“Hello U” beckons the text on the frontage of Unit London’s nascent gallery space. Opening last month, with a lively solo show of work by Zhuang Hong Yi. The energetic opening was an appropriate complement to Hong Yi’s “colour-changing” acrylic paintings, described by Unit’s Jonny Burt as “fragile but robust”. With a red carpet and a band playing on the pavement, the private view itself was a sight to behold. Unit is visible. Be it from the pavement or via one’s computer. Offering something for everyone is at the core of the Unit ethos. I spoke to Jonny Burt about their artists, their exhibitions, and their ascent from struggling artists to Internet art world impresarios.
I really enjoyed your recent opening. It had a unique vibe to it.
We try to bring some theatre into the way we market shows. The audience was a mix of collectors serious about buying and a crowd big enough to turn it into a sold out show.. We always try to make it an experience. Not just a visit to a white cube with a turnout of 30 people – all collectors.
I suspect your creative approach to running a gallery is rooted in the fact that you are an artist?
I am a self-taught artist, Joe and I both are. We went to school together. While at university I studied fashion design, theatre and English and Joe studied psychology. I was trying to build my portfolio all of that time. I knew I wanted to be an artist. After university I found it very hard to break into galleries and get my work seen.
How did your gallery first launch?
We started the gallery somewhat unwittingly … because we were frustrated with the art world (me in particular). While pursuing my painting, I had started my own blog. It promoted the work of artists I like all over the world. Artists who inspired my own work. What I was doing (unknowingly) was building connections with quite well-known artists. I did not realise these connections would become quite useful to me a year later when I started this.
It is not easy to break into such an insular world but it sounds like your path has been very organic?
Indeed. We decided ‘we’re just going to do it ourselves,’ and start our own platform that helps us and other unknown/ emerging artists. Something very outward facing, nothing insular as you said. Our branding is “Just for U”. The U is emblematic of that unity, that community that just makes it an experience for people. We want to reach the widest possible audience.
One only has to look at Instagram and Twitter to see how much the art world has started to rely on social media. You guys were ahead of the curve.
Yes. Social media is everything. We have practically built a brand on Instagram. Our whole business in fact. We are even selling work through Instagram. One of our biggest clients discovered us through Instagram and they had never had a prior interest in collecting. Since they began following us, we sold them over a million pounds worth of art. He only discovered us 12 months ago!
It is almost certain that all galleries these days have some presence in social media. Comparing the feeds I follow, it is evident that some are more savvy or are able to transition to virtual representation more easily. Yours is the prime example of this.
That’s because other galleries are doing it (using social media) because they feel like that what’s what they should be doing. That’s the main difference. We are part of the up and coming generation. We’re young and we’re reaching out to the next generation of collectors. That demographic is all on Instagram. Twitter as well, but less so.
Can you tell me about the intersection between your online curating and actual shows?
We are doing an artist residency with Henrik Uldalen – he runs Paintguide, which has 200,000 followers on Instagram. He built his career on the platform. We will be doing an Instagram curated show in December. It we be a physical representation of his Instagram account using 60 prolific artists who each will feature in the show. All of these artists have between 80,000 – 200,000 followers. We will also be taking over Paintguide for a period of time, curating the feed.
It’s exciting to see space of this calibre taken over by someone other than traditional gallerists. This is hardly a “white-box” situation!
Not at all. We wanted to do something different. The amount of people coming in has been mad. The space is so symbolic of what our ethos is. We’re not tucked away in Mayfair, hidden behind a buzzer. We always have music playing . We are more everyday. You just have to go outside to look at our windows- it’s the branding. We are very loud about our branding. If you go on our Instagram, every single image will have the “U” in it in some way. It is so important to be recognisable. Just look at Apple – people believe in the mission that the brand is on.
People respond to continuity, we know this from semiotics. Did you and your partner come up with the concept?
We do everything ourselves, including the branding. Believe it or not, we only just started expanding. It’s been a bit mental! It’s been 24-7. We literally have not stopped. As you can see, we’ve just opened this space and there are still finishing touches. We barely sleep.
I first became aware of your gallery because you represent a painter I discovered online – George Morton Clark. And obviously your current exhibition is solely paintings. Your next opening is also of paintings. Do you only work with painters?
No, we work across the board. As you can see this a painting show but we do have sculptures. In January, we will be doing a solo exhibition of the work of Rick Orlinski a very famous Parisian artist in the Rosewood hotel in Paris. We have digital artists as well.
For example, we have these incredible infinity mirrors by Peter Gronquist, who was voted one of the 15 top artists to by Business Insider. He even gold plates tanks and helicopters and places them in front of the mirror so they look like they are going on forever and ever. He’s really exciting, he even does taxidermy. We are very proud of our roster- it is very diverse.
I’m tempted to draw a comparison between you and Opera Gallery with regards to the diversity of talent you represent, the street-level accessibility of the gallery, and the energy of your opening. Are you similar?
We are more everyday, I think. A key difference is that we don’t work secondary market . We are not interested in buying and selling – it’s more about the longevity of these artists. Zhuang Hong Yi is probably the biggest name on our roster. We are trying to help build their careers to the level that Zhuang is at – that is our mission with this gallery.
We realised the benefits of having an artist of that stature on our list … what it can do for a gallery. We knew that, when we were opening this space, we needed a really big artist – a landmark artist – to open the gallery with. Otherwise, we attend to emerging artists.
We do share with an artist with Opera. Her name is Cecile Plaisance and she does lenticulars of Barbie in various contexts. Everything from Barbie stripping to burka Barbie. One minute she has formal clothes on and then from another angle she is naked.
Have you sold much of the work from your inaugural show?
Yes, we have. Honestly, it’s amazing. Since then it has taken us to another level. Press-wise, collectors, sales. It is by far the most expensive show we’ve done. We’re seeing risks pay off. We did have some anxiety leading up to the show- “will we sell the work?” We have collectors but we’ve only been around two years and it takes time to gather collectors of a certain level. We usually sell between five and 15 pieces … but we’ve nearly sold out all the work in this show.
Can you tell me more about your next show?
Our next show is called NIL with work by Mr Jago who comes from Bristol but has exhibited all around the world. He has used oil for the first time to paint the body of work in this show especially for us. He is an established urban/street artist who recently obtained a more broad following after collaborations with Sony, Swatch, and the architectural firm Aedas. It opens October 22.
by Yasmin Bilbeisi
Unit, 147 Wardour St, London W1F 8WD
Tel: 07946 221476
The Mr Jago, NIL show at Unit is open to the public from 11am to 7pm, seven days a week, from October 22 – November 20.
Visit their space on Wardour Street to view Mr Jago’s show and other work. Keep up with Unit’s social media by following the handle @theunitlondon