3.10 / Review

Underground Resistance: Subterranean Gallery

By Patricia Maloney February 29, 2012

As its name implies, Subterranean Gallery is both literally and legally underground. Created, curated, and hosted by Ayla Rexroth since 2010, the gallery occupies the front space of her windowless basement apartment, along with an indoor hot tub that is the site for The Hot Tub Dialogues lecture series, co-curated by Subterranean’s other occupant, Clayton Skidmore. Small, low-ceilinged, and not exactly cozy, Subterranean Gallery is nonetheless an intriguing place to look at art, mostly because it never ceases to be an apartment. Rexroth has created an exhibition program in which the ways that visitors are invited to view and interact with the art often mimic and mirror domestic rituals. She frames the objects and activities on view at Subterranean in such a way not only to stimulate discussion around artistic practice but also to use her home as a site of resistance to institutional authority.

This resistance dates back to the gallery’s inception, when Rexroth curated an exhibition of work by a classmate as her senior thesis project at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI). As a painting major whose work incorporated installation and furniture design, Rexroth regarded curating as, “step[ping] into a context that made a lot more sense.”1 Her professors did not, however, and even discouraged her classmates from attending the gallery. As Rexroth noted, “they drew the line” at her home as a site of production.2

That line remained perceptible in our conversation about the role the gallery has played in her transition from a student to a working artist. From her perspective, KCAI is a dominant force in the Kansas City art scene, but individual students have little visibility or exposure to the scene outside of it. One can understand Subterranean as reflective of Rexroth’s desire to create a place where an institutional identity will not subsume those of the individuals participating or affiliating with it. If the home is the site where social mores are ritualized and inscribed as part of one’s identity, it is also the place where one can reject socially prescribed behaviors or mandates. Subterranean takes advantage of this not-quite seamless collision; visitors are invited to behave as if they are operating in both a public sphere as viewers and a private domain as houseguests. Rexroth’s responsiveness to the domestic nature of her venue generates participatory action and conversations from its audience while conditioning its interactions with the work and with each other. She also serves brunch.

Paul Shortt. mirrored pillory, 2011

Paul Shortt. Mirrored Pillory, 2011; installation view, Subterranean Gallery. Courtesy of Subterranean Gallery, Kansas City, MO.

For example, Rexroth curated an exhibition in April 2011 entitled One Night Stand Exhibition & Morning After Critique. The participating artists, Jane Sheldon and S. Clifford Proski, slept over after the opening; the following morning, thirty invited guests critiqued the work while enjoying quiche and coffee. The critique format resembled the one Rexroth and Skidmore had encountered as part of their education at KCAI. But because the setting was transposed to the apartment and implied a level of intimacy not normally associated with viewing art, the vulnerability of the artist as the subject of such a discussion could be both acknowledged and diminished.

In part, the domestic nature of the space is foregrounded because the gallery cannot legally function as such; areas zoned for residential use in Kansas City lack the designation to engage in the production or sale of art. Rexroth doesn’t receive commissions from any sales, and Subterranean is currently the only gallery of its kind in Kansas City. Rexroth takes advantage of her singularity to propose a curatorial model that emphasizes both the risks that one can take and the leisure that one seeks to have at home. Circumventing the zoning restrictions through the absence of sales, the gallery foregrounds other forms of exchange, such as dialogue.

Audience members, The Hot Tub Dialogues, February 18, 2012

Audience members, Hot Tub Dialogues, February 18, 2012; Subterranean Gallery. Courtesy of Subterranean Gallery, Kansas City, MO.

Throughout February 2011, Rexroth and Skidmore hosted three lectures in the hot tub located between the gallery and the kitchen. Fueled by funds generated from a Kickstarter campaign, the Hot Tub Dialogues was a series of frank and casual discussions between established members of the Kansas City art community. The guest speakers included, among others: Hesse McGraw, the chief curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, Nebraska; Raechell Smith, the chief curator of the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute; and Kate Hackman, the codirector of the Charlotte Street Foundation. They donned bathing suits and bathrobes and spoke from the tub to small audiences of about thirty people. In asking respected individuals who hold prominent institutional roles to strip down and chill out, Skidmore and Rexroth aspired to create a sense of intimacy and access between those in positions of power or influence and artists at the early stages of their careers. Smith, who hung out in the hot tub with Hackman on February 18, noted that they mitigated the awkwardness of the scenario by conducting their conversation as if it was just the two of them there, “benignly ignoring” the audience’s presence.3

Yet, despite Hackman’s characterization of the conversation as “totally relaxing,” the presence of an audience reintroduces a tension between personal gesture and public engagement, a common dynamic in Subterranean’s programming given the performative qualities domestic rituals and incidental actions take on in the context of the gallery.4 A recent exhibition, How To Do Something, All Alone, By Yourself, with work by Robert Chase Heishman and Paul Shortt, exemplified this transitional space where one’s behavior intersects with performing one’s identity. In his work, Heishman tries to find communion with his purported namesake, an actor and character from the 1980s TV series Falcon Crest. Shortt’s sculptures veer between interactivity and punishment: participants stand in mirrored stockades or in the corner of the gallery in a kind of time-out. The exhibition echoes the intentions of the gallery to use the space of the home to identify where one conforms to external mandates (and discipline) and where one can push beyond prescribed limits to arrive at a sense of self-determination.

Subterranean’s participatory nature is not dependent on the sanction of bureaucracy or institutional power structures. Instead, it offers a perceptual model that is responsive to both the circumstances and intentions of the gallery but is irreducible to either through its continual emphasis on the performance of domestic rituals. As both houseguests and viewers, visitors to Subterranean evaluate their own activities as private individuals contributing to a larger communal structure, a domicile both staged and occupied where invitation cohabits with resistance.


  1. Ayla Rexroth, in conversation at Subterranean Gallery, February 4, 2012.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Raechell Smith, email message to author, February 27, 2012.
  4. Kate Hackman, email message to author, February 27, 2012.

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