Bushwick Open Studios Continues to Grow but at What Cost?by Hrag Vartanian
What a difference five years makes. From a scrappy and dispersed open studios festival, Brooklyn’s—if not New York’s—largest such event, Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), has grown to 161 locations, including 16 information hubs and hundreds of artists over a three-mile stretch of the nebulous neighborhood known as Bushwick.
In 2008, I wrote in this publication about that year’s BOS and mentioned that “If living in the neighborhood once felt like an urban exile, today it’s starting to feel like a form of prescience.” I can assure you the future has arrived. The visual arts community has more than quadrupled, but, like most fortunetelling, it’s not quite what you expected.
The stretch between the Morgan and DeKalb stops of the L train continues to house the bulk of studio spaces and galleries. There is a noticeable air of professionalism in the group shows in the area, which is certainly encouraged by the new visibility that Bushwick’s art spaces and artists have been garnering from the mainstream media.
Storefront Gallery on Wilson Avenue had a show curated by artist William Powhida ominously labeled, Dunkle Wolke. It featured a number of local talents, including Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht, whose severe geometric wooden sculptures/book stands were crowned with vintage German modernist paperbacks that harkened back to a period when much of the world still believed in the power of art, architecture, and design to usher in utopias. They were accompanied by works on the wall by many artists, including Bill Abdale’s charcoal drawings of worn book surfaces. It was a dark display—the show’s title means “dark cloud” in German—and it was perfectly tuned to the curator’s own critical stance, which consistently seeks to expose machinations that illuminate problems, but do not necessarily clarify them.
Close by, Factory Fresh on Flushing hosted an exhibition of surrealist art work organized by Ali Ha and Jason Andrew, two powerful curatorial forces from the neighborhood who work in parallel art scenes that rarely overlap. The show brought together 22 artists who “wrestle with the unconscious” in various ways. Ben Godward’s sculpture, “Lugubrious Lover Laid Bare” (2011), a collision of a large slab of colorful resin and foam with a standpipe pedestal, was placed close to Tamara Gonzalez’s jubilant “Elfen” (2008), which, like the other works in the front gallery, felt like explorations of the sunnier aspects of the subconscious. In the back gallery, the tone changed to reveal darker undercurrents of the mind. Tyrome Tripoli’s “Rubber Fan, Exhaust” (2007) seemed to recede into its own shadowiness, while close by Kevin Curran’s “The Woods” (2011), a wall-mounted sculpture, depicted an exhausted figure sprawled over a boulder or mound against an arch of bas-relief trees.
Outside, Factory Fresh had converted the underused, block-long Vandervoort Place into a one-day street art park. Colorful murals competed with sculptures created with patches of grass, shopping carts, and street signs. The gallery hopes that the strip will someday be a permanent park for street art, and walking around the displays makes you hope it happens soon (though I can’t imagine city agencies welcoming the whimsy you saw on the street that weekend).
Bushwick’s studio buildings are numerous and overwhelming. If three years ago I was able to see 60 percent of the studios in two days, this year I was barely able to cover 30 percent in the same period. Some notable concentrations were at 346 Morgan Avenue, which benefited from the various programs and collaborative studio spaces inside; 1717 Troutman, which seems to be a halfway house for every newly minted M.F.A.; 119 Ingraham, with its mishmash of artists; and 56 Bogart Street, which is slowly being infiltrated by exhibition spaces.
In fact, 56 Bogart was a perfect example of the neighborhood’s transformation. Jenny Holzer’s former studio has become Interstate Projects, a small whitewall gallery that overlooks the busy Bogart/Grattan intersection. Its proprietor, Tom Weinrich, estimated 2,000 people marched through his space—a number undoubtedly diminished by the lack of L train service all weekend. In Interstate’s group show, the works of Justin Berry, who removes any indication of plot or character from paperbacks to create formally gorgeous digital prints of clean geometric forms, were a standout. Unlike Meyer-Ebrecht’s and Abdale’s ominous book-based works at nearby Storefront, Berry’s books retain a sense of inviting uniqueness even in the artist’s act of erasure. On the other side of the building, Momenta Art has set up shop in an attempt to regain the centrality it once enjoyed in the artistic circles of Williamsburg. It surprised me that the nonprofit space opened for this big occasion with a rather dull conceptual show with work that would’ve easily been at home in a forgettable Chelsea gallery.
It’s hard to characterize the art produced in Bushwick: there are endless studios of artists producing forms of traditional figurative painting while countless others are experimenting with digital images—some older talents but mostly younger ones. There were collectives of all sorts and even thesis project shows, like the one from the NYU Tisch ITP Program, which included a number of intriguing explorations of the intersection of technology and art.
Further afield, there were new additions to BOS that demonstrated the increasing reach of the festival into the local community. The historic 18th century Onderdonk House invited local artists to install work in its gardens, and while the result felt uncurated and even haphazard, the Onderdonk guide inside seemed happy with their participation in BOS, which attracted new faces to a building that shares little with the large factories surrounding it. One couple, John Coogan of Philadelphia and Colleen Normile of Astoria, Queens, neither of whom were artists or part of the art world, told me they discovered the event on a listserv and arrived at BOS on their bikes hoping to explore the outdoor installation.
Jenny Morgan, who exhibits at Williamsburg’s Like the Spice Gallery and is a studio assistant to Marilyn Minter, told me she recently moved her studio to the area from Williamsburg/Greenpoint because many of her friends lived in the area and she liked the art-oriented sense of community. Another artist originally from New Orleans, Heidi Elbers, mentioned she had moved to Bushwick last summer because its relaxed atmosphere reminded her of her hometown. She was also attracted to the area’s bubbling, unpretentious energy, which offers her many opportunities for pop-up shows and other things.
But what could be next for the area as it continues to march into the mainstream? I kept thinking about a work at English Kills by Andrew Ohanesian, who was one of the artists who impressed me most during the early years of BOS. Ohanesian has been consistently active in the neighborhood, creating works that play with the more commonplace experiences of life. Whether constructing a full-scale home devastated by natural disaster in a gallery, as he did in 2007, or creating a migrating bar that offered visitors free beer, which he did last year, Ohanesian has not met a relational aesthetic he doesn’t like. This time at English Kills, he constructed an ATM that functions like any other cash machine except for its rather hefty surcharge ($4.99). Only when you use the machine does the work reveal its title on the receipt, which comes out in a numbered but unlimited edition “print.” Ohanesian explained that 15 cents of the fee goes to the bank, another three cents to the man who owns the ATM, and the artist makes $4.81 off each transaction. When I asked him why his newest work was so unlike his other pieces, which seemed to bleed money—another such work last year was a stocked refrigerator offering visitors their choice of free food and drinks—he answered, “I want my own cup in the stream.”
As the Bushwick scene develops, it will have to find a way to sustain itself in the wake of rising rents and new (and increasingly richer) hordes of art world wannabees that have already transformed the neighborhoods that preceded it. Will Bushwick fall victim to its own success or will it find new ways to develop? In Brooklyn Torch, another project that was on display at BOS, Jesse Suchmann and Amanda Goldman sat behind a table and discussed artist Mary Jeys’s vision of creating a north Brooklyn currency that will be pegged to the U.S. dollar and encourage people to spend locally. The project comes from Jeys’s interest in creating larger and more publicly engaged work. In her research, she started looking back at the 1980s and ’90s and how artists “had begun engaging in political and social change with an artist’s toolbox.” The tagline of the art project-cum-currency’s website is “sparking wealth in north Brooklyn.” Like Ohanesian’s project, what’s really interesting about Jeys’s idea is its ambition to explore the channels of commerce as an artistic activity. If Bushwick is to be different from the art communities that came before it, and to grow on the foundation it has laid, then it will have to think about more than gallery shows, open studios, and art.