Branch Gallery is a white cube in the modern style, but entering it feels like stepping into another world: Space changes, simultaneously opening and condensing.
Outside, downtown Durham is a scatter of dark, weathered brick; inside, the gallery is a minimalist, orderly assemblage, all light and air. The works inside—today, pieces of Bill Thelan's show, minor character, including a miniature replica of the Biscuit King restaurant, a small video work, some portraiture—are all that seem to keep the space from dissolving into its surroundings.
"The last business here," says Harrison Haynes, who co-founded the gallery three years ago with his wife Chloë Seymore, "was a car dealership that sold Nash cars, if that gives you an idea." Branch arrived in Durham in 2006 after an initial two-year run in Carrboro. This new space has the same barrel-vaulted ceilings found in the Whole Foods on Broad Street. It's a remaining hint of the building's regional-industrial style and past that was transformed into an enclave of Manhattan chic when Haynes and Seymore enlisted Patrick Zung, who they knew from their time at the Rhode Island School of Design. Zung devised a floorplan that divided the gallery into separate exhibition, storage, inventory and work spaces. It's a rebirth for an old Durham room.
Like the space itself, Haynes has a long history in North Carolina: He was born in Durham. A drummer and visual artist (two passions he inherited from his father), he attended Carolina Friends School and Chapel Hill High while avidly participating in the local punk rock scene, playing with the Jawbreaker-style literary punk band Hellbender.
"In all my musical endeavors, I've always felt a little bit in these weird margins," Haynes says. Hellbender is often unfairly passed over among the great N.C. indie rock bands of the 1990s. "I don't mean that in a self-effacing way, but the way I've gone about making music has always been social and intuitive."
Hellbender soldiered on while Haynes studied painting at RISD, but by the time he graduated in 1997 and returned to North Carolina, the band was finally running out of steam. Guitarist Wells Tower, now a regular contributor to Harper's Magazine, was just starting to write, and bassist Al Burian, who went on to front Milemarker and found the zine Burn Collector, started moving around the country.
Haynes focused on painting, finding a studio in the Venable building (which now houses the Independent Weekly) with hopes of amassing a portfolio strong enough to land him a show somewhere. But Haynes, prone to focusing more on his work than the promotion of it, got off to a slow start: "I wasn't extremely diligent about finding out what was happening in the art community in this area. I wasn't knocking on doors with my slides."
He visited local galleries, though, and was intrigued by the way Raleigh's Lump Gallery was an anomalous shelter inside a larger city's industrial matrix. But the opportunity that has publicly defined Haynes fell in his lap just as he got started: In 1999, the Brooklyn-based art-punk band Les Savy Fav needed a drummer. Haynes had been friends with the band's members since their time together in Rhode Island, and they asked him to replace outgoing drummer Pat Mahoney, who went on to join LCD Soundsystem.
Haynes, a fan of Les Savy Fav's first record, 3/5, moved into a former Knights of Columbus hall in Brooklyn with a couple members of Les Savy Fav. He began hybridizing the percussive framework laid by Mahoney with his own eclectic style. "I was always into all different kinds of music," he says, "but with Hellbender I wasn't in a position to really explore drumming. Les Savy Fav opened that up for me."
The band took off. The debut had been released by small indie Self-Starter Foundation, but the band formed Frenchkiss Records to release its first album with Haynes, 2000's The Cat and the Cobra. In the early days, the band ran the label by committee, but now it's grown into a fully functioning and highly regarded imprint with releases from The Hold Steady and Thunderbirds Are Now! Bassist Syd Butler now runs Frenchkiss full time.
For the next four years, Haynes's life was dominated by touring, practicing and recording, while Les Savy Fav's furious, cerebral art-punk became a household name for the indie rock set. Nevertheless, the band, true to Haynes' Chapel Hill past, managed to stay on the margins of the Brooklyn-based rock boom, even though they were inarguably a part. "We'd be on tour in Europe, and people would ask us if we were part of the movement of the Strokes. I had to say no," remembers Haynes. "We definitely feel like a New York band, but by no purposeful decision of our own, we were sort of passed over when there was that classification of Brooklyn bands.... Maybe that was a point of pride for us, that we weren't classifiable."
Finally, in 2003, Les Savy Fav decided to take a bit of a break. Go Forth had just been released, and the singles compilation, Inches, was being assembled. Seymore and Haynes had attended RISD together and reunited in New York. Seymore was working on a film about emerging painters in New York, and Haynes says she was gravitating toward the role of curator, "someone who gives artists a voice." In a Manhattan loft, they launched Branch Gallery, showing work by friends from RISD and associates of Les Savy Fav.
It worked, and they started thinking about starting a bigger gallery somewhere outside of NYC, where real estate was increasingly scarce. Seymore, a Manhattan native, agreed to check out North Carolina with Haynes.
"The idea that we could do something like I'd seen in Lump in 1997, something anomalous, had so much potential," he enthuses. "We went by Lump and talked to Bill [Thelan], and on that same trip we saw the building for sale on Weaver Street. It all came together in a month."
According to Haynes, the Carrboro Branch was "an extreme mash-up, a turn-of-the-century mill worker's house containing our interpretation of a gallery." Eventually, they decided to investigate places slightly more urban than Carrboro. They needed more space, too: "We have a lot of stuff, despite the minimalism of the exhibition space. And besides storage needs, we wanted to be able to give work that same feeling of power you can get from looking at one tiny piece on a 20-foot wall in a museum."
Teka Selman joined Seymore as co-director after having directed a gallery in Chelsea. The first show Selman and Seymore co-curated was Floating Worlds, a multimedia exhibit where artists interpreted early Asian imagery in modern styles. It's easy to imagine this kind of conceptual project going over better in urban Durham than folksy Carrboro.
"I'm not saying that in Durham we don't get people coming in saying, 'What the fuck is this?'" Haynes clarifies. "But the foot traffic here is more determined, less haphazard. In Carrboro, people would stop by on their way to the Farmers' Market. In Durham, people want to see Branch Gallery."
Much like the artist himself, Haynes' artwork is soft-spoken, abstractedly intense and coolly observant. "I'm always trying to conjure the atmosphere and spatial quality that I find when looking at photographs I took as a child," explains Haynes, who doesn't have any creative input in the gallery's choice of exhibitions, since that would be a conflict of interest for a represented artist. "I'm going for a type of amplified reality, trying to enhance the peripheral details of scenes, the things that provide the fabric of reality for more traditional subjects to sit within."
Traveling with Les Savy Fav is a primary influence for those paintings, which is manifest in some of the pieces' gently feverish takes on landscape and space: "I spend so much of my time on tour looking at roadside landscapes, trying to decide what makes the treeline along the M4 different from the one along I-40."
At the moment, Haynes is off tour, back in Durham, working in the gallery by day and making his art. Earlier this year, he was focusing on Les Savy Fav, who have a new record, Let's Stay Friends, again on Frenchkiss. Les Savy Fav has traditionally played a rock style on the verge of implosion, with charismatic frontman Tim Harrington running amok in the spotlight. Let's Stay Friends, by way of contrast, is a more straightforward rock record, with Harrington doing less vocal pyrotechnics and more honest-to-god singing. "Personally, I think none of us were very interested in exploring genres as much [on this record]," Haynes explains. Inspired by the band Hot Snakes, Les Savy Fav stripped its sound to focus more on "the tradition of songwriting and arrangement within [their] own weird parameters" for this record. By retaining that weirdness while evolving its sound, Les Savy Fav allowed itself to grow alongside its fans.
But Haynes' current success with Les Savy Fav brings us back to his perpetually marginal status: He's a national musician in a local-band scene. His band doesn't live here; they don't play shows with the local bands; Haynes doesn't collaborate with local musicians (although he did play drums on Ben Davis' half of Battle of the Beards, a split LP with Des Ark).
"I love this area's music community and I know a lot of the bands," he explains, "but it is a little weird that a lot of people know me and don't know my band, or know my band and don't know me." To him, this is mostly circumstance. "I've never been an auteur-songwriter," he says of his dearth of local collaborations. "I work on this specific project with Les Savy Fav. But if I wasn't making art I would definitely be playing in bands around here. It's not like, 'Yeah, man, I just live here; I do my jams elsewhere.'"
Well, maybe it is a little bit like that. But it's certainly not a matter of ego or disinterest. Instead, the geographical disparity between Haynes' NYC-centric art practice and his day-to-day life speaks of an artist committed to his work, not to attaching himself to a specific scene. Durham only stands to profit from his energies.
"I have been really surprised," he says, "by the willingness of artists to come somewhere this remote." Branch Gallery has drawn artists from far, far outside of North Carolina: World-renowned Tokyo artist Taiyo Kimura will have his first solo show in the United States there in March. "Some people ask, 'Why Durham?' But I love that. I love the idea of this satellite community, and this whole area has such a strong foundation for fine contemporary art. I love saying, 'Why not Durham?'"