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Desert Companion

Ones 2 watch: Jennifer Kleven

From her small downtown gallery, she inspires artists to take big risks

The current incarnation of Kleven Contemporary gallery is a spaceship command console — a crisp vision in sterile white streamlines and geometric vents, interrupted only by a tidy bank of computer readouts. It’s something right out of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Alien,” an homage to the triumph of technophilic order. But look again: It’s made entirely of paper. On that crucial pivot point, the installation by artist Andreana Donahue, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” turns into a commentary on false permanence and romantic illusions about technology. And it all happens in a gallery smaller than most walk-in closets.

“Having such a small space is difficult, but it’s exciting, too,” says Jennifer Kleven, whose tiny gallery (520 E. Fremont St. #186, klevencontemporary.tumblr.com) makes big waves in downtown’s Emergency Arts complex. “Because when you get an artist like Andreana who loves to work spatially, it can change the entire concept of what they want to do as an art show. The space definitely gets people thinking about making different types of artwork. It’s a great place to take risks.”

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Perhaps 27-year-old Kleven is giving too much credit to the 70-square-foot space — and not enough to her unerring eye for artists who excel at both concept and craft. Since she launched Kleven Contemporary in December 2010, she’s consistently put on exhibits that are sometimes pointed, sometimes playful — but always rigorously intelligent. Kleven Contemporary has hosted everything from paintings of classically posed nudes in kitschy environs (“Life Room - Blue Screen” by Emily Scott) to an entire hands-on, jerry-rigged broadcasting operation (“Somebody Kill the Radio” by David Sanchez Burr).

“Jen’s got an amazing eye,” says Jennifer Cornthwaite, director of Emergency Arts. Cornthwaite noticed that eye when she and Kleven took art history classes together at UNLV. She eventually nudged her to open a gallery. “She’s like a stylist when it comes to art. I tell people who are interested in buying art to find a gallerist who has consistently good taste — Jen’s one of those people.”

“I love contemporary work that sparks good dialogue and asks pertinent questions,” says Kleven. “I want to show the kind of strong conceptual art you would hope to see in L.A. or New York.” Finding that strong art requires a gentle touch: She doesn’t have a heavy curatorial hand. Rather, Kleven instinctively chooses good artists — and then gets out of their way. “I have complete trust in the artist,” she says. “With Andreana, I turned over the keys — literally — and let her go to work.” Which makes Kleven the perfect pilot for this craft.

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