Don't call it a comeback. One of Chicago's most important contemporary art champions, Michael Thomas, never really went away.
He simply moved his nine-year-old operation, Dogmatic Gallery, from Pilsen to the 1319 W. Lake St. space formerly known as Butcher Shop last spring. In the process of the move, Thomas fell a bit off the radar in the local press and art circles, and confused a few of us with names: the new place is referred to both as "BSD" and "Butcher Shop/Dogmatic."
Not that Thomas is about being on the radar. As I sat with him on a sunny Saturday inside the dark, cavernous space of BSD at a table sporting artist statements and exhibition pamphlets, Thomas sips a mug of coffee and smokes Camels. "The space is about ideas," says Thomas. "Once it becomes about money then I don't want to do it anymore. I don't want to wake up on Saturday and feel like I'm clocking in." As a one-man operation with little to no budget, Thomas works on the gallery on weeknights and on Saturdays, his day off.
Far from your traditional white cube gallery, BSD bears exposed piping, aging wood floors and such accoutrements as a dusty piano in the front project space, a workable kitchen in the middle of the second room, and the sounds of folk-pop music wafting through the rafters from neighboring artist studios in the building. And there is SO MUCH space.
One entranced art student slowly walks through Geoffrey Smithe's exhibit of 60 sci-fi-inspired and meticulously patterned drawings, collages and freestanding sculptures. From the front project room, the space stretches 1,500 square feet to three more rooms. It'll take the kid a while to take it all in.
Unlike many gallery owners who balk at the sight of art students, Thomas is delighted. "With Geoffrey's show there has been a steady stream of students experiencing the city for the first time. A lot of them are Geoffrey's students from DuPage. That's great!" Thomas goes on to explain that he aims to get a "shot of youth" in the gallery, to inspire the next generation of thinkers. And, after all, it was as a School of the Art Institute painting student that he opened Dogmatic Gallery with friends.
Moving to the far West Loop was not Thomas' first pick of location after deciding to move out of Pilsen because he didn't like how it was gentrifying.
"My initial idea was to pick up and curate shows. The space would be a floating curatorial project in empty condos and storefronts. But Tom [who ran the previous incarnation of Butcher Shop] asked me to run the space here. May 2005 was the first real show here with Paul Nudd, Chris Uphues and Brandon Heuser [and others]."
From "A Bloody Portent of Possible Erotic Chaos," a multimedia show dealing with the theme of paganism, to the most current exhibit, "Trivial Pursuit: New Work by Michael Rea," BSD offers some of 2006's most exciting exhibitions in Chicago, each of them challenging social, religious and political mores through humor, whimsy and imagination.
But Thomas has even bigger plans for the future. "Eventually the back space will become its own gallery. And the space beyond that will become a performance space with its own programming."
All of the plans come back to Thomas' commitment to Chicago. "I'm sick of second city-ism," he says. "Over the past year and a half I've seen six artists move to either L.A. or New York to take their careers to the next level. Chicago will never get there, to the next level, without places like this, without places committed to being here."