Interview with Chicago Collector Jason Pickleman

Bianca Bova
Production / Direction

On Chicago’s North Side, on the southeast corner of the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Clark Street there sits an unassuming and eponymous art gallery. Its proprietor is Jason Pickleman, known in the city for his diligent commitment to the Chicago art world on all fronts. We sat down at Lawrence & Clark in late August to discuss collecting, design, civicidentity, and regret.

B: Should we start with what you just did outside the gallery?

J: I just cleaned up seven pieces of pizza that were thrown onto the sidewalk in front of my gallery, which were an invitation for ants that had already started to crawl all over it. And seeing as though I wasn’t going to be here for another week, it seemed as though it was probably a
good idea to get on my hands and knees and clean up the pizza. It’s not like someone else will come along and take care of it.

B: Do you ever regret opening up a gallery?

J: I have no regrets having the gallery. The gallery has become a practice, like a studio practice. Something I diligently go to on a weekly basis, and something that I think about when I’m not here. I think about works I want to show, artists that I’d like to collect, relationships that I would like to put together within the gallery.

B: Where does the gallery fit into your overall practice? You have your design studio JNL, you have a show of your own work up right now at the Ken Saunders gallery, where does the gallery practice lie in relationship to your other pursuits?

J: Lawrence & Clark is just another project. I don’t think of it as an art work, I don’t think of it as a commercial space, I don’t think of it as a job. In some respect it’s no different than the opportunity that my exhibition at Ken Saunders presented. I had made a couple neon pieces, Ken offered me a show, so I made fifteen more. It was a project.

B: What do you think of your occupation as, considering the scope of your projects?

J: I’ve never labeled myself. No one title seems to cover the range of my interests and activities. I’m primarily a graphic designer, and since I own my own studio, I’m a self-employed business person. I’m also an artist. I guess once a week for four hours I’m also a gallerist.

B: And occasional art dealer, yes? You occasionally have commercial shows here?

J: We have sold a few things in four years, which I could count on one hand, maybe two.

B: You don’t see very many noncommercial/collection-based galleries in Chicago. What was the intention when you first decided to open--was it meant to just act as a space where you could see something you bought twenty years ago next to something you bought last week?

J: That was the initial idea, yes.

B: Has it done what you hoped it would do?

J: It’s become more social than I expected it to be. I’m not putting barriers on what the gallery becomes. I’m putting work up on the walls, and I’m coming here on Saturdays from 1pm-5pm. What happens because of that is a bit outside of my purview. I do leave the lights on 24/7, and you can see about 85% of the gallery from the street. So I do feel as though when I’m not here the gallery is still doing its job. I know--I know because people have told me--that they have driven by or stopped on the street to look. And that’s as satisfying to me as people coming by on Saturdays.

B: I’m interested in the relationship between what you display here and what you display in your home and your studio. I know your studio has wall-to-wall art, is your home similar?

J: Yeah, the home is choc-a-block, things stacked on top of each other. Things are leaning against the walls.

B: How do you decide what goes home, goes to the studio, or comes here and ends up hanging in the bathroom?

J: There’s no rhyme or reason.

B: And no record?

J: No. I don’t have an inventory.

B: Does everything you own have a context for you?

J: It has a location in my mind. I always know if it’s at the studio, at the gallery, or at home. If it’s at home it’s either upstairs or it’s in the basement; if it’s upstairs, it’s either on the wall or it’s in a closet; if it’s in a closet, it’s in one of four closets. At the studio, it’s either upstairs, downstairs, or in the basement. So I have a vague mental inventory.

B: How often do you go to the basement to get one thing, and come back upstairs with another?

J: Frequently. I get distracted in my storage spaces. Which is what they’re good for.

B: You seem to cast a wide net, in terms of what piques your interest as a collector. Since you buy in the moment, are the works you own tied for you to specific times and places in your life?

J: Oh, very much so. Especially the early work. The stuff I bought in the ‘80s, early ‘90s. Things I bought from artist-run spaces like Randolph Street Gallery. Those have a special place in my personal history.

B: Has your relationship changed over the years to those works?

J: I think of them in the same way, but I also think of them in such a way that I know I couldn't afford some of them now. I have a Tom Freidman photograph--early, actually, it might be his first, he’s not known for his photography--called Spitbubble. For a while he was a Gagosian artist. So I’m very charmed that I can own a piece by an artist whose career has evolved beyond the scope of what I could reasonably acquire. But then I have other things that I bought at the same time, from similar galleries by artists whose reputations haven’t ascended quite so commercially, and some of those things mean as much to me as pieces like Spitbubble.

B: What’s the impact of living and working in spaces where so much of your collection is around you all the time?

J: Having the work around all the time constantly feeds my curiosity. It absolutely gives me a charge.

B: You do a good deal of buying, how often do you sell works from your collection?

J: Not often. I regret everything I sell, equally. I’ve only sold four or five things total, since about 1987.

B: Is that when you started collecting?

J: Yes, not counting things I acquired when I was a kid, still living at home. Things like a Jacob Fishman neon flamingo. Paintings by Bob Fischer, who thought of himself as the Andy Warhol of Chicago.

B: Weren’t you briefly his studio assistant?

J: Yes, I worked for him when I was in high school. Gessoing his canvases, doing his laundry, typing his letters, running errands.

B: Is that part of what lead you towards the art world?

J: Well, I went to college in Boston. While I was there I spent a good deal of time at the Institute for Contemporary Art, the ICA, looking at shows, going to lectures, attending performances. It was very formative. It was where I first saw work by Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Brian Eno, Jenny Holzer, and that kind of art making is still very important to me. And that was the first time I recognized it.

B: Were you studying art?

J: No, I was studying English Literature. I moved back to Chicago with no professional ambitions, and luckily after a year of floundering around working in a vintage store and a flower store, and doing little odd jobs, I was offered an entry-level position in a design studio run by Michael Glass. I didn’t have a portfolio, I didn’t have any experience, he just sensed a certain aptitude. We met at an art dealer’s loft at a post-opening cocktail party for a show at the
Randolph Street Gallery. I was maybe twenty-two years old. By then I was finding my way towards meeting people in the art world.

B: At that point, graphic design was still an analog, entirely hand-wrought process. Did you have an existing skill set? How did you manage to step into a job like that?

J: On the first day, I was tasked with designing a logo for the renovation of the Rookery. The thing that would go in the window to cover the glass during construction. The drawings were horrible.

B: Did they use them?

J: No. They were ignored. They didn’t know what to do with me.

B: Did you have a sense that this was going to be your career?

J: No, I wouldn’t have guessed at that time that thirty years later I’d still be doing this.

B: Your design work traffics in cultural production, primarily--museums, galleries, restaurants, books and catalogs. You’ve recently rebranded Chicago’s Millennium Park, as well. A job I heard you offered to do, not one you were asked to do.

J: That’s correct, to a point. I was invited to give a lecture at the Chicago Humanities Festival, on communication and graphic design. In it, I made a snarky comment about how bad the initial logo was for the park. It got quite a laugh. There was someone in the audience who remembered the comment, and later enlisted my services for the foundation associated with Millenium Park. The foundation had never had a logo, and had come to realize they needed one to operate more proficiently. Along the way, I suggested that if we were to do the foundation logo properly, it would necessitate redoing the park’s logo. I showed them what it could look like, and they were supportive. It took about eighteen months, and it happened in this kind of backdoor way, but the park has been rebranded.

B: You’ve not just had a hand in projects of that scale though--I doubt I could make it through a whole day in the city without seeing your work on the side of a bus the front of a restaurant, the shelves of a convenience store. Has twenty-five years worth of cultural production of your own making changed your relationship to the city?

J: I’m fifty-four years old. I’ve lived in Chicago fifty years of my life. So there’s that. But I’m still always tickled when I see my work out on the street. It does make me feel a certain connection.

B: As an artist who is accustomed to making credited works, does the anonymity of your high visibility design work ever bother you?

J: When I think about that, I think about going to the supermarket. Every one of the thousands of products on the shelf has a design studio behind it. In context, being the originator of one particular brand or product feels very insignificant. That keeps me humble.

B: How does that fit in to being an art collector? Who the originator was of the thousand or so individual works in your collection is significant.

J: That’s astute.

B: Thanks. Do you have any feelings about being at the intersection of those two things?

J: No. None.

B: What about the visual identity of Chicago apart from your involvement? Do you suppose you would make or collect the same work if you had decided to live in New York, or stayed in Boston?

J: Chicago in the thirty years that I’ve been collecting, has had two significant schools. The Imagists, who predate me. And then the ‘80s conceptualists who were influenced by the Pictures Generation in New York. This would be like Tony Tasset, Judy Ledgerwood, Jeanne Dunning, and it was the latter group that I befriended and started collecting. So my collecting was definitely influenced by that Chicago crew of young artists.

B: You’ve done most of your collecting in the city?

J: Virtually all of it. Mostly from studios, galleries, artist run spaces. Occasionally from art fairs. I’m never looking for anything specific. I’m just looking at what is bubbling up around me in the spaces I visit, and then the artists that are in my milieu, the art that I like, that makes the hairs on my arms stand up, and I can afford it, I buy it. It’s different than the person who is trying to “build” a collection, and is consciously trying to put a group of works together that reference a larger dialogue or have market pedigree.

B: What works or artists are you most pleased to have found out?

J: I had Sterling Ruby’s first large fiberglass sculpture, about six feet tall. I no longer have it, unfortunately. They brought it over to my studio in the back of a pickup truck. I seem to remember these two guys sitting in the back of the truck, holding onto it rather cavalierly. I’m also very fond of Puppies Puppies. I have about seven works by Puppies. I wish I had more. I regret all the things I don’t buy.

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