BROOKLYN DISPATCHES: Making the Trains Run on Time
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: