The coronavirus aesthetic, according to Leon Gallery: preoccupied with isolation and embracing the imperfect

The gallery’s directors are moving things online.

Camille Shortridge, an artist and member of the gallery's board of directors,  and Eric Dallimore stand outside the Leon Gallery in City Park West. April 22, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Camille Shortridge, an artist and member of the gallery's board of directors, and Eric Dallimore stand outside the Leon Gallery in City Park West. April 22, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Before COVID-19, Leon Gallery would have started promoting its upcoming performance art festival weeks ago.

That was when people would plan where they were going, “when they could actually go out and go places,” Eric Nord said.

Leon’s executive director is planning to start social media posts and email blasts just a week ahead of this year’s online version of the performance arts series he produced as an in-person, in-gallery event the last two years. The series starts next Thursday with a piece by poets Phil Cordeli and Sueyen Juliette Lee, who combine spoken word and movement in their performance work.

People will be able to watch from home as Leon streams six performances, usually on Thursdays at 7 p.m., throughout May. Most of the performers are planning to record their pieces ahead of time, some in the gallery space that has been closed to the public since mid-March. That was shortly before Denverites were asked to stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Nord’s preparations have included helping artists get video cameras to use. He expects technical and production levels to vary but isn’t stressing about that.

“I trust the performers,” he said. “I try to be hands-off as far as telling people what to do.”

Before coronavirus, Nord had dipped into an archive of videos of Broadway shows housed at the Lincoln Center. Those recordings were bare-bones, he said, made with one camera at the back of the theater. Since the pandemic shut down galleries and theaters, he’s been watching streamed art. Sheets tacked on walls as backdrops and echoey bathrooms as stages are becoming familiar, as are technical hiccoughs and delayed starts.

Nord called it “the aesthetic that we’re dealing with now.”

“One of the things that’s becoming very much a defining element to what we’re experiencing now is the whole DIY, doing it from home” feel, he said. “People are embracing the imperfect.

“It almost seems more authentic to what we’re all experiencing: … to be a little more forgiving and accepting of people’s limitations,” he added.

Eric Dallimore, Leon’s artistic director, said he’s been spending more time than usual focused on his computer or cell phone screen.

“Nowadays it’s kind of like you have to,” Dallimore said.

While the gallery has been closed, he scheduled a series of installations that can be seen through the windows by passersby. Since the series opened April 22 with a piece by Jared D.P. Anderson, Dallimore said feedback has come mainly through Instagram posts. He can tell from some of the posts that a few viewers didn’t even get out of their cars.

After more than a month of social distancing rules that led to cancelled openings and stay-at-home orders that have largely reduced interactions with artists to Instagram, emails and phone calls, Nord and Dallimore are contemplating a new stage of doing business in the time of the coronavirus. Denver’s stay-at-home order is set to end on May 8. But Leon’s directors don’t plan to suddenly turn the online performing arts festival into an event at their nonprofit gallery at 1112 East 17th Avenue in the City Park West neighborhood. They are instead looking ahead to a show scheduled for June 6 through July 18, a joint exhibition by multimedia artists Marsha Mack and Lindsay Smith Gustave that has been planned for years.

In recent conversations with Mack, Gustave and members of their board of directors, Nord and Dallimore have been talking through what the show might look like. They have looked for guidance to the safer-at-home strategy Gov. Jared Polis announced when he lifted a statewide stay-at-home even as Denver’s stay-at-home was extended to May 8. Polis’s safer-at-home rules are set to expire May 26, but could be extended. Businesses are being allowed to gradually resume activities under safer-at-home as long as they observe such precautions as cleaning their premises frequently, making hand sanitizer available and ensuring employees and customers can be six feet away from each other.

Dallimore envisions scheduling a half dozen or so people at a time in 30 minute slots over four hours for the June 6 opening. That would allow for about 50 people in total, compared to the 200 to 400 people who might come over four hours during a typical opening.

“It’s not going to be the social event that it usually is,” Nord said. “People aren’t going to be able to hug each other or talk closely.”

Timed visits will continue throughout the show’s run. Visitors will be required to wear face masks. Sanitary wipes will be available.

Even as they make plans, Leon’s directors are aware that stay-at-home rules and timelines could change. And they don’t know when art lovers will be ready to come to a gallery.

“You’ve got to be on your tippie toes, you’ve got to be able to pivot and shift,” Dallimore said. “And you don’t even know what direction you’re going to have to pivot and shift in.

“The gallery’s not alone. I know a lot of businesses are affected in the same way.”

Dallimore said reading about New York hospitals being overwhelmed with the sick or families being unable to caress a dying loved one puts things into perspective.

“The whole world’s shut down. We’re in a pandemic,” he said.

“Fortunately nobody in my world is getting upset about these things,” he said, referring to his business’s challenges and uncertainties.

We’ll be following Leon throughout the pandemic.

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