iMPeRFeCT Gallery celebrates artists with commitment and the collision of high and low art

The concept of “perfection” in the art world is almost impossible to attain, yet that doesn’t stop artists from trying or critics from criticizing. It was the rejection of this nebulous idea of “perfection” (or acceptability) in the high art world that led Renny Molenaar and Rocio Cabello to open iMPeRFeCT Gallery in Philadelphia’s Germantown.

“How do you activate a space in a f-ed up neighborhood?” Molenaar asks rhetorically. “It was drive. It was also disgust with didactic artwork.”

Molenaar, originally from Aruba, owned the gallery Black and White in Color in the South Bronx in the 1980s where he met Cabello, originally from Peru. After the two started a family they decided to leave New York and move to Philadelphia. “We found a great place for a third of the price, a place that was still urban ghetto but beautiful. There are beautiful trees. It’s very bucolic. It’s a bizarre mix. It’s a very special area – historic. George Washington and Ben Franklin lived here, but it’s still a scary ghetto like being in South Bronx. [When we say] we’re in Germantown people are like, ‘Why?'”

But the identity of the place – beautiful but flawed – suited them, as its suits the non-for-profit gallery they opened in 2012, iMPeRFeCT Gallery.

iMPeRFeCT Gallery plays on that idea of “imperfection,” of not adhering to the proscribed “rules” of the high art world, in a very intentional and mindful way. Molenaar is more interested in artists who display passion and commitment while still making “good” – granted, an entirely subjective assessment – art.

“I [am] driven by what’s turning someone on – are they making something that’s making me stop, whether it’s through beauty [or process]? I love artwork that has aesthetic rigor but is not trivial. I’m not impressed by virtuosity, but I love technique. I love work that kicks ass.”

Art can be politically provocative. It can be aesthetically pleasing. It can be technically flawless. And it can be any combination of those things at the same time. Its “value,” social or otherwise, as a piece of art is not necessarily dependent on any one of those things.

“There has always been political art, that’s kind of like [propaganda] posters,” says Molenaar. “But there’s also art that is genuine, that is political without waving this finger at you. [We wanted] a gallery that was active, progressive – engaging the issues of the day but still good art.”

He says when he opened Black and White in Color in the ’80s, one of his driving goals was to exhibit artists “who had committed their life to their work without commercial interest, who had dedicated their whole life, who did not do the politics whether [out of resistance] or lack of knowledge. They didn’t engage in the art world.”

The same thing happens at iMPeRFeCT Gallery, he says. “I have an attitude, a chip on my shoulder,” he laughs. “I choose the artist based on their commitment to their work and what they’re attempting to do; not just passionate but committed. They put in the time. Artists come in with egos and only have seven pieces but talk like they have 140. It’s not necessarily about if I like the work – I’m more turned on by their commitment and production.”

Because they look for artists who are committed, they are totally unbranded as a gallery, unbeholden to any particular style or theme or social statement. Molenaar describes the gallery as being very connected to and committed to artists. “I always refer to a gallery as an artist-driven project,” he says. “Our brand is no brand, just passion. We have a space that’s kind of charming, kind of raw, and we keep it that way on purpose. We give artists the opportunity to fail and do what they do. We’re very eclectic not because we’re interested in being eclectic but because that’s just how the artists are.”

They will display outsider art next to graffiti next to fine art without flinching. “I like those juxtapositions,” says Molenaar. “It makes both artists look good.”

He describes the gallery as a box, and “not a very clean box – it’s imperfect.” They treat it as a white box formal exhibition space that allows artists the freedom and autonomy to do whatever they want with it, and they do mean whatever. Like, for instance, covering the walls – floor to ceiling, every inch of the gallery – in masa. Which will happen this March.

“I respond to artists. When someone proposes something like that to me [I say], ‘Alright, let’s work with it.”

The gallery, which Molenaar describes as a “grassroots international gallery,” hosts mostly solo shows with two to three group exhibitions per year. It is split into two distinctive spaces – the white box main space, and the “VIP” Red Room, aka the bathroom.

“Every month the Red Room changes. Different artists are invited to do an installation in the 4×6 bathroom. It’s tiny, and you can’t ignore the toilet. People do some outrageous stuff in there!”

A rotating art installation inside a bathroom is a nail-on-the-head metaphor for the mission of iMPeRFeCT Gallery – mixing the high art with the low, thumbing their noses at the traditional trappings of The Art World.

They just closed a show with Cal Schenkel, creator of iconic album cover art for Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and early influencer of Matt Groening of The Simpsons, who continues to make playful, quirky paintings. Next up is an exhibition of artifacts by Krampuslauf Philadelphia artists, a winter ritual and community procession based loosely on the Alpine tradition that has been held in Philadelphia since 2011. After that a solo show by Philadelphia artist Michelle Burton opens on Valentine’s Day, exploring a very dark and very personal theme.

“She very politely asked me, ‘Would you mind if I did something very personal?'” Molenaar remembers. “I don’t curate the shows; I facilitate the shows and make them look good. Sometimes I give [the artists] my unsolicited opinions. She’s doing a show on incest involving her ex-husband and her daughter. She’s going to cover the floor, the walls, objects. We’re closing for two weeks instead of the usual five days [to prepare for this show]. We will have panels, a healing dinner. She was very excited and surprised I was so supportive.”

Exhibits here run the full range of socially and politically provocative to light-hearted and fun. Recent shows have also included massive bronze sculptures and ceramic pieces. “It really is a mixed bag,” Molenaar states.

They also have artist talks, podcasts from the Red Room, dancers, video projection installations, children’s book releases, workshops, fundraising dinners, and Afro Cuban drumming (instead of the usual experimental noise or jazz you get at typical galleries).

“The way we do the social element, presenting the high and low simultaneously, we have sort of a hippie attitude,” Molenaar says. “There’s always tons of wine and beer. Everything is free – we don’t charge for any of the events. We ask people to bring snacks and drinks and leave them on the table. People will even help us bring chairs up from basement.”

Now in its third year, iMPeRFeCT Gallery is finally becoming more sustainable through fundraising. “We’re kind of insane to do what we do,” Molenaar says. “It’s not viable for us. We didn’t start with any grants. Our business model is to beg, borrow, and steal. But we have the luxury of being able to do what we want; we have the ability to tell artists, ‘Yes, you can cover the house in masa and we’re not going to make a dime off of it but it will still cost $3,000. We’re just going to pass the hat around.’ But we have the ability to do that, and it’s important.”