n/a occupies a nondescript storefront on the corner of West and 43rd Streets, in the primarily residential Oakland neighborhood between the commercial stretches of Temescal and Emeryville. When it comes to non-applicability, n/a starts geographically; it resides not in an established art or commercial neighborhood, but rather lives among the people.

The actual storefront doubles as a residential and commercial space, confounding distinction as you step through the doors — particularly as you notice that the space is set up for both exhibiting and living, featuring an open gallery space, a bed tucked into an alcove and a kitchen off to the side, all of it so minimal and uniformly white that even the residential elements look like part of the exhibit space, perhaps serving as commentary on the existential meaningless of everyday routine. Or perhaps the opposite; perhaps, instead, elevating the everyday into the status of art.

According to gallery founder and curator Nicholas Andre Sung, n/a is an exhibit and event space with a focus on the queer experience as reflected in contemporary art. That’s about as far as the boundaries of the gallery’s mission statement goes. The rest is left up to exploration.

“I wanted to open a space that had a split primary purpose,” Sung said. “My interest was in finding out more about the contemporary art community in the Bay Area, and also in understanding queerness and the queer experience and all of the varied ways that it’s expressed through culture.”

Originally from Toronto, Sung has lived in the Bay Area now for seven years. He started looking for a place to live in Oakland when he found himself priced out of San Francisco’s Mission District. At the time, Sung worked at Pixar — he went to school for animation — but was becoming increasingly interested in exploring contemporary art.

“The idea to open a gallery had been in my mind for maybe the last two years,” Sung said. “I found this space, which is a storefront but also a home, and thought, ‘Well, this is a way I can have it both ways.’”

In the few months since its inaugural exhibit in May, n/a has certainly demonstrated a commitment to exploring different aspects of queerness. The first exhibit, “Your Motion Says You’re In the Mood,” by Oakland-based sculptor Christopher Füllemann, featured installations and sculptures that were also built to serve as furniture — which happened to work out well for Sung, who was living in the space at the time. “It was neat to wake up there every morning and, you know, eat breakfast on the sculptures,” Sung joked.

christopher füllemann

Christopher Füllemann’s “Your Motion Says You’re In the Mood.” (Photo courtesy n/a)

Füllemann’s work, which Sung described as a “perpetual engaging with not knowing,” drew inspiration from the life of musician Arthur Russell, an iconic cellist and composer whose genre-defying work was cut short when he died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 40. Füllemann’s invocations of Russell in his installations served as a stand-alone exhibit and also as a backdrop to a series of performances throughout the exhibit’s run that featured poets, musicians, an opera singer and a dancer.

“Everyone has a different understanding and expression of [queerness],” Sung said. “I want the work and the shows and the content of the space to think about queerness in a more expanded sense. I don’t have a fixed idea of what that sense is, but I hope that with all of the people I bring in and the work that they have, that the ‘queer experience’ will be shown as many things.”

n/a’s current show, “The Estrangement Principle,” is Brooklyn-based artist Ariel Goldberg’s intensive journey into the estrangement felt by queer artists, as explored in photography slideshows, texts and readings. At the time that I spoke with Sung, Goldberg’s project included an in-process 56-page exploratory essay incorporating critical race and feminist theory, interviews with artists and writers, and reflections on work by queer writers ranging from Susan Sontag to Kay Ryan.

Ariel Goldberg

Ariel Goldberg’s “The Estrangement Principle.” (Photo courtesy n/a)

Ariel Goldberg

Ariel Goldberg at n/a. (Photo courtesy n/a)

To add to the immersive, exploratory nature of the exhibit, Goldberg is n/a’s first artist-in-residence — meaning that Goldberg is currently living in the exhibit space and is constantly in the process of writing and creating the exhibit within the space itself.

There is both a liberation and a responsibility in the kind of non-commercial art space that Sung has created; since Sung is not in the business of selling the art he exhibits, he can do things that other commercial galleries cannot.

“Art is serious business, but in this case, art isn’t about the market,” he said. “It’s so important to me to be sensitive to different communities and to respect the integrity of different experiences. It’s a really incredible pleasure and privilege. I get to talk with artists about the things that they’re really excited about and compelled by and challenged by, and then I get to live with their art.”

Sung says he doesn’t know what the future holds for the gallery, whether it will be around in a year or in five years, which adds a certain kind of intentionality to his curation: “If I could only show five people, who would they be?”

In that way, n/a as an entity seems to be a living example of the explorations that Sung sought to create space for — an intentional, consciousness-raising effort to address aspects of queerness across different communities; a support for working artists in their questions of identity; an ongoing experiment in living and working; and a gallery that defies definition.

A perpetual engagement with not knowing.

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More info:

Ariel Goldberg: The Estrangement Principle

Where: n/a, 4304 West St., Oakland
When: July 19 – August 31. By appointment; see website for events and programming.
Phone: (415) 533-7856
More info: na-oakland.com

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Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

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