MEMPHIS — Down in a former coal chamber, accessed through a stained glass restoration studio, is Tops Gallery. The downtown Memphis gallery, located below street level, was opened in 2012 by artist Matt Ducklo. Its two rooms are connected by a concrete passageway that appears to have been bludgeoned out with a sledgehammer. The small space is currently hosting The Inside Circle, an intimate exhibition of small-scale, dreamlike drawings by self-taught artist Guy Church.
I recently visited on a rainy Saturday afternoon when streams of water dripped along the walls of the space, the unfinished industrial setting with its ducts and pipes contrasting with the gallery’s gleaming white floor. Ducklo said that when the weather is nice he can open a former coal chute to the street to let in natural light. After spending a decade in New York City, Ducklo returned to Tennessee to start the gallery — just steps from the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, and other Memphis tourist attractions — and fill an untapped niche in the city’s contemporary art scene. Church, who is originally from Wisconsin but is now based in Memphis, was part of a group show called Voice of the Turtle staged earlier this year. Along with the more traditional gallery shows, the untraditional space also hosts site-specific installations like The Season Moved by Gil Ngolé. That exhibition, which preceded The Inside Circle, crowded the subterranean gallery with discarded artifacts found on the streets of Memphis, referencing the displacement caused by the Congo Civil War in 1997.
By comparison, Church’s art is a subdued experience, with each drawing in charcoal, pen, and colored pencil offering a snapshot from an obscure narrative. In “No Place To Go” a girl sitting in a chair turns her back to the viewer, while “Foul Ball” has a boy kicking at a ball with trees swirling like vortexes in the background. The skewed perspectives are unexpectedly disorienting, like something remembered from a dream. Most of the pieces are monochromatic, aside from one gleaming exception, “Enthroned Madonna and Child,” with its gilded figures inspired by a 13th-century Byzantine painting held by the National Gallery. It’s spectrally lit in the darkness of the first room, where each work is individually illuminated as if found by flashlight. Much like Tops Gallery itself, perusing Church’s work feels like making some clandestine discovery.