With its rich musical history and civil rights legacy, Memphis has a unique cultural identity within the US. Its intrinsic character is especially meaningful for photographer-turned-gallerist Matt Ducklo, who returned to his hometown in 2009 after a decade in New York. Since then, he has been steadily evolving Tops Gallery, which he opened in the basement of a historic building in 2012. Tops is now a thriving space, dedicated to showing work by artists with ties to Memphis and the surrounding southern region – and Ducklo was recently recognised with a place in the Wallpaper* USA 300, our guide to creative America.
The gallery takes its name from a local chain of barbecue restaurants, while making a tongue-in-cheek reference to its location. Among the gallery’s recent stagings is ‘Freedom and Captivity’ by Joe Minter, a self-taught artist and sculptor from Birmingham, Alabama, whose ready-made assemblages powerfully articulate the historical legacy of the African American experience and the struggle for freedom.
Minter lives in Birmingham’s Titusville neighbourhood, surrounded by his sprawling magnum opus, a didactic collection of artworks and sculptures that he’s dubbed the ‘African Village in America’. In partnership with New York gallery March, Tops presented a collection of four Minter sculptures and one painting in its secondary Memphis space on Madison Avenue Park, which opened in 2017. Lit and viewable to all who pass by, 24 hours a day, the vitrine-like space almost serves as a public space, even though it is privately run.
‘Minter’s show made a lot of sense in this space because his main project, “African Village in America”, faces the world,’ says Ducklo. ‘I focus on self-taught artists, and there are a handful from Memphis who are well known in the world of art, but maybe not in Memphis, like Hawkins Bolden and Henry and Georgia Speller. I feel like there is some connection from being in a part of the country where the most interesting things culturally – music or art – usually come from people who are self-taught.’
Highlighting this aspect of the American South seamlessly feeds into Ducklo’s ongoing vision for Tops. A successful photographer in his own right, who studied at the University of Tennessee under Baldwin Lee and pursued his MFA at Yale, Ducklo brings a sensitivity to his curation and steering of Tops.
'I had never worked in a gallery and I didn’t know anything about running a small business, but I missed seeing the breadth of shows I’d seen in New York. I thought having a varied programme and being in Memphis would attract artists from out of town and that it would be helpful for artists in town to be able to show in a wider context. I thought it would also be good for the viewer to not have a preconceived idea about what they would encounter at Tops and to be surprised.’
That element of surprise is established from the moment visitors walk into Tops’ original space, a basement room, in a 1928 building, originally used to store coal. ‘The entrance had been coarsely enlarged, most likely with a sledgehammer, in such a way that it looked like the entrance to a cave,’ says Ducklo. ‘I was thinking more like an artist than a business person in retrospect, but it seemed like a special place to view art. A portal. The room’s coal chute also led up to a manhole on the pavement that could be opened to allow natural light into the space.’
‘When you have a show in a midsized US city, it is understood that there is not going to be much of an audience,’ adds Ducklo. ‘But I have always thought that, with Tops, the most important thing has to be the quality of the experience. I know that many more people will see the shows through images online than in person, but I never want the gallery to be a setting or backdrop for installation images to be made.’
A version of this article features in the August 2023 ‘Made in America’ issue of Wallpaper*, available in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today
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Pei-Ru Keh is the US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru has held various titles at Wallpaper* since she joined in 2007. She currently reports on design, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru has taken a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars and actively seeks out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.
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