Ann Arbor's Creal Microgallery offers tiny exhibitions for unsuspecting pedestrians

VISUAL ART REVIEW

A photo of Jim Cherewick's paintings at the Creal Microgallery

Installation view of Inspire/Expire exhibition, paintings by Jim Cherewick at Creal Microgallery. Photo by Joe Levickas/Creal Microgallery.

The first reaction a pedestrian might have upon encountering the Creal Microgallery in suburban Ann Arbor might be amusement. This tiny, breadbox-sized art space on Creal Crescent, not far from the North Maple Road and Miller Avenue intersection, resembles one of those little free libraries often found on residential streets. It provides curbside delivery of fine art to passers-by from dawn to 11 pm daily. This may not be a grand structure like the elegant Stettheimer dollhouse in the Museum of the City of New York, with its tiny masterpieces by Alexander Archipenko, Gaston Lachaise, and Marcel Duchamp, but it’s no joke either. 

The microgallery’s founder and curator, Joe Levickas, was inspired to start the project by dislocations in his life during the COVID-19 pandemic. He describes bringing up his idea for the gallery with his wife. “What if we put up a gallery in our front yard?” A real team player, she replied, “You should totally do it.” He acquired a 16”x10”x12” box with a glass front, painted it robin’s egg blue to match his house, and the rest is (art) history.

Since opening in the spring of 2021, Levickas has curated a full calendar of thematically and formally ambitious exhibitions. Starting with a solo show featuring his own colorful portraits (all the size of baseball cards), he has followed up with Sajeev Krishnan’s likenesses of Bollywood villains, Marjorie Gaber’s cowgirls, 3D-printed sculptures by New Jersey artist Charles Mulford, Michael Whiting’s minute steel sculptures, and panoramic landscape photos by Andrew Stamms. A wearer of many hats, Levickas is also program director for Arts at Michigan and assistant director in the Office of New Student Programs; recently he combined his day job and his curatorial project by organizing a group show featuring the work of UM undergraduate students, Scale and Substance. 

Blue Lake by Jim Cherewick, 2022. Watercolor and Gouache on paper (6"x9"). Photo by Joe Levickas/Creal Microgallery.

Blue Lake by Jim Cherewick, 2022. Watercolor and Gouache on paper (6"x9"). Photo by Joe Levickas/Creal Microgallery.

The newest entry in the Creal Microgallery’s impressive lineup is now Inspire/Expire a series of four tiny—yet monumental—paintings by Jim Cherewick, on view until March 13.

A painter and musician, Cherewick works in a loose improvisational style that feels a little like outsider or street art. His choice of the very portable medium of watercolor paints, plus a sketchbook, allows him to work in his preferred coffee shop workspace, which is where Levickas first encountered him more than a decade ago. His music, his art, and his life are all of a piece, and gallery visitors are invited to not only view the paintings in Inspire/Expire, but to listen online to related music from his soon-to-be released second album, Good Noose

Cherewick describes the four paintings in Inspire/Expire as his response to the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s easy to imagine that for an artist who thrives on human connection and enjoys working in public spaces, the last two years have been difficult. He describes the flame imagery in the exhibition as a metaphor for the creative connection that he has been missing. Or as the artist puts it, “I miss the flame.”

There’s no lack of energy in these paintings though, with their red, blue, and yellow gestural wildness. Gallery visitors are free to imagine themselves inside the space confronting a large canvas, or outside it looking at loosely painted, postcard-size pictures. After all, flames can be any size, from a lit match to a California wildfire. The colorful brushwork of the paintings invites closer scrutiny and works well in the diminutive scale of the micro-gallery. The best time to see the work is after sunset when the space is lit from within.

Sense of It All by Jim Cherewick, 2022. Watercolor and Gouache on paper, 6"x9". Photo by Joe Levickas/Creal Microgallery.

Sense of It All by Jim Cherewick, 2022. Watercolor and Gouache on paper, 6"x9". Photo by Joe Levickas/Creal Microgallery.

In promoting his project, Levickas has been particularly resourceful in exploiting the ambiguities of scale inherent in a real-life, dollhouse-sized space when viewed in the virtual world of the internet. He isn’t the only one; there is an eclectic community of micro-galleries with physical locations nationwide from Boston to Los Angeles (and internationally), which can also be accessed through Instagram.

"One of the things I realized I wanted to do is that even though this [micro-gallery] existed in a hyper-local way where I can get there in 15 steps," Levickas said, an Instagram page "would allow it to have an impact beyond that.”

When questioned about his future plans for the Creal Microgallery, Levickas replied:

The small space has provided a nice opportunity to exhibit unique works from a variety of local and non-local artists, without some of the challenges (and frankly, the expenses) that come with running a full-scale gallery. Since I run this microgallery in addition to my full-time job, its smallness has made the whole undertaking manageable in a way opening and running a traditional gallery wouldn't be… While Creal Microgallery was inspired by the circumstances of the pandemic, it's also a model for public art exhibitions that I think can continue even after we're back to crowded opening receptions without masks.  

Flyer for Jim Cherewick's exhibition at Creal Microgallery

Levickas is working now on the spring and summer schedule of shows for Creal Microgallery. Next up is an exhibition of work by Robin Carlson, a Portland Maine-based sculptor, whose as-yet-untitled exhibition will open in March. 

This small but unique microgallery looks like it has staying power, and for those who want to combine art appreciation with their daily walk, it’s an entertaining destination. 


K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at RustbeltArts.com.