Left Field Gallery
Left Field was established in San Luis Obispo, ca in 2015 by artist Nick Wilkinson. The primary goal of Left Field is to bring a wide range of artists to California’s central coast in an effort to show contemporary work not otherwise seen in the region. In autumn of 2018, left field moved to a new location in neighboring Los Osos, a small coastal town just a few minutes outside of San Luis Obispo.
On top of curating shows in its home space, Left Field recently organized a group exhibition titled Double Play as part of The Pit Presents, a new initiative of gallery residencies and exchanges that debuted for the LA based gallery in 2018.
Interview with Left Field Gallery Director, Nick Wilkinson
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Nick! Can you fill us in on the story behind Left Field and how it all began?
My story here begins when, in 2005, after graduating from San Diego State a few years earlier, I moved to the San Luis Obispo area to buy a rare plant nursery which I still own, called grow, which deals in rare and unusual succulents, minerals, handmade pottery and oddball objects. After a successful run at grow I opened my second retail store called Left Field in early 2015. Left Field was was focused a bit more towards the odd ball objects, mid century furniture, and pottery with plants as an accompaniment rather than the other way around. When we found our location there was a room adjacent to the store front that was connected by a door but had its own entrance. It was 400 square feet and my landlord was calling it an office but I didn’t need another office so I had to get creative. After some thought I called my buddy Ryan Travis Christian and told him I might try doing some shows in the space but wanted to show the art I loved rather than what was prevalent in our area. He helped get things going with the inaugural show, has had his hand in helping put together several other large group shows and is always in touch with other ideas and introducing artists he finds of interest. It was a huge help and continues to be but he (deservedly) has found some great success with his own work and is a new dad so he’s not a part of the day to day operations and we have to be a bit more pointed with our collaborations.
I am very interested in how artist-run spaces can exist and flourish outside of the mainstream art cities of NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. Does does the location of the space impact the viewership? What is the art community like in Los Osos?
Thanks for asking about the new space. Yes, after closing the main Left Field store I kept the gallery at that location for another year or so but eventually had to move. I opted for a larger space closer to my home and studio.
Thankfully there is a core group of artists that live in this area who still participate by attending openings, promoting the space and who appreciate the vision. It is truly humbling how many people know about, acknowledge, appreciate and want to participate in this passion project. Much of the success, sales and especially connecting with art communities outside of here, is based on the Internet. The local art community as a whole is wonderful but as a community based in wine country, the art produced here is generally rooted in more traditional modes of art making such as plein-air paintings of ocean scenes or vineyards. As a painter myself, my aesthetic pushed me more towards work that was a bit mysterious and often abstract and lay over for that kind of work guides me in facilitating the vision for the space. Our goal here is to promote and bring work to this community that has a greater connection to the contemporary art world.
You were recently included in the article, Art in America: The Critical Dustbowl by Darren Jones. The article discussed the lack of critical reviews of exhibitions in cities outside of LA and NYC. Can you elaborate on the lack of reviews in more rural areas showing contemporary art and how that has or hasn’t affected your programming?
It was an honor to be included in the article you mention and Darren hit on so many wonderful points. Being from a small community that may not prioritize contemporary art like some larger communities might, does make it tougher to have a good critical dialogue. Although a few writers have travelled to see some shows, it is just harder for writers in bigger communities to get here than to go to other galleries in their communities of say the Bay Area or Los Angeles for which we live 3+ hours from and are halfway between. And although we crave that dialogue, not having a regular dose of it doesn’t really influence who we show. It’s becoming more and more about bringing artists to this community, or honoring those here that we think are making great work.
Other than reviews, are there other challenges a more rural location? What are the benefits?
The biggest challenge of a more rural location is to sell work and be in touch with those people who are in a position to and value living with a commodity that many people may find a non-necessity. The major benefit of where we live is that it is undoubtedly a hidden gem in California and so very different for those coming from major cities. We hear time and time again how reinvigorating the trip is for those artists able to come out and participate.
What is your curatorial vision for the new space? You have organized a lot of shows over the years. What is something that ties the exhibitions together?
The vision for Left Field is and has always been to create a space to show artists whose work I admire. As I look back at the over forty shows we’ve done, many are anchored in work that has a sense of humor. One big influence on that are the many group shows Ryan Travis Christian has put together here. This includes one of my favorite early moments at the gallery which was his 21st Century lol’s: Vol 1. Such a great group of artists and an amazing show!
You seem to have your finger on the pulse of up-and-coming artists. How do you discover artists, and is there a way you keep track of artists you have in mind for future shows?
Well, I try to look at a lot of art—whether doing studio visits with California artists I admire or finding people on platforms like Instagram. I also ask artists I’ve worked with, especially those that come out to participate in the flesh, to leave me with a list of artists they admire or think would be a good fit. I plan and book our calendar out about a year in advance so every six months or so I take a longer than usual look at my ever growing list of artists I’d love to show and edit it so as to make sure it’s moving along and staying fresh.
You occasionally work with guest curators—how does this function in the larger scheme of the curatorial program?
I really try to be open to other peoples ideas. I feel fortunate to have met and worked with so many smart humans over the past several years. I don’t pretend to know it all nor do I feel the need to make every decision when it comes to every show slot, and I think the more great people that I can include in the conversation, the better.
In addition to running the gallery, you are also a practicing artist. How do you balance the daily operations of the space, with your artistic practice?
Thankfully, since we’ve moved, the gallery has been by appointment and our only real commitment besides install of course is the opening night. I’m pretty busy on a number of fronts but because all of my worlds are tied together by a close proximity to each other I manage. I try to get in the studio as much as I can but I don’t always have the time for full-fledged studio days, but I do my best to at least try and get by the studio even if only for thirty minutes to be with and look at what’s happening with the work.
What is a typical day like for you? How do you balance and organize all of your many tasks and goals?
I run a landscape design company called Botanica Nova which dictates the majority of my week. I usually get going early, get my kids off to school and meet my business partner and crew at about 8am. We meet at our work yard which also includes my studio space and a large nursery area where I grow plants for both the landscape work and my retail nursery. Once they are tasked out I often sneak some time with my paintings and then get on with the day. If there is ever any time after lunch where I am not directly needed I try and steal a bit more studio time before dinner with my crew at home and then boring stuff like emails and Netflix.
What has stood out as the biggest joy in running the space so far?
The biggest joy in running this space is being able to give artists I admire a chance to show work that they want to show be it their own or in a curatorial role.
In your view, what is one role of artist-run spaces today?
I have always felt that a primary focus of any artist run space is to allow for those that show with them the opportunity to exhibit work that may be a bit more experimental or to explore ideas that may not get traction with more commercially minded spaces.
What’s up next?
The next several months are really going to be great. After a stint of solo shows in the spring we are headed through summer and into fall with some great shows:
In July we have Ben Sanders, an artist from Los Angeles doing a solo presentation of enormous bottle caps that are hand-painted enamel on steel.
August is a two person show I’ve been working on with Austin Eddy which will be pairing up his paintings and drawings with Sylvia Fragoso, a ceramic artist from NIAD in Richmond, CA. NIAD is a progressive art studio that works with artists with disabilities, a cause I am very fond of. If you haven’t checked out their website, do it. So much amazing art from amazing artists. Very excited about this one.
September is going to be a three-person show with Allison Reimus, Stacy Fisher and Matthew Weston Taylor. I love all three of these artists and their show is going to be wonderful.
October is a show that includes San Francisco Based artist Brion Nuda Rosch and an artist Both Brion and I really think is someone special, Donald Walker. Donald, who before his death used to make drawings and paintings at NIAD in the early nineties.
November is going to be fun with another group show from Ryan Travis Christian.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Left Field, check out their website.