By James Kalm
I finally started an overly ambitious painting project I’ve been putting off for years. It’s a large, definitive map depicting the East Village art scene. Among the joys and sorrows of this kind of work is the research and documentation it requires. Before, I would fill note books with sketches of subjects, designs, and color studies. Now I also have bulging computer files of lists, addresses, resumes, names, and dates. I scour Google for references and buy obscure books when I can find them online. The information is then boiled down to bullet points and added to the maps and diagrams. Because of another map, painted in 2005 – 06, I had already started to compile a data file that would include about 90 galleries and over 80 artists that operated in and around the nabes between 1979 and 1989. Working at Utrecht Linens, I’d hung around the E.V. scene myself from 1981 until 1987, and also had a lot of first hand experience, friends, acquaintances, and memories from the scene.
Aside from me touting my own practice, you may wonder why I bother bringing any of this up. Blame it on Bushwick. I first mentioned this area in my Rail columns sometime around 2003 – 04. Having just trotted through the sixth iteration of the Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) in late May, and having been inundated with something like 550 different studios, galleries, artist events, and showings, I realized that Bushwick has more than reached the tipping point. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it has become self-actualized. Young, local hipsters are quick to point out the uniqueness of this scene but, when one steps back and takes a long-term perspective view of things (here’s where we start trotting out the clichés), one clearly sees history repeating itself.
Along with the old wish to “make it new,” there’s a persistent imperative in today’s art world to have no long-term memory. Maybe it’s just a function of youth, fashion, an evolutionary expectation, or the naive belief that nothing of personal relevance happened before you were born. One of my favorite quotes (in fact my only quote) from Søren Kierkegaard states: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” My current project is to try to go forward into understanding, so I’ve been spending a lot of time looking backwards into the future.
Arriving in New York in the late ’70s gave me the opportunity to watch the rise and fall of several neighborhoods, beginning with SoHo, then the East Village, then Chelsea, and continuing into the new millennium with the Williamsburg/Bushwick milieu. I’ve also witnessed the births and deaths of movements like Color Field, Pattern and Decoration, New Image, the Pictures Generation, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, and Post-Conceptualism. Still, it’s only when you have a pile of actual data with names, dates, and locations that you’re able to cross reference this seeming jumble of happenstances and see it begin to coalesce into a recognizable narrative. Here are a few of the striking facts I’ve gleaned thus far:
Order and entropy
It’s assumed that bringing order out of chaos requires logic, a system, and a continuing expenditure of energy to maintain it. In art, however, it appears to be the reverse. Great art seems to come out of order by shattering the constrictions of a preexisting, formally structured concept and reassembling its ideas and mores into new, more chaotic, urgent, simple, or creative ways. Ironically, with the passage of time this system of chaos becomes more rote and institutionally accepted. What should fall into ruin and disorder instead becomes petrified into standard practice and dies from attaining a conventional academic identity.
The Pioneers Take the Arrows
A simple comparison of New York gallery listings from various neighborhoods over the last 30 years will reveal many interesting (and heartbreaking) facts. Generally speaking, those galleries that took the initial risk of neighborhood busting were able to capture the zeitgeist by showing the most challenging and provocative artists of their era. But they did not last. They were usually poorly funded (what rational entrepreneur would invest in such craziness?), plagued with personal problems (substance abuse, de-railed artistic careers, love gone wrong, dreadful management skills, and/or medical issues), and more often than not, they flamed out in a gloriously self-destructive flash. None of the several East Village galleries still in existence (albeit in Chelsea now) started in the first wave, within a year or two of 1981, when Patti Astor and Bill Stelling’s Fun Gallery kicked off; none first showed the artists most identified with the E.V. first wave (Haring, Scharf, Basquiat, Wojnarowicz, Condo), or second wave (Halley, Koons, Bickerton, Gober, Prince, Taaffe). None were in the early exodus to SoHo (Pat Hearn, Colin de Land) and none moved to Chelsea or Williamsburg while those areas were still considered to be located in the outlands (Pat Hearn, Annie Herron). Instead (and pay attention, careerists), survival for these galleries was not about breaking the mold, or making art history, or challenging the status quo. The survivors kept their heads down, and played it safe. They waited until the E.V. had a substantial gallery base before opening there. They exhibited major artists or movements only after critical attention and marketability were established. Those galleries moved to new venues only after they became known. By not moving to new, untested neighborhoods which might have infringed on collectors’ easy-access comfort levels, they were careful not to rock the commercial boat. Their greatest strength was their mundane mercantile practicality.
A tragically ironic aside: Both Pat Hearn and Annie Herron managed galleries within a few blocks of each other on Avenue B in the mid-’80s. Pat Hearn took her gallery west to SoHo in 1987 and, in 1995, at the commencement of the Chelsea rush, became one of the very earliest settlers on West 22nd Street, where the Dia Foundation had staked out its headquarters almost a decade earlier. In 1994, Hearn, with partners Colin de Land, Paul Morris and Mathew Marks, founded the Gramercy Art Fair, which morphed into the Armory Show. Annie Herron headed east in 1991 to Williamsburg to open its first “SoHo style” gallery, Test Site. Though short lived, it became a nexus for local artists. Herron became a community supporter and “godmother” to many Williamsburg community artists and gallerists. Both of these dynamic and visionary women died young of cancer, Hearn at the age of 45 in 2000 and Herron at age 50 in 2004.
I’ll continue this essay with Part II in a future issue of the Brooklyn Rail, but right now lets segue into something timely...
Regina Bogat at Art 101
After a weekend touring innumerable painting cubicles and galleries during Bushwick Open Studios, it has become apparent that there are a plethora of overused strategies being employed to break through the cacophony. Just go bigger, brighter, louder, and more shocking. On the other hand, Stars, the most recent exhibition of paintings by Regina Bogat at Art 101, is an opportunity to experience works by an artist who doesn’t need to whack her audience over the head to get attention. That’s not to say that some of these paintings aren’t zippy, resonating with coloristic harmonies that might lie some where between a Bach fugue and a cool Miles Davis riff. Other pieces mingle subtle shades of grayed down blues and mauve buffs with dusty charcoal lines beneath scrims of pigmented rivulets. But the real pleasure of these Stars is to be reaped by a slow and leisurely contemplation. Bogat employs the simple geometric designs of various stars (the eight pointed Ogdoadic, seven pointed Heptadic and ten pointed Decagon). Using these configurations as skeletal structures, Bogat overpaints and reworks the image to enhance or diminish contrasts, playing with the notion of figure/ground relationships. Regina Bogat “Decagon 4” acrylic, India ink on canvas.
I was familiar with some older pieces like “Ogdoadic 5” from witnessing the initial development of this series. This picture, featuring eight pointed stars in predominantly pale yellows, echoes designs one might find on patchwork quilts, a reference to Yankee thrift and frontier design. Upon extended viewing, richer layers of pentimenti color drift up and the fine adjustments, background stars and erasures surface. Negative space becomes as palpable as positive. With “Ogdoadic 2,” Bogat has painted the edge where the canvas wraps around the stretcher bars a deep red. This seemingly simple act accentuates the idea that, despite the loose and atmospheric handling, these paintings are objects, authentic hunks of matter that have been crafted by an artist’s hand.
“Heptadic #3” was a surprise. On first viewing, its muted palette of sap green and silvery grays was underwhelming. Still, its larger size and up-scaled composition kept me coming back. Strange puddling and blotting of liquid paint gave areas an organic, rock-like quality. The splashy application of moss green recalled gazing into a brisk and chilly high mountain brook or spring, perhaps not such an unusual place to find stars. Finally, as a painter, it was delicious to see someone who has remained true to the factuality of what paint and painting is, applying colored liquid, charcoal, and crayon to pieces of fabric stretched on pieces of wood, and making something wondrous happen. Sounds so simple, but that’s the conundrum, no?