You’re welcome to visit Michael Velliquette’s studio to see his latest project. But know that he might turn you into a paper doll.
One of Madison’s most highly regarded artists, Velliquette is known for his intricate yet fantastical sculptures and collages made from colored bits of paper. In mid-2013 he embarked on a side project called “Lovey Town,” a tiny art gallery that is not only a place for viewing works of art but a work of art itself.
The miniature space serves as a lesson in art history, a forum for creativity and a long-distance way for artists to connect. Like Velliquette’s art in general, it’s also thought-provoking and often surprising.
Velliquette, whose artwork has been exhibited across the country, was selected in 2012 to represent Dane County in the important global art event EURCA+2012 in Kassel, Germany. “Power Structure II,” a Velliquette sculpture that grew out of that trip, was on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013. His multi-media sculptural work “Lodestar” now greets visitors at the Henry Street entrance to the Overture Center.
Lovey Town also arose from a life-size experience.
Before he moved to Madison from San Antonio, Texas, in 2007, Velliquette helped run a brick-and-mortar gallery space with a couple of other artists.
“It was kind of an extension of our practice — more of an opportunity for us to work with other artists, not to show our work but to build a community of artists and show their work,” he said. “So when I moved to Madison, I always had that in mind. I wanted to get another space like that going, but limitations of space and money and time prevented it.”
Velliquette, like many artists, sometimes uses a small maquette, or miniature model, to plan the layout of an upcoming exhibition.
“So I had this maquette of a gallery sitting around and I started thinking about small-scale — just the convenience of that, and the charm of the miniature,” he said. “That’s sort of how the idea for Lovey Town developed.”
Velliquette borrowed the name Lovey Town from his two young nephews, who coined the term for the spot where they keep their stuffed animals, or “lovies.” The artist’s first Lovey Town gallery was 30 inches by 40 inches in size, with walls 12 inches tall.
“I asked 15 of my artist friends, some here in Madison and some spread around the country, if they would submit a small work, somewhere between the size of a postage stamp and a postcard,” Velliquette said.
“And I asked them to send a photograph of themselves looking like they were hanging out at an art gallery.”
The show was called “The Joy of the Task Was Its Own Reward,” about the joy of making art. That was followed by “Friend of a Friend,” an exhibit of teeny works created by friends of the initial group of artists.
Velliquette wanted “Friend of a Friend” to be created by artists he didn’t know — “kind of a way to use this as a conduit to build community,” he said.
This summer’s Lovey Town show was “I Can’t Spell Group Without A You: A Group Show About Group Shows.” Artists were asked to reflect on their own group-show history.
“When an artist gets curated into a group exhibition, sometimes it can be this really phenomenal experience. Sometimes you can get curated into an exhibition with, say, Andy Warhol or some really famous artist,” Velliquette explained. “Or sometimes it can be this really anti-climactic experience, where your work gets put up in the hallway next to the gallery bathroom.”
Velliquette treats each Lovey Town exhibition as he would a life-size gallery show. He puts out a call for artists, negotiates shipping of the artworks, documents each piece, and publishes a show catalog complete with critical essays. The project has its own website, loveytown.org.
He’s also done podcasts describing the project. One of those interviews caught the ear of Ron Pollard, a Colorado-based architectural photographer and art collector.
Pollard’s collection includes 180 unauthenticated works of avant-garde Russian Constructivism — highly geometric works that were popular at the time of the Russian Revolution, but had to be hidden away after Stalin declared them degenerate. Some of Pollard’s collection was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in 2010, and now the photographer was looking for a new way to display it.
“I got this email from him last February saying, ‘I’ve got this great collection. I want to show it in Lovey Town,’ ” Velliquette said. Pollard created tiny reproductions of each painting in the collection, built miniature frames for them, and even shipped them to Velliquette in hand-built, doll-size wooden shipping crates just like those used by real museums.
Velliquette asked 15 other artists from across the U.S. to create original (and miniaturized) works inspired by Pollard’s collection for the exhibit, titled “Orphans in the Storm.” Meanwhile, more viewers and artists have sent photos of themselves posing as if they were in an art gallery. Velliquette uses those – and photos of visitors to his studio – to populate Lovey Town.
“It’s exciting because sometimes I get this random email at 8 in the morning, with a photo of some guy in khakis just looking at the wall. I print that out, cut it out and make these little dolls with it. As the word of the gallery gets circulated, more and more people are just sending me pictures of themselves, or their children, or their pets.
“So I think of it as sort of a social sculpture – it’s a project space, but it’s also this sort of social project.,” Velliquette said.
“Any time someone would hand a camera to someone and say, ‘Take a picture of me’ (for Lovey Town) – to me that gives it sort of a performance aspect. There’s a kind of silliness to it, a kind of playfulness to it. I love the fact that people will play in that way, to pretend like they’re doing something and participate in this process with me.”