A DIY mentality fueled Signal gallery from the start. The gallery began in 2012 when Clairmont Jacques, a designer, and Johns, who works for the art book publisher Gregory R. Miller & Co., were first looking for a shared studio. Discussions turned to the idea of finding a live-in space where they could also host gallery shows: They were both 24 at the time, and figured that they could crash on couches or beds in a gallery space, no big deal. The money they would have normally used to pay rent on an apartment would go toward paying the monthly bills for the gallery, and Johns’s boss, the book publisher, was willing to chip in for some office space. They looked at 30 or 40 spaces, until they saw a listing on Craigslist for a building being used as a rug warehouse, buttressed by a cement mixing plant and a granite wholesale distributor.
They wanted it immediately.
“I came checkbook in hand,” Clairmont Jacques said. “I’ve never tried harder in my life to give someone money.”
The gallery flew somewhat under-the-radar for the first two years, connecting with Bushwick tastemakers and an interconnected crew of artists. In 2014, Signal started staging ambitious grab-you-by-the-collar projects, such as Tim Bruniges’s massive installation Mirrors, which consisted of two 9-by-9-foot concrete slabs with conical indentations, each with a speaker and a microphone in the middle that picked up and re-amplified ambient sounds.
“There was no chance that we could ever sell it, but it was so beautiful for us to make and to be around,” Johns said.
The installation hit a zeitgeist: New York
magazine put it in its “Approval Matrix” in the highbrow-brilliant quadrant. Shortly thereafter, Signal gave early shows to artists such as
, who was then scooped up by Andrea Rosen, the legendary dealer who stopped holding regular exhibitions in her Chelsea gallery and ceased representing living artists in February 2017.
secured a show at MoMA PS1
after her solo debut at Signal in 2015. In 2015, they showed
, a pioneering figure in the field of virtual-reality art, who has since featured in shows at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, and the Zabludowicz Collection in London.
staged her first large-scale dance performance at the gallery in 2016; in 2018, she collaborated with
for a show at the cavernous Gagosian
space on West 21st Street.
Signal helped young artists springboard to success quickly due to the nature of the large space, and the lack of any sort of pressure to give in to commercial impulses.
“The trick was always: You give someone this ridiculously sized space and you focus on the details making sense,” Clairmont Jacques said. “You take someone like
, who three years ago had basically only shown drawings. And then we did this show with her, and all of a sudden she had holograms and projection-mapped video works—10 years of her trajectory happened in a one-month install, and she’s been speeding ever since.”
The Signal mentality, as Clairmont Jacques put it, was “let’s give you your demo Chelsea mid-career show, let’s demo that 15 years before it should ever happen.”
The Signal artists started to gain traction and the market side of the operation began to pick up. With this came the pressure to support their artists by taking their work to art fairs and starting to act like real art dealers, placing works in high-profile collections and hustling PDFs of the work to potential buyers. As 2016 turned to 2017, Clairmont Jacques said momentum was rolling, and that everything was “revving up, revving up, revving up.”
“We were starting to sell art on some level,” he said. “Not enough to make a profit, but it was like, ‘OK, this is sort of happening.’”