Since opening their doors 10 years ago, Jen Rogers and Kerri Stephens have made Varnish Fine Art a stronghold of the San Francisco art scene. After a decade of exhibiting in a traditional monthly show format, the co-owners and curators will be leasing their gallery space (with the exception of their offices) and adapting their way of working to a more dynamic, mobile format with exhibitions online and at larger, more ambitious venues. Jen and Kerri both have backgrounds in sculpture and work with a diverse roster of 2D and 3D artists, including Mike Davis, JennyBird Alcantara, Stanislav Szukalski, Ransom & Mitchell, Jessica Joslin, Chuck Sperry and more. We sat down with Jen and Kerri to discuss this pivotal point in their careers and look back on a decade of Varnish.
Let’s talk about your backgrounds. How did you both get into the art gallery business?
Kerri: We were both working at an art foundry in Berkeley doing sculpture. From there I went to a couple different sculpture houses and worked at the San Francisco Wax Museum sculpting. Over those years, we met so many amazing sculptors. It was great because we got to work with some great Berkeley ceramicists in the figurative movement, like Steven Staebler and Nathan Oliver and all these guys. We thought there were so many amazing sculptors out there and not a lot of places to show sculpture, so at first we thought about opening a sculpture gallery…
Jen: I studied sculpture and foundry technician studies in college but mainly I was pre-med. I maintained a science background and was an EMT for a while. Kerry had been working at foundries a lot longer when I showed up… As far as I know, for the kind of gallery that we are, we are the only art dealers with a sculpture background.
Jen Rogers original sculpture
Ray Gun by Kerri Stephens
Have you been in this space all along?
Kerri: We found a beautiful space a few blocks away, we were really lucky. Since we had our hands-on background from sculpture, we renovated the building and did all these metal facades. That was our original M.O. for having beautiful craftsmanship and a beautiful space.
Jen: That was over 10 years ago where the old space was. It’s no longer there. Part of the epic transformation/remodel going on for the City involved tearing down the building. We’re now in this new space. One interesting thing about the old space we were talking about is that both Twitter and Facebook had their launch parties at our old space. It’s funny because those are the two biggest social media platforms art institutions use the world over. Having those things not exist in the beginning when we started, and now here we are today and those are both vital to communication… We’re actually going to let go of this display area pretty soon and keep our offices and we’re going to be launching projects. We’ll still be doing displays but not in a single, static location.
Artist Lauren Napolitano, exhibiting artist Jennybird Alcantara and artist Mike Davis (left to right) at the opening of the Varnish 10 year anniversary show, “Decade-1.”
So you’re transitioning to a more online way of working?
Jen: Kind of both, we’re going to be doing a lot online but we’ll also be more mobile for showing work in person… We’re going to be doing pop-up shows at much more interesting and larger venues. Instead of being confined by curating within this box in various different ways, we’ll no longer be confined by having shows in this physical space but take it to a physical space that works better for that show. It’s more exciting after 10 years to do something dynamic that’s changing every time. Kind of getting outside of the box literally… This show is called “The Varnish Vault” and the first show we had in this space was also called “The Varnish Vault” so this is sort of book-ending it… We’re also launching a print business this fall so we’ve got all these changes coming.
Jen Rogers and Kerri Stephens at the opening of “Decade-1.”
Is this new mobile format going to affect the kind of art that you show?
Kerri: We’ll be bringing in some new artists and the idea is to hone in on what collectors are looking for and trying to match collectors with new artists. It will be more like pin-pointing rather than getting collectors to come to every show. It will be getting more personal in terms of what [kind of art] people are looking for.
Stacey Ransom of Ransom&Mitchell, Dan Quintana and Alex Pardee at the opening of Dan Quintana’s solo show
But are there going to be things that cater to the public, not just collectors?
Jen: Absolutely. The first pop-up we’re planning besides a show in LA we’re putting on in January is really in stealth mode right now, it’s still very much in the planning stages. And solid, with some solid artists. It’s going to be very interesting for a number of people: collectors, people who have never collected, people who wanna have an awesome, good time.
Kerri: Part of the whole experience is being bigger and being able to show bigger. Having this big sculpture background and some of the amazing sculptures that have come out of Burning Man, you know, being able to go out and being able to do events based around bigger pieces of work is going to be super exciting.
Going back to your background in sculpture, how do you feel the gallery’s focus has changed over the years?
Kerri: I think it’s been an amazing experience. One thing that happened with curating was that we started to notice how well sculpture and painting played off of each other and how well the two made each other stand out. We were trying to put sculptors together with painters and that opened up our eyes to the 2D world, which I wasn’t too knowledgeable about. But as we started looking at the 2D work, we realized a lot of the stuff was amazing so we started pulling in a lot of 2D artists and still doing some of the sculpture. Sculpture is hard to show, you really have to have a lot of room for it.
Jen: One thing that’s happened is that [we've gained] more confidence, because in the beginning Kerri and I vowed to only show work we love and we believe in. But that’s a gamble because in the beginning we didn’t know if everyone else would dig it too. Thank goodness they did. So we just kept on with that… You have to keep looking around and doing things differently. Like, if we decided to stick with just sculpture that would have been an artificial choice because we have broad interests.
Kerri Stephens, Kristen Sard & Ron Turner
Ten years ago when you started Varnish, how was the art scene in San Francisco different and how have you watched it evolve?
Kerri: There was a lot of excitement back then but it seems to me that things have quadrupled in excitement. With things like Facebook, people are putting their work out there and you no longer have a critic telling everyone what’s good and what’s bad because people are putting their work out online ad everybody gets to sort of judge it. I think the caliber of work has increased because of that. I think it’s an exciting time for the art scene because there’s a lot of it and everyone is participating.
Jen: I think in the beginning we were seen as punk rock weirdos. Because in the beginning we had a wine bar inside our old gallery. And it took a while for people to accept the fact that it was ok. It was abundantly clear that the shows were the primary focus, but if people wanted to come in and drink they could do that too. So we ended up selling work to people who didn’t think they’d be collectors. Our intention was to make an inviting, friendly gallery and I think that stuck. We were invited to be in the Art Dealers Association recently [looks over to Kerri], cool! Right on!
Kerri: I think one of the really awesome parts of the beginning when we had the bar, it was that idea of turning people on to art that wouldn’t necessarily go to a gallery. That was a cool part of the experience, turning people on to art that we like, which is sometimes sort of on the darker side and kind of beautiful and a little bit stranger.
Eric White piece in Jen’s personal collection
Stanislav Szukalski and Kevin Peterson in Jen’s personal collection
What are some of the most memorable shows you guys have had?
Kerri: A couple of the great ones… We did a Clayton Brothers show in the beginning that was sort of a kick-off for us. Sometimes the beginning ones are more memorable in a way.
Jen: There are so many. We had a show of very large scale Cherry Hood watercolors that were used to illustrate a book by JT LeRoy, which turned out to be one of the biggest literary Hoaxes of the 21st Century. We had an event with some celebrity participants including Laura Albert, who turned out to be the true author of the JT LeRoy books, and the model stand-in who was pretending to be a young, male truck-stop hooker. Kerri and I had no idea [about the hoax] when we mounted the show.
Chris Mars in Jen’s personal art collection
Fill me in on JT LeRoy.
Jen: The hoax was that this author, Laura Albert, claimed to be — through a stand-in, who was her sister in law, a model — this truck-stop male prostitute. Really gut-wrenching story about a poor, young, HIV-infected, intelligent, interesting, life-loving boy who wanted to have people read his writings. But it was really the story of the author that pulled on my heartstrings. I couldn’t sleep a couple nights thinking about him, I had a few personal phone calls with someone I was told was JT LeRoy. So I’m responding thinking, “Hey, I’ll do anything I can to help you.” But it turned out it was all a hoax. I think it was on the front page of the New York Times that I picked up when I was out shopping. I think I might have screamed.
Kerri: When we had him at our space, it was this whole secretive thing, like he had to go in through the back and no one was allowed to talk to him. And the whole thing ended up being a scam and he was ripping off everyone along the way.
Jen: The Wayne Belger show we had with pinhole cameras with human body parts inside of them and the photos that were made from them… I got kicked out of a cab because of that show, I was talking to my friend in the back seat and it was upsetting to the driver to hear about the works in the show.
Kerri: Stanislav Szukalski, we did a big retrospective of his work and it was really awesome to get these amazing sculpture pieces.
Henry Lewis in Jen’s personal art collection
How do you divide your roles and collaborate in the gallery?
Jen: Kerri and I have been extremely lucky and I feel lucky that we are partners in this because it keeps the vision of the gallery fresh. We don’t agree on every single thing. I think for the most part our artistic inclinations match really well but we do have debates on different issues, which keeps it fresh. I can’t imagine having a gallery without having Kerri here. The main thrust of what we do is, we converse with each other a lot about our ideological foundations. And from there it’s about me communicating and her putting things into action depending on whatever it is. The most important parts of what we do, we do together. How do we keep having as much fun with the least amount of work?
Kerri: It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been great.
Victor Castillo in “The Varnish Vault,” currently on view
Where do you see yourselves going in the next five years?
Jen: I would like to get us out to Europe. We did go in between the closing of our last space and this space to meet with some galleries and mount a show. That was fantastic and we want to do more of that. Being more mobile, doing what people call “pop-ups” in interesting locations, getting further away from San Francisco and the United States. In some sense, not much is going to change, we’re just adding to it and making it more dynamic.
Mike Davis in “The Varnish Vault,” currently on view
Jessica Joslin sculpture in the Varnish office