From the October/November 2014 Issue:

The Populist Gallery

    By: John Zeaman |

Art that is for the people and by the people—including the owner

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enlarge | Roddy Wildeman, owner of Torché Galerie in Belmar, with his own creations: “wall mosaics,” or intarsia, made using intricate inlays of different colored woods. Courtesy of Torché Galerie
Art is undeniably elitist. No matter how strange and subjective the aesthetics, the people who judge it—curators, dealers and, yes, art critics—all insist they are looking for the “best” art.

But because there are no objective standards for what makes the best art, pretense can creep in. The resulting snobbery is what makes art galleries in Chelsea or Williamsburg off-putting to many people.
Enter the anti-snob, Roddy Wildeman, owner of the year-and-a-half-old Torché Galerie.

Let’s start with its neighborhood. What could be less elitist than Main Street in Belmar? You cross the drawbridge over the Shark River. The gallery is four or five blocks from the ocean, too far to smell the suntan lotion, but close enough to feel the ocean breeze. Its neighbors are ice cream shops, a paint store, a boatyard, a few restaurants.

The faux French name has been Wildeman’s only misstep in creating a populist gallery. Despite the accent and foreign spelling, he insists now that it be pronounced “Torch Gallery.” That aside, the gallery bears no resemblance to the usual beach-town art galleries, those little shops with their polite seascapes in impressionist colors. It’s big—two floors, 4,500 square feet—like one of those industrial loft spaces in Chelsea. In fact, it was built to house an Alfa Romeo dealership. It has double glass doors wide enough to drive a car through.

The art confounds expectations also. Some of it is big, rude and jarring. A life-size realistic nude elicits double takes from passersby. “This is a surprise for a lot of people,” says Wildeman, a former contractor and real estate agent in his late 30s. “They get ice cream next door, and they wander over here and say ‘What’s this?’”

Often as not, the genial Wildeman is there to welcome them, ice cream cones and all. “I’m always cleaning sprinkles from the floor,” he says cheerfully. On this particular day, a Sunday after an opening the night before, he’s wearing shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. Everything he does is designed to help overcome the usual inhibitions that non-art lovers feel on the threshold of a gallery. Will I be embarrassed? Are they going to try to sell me something? Will they find out I don’t know anything about art?”

“For six months before I opened this, I went around to galleries in Manhattan,” he recalls. “I discovered that they aren’t very friendly. I can understand it. They’re swamped with artists looking for representation and the kind of street traffic that only a big city can generate. They don’t have time to talk to all those people.”

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enlarge | The art can be quite different from the seascapes found in many beach-town galleries and ranges from academic realism to abstract to mixed media and more. Courtesy of Torché Galerie
More Than the Beach
He excuses himself from the interview to speak with two middle-aged women who have been gazing at a seascape with a heavy impasto surface. The waves have been rendered with repetitive strokes of the palette knife, giving the canvas a sculptural, scalloped surface. He answers some questions and gives them a catalog of the show.

“He’s done very well here,” Wildeman says of the artist with the thickly painted waves, evidence perhaps that beach themes still have a leg up with beach clientele. Otherwise, Torché Galerie is about as eclectic as they come. Visitors encounter everything from academic realism to abstract to mixed media to graffiti and illustration. The levels of ability range from hesitant student work to slick professionalism. So, too, with the degrees of seriousness. Existential despair and religious visions coexist with such jokey pieces as the sculpture of a fallen ice cream cone with a puppetlike face.

Then there are Wildeman’s own works. This is a case where the gallerist is also the gallery’s star artist.

He calls them “wall mosaics.” The traditional name is intarsia. In the Renaissance, intarsia artists lined the walls of rooms with intricate inlays of different colored woods that form pictures or trompe l’oeil effects. Wildeman has two basic designs: “starbursts” and squarish compositions he calls “pyramids.” He began making them about four years ago using salvaged wood from his construction projects.

Remembrance of Hurricane
To make one of his starburst pieces, Wildeman cuts wood scraps into long thin wedges and arranges them in a pattern radiating from a central point. He leaves the wood in the weathered condition he finds it, scorching the edges with a blowtorch to create a stained-glass effect of black outlines. He uses from 100 to 700 wood strips for each piece.

He started out giving them away to customers, but they became so popular that he began to sell them, later quitting the construction business to become a full-time artist. Then came Hurricane Sandy. It turned countless homes, businesses and boardwalks into heaps of scrap wood, and Wildeman’s art gained a new meaning. They memorialized the devastation. Wildeman is a Long Branch native and now a resident of Ocean Grove. His titles began to include the names of the towns where the wood was found. One recent piece bears the names of seven towns, from Long Branch to Spring Lake.

The motivation to open a gallery came from Wildeman’s own art career. “I had a bad experience in an art gallery,” he says. “I wanted to create a system that would be fair.” At the time, his sales were going so well that he imagined he could support a space with his own sales. Currently, he sells one to three pieces a month at prices averaging around $10,000 to $12,000.

He came up with a business model for a gallery that is part cooperative and part commercial. Artists pay on average $100 per month to be in a show. The typical show has about 60 artists, each showing three pieces. This nets the gallery $6,000 a month which, Wildeman says, almost covers the monthly expense of running the place. On top of that, the gallery takes a 40 percent commission on sales.

On the morning following the opening of the summer exhibit, Wildeman had already made $11,000 in sales, with even more in the works.

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enlarge | Wildeman’s innovative idea for a floating sculpture park at Silver Lake in Belmar kicked off this summer with six pieces by Richard Pitts. The artist created upright aluminum sculptures titled “Crayons.” At night solar lights mounted on each dock create flickering reflections on the water. Courtesy of Torché Galerie
Expansion & Innovation
The success of the gallery has led to other ventures. Wildeman secured a foothold in Manhattan, making a deal to exhibit art on the walls of Senses New York Salon and Spa. Working with curator Melissa Starke, he forged a partnership with Urban Studio from the Fine Arts Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology to create a gallery in an industrial building on the Hudson River waterfront of Yonkers, New York.

Wildeman’s latest project is probably the most original: a floating sculpture park.
“I looked for a location for a sculpture park for months,” Wildeman recalls. He was considering the area around Belmar’s Silver Lake when a friend suggested “why don’t you just put it on the water?”

Although floating sculptures are not unusual, no one had ever created a floating sculpture park. He researched it and got some bids from dock builders. One estimate for 40 floating docks came in at $106,000. That was too high. Eventually, he found a contractor who could do it for $26,000. He organized a fund-raising plan—the floating park is expected to generate a lot of positive publicity for Belmar. The project launched this summer with six pieces by artist Richard Pitts, a former professor at FIT.

The suite of upright aluminum sculptures, each a different color, is titled “Crayons.” The small flotilla has a particularly magical presence at night, when solar lights mounted on each dock create flickering reflections on the water.

For Wildeman, the floating sculpture park marks another stage in an unusual career— from contractor to artist to gallerist and now art impresario.
Torché Galerie is at 500 Main Street in Belmar; 732-829-2511,

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Profes­sional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.