GNU Gallery (photo courtesy of Doug Usher)

By Lincoln Greenhaw
Deep underneath downtown Fort Collins, dogs roam among provocative paintings and cardboard forts constructed during the night. There is quiet as hammers and electric saws finish their work on a music stage for a new kind of art gallery.
This is the GNU Experience Gallery (pronounced “new”), owned and operated by the artist trio of David Myers, Brandton Manshel and Tomas Herrera. They have taken over the former Gallery Underground at 109 Linden St. (underneath Old Town Square) and have stuffed the space with ambition.
“We’re going to focus on being a multi-purpose gallery,” Manshel said. “We’re going to continue where we think the Gallery Underground was going by building a stage and having music…and being open more often.”
The GNU space will open during the gallery walks on the first Friday of every month, but breaking with the tradition of the Gallery Underground, it will also stay open on many weekday afternoons. Upcoming concerts, like that of Fort Collins hip-hop favorite Otem Rellik on Friday, June 3, will further expand the schedule.
The new owners’ focus on multimedia plays into the idea of the art gallery as a sensory experience, not just a place to buy paintings. Manshel sums up this new gallery concept as “a place to house the things that are collectively in our heads.”
That last phrase is a remarkably accurate description of the gallery’s first exhibition of paintings by local artists Paul Keefe and Justin Camilli. Many of the wildly original paintings feature realistic faces overlaid with nightmarish colors and sketches that look almost psychiatric in origin.
There are paintings of Michael Jackson in religious poses and a whole section of prehistoric images. There is a painting on an index card of a person with a massive head wound that reads: “I will heal you and keep you safe.” All of these give you the feeling of being inside someone else’s head, or possibly inside some less rational part of the body.
“If it starts a conversation, then we want to bring it into the space,” Herrera said. “There’s a social expectation to have a veneer over ourselves that is very cordial and polite. This show demonstrates the feelings underneath that.”
The gallery’s current exhibition of innovative paintings can be unsettling at times. Nevertheless, the images on the walls quickly become much more interesting than small talk, and in a world of Twitter and 24-hour news, that experience is a rare and special thing.
For Herrera, the idea of starting an experiential gallery came from his time as an actor and director.
“I think we have a lot of things inside us that rarely have outlets for expression. I think that film is probably the most accepted form of exploring that, because you’re in a dark room – it can be a very personal experience for you because there’s nobody watching. What I’m really interested in is that we can have shows like these where people can come together to look at this stuff and then come together to have a conversation about it.”
Conversation is a word that you hear often from the artists at the gallery.
“We’ve been talking a lot about how we shouldn’t consider life as a game, but as a conversation – something that you’re actively participating in without an end result,” Myers said. “With a story, you have one climax near the end, but in a conversation you have lots of climaxes.”
One of the conversations that the gallery will be hosting on Friday, June 10, will be dedicated to humor.  Professor Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, has dedicated himself to finding out why people laugh. His “Benign Violations” theory of humor has landed him in both The New Yorker and Wired Magazine.
According to Myers, embracing humor is just one more way that the GNU gallery wants to bring the unexpected into their space.
“I think that art can be considered a pretty frivolous way of spending your time and that a lot of the art world has dealt with that through becoming very serious in contrast to it,” he said. “We’re trying to get back to the frivolous.”
Regardless of the silliness, the GNU gallery has already hosted several successful events unlike any downtown happenings in recent memory. One of these was an all-night cardboard-fort-building party on Friday, May 13. Many more people than expected showed up to rebuild their 8-year-old empires.
In the end, the gallery hopes to help those struggling to make art, both professional and would-be artists, to find an alternative means of making and surviving.
“The experience is something that people should want to pay for,” Manshel said. “Collecting the art is what the art world has currently turned into – it’s the only reason for artists to do art. Otherwise it just piles up and piles up.”
The GNU Experience Gallery is located at 109 Linden Street. You can email them at gnugallery@gmail.com.
Upcoming events:
• Otem Rellik (concert), Friday, June 3 @ 7pm
• Peter McGraw (lecture), Friday, June 10 @ 6:30pm