ARTBEAT: An Artist's Workshop for the World

The corner of Front and Washington Street in DUMBO was buzzing with a surprising amount of activity when I met with John Bjerklie, one of the directors of the Triangle Artists Workshop, which will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary at a new location. It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon in September, and both the pizzeria across the street and the Peas and Pickles grocery market where we met were operating at full lunch-hour capacity. Bjerklie had just received the key to the 30,000 square foot space in which the 2002 Triangle will take place and he is eager to show it off to me. Far from the stark and lonely Gotham street scenes that were my memory of DUMBO from past visits, I could not but marvel at the sense of neighborhood collegiality both among obvious artist-types and industrial or commercial workers. Bjierklie, a sculptor himself and former Triangle workshop participant, was in the midst of ironing out the final details of the raw space upstairs, which in a few weeks will be inhabited by the diverse and bursting creative energy of 30 artists from around the globe.

Entering on the sixth floor of this mostly commercial building, one cannot help but be struck by how the ample afternoon light is filtered in through numerous windows covering three sides of the capacious interior where tall columns mark the only divisions of space. The previous inhabitant of the space was A.H.R.C., a packaging company, run in part by the labor of retarded children. David Walentas, an entrepreneur whose Two Trees Management has a 30-year involvement in DUMBO, generously donated the space. Soon artists will set up their individual studios side by side, creating an atmosphere in which cross-pollination seems inevitable, and, according to the mission of the workshop, quite welcome. The notion of having individual spaces but keeping the studios open is essential; Triangle was founded as an antidote to the loneliness of the studio. Here, artists can work alongside one another and, while language barriers may persist, the practices of working artists together often challenge and inspire debate as well as a healthy dose of competition. Besides the lively murmurs from the street, there is the periodic screech of the subway crossing the Manhattan Bridge overpass to remind artists that indeed the city never sleeps. With two weeks of intense work alongside one another in what one past participant has called “a pressure-cooker” of wildly divergent ideas and practices, these artists may not sleep much themselves.

The artists will be housed in the downtown Brooklyn Marriott and will enjoy a short walk to the Dumbo studios. Meals will be provided by the Peas and Pickles market as well as by “The Refreshment Committee,” a loyal caterer from workshops past. Much of the paint and supplies will be provided by Golden Arts Colors, a longtime affiliate of Triangle. On hand throughout the two weeks will be a technical assistant to help solve any of the many challenges that inevitably arise for artists.

What is most poignant about finding a new home for this year’s 20th anniversary workshop is that its last two residencies in New York were housed on the 91st floor of what was the north tower of the World Trade Center. What had been a positively New York experience for Triangle participants of the 1998 and 2000 sessions—where the artists’ studio was launched to unsurpassed space-age heights—has moved from that unforgettable vertical community to a humbler one across the bridge in Brooklyn. No longer will artists feel “on top of the world,” but now there is a heightened sense of being situated in a neighborhood. Within that Brooklyn space they are also forging a distinctly international community.

Sir Anthony Caro, the British sculptor, and Robert Loder, a London-based collector, founded the Triangle workshop in 1982, with the three points representing the UK, Canada, and the U.S. They wanted to offer artists time and space in close contact with one another and with visitors invited from the community of art professionals. Now, 20 years later, those three points have expanded around the globe to include similar affiliated residencies in places as diverse as Botswana, Bolivia, Zambia, Australia, India, and Jamaica, among others. The international network is growing all the time. Although the New York residency is the prototype for the others, it has undergone many changes from the initial bucolic setting in Pine Plains, NY to the most recent residencies atop the World Trade Center. Still, confronted by new ideas and new points of view, detached from “entrenched habits” artists are often able to explore new possibilities or delve deeper into current interests.

The selection of the artists is a difficult one and usually involves a high caliber of applicants. About thirty participants are chosen annually from slide submissions, a brief description of a proposed project, and curriculum vitae. Participants must be committed, working artists. The selection committee is made up of artists, critics, art historians and curators. Among the jurors this year are Jenny Dixon of the Bronx Museum and the independent curator Lee Stoetzel. The inclusions for this year’s participants are both emerging artists as well as some in more mature phases of their work. For instance, New York artists like Matt Blackwell or Shelagh Keeley are already well along in their careers. Sometimes artists return to Triangle, like Irish artist Roxy Walsh, who was a participant a decade ago. Frequently selections are based on how artists will relate to the given space, like the Namibian Trudy Dicks, whose floating sculptures Bjierklie forsees “perhaps ending up in The East River.” Much of the excitement and surprise arises exactly from how these personalities and methodologies will coincide and collide with one another. Some artists are unknown, some more established here or overseas, while others are gaining recognition in their own countries or in the US. Another South African, Thabiso Phokompe lives in New York and recently had a solo show at the Axis Gallery. Well-known Indian painter Jitish Kallat often treats the intersection of Hindu and Muslim culture and currently has a show in Chelsea at Bose Pacia Modern. Carribean artist Hew Locke and German Lothar Götz have both gained recent acclaim in London, while Frenchman Fabien Verschaere is very much a rising star in Paris. An inevitable theme this year, more so than ever in the past, is the consideration of the role of making art in our world today. Artists from opposing backgrounds and different conceptions of what art can be will leave the comfort of their own studios and entrenched habits to make art side by side with people they might never have otherwise met in a self-contained location for a concentrated period of time. At intervals during the workshop session, invited visitors tour studios and offer presentations in the evening, But otherwise the studio is closed to the public until the end of the workshop.

As the art historian, critic, and founding board member Karen Wilkin put it, “Triangle is an idea, not an institution.” It vehemently values process above product. Rather than focussing on tangible objects to show in a final gallery opening, the workshop is centered on the exchange of ideas between artists and the intermittent processes that ensue. Although one might view Triangle as a sort of trampoline for artists toward greater exposure to the New York art scene, Bjierklie sees the workshop as an opportunity for New York artists and critics to see what the rest of the world is thinking about and working on. The dialogue very often revolves around problems surrounding the under-developed world and what one recent participant dubbed the “over-developed first world.” Indeed, the distinction between globalism and internationalism is essential for artists searching for common ground amidst the very palpable diversity presented every day in the studio.

Triangle is for many a life-altering experience, although sometimes those changes cannot be immediately discerned. This seems to be the case with John Bjierklie, and Alun Williams, whose involvement with Triangle dates back to 1993. The Workshop not only expanded his international contacts, but he was also one of the founders in 1994, of a year-round international artists’ residency and exhibition program in Marseille, France and remains active as its President. Since then, Bjerklie and Williams have been involved in New York as board members and co-directors. Triangle has a way of weaving its way into the fabric of artists’ lives. Although only two weeks long, the residency acts for many as the place to try out new threads of expression or modes of inquiry for which there were previous obstacles. Somehow the notion of being removed from one’s quotidian life can liberate an artist’s work to new levels.

Along with the Open Studio day on Saturday November 2, its 20th anniversary, a special inaugural panel event will take place on Wednesday October 23rd at 7pm, to mark the launch of the 20th Anniversary Workshop. The 2002 Triangle Studios are located at 55 Washington Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

For more information contact Triangle at 212.431.5895 or 718.781.6287.

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