Fall 2017 Highlights
By John S. Berman, WTP Art Correspondent
Four times a year, WTP art correspondents from around the country will report back on the previous season, with images from exhibitions you otherwise might have missed, and their own insights into these varied venues.
In the last decade, Brooklyn has emerged as a hotbed for art and artists, often bypassing its tonier neighbor, Manhattan, as the place for edgy and experimental work as well as coveted loft and industrial space for artists’ studios. Not surprisingly, the borough’s current reputation as a hipster haven has come at a price (literally). As Brooklyn’s popularity has exploded, the very same artists who have made it a go-to destination have had to reckon with escalating rents and conversion of studio loft space into pricy residential units. Nevertheless, Brooklyn-based galleries and artists continue to showcase dynamic and important painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and mixed media throughout its many different neighborhoods.
The following are some of my highlights from the fall gallery season covering four unique and distinct neighborhoods: DUMBO, Red Hook, Park Slope, and Bushwick.
DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)
There is nothing comparable to the sweeping vistas of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, and the Manhattan skyline over the river with the clanking of the subway lines passing overhead. In recent years, artists working in what was formerly largely an area of warehouse and manufacturing have been forced to relocate on numerous occasions as the gray, windswept industrial beauty of the neighborhood has attracted new residential and commercial development.
Both Smack Mellon and A.I.R. Gallery have been victims of this surge in DUMBO’s real estate surge, but fortunately each has found a new home that have enabled these galleries to grow and thrive.
The gallery with the rather colorful name is now in its third location since its arrival in DUMBO—the recently renovated Boiler Building featuring an amazing six thousand square foot interior with a thirty-five-foot ceiling is ideal for Ron Baron’s striking exhibition Beyond-Beyond. This installation in Smack Mellon’s darkened main gallery has nearly one hundred pairs of life-size white ceramic footwear casted from discarded shoes, boots, and sneakers that Baron acquired over the years from vintage stores. The piece evokes a feeling of a unified whole, yet each pair is different in some unique way—some dressy and frilly or perforated, and others punctured by a nail or pierced or sliced. Together they create an ambience that is spiritual, almost religious in tone, evoking void and loss—the reality of lives that end too quickly and are often forgotten over time—while commemorating those same lives that comprise our human relationships and connection to each other.
A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) occupies a unique and ground-breaking place in New York City and United States history as the first not-for-profit gallery in the country exclusively for women artists. From its beginnings in 1972 in SoHo with a core group of forty-two founding members, the goal of A.I.R. has been to provide opportunities for emerging female artists who have often been shut out of the male-dominated gallery world. Moving into its current space on Plymouth Street at the far edges of DUMBO in 2015, A.I.R. continues to be a nurturing home both for group exhibitions and for its seminal artists-in-resident programs, including Emerging and Underrepresented Artists fellowships.
This fall, A.I.R. presented an evocative group exhibition, Beyond the Bed Covers (please note no connection with Beyond-Beyond at Smack Mellon other than the similar name) featuring eight artists, including curator Laura Petrovich-Cheney, all showing how objects that offer us comfort and security can also convey memories and express profound narrative histories and stories. Petrovitch-Cheney’s wooden quilts, begun after the Hurricane Sandy disaster in NYC, were assembled from cities and towns throughout the United States that experienced major environmental catastrophes, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires. She collected piles of rubble including siding, floorboard, window frames, and cabinets and constructed quilts that also reflected the heritage of earlier works by women who used them for warmth and security. Rachel Farmer’s work in the exhibition revisits the installation she made this summer for a nineteenth-century historic house on Governors Island and transforms the piece into a table in-the-round installation, incorporating two new figures.
Beyond the Bed Covers also featured a quilt by the pioneering visual artist, Faith Ringgold, as well as compelling works by Kim Fox, Ariel Jackson, Luke Haynes, Coralina Rodriguez Meyer, and Jessica Skultety—all of which document in different ways, how a utilitarian craft continues to have a strong legacy for women as both a personal and political tool for communication, reflection, and action. The activist component was well represented by Skultety’s “Our Health Matters” quilt, proudly displayed at the January 2017 Women’s March. Photographs from the historic AIDS Quilt in Washington from 1987 provided another relevant context to the exhibition.
Hidden in the corner of the borough’s southern tip, where you can almost reach out and touch the Statue of Liberty and on a cold winter day, a bitter wind from the East River stings your face, there is probably no neighborhood that conveys the feeling of old Brooklyn better then Red Hook—the home of a once-thriving longshore industry perhaps most infamously captured in the book and film Last Exit to Brooklyn. Although once touted as the next frontier, Red Hook’s relative isolation and distance from any subway line as well as its protected stock of public housing has staved off otherwise rampant development, despite the presence of a new Ikea, the Fairway market, and a crop of upscale restaurants. Red Hook was also one of the area’s hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and many of its storefronts struggled to rebuild in its aftermath.
Pioneer Works sits in a former industrial building a half block from the waterfront. Its massive renovated space includes three spacious floors of galleries as well as art and artisan studios that provide plenty of light and air. Its mission statement reads, “Pioneer Works is a cultural center dedicated to experimentation, education and production across disciplines. Through a broad range of educational programs, performances, residencies and exhibitions, Pioneer Works transcends disciplinary boundaries to foster a community where alternative modes of thought are activated and supported. We strive to make culture accessible to all.“
This fall, the main gallery on the first floor has been home to the dramatic installation by two female artists of color, Doreen Garner and Kenya (Robinson)–this is how she signs her name with a parenthesis–White Man on a Pedestal (WMOAP).
The staggering work, at once satirical, didactic, and deeply confrontational, packs both visual and conceptual power. Garner’s contribution focuses on Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the Father of Modern Gynecology but now increasingly lambasted for his savage experiments on enslaved women. In the exhibition, Garner has three-dimensionally scanned the statue which stands in Central Park, turned it into a silicon cast, and placed it in the context of dissected meat that can be pulled off the body. (Robinson) creates various strong geometric installations using five-inch tall plastic figurines. #WHITEMANINMYPOCKET (aka Dave Fowler), originally created in 2013, is an archetype of “success,” the figure holding a briefcase has become a fetish object as a conversation starter of white privilege. Kenya continues the dialogue with a thirteen-foot wall of figures tumbling to the floor into a large heap. The dramatic lighting and hanging objects allow the viewer to intimately interact with and contemplate (Robinson)’s vision.
Both artists brilliantly use the giant industrial space to express a dynamic political statement that is nonetheless highly accessible because of its hands-on quality, strong command of design, and attention to detail. Their unabashedly and unapologetically “in-your-face” installation also dramatically communicates its point of view with dark humor, aesthetic skill, and a depth of understanding.
The upscale brownstone neighborhood of Park Slope feels far from hardscrabble Red Hook, despite being only a few miles to the east. Although largely residential, Park Slope is home to a small but thriving cooperative gallery named for its location on 440 Sixth Avenue, that features consistently strong exhibitions of its members work. Unlike the other galleries referenced here, 440 Gallery does not have high ceilings or lots of light and air and sits in a what would otherwise be a regular office or retail space.
In 440’s main gallery this autumn, David Stock’s starkly rendered black-and-white photography document his many years walking the streets of New York City with a camera since he was a teenager in the 1970s. His unique printmaking style utilizing pigmented inks on watercolor paper and several densities of both black and color ink creates a tinted shine that, while subtle, adds a luster and polish to the work. Stock’s photographs of New York City architecture have a way of demanding the viewer’s attention and capturing the relationship between the built and the natural environment that holds the structures in its grasp. His standout piece “Crawl” frames the kneeling statue on the top of the financial building with a patch of light flanked by an adjacent structure, making us feel like voyeurs with a bird’s-eye view.
Gail Flanery’s recent monoprints were on view in 440’s project room. Her focus on landscapes that are unpopulated and not specific to any given geography convey the remembered rather than actual physical observations. Her images, based on plates made of plastic, silk, and copper and applied with oil-based inks, bring the viewer into a world that is full of color and life. Evoking an unmediated beauty and timelessness that does not require a knowledge of the artist’s perspective, these images stay with you long after you have seen them.
It is no surprise that the once rugged and run-down northeastern neighborhood of Bushwick should have become a home to a staggering number of galleries. The extraordinary amount of raw, formerly industrial space is ideal for large-scale installations, studio space, and galleries. While it is undeniable that a new population of predominantly young white millennials have gravitated to what was a low-income, largely Latino working-class community, resulting in a textbook example of gentrification, it is equally true that many of the artists and galleries that landed in Williamsburg were similarly displaced from other neighborhoods and have contributed greatly to the cultural energy of the neighborhood. These two spaces housed with ten other galleries and art studios in an old printing house on a lively block across from the L train are a perfect representation of Bushwick’s evolution and importance as a home for dynamic work.
The SOHO20 Gallery’s name says it all. Like so many venerable New York City galleries, this one began in SoHo in 1973 back when the lower Manhattan neighborhood (South of Houston) was the incubator for dozens of art exhibitions. The gallery’s fall show featured the debut installation of Iranian artist Afarin Rahmanifar. Her transcendent and richly-colorful abstract paintings, mounted scroll-like on vellum from the ceiling, draw inspiration from the iconic tenth-century poem Shanameh about two sisters, the kidnapped daughters of Jamshid, the King of Iran. These ancient tales are juxtaposed with the more universal childhood images of Barbie, referencing the artist as an immigrant mother of a young girl in the United States after fleeing Iran during the Revolution. In her introduction to the installation, Rahmanifar states that she found her own voice through exploring the history of women seeking an equilibrium between power and grace.
David & Schweitzer’s is another example of a venerable gallery that has migrated to Bushwick over the last few years and continues to present dynamic installations by important contemporary artists, some of whom, like Daniel John Gadd, are still in the early stages of their careers.
Gadd’s Falconry beautifully explores the artist’s love of the natural world and bird life, fusing painting and sculpture while asking the viewer to consider the correlation between the wild in what we call “wildlife” and the wild within ourselves. It is not surprising that Gadd has been inspired by Elizabeth Murray’s Cubism and shaped formats; Joan Snyder’s visual storytelling using color and line, and the non-traditional materials reminiscent of Thornton Dial. (Murray is also the subject of a small concurrent works-on-paper show at the gallery). Gadd’s most striking piece, “Falcon” uses oil, wax, and mirrored glass on a wooden panel that conveys the fragility of the natural world and perhaps of ourselves.
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