Brooklyn in the Extreme
Tired of hitting the same five galleries along West 24th Street and seeing the same “commercial” products? Visited all the blue chip shows at the sleek spaces uptown? Looking for an authentic art experience that takes you off the grid, gets the blood pumping, or messes with your head like only unvarnished, challenging “art” can? Then you’re ready for the next step in art appreciation. We’ve all seen how popular extreme sports are, extreme makeovers, extreme tourism; what I’m proposing is “Extreme Art Viewing.” This radical approach to aesthetics may be practiced anywhere, but, being an old-time Brooklyn hand, and for the sake of this essay, we’ll stick to America’s Backyard, the Borough of Churches.
As a former Boy Scout (Second Class) I still believe in being prepared, and although jokes have been made about European tourists coming out Brooklyn-way in pith helmets and safari jackets, I’ll make a much more useful recommendation, besides practical shoes: get your hands on the latest copy of WAGMAG, which is available at most local galleries or online at: http://www.wagmag.org/. This guide is produced through the untiring efforts of Daniel Aycock, Kathleen Vance, and a dedicated team of interns; they do a great job of listing and mapping many of the local happenings. Full disclosure: I wrote blurbs for WAGMAG for several years, beginning when it was still an accordion-fold, one-sheet brochure listing just the venues in central Williamsburg. As of their January 2011 edition, WAGMAG is 16 pages with 93 listings, a review page by Enrico Gomez, and expanded coverage that includes maps of not only Williamsburg and Bushwick, but DUMBO, Bed-Stuy, Boerum Hill/Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, the Gowanus, and also my nabe, Red Hook. Even with WAGMAG in hand as a basic manual, it’s recommended that you keep your eyes open, talk with locals, and look for unlisted sights of the temporary, the provisional, or the eccentric.
On a vacant corner lot at 206 Columbia Street, ART LOT has provided artists with unique exhibition opportunities. This open air “gallery” has been in operation since the early ’90s, but since 2004 it’s been curated by Jim Osman. The space is owned by Jim and Bobbi Vaughan, who also generously provide printed invitations, and from 2003 until 2009 ART LOT received grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council. I’ve watched as the LOT has morphed from an apparent collection of outsiders’ naïvely painted building remnants, to a bucolic pasture with rolling hills and manicured grass, to sculptural assemblages that look like a mad professor’s arctic weather station. Osman states that “The ART LOT has always been a place for an artist(s) to try something different with no strings attached. So people push their work into different scales, media, and of course outdoors.” The current show, which was extended due to the snow, is “Media Mix X 4” and features photographic works by Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, hanging fabric pieces by Babs Reingold, a giant megaphone/ear-trumpet by John Roach, and painted works by Mary Schiliro that had to be removed because of weather damage. (If you’re interested in making a proposal, you can contact Jim Osman at email@example.com.)
Skinny-panted hipsters snort and smirk when I tell them that 20 years ago taxis wouldn’t dare cross the bridges to take me home to Brooklyn (a good reason to start riding a bike). Now, those same hipsters complain if they have to walk an extra half block for their boutique lattes. Still, it’s hard to fathom the artsy neighborhood that’s sprung up in DUGO (District Under the Gowanus Overpass) with its clusters of studio buildings and homes affordable enough for artists to buy. As I peddled south on Sixth Avenue through Park Slope, just blocks from Green-Wood Cemetery (well worth a visit in its own right), it was even harder to believe that some stout-hearted art promoters had staked their claim here, but RHV Fine Art (http://www.rhvfineart.com) has done just that. A partnership project of artists Henry Chung and Robert Walden, they opened this well-appointed space in 2008, and it was a display of works by Charles “Chuck” Yuen that’d gotten me through their doors. I’ve been looking at Chuck’s work for years at Metaphor Contemporary and in group shows around town and on the Lower East Side, and I was looking forward to viewing this selection of mostly smaller paintings and oils on paper, all from around the early 2000s. Painting with a slippery brush, Yuen has developed a unique cast of characters and props to populate his surrealistic/naïve narratives. Combining abstract elements of color and composition, the artist’s deceptively simple, almost childlike figures float through scenes that echo both Freudian fantasies and real-life conundrums such as sexuality, the clash of cultures, or the “oil crisis.” Yuen has a masterful facility with his paint handling and never overworks the pigment. Like a great sumi ink calligrapher, he allows spontaneous incidents of brushstroke or paint and solvent to play evocative parts in creating his tableaus. Shifts in scale question how we might read a face: is it meant as a landscape, a still life, or a portrait? Behind all this lies a biting sense of humor combined with a formalistic visual logic that can stretch the bodies of a couple into a colorful Möbius strip, or crowd the chandeliers hanging above an elegant sitting room with a brilliant Rothkoesque magenta cloud. In “Four Faces,” one of my favorite pieces, variously colored profiles are arranged along the edge of the picture to frame an empty central plane. The square format and sequence of colors reveal Yuen’s formalist sense, while the goofy faces allow him to poke fun at the bloodless notion of austere design. “Hairdo” is a satirical send-up of vanity, a pairing of two female heads, each with Rococo locks piled high and festooned with interconnected strands of pearls like Christmas tree garlands. Nestled among the pearls and bows are framed pictures of the ladies’ prized possessions—fancy shoes, a prosperous spouse, an island getaway, or smoking oil derricks—comic visualizations of vulgar conspicuous consumption.
Once you’re off the “Mainline,” you realize that it’s not just the venue or the artifacts that distinguishes Extreme Art; it’s also the underground social networks and uncanny clans operating for decades on the margins or under the covers of our tribal lands, much of it undocumented. One such manifestation is the “Film Club.” Begun in the early 1990s at 4 Walls Project, the North Williamsburg space founded by Mike Ballou, Adam Simon, and Michele Araujo at 138 Bayard Street, this loose affiliation of artists continued long after they vacated the Bayard Street venue and relocated their monthly gathering to Ballou’s residence, at 50 Maspeth Avenue in 2001. To quote Ballou, the Film Club was “more of a clubhouse/laboratory where we were less interested in dialog than in production. We were people who made stuff. When we started we were working with Super 8 film on a hand cranked editor.” The productions expanded to include slides, animation, video, and music, just about anything but “straight” painting or sculpture. What pricked my interest as an amateur historian, was the number of local luminaries associated with the Film Club during its 17 year run (Ballou states the club is currently on hiatus), notably Fred Tomaselli, Mark Newgarden, Carol Saft, Megan Cash, Mike Moneagle, Jim Torok, Joyce Pensato, Pam Butler, Bill Graff, Chuck Yuen, David Wells, Kim Kimball, et al.
Well-respected photographer Meredith Allen is a longtime participant, and a commitment to documenting her presentations there is the impetus for her “Film Club Project.” During a recent visit with the artist, I was confronted by a stack of self-published volumes anthologizing the “slide shows” Allen screened from 2004 until 2008. The books are about 9 by 12 inches; the horizontal format encourages their reading as if scanning a filmstrip. The layout varies with couples of smaller photos surrounded by the white of the paper juxtaposed against larger single pics that fill the page. Allen has a great eye for composition and a sensitivity to color so juicy and saturated that in some of the photos it virtually pops off the page. The subject matter is the details of Allen’s life: her partner Carol Saft, family, friends, visits to Maine and Arizona, events in and around NYC, various kitties, and Iggy, Meredith’s tenacious terrier. What I find irresistible and historically significant is Allen’s indefatigable practice of documenting broad swaths of the Williamsburg art community. For years, camera at the ready, she’s captured openings, happenings, protests, and, self-referentially, even the Film Club’s parties. Allen also meticulously catalogues all the names of her subjects and the dates of the exposures. The unstoppable dance of time, the changing neighborhood, unguarded moments, and happy accidents are all recorded with a rare sensitivity that distinguishes the narrative arc of the photos. Currently, the “Film Club Project” numbers 25 volumes, and with time and support the series may be extended to 50. You can peruse and purchase books at http://www.blurb.com/user/store/meredith29.
Welcome to the frontier, get ready for close encounters of the artistic kind, and don’t let the funk, crap, or smell deter you. After all, that’s kinda like life ain’t it?