Dark Horse ArtBar wants to be a “living gallery” on East Wash

Printmaking, pop art, and a variety of music are the main focus at the new venue.

Printmaking, pop art, and a variety of music are the main focus at the new venue.

Photo: Posters from a recent art show hang on a blue wall at Dark Horse ArtBar, with the bar in the background.

Turning the former Star Bar on East Wash into the new gallery/bar/venue Dark Horse ArtBar took some elbow grease, but the guts were already there. And so was a rapidly changing landscape for venues in the neighborhood. Spaces for music and art are either springing up or holding on amid the area’s boom of redevelopment, ranging from Robinia Courtyard to the non-profit Arts + Literature Laboratory to Live Nation subsidiary FPC Live’s 2,500-capacity flagship, the Sylvee. (Another important local venue in the neighborhood, Bos Meadery, will have to move soon to make way for another new high-rise.)

Dark Horse owner Patrick DePula and art curator Samuel Johnson (who is also DePula’s business partner and provides general maintenance) hope the space, which opened on October 15, can complement its neighbors large and small with a mix of art and music programming. They’d like people to think of it as a gallery first and a bar second.

When Star Bar went out of business this August in the space at 756 E. Washington Ave., DePula saw an opportunity to revive a shelved concept in a new form. Next door, DePula operates one of four locations of pizza restaurant Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, which he co-owns. But before it became another Sal’s, DePula and chefs Jed Spink and John Jerabek opened it as a short-lived spin-off restaurant called DarkHorse by Sal’s, which later became a fourth location of Salvatore’s.

The Dark Horse name was on ice during most of the pandemic, but now it has returned—albeit now with a space—and with a different mission. The first DarkHorse sported a brash, almost over-stimulating interior decor that channeled DePula’s idea of a “punk rock” aesthetic. That approach carries over to the new Dark Horse bar. Over the doorway into the bar is a neon sign of a hand with its fingers crossed, as if wishing luck or good favor to all who enter.

They hung sound-treatment tiles on the ceiling, built a stage backing up to the bar’s front windows, bought cozy second hand furniture to create the lounge areas, and brought bar stools from the Sun Prairie Salvatore’s.

They hope the space they’ve created will be a “living gallery,” as DePula puts it, rather than following the social patterns of the typical art show, where most of the action happens on the first day or during a one-night reception.

“This is more of a hangout, where people can have a drink,” Johnson says.

They also removed a row of booth seating that had been in Star Bar to fit comfy chairs and couch. Johnson didn’t want people eating or drinking in a booth to have people staring over them to see the art on the walls above them, and wanted to make sure there was space for people to get up-close to the art.

“They can spend time, be immersed in the art, chill, order food from next door,” DePula added.

A french horn with a glowing pink orb placed in the bell, an illuminated snare drum, and a vintage media console with lamps provide lighting centered around a musical theme.

Behind the bar are wooden skateboard decks from GETBENTpress screen printed with a calaca or Mexican-style skeleton and some esoteric-looking symbols, in a pen and ink design. But the diamond plating lining the foot of the bar and windows, along with an exposed ceiling, add a bit of an industrial flair to the space.

There’s also smatterings of graffiti on some of the walls from inviting artists to come tag, and Johnson has a vision for one of the gallery walls to be in keeping with the “living space” concept—that different artists could repaint the wall to better match the colors or themes of their art.

“It might end up bright pink at some point, who knows?” he says. “It will evolve with the shows and the artist. I had an artist ask if they could design the whole space.”

Every month will feature different artwork on the walls—through solo and group shows curated by Johnson. The first, The Art Of Sound, ran through November 9 and featured screen-printed concert posters from Johnson and six other artists from around the Midwest, including Madison’s Rob Oman.

Some of the posters in The Art Of Sound had a folksy texture, like Milwaukee artist Carolyn Adkins’ poster for Madison band Armchair Boogie, which featured an owl perched upon a banjo in a pumpkin patch—rendered in an autumnal mix of golden and brown tones. 

Minneapolis artist Ben Nylen’s work had a metal feel, featuring skulls forming from smoky tendrils, a pile of rats emerging from what looked like intestines or worms, and the iconic hissing face of Batboy.

Johnson’s own art in the show captured a variety of aesthetics. A poster for a Bongzilla show at the High Noon Saloon was dominated by an Art Nouveau style wizard in earthy, mossy shades of green. Another, for an English Beat show at the Majestic, grabs attention with its use of just three colors—black, red, and white—to illustrate in a pop art style a woman cooly reclining on an electric scooter with a flowy neckerchief and checkered tights. 

Dark Horse’s second exhibition, a showcase of work by members of Madison printmaking collective Polka! Press, opened on November 12 and ran through November 29. 

Nine members participated with at least one piece of art each, Polka! Press secretary Benjamin Pollock told Tone Madison

“It’s a pretty broad range both in terms of skill level and style of art that we do,” he says.

The show featured varying forms of printmaking ranging from screen printing and letterpress to lithography and etching press. Bernie Witzack’s abstract arcs of color made one corner of the bar particularly bright. James McKiernan’s prints of fishing lures captured the rich textures of tied feathers and carved wood. One of Pollock’s works portrayed a bird’s wings as a series of radiant, overlapping planes.

“Some people have a more fine art style, some more graffiti, it’s a varied group of talented people,” Johnson says. 

The collective has a cooperative printing environment where they build off of each other, Pollock says. The group’s membership spans self-taught artists like Pollock and more formally trained ones, like retired Madison College instructor Dave Stuber.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to showcase what we’re doing,” Pollock says. “We haven’t had a Polka!-only art show for a number of years.”

The next show, Home For The Holidaze, opened on December 3 and features three pop artists—Madison’s Donald Topp and Milwaukee’s David Mueller and Luckystar Studio.

“That’s the kind of things we’re super excited about,” Johnson says. “To foster shows and be part of the community.”

When deciding placement on the walls, he said he first likes to lay all the pieces out on the floor where he can better visualize the arrangement, moving the art around before hanging it. But after curating over 100 shows to date, he said some of that layout is intuitive to him at this point. He likes to keep all of an artist’s works hung close together on the wall rather than mixing artists together, to be less confusing for viewers. 

When soliciting art, one thing he looks for is the “right kind of gift stuff,” he said. He tries to always get art that’s for sale, and that’s marketable. The current Holidaze show, for instance, has “cool and collectible items priced just right for gift giving.” He said Dark Horse has already sold a “lot” of art in the first two months of being open. 

Also coming up on December 11 and 12 is a craft sale where eight local artists will be slinging their handmade creations.

In addition to rotating themed art displays, Johnson also has plans to schedule a couple of live shows a month ranging from performance art and live painting to spoken word and comedy. (If you’re a musician, performance artist or just have an idea for a show, you can reach Johnson at sam@darkhorsemadison.com.)

The duo Three Hours has been performing at the space every first and third Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. Cédric Baetche’s country-inflected fingerstyle guitar and drummer Rob Murphy’s swinging, lived-in rhythms create a playful but low-key atmosphere. On the heavier side, Madison bands All Meridians and Daughters Of St. Crispin are slated to play there on Thursday, December 9. DePula is looking forward to being able to take risks when booking shows. And more music is planned for the future, from Brazilian music to punk rock.

“We don’t need to have 200 people in order to make it viable—only 40 or 50,” he says of the intimate space. “It can be fun, experimental, unusual.”

When DarkHorse (the restaurant) opened, DePula decorated the ceiling with shredded CDs from the ill-fated digital music service Murfie. DePula has injected his strong feelings about music into his restaurants before: In 2015, he posted a “blacklist” of “sad hipster music” he did not want the staff to play at Sal’s East Johnson Street location, including Bon Iver, The National, and Phoenix.  

“The idea was to create a funky space,” De Pula says. “The ceiling soffit in Sal’s has shredded compact discs that look like a giant disco ball aesthetically,” though he admitted sometimes people compare the restaurant’s ceiling to a broiler, rather than a disco ball.

Johnson plans to put his past experience—and contacts—to help bring the vision for Dark Horse to life. From 2004 to 2008, Johnson and friends operated a cooperative work space called Firecracker Studios, which was a screen-printing shop that held pop-up art shows in bars and clubs around the city.

“Me and friends put together art shows we were not seeing here,” Johnson says. “It was a pop art gallery, basically, with all kinds of stuff by friends who had never been shown in the local art scene. It was a hit, there were no other galleries like that.”

He already knew most of the six artists who joined him for the Art Of Sound show. 

“I’m working with a bunch of artists I already have contact with—lots of people I’ve met,” he says.

While DePula says he really wants to emphasize that the bar is a means to have people continue hanging out after seeing the art, as opposed to being the main attraction, the drink menu is not an afterthought.

Beverage director Aaron Rostad and bar manager Lisa Rogers have come up with a range of offerings—from a dive-bar-style Manhattan ($5) to a fancier, pre-Prohibition-style old fashioned ($15)—and source seasonal ingredients from farmers’ markets for the cocktails. There are a variety of draft beers and ciders on tap from Wisconsin-based brewers, with a few from Illinois, Michigan, and Ontario. Beer, cider, and seltzer are also being offered in bottles or cans, and wine by the glass or bottle. Pizzas and other food from Salvatore’s next door are an option for hungrier visitors, while Madison-made snacks including Slide potato chips and NutKrack candied pecans provide lighter fare for others.

DePula says he is still feeling out what hours work best and how to deal with the ebb and flow of traffic from other nearby venues and events, such as a recent influx of people from Gojira’s sold-out November 5 show at the Sylvee.

Beyond working out the initial kinks, Johnson and DePula have an enthusiastic vision for the future of the space.

“The space is alive. It will be a living thing,” Johnson says. “I like that a lot.”

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