"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Birth of a Notion," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“The Five Spot Jazz Club was tiny, but it had a huge influence.” I often find myself thinking back on these words, delivered by Dave Hickey during a New School lecture at the beginning of this millennium. As I trace back veins of art history and study the unlikely and humble beginnings of careers, movements, and galleries, they become even more poignant.

A brief list of esteemed accomplishments that started as little more than personal eccentric gestures would include a project by Gracie Mansion (Joanne Mayhew-Young) titled the “Loo Division” (1982), which consisted of an art exhibition in her bathroom on East Ninth Street. Gracie became an icon and driving force behind the fledgling East Village scene, debuting artists like Mike Bidlo, Judy Glantzman, and David Wojnarowicz. Out in Los Angeles in 1954, Walter and Shirley Hopps christened a log shed in Brentwood the Syndell Studio Art Gallery. Despite the problem of hanging pictures on log walls, they showed the work of local artists and a tight-knit group of San Francisco “beat” Expressionists. A few years later, Walter went on to partner with Edward Kienholz and found the Ferus Gallery before moving on to become curator of the Pasadena Museum of Art, where he organized one of the first Pop Art shows, as well as the groundbreaking Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1963. Meanwhile, in San Francisco’s Marina District, just off Lombard Street, Dimitri Grachis was operating the Spatza Gallery out of a garage he also lived in at 2192 Filbert Street. Given the pathetic nature of its origins, it’s perhaps appropriate that this space participated in the gestation of the movement dubbed “funk,” which included the likes of Wallace Berman, George Hermes, and Bruce Conner, whose disturbing sculpture “Child” was fist shown at Spatza. (“Child” was purchased by MoMA and eventually disintegrated in the museum’s storage.)

If these anecdotes sound familiar, it’s because locally we’re experiencing similar scenarios on a daily basis. David Gibson, one of the hardest working curators in New York, spent five years organizing over 40 shows at what must have appeared as a uniquely self-effacing venue called the Real Form Project Space, a display window at 218 Bedford Avenue. Despite the presentation area being about the size of a large aquarium, 5 by 7 by 2½ feet, many of the featured artists have gone on to establish careers, and several are represented by reputable galleries. Stories like these inspire the realizations that where one starts out is less important than where one is headed; that initiative, creativity, and the courage to take a risk (and perhaps fail), are just as important as a cash grubstake; and that creative individuals are indeed in control of their own destinies and artistic futures.

Speaking of fortuitous beginnings, “The Birth of Baby X” has captured the imaginations and headlines of more news outlets, tabloids, and blogs than any recent Brooklyn performance art piece I can remember. Beginning around October 8, artist Marni Kotak transformed Microscope Gallery into a provisional maternity ward complete with birthing pool, fridge, and bed. The idea was simple: Kotak would inhabit the gallery around her due date and present the birth of “Baby X” as a performance, blurring the lines between “real life” and the aesthetic object. The gallery, a space about the size of a small living room, is painted with a cobalt blue seascape motif, and a band of photos of the bikini-clad expectant Kotak sunbathing on a beach, line the walls like a wainscot. A centrally placed 172-gallon inflatable pool is flanked with twin cheesy trophies towering over seven feet high. At about 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday October 26, “Baby X” arrived—a bouncing boy weighing in at nine pounds, two ounces. I made my first visit the following Friday and spoke with artist mom Marni, as well as Jason Bell, the collaborator dad, and viewed the “artwork,” beautiful baby Ajax. After weeks of habitation and the birthing process, the gallery acquired a cluttered, lived-in patina. A couple of monitors play disks of preliminary activities, including a visit to the beach and family gatherings, while a time-lapse video of the actual birth was projected on the back wall of the gallery.

There’s a humorous Keystone Cops quality to the jumpy images of futzing figures, popping in and out of the camera’s frame, in preparations that quickly turn dramatic as Kotak steps into the pool, begins shaking, tossing and turning with contractions. After considerable convulsing, the delivery is surprisingly brief. The midwife reaching into the water retrieves the babe and places him in his mother’s arms. There are also scenes of the examination of the placenta, and Bell kneading it on heavy paper, a resultant mixed media “painting” is displayed on the nearby wall. Hospital blue pads, soaked with blood and other bodily fluids, are preserved in clear sealed cellophane bags and stacked near the bed.

Despite the happy scene of mother and child, “The Birth of Baby X” raises discomforting questions about the boundaries between “art” and life. Are there happenings that are too personal to be presented as “art”? Is the presentation of a birth as “art” the exploitation of an innocent infant, unable to consent to its own participation? Will there be unforeseen consequences of this performance that might end up affecting Baby X’s future (Mom, I don’t want to go to another stinkin’ opening)?

I mentioned these hypothetical questions to Kotak and Bell, who seemed less concerned with any potential negative effects than with the invasive nature of the paparazzi. The performance had attracted a flock of international press that expanded far beyond the artistic ghetto. There were notices on the gallery door that photography, video, or audio recording were not permitted. Microscope gallerists Andrea Monti and Elle Burchill even went so far as to shutter the windows to discourage peeping photogs from snapping picks of the mom and babe from the street. This reluctance to engage in the total unregulated exposure of “The Birth of Baby X” establishes the aesthetic event horizon and I think sets the artistic and moral limits of privacy beyond which the invasion of the spectacle was not permitted to impinge. Concomitant with the instinct to provide shelter from the onslaught of prying eyes was a very generous almost familial effort to share the experience. There was a list of 15 people who were notified when the labor began, and about a half dozen friends and fans showed up. Kotak, a tall, robust woman who seems well suited for motherhood, said that she was surprised by the amount of attention the piece generated, and questions how this might affect her future performances: For me it was a completely natural thing to do. Because I’d never been pregnant before, dealing with how birth is dealt with in our society, I realized that everyone has issues with birth, and these are the points that this piece touches on. I wasn’t aware of that. I don’t have an issue with it, I feel it’s a natural, positive, amazing thing, but it’s something that freaks a lot of people out.

In our current hyper-aware, wired world, little in life goes on without being broadcast. A quick glance at “baby birth delivery” on YouTube turns up 16,800 results. Yet the act of framing a birth as “art” is still a challenging idea, and it’s an intriguing addition to the legacy of visceral feminist performance going back to Carolee Schneemann, Shigeko Kubota, and the “Essentialists.” It also makes visible the contrast of priorities for Kotak between being an artist and being a mother. “Inter faeces et uriname nascimur,” (between shit and piss we are born) to quote St. Augustine, seems to express the messy nature of life, and one could say the same for art. Though the nascent phase of “The Birth of Baby X” has concluded, this work will continue and grow because as every parent knows, your kids are your most blessed form of art.

In Short

While cruising Williamsburg on an impromptu Saturday night date, I dropped in at the refurbished Boiler in time to catch an early performance of Tony Fitzpatrick’s Stations Lost. Featured along with Fitzpatrick, are his compadre Steve Doyle, songstress Grana Louise, and guitarist Stan Klein. The one hundred minute travelogue traces the big man’s recent peregrinations, including a trip to Istanbul. A dialogue about travelling the back roads of America and musing on its current state may not have been meaty enough to provide for nearly two hours of stage time, but the production—projected video clips of the artists collages, and bluesy musical interludes by Louise—verged on satisfying. Fitzpatrick, a bear of a guy, is a natural actor, and ham. A nostalgic mood recalling the rock ‘n’ roll ’60s abounds, and references to the TV classic Route 66 establish Stations as a look back on a golden age of middle America that never really was. Still, the banter between Fitzpatrick and Doyle displayed a true warmth, and the experience rested somewhere between theatrical storytelling and a revival meeting, done in a broad-shouldered “Chicago Way.”

Let me also add kudos for NURTUREart’s recent reopening at 56 Bogart Street. Having followed their decade long eastward transitions from Keap, to Grand, and now to the crux of the Bushwick scene at 56 Bogart Street, I’m sure the proximity to subway and bus service will provide this admirable institution with the foot traffic needed to garner it the deserved attention. “Re-Telling,” curated by Melissa Levin and featuring Elia Alba, Becca Albee, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Aaron Gilbert, was a sweet debut in the new space. Pieces that caught my eye included Elia Alba’s “Study for ‘Girls,’” set on a plinth, a couple of Raggedy Ann-type stuffed dolls fashioned from photo transfers on fabric depicted reclining nudes, and had abundant pubic hair attached for “realism.” Also, “Love Scene” (2008), an oil on canvas by Aaron Gilbert, which shows a moment of interracial intimacy as a partially clad, brilliantly light skinned boy rises up from his dark skinned partner, revealing her vulnerable naked breast. Gilbert’s taut rendering of the figures has a gothic feel and the immaculately smooth finish bares testament to the artist’s commitment to the painting craft.

Despite the piss and shit, let us salute these new beginnings.

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Pain by Numbers," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

As a kid daydreaming in Mrs. Bean’s fifth grade class, I had no idea of what the future would hold. A baby-boomer, born just past mid-century, I haphazardly calculated how old I’d be at the turn of the millennium. But 40-aught years (129,383,396 seconds) are a thick slab of time for a 9-year-old to contemplate, and New York is 2,173 miles from Salt Lake City. So when Osama bin Laden’s attack arrived, like a two-day late, 50th birthday present, I remember watching with binoculars as the South Tower collapsed, knowing there would be heavy causalities and that our clean and comfortable world would never be the same.

Despite having a ringside seat to this catastrophe, life had to go on. I’d spent the two previous years hustling to organize a show in—of all places—Berlin, which would open less than a week after the attacks. Though a critical success, it was a total commercial zero. The most controversial “piece” was a portfolio I’d placed on the receptionist’s desk filled with the Towers’ debris—burned papers, receipts and cards I’d collected from the roof of our loft, about three-quarters of a mile from Ground Zero. Viewers thought I’d concocted the papers, and then acted chastised when I tried to explain that they weren’t artistic simulations. Still, having lived in Germany for two and a half years while in the military, I was astonished by the support that Berliners showed the USA in the immediate wake of 9/11.

Looking back, all these art career glitches seem pathetically petty. No one I knew personally was killed in the attacks. I remember the surrealistic experience of shopping in Cobble Hill, stocking up on essentials, and vodka, while the pile formed by the just-fallen towers was still smoldering. We hosted a sleepover for half a dozen kids, our sons’ classmates, who lived in Manhattan and, due to the blockades, couldn’t return to their homes until the next day. All told, besides the obvious earth-shattering implications of the terrorist attacks, I was left with only minor inconveniences.

I mention all this in response to the wave of nostalgia sweeping the public in the wake of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Our “War on Terrorism” grinds on towards a decade’s engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan with questionable results. The casualty count, currently at over fifty-six hundred Americans dead, with tens of thousands severely injured, keeps mounting with haunting regularity. As a Vietnam era former Army medic, I was lucky to have never seen combat, but I feel a strong and abiding kinship with all our service members, especially those in the medical fields.

“The Joe Bonham Project” at Storefront stirred my conflicted responses and left me in a state of anxious melancholy. Organized by guest curator and New Criterion Managing Editor James Panero, the “Project” is a group effort of wartime illustrators formed in early 2011 by Michael D. Fay, an artist and retired Marine. Focusing on the healing and rehabilitation of wounded troops, the artists visit military hospitals and engage with their volunteer subjects in a very casual manner, observing them when they are doing physical therapy or are involved in conversations. The majority of these works are drawings, some visibly ripped out of sketchbooks; in most cases, there’s no sense of the models being posed, or of a conscious pursuit of idealization on the artist’s part. We’ve all seen and been disturbed by the brutal objectivity of photo-journalistic depictions of war wounded, but these pictures resonate with a humane subjectivity, eliciting a sympathetic connection through their rough, hands-on spontaneity. Many contain sidebar notes that reveal back-story narratives about their subjects—their injuries, activities, and families—adding a diaristic touch.

Dropping in for the opening, a week and a half before the 9/11 ten-year memorial, I noticed a different tone among attendees. Not only did the depictions of men with amputated legs and arms, their prosthetic devices exposed and tubes leading into and out of ravaged bodies, evoke a more solemn mood, but the presence of artist Lance Corporal Robert Bates, looking lean in his dress khaki uniform, insinuated the uncomfortable existence of reality into the art world’s intentionally created realm of fantasy. A portrait by Bates shows the rebuilt face of Lance Corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter. Receiving the brunt of a grenade blast to the head during an engagement with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Carpenter now wears a glass eye embedded with his purple heart medal as a defiant gesture of resistence. Two pen-and-inks of Staff Sergeant David Lyon by embedded artist Roman Genn contrast the helmeted soldier, standing tall, armed and armored, with a later view of the sergeant, sitting on a bench, his dog nearby, both legs replaced by high-tech prosthetics below the knees. There are several works that present portraits of the same subject, one of the most memorable being Sergeant Jason Ross, USMC. The wiry, mustached Ross is one of the most critically damaged of the Marines depicted in the show. Having returned to the field to try and recover a weapon dropped by a wounded comrade, both legs were blown off just below the hip by an IED. Ross is pictured, bare torso, intubated, with only a sheet covering the lower half of his body, drainage catheters replacing his legs.

It’s a delicate and discomforting aesthetic area encountered with these works, and I accept the notion expressed by curator Panero, and Project founder Fay, that the show had no intentional “political” agenda. Yet within the hyper-partisan New York art scene, any hint of “patriotism,” “nationalism,” or sympathy for the U.S. military could, in the past, rain down a screaming chorus of derision. The fact that the “Joe Bonham Project” has escaped this kind of criticism may be due to the passing of a generation, or to a community evolving a more rational view, in the aftermath of New York suffering the worst attack on American soil, of the world and its dangers. I think it also bears testament to the success of this exhibition, and to our natural, empathic identification with those heroes who chose to follow the call that few have the courage to answer. The show’s therapeutic value extends not only to the injured Marines and the artists, but to viewers dealing with ten long years of war. A video tour and conversation about the exhibition with curator James Panero is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1KbKDTwExM.

If you’ve got nothing to say, say it loud. If it’s not very interesting, make it big. If it looks lousy, shine it up. This is the formula for a lot of what is dished out today as “important.” Big budgets, overhype, and extravagance fit the media’s template for catching the eye of those with severely impaired attention spans. A two-person show titled “Lars and Lori,” by artist couple Lori Ellison and Lawrence Swan at Valentine, veers in the opposite direction, riveting the observer’s attention and drawing them close by whispering. Ellison has been a significant member of the Williamsburg painting community for over a decade, her intimate panel paintings gaining the attention and support of local practitioners like James Siena and Richard Timperio as well as the critical comments of writers like Roberta Smith. Reviewing Ellison’s 2008 exhibition at Sideshow Gallery, Smith stated, “she may be some kind of genius,” words not lost in this context. Many of Ellison’s pictures, the size of a paperback book, are gouache on gessoed wood, the white grounds making her fractal-like repeated patterns of red and black operate more like line drawing than painting. This is appropriate, as this series is an effort to reproduce works from a water-damaged sketchbook. With six subtly colored pictures featuring obsessively repeated hash marks or tic-tac-toe grids that overlay backgrounds of lighter tints of the same color, Ellison orchestrates the grouping as a whole by installing the individual works to contrast their coloristic intervals.

While I’ve occasionally seen individual pieces in group shows, viewed his efforts online at New Clean Blog, and bumped into his Art Bum Mini Comic on my news feed at Facebook, this is my first encounter with a sizable group of works by Lars Swan. Humble means and deadpan wit are useful tools for Swan’s investigations of color and sculptural interventions of the picture plane. Employing that most derided of art products, commercially produced canvas boards, Swan cuts, strips, and bends sections of these boards into geometric, origami-like objects that recall Russian Constructivist wall sculpture. A series of word games in which poetic couplets are created by stacking painted letter-blocks to form words like “beg, ego, god,” and on the reverse, “new, era, war,” seem to reveal an unexpected profundity in the guise of a brightly colored baby’s toy. By reducing his palette to black, white, red, and yellow, there’s an implied relationship to the formalist concept of reduction, but in Swan’s case it seems more a whimsical or practical choice than a dogmatic one based on some Neoplastic color theory. The abject and reductive nature of these pieces echoes the early objects of Richard Tuttle or the tiny 1980s canvas board paintings of Thomas Nozkowski. To fully appreciate this couple’s works, slow down, stand close, close your mouth, and open your heart.

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Game-Changer? ," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Williamsburg is over. As someone who’s probably spent more time, energy, and ink than anybody writing hundreds of thousands (if not millions), of words about this neighborhood, and pedaled his sagging ass through its streets and alleys over the past 15 years, it pains me to say it, but Williamsburg is over.

By that I don’t mean everything will evaporate and be forgotten. Amazing art will occasionally still be experienced here. The inevitable move east on the L line by artists seeking cheaper studio and living space has birthed Bushwick/Ridgewood, which amounts to Williamsburg 2.0. There’ll still be an infrastructure of reputable exhibition spaces, and young artists and gallerists will still come and find conducive areas around the margins to build their own coteries and present their visions. I’ll still be pumping my bike around and covering the happenings in the nabes. But the Williamsburg that’s gotten the world’s attention as a hotbed of cutting-edge creativity over the past couple of decades has “matured.” I’ve watched as some groundbreaking venues have shaken off their harebrained “experimental” approach in favor of professional, market-tested programming, or gone belly-up. Artists’ work that initially excited and dumbfounded me has become formulaic and commercial. Oversized wacked-out ambitions verging on the manic have flamed out or been trimmed to the practical. Local stars have cashed in their street cred for admittance to the “blue-chip” club. Rosy-fresh faces have wrinkled, golden brows grayed, and conversations about setting the art world on fire have shifted to tenure, retirement, real estate, and catastrophic health care coverage. If the short-lived East Village scene (1981 – 1987) crashed from the operatically tragic trio of AIDS, financial collapse, and gentrification, one might say Williamsburg died quietly in its sleep, the victim of age, ennui, and unrestricted developers, without ever reaching its hoped-for potential.

For some, the transient and authentic DIY nature of much of the Brooklyn art scene is a big part of its appeal. There’s certainly a set of Darwinian survival skills bred into the artists and galleries spawned here, but until serious commitments are made in a community’s viability (both financial and moral), its wider cultural significance will remain questionable. Over the years one constant regret that’s haunted the Williamsburg neighborhood has been its lack of any solid commitment from the “establishment.” Although Jeffrey Deitch had a short-lived project space on North 11th Street in 2001, and Leo Koenig maintained a satellite space on Metropolitan Avenue for several months, the kind of long-term institutional obligation that’s been lavished on Queens has, to this point, been lacking. There, anchored by MoMA’s PS1, an enclave of venues both publicly and privately funded like the Sculpture Center, Socrates Park, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, and the Fisher Landau Center for Art, have lent a sense of gravitas and stability to an area with nowhere near the historic concentration of artists and studios found in North Brooklyn.

Red Hook holds a special place in my heart. Having been a resident, raised a family, and maintained a studio here for 30 years, I cherish the ambience of its weird combination of urban wasteland-cum-New England fishing village. It has its own arty legacy centered around Sunny’s Bar, a throwback watering hole that’s seen local bohos nudge out longshoreman as regulars. I keep tabs on the Hook’s few galleries, the Kentler International Drawing Space, Work, and until last summer, Stuart Nicholson’s Diesel Gallery. Like most of Brooklyn, Red Hook has experienced developments that have raised rents and put pressure on the local population. In the last couple of years Ikea has opened one of its flagship stores there, and I confess that I enjoy shopping at the bayside Fairway. One sees trendy townhouse conversions on the cross streets, and there’s a cluster of well-reviewed restaurants and bars on or near the main drag, Van Brunt Street.

It was while out on neighborhood recon, visiting the newly expanded Queen Mary II dock, that I noticed weird sculptures in the window of a large garage space on Imlay Street. I recalled seeing these blocks of clear resin with three-dimensional skeletal forms at Robert Miller and some fairs. Weeks later I returned to visit an exhibition at the same space and was greeted with a freshly painted sign declaring “Kidd Yellin.” The show (like most Brooklyn noncommercial affairs) was a mash up of pretty, young, mostly unknown art kids, Rolling Rock, and cheap Chardonnay. Last month I was introduced to Dustin Yellin, the owner of the studio, by old friend Wolfgang Petrick, a displaced Williamsburger who, forced out by developers, has relocated his studio to the Hook.

Yellin is a dynamo. I was impressed by his energetic presence as he bounced around his large, cluttered studio, directing a half-dozen assistants and speaking with collectors and dealers on his cell phone. Because of the sophisticated process involved and the tedious nature of the labor, the sculptures are fabricated in a very controlled production line, involving massive blocks of plate glass, collage cutting, painting, shaping, and polishing. Not wishing to shortchange Yellin’s intriguing sculptural work, I’ll forgo any critical discussion at this point, and instead focus on a new endeavor, which for the time being is called his “Pioneer and King” project.

Like a lot of the huge waterfront buildings in Red Hook, the three-story Pioneer Ironworks at the south terminus of Imlay Street, between Pioneer and King Streets, was built during the Civil War. The original building burned and was rebuilt in the 1880s to accommodate the repair and retooling of ships. Its massive atrium and ceiling cranes fell silent in the 1970s, when it was bought by Time Moving & Storage for storage. This building, and its attached half-block open yard, caught Yellin’s eye when production demand and the increased scale of his new works began to overwhelm his current studio. He acquired the building this spring with the idea of converting it into a new studio space. Along with his inimitable investigation of glass and resin, the Pioneer and King building will also give Yellin the potential to develop his unique vision of “social sculpture.”

I spoke briefly with Dustin recently as he shuttled between studio work, the gutting of the Ironworks, and out-of-town trips to solicit funding for the project. “I’ve always enjoyed having a community of artists working together around me and I’m hoping to create that here,” he said. This venture is moving fast, and few of the final details have been ironed out. From discussions with Dustin and studio manager Katie Cooper, the basic plan is this: in conjunction with the new studio, Yellin wants to found an art center in the space. Alongside his studio/workshop, a large ground floor exhibition gallery would be built, which will present a rotating curatorial program featuring local and internationally known artists. The upper floors would be converted into studio spaces with the potential for an artists-in-residence program. Facilities for a darkroom, printmaking studio, and workshops accessible to the public might be included. The yard would be utilized as a sculpture garden that could double as an area for activities like picnics, concerts, performances or film screenings.

As I ponder this notion, the word “massive” keeps popping into my head, not only in terms of the building and renovations, but also to the administrative structuring and funding of a center like this. Having seen how an institution, such as the one proposed, can change the character of an entire neighborhood, I will no doubt be keeping tabs on this story whatever the outcome. Given the location, which seems to coincide with the direction of the city’s “Greenway” expansion along the waterfront from the Brooklyn Bridge south, the stars may have aligned for Red Hook’s reception as an art destination. The Brooklyn game may never be the same. A brief video tour of the Yellin studio is available here.

An impulse tentatively tagged “Crappy Little Painting” has been at the focus of several recent shows. The name of curator Jon Lutz (the man behind dailyoperation.org) has popped up in conversations regarding this abject aesthetic, and Purified Thoughts at Rawson Projects might be illustrative as to why. Almost all the works in Purified, while not an encyclopedic representation of the trend, are small, rugged, and their color and graphic forms seem intentionally embodied in their fabrication.

Lizzie Wright’s dingy, off-white panels, with their jigsaw-cut chevrons and dots casting shadows through the cavities, recall the “slash” paintings of Lucio Fontana, yet eschew the latter’s elegance. Employing the found colors of envelopes as background, the intimate collages of Ben Berlow are sensitive pairings of time-worn hue and shape. Additional rectangular pieces of painted paper with diagonal or ripped edges are sparingly applied, presenting abstract designs reduced to such simplicity that some appear readymade.

Light passing through tinted transparent acrylic casts a luminous halo on the juncture of wall and floor in Mike Hein’s “Beachwood.” This four-foot plastic plank pairs a thick white slab on top with a Plexiglas rainbow of chambers on the reverse side. Propped at a 45 degree angle against the wall, Hein modestly posits one of the questions that animated the Minimalists—is it a wall or floor piece?—while the wall pieces of Carolyn Salas are not what they appear. A series of 12 by 10 inch rectangles look like your standard, quirky abstractions, albeit with exaggerated surface relief. They are in fact cast-pigment and Hydrocal simulacra of paintings, and might reflect real world objects like a fractured flagstone or a wall seam where lathe meets wainscot. Once you grasp their materials, and the process of their making, you’re obligated to decide whether they are paint sculptures, or sculpted paintings.

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Making the Trains Run on Time," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

It’s perhaps one of the most often seen WWII clichés ever to come out of Hollywood. Stepping out of a cloud of silvery steam on a German train station platform, a tall, willowy blond in a raincoat and an elegant, broad-brimmed hat meets her contact. She glances around furtively, and with a sidelong smirk remarks to her escort: “If there’s one thing to say about the Nazis, at least they’ve made the trains run on time.”

Sixty-eight years after D-Day (June 6, 1944), not to compare New York’s MTA to the Deutsche Bundesbahn, or to draw any correlation between local artists’ communities and underground partisan fighters, or to suggest that Brooklyn is occupied by suppressive forces, but damn it, if the Nazis and the Italian Blackshirts could do it, why can’t we get the trains to run on time to Williamsburg/Bushwick?

Here’s the beef: In the ongoing evolution of civilization there’ve always been certain lines along which culture has clustered. In ancient Egypt, it was the Nile; for Rome, the shores of the Mediterranean; Canada has its border with the U.S; and for the Williamsburg/Bushwick scene, it’s the L train. Besides cheap studio and living space, its accessibility via the L line, connecting it to downtown Manhattan along 14th Street, has long been cited as a major reason for the popularity of this neighborhood. Unfortunately for local galleries, artists, clubs, restaurants, shops, and community wide activities, this reliance on the MTA has increasingly become a liability. Starting several years ago, in what seems to have morphed into a never-ending process of refurbishment, the MTA intermittently shuts down the Brooklyn L line on weekends. While a mere nuisance to many, for galleries open only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the corresponding drop in weekend foot traffic has come close to breaking the backs of many. For me, the recent Bushwick Open Studios weekend brought this problem to a glaring head.

I’ve watched this annual affair grow from a handful of galleries and studios five years ago to its current iteration of over 160 venues and 350 artists and events. Hundreds of hours went into its planning, fundraising, community outreach, publicity, and cataloguing. And then, as reported in the Brooklyn Paper by Aaron Short, the MTA decided to shut down L train service with only five days notice, making this the third time in five years that the MTA has inadvertently squashed attendance for Bushwick Open Studios.

During my opening round of visits on Friday night, I was met with a steady stream of sidelong smirks: “Can you believe they shut down the L again?” If anything exposes this art community’s lack of status with the powers that be, it’s this continual snub from the MTA. The disappointment voiced by many of those involved in BOS convinced me that until we have a meeting of the minds with the city’s bureaucracies, the only recourse is self-sufficiency and DIY ingenuity.

Ali Ha of Factory Fresh Gallery estimated that foot traffic was off by at least half of what it was when the trains were running in previous years. Chris Harding of English Kills echoed Ha’s reckoning but added, “There might also be a dilution factor. I mean, shit, when you’ve got 300 different things going on, and there’s no central area, there could be plenty of people coming out but, they’re spread thinner trying to visit all the far-flung studios and galleries.”

They called it a “raw opening,” which, given the still-rugged state of the sheetrock, the stained, unsanded floors, and the fresh new front door, was an appropriate appellation for the debut of Momenta Art’s new space at 56 Bogart Street. A two-person show of J. Pasila and Peter Scott presented intriguing aspects of the overt and covert dimensions of real estate development. Both showed digital prints that lent a poignant and ironic air to the remodeling task facing Momenta Art while tracking the cyclical pattern of development in New York’s various neighborhoods.

The medium-sized color photos of Peter Scott (who is also the director of Carriage Trade) are exterior views of luxury condo sites. With their rich color and stark shadows, these pictures look like dual images selected for their contrasts and then cut and spliced together with a razor blade or in Photoshop. They are however, unmanipulated single-frame shots depicting the split between the grimy reality of building sites and the large, seductive billboards announcing the proposed condos with renderings of their interiors full of perfect families and furnishings. The visual bifurcation of these images creates a poetic fracture, a literal dividing line with the developer’s manipulations of physical and social space on one side, and the psychologically pristine ideal created by admen on the other.

J. Pasila’s works represent the interior-sensual studies of the subtle textures that accumulate on artist’s studio walls. Pasila’s large black and white photos, point-and-shoot images that have been rephotographed with a large-format camera and then greatly enlarged, capture years of dents and dings as well as the softening of architectural hard facts by the repeated massaging of anonymous human touch. Though most pieces were untitled, it was impossible to avoid what seemed like conscious allusions to some of modernism’s most reductive artists. Views of white walls with years of over-painting and spackle patches recalled Robert Ryman’s classic white paintings, while pics of dark walls with reflected halos of electric light evoke the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. With the smell of fresh joint compound in the air, and residual plaster dust still on the floors, this pairing of Pasila and Scott enjoyed a hint of self-referential humor, no doubt capitalized on by Eric Heist, curator of this “rawness.”

I usually find myself in agreement with many of those who think a lot of current art writing and theory is terminally “over-determined,” an analysis to paralysis. Yet when I’m looking at art, I still have that little Aristotelian list writer inside my head, noting similarities, differences, and charting historic precedence. So, when I see youngsters who want to gain some instant status by grafting a historical brand name onto their own endeavors, I tend to roll my eyes and shut up. But not today.

Surrealism at Factory Fresh, curated by Norte Maar’s Jason Andrew and Ali Ha, is a perfectly fine show, with plenty of good work by a plethora of local artists, a smorgasbord designed specifically for the BOS weekend. But to slap the title of Surrealism on this survey, with “twenty artists from the neighborhood wrestle their unconscious” as the tagline, is lame. Surrealism is the indestructible cockroach of 20th Century art movements. Since, like Freddy Krueger, it never dies, this recent sighting comes as no surprise. The question now becomes: What branch of Surrealism are we talking about? Pop, Street, Sci-Fi, Comic Book, Bad, Techno? And doesn’t every artist wrestle with his or her “unconscious”? I hope the contributors and curators take this as the good-natured ribbing that it is, and not be deterred from picking up an art history book and taking the time to give us a more provocative platform for discussion.

During the opening, much of my view was obscured by ruckus Bushwick revelers and a sound band featuring a performance by Eric Trosko and Kiowa Hammons. It was enjoyable to return a week later for a second viewing of a piece that snagged my eye despite being behind the band. “Elfen” (2008) by Tamara Gonzalez is a knock out. I’ve been looking at Gonzalez’s work for years and I’m a sucker for her decorative, kitschy sensibility and exotic, icon-like images. However, with the new work, she’s increased the scale and added a kind of “ugly elegance,” with a more direct engagement in her slathered pigment and a new painterliness in her often used “crappy” collage elements, like braided cloth cords and plastic garlands. Gonzalez’s circular patterns of star shaped paint blobs squirted out of a confectioner’s tube, and her splashes of metallic silver enamel over coils of cotton ropes made me wince. But her palette of toned-down greens, salmons, and yellows adds a bracing note of coloristic funk that offsets the sweetness of the shinny plastic wreaths and oversized bumblebees hovering around the painting’s perimeter.

“Lugubrious Lover Laid Bare,” a large table-like sculpture by Bushwick bad boy Ben Godward, marshals space in the front gallery like a demanding prima donna. Reclining on a set of slim, steel legs that look like they were borrowed from a Danish Modern desk, “Lugubrious” is a thick slab of synthetic foam resin about seven feet long. This form seems to curl and writhe like an oversized prop for a David Cronenberg movie. A composite of several pours of chemically colored urethane foam, covered with a membrane of tinted liquid rivulets, the piece has the moist, glistening appearance of something withdrawn from a giant bucket of mucus.

Other pieces worth taking a gander at: “Untitled,” an inkjet collage by Kevin Regan (for my money, one of the only real “Surrealistic” pieces in the show), featuring coils of hair framing a scantly clad, high-heeled damsel roped to a smiling death-head; an intricately carved wall sculpture called “The Woods” by Kevin Curran, in which an exhausted hiker, his head and hands gold-leafed, seems to have collapsed on a hill just outside said forest; and a sewn picture of a “block-head” in red velvet and gold appliqué called “Friendly Skies” by an artist known simply as Pufferella.

Not to nitpick, I’ll just say in closing that there are plenty of works worth noting here by some of the community’s most interesting artists, representing many aesthetic directions. Maybe I’d be happy if they’d just called this show Surrealism?

Video tours of this year’s Bushwick Open Studios are available at:

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: The Apocalypse Found Us Calmly Unaware," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Most of us toil away, day by day, grinding out an existence, our lives punctuated occasionally by small events. We take note of happenings and trends in the larger world while we’re imbibing the infotainment media. Rumors and reports of foreign revolts and wars are acknowledged, their import diminished by their distance, and we soon return to our cocoon of self-absorption. Then shit happens. Vague cataclysmic forces align, pressures build, and BANG, the dam breaks. We’re smacked so hard by events that we see stars. Whether it’s the rubout of Osama bin Laden or the momentous happenings of the “Arab Spring,” in hindsight we realize that these outcomes were inevitable, if only we’d been paying attention.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum of importance, developments that could only be related to the above as punch lines or symbols of myopia continue to happen in and around Brooklyn. Pay attention.

I’ve written recently about the shifting communities of Williamsburg and its art scene heir-apparent, bustling Bushwick. One often-heard caveat has been Bushwick’s wide dispersion—its lack of an easily accessible central core, the grain of sand around which an artistic pearl could form. As of this May, longtime Williamsburg venue Momenta Art heads east to open its new 4,000-square-foot space at 56 Bogart Street. Not only will the new location provide larger exhibition space, but it will also include a dedicated gallery for its ever-expanding video archive. Plans are also being drawn up to convert a section to studio spaces, available at “below market rates” with an eye towards establishing an artist residency program. Located directly across from the Morgan Street stop on the L line, Momenta will sit around the corner from Paul D’Agostino’s Centotto and just blocks away from English Kills, Storefront, and Factory Fresh. As of this writing (mid-May 2011) word has it that another well-known publicly funded institution from the nabes (whose director pledged me to temporary silence) is in negotiations to relocate to this address as well, in which case this building could form a beachhead of “not-for-profit” spaces that would benefit greatly from their mutual proximity.

Meanwhile, out east, Brooklyn’s art mojo finds itself rubbing up against Queens. Longtime Williamsburg artist and activist Fred Valentine is converting a sizable portion of his studio into something that is as yet indefinable. As an early contributor and organizer of Organism, the multimedia funhouse that became known as the Mustard Factory, as well as a curator for the original Galapagos nightclub when it debuted on North 6th Street, Valentine has developed a network of local artists that is both broad and deep. The appropriately named VALENTINE at 464 Seneca Avenue is tentatively scheduled to open on July 1. Though eschewing the goals of a commercial gallery or project space, Fred has stated that he’d like to create an environment where “people could come sit, look, talk, and think about art,” and where folks of different sensibilities, generations, and approaches could form knowledgeable relationships with each other. However this endeavor develops, there should be no shortage of healthy dialogue and experimental presentations to partake in.

Maybe I’m just lazy, or, as I like to think, otherwise engaged, but I tend to shy away from reviewing group shows, especially the ones with rosters of artists that run into the tens, twenties, and thirties. The age-old rule of thumb is that 85 percent of the work in most of these shows just doesn’t click, and so you’re left focusing on the small percentage that jives with your taste. However, recently I was lucky enough to catch a couple of shows that pushed the “good quotient” up a notch or two. One Dozen Paintings at the Journal Gallery in Williamsburg was a refreshing collection of monochrome paintings that included an impressive list of contributors. With a slacker curatorial indifference to what is monochrome, the show’s wide range of methods and approaches sets up a dialectical comparison between clean, disciplined formalists and younger, grubby-handed, eccentric funksters. This contrast leaves viewers to ponder the properties of materials, their applications, and even what criteria constitute a “painting.” Two small silver-deposit pieces by Jacob Kassay present a metallic surface that shines like a mirror, which can’t be viewed without pondering the alchemy-like process of their fabrication. During my motorcycle days, I had friends who achieved similar results using the plating tank at the local chrome shop. Rumors of market manipulation have already attached themselves to this young formalist (http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/36412/through-the-looking-glass-behind-jacob-kassays-meteoric-auction-rise/?page=2), who was featured last winter—along with Robert Morris and a couple of other artists—in what appeared to be an audition for Neo-Minimalist at Mitchell-Innes & Nash.

An elegant, square slab of black polyurethane truck liner paint by Olivier Mosset brings to mind Ad Reinhardt, but the orange-peel texture of this unmodulated surface has the readymade industrial quality of a paint chip sample or a factory test swatch. Another artist included in the show, who’s been getting considerable attention, is the Californian Tauba Auerbach. Her contribution, a medium-sized piece composed of vertical stripes, veers from the single-color theme as much as any work in the show. The soft, grayed-out blues and violets have the stained, atmospheric quality of tie-dye, but they may involve some kind of tricky use of spray paint. “Untitled,” a painting composed of rusty metal, primer and Rust-Oleum by Ned Vena, is a rich brown that on closer inspection is lined with corduroy-like ridges. These patterns repeat and dissect the rectangular support of the canvas, recalling a pinstriped version of the early “Black Paintings” by Frank Stella. A funkier example is “Eleven P.M.” by Sarah Braman. Rescued, recycled, repurposed, or whatever term is currently in vogue, this work is painted on part of a wear-worn hollow-core wooden door, with its honeycombed interior exposed on its right side. A square chunk of the frame extends from the lower right corner, adding a horizontal thrust, violating the rectangular shape, and countering saw-cut lines in the upper edge of the panel. The sensual facture of the rich blue enamel comes down on the less “formal” side of the dialectic, benefiting from the touch of the artist’s hand. A Rough Cuts video walkthrough of this show is available at http://www.youtube.com/user/jameskalmroughcut#p/u/3/DnY1hQWShfs.

A stop at Fist City at the Fowler Arts Collective was like entering a time machine telescoping the last century. Located in a massive, crumbling hulk of a warehouse on northern Greenpoint’s East River waterfront, the Fowler Collective is a several-thousand-square-foot space housing a number of studio cubicles and a gallery. Arriving after dark on an overcast spring evening, I rode half a block through an enclosed alleyway to enter. In the film noir gloom, I halfway expected to see WWII sailors nuzzling floozies in the shadows, or petty gangsters unloading illegal hooch for downtown speakeasies. After climbing stairs to a suspended walkway, I entered the ruggedly constructed exhibition rooms and smelled cut-pine studs, sheetrock dust, and latex paint. Suddenly I was transported into Williamsburg 1982. But the works on display, mostly medium to smallish paintings and works on paper, were totally contemporary.

Several small ink-on-paper pieces by Nathlie Provosty made me take a second look. Provosty’s skillfully executed ink wash paintings are all “Untitled” and employ trompe l’oeil techniques of shadowed cubistic overlays and hazy atmospheric bleeds that function like effigies of photographic collage. Some compositions are laid out with a hierarchical symmetry, but their illusionistic depth induces a visual drifting between layers. From these simple elements, a Surrealistic narrative evolves that can seem tragically nostalgic due to their humble means, a bracingly simple palette of black and white.

Matt Phillips riffs on Pattern & Decorative, the psychedelic, and other wacky variations of obsessive/eccentric art, but never discards the tropes of advanced abstract painting. In “Out of the Blue Into the Black” (2010), a sunburst form in shades of blue is framed by collaged patches of harlequin check. The title is squirted on in juicy, loopy script, recalling notes from a teenager’s diary. The plethora of illusions and influences, coupled with the labor-intensive process, might suggest the rare happenstance that Phillips is looking at too much contemporary painting.

If anyone could misspell the first name of EJ Hauser, it’d be me. And like her name, EJ’s paintings seem so urgent and abrupt that they could be seen as painterly reductions of content into acronyms. I was recently asked if there were any trends I’ve noticed lately. After some thought, I realized that I’ve been seeing a lot of what I’ll call (in the very best sense of the term) “crappy little abstract paintings.” Artists like Jimbo Blachly at Winkleman, Katy Moran at Andrea Rosen, and Tom Burckhardt at Pierogi have all trotted out small, serially produced groups of paintings, often executed on whatever’s at hand. Their appeal is quirky, abject, and cursory. With only four paintings by Hauser on display here, I’m not in a position of expertise, but these pictures seem more like unpretentious sketches or notes than fully worked out ideas. However, such unrehearsed outbursts are often far more successful in capturing spontaneous gestures and happy, irreproducible accidents. As an example, there’s a sense of changing direction in “Dickhead” (2011). A head and shoulders are briskly brushed in robin’s egg blue over a more controlled orange and ultramarine ground of hard-edged, geometric stripes. A blithe attack thus turns an unsatisfying abstraction that had probably been kicking around the studio for a while into a cocky reintroduction of figuration—nice.

Logan Grider produces well-wrought abstractions with subtle blocks or pure color and nubby surfaces that echo mid-20th-century organic Modernism. Grider is a Westerner hailing from Salem, Oregon, and his curvy, interweaving imagery, and the way the figure/ground reading of his forms tends to flip, made me curious about whether he’d encountered any work by the “Indian Space” painters. This underappreciated group of Downtown American artists in the mid-1940s held sway (Steve Wheeler, Peter Busa, Will Barnet, Robert Barrell, Ruth Lewin, et al), along with some dealers and critics, produced several exhibitions and published their own magazine, Iconograph. Their investigation of Northwest Coast Native American motifs and myths runs parallel to the search for European archetypes sought by the Surrealists and their New York acolytes like Rothko, Baziotes, and Gottlieb. Grider’s “Double-Dealing” (2009) positions a head-like ovoid form in a thick blue outline on a rusty red ground. An ochre “snake” emerging from the background seems to curl through an open circle that could be a mouth in a profile, perhaps a visual illusion to the phrase “speaks with forked tongue.” All in all, Fist City was a satisfyingly strong show of promising talent. For a video tour visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uLnNd55R7E.

"BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: “B” Fair to Brooklyn," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Not so long ago the mere mention of the words “art fair” could induce palpitations, hyperventilation, and uncontrollable twitching in some quarters. Everyone in and out of the art world had an opinion, some good, most bad, but as the momentum of this juggernaut continued to grow, they all agreed, this was a new paradigm, a brutal Darwinian restructuring of the art market.

I’ve seen close up the magic that can only happen at an art fair. In the not too distant past, Gabrielle Bryers, my dealer at the time, presented a booth of my work at the pre-Miami version of Basel. Within the first few hours of the opening every painting had sold, fulfilling any artist’s fantasy, leaving her with walls full of red dots but no inventory.

I popped in for the first Gramercy Art Fair in 1994, when it was held on two floors at the then-shabby but storied Gramercy Hotel. Wandering among the rooms and installations I saw Tony Shafrazi giggling as he trotted down the hall, a buttonholed collector in tow, rushing to view projection pieces by Tony Oursler, a new discovery at the time. I recall being fixated on Pat Hearn’s eyebrows, and wondering what exotic libation her visitors were indulging in as she, like an outer space beatnik, presided over the ceremonies. From these humble and intoxicated beginnings, in a little more than 15 years, an upstart enterprise like the Armory Show has grown into a behemoth, its latest iteration attracting over 60,000 visitors and, though exact figures are impossible to pin down, generating something approaching $100 million in sales.

Any cultural shift of this magnitude is bound to provoke an artistic response created specifically to address the phenomenon. Much of these genera are cynically ingenious critiques of the commercial demands and the aesthetic constraints placed on visitors and exhibitors. Some of it can be likened to groveling for an invitation to the rich kid’s party, spending six months’ allowance to “dress to impress,” and then sitting around all night ragging on the host because the party is full of overdressed phonies. Other works are intentional denials of expectations, a flaunting of “exclusivity” or, in the case of William Powhida and Jade Townsend, an epic skewering of the event and its art world attendees


Regardless, for the art market, this is where the rubber hits the road. Even I, in the Brooklyn Rail as far back as February 2007 (www.brooklynrail.org/2007/02/artseen/art-basel) was questioning just how far the unconstrained proliferation of art fairs could go before its inevitable implosion. Well, the boom went bust, and after three lean years, knock on wood, the art market, and the fairs, are beginning a period of consolidation and modest growth.

Brooklyn Art Now

The above is prelude to what, as this story unfolds, might illustrate the Clare Boothe Luce quote, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

In early January of this year, I began receiving queries from Michael Workman regarding a gig as a juror for an open call exhibition that would be part of the upcoming Verge Art Brooklyn fair. I’d met Michael years ago at the “Fountain” while he was organizing his first foray, the Bridge Art Fair, and given my reputation as a local art writer and scene historian, it was logical to consider me as a potential candidate. I looked at the initial fair proposal and realized its potential, but also noted that it would be located in DUMBO and, from my reading, have little contact with the greater Brooklyn arts community. To facilitate some exchange, I started forwarding the Verge emails to friends in the Williamsburg Gallery Association and to other activists in Bushwick. As the emails spread, a wave of resentment and anger began to roil the community. How dare this interloper fair insert itself in the borough, benefiting from its hard-won name recognition, and not pay tribute to the folks who’d made it all possible? Especially during the one time of the year that deep-pocketed “whales” from around the world visit Brooklyn galleries? People were pissed off.

Later in January, a meeting was held in an attempt to smooth out the differences. In attendance, besides Edouard Steinhauer (Workman’s partner in Verge), were representatives from the Borough President’s Office, Brooklyn’s Office of Tourism, the Brooklyn Arts Council, members and supporters of the Williamsburg Gallery Association, and local activists.

To ameliorate chaffed sensibilities, Alun Williams of Parker’s Box suggested that Verge sponsor a curated exhibition open exclusively to Brooklyn galleries, allowing them to submit three candidates each, free of charge. With over 75 eligible galleries, several districts, and thousands of potential artists, it was acknowledged that this would be a near-impossible task, with few people fluent enough in the broad overview of the borough to organize it. It was during the discussion of who would be gullible enough to undertake such a gargantuan and thankless project, with little time and zero budget, that my name was proposed.

Being out of town due to a previous engagement, I missed the meeting, but returned to find an email nominating me to curate what was being called “Brooklyn Art Now.” At first I balked, knowing what a headache organizing an exhibition of this scale would be. But I’ve always preached the importance of being an active part of the art community and of doing whatever you can, despite personal sacrifices, to promote the interests of the “tribe.”

Immediately I began receiving warnings and hearing anecdotes about Verge’s checkered past. As noted above, over the years I’ve been involved in enough fairs to know none of them are perfect and that there are always at least two sides to every story. And besides, no one else was proposing a Brooklyn art fair. I weighed the pluses and minuses and decided: it was a go.

For the next six weeks I would put my studio work, video reporting, and even writing for the Brooklyn Rail on hold, and dedicate myself to the punishing task of reading artist’s statements, answering endless emails and phone calls, and diplomatically trying to explain how “Brooklyn Art Now” was not “Verge Art Brooklyn.”

To avoid boring you with details, I’ll just say that after many long and late hours of grueling work, with the help of a wonderful group of local supporters, especially Robert Human who curated the video section of the show, “Brooklyn Art Now” came off pretty well, presenting major works from about 65 artists, garnering a stack of good reviews and enjoying a decent turnout. “Verge Art Brooklyn” was another story. Despite its goal of establishing a Brooklyn fair with a DIY spirit and grass roots authenticity, it was the target of harsh criticism from many paying exhibitors regarding support, publicity, and foot traffic. Even Tony Fitzpatrick, the well-known artist/activist and, like Workman, Chicago resident, whose Firecat Project was participating, had some misgivings, which he voiced in an article appearing at artnet.com (www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/fitzpatrick/tony-fitzpatrick-verge-art-brooklyn-3-4-11.asp).

The three days of fair craziness passed. The circus folded its tents, and headed out of town. Nothing is left behind but elephant manure and confetti. A week and a half later I’m invited to an evaluation meeting at the offices of the Brooklyn Arts Council with many of the same suspects who originally helped organize the local side of the fair.

The Fun Part

The meeting opens with the question: What would your “blue sky” version of a Brooklyn art fair be?

Here’s a short list of some recommendations and suggestions:

  • Because there’s no way a Brooklyn affair can compete with the larger Manhattan events, schedule it at another time of year to avoid a conflict with the Armory Show weekend. Stage it in a readily accessible, “neutral” location, like an armory or ship terminal, to avoid the appearance of favoring any particular neighborhood.

  • Have the Brooklyn galleries invite their national and international partners to engage a worldwide constituency.

  • Embrace Brooklyn’s aesthetic of high-tech online, social media savvy, and highlight it like the DIY spirit that’s been so influential in Brooklyn’s creation of a cutting-edge scene.

  • Work with local organizers and promoters, people who will still be around after the fair and will want to continue doing business with you.

Later that day I posed the same question to some Williamsburg art activists at a WAGMAG benefit committee meeting. One surprising suggestion was that the whole idea of a Brooklyn art fair was wrong-headed from the get-go. Instead, local authorities should be enlisted to help stage some fantastic art “Happening” or event that would attract visitors (thousands of naked people photographed on the Brooklyn Bridge), who would then be encouraged to spend some portion of the day touring the various nabes. Another was to schedule a fair to coincide with previously established festivals or events, like the Bushwick Open Studios.

However much I might wish for a Brooklyn art fair that reflects a new, more artist-driven concept, I have to accept that these are trade expositions, commercial enterprises that, to be successful, have to sell products and generate profits. Messe Schweiz, the Swiss firm that owns the Basel and Basel Miami Art Fairs, has invested millions over the decades to distinguish their brand, and the Chicago-based Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., which recently acquired both Art Chicago and New York’s Armory Show, has also invested heavily in the development of those fairs. Would a winning formula for a Brooklyn shindig end up as a mere takeover candidate for some corporate conglomerate?

The old empires are collapsing. The Internet is changing the world. Over the past twenty years many of the standard practices of the art establishment have been rewritten, not out of pure creative zeal, but mostly out of a grubby, desperate necessity. Brooklyn may not have originated many of these ideas, but it has been a testing ground for their implementation. If there’s a better, more inclusive and efficient way of presenting an art fair, why shouldn’t Brooklyn be the place where it could happen? If it fails, shit, we’re not afraid; after all, this is Brooklyn.

If you have any ideas, comments or suggestions on creating the “perfect art fair” please email me at kalmstudio@msn.com.

"Brooklyn in the Extreme," Brooklyn Rail by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Tired of hitting the same five galleries along West 24th Street and seeing the same “commercial” products? Visited all the blue chip shows at the sleek spaces uptown? Looking for an authentic art experience that takes you off the grid, gets the blood pumping, or messes with your head like only unvarnished, challenging “art” can? Then you’re ready for the next step in art appreciation. We’ve all seen how popular extreme sports are, extreme makeovers, extreme tourism; what I’m proposing is “Extreme Art Viewing.” This radical approach to aesthetics may be practiced anywhere, but, being an old-time Brooklyn hand, and for the sake of this essay, we’ll stick to America’s Backyard, the Borough of Churches.

Meredith Allen, Williamsburg, 7/28/2003.

As a former Boy Scout (Second Class) I still believe in being prepared, and although jokes have been made about European tourists coming out Brooklyn-way in pith helmets and safari jackets, I’ll make a much more useful recommendation, besides practical shoes: get your hands on the latest copy of WAGMAG, which is available at most local galleries or online at: http://www.wagmag.org/. This guide is produced through the untiring efforts of Daniel Aycock, Kathleen Vance, and a dedicated team of interns; they do a great job of listing and mapping many of the local happenings. Full disclosure: I wrote blurbs for WAGMAG for several years, beginning when it was still an accordion-fold, one-sheet brochure listing just the venues in central Williamsburg. As of their January 2011 edition, WAGMAG is 16 pages with 93 listings, a review page by Enrico Gomez, and expanded coverage that includes maps of not only Williamsburg and Bushwick, but DUMBO, Bed-Stuy, Boerum Hill/Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, the Gowanus, and also my nabe, Red Hook. Even with WAGMAG in hand as a basic manual, it’s recommended that you keep your eyes open, talk with locals, and look for unlisted sights of the temporary, the provisional, or the eccentric.

On a vacant corner lot at 206 Columbia Street, ART LOT has provided artists with unique exhibition opportunities. This open air “gallery” has been in operation since the early ’90s, but since 2004 it’s been curated by Jim Osman. The space is owned by Jim and Bobbi Vaughan, who also generously provide printed invitations, and from 2003 until 2009 ART LOT received grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council. I’ve watched as the LOT has morphed from an apparent collection of outsiders’ naïvely painted building remnants, to a bucolic pasture with rolling hills and manicured grass, to sculptural assemblages that look like a mad professor’s arctic weather station. Osman states that “The ART LOT has always been a place for an artist(s) to try something different with no strings attached. So people push their work into different scales, media, and of course outdoors.” The current show, which was extended due to the snow, is “Media Mix X 4” and features photographic works by Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, hanging fabric pieces by Babs Reingold, a giant megaphone/ear-trumpet by John Roach, and painted works by Mary Schiliro that had to be removed because of weather damage. (If you’re interested in making a proposal, you can contact Jim Osman at osmanj@newschool.edu.)

Skinny-panted hipsters snort and smirk when I tell them that 20 years ago taxis wouldn’t dare cross the bridges to take me home to Brooklyn (a good reason to start riding a bike). Now, those same hipsters complain if they have to walk an extra half block for their boutique lattes. Still, it’s hard to fathom the artsy neighborhood that’s sprung up in DUGO (District Under the Gowanus Overpass) with its clusters of studio buildings and homes affordable enough for artists to buy. As I peddled south on Sixth Avenue through Park Slope, just blocks from Green-Wood Cemetery (well worth a visit in its own right), it was even harder to believe that some stout-hearted art promoters had staked their claim here, but RHV Fine Art (http://www.rhvfineart.com) has done just that. A partnership project of artists Henry Chung and Robert Walden, they opened this well-appointed space in 2008, and it was a display of works by Charles “Chuck” Yuen that’d gotten me through their doors. I’ve been looking at Chuck’s work for years at Metaphor Contemporary and in group shows around town and on the Lower East Side, and I was looking forward to viewing this selection of mostly smaller paintings and oils on paper, all from around the early 2000s. Painting with a slippery brush, Yuen has developed a unique cast of characters and props to populate his surrealistic/naïve narratives. Combining abstract elements of color and composition, the artist’s deceptively simple, almost childlike figures float through scenes that echo both Freudian fantasies and real-life conundrums such as sexuality, the clash of cultures, or the “oil crisis.” Yuen has a masterful facility with his paint handling and never overworks the pigment. Like a great sumi ink calligrapher, he allows spontaneous incidents of brushstroke or paint and solvent to play evocative parts in creating his tableaus. Shifts in scale question how we might read a face: is it meant as a landscape, a still life, or a portrait? Behind all this lies a biting sense of humor combined with a formalistic visual logic that can stretch the bodies of a couple into a colorful Möbius strip, or crowd the chandeliers hanging above an elegant sitting room with a brilliant Rothkoesque magenta cloud. In “Four Faces,” one of my favorite pieces, variously colored profiles are arranged along the edge of the picture to frame an empty central plane. The square format and sequence of colors reveal Yuen’s formalist sense, while the goofy faces allow him to poke fun at the bloodless notion of austere design. “Hairdo” is a satirical send-up of vanity, a pairing of two female heads, each with Rococo locks piled high and festooned with interconnected strands of pearls like Christmas tree garlands. Nestled among the pearls and bows are framed pictures of the ladies’ prized possessions—fancy shoes, a prosperous spouse, an island getaway, or smoking oil derricks—comic visualizations of vulgar conspicuous consumption.

Once you’re off the “Mainline,” you realize that it’s not just the venue or the artifacts that distinguishes Extreme Art; it’s also the underground social networks and uncanny clans operating for decades on the margins or under the covers of our tribal lands, much of it undocumented. One such manifestation is the “Film Club.” Begun in the early 1990s at 4 Walls Project, the North Williamsburg space founded by Mike Ballou, Adam Simon, and Michele Araujo at 138 Bayard Street, this loose affiliation of artists continued long after they vacated the Bayard Street venue and relocated their monthly gathering to Ballou’s residence, at 50 Maspeth Avenue in 2001. To quote Ballou, the Film Club was “more of a clubhouse/laboratory where we were less interested in dialog than in production. We were people who made stuff. When we started we were working with Super 8 film on a hand cranked editor.” The productions expanded to include slides, animation, video, and music, just about anything but “straight” painting or sculpture. What pricked my interest as an amateur historian, was the number of local luminaries associated with the Film Club during its 17 year run (Ballou states the club is currently on hiatus), notably Fred Tomaselli, Mark Newgarden, Carol Saft, Megan Cash, Mike Moneagle, Jim Torok, Joyce Pensato, Pam Butler, Bill Graff, Chuck Yuen, David Wells, Kim Kimball, et al.

Well-respected photographer Meredith Allen is a longtime participant, and a commitment to documenting her presentations there is the impetus for her “Film Club Project.” During a recent visit with the artist, I was confronted by a stack of self-published volumes anthologizing the “slide shows” Allen screened from 2004 until 2008. The books are about 9 by 12 inches; the horizontal format encourages their reading as if scanning a filmstrip. The layout varies with couples of smaller photos surrounded by the white of the paper juxtaposed against larger single pics that fill the page. Allen has a great eye for composition and a sensitivity to color so juicy and saturated that in some of the photos it virtually pops off the page. The subject matter is the details of Allen’s life: her partner Carol Saft, family, friends, visits to Maine and Arizona, events in and around NYC, various kitties, and Iggy, Meredith’s tenacious terrier. What I find irresistible and historically significant is Allen’s indefatigable practice of documenting broad swaths of the Williamsburg art community. For years, camera at the ready, she’s captured openings, happenings, protests, and, self-referentially, even the Film Club’s parties. Allen also meticulously catalogues all the names of her subjects and the dates of the exposures. The unstoppable dance of time, the changing neighborhood, unguarded moments, and happy accidents are all recorded with a rare sensitivity that distinguishes the narrative arc of the photos. Currently, the “Film Club Project” numbers 25 volumes, and with time and support the series may be extended to 50. You can peruse and purchase books at http://www.blurb.com/user/store/meredith29.

Welcome to the frontier, get ready for close encounters of the artistic kind, and don’t let the funk, crap, or smell deter you. After all, that’s kinda like life ain’t it?