"It feels like it’s kinda time.” Not much of an epitaph, perhaps, but that’s what Mark T. Zeilman offers in the way of final words for his soon-to-close Downtown art gallery, MTZC (last opening: November 7). It felt like the right time to take over the space, back in early 2005, when “the scene was vibrant and exciting” and all he wanted was a big, cheap place where he could create his own art and hang with his creative friends. And when they began hanging work on the walls and inviting the First Friday crowd, it felt like the right time to morph into an undergroundish gallery, too. “The way I operate in a lot of things,” Zeilman says, “is to just go with the flow.” Now, nearly four years later, the flow dictates closure.
Up a flight of squeaky stairs in the Commerce Street Studios, MTZC had a raffish, rundown charm, and it became a dugout for a certain stripe of local artist: young (in years or head-space), off-radar types who tend to work somewhere between the academic rigor of what we think of as “the art world” and the inscrutable brain-drainings of pure outsider art. They were often self-trained, defiantly lowbrow, sometimes erratic—there were entire shows of nothing you liked—but they could surprise you, too.
That’s what makes MTZC’s closing worth a few words. Galleries come and go, and a lot of undergroundish art is entry-level crap you wouldn’t use as a doormat. But a percentage of it will go somewhere, and a permissive space like Zeilman’s is usually where it’ll gain traction. (I first coveted the winsome, biomorphic abstractions of Jorge Catoni and the dense, sci-fi Gigerisms of K.D. Matheson there.) (Also: MTZC, of course, isn’t the only gallery that serves that function.) In a way, that threshing embodies the larger, ongoing process of First Friday and the Downtown scene to define itself between opposite poles of enthusiastic amateurism and traditional polish.
Zeilman ticks off names of artists he’s pleased to have shown: Matheson, Catoni, Brent Becker, Cuca Refugina, Teresa Williams, a few others. “I’d like to think I was probably first” to show some of these people, he says. “It’s important to have that as part of the gallery’s history.”
A history that, for now, comes to an end. “The decision to close was easy,” Zeilman says. It wasn’t the dumpy economy, he insists; it wasn’t that the Downtown scene has plateaued. Sure, those things are either blatantly or arguably true, and at some subcutaneous level probably feed into his feeling that it’s time for a change. But mostly it’s personal.
“I saw myself being seen [more] as a curator and gallery owner than as an artist,” he says. “Instead of being called to do a project, I was being called as the guy to find someone to do that. That’s not a bad thing, that’s just how it worked out.” He wants to get back to the basic activity, making art, which he’s been doing in earnest since 1987, when he was 17. He wants to spend First Fridays looking at other people’s galleries. He plays in a band now, As Yet Unbroken, and is apprenticing as a tattoo artist, “which is much more challenging than learning to paint.” So he’s got a full to-do list. But he doesn’t rule out opening another gallery someday. “If there was a way to do it that didn’t cost me,” he muses, “if it would just break even …”