"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Those Damned Weeds," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

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

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: I Wish They All Could Be California… ," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

With the harmonies of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys pouring out of every car radio, as a kid growing up in the West during the ’60s, I didn’t have to be reminded that California was where it was happening. I ran away from home the day summer vacation started after my junior year of high school, and hitched to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to spend a month getting a firsthand introduction to West Coast hipness. To us back then, the Continental Divide wasn’t just a ridge that dictated whether a river would run east or west but was also an aesthetic division. A rock ’n’ roll analogy would be West Coast bands like Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Doors versus New York’s doo-wop-derived Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons or folk-based performers like Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel.

However, when it came time to fly the coop and pick a coast to pursue an artistic “career,” even though Bay Area Funk Art and Finish Fetish seemed more approachable, sexy, and fun than the buttoned-down formalism of Minimalism and Conceptual Art that we were reading about in Artforum and Art in America, New York seemed the only logical choice.

Memories of this long ago decision came surging back during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Art history geek that I am, I dragged Kate and our son Mac on a pilgrimage to 723 North La Cienega Boulevard, the location of the legendary Ferus Gallery. We got there to find the gallery mysteriously recreated, complete with the original sign, and even some period artwork in the window. What we had stumbled onto was a re-discovery campaign organized by New York art dealers Franklin Parrasch and Tim Nye of Nyehaus titled “Ferus Gallery Greatest Hits Volume I.” It was staged in conjunction with the Art Los Angeles Contemporary Art Fair, and was then taken on the road to New York for the 2010 Armory Show. Riding this momentum, Nye and Jacqueline Miro curated last summer’s three-gallery must-see mega-show “Swell: Art 1950 – 2010” at Nyehaus, Friedrich Petzel, and Metro Pictures ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XlzUSrvKaY ).

With over 70 artists, and a nearly 60-year chunk of West Coast art production on display (including one of the most extensive selections of surfboards ever seen in New York), “Swell” left viewers feeling not only sun-bleached and sandy, but hankering for more insights into the artistic precedents and practices of the Sunshine State.

Although not often cited and difficult for metro-centric chauvinists to admit, there’s long been a California worm inside this Big Apple. The interests of cultural hegemony, however, have kept it, perhaps inadvertently, under wraps. Its history is much more fundamental to the New York School and its aftermath than the more recent manifestations of Funksters, Finish Fetishers, or even the Cal Arts Mafia, whom we’ll touch on later, and it reinforces my long held contention that it’s always individuals acting in unpredictable ways that cause things to happen, kicking off changes that reverberate over time.

This historiography begins in San Francisco in the early 1930s with a character described by Peggy Guggenheim as “a big fat blond” who was gay, epileptic, drank too much, and had a bad ticker. His name was Howard Putzel. After seeing a major exhibition of the “Blue Four” in Oakland, (a repackaging of “Der Blaue Reiter,” this group was made up of Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, and Alexej von Jawlensky), Putzel was inspired to foray into the art scene. He organized the first West Coast exhibition of Joan Miró, which took place at the East West Gallery, San Francisco, in 1934. Soon afterward he became the director of a tiny gallery in the back of the Paul Elder bookstore. His passion led him in 1935 to Los Angeles where, as director of the Stanley Rose Gallery, he sold Surrealist art to movie stars like Edward G. Robinson and helped build the world-class Arensberg Collection.

During this stretch, acquaintances are made not only with the famous, such as Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, but also with younger local artists who showed at the Rose Gallery—Philip Guston and quite possibly his circle of friends from Manual Arts High School, which included Jackson Pollock and Reuben Kadish. The Howard Putzel Gallery opens in 1936 at 6729 Hollywood Boulevard with a show that includes Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Klee, André Masson, Miró, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Henri Rousseau, and Yves Tanguy. Though short-run, the gallery receives extensive media attention stoked by a political battle between the “Marxist propaganda” of social realism and Modernist Surrealism, with Putzel coming down on the side of the latter.

Though having already corresponded about lending works for exhibit at the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, it was in Paris in 1938 that Putzel and Peggy Guggenheim first met face to face. At this time the eccentric heiress was on a philanthropic and acquisitional quest to buy a painting a day, and Putzel seized the opportunity. He volunteered his expertise and Surrealist connections to accompany Peggy on tours of Parisian bohemia, and the gears that would change the world started to grind.

Putzel’s introduction of Guggenheim to uber-Surrealist Max Ernst leads Ernst to dump his then-wife Leonora Carrington and, perhaps as a ticket out of France before it falls to the Nazis, into a short-lived marriage to Guggenheim, which hooks her up not only with the German artist but also makes her sugar-mommy and den-mother to the whole Surrealist gaggle. Skedaddling out of Paris just hours before the Nazi takeover, Guggenheim returns with her collection to New York where she’s ensconced in an East 53rd Street townhouse and begins her new life as patroness and mascot of Surrealism. Using her clout and wealth she helps to evacuate many leading Surrealists from Europe and opens the groundbreaking gallery, Art of This Century, the likes of which New Yorkers had never seen. The hottest thing in town, Art of This Century focuses almost entirely on the European Surrealists, allowing a token few locals to kiss the ring of André Breton for entrée. Despite the war, things for Peggy are going swell—time for Putzel to pop up again.

While consulting for Peggy on a group show of female Surrealist artists, Howard, the consummate social networker, introduces Ernst to the young Dorothea Tanning. They begin a tumultuous relationship. When Peggy finds out about the affair, her reputation for vindictiveness rears up and she bails on the whole Surrealist crowd, dumping advisor Marcel Duchamp and Max’s son, her secretary Jimmy Ernst. Putzel steps in and accentuates the split with the idea of promoting Downtown artists, and the seeds of the New York School are ready for planting.

Reviewing his list of California artists, Putzel finds that many have relocated to New York and established themselves in Greenwich Village, Jackson Pollock being the most prominent. Other painters with California connections whom Putzel introduced to Guggenheim include Hans Hoffman, Buffy Johnson, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still.

Hoffmann had taught during the summers of 1930 and 1931 at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Chouinard School of Art, Los Angeles (oddly, no schools on the East Coast were interested in his services). In 1932, after being advised not to return to Germany due to political unrest, he settles in New York. Buffy Johnson (included in the 1943 Female Surrealist show with Tanning and 29 other artists) attends the University of California before sailing for Paris to study with Francis Picabia. Back in L.A. in 1943, Johnson meets Mark Rothko during a West Coast tour and gets him in touch with Putzel. Aware as he was of Guggenheim’s fickle nature, Putzel tricks Peggy into viewing Rothko’s work by inviting her to a party where he’s secretly hung several Rothko paintings. On the same West Coast tour, Rothko also meets Clyfford Still, who is teaching at U.C. Berkley and who becomes a major catalyst for Rothko’s own work. Putzel introduces Still’s work to Guggenheim as well, but by the time of the show, Putzel has escaped his servitude and opened his own 67 Gallery.

With “A Problem for Critics,” his provocative 1945 show at 67 Gallery, Putzel is seen as a leading aesthete. Casting about for an appropriate name to codify the notion of what would become Abstract Expressionism, he woos several top artists to join his gallery (Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and the young Charles Seliger) and made a play for Pollock, who was still under contract to Guggenheim. He stages screenings of avant-garde films by Maya Deren, and becomes an impresario of the burgeoning New York scene. With Peggy Guggenheim’s immanent return to Europe, his 67 Gallery is positioned to become the most cutting-edge venue in the world. In 10 short years Putzel has ridden the wave from a backroom gallery in a San Francisco bookshop to the heights of the New York art world, recognizing and shepherding the founders of Ab-Ex. The wipeout comes August 7, 1945, just one day after America unleashes its first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. During a train trip to Connecticut, Putzel, who has a long history of health problems, dies of a heart attack, and to all but the specialists, Howard Putzel and his achievements sink into the dark ocean of obscurity.

Though no one can argue the predominance of Manhattan as art market capital, it’s this role that discourages its tendency toward risk. If there’s one thing the market hates, it’s change. A crucial aspect of our California connection is how it’s functioned as a testing ground for New York developments in advance of local taste. Case in point: one would be hard pressed to name anyone more integral to New York’s current post-conceptual milieu than the duo of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. After five years of running the Ferus Gallery, a young Walter Hopps is hired as curator by the Pasadena Museum. In 1961, while searching for artists to populate what is generally considered the first Pop Art show, “New Paintings of Common Objects,” the visionary Hopps, on an East Coast visit, meets and eventually cajoles Warhol into debuting his “Campbell’s Soup Can” paintings at Ferus, establishing him as the preeminent Pop artist.

Marcel Duchamp had been a fixture on the frontline of New York’s avant-garde since 1915, with his last showing around 1923. Accepting the subterfuge that he’s quit making art, for the next forty years no New York gallery or museum has the gumption to investigate or offer him a one-man exhibition. Since the greatest collection of Duchamp’s work had by that time moved to L.A. with the Arensbergs, Hopps may have been more aware of its timeliness than most easterners. He arranges the seminal Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum to coincide with Warhol’s second L.A. showing in 1963, and begins a reassessment of this master that continues to this day.

A resonance of this conflation of Pop and Conceptual can be seen in the work of John Baldessari and his influence on a generation of CalArts students that includes Jack Goldstein, David Salle, Troy Brauntuch and James Welling. This group makes up the core of what was unleashed on New York as the “Pictures Generation,” perhaps the most consequential movement since Pop, and a precursor to much of what we now think of as “New Media.”

Which, more or less, brings us up to today. Consider one last twist in this tale: as if retracing Putzel’s odyssey thirty years later, Artforum begins publication in San Francisco in the early ’60s, then relocates its headquarters to L.A., where it moves in upstairs from Ferus on North La Cienega and acquires one of the Ferus artists, Ed Ruscha, as art director before cutting out for New York in 1967. When I first encountered this periodical, which would one day be regarded as the epitome of New York super-slick high-glam art journals, it was still referred to as “that California magazine.” Surf’s up!

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Funkster Formalism, Crap Constructivism," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“Thick against thin, hard against soft, curved against straight, and the shapes in between.” I first heard this maxim from Knox Martin, my esteemed teacher at the Art Students League sometime in the last century. It refers to contrast, and its value in manipulating perception. But contrast isn’t useful only for accentuating distinctions on the visual side of art; it can also be used conceptually to highlight polemics of dialectical critique.

I recently heard the term “gilded edge art,” referring to hyper-finished, super-shiny works, best exemplified by the output of high-profile artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Anselm Reyle, and Urs Fischer. A lot of these pieces are labor-intensive, requiring industrial workshops filled with teams of specialists fabricating, casting, plating, and polishing. Some use rich materials like gold plate, stainless steel, and space-age lacquers. The fingerprints of the artist are buffed away, and the resultant objects bear a strong resemblance to ultra-high-end luxury goods. The focus on shiny surfaces implies an overriding fascination with superficial beauty, and historically relates to the “licked surface,” a long held signifier of academic art. Beyond its obvious parody of ostentatious baubles for the rich, it also traces the evolution of the blue chip market into the new academy. In the late ’60s, California “Finish Fetish” artists dealt with a previous iteration of surface obsession. Daniel Weinberg, the longtime Los Angeles gallerist who presented Koons’s first shows on the West Coast, commented in a conversation that Koons would spend hours fixatedly polishing the Plexiglas cases of his early works, as if “he could deny death” by achieving an immaculate glossiness of finish.

If dreams of immaculate immortality are linked to the perfectly bright and shiny surface, we Brooklyn avant-outsiders are more intimately familiar with the deep, dark, skuzzier side of this coin, the B.Q.E. part that accepts death and decay as inevitable. Over the last few years, major exhibitions like Unmonumental at the NuMu, a couple of recent Whitney Biennials, and a slew of controversial gallery shows have spawned a new aesthetic discourse on crap. This discussion has sprung up among artists and in the blogosphere at sites like Paddy Johnson’s Art Fag City, which ran an essay by Karen Archy titled “A Brief History of Combining Crap with Crap” ( http://www.artfagcity.com/2009/08/26/a-brief-history-of-combining-crap-with-crap/ ). “Crap,” which was previously called “funk” before morphing into “Funk,” probably starts with the “MERTZ” collages of Kurt Schwitters. Indeed, this dialectic is as basic as the clash between Classicism’s timeless perfection and Romanticism’s fascination with decay, ruins, and fragments.

During the postwar decades, the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, West Coast Beat artist Bruce Conner, and the NO! art group (Boris Lurie, Stanley Fisher, and Sam Goodman) have extended Schwitters’s legacy, followed by hot younger artists such as Agathe and the late Dash Snow, Mike Kelley, and Brooklyn’s own Chris Martin. However, most of this work springs from an expressionistically freeform compositional approach which, in the case of Martin, was unabashedly influenced by the vernacular forms of black Southern artists like Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley, who had little choice but to employ the most abject of materials.

From Shithouse to Bauhaus

If gilded edge art springs from a utopian desire for immortality and perfection (along with a higher price point), then conversely “crap” and its attendant sensibilities represent a slacker discount dystopia, a brave new world of lowered expectations, dumpster diving, out of control debt, leveraged consumerism, and massive waste, the main purpose of which is to stay in fashion. A most impressive recent example was Black Acid Co-op’s installation (a collaboration of Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman), which filled the entire Deitch Wooster Street space with burned-out, rotting trailers piled high with reeking meth lab debris. Despite the forces of entropy and putrefaction, traditional paint and canvas have been replaced with castoff clothes, crumbly sun-bleached Styrofoam, piss-stained sheetrock, corrugated cardboard, recycled lumber, and black plastic trash bags. I’ve begun to notice a group of artists who seem newly enthralled with these ad hoc materials, and whose work exploits their sensual and visual qualities in terms of a more purely formalistic abstraction, less a shriek at society’s decay than an astute acceptance of it. Their mission: to restore order to this pathetic mess. This might be an attempted return to classicism, or merely another ironic twist by obsessive “organizers,” but it demands a fresh appreciation of even the most disgusting of matter.

I’ve been to shows by Jim Lee at Freight + Volume that felt like visiting a construction site, sheetrock dust and all. Jim’s brusque application of industrial materials and strange home improvement-style compounds, despite his more structured approach, recalls the urgent directness of Pollock’s drips, while his oddly shaped supports, constructed from networks of struts and crossbars, question accepted notions of a canvas stretcher. Teasing nuanced tones of color and texture out of the abraded surfaces of these unadulterated industrial products, Lee has traded in Duchamp’s readymade for some Home Depot ready-mix concrete.

These artists respond to their environments like chameleons. A visit to Regina Rex at 1717 Troutman Street during a recent show titled “MIN” (abject Minimalism being the theme) might leave one wondering where the cubical construction in this decrepit, mildewed factory ends and the art begins. Castoff plastic tarps or packing blankets draped over stretcher frames by Borden Capalino conjure slapped-together room dividers. “War Cancun” retains the grunge and limp wrinkles of its re-purposed black plastic sheeting, but invites a prolonged gaze, not unlike an early monochrome by Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, or Marcia Hafif. Lisha Bai casts rugged cement into cubic columns that rise to eye level, and in “Harem No. 3” (2009) she even impregnated the sculpture with perfume oils. These austere blocks of naturally variegated dark grays and rough facture stand like plinths, but seem too unsocialized for any crowning accoutrements.

Last season’s show by Derek Stroup at A. M. Richards Fine Art titled Station Pieces also seemed to balance industrial junk and Constructivist conceptualism. Deriving his compositions from billboard and packaging design, the paintings are constructed from sheet metal and studs, pop-riveted together like the boxes of delivery trucks. Using commercial high-gloss enamel, Stroup retains the color planes of highway signage, obliterating the text with a few broad brushstrokes. The showstopper was “Red, White, Grey 2 (Station Exterior),” a floor-to-ceiling divider-like construction of tin beams topped with a horizontal span of paint on metal. Exposed pink fiberglass insulation, metal studs, translucent white plastic sheeting, and electrical conduits become effigies of Rothko’s rectangles of pigment. The unfinished state of “Red White and Grey 2” begs the question of whether it was in progress or regress, something many Williamsburg residents are asking themselves about their neighborhood.

Not all crap art is made from crap, some just ends up that way from abuse and negligence. A Lettuce Slaughter in the Woods at Real Fine Arts, 673 Meeker, was a summer show that tapped into a grungy vibe. A range of works were installed and, according to a prearranged agreement, curator (and Greater New York 2010 alumnus) Dave Miko proceeded to squirt and splash green paint—like some initiation ritual involving gang members pissing on new recruits— around and onto the art, nearly overwhelming the more delicate works, such as a small vertical painting on finger-stained raw canvas by Sam Martineau. In this piece, a thin white outline of a square floats in the upper half of the picture, while a network of slack stripes in tertiary olive, salmon, cobalt, and gray form a diagonal X within. If a well-mannered ennui is palpable in Martineau’s work, the multicolored, flagstone-patterned canvas by Cy Amundson might qualify for the genre by virtue of its lame and cursory derivation of works by longtime formalist funkster Mary Heilmann. Can a “bad” version of “good bad” be good?

Material Issues and other Matters, curated by Michael Mahalchick and Wallace Whitney at CANADA, which presents works by an intentionally scruffy group of artists using recycled goods, seems to hit the rusty nail on its bent head. Hanging sculptures by Suzanne Goldenberg are crafted from wood scraps, fruit bag mesh, cardboard, clothes hanger wire, and string. The unstretched canvases by Jess Fuller, though admittedly expressionistically painted, do contain precisely delineated areas where the artist removed the warp threads, leaving a drooping skein of the woof . This technique has been used by blue jean customizers since the ’60s, but here it functions as a physical de-construction of the canvas, forcing a reconsideration of the idealized status of the picture plane, and where it conjoins with the materials used to produce the painting. Kazimir Malevich would be spinning in his grave if he could see what his Suprematist ideas have come to nearly 100 years after “Black Square.”

It was Malevich’s name that popped from both of our mouths during a chat with curator Mahalchick about “Untitled (corked)” (2010), one of a group of sewn pieces by Josh Blackwell. Perhaps as representative of “Funkster Formalism” as any piece thus far discussed, “Untitled (corked)” (2010), is a wall hanging, perhaps a tapestry, that uses a black plastic “bodega bag” as its foundation. The bag has been aged and softened by wear or reuse, and flattened against the wall it takes on the shape of a cartoon animal head, with the handle slots becoming ears or eyes. Just off center to the left, Blackwell has sewn in a diagonal square brocade of thick black organic wool yarn. The chunky stitching is primitive or childlike, but robust in comparison to the plastic membrane, which appears grayed next to the rich black wool. Through this conflation of materials, Blackwell implies that despite the blandness of mass-produced throwaway products, by virtue of a fixated humanistic action, a more substantial durability can be achieved. Perhaps ironically, for seekers of enlightenment, there’s a greater potential space for transcendence in a skuzzball dystopia than in shiny utopias, or maybe I’m just being Romantic.

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: "Even the Truth Needs Propaganda" ," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Rightly or wrongly, the above quote has been credited to Sidney Hook, a scrappy political operative who, appropriately enough, was born and bred in early 20th-century Williamsburg. Like many progressive youths during the 1920s and 30s, Hook was a true believer in the utopian visions of Communism, even publishing an essay titled “Why I Am a Communist” that was provocative enough to utz publisher William Randolph Hearst into a campaign to remove him from his N.Y.U. teaching gig. With the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the onset of World War II, reality bites. Vast swaths of the left-leaning “New York Intellectuals” began rethinking their political allegiances, and Hook changes sides. The end of the hot war sees the start of the Cold War and his considerable talents position Hook to become a major player in designing a new brand for the recently triumphant America, with Downtown New York as its beating heart.

In 1951 Hook proposes the formation of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a benign-sounding association of like-minded political activists with connections, both strategic and financial, to the C.I.A. and British Intelligence. He becomes its first chairman and sets about using the fruits of postwar American culture and a bag of devious tricks to push back the Soviet-sponsored “Popular Front.” It was hoped that the “Committee” could help convince a still-wobbly European intelligentsia to come down decisively as anti-Stalin and pro-Western. Swirling around in this Upper West Sider galaxy were the likes of Lionel and Diana Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, Irving Kristol, and unofficial consultant to the Luce Publications empire (which included both Time and Life magazines), the editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen. Of special interest to us is one of the “little magazines” that received support: Partisan Review, edited by Philip Rahv and William Phillips, whose most prominent art critic was Clement Greenberg.

Using the ruse of “cultural bridge building,” the Committee bankrolls traveling art exhibitions, music and film festivals; publishes sympathetic books, catalogs and magazines; dispense grants; and organizes seminars. The resultant prestige was used to convince the world (or at least Europe), that America was the last beacon of true creative freedom. New York supplanting Paris as art world capital isn’t merely the consequence of an innovative new style or a native aesthetic attaining ripeness. It is, in no small account, due to these cultural “black ops,” professional cheerleaders (propagandists), and millions of dollars of C.I.A. money spread around to fund them. For those interested in further research I’d recommend Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War, Alan M. Wald’s The New York Intellectuals, and How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art by Serge Guilbaut.

Very little in the art world is a coincidence. Achieve a tipping point of consensus, by whatever means, and you’re on your way to establishing historic fact. (Was Jackson Pollock really that good, or have I been brainwashed?)

In my historiographical studies, I’ve found that advanced culture always evolves through different locations: Rome, Florence, Venice, Munich, and Paris. Each area and era comes with a list of styles, ancillary characters, boosters, critics, raconteurs, movers and shakers, and hangers-on. Each leaves behind a heading in the history books and auction catalogs, along with appreciated real estate values. As shapers of cultural consensus know, just because history has already happened, doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s an unrelenting battle for hearts and minds. Create the next “hot spot” and the world watches in anticipation.

I’ve been covering the Brooklyn art scene for well over a decade, mostly focusing on Wiliamsburg, but also visiting Greenpoint, DUMBO, Smith/lantic, Red Hook, Bed-Stuy, Park Slope, Sunset Park, and DUGO (District Under the Gowanus Overpass). About six years ago I began hearing rumblings about another trendy district called “the Wick” or “MoJo” (because it was between the Morgan and Jefferson Street stops on the L line and, let’s admit it, you just gotta have a cool name for your nabe). Young artists were flocking there, finding cheap studio space and some even buying buildings. At the time, as far as galleries were concerned, anything east of the BQE was considered no man’s land. I popped into spaces like Patty Martori’s Holiday at 118 Powers Street, Jan Mollet and Elizabeth Cooper’s Morsel Gallery at 81A Olive Street, and Tastes Like Chicken, a studio/gallery space founded in 2004 by Michael and Sherry Rader at 300 Morgan Avenue (unfortunately all have since closed), and wrote some of the first reviews featuring the “Wick.”

The post-9/11 boomlet, and Mayor Bloomberg’s unrelenting push for development, had by this time put severe upward price pressure on Williamsburg real estate. A few venues, like NURTUREart, headed east, opening new digs at 910 Grand Street. I’d made visits to some MoJo buildings, vast rookeries of studios, and knew there was an underground mass of artists waiting to go critical, but aside from myself, the hardcore art bloggers Barry Hoggard and James Wagner, the local chronicler Hrag Vartanian, and a smattering of local voices, the area appeared to be just another in a group of wannabe districts vying for exposure. But things were changing for the “Wick.”

Hrag remembers, “I lived in Bushwick beginning in 2000 and slowly started to notice things were changing fast as more artists, writers, and others were arriving, but it wasn’t until Life Cafe opened on Flushing Avenue (I think it was 2002) that it became quite obvious there was some action. Life ignited the media narrative that Bushwick was slowly becoming a new artistic outpost…. There really didn’t seem to be much to cover in Bushwick until 2006-ish, only random events. Williamsburg still dominated north Brooklyn culture (and still does in my opinion). Bushwick Open Studios really changed everything, since it granted many of us access to studios and artists that we didn’t know existed. I started blogging about the local scene in 2006 and that online writing immediately plugged me into the scene as people would comment on my blog posts, email me info, and link to my posts.”

Within a year, a nexus of several venues had formed. During my initial visit to Austin Thomas’s Pocket Utopia (1037 Flushing Avenue) I picked up a funky photocopied guide showing the coordinates of three or four other galleries and bars—all located within blocks of the Flushing Avenue and Morgan Street intersection—published by something called the “Gods of Mars.” GOM turned out to be a monthly flyer put out by English Kills (114 Forest Street), founded by Chris Harding with a core group of 12 to 15 artists. Just around the corner at 43 Bogart Street was Ad Hoc Art, a prime effort by Peripheral Media Projects, featuring Graffiti and Street Art. 3rd Ward (195 Morgan Avenue), a membership-funded community center, rounded out the list. About a year later Factory Fresh encamped at 1053 Flushing Avenue with a program featuring Street Art. At a glance, the one commonality among most of these operations is a lack of foot traffic and slim possibilities of profits from sales, and so they’ve all had to come up with creative ways of paying the rent and creating publicity with a low or no budget. Arts In Bushwick ( http://bos2010.artsinbushwick.org/ ) is a free-form all-volunteer group printing guide maps and promoting festivals, studio tours, and community dialogue and outreach. I contacted Ali Aschman, AIB’s press manager, and co-lead producer for BETA Spaces, with some questions:

James Kalm (Rail): How long has Arts In Bushwick existed, and what and when was your first public project?

Ali Aschman: AIB was founded in 2007 around the planning of the first Open Studios, so it has existed for 4 years. There had been an open studios event in 2005 organized by a different group, who intended to do it again in 2006 but canceled it. Another group of people banded together in 2006 to put it on at the last minute, and after that about 15 community members/artists/organizers formed AIB in order to plan BOS ‘07. After that, some of the members wanted to produce a smaller, more focused festival, highlighting aspects of Open Studios that they particularly enjoyed, namely curated group shows and alternative spaces, so in December 2007, BETA Spaces (Bushwick Exhibition Triangle of Alternative Spaces) came about. BETA Spaces 2010 will take place on Sunday, November 14. We are still in the planning stages and will be open for submissions in the next few weeks. In March 2009, AIB produced SITE Fest, a three-day performance festival. All of the three festivals are now annual events.

Rail: How many members do you have?

Aschman: That’s hard to say, as there’s no membership process. AIB is run by whoever wants to run it. I’d say at least 15 “core” people were involved in organizing our last festival in terms of producing the program, the website, the press release, the budget, sponsorship, etc. AIB operates on a break-even basis, with a very small budget. There are no member dues. For Open Studios, artists must pay $35 to have their studio/event listed in our program and on our website, in order to cover printing costs. Of course we’re all volunteers in that no one gets paid, but when I say volunteers I mean artists who registered their studios and volunteer for five hours in lieu of paying the registration fee.

Rail: What do you think is your most powerful tool in spreading the word about Bushwick?

Aschman: Pretty much all we do in terms of PR is send out a press release and try to get listed in as many publications and websites as possible. I think the best thing we can do is put on really great events to showcase the quantity, quality, and diversity of creativity in Bushwick, and if it’s good, people will come tell their friends, and they’ll write articles.

That said, in terms of promoting the individual festivals locally, and especially promoting participation, flyering is a really powerful tool. We don’t want our presence to be online only—we want people to see our posters on the street so they know they can get involved in something in their own neighborhood, and we’ve had a really good response to that. We don’t curate our festivals, in that we don’t exclude anyone from participating. Obviously there is a lot of poor stuff mixed in with the good and excellent, but it’s not for us to determine what’s good or bad.

It would be impossible to generalize about a single medium or style that would characterize Bushwick, but with a robust program of performance work presented by Grace Exhibition Space at 840 Broadway, the annual Maximum Perception festival at English Kills, and the AIB-produced SITE Fest, the district has participated in the current revival of performative art. Chloë Bass of AIB opined, “The spirit of experimentation and the ability to experiment seems like a really positive thing to me for venues as well as for individual artists. I think the main difference (and this is speaking from the inside) between what’s happening in Bushwick and what’s happening in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side is that the Bushwick scene is being fostered to develop collaboration rather than competition. I think that we’ve had a little extra time, mostly because of the general economic recession, to learn to work together rather than artists feeling like we’re all competing for the same very small pool of resources.”

With his considerable online expertise blogging, and the recent launch of his website Hyperallergic (Sensitive to Art and its Discontents) ( http://hyperallergic.com ), Harg Vartanian is very conscious of another crucial difference: “Bushwick is truly a virtual community. It’s generally true that cultural communities are built on a common mindset and common values, and nowadays we often find our communities of like-minded people online rather than IRL…

I think it’s natural that the blogosphere takes the lead in the Bushwick hype since no mainstream media sources are going to spend resources on a community that doesn’t interest their advertisers…. The other reason the blogosphere took the lead was that the community is young and young people get most of their news online. I remember loft buildings had MySpace pages and everyone’s band, art group, etc., interacted via Friendster, MySpace, and later Facebook; it was where our community ‘lived’ and still lives.”

To wrap up, although there was something in excess of 250 listings in the last BOS guide, it wasn’t until I noticed a couple of trendy European-style cafes, fashion boutiques, a loft hostel and a humongous, high-tech gym on a strip that only a couple of years ago was an industrial wasteland that it became frighteningly obvious: Bushwick had arrived. Despite galleries closing and scaling back, the openings of Storefront, a partnership of Jason Andrew, director of Norte Maar, and Debra Brown (16 Wilson Avenue); Famous Accountants, a collaboration between artists Ellen Letcher and Kevin Regan deep in the “Wick” at 1673 Gates Avenue; and the debut of Regina Rex, an artists’ collaborative at 1717 Troutman Street, signal the vibrancy of the Bushwick scene. Regardless of denials by interviewees, no fewer than five identified propaganda techniques were employed in this essay and that, at least, is the truth.

"THE HISTORY OF “WE”: HIS STORY, HER STORY, OUR STORY," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Anyone who knows me, or who might have followed my ramblings over the last several years now, would be aware that I have a great interest in the history of New York’s art community. This fascination started gradually (I’m a slow learner), when it dawned on me that to understand the mystery of art, you had to know the history of art. After 30 years on the scene, it’s obvious that despite what I’d been taught in art school—that it all depends on talent, dedication, and discipline—there are other factors that play important roles in deciding, who succeeds or fails in the art world. Chief among these are the relationships and connections among artists, galleries, critics, curators, collectors, and institutions, things as simple as where you live, who your friends are, where you went to school, or where you hang out. To get the big picture, one must be able to view these associations over a broad timeline. What might appear as chance happenings today may actually be the results of decisions or actions that took place in the 1950s, the 1980s, or last year. A thorough grasp of art history and its ancillary events is required, because you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Remarkably, and counterintuitively, by taking control of the past, at least as it’s currently understood and interpreted, you can also manipulate and direct the future. You don’t need to lie or fabricate; just accentuate and omit, but more on that later.

The following anecdotes are true. The names and situations have intentionally been made as vague as possible to protect the ignorant from embarrassment:

I met Mr. X the same way I meet a lot of young art aficionados, on my meanderings through the backstreets and off-the-beaten-path venues of Brooklyn. He’s a perfectly charming, highly educated young guy with local curatorial experience, and we’d contributed writings to some of the same art publications. During a conversation at the opening of a stuffy, scruffy DIY “gallery,” he lamented his current task, which was writing his master’s thesis, a sweeping, century-long history of contemporary art in New York. Despite the sweaty surroundings, ennui, and fatigue, my ears perked up. “What are you including about so-and-so?” I asked. He glanced back blankly. “Never heard of him,” he spouted. Now, this so-and-so is not some obscure character on the margins, but one of the three most influential players responsible for New York’s ascension to the art capital of the world. He’d spent time in Paris, supposedly met many of the modernist masters firsthand, written an influential book, and organized some of the most groundbreaking shows of the 1940s that established the fledgling Abstract Expressionist movement as America’s original art form. He’d been a missionary for advanced art, formed an influential coterie, and introduced most of the artists who would become the New York School to each other. There’s no way any kind of valid understanding of local history could leave out this puzzle piece. Regardless, somehow in his seven or eight years of advanced study, and on the verge or receiving a master’s degree, the existence of so-and-so for Mr. X was a blank. I was dumbfounded.

Ms. Y is a well-respected painter with a cult-like following among many, and particularly among young, fashion-conscious female artists. Her work has been shown to great acclaim in New York and internationally, and has been acquired by major collectors, including some high-profile European tastemakers. I happened to pop in for a Sunday afternoon panel discussion coinciding with the artist’s latest show at her Lower East Side gallery. Admirably, this handsome show signaled a brave departure from Ms. Y’s marketable product and signature image. However, after a cursory viewing, it was obvious that the work, and even its installation design, related directly to an extremely influential art movement from the late ’60s-early ’70s that was associated with the beginnings of feminist art. During a brief Q&A, I asked Ms. Y how she saw her work’s relationship to the aforementioned movement. With wide-eyed naïveté and, I suspect, feigned ignorance, she practically boasted of her lack of awareness of this movement, and asked for names of artists associated with it. I was disappointed but not surprised, and I make no personal judgments on either Mr. X or Ms. Y, but it seems as if historical obliviousness is contagious among many of today’s young “it” artists, critics, curators, and dealers.

As a new critic for one of the most highly trafficked art websites in the world, Mr. Z has power. His reviews are fresh, he doesn’t shy away from the difficult, and his work is greedily anticipated by plenty of folks who spend inordinate amounts of time online. He’s done a good job of linking up with the new cadre of internet bloggers and web-crawlers, and he’s hip enough to lard his zippy lingo with just enough political correctness to entice intellectual lefties with its slacker nonchalance. I bumped into him at a downtown opening for a well-respected European painter of formalist abstraction. As is often the case when discussing advanced art, we were throwing out theoretical tests, sort of a “Desert Island Playlist” except with artists. When he asked “Who do you think is the most influential abstract painter for young artists these days?” I thought for a second and replied “Mr...........” His eyes glazed, “Is he East German?” No, in fact Mr........... lived on East 10th Street in the ’50s, was a proponent of the New York School, hobnobbed with the founders of Ab-Ex, and had one-man shows at the Guggenheim and the DIA Foundation. His estate is represented by one of the top two galleries in the city, and he’s venerated like a saint by many Williamsburg artists. Normally I’d be happy to fill in this guy with some basic info on Mr..........., but I had to reevaluate my whole impression of Mr. Z. As one of the supposed authoritative voices of his generation, someone to whom readers turned for informed opinions and aesthetic insight, I wondered whether this was simple ignorance or if it represents a pervasive attitude of deemphasizing the importance of art history, a notion that, as one major critic has labeled it, is a “macho hang-up.”

Henry Geldzahler, in his insightful essay from 1965 entitled “The Audience and the Critic” states, “The audience for art in our time is...a relatively small group as learned as the 18th century connoisseurs. The specialist’s knowledge today is not literary but formal. It is not mythology and poetry, the Greek and Latin humanist, but the morphology of the art of the past century, the history of forms and movements in modern art that is the necessary equipment for a full comprehension of the best of contemporary art.” To that I’d like to add a quote from one of my favorite art curmudgeons, Ad Reinhardt, from Art-As-Art: “The one subject of a hundred years of modern art is that awareness of art of itself, of art preoccupied with its own process and means, with its own identity and distinction, art concerned with its own unique statement, art conscious of its own evolution and history and destiny, toward its own freedom, its own dignity, its own essence, its own reason, its own morality, and its own conscience...The one question, the one principal, the one crisis in art of the 20th century centers on the uncompromising ‘purity’ of art, and in the consciousness that art comes from art only, not from anything else.” Dave Hickey, in a recent lecture at SVA, seemed to reinforce the above sentiments when he was asked what he looks for in a student: “Knowingness, because I don’t have time to explain everything”.

Contemporary art, like rust, never sleeps. To be a contributor to its ongoing saga one must be conscious of its precedents, trends, movements, philosophies, and personalities. Perhaps artists should be less self-conscious of being derivative and more accepting of familial resemblances. Every artist carries a personal art history in his or her head, a catalog that amounts to an artistic DNA, and like any family story, the richer and more profound this understanding, the greater the associations and inspiration one can derive from it.

Finally, the most widely accepted interpretation of the past will determine the direction of the future. Though this might sound mystical, as every propagandist or advertising executive knows, it’s usually true. You might think the battles of the past are over but you’d be wrong. These struggles are ongoing.

As an example, let’s make a brief comparison. In Irving Sandler’s groundbreaking tetralogy The Triumph of American Painting, The New York School, American Art of the 1960s, and Art of the Postmodern Era, the author lays out what has become the standard picture of contemporary art, at least for New York. Much of Sandler’s focus is on the male painters, many close personal friends; indeed, through his writings he’s helped define terms, movements, and tendencies that have been taught to generations of students, and over time have become the accepted account. I recently came into possession (a complimentary copy) of the dense, two-volume tome Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism by the team of Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. This study is illustrative because they reinterpret and reshape much of the standard canon, starting their version with Vienna and Freud, rather than Paris and Cézanne. They further expend much more ink arguing for the essential positions played by photography, female artists, and, not surprisingly for this bunch, so closely associated with October magazine (named for the month the Bolshevik Revolution took place), art production related to the international socialist (Russian?) movements. One need only glance at the recent Pictures Generation 1974-1984 exhibition at the Met, from a period when the influence of October was at its peak (and featuring many of the artists they’d championed), to witness their authority. Through their collective writings they’ve shepherded a generation of artists, especially female photographers with a deconstructive twist, while not so covertly trying to depose the New York School notion of heroic painting as chauvinistic, bourgeois, and passé. Echoes of this 1980s anti-painting jihad could still be felt reverberating down the halls of history when the artist Philip Smith, one of the original members of the 1978 Pictures exhibition, was “erased” from the Met’s show apparently for the sin of being too painterly to fit the strict photo-conceptual orthodoxy the curator had bought into.

Debates will doubtlessly continue over the relative importance of various artists and movements, and while some might cite the market as the ultimate arbiter of “value,” others proffer influence, recognition, innovation, intellectual rigor, or political appropriateness. What I’m calling for is a broader appreciation and study of all history. Artists can no longer slide by as idiot savants or simple-minded slackers who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast. Young critics cannot grasp the full implication of their generation’s accomplishments without the context of their antecedents. To penetrate beyond our current membrane of creative precedent will require a greater understanding of our tribal story. I don’t advocate the omission of any historical interpretation, but rather a study of history that would elucidate how and why the master narrative has been manipulated. Our individual backstories are like the Watts Towers, built out of the colorful bits and scraps we drag home every day: the firmer the foundations, the stronger the structure. Each of us in our own way is a chronicler in the history of “we.” Regardless of personal preference, in the end, it’ll be history that sorts it all out.

"ACT II: RIPE FOR REDISCOVERY," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

My, how things have changed. After arriving in the center of the art world to study and spend a couple of years compiling a portfolio, I began the daunting task of visiting galleries and trying to get dealers interested in what I was doing. Responses ranged from, “How long have you been in New York? Well, when you’ve been here for five years come back,” to, “We don’t even look at anything by artists under 35.” Well, maybe my work was just crappy, but at some point it suddenly became a requirement that you be under 25 and still in school to be looked at seriously. Dealers began to hang out near college campuses, robbing grad school cradles and snapping up untested kids with a marketable gimmick. They’d start them out with high profile shows at major galleries. Feature them in magazine spreads with layouts by the hottest fashion photogs. Pump up their prices fast and saturate their collector base to the bursting point. Having no track record, backlog, or professional exhibition experience became a plus. Everybody loves a puppy; send the stinky old dogs to the pound.

However, many of these artists succumbed to the lure of the market and turned their practice into a cottage industry, producing endless variations of their “signature” style, available for any size wall or budget. Or, due to the pressure of being overexposed and under-mature, to the glee of their competitors, they crashed and burned, sometimes tragically, sometimes taking their galleries down as well. Still others who started off with a bang but through unintended circumstances ended up sidelined, are patiently waiting to be rediscovered, honing their skills in obscurity while building up their inventory.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared, “There are no second acts in American lives,” but ironically there’s now an inclination towards counter-trends: it’s becoming fashionable to be unfashionable. Some of today’s best venues, ever on the lookout for new territory to mine, are beginning to pick through the mountains of discarded, forgotten, or failed artists. I’m calling this swing of the pendulum back towards seasoned artists “Geezer Art.” Think of it as the ultimate in green thinking: recycling actual human beings.

There are parallels between the young and old. While the naivety of youth allows for audacity and the skirting of norms out of ignorance (hey, I didn’t know I couldn’t do that), the geezers have seen it all, done most of it, and because their careers are already in the shithole, aren’t worried about offending sensitivities or occupational blowback. A whole bunch of hot contemporary art is attempting to riff on nostalgia, trying to cop a look or attitude from the 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s, but who needs slacker simulacra when you can get your hands on the real thing? On a practical note, why rely on the whims of youth when it comes to the actual saleable artifact? Commitments and enthusiasms change, many a conceptual video-maker at 30 will be a much happier computer programmer at 40 or real estate developer at 50, but the 60-year-old sculptor has a studio stuffed with a career’s worth of work that ain’t going anywhere, and it’s cheap.

Some recent examples of this phenomenon: in a 2008 article that appeared in Art and Living titled “Ferus Fetish” (http://www.artandliving.com/2008/05/13/ferus-fetish/), Peter Frank writes, “So while bidding wars erupt over obscure contemporary artists because they come from the right school or gallery or country, whole movements and art scenes that hardly rated a footnote ten years ago are suddenly dug out of the basement, and artists whose phones haven’t rung since they were rotary suddenly have to get answering machines and e-mail, and agents, and calendars.”

Locally, last year’s The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 at the Met trotted out dozens of artists associated with this movement, featuring not only the obligatory blue-chip stars like Cindy Sherman, David Salle, John Baldessari, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger, but also some who’d slipped from the headlines, like Thomas Lawson, Sarah Charlesworth, or Charles Clough, reacquainting us with folks who’d done some of the most provocative though undervalued spade work to nurture this scene.

Mary Heilmann was already approaching 30 when she left her California home to head east and try out for the big leagues. She’d studied ceramics, but upon settling in New York she started teaching herself to paint as a reaction to the Minimalist “old boys club,” as she called it, that held court at Max’s Kansas City. She maintained herself by teaching, and in the early 70’s she showed with a cadre of SoHo painters at Paley & Lowe and later occasionally with Holly Solomon and San Francisco’s Daniel Weinberg. Eventually, in the mid-80’s, it was the doyen of the East Village, Pat Hearn, who could see the importance of her work through the eyes of a younger generation. Hearn mustered her considerable resources among artists, critics, and curators and gained local and international attention for Heilmann. Following Hearn’s untimely death, the ball she started rolling led to Heilmann’s ascent to blue chip status, and one of the most rewarding retrospectives ever at the New Museum, To Be Someone, in 2008. For Heilmann, the arrival of superstardom and retirement age happened simultaneously.

The “New Lower East Side” district around the Bowery is a re-do of a re-do of a re-do that’s enticing curators to dredge up remnants from the last great skuzz-fest from 30 years ago, the East Village. Oeuvres are being groomed, deodorized and placed in hermetically sealed Plexiglas boxes. Un-politically correct legends of drink, drug, and sex addiction are recontextualized as documents of the authenticity of bohemian martyrdom. Mirroring this trend was Everything Must Go, the Carlo McCormick curatorial effort at P.P.O.W. marking the tenth year since Martin Wong’s AIDS-related death.

Several Williamsburg galleries, to their credit, have provided artists with opportunities to exhibit during periods of exclusion from the Manhattan marketplace. For years now Richard Timperio’s Sideshow Gallery filled this gap, showing lots of people who’d been written off, and while I’d like to provide names, I’ll spare them the embarrassment of being included in an article about “geezers.”

Janet Kurnatowski has also shown mature artists, and (apologies in advance) her current show, James Biederman’s The Traveling Hat, is a great chance to see work by a longtime practitioner. Biederman, who studied sculpture at Yale before teaching himself to paint, has been an active presence on the Williamsburg scene for years. One of the joys of maturity is the opportunity to support, mentor and influence your contemporaries and younger artists. James, who founded the N3 Project Space, has organized dozens of exhibitions that featured scores of artists beginning in the late 90’s. His keen eye and dedication to abstract painting has formed a coterie of the likeminded that maintains a close-knit support system despite James’s current far-flung teaching gig in North Carolina. Biederman has gained attention for his elegant and attenuated brushwork, richly sensual surfaces, and subtle palette, and his name should be included in the debates over the legacy of Abstract Expressionism/New York School painting that have sprung up around shows from the likes of Amy Sillman, David Reed, and Terry Winters.

The Traveling Hat consists of about 12 smallish oil paintings, all around 20 by 22 inches. The small scale left me feeling that the works are teases for larger, unexhibited pieces. The repeated format enables the viewer to make comparisons on purely formal qualities, and it’s instructive to see the breadth of variations the artist wrings out of this limitation.

With its quirky, slapdash handling and swirling, centrally based spiral composition, “Radio Head” (2010) represents a departure from familiar works, contradicting previous formats that employed horizontal or vertical planes secured firmly to the picture plane’s edge. Streaks of turquoise and mustard yellow floating over a red-ochre ground reinforce an icon-like circular form that echoes petal tips of a rose or a daisy. The potential kitschy nature of this “flowery” form is avoided through the use of staccato, almost artless strokes and jarring color combos. “No Particular Order” (2010) also uses a pair of looping, slippery circles, in peachy pink. These curling slathers of runny paint overlay a more static ground of green and warm yellow puzzle pieces, highlighting them with a loose, zipper-whip of the hand, an apparent rethinking of intent made in-process. In “Zing” (2010), one of the most satisfying paintings shown, a wide cloverleaf scribble of hot red-orange commands the upper left half. The artist returned and repainted this knot with thinner, darker red bands, creating an astringent contrast that resonates with the mellow background tones of gold, slate blue, and mauve. Many of these works seem a bit closely keyed, and I do think that generally some would benefit from a broader use of tonal contrast, stretching the fingers out to the highs and lows instead of playing all the melodies in the middle of the keyboard.

The exhibition also includes a portfolio of wonderful mixed media drawings that provides an intimate display of the exploration and discovery that characterizes all of Biederman’s best work. The Traveling Hat is on display until June 6.

"Brooklyn Dispatches: Dog Years," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

The dust has settled, and contrary to the shit-storm stirred up by some pundits and equally shrill voices from the art blogosphere over the debut of “Skin Fruit,” the New Museum, though slightly chastised, is still standing. I won’t waste this space to recap what’s already been covered extensively in these pages, but perhaps a brief critique of “Institutional Critique” might prove enlightening. One of the attractions of art is its ability to present truth, and speak it to the face of power. Likewise, the pill who points out that the emperor has no clothes wins kudos from classmates, but now that we’re out of school, cultural institutions and the art market are our classrooms. And what better way to gain the attention of the cool kids who perpetually ignore us than to rake them over the coals, exposing their foibles to the world.

I, like many, took a dim view of the NuMu’s decision to exhibit a selection of works from the collection of its board member Dakis Joannou, and the equally dubious choice of Jeff Koons as curator. But, after seeing the show, I realize there are practical questions worth considering before we storm the barricades and burn the place to the ground. First, this is only a temporary show, and after three months of bellyaching and snarky reviews, these “treasures” get packed up and sent back to Greece. We move on, hopefully learning something in the process.

Second, yeah there are ethical questions, but there are also financial considerations that are biting hard in the “new normal” of our ongoing recession. In the over 30 years the NuMu has existed, a host of curators, archivists, art handlers, installers, administrators, and guards have come to rely on the museum for their livelihoods, health care, and pensions, not to mention future career opportunities. Should we throw them under the art handlers’ truck?

Third, and perhaps the squirreliest and most problematic, are the ethical versus aesthetic issues raised in the “institutional critique” that constitutes much of this discourse. By publicly commenting on “Skin Fruit,” one can’t help but become involved in the show, a player, however peripheral, on the stage provided by the NuMu. Does an artist like the Rail’s own William Powhida, who has converted his November cover drawing, “How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality,” into a limited edition print, become part of the “commercial institution” by hitching his critique to an entrepreneurial project? Does this make him an “insider,” and if so, would his critique still be seen as brutally honest, or as muck-raking shtick, akin to being roasted by the likes of Don Rickles? As Andrea Fraser stated in “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” in the September 2005 Artforum, “Today the argument goes, there no longer is an outside...when we need it most, institutional critique is dead, a victim of its success or failure, swallowed up by the institution it stood against.” Whether you buy the notion that we all have “skin in the game” or not, this question is at the core of the real “insider” vs. “outsider” dialectic that has always confronted major constituencies within the advanced oppositional art community.

The art world is a place where, through the mere act of surviving, an artist can become, in a sense, an “individual institution” qualifying for an investment of trust, recognition, or even money. To achieve such state, a concession must usually be struck between being a true “outsider,” someone who is still capable of disinterested commentary, or becoming part of the establishment and therefore invested, however covertly, in maintaining its status quo. What we’re left with then is something akin to professional wrestling for aesthetes, a good show that gets butts in the seats but comes with an unspoken guarantee that no one gets really hurt (because that might stop the show and take away the punch bowl), a cozy arrangement that puts off the real, hard decisions until the next crisis.

Recently, a young mother mentioned that she’d just bought a new puppy for her children because she said it would be a great way for them to learn about life. Given that the average dog lives 10 to 12 years, the kids would witness the different phases of life while they’re still young. I’ve taken to thinking of Williamsburg as the puppy of the art world. Things move so fast here that one year equals seven in the real world.

I’d seen the “for rent” sign in the front window for a month or so. Seeing the lights on and the door open, I stuck my head in and asked if they were the “new management.” They assured me they were. “Is this going to remain an art gallery?” They said “a furniture gallery.” I wished them luck. Jack the Pelican has officially joined the expanding ranks of former galleries. Peddling down Driggs a week later I spied a strolling Don Carroll out for a leisurely smoke. I pulled out my pad and did my Jimmy Olsen routine.

James Kalm (Rail): When did you open Jack the Pelican, Don?

Don Carroll: It was spring of 2002, so we were in business about eight years.

Rail: What happened?

Don Carroll: Well, we lost our momentum and it just got too expensive to operate. We had a monthly outlay of $7,000; that meant we had to sell $14,000 worth of art, and that was before salaries. We’d been hanging on by our teeth for quite a while. Between the recession, bad L train service, and the advent of the New Lower East Side, our sales were off 90% this last year. That forced us out of the art fairs, which have also changed the dynamics of the market. Since the Bowery neighborhood took off we haven’t gotten any of the media support that was so important when we started. It’s been years since the reviewers from the New York Times have come by. Right now we’re looking at opening something in Manhattan.

At that I decided to let Don finish his smoke in peace and peddled on.

Sad as Jack’s departure is, other old dogs remain. Both Randall Harris’ Figureworks, and Alun Williams’s Parker’s Box will be celebrating their ten-year anniversaries this season with massive shows featuring dozens of the artists they’ve spotlighted over the years. Heading out east, another pup that’s getting some age on is English Kills. This down-and-dirty venue is marking its third birthday, and in that short time it’s shown some of the most provocative painting, sculpture, and installation this side of the East River. With their annual Maximum Perception Performance Festivals and collaborations with Grace Exhibition Space a few blocks away on Broadway, they have become the hub of an energetic new group of performative artists challenging Downtown’s established hegemony and decorum.

Just around the corner on Wilson Avenue, another pup has popped with Storefront, a partnership between Jason Andrew, local art activist and the director of Norte Maar, and painter Debra Brown. Brown’s The Bushwick Paintings, which were on display the day I passed by, are atmospheric views of the local industrial skyline. Coils of razor wire on top of barbwire fences traverse these unromantic scenes with an Art Nouveau-like lyricism. Delicate glazes and lush melds of color put me in mind of Loren MacIver, a sensitive artist who also sought out the sublime in the dusty and decrepit mundane.

Still further east, what might be the runt of the current litter, space-wise, makes up for it with a wagging tail and a truly eccentric program. Famous Accountants, in the basement of 1673 Gates Avenue, is another collaborative space founded by Kevin Regan and Ellen Letcher. Proudly proclaiming their hope to carry on the pioneering spirit of community involvement established by Austin Thomas’s recently closed Pocket Utopia, this off-the-beaten-path gallery is worth the trek for those serious followers of the art world’s grass roots.

Even I, who spent nearly every Sunday afternoon for the past decade and a half dogging around and sniffing out the ‘burg, still can’t hit all the newly opened art spaces. But I did make it to the conveniently named 106 Green Gallery for a Sunday opening. With Spring Fever, curated by Ridley Howard and Nicole Russo (gallery director at Leo Koenig), this “not for sale” gallery has put together a charming display with some familiar faces. A video, “Fever Dream with Rabbit” by Laurel Nakadate, presents a kissy blue episode between the silhouetted figures of a female model and a rabbit that, after a while, makes dog fighting seem humane. “Flavors” by David Humphrey pairs a colorfully truncated ice cream cone with fat, deadpan gray brush strokes, evoking a comparison between taste by tongue or eye. In a large paint-slathered James Herbert piece titled “Two Swans,” a giant, horny adolescent looms over a couple of clinging females nudes.

Janet Kurnatowski stands out like the “Lady” among the “Tramps,” and with this season her gallery hits the five-year milestone. Her current exhibition, Love’s Uncomprehending Smile is a two-person show by fellow Brooklyn Rail contributors Ben La Rocco and Craig Olson. While it is against Rail policy to review works by its artist-writers, both of whom I consider friends and cohorts, I’d love to drive as many feet and eyeballs to this show as possible.

During a brief chat with Marisa Sage, the current president of the Williamsburg Art Gallery Association I asked about the prevailing climate. “It’s been tough,” she responded, “but ironically this has been our best year ever” (Sage operates Like The Spice Gallery). “Some galleries have closed but there are several new spaces, like Charlie Horse, who are totally excited to be working with us.” I guess you have to be an eternal optimist to be in the arts, and from the standpoint of someone who’s seen the cycle repeated several times now, it gives me faith that though some may fall and others get off the train, there’s always a fresh batch of innocent newbies full of energy and grand ideals, and with whose help the tribe will carry on, doggone it.