Breezing through Air Sweet Air, Lowertown’s promising new gallery space

Air Sweet Air is a young gallery, just a couple of months old, but it’s been in the works for years. Multimedia artist Cheryl Wilgren Clyne has long had her eye out for just the right space to house the studio/art lab/gallery she has dreamed of opening. Clyne served as director of Minneapolis’ popular Rosalux Gallery for several years, in addition to making her own work and exhibiting it around the country. She says her experience at Rosalux was invaluable — working with a variety of artists and managing a brisk-paced exhibition schedule, learning the curatorial ropes. But Rosalux is a cooperative gallery, and after a few years working in that communal setting, with all it entails, she got the itch to strike out on her own.

Air Sweet Air is a loft space — expansive and airy. It’s about 1,000 square feet, divided pretty equally between the live/work studios on the second level and the generous, sun-filled gallery space below. The walls are huge and high, “perfect for showing film and video,” Clyne says, “which was a requirement for me as I was deciding on a space. There just aren’t enough places for video artists and filmmakers to show their work. I’m so excited to be able to offer that here.”

There’s a large bank of windows along one wall of the gallery, offering a spectacular view of Lowertown’s bustling streetscape below; the opposite side of the room is lined with tall bookshelves, filled with the well-thumbed, idiosyncratic assortment of an obviously avid reader: there are gorgeous art books, as you’d expect, but also pop history, film criticism, high and low fiction. The space is inviting, even homey — ample for exhibiting of a variety of work and media, but not overwhelming in scale.

In the gallery now, Clyne is showing work by a favorite of mine, Alex Kuno. The St. Paul-based artist is known for his painstaking, lusciously rendered paintings of children in fantastically dire situations, doing awful, horrible, no-good things to each other in stylized fairytale landscapes. His “Miscreants of Tiny Town” series is at once charming and menacing, and his play with visual narrative in these pieces is compelling. The new work, “Little Tragedies,” on view in Clyne’s gallery, retains that strong sense of story and the satirical Edward Gorey flourishes, but these recent pieces feel like the start of a fresh chapter for Kuno. His characters are drawn with more assurance, the cast of their features is crisp. The overall vision behind this new work feels mature; the tone beneath the harrowing circumstances that continue to overtake his figures — more adults among them now, I notice — has given over cartoonish cleverness for nuance, even pathos. I’m eager to see where he takes this new line of work.

Clyne has big plans for Air Sweet Air going forward. She’s an adjunct professor of photography at St. Paul’s College of Visual Arts now, and has a long history of organizing and curating shows for emerging artists, at Rosalux but also Burnet Art Gallery at Chambers Hotel, the University of Minnesota and elsewhere. She says she’s energized by the work she sees her students producing: “One of the central elements of my mission here is to provide a place for young artists and students to show their work.” And more than that, she says, she’d like to work with artists to play with notions of display, to find fresh ways of presenting work and to experiment with new ideas for installation that take advantage of what her gallery, in particular, has to offer. Clyne’s exhibition calendar is similarly loose. She says, “The schedule will vary depending on the exhibit we’re showing. I’d like to keep things flexible.”

As we chat, she’s bursting with ideas for engaging the public, with talk of regular screenings, maybe some film festivals; she’s especially interested in establishing ongoing creative programming for kids and families in the area. Recent years have been rough on independently owned and operated galleries, and the Twin Cities has lost too many of them to the dismal economy. It’s heartening to see such a promising new artist-run space open up — I’m pleased with the shape of things on the horizon for this space and to watch as Air Sweet Air comes into its own.

Kuno’s solo exhibition, “Little Tragedies,” is on view now and through January at Air Sweet Air, 262 E. Fourth St., Suite No. 203, St. Paul, Minn. The gallery is open by invitation and appointment; e-mail [email protected] to arrange a time to visit. There will be an artist reception for Kuno’s show in the gallery on Jan. 6, 2012.