Portable Art: Zachary Johnson’s Flex Gallery at UICA

by Tamara Fox

Zachary Johnson’s unconventional curatorial project Flex Gallery is featured in an exhibition at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. Flex Gallery: A Public Project by Zachary Johnson, can be seen at UICA through August 4, 2017

Johnson is an artist and arts advocate who created Flex Gallery in 2016 as an unconventional means to bring art to the public. The project involves inviting artists to submit a contribution in the form of an armband, which he commits to wear for two weeks. The project was inspired by Clutch Gallery, a portable exhibition space in a purse initiated in 2009 by Chicago resident Meg Duguid. To date there have been twelve iterations of Flex Gallery, all of which are currently featured in the exhibition at UICA. Participating artists include Megan Altieri, Amanda Carmer Rainey, Tag W. R. Hartman-Simkins, Angelica Hay, Madison May, Rachael McKay, Greg Oberle, Alyssa Roach, Megan Roach, Jenn Schaub, Christopher C. W. Sutton, and Fan Wu. Because there are examples of the artists’ work displayed adjacent to their Flex Gallery submissions, visitors can see how their armbands resemble or deviate from their recent work.

Amanda Carmer. #stilluntitled 16. Archival mixed media and acrylic on panel 2016.jpg

Amanda Carmer Rainey, Flex Gallery Armband

The absence of directives from Johnson allows artists regardless of their medium of choice, to remain true to their aesthetic practice. Nonetheless, Flex Gallery has been a catalyst for unexpected experimentation by some of the artists who repurposed materials from earlier series, or necessarily modified their process to accommodate limits of scale and weight. The most unwieldy is Greg Oberle’s sculptural and surreal armband, comprised of doll parts. Johnson is surprised how viscerally connected he has felt to the pieces, particularly Madison May’s, which contains seeds and resembles a wound.

His interviews with the artists are posted on Arthack, as well as Vis Ed. Johnson is very adept at asking the artists questions that elicit thoughtful responses regarding their personal histories, aesthetic practices, and projected plans. This ease may be due in part to the fact that he is close to many of the artists: three are colleagues from the Children’s Museum, and three are fellow members of the Arts Collective, and one is his current housemate.

Megan Altieri Full Armband Small

Megan Alteri, Flex Gallery Armband

Flex Gallery is just one of his endeavors. Posts by Zachary Johnson are available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed. He is engaged with many arts and cultural organizations: he writes for ArtHACK, is a member of the Avenue for the Arts committee and Collective Art Space. He has worked as preparator at the Fed Galleries, served as art coordinator for Heartside, program assistant at UICA, City Parks Curator for ArtPrize, and guest service associate at the GRAM. Currently Johnson is staff member at Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

Angelica Hay Untitled Acrylic on canvas armband. 2017

Angelica Hay, Flex Gallery Armband

Johnson studied art history and Japanese in college, and briefly taught English in rural Japan. He grew-up in suburban Illinois, and lived briefly in Chicago, but wanted to experience living in a mid-sized city. Madison Wisconsin was a viable option, until a friend’s suggestion prompted him to visit Grand Rapids.


Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts
2 Fulton West
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
616 454 7000

Hours: Tues–Sat: 12–9 PM
Sun: 12–6 PM

Members and Children Five and under: Free
Adults: $5
Five and under: Free



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