Out of the Bra and into the Barn: Two San Antonio artists resurrect their experimental gallery concept

Leigh Anne Lester and Jayne Lawrence's Cactus Bra Space has returned as Cactus Barn.

click to enlarge Left: Jayne Lawrence and her husband Whitney install Cactus Barn’s inaugural show. Right: One of the pieces in the new show depicts a flower with teeth and a tongue gobbling down a pill. - Leigh Anne Lester; Jayne Lawrence
Leigh Anne Lester; Jayne Lawrence
Left: Jayne Lawrence and her husband Whitney install Cactus Barn’s inaugural show. Right: One of the pieces in the new show depicts a flower with teeth and a tongue gobbling down a pill.

Launched in 1993 by like-minded artists and UTSA grads Leigh Anne Lester and Jayne Lawrence, Cactus Bra Space helped pave the way for many other artist-run spaces in the Blue Star Arts Complex.

Quirkily named after a sadistic-looking brassiere Lester fashioned from cactus pads, the gallery championed an experimental ethos during an impressive 19-year-run, hosting exhibitions for many well-known contemporary artists including Chuck Ramirez, Katie Pell, Ethel Shipton, Chris Sauter and Dario Robleto.

In 2012, Blue Star began an extensive remodeling project on the building that housed Cactus Bra.

"They ended up saying, 'We want to keep you, but we're reconfiguring and it's going to be a smaller space,'" Lester said. "It was still pretty reasonable rent and we were actually looking into [staying, but] the construction took so long that we got started thinking of different ways to generate money and still do exhibitions. And then we got to grieve it and let it go."

While Lester and Lawrence are both accomplished artists who have long held day jobs — Lester manages the long-running Blue Star folk art gallery San Angel and Lawrence taught art at UTSA until recently — they have also kept a candle burning for Cactus Bra's next incarnation.

"Ever since I moved downtown, it's been an obsession that would come and go," Lester admitted.

"We've talked about it for years, sitting in the backyard getting drunk after dinner," Lawrence added.

Fittingly, Lester's picturesque backyard is exactly where their collaborative endeavor is being resurrected in the form of Cactus Barn. After ordering a 13-foot-tall barn from Home Depot, the duo realized a contractor was not in the budget and got to work building it themselves.

"Instead of a boob lift, we did a barn raising," the duo jokes on their new Instagram page @cactusbarn23.

"It was blood, sweat and tears in terms of how Jane and I put our backs into it and got it done," Lester said. "Which makes it more ours in a wonderful way. But I never ever want to do taping and floating again — just so we're clear. Don't ask me. ... It all worked out in the end. If you've been by my house [lately], the barn kind of jumps out like a boogeyman. But once you get used to it, you don't see it."

click to enlarge Jayne Lawrence (left) and Leigh Anne Lester stand in front of Cactus Barn. - Leigh Anne Lester
Leigh Anne Lester
Jayne Lawrence (left) and Leigh Anne Lester stand in front of Cactus Barn.

Very much in keeping with the conceptual spirit of its predecessor, Cactus Barn will specialize in installation work — an angle of contemporary art Lester and Lawrence don't see enough of in San Antonio.

"Even though we showed all kinds of work at Cactus Bra, I think the thing that excited us most were the installations that people did — because they literally transformed a small rectangular space into something totally amazing," Lawrence said.

When asked about installation highlights of the Cactus Bra era, Lester paused and scanned her memory.

"We had one artist, Ian Pedigo, who built two structures that had doorbells in them," she recalled. "It blew the breakers out and that happened more frequently than I care to say. That was a fun one. ... Rebecca Hollen covered the floor in beeswax — and then we had an ant problem. ... And Michele Monseau covered the floor in cereal boxes and vintage velvet pillows."

Although it would come as no surprise if there's a reprisal of Cactus Bra alumni at Cactus Barn, the inaugural show belongs to Lawrence herself. A surreal symphony in pink, the installation employs a playful format to explore loaded topics.

"The title of the show is 'Love and Rage in Times of Conflict,' and the idea is that those are the two most emotive, motivating emotions," Lawrence explained. "When they come into a conversation, they can really stop the conversation. So I'm thinking about how things are [playing out] politically today and how people are communicating. So I [decided to do] a show that was tongue-in-cheek and had a comical approach to the idea."

That comical approach is exemplified by a nine-foot-tall sculptural chrysanthemum outfitted with human teeth and a tongue lapping up some sort of medication.

"You can decide whether it's the morning-after pill, whether it's a drop of acid, or whether it's Viagra," Lawrence said with a laugh.

A constant presence in her work, insects also make appearances in the form of ants and flies navigating the space.

Lawrence's use of paper as a sculptural medium nods to her 2020 Blue Star Berlin residency, during which she created a large-scale installation featuring walls, shelves and park benches crafted from paper and cardboard.

"When the show was all done, I folded it all up into a little box and walked it down to the recycle bin," Lawrence said. "It was refreshing just to be able to recycle the materials — and to not own it forever. ... I wanted to push that further."

Upon hearing this anecdote, Lester is quick to point out that Lawrence's nine-foot chrysanthemum — which might remind some viewers of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors — isn't destined for the bin.

"This is not something you're going to put into a cardboard box and recycle," she said.

But perhaps the most unexpected aspect of "Love and Rage in Times of Conflict" is Lawrence's unabashed use of pink.

"If you say you hate something, you have to investigate it — and I hate pink," Lawrence said. "So I thought, 'Alright, I am going to embrace pink and just go for it. And it influences the show and makes it more feminist. But that's been my go-to anyway: talking about gender and gender identity and roles and conflicts."

Following the inaugural show at Cactus Barn, Lester and Lawrence plan to program the space with exhibitions based on both invitations and submitted proposals. During our chat, Lester mentioned that the barn's unique shape and acoustics would work well for both sound and video installations. And if Lester ever needs to occupy the barn for her own creative practice or studio visits, she plans to activate Bitti's Gambrel — a street-facing portion of the barn's facade that could be used as an artist's canvas.

Whatever's on the schedule, Lawrence and Lester hope to establish Cactus Barn as an early stop for First Friday art-crawlers.

"The neighbors like it, thankfully," Lester said. "And we're planning on having openings at the geriatric sort of time so it doesn't become a party space. You know, come to the show, have a tipple and then head on your way to First Friday."

"Love and Rage in Times of Conflict," Opening reception 5-8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, Cactus Barn, 613 Mission St., cactusbarn.org.

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