By James Kalm
Ornithogalum pyrenaicum or wild asparagus is to some a pernicious weed, to others, a rare delicacy. Every spring, after the snow melted and the days lengthened, my great-aunt Afton would scurry around the environs of her small farm on Bear Lake, Utah, searching river and canal banks for sprigs of the tender delight. Being a practical woman, she decided to cultivate the asparagus in her truck garden. For several seasons she planted shoots, sprinkled seeds, spread compost, and implemented various irrigation techniques—anything she could think of to get it to grow; yet, despite her green thumb and nurturing nature, she had zero luck. She eventually gave up, paved over the garden, and built a carport for her Ford. The following spring, not long after the cement had set, my aunt’s brand new driveway mysteriously started to crack and buckle. Pushing up through the fissures in the slabs of concrete were delicate green sprigs of wild asparagus.
Art, like a weed, is undomesticated and uncontrollable. Although it is possible to cultivate it as a commercial product or to synthesize it inside bureaucratic or academic greenhouses, for me, it achieves its most authentic and diverse state only when challenging the odds in the “wild.”
After two and a half years of “the most devastating economic collapse since the Great Depression,” many galleries have closed or gone on extended hiatuses, yet the New York scene is beginning to show signs of recovery. Despite talk by “economists” about market shares and limits on capital for expansion, there is very little correlation between any rational economic system and what happens in the art world. As evidence of this, I’ve spent the last month visiting some of the new galleries and venues that have sprung up around the peripheries of Greater Williamsburg during this otherwise destructive downturn.
We’ll start on the southwest end of the ‘burg with Pandemic Gallery at 37 Broadway, a small, scruffy storefront established last year by Robin Drysdale and Keely Brandon. I’d covered this location in its previous incarnation as the Dollhaus, a goth/punk outpost run by Emma-Louise. On my initial visit to Pandemic, I caught the debut exhibition of Vilaykorn Sayaphet, which consisted of resin-coated drawings/constructions and stippled oil paintings. Returning to view Notes from the Inside, a selection of grungy and disturbing assemblages fabricated from animal skeletons, branches, traps, and taxidermist forms by Dan Taylor, I chatted up Drysdale: “We want to show artists, give them decent shows, and let them do what they want in the gallery.” Look for street art to also make up a sizable portion of Pandemic’s upcoming schedule.
A few blocks east at 103 Broadway, what had previously been Outrageous Look is now Capricious Space. The works on display when I visited The Sympathizer!, by Santiago Mostyn, were so varied that I assumed I’d walked into a group show. Serial photos and a text banner surrounded a collection of provisionally crafted electric musical instruments. The gallery specializes in photography and, as I found out later, the instruments, part of a separate project, were made for the Karen Skog Orkester of Bergen, Norway, from instructions the artist found online. The Orkester gave hourly performances at the gallery over the course of the weekend.
Andrew Kenney and Kevin Kunstadt are the K and K of K&K, another photo gallery wedged into a ground floor space a couple of doors east at 109 Broadway. George Underwood’s exhibition, “Old Enough to Know Better, Young Enough to Pretend,” was hanging in the gallery, a space so narrow that it could be mistaken for a hallway. This, their fifth show, was made up of large-format color prints depicting the mundane face of downscale American suburbia, a badland of strip malls and backyard auto shops. It’s familiar territory, trod by the likes of William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld, yet in some of these works there’s a narrative of understated tenderness that included a pic of the gallerists remodeling the very space where this show is taking place.
Picking up a tip from Paddy Johnson’s Art Fag City (http://www.artfagcity.com/2010/10/13/dirty-hands-at-soloway/), I headed back to southeast Williamsburg for the first time since Stay Gold Gallery closed a few years back. Soloway, at 348 South 4th Street, is situated off the beaten path just east of the juncture of the Williamsburg Bridge, the BQE, and Broadway. Dirty Hands, an appropriately titled show for a storefront space with a sign still advertising a plumbing and heating company, is the second outing for partners Munro Galloway, Annette Wehrhahn, Pat Palermo, and Paul Branca. A grab-bag of concepts and media, the show featured Sadie Laska’s AbEx paintings on panels, computer-generated digital photos depicting erotic blowup dolls by Jessie Stead, and Annette Wehrhahn’s “Some Times It’s Hard to Love You,” a splashy abstract work on paper with block text floating among puddles of cobalt and pink pigment spelling out the title.
My tour of the Northern precincts coincided with Greenpoint Open Studios, and despite not having time to visit any of the over 150 artists participating (I’m trying to visit my own studio on a more regular basis), I did stop by some venues I’d previously missed. Yes Gallery, 147 India Street, was listed in the event flyer as an “info hub,” so I peddled over to this basement space to see the group show Glide and talk with the proprietor Lesley Doukhowetzky. Though not listed in WAGMAG, it seems that Yes has been open since 2008, and the gallery’s concentration is mostly on local residents with a smattering of street art/graffiti work. Small pieces of cut and welded coins by Ted Stanke, which hovered somewhere between souvenirs and tchotchkes, were memorable if only for their swerve into the realm of “bad taste.” A young girl’s portrait by Dalit Gurevich continues the investigation of her childhood as a kibbutznik in Israel during the 1970s.
I’d attempted to visit Allan Nederpelt at 60 Freeman Street a couple of times, but my Sunday afternoon constitutionals unfortunately tend to run towards the late side. However, this time I made sure to be punctual and I wasn’t disappointed. Nederpelt, with high ceilings and over 5,000 square feet, would be considered huge in any town, and between it and the recently opened Causey Contemporary, also on the northside at 92 Wythe Avenue, they constitute a new scale of galleries rarely seen in Brooklyn until now. Still, opening a gargantuan space doesn’t mean much without equally ambitious art to show in it. Spare geometric drawings by Agnes Barley (Arthur Miller’s partner, till his death in 2005) were, like several other pieces, overwhelmed here. A 6-by-19-foot surrealistic landscape by Jean-Pierre Roy of belching smokestacks and fireballs roiling over an oil refinery receding all the way to the horizon was one of the only pieces that utilized this venue’s vast scale.
A new listing at ArtCat, “The Opinionated Guide to New York Art” (http://www.artcat.com/exhibits/12258), caught my eye and led me on a recon mission through the nebulous territory between eastern Williamsburg and northern Bushwick in search of Brewers Mansion. The sun had set by the time I pulled up in front of 55 Waterbury Street. It was just before closing and I caught Megan Moncrief, the director, as she was heading home after the gallery’s first day of Beasts, its debut group show. Occupying the space next door to a hummus cafe, Megan chose the name as a reference to the neighborhood’s history of beer production. Scanning the offerings, a series of acrylic-on-panel paintings of erotically enhanced kittens and three-eyed harpies by Robyn A. Frank stuck in my mind; also, a rugged, funked-up abstraction by Nicholas Merchant-Bleiberg had a brutal facture that suggested a naïve authenticity.
Arch Collective NYC, established in April 2010 by Evan Collier, Jason Jensen, Max Demetrio, and Alex Kellum, is located in the garage behind 18 Wyckoff Avenue with its entrance at 390-400 Troutman Street. I popped in for the opening of the group exhibition, Man Dies, and was impressed by a pair of internally illuminated chair sculptures by Takeshi Miyakawa. On the west wall of the gallery, about four feet apart, were two narrow, roll-down metal street grates. Enter through them and you’re immersed in a tiny, one-seat self-service bar, complete with heavy mahogany paneling, brass taps, liquor bottles, and the smell of stale beer. This scrupulously detailed installation by Andrew Ohanesian combines the intimacy of a confessional (the bartender as priest, the patron as supplicant) with an alcoholically twisted version of “relational aesthetics.” Over the course of the show, the title Man Dies morphed into Mandies and was adopted by Ohanesian as the name for his compact drinking establishment.
Another phenomenon that keeps the viewing of underground art vital is what I’ll call the “salon space.” These operations, like the “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game” are more or less permanent venues within people’s living spaces (some legal, some well...). Three I’ll mention briefly are: SUGAR, Centotto, and the Laundromat.
SUGAR is a continuation of the project Alcove, started by Gwendolyn Skaggs (who also works under the pseudonym Wendaferd Gregory) in Chelsea in 2007. A year ago Gwendolyn, opened her space at 449 Troutman Street and began showing work with a conceptual installation bent.
Paul D’Agostino is a professor of Italian and his love of the language and culture is evident in the announcements and newsletters he sends out for his Centotto at 250 Moore Street. Centotto’s latest offering is a two-person show contrasting the miniature landscapes of Josh Willis with the acrylic simulated paper works of John Avelluto.
I was standing under a loft bed watching a young crowd in front of a wall of bargain artworks (NOTHING PRICED OVER $100) when an exotic-looking blue cocktail held by a lady attracted my eye. The drink was served in a cubic glass and had a little white plastic shark floating in it. According to the menu it was called “The Physical Impossibility of Hangovers in the Mind of Someone Drinking.” It was whiskey and soda, a spot-on parody of Damien Hirst designed by Rebecca Litt. Ben Godward served up “The Oaxaca Beheading” a Corona topped with a shot of Bacardi Limon, which, for an added fee, was also available in a plastic-coated “sculptural” version. These drinks were part of Cocktails and Dreams, a “get the clients drunk and sell them art cheap” party at the Laundromat, 238 Melrose Street. Although Cocktails and Dreams was the last in a three-year series of events at this address, the team of Kevin Curran and Amy Lincoln will re-open the Laundromat later this season.
Despite hard times, creative types always seem to find ways around, over, or through the obstacles; just keep your eye on the cracks in the pavement.
A video version of this tour is available at: youtube.com/watch?v=MpYkf5uMTbg