Bushwick Art Scene, For Love of the Game


June 11, 2011

Artist Deborah Brown at Storefront gallery, which she co-founded and co-directs with Jason Andrew, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2011

These days, art is all about the money. Art galleries, art fairs, even museum shows -- people might not approve, but they know it’s true. So it should come as no surprise, in the contrary world that is the young avant-garde, that right across the East River, in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn, is a tight community of art spaces run by hip, happy 30-somethings who live cheap, share cold beers at sunset and show art for love.

Of the eight leading galleries in that remote Brooklyn neighborhood -- English Kills, Centotto, Factory Fresh, Norte Maar, Storefront, Regina Rex, Famous Accountants, and new neighbor MomentaArt, a transplant from Williamsburg -- six are located within five square blocks of the Morgan stop on the L train. Collectively, they set the tone for what is certain to become a greenhouse for the freshest and newest in New York art. Williamsburg, move over: Bushwick is blooming.

Meet Chris Harding, founder of English Kills, Bushwick’s most lucrative commercial art venture. Harding -- who graduated with a degree in English just ten years ago and worked for a brief stint at the infamous Mary Boone Gallery -- seems as innocent of affectation as any regular Joe: when I made the trek to speak with him last week, I found him in a fedora and flip-flops, rolling a cigarette in his gallery’s garden. He offered me a Budweiser, and we sat together on a red bench in the sun.

Harding opened his large, brick-walled space in 2007, after moving back to New York from Maui, and that languorous island attitude has infused his business practice ever since. Despite his gallery’s success, he doesn’t like the term “dealer” -- “My business card says ‘art conduit,’” he notes.

To supplement his earnings, Harding rents extra space as rooms and studios, and as a result, the gallery is rarely empty of young, creative types, including the artists he represents -- mostly male and mostly his friends; hence the English Kills nickname: “the man cave.”

The current English Kills exhibition, a hodgepodge billed as “The Mother Ship: English Kills Crew + special guests,” has been curated, as usual, according to Harding’s preference and without any semblance of an over-arching vision. Highlights include a real ATM, presumably installed to reflect commercial gallery culture, and a 12 ft. by 12 ft. painting by Jim Herbert -- an artist included in the Museum of Modern Art video collection -- depicting a copulating couple obscured perversely by an enormous painted close-up of Harding’s dog.

“Mother Ship” is a prime example of the gallery’s modus operandi: sprawling group shows featuring at least 12 artists, often including Andy Piedilato, Brent Owens, Andy Hurst and ace performance curator Peter Dobill, whose works already have an eager market.

After our visit, Harding sent me over to Centotto, a gallery run by his buddy, resident Bushwick art intellectual Paul D’Agostino, in his own living room. D’Agostino lives across the street from Roberta’s, a famed local eatery known for its attractive clientele and gourmet pizza, and his apartment is a curatorial masterpiece in and of itself: shelves crammed with a panoply of world literature and a long, weathered wooden table featuring a centerpiece of empty whiskey bottles.

A slight 34 year-old with tattooed arms and dark, shining eyes, d’Agostino is a dilettante who doesn’t dabble -- he excels. A polyglot, an artist and a PhD of Italian Literature, he teaches Italian at Brooklyn College, where he is also a writing advisor to art history students, and his own criticism has been featured in publications including The L Magazine.

Centotto was between shows during my visit, but D’Agostino has been organizing bimonthly exhibitions since 2007; they reveal his affinity for pedagogy, involving the participating artists in reading, writing and discussion as well as presenting more conventional visual components. “Language -- that is, words -- informs everything I do,” he tells me.

To that effect, he has developed three complex types of exhibition, which are described in detail on his website. The artworks made in response to the shared material D’Agostino distributes comprise a visual conversation on Centotto’s walls -- a conversation which, he hopes, invites viewers to participate.

While he does no business -- anything earned by sales goes straight to the artists -- he does accept libations as recompense.

After Centotto, I stopped by Factory Fresh, Bushwick’s “street art” gallery. Founded in 2008 by Ali Ha, a sunny red-head in heels and a floral skirt with a disarming giggle, the gallery’s roster boasts mostly men. Ali is the surprising exception to that rule: after graduating with a degree in graphic design from Syracuse University, she worked for years in New York under the name Pufferella, scrawling “love/hate sayings” on walls all around the city. “It was basically vandalism,” she confesses, “but now I do fabric art.” On those streets, she met her boyfriend Adam Deville, one half of street-art duo Skewville, with whom she now lives in the space above the gallery.

“I don’t believe in ‘representation,’ but I show mid-level artists who have relatively established careers. It’s easier that way,” she says. Ali only works with people she knows, and many of them are artists she met while travelling, so international work abounds; big sellers in her stable include Sweet Toof, Roa and Skewville, as well as Jim Avignon, “who has a huge client base in Germany,” and Jon Burgerman.

In the spirit of community, Ali and Adam are working with the NYC Parks and Recreation Department to de-map the alleyway outside the gallery and turn it into Bushwick’s first public art park. Meanwhile, Factory Fresh projects have already spilled out into the surrounding streets, as one might expect: one block west on Flushing Avenue, an old building has been transformed with paint into a rocking boom box, à la Do The Right Thing, the Spike Lee joint from 1989. The gallery’s current show, “Surrealism” -- co-curated by Jason Andrew, one of the neighborhood’s art pioneers and still a prominent figure on the scene -- features “Bushwick-artists-only.”

Andrew is a trained dancer (and a fabled stud-muffin) who manages the Jack Tworkov estate, which is represented by Mitchell-Innes & Nash. He lives in a Bushwick apartment he took in 2005 and subsequently transformed into an art salon called Norte Maar. Aiming to give emerging talent a chance to utilize the white box space of his living room -- an ironic decision, no doubt -- he began hosting art shows of all varieties, from readings to dance performances. By 2008, Norte Maar events were drawings crowds of 300-plus.

Andrew was perhaps the first to champion Bushwick arts, and Norte Maar is alive and kicking, billed this year as a “hub space” for Bushwick Open Studios, of which he is now a proud sponsor. Its current exhibition presents 100 drawings made by 45 artist-collaborations, and the deluge of energetic, incoherent draughtmanship filling every inch of white wall makes the gallery feel like a claustrophobic kindergarten classroom.

In 2010, Andrew joined forces with painter Deborah Brown, who now exhibits with Leslie Heller Workspace on Orchard Street, to found Storefront gallery in a small commercial space around the corner from Norte Maar.

Unlike many of its neighbors, Storefront stays open during the summer months, presenting an ambitious program of three-week-long shows organized by established guest curators. This year, “Dunkle Wolke,” a cerebral exhibition curated by artist William Powhida, kicked off the summer season; sleek and cohesive, it garnered unprecedented attention, media and otherwise. Coming up are more hot tickets: Jules de Balincourt, Sara Reisman and James Panero, editor of the New Criterion, are all slated to curate.

“It’s only a matter of time before the galleries from Manhattan start trolling Bushwick for new talent,” Brown asserted, beaming. “I’ve already seen more dealers at openings than ever before.” Attendance is certainly up: artist Glenn Ligon, whose mid-career retrospective is currently on view at the Whitney Museum, was present at the opening for “Dunkle Wolke,” if the guest book doesn’t lie.

“People often want to know how much we sell,” Andrew explains, “and I say, ‘if you’re asking that question, you’re in the wrong neighborhood.’”

New to that neighborhood is Regina Rex, a space founded last year in a large building on Troutman Street and run as a non-commercial operation by a collective of artists. It is currently overseen by 13 curators, several from the University of Illinois at Chicago, who strive to work collaboratively and keep exhibition an academic affair.

The current show, “Through the Warp,” is a clean, concise examination of the act of weaving -- “material building upon material via linear repetition and overlap,” according to a press release. Featured artists include current Whitney Independent Study Program enrollee John Houck, recent University of Illinois at Chicago MFA grad Joell Baxter, who is participating in this summer’s Bronx Museum’s Biennial, and -- surprise! -- Lawrence Weiner.

The Regina Rex crew is also guest-curating a show this week in the temporary Chelsea space run by Art Blog Art Blog up-and-comer Joshua Abelow -- a young man known for that smile as well as his incisive artworks and provocative blogging -- who had his first solo exhibition at the Lower East Side’s James Fuentes LLC last year.

No Bushwick tour would be complete without a stop at Famous Accountants, where co-founder Kevin Regan -- who has the messy curls and lanky frame of a rock-star -- could be found one afternoon brandishing a small, wooden sculpture of a seal. “Genesis P. Orridge left this here for us, and now it has become our mascot,” he insisted. The basement space, which was opened by Regan and Ellen Letcher (both practicing artists) in 2009 on a quiet residential street off the Myrtle L stop, was in fact once occupied by the Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV frontman, and an impressive rotation of art-world revolutionaries has passed through its doors over the years.

Low-ceilinged and cavernous, Famous Accountants is not without its commercial successes. Last month’s solo show of haunting, exquisitely painted portraits by local Bushwick artist Matthew Miller -- his first -- was written up by critic Ken Johnson in the New York Times, and subsequently sold out. The current exhibition features photographic works by Shanna Maurizi, who has exhibited previously at White Box gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

So what brings all these young, art-minded folk to Bushwick? In the words of Caitlin Bright, one of the three directors of MomentaArt, which has just moved to the hood from Williamsburg and will open in September, “cheap rent and ample space equals a lot of artists working in Bushwick, and they began worrying about how to transport their art from their studio to the gallery; we decided to come to them.”

A grant-funded exhibition space started in 1986 by artist Eric Heist and friends in Philadelphia, MomentaArt has been everywhere the “emerging and underrepresented” have been: Chelsea in the ‘90s, Williamsburg in the early 2000s, and now Bushwick.

“We are like an incubator,” Bright went on, referencing the words of Heist (who was absent during my visit). “Artists come to us with an idea, and we facilitate the cultivation of their process.” The institution’s track record certainly confirms this: Wangechi Mutu, Banks Violette, Omer Fast and Sue de Beer, to name a few, were all MomentaArt artists before their success.

“This is the burgeoning community of our next generation of artists,” she concluded. “We want to be where they live and work, amidst and among them.”

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.