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.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.