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Surreal Moment for Old Town Art Scene

Art Whino's revolutionary plans for local gallery.

Opening the front door at 717 N. Saint Asaph Street in Alexandria, one is greeted by the sight of classic pianos, stretched from wall to wall, and grasped by a feeling of undeniable transition.

Each baby grand and concert upright is adorned with yellow squares of paper advertising deep discounts, as the showroom continues its prolonged going-out-of-business sale.

Gordon Keller, the gentlemen who’s been selling pianos in this space since 1995, is asked about the new tenants that have taken up residence at the address; the ones whose approach to art is as far removed from the norm in Old Town as Keller’s ivory keys are from the latest Radiohead album.

"Oh," said the affable piano man, "you’re looking for what's upstairs."

One business ends, another one begins, just as one door closes and another one opens — leading to a narrow stairwell framed by an unwieldy mural reminiscent of graffiti art. Call it urban, call it edgy; it’s the kind of creative energy found throughout Art Whino, the latest addition to Alexandria’s gallery scene.

"We’re in Old Town, where it’s really kind of a traditional. And people are like, ‘Thank God you’re here, because we need this,’" said Shane Pomajambo, one of the co-owners of the gallery.

He and his partner, Theo Androus, stand in a gallery space with stark white walls and striking works of art resting against them. The buzz of saws echo through the halls, as construction continues on what will become work spaces for roughly 16 resident artists.

"Our vision for this is to be a center for the arts, which gives an outlet to people. I think it’s a 10-year waiting list for people to get into the Torpedo Factory. Our concept here is to have a permanent gallery and then a place for people to be creating art," said Androus, a motivational speaker who lives in Alexandria. "The Torpedo Factory has been a phenomenal success, but it’s very mainstream. This is more counter-culture."

THE MOVEMENT has been "low brow" and "pop surrealism" and "urban contemporary." It’s edgy modern art that uses a multitude of media and offers strong social, sexual and political commentary through striking and surreal imagery.

Pomajambo, who lives in Great Falls, had been following it since the late 1990s, when the movement boomed in California. "I started collecting different art from the guys in California, and then through MySpace I connected with artists from around the world," he said.

Androus said the development of Art Whino was supported and encouraged by many of the artists and art lovers the duo connected with on MySpace, the online social networking site.

"What’s really amazing about this is that we had no idea the pent-up interest in this thing. Shane put up the MySpace site, and within one week we had 1,300 friends or visitors. Today, less than 60 days later, we have over 13,000," he said. "There’s this huge underground movement and this groundswell of interest."

Art Whino’s gallery will debut with an opening reception on Friday, Oct. 19 from 6-11 p.m. The featured artist for the opening will be Derrick Wolbaum, but 40 other artists will be featured in an "artist collaboration" exhibition, including Scott G. Brooks, Kelly Towles and Jake Coleman.

The artists will be handpicked for each month’s shows from all over the world. "The reason it’s international and domestic is that this movement is worldwide. To have all the different influences in one building is a really amazing experience," said Pomajambo, who added that solo shows have been booked through Sept. 2008.

The 22,000 sq. ft. facility — Art Whino plans to take over Keller’s space when the piano shop finally closes up — will include rented spaces for working artists, including one large room in which over a dozen will work together. "You come to the shows, everybody’s mingling, and then you come in here and its raw work," said Pomajambo, who also runs MODERNE, an architecture design firm located on South Payne Street in Alexandria.

"We want to have artists in here who will be worthy of being in the front," said Androus. "We also have private studio spaces, but we have artists who’ve said they’d rather be in an area where they can collaborate and feed off each other’s energy."

BESIDES THE emphasis on urban contemporary art, the Art Whino gallery promises to offer some innovative options for local enthusiasts.

For starters, the gallery will be open later than most in Old Town — from 6-11 p.m. There are plans for a coffee bar, and for bands, DJs and performance artists to perform on a nightly schedule.

"We want people to come every weekend, because there’s going to be something that’s going to bring the building alive," Pomajambo said. "We want it to be a daily destination."

The building at 717 N. St. Asaph Street has been a daily destination over the decades, including when it used to house the Alexandria Gazette. Androus, who said the phone lines still had editorial labels on them, remembers bringing articles that his grandfather had written to the Gazette offices.

"I never thought that one day I’d own the building," he said.

In a location that has transitioned from the written word to classical music to pop surrealism, Art Whino is the next evolution for art in Alexandria — one that Androus believes the public is demanding.

"We would have never done this to this scale if there wasn’t that level of interest," he said. "People want to see this succeed. And they’ll be a part of it."