Lump in the Throat: Bill Thelen’s Last Show at His Foundational Raleigh Gallery Opens Tonight

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A chapter in Raleigh’s art history will close Friday night, when Lump Gallery opens Anywhere but here, the final group show curated by outgoing director and founder, Bill Thelen.

Running through January 20, the show “marks the end and beginning of Lump” and features work by a coterie of artists from Lincoln Hancock and Rachel Goodwin to Jaclyn Bowie and Thelen himself.

But put down the handkerchief: The Lump name isn’t going away. It’s relaunching as a nonprofit, with Thelen’s collaborator and Flanders Gallery owner Kelly McChesney at the helm. Thelen will still be involved, only in a more occasional and/or advisory capacity. But he’s done hammering nails and patching the walls.

We asked Thelen to reflect on this transitional moment for both the Raleigh art scene and for himself.

What does the word “Lump” mean to you now, after twenty-odd years?

For me, I guess it was a space and a place that I was totally invested in for a large part of my life. It’s very complicated, because I tend not to look back too much.

Are you finding yourself looking back now, or are you more looking forward? You’ve built a new studio recently and curated the huge The Nothing That Is at CAM Raleigh. But are you reminiscing at all about the Lump space?

It’s funny, I was reading the perfect quote today, from the artist Larry Mitchell, and especially in this climate, it’s totally relevant: “I always considered sentimentality as the major emotion of fascism. Fascists are very sentimental, about the family and the mother and the children and all that crap. The right wing gets very sentimental about that stuff, about the fetus or whatever, and I find it a very offensive emotion.” I thought that was pretty good.

How did this last Lump show come about?

I really feel like I ended my tenure with the Lumpxx stuff [a series of exhibitions of legacy Lump artists over the course of summer 2016]. I still feel very involved, but after the Team Lump show, it’s been a very transitional period going from me to Kelly McChesney.

Kelly and I worked on the shows together over the summer and into the fall. And then for this last show in December and January, we were going to curate that together again. But then Kelly said, “Why don’t you just do it?” I really feel like I blew my load with the Lumpxx stuff, so this seems a little anticlimactic. But I sent out a call to everyone, saying ‘”Hey, I’m going to do this last show. If you’re thinking about what the gallery means to you, or about the past, present, or future of Lump, you can respond in any way.” This was a very casual kind of invitation. But it’s also a good way to shut the door a little bit, and to open another one.

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Bill Thelen, left, and Kelly McChesney/Photo courtesy of Lump

There are thirty or so artists in this show, so there will be a lot of objects. But one of the things I’ve loved about Lump, and come to expect from your shows, is that there are often just very few things in the gallery.

We don’t like to pack things in. A couple years ago, I was inspired by this gallery in New York that only showed one piece at a time. You had to make an appointment, and you just kind of engaged with the one work from thirty minutes to an hour. It’s kind of a way to slow things down. You go to these big group shows, and they’re so overwhelming. I’m thinking, “How do I get from this to that?”

Do you think you’re leaving behind a legacy in the form of a particular approach to curation?

I hate to speculate about this stuff. I’m an artist, and I’ve always felt a real kinship with artists. An artist’s approach is always going to be very different from the way someone who is not an artist thinks about and exhibits work.

Part of why I wanted to leave is that I didn’t think I could do much more in terms of Raleigh and this area. So I’m kind of looking to bigger venues and a more invested art-going public. For the longest time, I felt like I was just banging my head against the wall, even though I hear now that we were sending waves out. On a day-to-day basis, I never felt that. There would be days that no one would come in—years, it almost feels like. I feel like I was alone so much of the time there. But we built a community, too.

Bill Thelen's Biscuit King, on Display at the Nasher in Durham/Courtesy of Bill Thelen

Bill Thelen’s Biscuit King, on Display at the Nasher in Durham/Courtesy of Bill Thelen

Will Raleigh ever have that engaged art-going public?

That’s a tough one, only because part of me thinks that the whole gallery strategy or format is somewhat outdated. Lump started pre-Internet; now, the Internet makes you ask big questions about the future of art. You do need a space, though. You do need a place to build community, and that’s a physical space.

But now, what I see that’s more interesting is that there’s more things that are less commercially driven in a way that Lump used to be. It exists maybe more in performance or with writers and whatnot, who are less about material. Raleigh still has a lot of people making a lot of objects, and I think it’s a little too focused on that. I mean, I’m an object-maker myself of course, but I don’t see too many people taking it elsewhere.

What’s the new model, then?

After this election, artists have a lot of work to do. It requires us to give up of some of our self a little more. I also think that using a space to organize in an artful way sounds really interesting, and I hope that’s the direction that Lump goes in. Kelly is really interested in that, and I’m all for that—Lump being like a think-tank. We also still have to give space to what people are making and working on.

But also there’s a whole untapped type of artist out there who’s not being heard. I’m hoping that some of that can come out more. It’s really the time that social practice needs to unite and take over.

I think back to when certain artists—like John Baldessari, for example—had to decide whether they’re going to make work that could make them a decent living or make something that changes the course of what we know as art. That’s where I’m at right now. Can I allow myself to do that? Or do I just want to keep drawing bald guys for the rest of my life—which I’d be just as happy with, you know?

Anywhere but here opens Friday, Dec. 2, at Lump, at 505 South Blount St, 6–9 p.m. Secret Boyfriend performs at 9 p.m. The show runs until January 20, 2017.

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