Kyo Gallery brings political focus to Alexandria art scene

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Artwork in the “Through Art: Resist and Recover” and “Welcome to the Resistance” exhibits hang in the stairwell of the Kyo Gallery, which opened at 111 S. Patrick St. on May 25.
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By Mae Hunt | mhunt@alextimes.com 

It may be located in the heart of historic Old Town, but Alexandria’s newest art gallery is unapologetically current. Global and national events have influenced the mission of the Kyo Gallery, which opened on May 25.

Named for owner Monica Oh’s sister, The Kyo Gallery (pronounced Kee-oh) is a “hybrid gallery,” meaning that its collection extends not only to the gallery’s brick-and-mortar location on South Patrick Street, but to a sizable online platform as well. In all, the Kyo Gallery represents more than 300 artists and the gallery’s online database contains more than 6,000 pieces.

Kyo Gallery Director Jason Longfellow said online sales are the “future of art.” The model allows collectors from all around the world to browse and purchase art from Kyo artists. It also enables international artists contribute their art to Kyo with ease. In fact, the majority of Kyo artists are international artists.

Kyo Gallery curator Elaine Xing sits amidst art in the “Through Art – Resist and Recover” exhibition. (Photo Credit: Mae Hunt)

This international influence can be clearly seen in the Kyo Gallery’s inaugural exhibition. Titled “Through Art – Resist and Recover,” the exhibition is a striking visual representation of frustration, suffering and perseverance around the world.

One piece explores the influence of the invisible war on the Ukrainian individual. Another speaks to the recent stress surrounding migration in Italy. Combined with art inspired by American issues, including the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 and the murder of Eric Garner in July 2014, which jumpstarted the Black Lives Matter movement, “Through Art – Resist and Recover” paints a comprehensive and in-depth picture of how political tension and current events influence self-expression.

“Nationally, we’re really focused on President [Donald] Trump,” Longfellow said.

However, Longfellow said that this is not necessarily the case all over the world.

“[International artists] have many other local focuses … so we have different messages and we wanted to allow them to kind of inform people here in America about what they’re dealing with globally. Because it isn’t just Trump, you know. He’s kind of part of this wave around the world that is making things complicated,” Longfellow said.

This isn’t to say that Trump is absent from the Kyo Gallery in any way – far from it. The majority of Kyo Gallery’s second floor space is dedicated to a special juried presentation, boldly titled “Welcome to the Resistance – Resistance Art in Trumpian Times.” For this collection, artists from the United States, including many not affiliated with the Kyo Gallery, submitted art inspired by activism for the chance to win prizes.

Kyo Gallery director Jason Longfellow (left) and curator Elaine Xing (right) stand in front of “I Believe,” a painting by Grieg Leach depicting the Unite the Right rally that happened in Charlottesville in 2017. (Photo Credit: Mae Hunt)

The end result is a powerful subversion of the headlines and sound bites that have, for better or for worse, come to define the conversations America is having today. One piece depicts the president as a literal puppet, controlled by a dragon with the head of Vladimir Putin. Another is made up of scraps of posters found at the March for Our Lives rally and spells out the hashtag #NeverAgain.

“We didn’t want to do something just for the sake of being provocative or showy,” Longfellow said when asked about the message of the “Welcome to the Resistance” exhibition.

“Never Again,” by Ellis Angel, is a work of art made of protest posters found at the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit: Mae Hunt)

He said it was the messages of the artists themselves that inspired the gallery’s focus, rather than the other way around.

“We’re selling their art, we’re exposing their art, but they have to be the ones to create the art,” Longfellow said.

One of these artists is Gregory Hein, a Baltimore-born artist who is based in the D.C. area. He is one of several local artists whose work was specifically commissioned by the Kyo Gallery for the “Through Art – Resist and Recover” exhibition. Hein’s artwork is centered around distorting and re-examining the appearances and meanings of familiar words, using an acrylic paint technique inspired by his days working as a pasteup artist for advertising and multimedia agencies. Like most of the art in the Kyo Gallery, Hein’s work is thought-provoking. One piece, in particular, paints a visual picture of the vast number of Americans who did not vote in the 2016 election, suggesting, Longfellow said, that “maybe the red isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s the people who are inactive.”

Hein said that his proximity to the nation’s political epicenter is a major influence on his work.

“I get the sense that there’s a little more attention paid by local artists to things of a global nature. … I think it’s great that a gallery comes to town and, this being a political town, their inaugural show is a politically-charged show. It’s a great idea and a great way to start off in this area, in the nation’s capital,” Hein said.

All of the art in the Kyo Gallery is available for purchase except one: a piece commissioned by Grassroots Alexandria, a group that advocates for progressive values in Old Town. The piece is an amalgamation of posters, signs and other media the organization used to protest white supremacist and AltRight leader Richard Spencer’s presence in the area.

Beyond Grassroots Alexandria, the Kyo Gallery is also involved with local organizations through their limited yearly KYOpride collection for Pride Month, which features art by members of the LGBT+ community. All proceeds from art purchased from the special collection will be donated to LGBT+ activism groups NOVA Pride and Safe Space NOVA.

“When we set out to create this show, we wanted something that fit the area,” Longfellow said. “… Our inaugural exhibition is at the perfect time and we’re all excited to present these unique works that will offer relevant and informative commentary about all the world issues we are currently dealing with.”

The Kyo Gallery’s inaugural exhibition will run through July 1. The gallery is open to visitors from Thursday through Sunday, and for private showings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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