The Borrowers,’ ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,’ ‘Osmosis Jones,’ ‘The Magic School Bus.’ The list really does go on and on,” McDevitt-Stredney said. “I remember going with my parents and being like, ‘Oh, boy. Here we go to see another small movie where we're gonna be shrunk down.’”

“Those are references to my generation, and to that point in time of cinema, where it's confusing as far as scale,” he continued. “So you'll see a lot of sculptures that are blown up. You'll see an Alake Schilling, who is a fantastic ceramicist and sculptor and painter from Los Angeles, whose ladybug we blew up to create this daunting, overwhelming feeling of, ‘I'm in this garden and I may be smaller than I should be.’ And then right behind you are these candles created by this fantastic Korean artist who’s based out of Chicago, [Hyun Jung Jun]. Those candles are only 2 to 3 inches tall; she photographed them and then sent them to us, and we blew them up.”

The more McDevitt-Stredney played around with the intent and design of “The Pit Bull’s Garden,” the more he imbued the space with layers of meaning. He thought about what it meant to be “in the doghouse,” and how going inside spaces during the pandemic can be taboo, but since this show is virtual, it’s safe and permissible.

But mostly, he kept returning to the idea of turning inward and reflecting on ourselves during a strange, anxious time in history — “as well as a really strange time for the internet and the concept of identity,” he said. “What does that mean? And what does it also mean to be a maker during this time? … I’m having a lot of interesting conversations about the death and life of art.”

Still, one need not dig too deep into the “Garden” to experience art in a whole new way. “Come as you are. That's a big thing for me and my specific programming at No Place Gallery,” McDevitt-Stredney said. “I really want the viewer to be uninterrupted and come in … stripped away of all prior baggage and just be open to what it is that they're viewing.”