A bridal alterations service, an engineering firm, and a brewery make for unexpected neighbours to a contemporary art gallery, particularly given their location in a banal industrial estate, itself incongruously situated amongst a warren of period red brick terraced houses in Dublin 8. Yet, this is where the Ellis King Gallery finds itself. The gallery, previously a car garage, was founded two years ago upon owner Jonathan Ellis King’s absorption of the London and New York art scenes and his subsequent return to Dublin. Although the gallery’s Donore Avenue location might be intensely local, its programmatic focus, informed by the vision of its founder, is thoroughly international.
The obvious opening question to put to Ellis King centres on his decision to return to Dublin and to set up shop on Donore Avenue. “[Dublin] is home – that’s one of the key points to it – but places like London are just so over-saturated with galleries. It’s difficult to establish a voice and identity for a gallery and its programme – Dublin seemed more exciting and with a lot more opportunity”. Ellis King goes as far as to describe Dublin as “more exotic” when compared to epicentres like London, Paris, or Berlin, and admits that this is “a weird thing” for even him to think about.
While Ellis King accepts that “Dublin [is] widely seen as [being] on the periphery of the art world”, it should not be seen as disadvantageous. Rather, he sees it as a means of reaching new and diverse audiences. This is not lost on the artists themselves who are receptive to Ireland. “[Artists] are going to show in London so many times over the course of their career, but to even have a group show in Dublin and have that registered within their career path is interesting.” Hopefully Dublin will display longevity rather than novelty in this regard.
Ellis King says the Donore Avenue location was the outcome of a search for a physical space “of preexisting architectural character” that offered enough flexibility to ensure that it was “something I wasn’t going to get bored with”. Embracing Dublin 8, he questions the importance of a city centre location and insists that an art-interested community for the gallery to target already exists in the area. Within the eclectic micro-neighbourhood that is the White Swan Industrial Estate, the other tenants have expressed support albeit with some bemused intonation. “They find it interesting. They find it whacky. Sometimes a big truck will pull up if we have a shipment coming in and there’s all this mad stuff coming into the gallery. Or the rollers will be up and they’ll have a peek in”.
Entering the gallery reveals a clean space in which practically every available surface is, unsurprisingly, whitewashed, in keeping with what is an entrenched contemporary gallery norm today. Exposed rafters add to the sense of space, and serve to visually set off whatever work is on display. On the day of our visit, a large video centrepiece buttressed by two black partitions fills a deceptively cavernous footprint.
The gallery is composed of two-and-a-bit adjoining spaces. A large rectangular area leads to a smaller rectangular space, from which a compact ancillary space extends referred to by Ellis King as, “a project room, typically used for video and site-specific installations”. Perhaps the biggest interior design decision made by Ellis King in the gallery’s two year life came in January, when a wall bisecting the space was erected, breaking the warehouse up into its current configuration and facilitating greater flexibility in programming.
Ellis King is acutely aware of how the decision to build a wall may have affected the character of the gallery, as well as the interpretation of its contents by audiences, particularly if two shows are running together. “With building the wall and having two spaces, I [didn’t] want to present any hierarchy – there’s not one space that feels more important than the other. [If] we have two concurrent shows, it’s very important that both are treated entirely as separate entities, but experiencing two shows side by side, it’s difficult not to see some synergy”. Comparatively, Ellis King agrees that the Douglas Hyde Gallery has effectively overcome any potential misperceptions regarding inequities between that which is displayed in the smaller space of the floor plan relative to the larger one.
Ellis King makes clear that the foci underpinning the gallery’s curation are internationalism and young emergent talent, with a divergence and diversity found in terms of nationality, medium and audience. He describes the gallery’s bringing together of disparate artists and audiences as a “multinational combustion in Dublin” and “the contribution of a new voice”. He accepts that not everyone has to like the gallery’s programme, nor do they have to think what Ellis King is doing is “the best thing ever – but it’s what I believe in”. Therein, Ellis King claims, “is the beauty of the visual arts and any sort of cultural stem – everything is open to critique. People like things, people don’t like things, but what is most important is experience and dialogue, and the discussion that opens up as a result”.
Given the international inflection of the gallery, questions are raised as to whether the same support, in terms of exhibiting work, is extended to Irish artists. “I have had Irish artists in group shows… but I didn’t want to start off with Irish artists. I wanted to bring in this international contingent and context as a foundational point and to then encourage young Irish artists.” Ellis King claims it would have been forced and inorganic to introduce Irish artists from the get-go, particularly when the kind of dialogue and relationships the gallery had built up with their international counterparts was, at the time, lacking. Although the introduction of Irish artists to the gallery is described as “a long term thing”, the wait is almost over. Described as “a milestone” for the gallery, an upcoming exhibition of work by Timothy Furey, entitled Wrapt In The Wave, will be the gallery’s first Irish solo show.
For a more nuanced understanding of Ellis King’s vision, it makes sense to ask him what he finds impactful. It seems safe to assume that he would seek to distill a similar essence into his own gallery. “The most potent shows in terms of impact for me are the shows where I go see them and I’m not sure I even like them. Then I’ll find myself next week or two weeks later being haunted by that show or by that work. I guess that fact: that I’ve been thinking about it, or processing it, or haven’t been able to process it. Maybe the word is the unknown. Yeah. What’s the most impactful? Something that is unknown”.
Timothy Furey’s Wrapt In The Wave opens on Friday 11th November, from 6pm to 8pm at Ellis King, Unit 5, White Swan Industrial Estate, Donore Avenue, Dublin 8.
Words: Stephen Moloney
Photos: Ellis King Gallery