“I feel like I eat stress or something,” Alex Ebstein, wearer of many hats, tells me. Over the years she has run (or co-run) a few galleries, worked in media, written for publications like City Paper and BmoreArt (among others), and been an adjunct professor at MICA, Towson University, and American University, all while developing her own studio practice—and this is an abbreviated summary. With a seemingly tireless ambition, she has helped promote the notion that Baltimore is a site of rich artistic exertion.
This probably comes from her own praxis of multitasking: “In many ways [Baltimore’s art scene] is about collaboration and community-building and wearing multiple hats and having jobs that bring you into the community in a different way,” she says. “I think that’s as valid a way to participate in the arts as anywhere else.”
The past couple of years have felt particularly busy for Ebstein. But just over the last few weeks, she’s finished up new artwork for her two-person show with Leah Guadagnoli at Terrault Contemporary, “Cut, Copy, Paste. It’s Not What You Think,” and finished the build-out for Resort, a new gallery around the corner from Terrault that she’s co-running with her partner Seth Adelsberger. Renovations on Resort were finished mere hours before the Jan. 20 opening of its first show, “A Big Toe Touches A Green Tomato,” featuring artists Roxana Azar and Ginevra Shay. She also curates the art on display at Metro Gallery—the current show “Field Notes” includes Gina Denton, Jean Nagai, Tyler Keeton Robbins, and Katey Truhn and Jessie Unterhalter.
“The art world is so finicky that I just feel like when you get the opportunities, you want to take them,” she tells me at Terrault. “It’s like you’re your own limit.”
For Ebstein, many of those opportunities are self-made. Nudashank, the artist-run space in the H&H Building that Ebstein co-curated with Adelsberger, was a locus of the DIY art scene’s eclecticism and wave-making collaborations between local and non-local artists. A good example of such was 2012’s “Gran Prix,” a joint effort with New York curatorial project Gresham’s Ghost that felt more like a museum-sized exhibition than a DIY art show, featuring 29 Baltimore-based and New York-based artists and spanning the Nudashank and Gallery Four spaces and two storefronts on Eutaw Street.
The end of Nudashank’s four-year-run in 2013 was the natural result of life and other work getting in the way. Adelsberger was offered a solo show in the BMA’s Front Room and Ebstein started working toward an MFA at Towson University. “We sort of had Dina [Kelberman]’s show and then just never came back,” Ebstein says.
While in grad school, the eye condition that Ebstein has been dealing with since childhood, uveitis (an inflammatory disease that damages eye tissue), had gotten worse. She had had two surgeries to alleviate pressure in her eyes and two more to remove cataracts that had built up over time due to the medicines she had taken. She went to grad school “expecting that all to be behind me” but scar tissue had built up, tearing a hole in her retina during her second semester of school and requiring her to have additional surgery.
“Having the expectation to produce [in school], I think it was really good for me,” she says. “It distracted me from what could have been a much worse, much more self-pitying situation, and it definitely made me keep going and find a way—like, at worst case scenario, what am I going to make?”
The unique, wobbly way she was seeing things worked its way into her visual language, guiding the forms in her compositions. Imprecise twine grids and un-straight lines, Jean Arp-like bean and ring shapes, and enigmatic stucco-textured forms reappear in her work. Sometimes the shapes look like letters, too, like those randomly arranged and graduated from seeable to impossibly tiny on an eye chart.
She started thinking more holistically about her health and had “medicine fatigue,” so she started doing yoga, but certain poses put more strain on her eyes (and generally yoga wasn’t helping her condition, she says) so she stopped. But the loss of that practice led her to using yoga mats in her studio. When she first started using the mats, she says, “they were white and filled with holes and they hung like Swiss cheese away from the wall, and they were like these sad objects.” She eventually started using more colorful mats and made them behave more like paintings, pushing them back into the frame.
The recent work has toyed with abstractions of the body, thinking through the way that fitness and health are marketed to select audiences (think: white people’s yoga, expensive gym memberships, lululemon and other expensive athletic brands), through almost childlike bright and playful compositions. Cutting out lumpy, slender, and curvaceous shapes that squat, bend, sit, or float, Ebstein inlays them with chunkier geometric backgrounds.
The yoga mat material—a highly malleable, plastic form, with a tiny allover grid pattern—works for her because of all the similarities it has to paint: It can cover large planes and has elasticity and a tactile quality that you can almost feel as soon as you see it. As a piece of exercise equipment (a site on which the body will move), the yoga mat implies the body without directly pointing to it.
The texture of Ebstein’s work in the Terrault show complements Guadagnoli’s impeccably smooth, sculpted, and colorful pieces that sometimes read peripherally like shallow stage sets, reconfigured baby toys, an architect’s desk, and abstracted aerobic blocks. The two artists both make art that seems hard-worked and well-loved and that, at least at first blush, conjures joy.
Three of Ebstein’s newer pieces in the show feature Miami-colored (dusty teal, sunset mauve, plucky coral) MDF frames, enclosed by a layer of Plexiglas, with an outer layer of pastel-painted aluminum shapes bolted to the Plexi. She wanted the shapely foreground figures that appear in her compositions to pop forward more, so she sketched abstractions of gym/fitness advertisements and seashells, enlarged them, and cut them out of aluminum sheets. She started to see the metal as a “hard bone” against the “more malleable, fleshy part” of the yoga mats.
The brands in these fitness ads present themselves “to a self-selected audience,” she says, “that this kind of fitness decides can afford and value health as a luxury.”
Ebstein recognizes that idea carries some parallels to the vast inequities of the art world. “There is that critique of fitness and putting it in the weirdest, most useless venue to be like okay, well, I’ll make a luxury good out of it,” she says. “To translate that critique into art is something I wrestle with a lot. And I think the thing that makes me still sure about that intention is health and fitness should be for everyone and should not be marketed and priced in this very elitist way.”
It would seem then that the name of the new space she and Adelsberger have started, Resort, is similarly somewhat cheeky. (It makes me think about how an expensive touristy getaway probably blinds you to a place’s real culture and life and people and so on. And of course when you google “Resort Baltimore,” what you get are Inner Harbor hotel listings.) The fact is that Baltimore’s art scene has never revolved around money—artist-run spaces make a little bit of money sometimes, but hardly enough to break even on the funds and labor they (and their artists) put into their programs. But an underlying goal for Ebstein and others in Baltimore’s artist-run spaces all these years has been to deprioritize making money as a signifier of success.
“I think money needs to stop being the thing that defines art and the valid art world,” she says.
Ebstein, Adelsberger, and a team of about 10 friends and former students have worked on the building since last April. The building’s previous renters, a nonprofit called Sharp Dressed Man that gives free suits to men re-entering the workforce, had to move out of the building when it caught fire in 2016. (It relocated to a spot on nearby Lexington Street.) The landlords did some structural and electrical repairs to make it safe, while Ebstein, Adelsberger, and co. went to work tearing down non-structural walls and putting up new ones, removing drop ceilings, and clearing out the junk—there was pigeon shit everywhere, evidently.
They got Adelsberger’s frame shop, New Standard Frames, up and running on the second floor before anything else so they could make some money while putting in work on the third floor studio space and the first floor gallery. Ebstein says they have about a year of programming in the works for Resort, and are thinking of other pop-up events they might like to host. Ebstein locates Resort’s program somewhere in between Nudashank and Phoebe—oh, by the way, among all of these other things, Phoebe was the gallery she ran on Franklin Street in 2016, which was, for her, a way to offer a platform to women artists she admired.
Resort’s first show, “A Big Toe Touches A Green Tomato,” features local artist and curator Ginevra Shay (former artistic director of The Contemporary) and Philadelphia-based artist Roxana Azar. Shay and Azar have been close friends for a long time but hadn’t shown their work together this way before, and there are just as many interesting visual tangents and offshoots between their artworks as there are parallels—hands and leaves, fine craft and clearly hand-wrought forms, crystals and rock formations and worn-down buildings. A sparse, black and white, school-portrait-style photo by Azar features the artist’s face staring blankly in the distance with dozens of flower petals arranged neatly in rows over their face. In Shay’s ‘Head with Holes,’ a sheet of steel in the vague shape of a cartoonish facial profile is amusingly perforated with similar face-in-profile shapes. There are different levels of austerity (the staid black and white portrait, the dark metal propped up on concrete) mixed with humor or candor.
Ebstein says if she could afford it, she’d make Resort her own full-time gig. But she finds more nourishment being able to fit into an arts community in so many different ways—especially, she says, as an adjunct, teaching studio and professional development courses.
“I’m happy to be in the academic creative community and I’m excited to see what new, young, creative people are thinking, and be there to work with them through writing artist statements,” she says. “That really gives me as much life as being in my own studio. I think it’s a good balance. I think if I was only in my own studio I’d resent the work.”
“A Big Toe Touches A Green Tomato” is up at Resort through March 3. For more info, visit resortbaltimore.com. “Cut, Copy, Paste. It’s Not What You Think.” is up at Terrault Contemporary through Feb. 17. For more info, visit terraultcontemporary.com.