Beyond the Matrix

MatrixArts once was a Midtown art gallery and organization exclusively for women. Today it’s a boundary-breaking art center, a bright light in the checkered revitalization of the Del Paso corridor

Rhett in his favorite milieu, the Matrix.

Rhett in his favorite milieu, the Matrix.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Del Paso Boulevard might look a little seedy to the casual observer, but if you know where to look, it’s actually bustling with activity of the artistic sort. In an unassuming little storefront—up north a couple of blocks from the Gallery Horse Cow, across Arden Way and next door to the Center for Contemporary Art—is the MatrixArts Space, located at 1518 Del Paso Blvd.

“This is not your mother’s—or grandmother’s—Matrix any longer,” says Rhett, the new artistic director of the MatrixArts Space. (Rhett, like Cher, Madonna and Liberace, eschews the use of a surname.)

Rhett moved to Sacramento three years ago from San Francisco, after he’d visited a brother who lived here. He liked the funky vibe of the Second Saturday art celebrations and the sense of community among the artists in Sacramento. After living in San Francisco’s South of Market district for 15 years, where he’d occasionally thrown ad-hoc parties-cum-art celebrations with friends under the name “Gallery Nomad,” Rhett had grown tired of escalating rents and the struggle of daily life, among people in general and artists in particular, that seemed almost Darwinian. “I got tired of real-estate people knocking on my door every day, asking me who owned the building,” he says.

MatrixArts, then known as Matrix Art Gallery, was originally founded in a Midtown space as a women-only artistic support group. It offered supplies, machinery, tools and collective information on techniques to its members. “Education was the main purpose of the organization,” says Jeanette Clark, the current president of MatrixArts’ board of directors.

Clark, a retired attorney and member of MatrixArts since 1982, could barely contain her delight with that organization. “One of the things that they did, early on, was to teach classes in order to support the space,” she says.

The organization today receives grants, which help support the art education programs it offers to the Sacramento City, San Juan, El Dorado and Rio Linda Union Unified School Districts. MatrixArts also provides outreach services to the community with hands-on workshops for children and parents, after-school programs in libraries and community centers, apprentice programs for young people between the ages of 12 to 24, hands-on classes and lectures on art, annual appraisals and a weekly meeting about the business of art, to name a few.

“They [school administrators] haven’t recognized the benefits of art programs in schools,” says Judith Monroe, managing director and MatrixArts Kids coordinator. “Even though, now, there are studies that show art and music really help a brain function better, and help kids learn their reading and writing better.”

Monroe, a spunky woman in her 30s with blond-tipped bangs and the energy of a Chihuahua, has been with MatrixArts for a little over a year. A married mother of two, she hand-colors black-and-white photographs of botanical images that look semi-surrealistic.

The braintrust at MatrixArts certainly looks like a happy bunch: Rhett, Jean Roach, Jeannette Clark, Judith Monroe, Maryellen Burns.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“The media changes, but the message doesn’t,” Monroe says about the future of art.

In the early ‘90s, the Matrix organization made an abrupt move and allowed men as members, which increased its membership significantly. The shift helped the Matrix evolve beyond its 1970s women’s art collective origins, which might be viewed as a limitation today; certain critics might devalue the offerings of a gallery organized around an ideology by assuming that political criteria would trump artistic merit when decisions on what to show are made. Matrix wanted to escape that, or at least outgrow it.

In 1996, Matrix moved from its former Midtown digs at 1725 I St.—now home to Michelangelo’s Restaurant and the Barton Gallery—to its Del Paso space, changing its name to MatrixArts at around the same time. MatrixArts began an ambitious program of off-site gallery exhibitions at the State Capitol, the Shriners Hospital, the SMUD Gallery, the Art Studio Behind Michelangelo’s and at various local businesses.

The recent addition of the word “space” has added new dimensions to the 25-year-old nonprofit arts center. “I don’t want it to be labeled as a ‘gallery’ any longer,” says Rhett. “We changed the name to MatrixArts Space, and what that entails is that I want all artists to know that this space is available to use, not just for members or an artist who paints or sticks something up on the wall. It’s going to be open for all types of performance art, spoken word, painting naked bodies, filmmakers—whatever the medium, Matrix is going to be the space to allow you to present the community at large what you are about and trying to say in your art. Not just things that go on the wall.”

Rhett is extremely interested in showing installation art, a medium that has been callously prohibited by many galleries because it usually isn’t priced or for sale. In other words, they can’t make money off it. Museums are even more finicky about installation pieces, more often than not showing works by rich and prominent blowhards or long dead artists.

“There is a whole school of installation artists who never get a chance to show their work,” says Rhett. “Even with the shows that are already scheduled I’m going to try to tie in one installation a month to be shown in the gallery.”

On February 23, The MatrixArts Space celebrated its 25th anniversary with an all-day visual festival and fund-raising show that featured 75 works by local artists, all priced at $75. Original art for the price of a framed print. Not surprisingly, it sold over half of the art in less than 10 hours, including an exquisite miniature oil painting of the Virgin Mary by Kiny McCarrick.

With the exception of the month of August, MatrixArts Space is booked for the rest of 2002, but in 2003 it will only do three months of booked shows; the other nine months will be open for group shows, open calls and emerging artists who haven’t had a show before. “I won’t be planning the whole year in advance,” Rhett says. “That allows me that if somebody walks in off the street and has some great art and wants to show it, I can do that. That’s something that I’m looking forward to.”

Things are already cooking at the MatrixArts Space with events like “First Saturday Evening Poetry Night,” hosted by Felicia. Then there’s a booking by the Elephant Graveyard Group Experimental Theater, a group from San Francisco that, like Rhett, relocated in Sacramento. “Sex at 18 Frames Per Second,” an hour-long performance that will feature, according to its playbill, Lenny Bruce, Medea, a Japanese doll, a Nike ad executive, a small tropical fish, two buildings, two laptop computers and other detritus of note, will be performed March 28 and 29 as well as later dates in April. And in August, Rhett has procured a month-long tribute to the collected works of the late Darrell Forney, the longtime Sacramento City College instructor, filmmaker, surrealist painter, crow enthusiast and Renaissance man who died this past December.

“There’s a whole lot more excitement here and it’s irritating some of the old members, but we all need to get shaken up sometimes,” says Clark, who is unable to hide her excitement. “There’s a lot more energy here, I love it!”