“Brazil will always be the country of tomorrow, never the country of today.” Local Brazilian proverb.
During these last few months, I’ve found myself remembering the above quote while thinking about contemporary Williamsburg and its, as yet, unfulfilled potential. It seems the art world’s deck is stacked against us and even the long arms of Brooklynites can’t compensate for the short end of the stick we’re constantly handed.
During a recent Sunday afternoon cruise through West Williamsburg, I happened by a gallery that, over the last five years, has become a stalwart of the local scene. I visited their art fair booth in Miami, but for the last month I’d been greeted by gated windows here in Brooklyn. I figured they were catching their breath after all the Florida hubbub. As it happened, one of the partners was locking up the joint as I peddled by. After greetings and salutations I asked why they’d been closed and what was coming up on their schedule. “The gallery was just too cold. We’ll open again in a little while, when it warms up”. The explanation sounded bogus but I’ve learned in the art world, where perception is reality, nothing is considered more gauche than a direct question. I peddle on. Two days later I get an e-mail informing me that the gallery, sadly, is leaving the neighborhood and relocating to a snazzy new space in Chelsea. We wish them luck. Their energy and particular vision will leave a gap in our little village. And so it goes. Nonsensical as it is, the Williamsburg paradox can be summed up as: to be successful in Williamsburg, you’ve got to leave Williamsburg.
Though the question of the ‘burg’s “viability” has been asked for almost as long as there’s been a scene here, over the last two years the volume has risen from a low murmur to a deafening shriek—IS WILLIASMSBURG OVER?
During the ruckus June 2nd opening of “Big Stuff” (an “eyewash” production curated by Larry Walczak at Supreme Trading) William Powhida exhibited a ten-foot-tall cardboard tombstone, “The Williamsburg: It’s Over Memorial 2002-2006”. It listed, quoted and diss’ed twenty-four of the galleries that had closed or decamped the neighborhood. Examples range from “‘A lot of people think Williamsburg is cutting edge. It’s not, it’s just low risk without being particularly experimental,’ Becky Smith, Bellwether, (and your little dog too).” to “Parlour Projects, lived next door, never went”. Later, as rain dribbled through the ratty skylights over the stage, Powhida delivered his “Williamsburg Eulogy” monologue to a beer-addled crowd through an occasional chorus of good-natured heckling. (The full text of the eulogy can be accessed at http://blog.eyewashart.com/). Not surprisingly, Powhida, a neighborhood aficionado and fellow Rail contributor, has recently committed to showing with a Williamsburg gallery defector in Chelsea.
Despite this and a raft of other pronouncements of its imminent demise, Williamsburg is still a hub of a unique artistic sentiment. There’s no better example of this than what has now become a great yearly tradition, Sideshow’s “War is Over Again” show. Begun by Richard Timperio about five years ago, this encyclopedic display has grown to gargantuan size containing works by over 260 artists from Brooklyn and beyond. The installation alone is an exhausting performance requiring two weeks to pull together, but miraculously, Timperio, like a jazz impresario, is able to accomplish the hanging with an eye towards both compatibility and provocative contrasts. Presiding over the front gallery is a gushing spiral stretching across a narrow horizontal canvas, a signature painting by Dan Christensen. Arriving at the opening, I was greeted with the shocking news of his passing the day before. The trauma cast a pall over the affair and elicited spontaneous toasts of raised Dixie cups and bottles in remembrance. A very brief pick of pieces worth taking a peek at included a trio of Ken Butler’s assemblage violins, cobbled together from junk like an old broom and a deer antler, a beautiful oil pastel by Ed Ruda and Rick Briggs’ painting of his symbolic “Painter Man,” which in this version is reduced to a thick outline of rusty-red on a sky-blue background. A hyper-realistic bust of a bearded man displayed on a low shelf by Dan Langston titled “Artist’s Father Aged Ten Years After His Death” (2006) stopped many viewers with a jolt of creepiness. Two tough little pieces, a seascape by Paul Resika and a crystal-faceted abstraction by Thornton Willis, show that scale doesn’t necessarily mean big and a work doesn’t have to be a heavyweight to pack a punch. Eventually the war will be over, and hopefully this show will carry on; Art will endure.
With construction cranes and plywood fences surrounding ever more of the Bedford Avenue corridor, a new cluster of galleries has metastasized at the west edge of Bushwick. A case study in the community dynamics imposed by not only the real estate bubble but also by local Hasidic housing interests was played out last summer when Nurture Arts began its nearly yearlong scramble for new digs. After securing what they hoped was a sweetheart deal, in a space billed as a new “arts center” (located in the former Domsey’s Warehouse at Kent and South Ninth Street), word leaked to local rabbis. A neighborhood-wide campaign that included threats of “putting 10,000 people in the streets” and social pressures that followed the landlord to his vacation retreat upstate, caused the “art center” idea to evaporate. Luckily, Nurture Arts and its curatorial development program landed on their feet in a more hospitable space out east. “Mad Cow,” the debut show at their new location at 910 Grand Street, curated by Joelle Jensen, indicates they’re back in the swing. A sculptural tableau by Kate Clark featuring a pack of scavenging coyotes each with a human face tacked on with Frankensteinian metal studs reinforced the idea that men are dogs (well, coyotes) but left me expecting the arrival of PETA protesters. Just east and around the corner in what The New York Times real estate section has dubbed MoJo (the area between the Morgan and Jefferson L train stops) are 3rd Ward and Tastes like Chicken.
“The Dating Show” at 3rd Ward is a study in the machinations and pathos intrinsic to the modern dating ritual. The parallels between selling a product and putting oneself in the dating market are explicit, so it’s appropriate that a lot of the work is photo and text based, mining an area between commercial and propagandistic graphics pioneered by Barbara Kruger. Though the imagery is slick, produced with the latest digital techniques, much of the work fails to transcend its technological mediation and arrive at a suitable distance for an authentic critique. Still, a diagram relating the parts of a good hamburger to the compatibility of a romantic relationship in “Hamburger Theory” (2005) by Beth Cook hit the spot, as did a grouping of smallish grisaille portraits and word paintings (Bitter, Flirt, Witty, Clever) titled “Please Date Me, Please Paint Me” by Leila Feuer. In Nadine Norman’s “Initial Public Offering” (2002-03) a subway-poster-sized C print, the artist flaunts herself in a hot pink “Sex in the City” pose, with the puny caption “share hold her”—in stock market parlance, a classic “pump and dump”.
“CollectiveEye,” the first all-video program presented by Tastes Like Chicken, is not only the title of the show but the name of an artists’ collective and DVD label founded by Alexis Raskin. The overlay of moving pictures, the manipulation of the viewing environment (watching video screens through long tubes in the wall), and the warping of images over time seem to be the common themes. “Deuce” (2005) by Victoria Fu superimposes pairs of tennis players; the slight differences in their serving stances, rebounds and styles fragment the piece and recall the sequential forms of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” In “Happy Again” (2005) Gregg Biermann layers seven clips of Gene Kelly’s iconic dance number from _Singing in the Rain, _ each slightly out of sync. Watching the repeated gestures and camera angles simultaneously without the necessity of rewind is like peering down a tunnel of time, though the visual confusion and overexposure raise questions about just how many layers of perception are actually graspable.
Rumors of other artsy developments in the Morgan-Jefferson nabes are floating around, some involving an area a few blocks to the south, around Maria Hernandez Park. With the hyper-speed of neighborhood development, this district may just forgo the long transitional period from lower middle-class enclave to big bucks trendy zone. Where artists go, can boutiques and luxury condo towers be far behind?
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.