Lyon Street G-Roup Work

By Josh Ippel (with Matt Poole)

"I’ll be back. Don’t worry."

My first memories of art in Grand Rapids were from elementary school field trips to the art museum. I barely remember the small cramped gallery spaces and docents who explained the work of Dutch painters. Those days I was pretty distracted with dreams of becoming a superhero comic book artist. High school tuned me in to a little academic art history but it wasn’t until college that I was exposed to any actual living, breathing art world.

College was a strange place where people made things intending them for public discourse. My art world grew to include the UICA, a few university galleries and, in 1999, the Dynamite Gallery Project. For a while, the UICA was my bread and butter for art in Grand Rapids. Compared to the few scattered commercial galleries vending stale, static living room trinkets, the UICA delivered the kinds of experiences I knew were possible after a few semesters of contemporary art exposure. One exhibition I still remember featured an artist who made inflatable sculptures from plastic grocery bags. Hundreds of them were used to fashion them and they breathed in and out with the help of a modified vacuum. The installation slowly filled and retreated from the viewer’s space and the materials were the surplus of daily life. This accessibility was what I came to search for in art work and my own practice.

Maybe it was the exposure to Chicago galleries or contemporary art in general, but somehow the UICA lost my interest. I saw how in many ways they were ideologically aligned with commercial goals – instead of marketing material commodities they sold spectacle, accumulating traffic rather than cash. The work seemed to land on the safe side. What I saw in a few Chicago galleries (NFA Space in particular) were individuals promoting a vision I hadn’t seen--they obviously still tried to make it financially--but they seemed above a need for corporate-like identity and end-of-year financials. I had to travel to Chicago to see this side of art, but in 1999 that changed.

After graduating from Calvin College in the fall, David Prinsen and Brett Budde founded the Dynamite Gallery Project in a small storefront at 609 Lyon Street. For the most part, the shows were presented in a familiar exhibition format, but the work they brought in was of the same caliber (chic pow) as what I’d seen in art magazines and Chicago and New York Galleries (at the time this seemed to be a good standard for relevant art). I remember Jeffery Valance’s investigation of the Shroud of Turin linking it clown faces "The Four Clowns of Turin," Gregory Greene’s Torah encased pipe bomb and Patrick Collier’s show where he invited a few students to help create a mosaic of tiddlywinks and collect hoods from children’s jackets. I also remember the Patrick Collier show because the artist lecture was hosted down the street at the first manifestation of Paul Wittenbraker’s Civic Studio.

Knowing Dave and Brett and the effort they put in to making Dynamite happen made it seem like there was something at stake – not merely the cash in their pocketbooks, but adding breadth to a rather thin Grand Rapids art scene. So it was a no brainer when Dave and Brian Deyong (who hopped on board for the second year and intended to continue on with us) approached me, Matt Poole, Phil Orr and Jessica Getchell about taking control over Dynamite.

The first year of running Dynamite brought a number of changes to what Dave and Brett started. We got a new space after the pipes froze and broke in 609 Lyon during the winter of 2001 and the name was changed to Dynamite Space Project since we doubted our allegiance to a the ideals of galleryhood. Our college professor and mentor, Conrad Bakker offered us his extremely rough and extremely cheap space next door (613 Lyon) and we eventually agreed it was an awesome home for Dynamite. That first year still seems magical and we all reminisce about how effortlessly and dynamically our first few exhibitions came together. Since the majority of us were just finishing art school when we took over we began with three promotional shows featuring our own work (somehow it wasn’t a faux pas, as the shows helped us hype for things to come).

After a summer break we started our season with a group show of work created for a theme we prescribed (opposite of the usual curatorial approach of collecting things already created). Auto Show contained a number of standout pieces and overall was well-received but after the opening, the magic died. The next couple weeks our gallery hours were sparsely attended and the fact that we were basically babysitting a room of dead objects became very clear. From that point on we made a conscious effort to have the space consistently active and engaging.

Patchwork was basically a sewing workshop for two months. We invited a number of people, regardless of skill level, to participate as sewers. In addition, we invited the public to submit clothing to be altered or modified. The closing event featured the creations of our sewing squad (including customized and commissioned pieces), the band The Sewing Terroists and a video, all in a retail setting. With the success of Patchwork we attempted (with varied success) to include some sort of participatory component in every project. In February our show, Be Mine, offered an alternative to the hyper-commodified culture of Valentine’s Day. The public was invited to create valentines from materials we provided as well as add to our “Shrine to Lost Love.” Somewhere in here we also gained Katie Bonner as a member.

After a few shows we were invited by the UICA to do something there and we took this chance to focus on creating work and staging events as a collaborative, no longer solely concerned with programming a space. For the exhibit, entitled Carnival by the UICA, we created a 4 times normal sized ping-pong table and offered 4 Atari Pong stations for individuals to compete against each other in two forms of ping pong. We capped the show with a tournament for teams of four for which many teams made uniforms and fought viciously for a trophy and a heap of glory.

Dynamite changed personnel a bit after that first year (2001-2002) losing Jessica and Katie and gaining Miriam VanderKooy. We continued to do work as a collaborative and that year worked with Art Works at the UICA creating lego versions of Grand Rapids landmarks all to scale. Every show was different. It was exciting and tiring. Every step was marked with redefinition and new challenges. After a few shows Miriam left as well and it was all dudes: Phil, Brian, Josh and Matt.

The summer of 2003 Phil, Matt and I left for the east coast to visit other collaborative groups in Toronto, Boston, Providence, New York and Philadelphia to build friendships and trade tap water. This collection became GR Tap upon our return for which we had a tap water tasting as part of one of the first Free Radical events on Wealthy. Matt followed this by returning to Philly to work with Basekamp, one of our new friends in the world of collaborative art. Shortly after that he headed to Eastern Europe with another art group from Portland called Red76. In the Fall of 2003 Ryan Thompson finished up at Calvin and he became the last new Dynamite family member.

The GR art scene was changing somewhere in this timeline and the Free Radical events, along with Lo-Fi Project Site (which was showing work in a Southwest side warehouse as early as 2002) became welcome additions to the still-meager local scene. Brian splintered off from Dynamite to form a new endeavor on Division called Swim with Chris Filipini and Nina Franz. It was fashioned to be a cross between a boutique and a gallery and it sold small affordable things and actually brought in a little money. Each month featured a new batch of themed multiples. In the same space (the Elite Restaurant building), Ben Schaafsma and others were booking bands to play in the basement, which eventually became the DAAC.

By this time I decided to go to graduate school, following our professor Conrad Bakker and Dynamite founder Dave Prinsen down to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For a time Dynamite continued making connections with other artist groups and collaboratives traveling to Chicago for Version Fest’s Nfo Xpo fair in 2004 and 2005 bringing Grand Rapids stuff like Mini Grand Vitesse sculptures and GR band compilation CDs to a new audience. We hosted a few events at the Lyon Street space but it became more a hangout, studio and headquarters. Along side my graduate work and occasional Dynamite activities I became involved in OPENSOURCE Art, a space in Champaign accommodating a variety of non-traditional, community-based projects. I also formed another art group called Hideous Beast with my friend Charlie Roderick and we hosted projects in Urbana-Champaign. One, the Mini-Movie fest (highlighting people’s movies made on digital cameras and camera phones) was a great success and was hosted in partnership with Dynamite in Grand Rapids, Chicago and Portland.

Back in Grand Rapids the DAAC was running full steam and the G-RAD website had begun to solidify. G-RAD continues to bring together the cultural community in Grand Rapids across school affiliation and even age to some degree. This has given birth to NEST and LAMB, which now has filled Dynamite’s old home at 613 Lyon (609 Lyon became home to Kay Courtney Realtors and is now vacant again). We like to think it was kept in the family.

I’m now living in Chicago and it’s strange, wonderful and sometimes awkward to return to Grand Rapids and see how things have changed and continued on without me. It’s encouraging to see the traces of a history I’ve participated in that I am sure many current art students have no clue about. I am sure there is stuff we didn’t know about that set us up for what we did. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for Lyon Street and a city that has more options for alternative arts than it ever has.

Josh Ippel recently completed his MFA from U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A graduate of Calvin College and member of Dynamite Family, Josh has been a staple in GR since the late 70s.

Posted on October 12, 2006 10:02 AM


Nice work Josh and Matt. It's great to have a history of this kind of thing written down.

I always admired Dynamite. As an art student at Calvin I knew very little about them, but they seemed really cool. It was good to know that recent graduates of the program were doing something with art in the comunity (even if I didn't know exactly what it was). Eventually, as I matured as an artist and student, I became critical of Dynamite. What were they doing? Anything? Just traveling to meet other groups? Was it just a shell of something that used to do interesting shows and events?

My biggest criticism of Dynamite was their apparant inability (or disinterest?) in letting people know what they were doing. And by people I mean people they weren't friends with. I, along with plenty of other students, would have been very interested to see flyers for Dynamite shows or events posted in the Art Department, but that never seemed to happen.

I'm really glad that Dynamite existed and got the ball rolling on collective and relational art in Grand Rapids. And it's really cool to see this issue of LAMB dealing with questions of relational aesthetics and community. But if there's one thing I learned by being on the outside of Dynamite, it's that relational art can quickly look like elitism. For other forms of art this may not be a problem, but if you're attempting make art out of social relationships it's a big problem.

If we're going to keep making relational art we have to be ready to include people that don't already know what it is. And be ready to field questions like "Why are you doing this?" and "Is this art?" I think it can be great art, but it's going to take a lot more PR than making a painting.

Posted by: kevinb on October 12, 2006 5:00 PM

Kevin. I think this is a fair critique (lack of inclusion/pr) of the last few iterations of Dynamite and one that has certainly been voiced before. (Dynamite Gallery should be excused from this critique as I think they had their PR together better than its descendants, but perhaps Dave Prinsen could speak to this).

Making posters, handing out flyers, sending press releases and keeping list-serves was something that could and should have been more organized. It takes a lot of energy to stay on top of this, (i.e. it took Dynamite years to have a working website) let alone work through various projects.

Unfortunately this often comes across as exclusionary when it should be contributed to inexperience and lack of PR motivation.

Posted by: ryan on October 12, 2006 9:01 PM

Kevin - I think your criticism of Dynamite's lack of public presence is valid and is also true of artists in general, but their not telling people about their events may be a sympton of the general public's disinterest in contemporary art.

Your final comment: "If we're going to keep making relational art we have to be ready to include people that don't already know what it is."

This is gets at a couple of the many conversations surrounding social practice. The first being, how to talk about it? Is there sufficient language to talk about it in terms of art only - like Claire Bishop would like to do - or is social practice innately transdisciplinary?

Posted by: ben schaafsma on October 13, 2006 6:58 PM

"transdisciplinary" ...i like that. art that incorporates social practive can easily become something that doesn't fit most definitions of art. not that it becomes down-graded, or even that it rises above, it seems to just move to the side. if that makes sense.

i look forward to the discussion on saturday!

Posted by: kevinb on October 17, 2006 4:26 PM

What is "relational art?" Is it art? Why are you doing it? I keep trying, but I realy don't get it.

Posted by: Mom on October 27, 2006 9:31 AM

Is Conrad Bakker still teaching?

Posted by: Brian Buck on November 3, 2006 6:46 AM

Conrad Bakker teaches at University of Illinois Champaigne-Urbana.

Posted by: Benner on November 5, 2006 1:56 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)