Sala Diaz: Grassroots Art Space Grows World Class Art

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The two-room duplex at 517 Stieren St. is home to Sala Diaz, an offbeat opportunity for San Antonio artists to congregate, share and discuss art. Image courtesy of Wendy Atwell.

The two-room duplex at 517 Stieren St. is home to Sala Diaz, an offbeat opportunity for San Antonio artists to congregate, share and discuss art. Photo by Wendy Atwell.

There’s a little old house in Southtown, tucked away behind overgrown landscaping, that people come to and from all over the world.

Sala Diaz, an artist-run space, shows local, national, and international artists. But instead of the sanctified, guarded spaces that often house contemporary art, Sala Diaz offers the two rooms of an old duplex. On the front porch at any given opening, artists, friends, and neighbors gather to see the art, play music, and imbibe well into the night. Viewing art here feels intimate and informal, laced with elements of enchantment and surprise.

Museums and institutions can have an effect on art that is like placing an object within a vitrine. The art becomes objectified, its reason for being there a cryptic puzzle for the viewer to decipher. While art at Sala Diaz is always mind-bending and enigmatic, it breathes outside of the confines of hegemony. The magic of Sala Diaz results from a direct line of creativity. There are no middlemen invisibly layered between the viewer and the art – just a creaky old screen door.

Artists can express and share their craft with confidence and delight at Sala Diaz. Image courtesy of Nate Cassie.

A gallery opening day at Sala Diaz. Photo by Nate Cassie.

Mary Walling Blackburn‘s exhibition, “Anti-Fertility Garden,” will open Friday, Jan. 16, from 6-9 p.m. Beginning with this exhibition, Sala Diaz,517 Stieren St., will have regular gallery hours Thursday through Sunday from 2-7 p.m.

Much of the gallery’s success can be credited to Hills Snyder, outgoing director and curator of Sala Diaz. On Jan. 1, Snyder passed the baton to Anjali Gupta, who was the executive director and editor in chief of Art Lies until 2010, and since 2013 has directed the Casa Chuck Arts Residency program at Sala Diaz. She will oversee the last of Snyder’s program throughout 2015 and begin her own programming in 2016.

Snyder, who is also an artist, musician, writer, and Senior Lecturer at UTSA, has been directing Sala Diaz since 1997, when founder, Alejandro Diaz, left to attend the Bard Curatorial Studies Program. Since then, Sala Diaz has continued to grow an outstanding international reputation. Snyder’s combination of trickster humor and intellectual genius marked each show. His press releases read like a cerebral joyride overlaid with Zen humor. Aside from community support, Snyder has covered many expenses out-of-pocket, maintaining a grass-roots approach to running the space that is pointedly anti-establishment.

Snyder considers Mike Casey, a well-known arts philanthropist and attorney, Sala Diaz’s “godfather.” Casey owned the duplex at 517 Stieren St. and donated the rent from 2001 until 2007, when Snyder obtained nonprofit status for the space. In 2013, Casey gifted the property to Sala Diaz.

(From left to right): Julieta Aranda, Hills Snyder, and Regine Basha pose for a photo. Image courtesy of Chuck Ramirez.

From left: Julieta Aranda, Hills Snyder, and Regine Basha pose for a photo in 2008. Photo by Chuck Ramirez.

I asked Snyder to describe the way some of the shows have come about.

“It was really just serendipity that determined my choices, whatever happened to cross my path with the intent to mix local with national and international artists and/or the well known with the obscure,” Snyder said. “The one thing I avoided like the plague was the curator virus thing through which homogeneity is created: everybody falling over themselves to get the ‘it’ artist of the moment.”

Snyder found other ways to fill his roster. For example, he met the Frank brothers, Daniel and David, at an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru.

“I didn’t really accept proposals from artists,” Snyder said. “But Rae Culbert made a two-minute pitch at a Christmas party that was so quick and to the point that it won me over immediately.

The "Sinche Medicina" show by David and Daniel Frank. Their first show at Sala Diaz. Photo by Hills Snyder.

The “Sinche Medicina” show by David and Daniel Frank. Their first show at Sala Diaz. Photo by Hills Snyder.

Culbert sealed all the windows and doors by covering them on the inside with corrugated tin installed at an angle, filling the wedge-shaped cavity with dirt, rocks, and roots, forming a tunnel that allowed entry to the gallery from the south side of the house. The tunnel allowed Snyder to stand up to full height under the floor. Others who entered the space found a crude ladder built of post cedar that led up to a trap door cut in the floor of the bathroom. A flashlight hung from the ladder.

“Once inside the gallery, which was completely unlit, visitors would shine the light around inside to make their way in,” he said. “The effect was that the house was completely underground. The show, which took place in 2003, was named Tora Bora, after the location that was said to be the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden.”

He credits Casey for making Sala Diaz “the most adaptable space in town” and Culbert for perfect restoration.

Snyder’s recollection of Todd Brandt’s show demonstrates his easygoing attitude about running the space.

“(Brandt’s show) was certainly one of the highlights along the way. He mounted a plywood shelf at the height of the windowsill that extended throughout the two front spaces, effectively raising the floor to that height. The shelf necessarily prevented the front door from opening, so viewers were limited to looking through the windows or entering the gallery through the back door and viewing the piece from the hallway.

The door at Sala Diaz. Image courtesy of Wendy Atwell.

The front door to the Sala Diaz artist space. Photo by Wendy Atwell.

Viewers saw a surface that filled both rooms and the connecting doorway with thousands of plastic creamer cups filled with acrylic pigment in a wide array of colors, forming a stunning display, he said.

“An hour before the 7 p.m. opening, the piece was still several hundred cups short of being finished, so in total Sala Diaz fashion, we called upon help from several people in the neighborhood, including one guy that was just walking by,” he said. “We got it done right at 7. A couple of weeks later, a neighborhood cat gained entry and left a trail of curiosity through both rooms — knocking over cups forming a U-shaped peruse from the hall through one room and around back to the hall through the other room. Todd was pleased.”

Thanks to Snyder’s flexibility and openness, artists felt free to experiment with their work.

“The very first of the leaning panels that Yunhee Min became known for were done at Sala Diaz, one in each room,” he said. “I built the panels for her, and she painted them in her brilliantly minimalist style. One day in the middle of the show, I found someone sleeping under one of the lean-tos and just left them to finish their snooze while I busied myself with one thing or another.”

Korean-born artist Min’s work is exhibited and collected on an international scale.

Snyder described his mantra as curator as one of “casualness, serendipity, and stealth.” I asked his successor, Gupta, what her mantra will be.

Anjali Gupta

Anjali Gupta

“My curatorial approach will inevitably differ from Hills’, as he is a completely unique thinker of a different generation with a highly cultivated set of aesthetic sensibilities,” Gupta said. “That said, we do share a penchant for subtlety and anti-authoritarian leanings. My role as director is an entirely different matter. I tend to be pretty by-the-book. Sala Diaz is the kind of venue in which such a right-left brain combo can not only flourish, but be of direct benefit to the exhibiting artists, which is, of course, the end goal.”

Buster Graybill, Sarah Franz, and Mat Kubo will be some of the first artists Gupta presents. Gupta chose them because “Buster, Sara and Mat are three of the most interesting young artists I’ve encountered in recent years. Buster’s work foregrounds a rural aesthetic largely ignored and/or marginalized in the contemporary arts. Sara’s gouache and graphite renderings alternately highlight and becloud the intersection of architecture and the environment.

“Mat is a prankster-slash-poet whose performance-based works probe the modalities of interpersonal communications,” Gupta said. “All are intensely process-based, but the end results are dramatically different.”

What inspired Snyder to pass the mantle to Gupta?

“Anjali is super smart and very well-connected and 20 years younger,” Snyder said. “She also knows the value of grassroots funky. We share the same distaste for the conformist lingo that is ubiquitous in the art world. She knows how to get down. She is an experienced fundraiser and an accomplished writer. Plus it seems just.”

Gupta will soon launch a capital campaign to raise funds to restore the building, establish stipends for artists and curators, and provide a salary for the director/curator.

A marker denoting the Casa Chuck Arts Residency program at Sala Diaz. Image courtesy of Wendy Atwell.

A marker denoting the Casa Chuck Arts Residency program in honor of Chuck Ramirez at Sala Diaz. Photo by Wendy Atwell.

“In addition, the Casa Chuck Residency Program for curators will be put into overdrive through an increase in the frequency of official residencies and the marriage of the participants and our exhibitions program, both on and off-site,” she said.

Snyder’s art has been exhibited both locally and internationally. He was a resident artist for the ArtPace IAIR Program in 2005 and has received multiple travel grants. His installation-based art presents labyrinthine adventures, sometimes physically, and always conceptually, spiked with multiple layers of allusions, meaning, and ephemera.

Most recently, Snyder plays in a band he founded in 2011, Wolverton, which includes his partner, Caralyn, and artists Jeremiah Teutsch and Kate Terrell. Wolverton has three albums, produced by Joe Reyes, and their latest EP, “Horse Head Dawn,” is on the Folk, World & Roots Music Best of 2013 Editor’s Choice list. They have two upcoming house concerts, Jan. 24 and Feb. 7. Wolverton will use all proceeds to go the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, where under the moniker, Wolverton Home Concerts, they will host a performance room to play in along with two dozen other artists.

*Featured/top image: The two-room duplex at 517 Stieren St. is home to Sala Diaz, an offbeat opportunity for San Antonio artists to congregate, share and discuss art. Photo by Wendy Atwell.

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