An Evening in Bushwick
In Articles | Drawing | Installation Art | Music | Sculpture18 June 2012
am not a good citizen of Bushwick. In 2005, I moved my studio from lower Manhattan to a three-bedroom apartment with basement off the Halsey Street L stop. It was a tough neighborhood. Shortly after I moved in, but thankfully while I was out, there was a fatal stabbing directly outside my front window. A young man was murdered in the snow and blood spatter remained ominously visible until it melted away some months later. By the time evidence of this first crime began to dissipate, there was another murder on my block, this time over a gambling dispute and, yes, it was a stabbing.
Perhaps this explains my insular mentality when coming and going from the studio. I focused on interior spaces and my fenced-in garden while largely ignoring the neighborhood. I started to notice changes in my surroundings, however. Hassidic developers built a new apartment building kitty corner to an existing loft building they already owned that was occupied by young artists and creative people. The new one was stylish glass and steel, however, with a café and swimming pool on the premises. Unsavory drug dealers moved out of their house on the corner and developers continued restoring brownstones on the block. Young artists kept moving in, fueled by a bad economy and prohibitively expensive rents in Williamsburg.
The first appointment of Bushwick Open Studios coincided with my arrival and, beginning in 2007, it came under the purview of Arts in Bushwick, a volunteer non-profit organization. BOS kept gaining momentum and I noticed postings and flyers encouraging artists to get involved in its governance and production along with invitations to the event itself. Then I did a collaborative installation at the LAB Gallery with Maia Anthea Marinelli, an Italian artist who had a Bushwick studio on Bogart Street. I enjoyed my first pizza at Roberta’s and discovered that Luhring-Augustine Gallery had purchased a former storage building in the neighborhood as a Brooklyn expansion for their gallery. So gritty Bushwick was becoming increasingly fertile soil for artistic growth.
For the 2012 appointment of BOS, I was fortunate enough to find a guide here at ARTERY. Arielle Avenia, our Listings Editor and a Bushwick-based artist, suggested that I visit particular venues and was kind enough to write a list. Paper in hand, I made my way to the studio and noticed posters for the BOS Unrequited Meat Market, an artist’s variety show at El Patio, a Dominican bar on the corner of Halsey and Irving Streets near my place. I entered the establishment to discover a highly distinctive ensemble of musical performers ensconced in a corner. I had stumbled upon amerigo mackeral & the octave doktors.
Led by Aaron Howard, this six-man / woman band produces original compositions with voice, Jew’s harp, singing bowls, organ, banjo, bass, guitars, ukulele and (my favorite instrument) the typewriter. Howard recited poetry, accompanied by the octave doktors in a ritual predating Homer. The rhythms sounded Middle Eastern – soulfully coaxed from bass and percussion by Jeff Burns and Matt Macur. Dressed in a mod, yellow dress from the 60′s, Sarah Moscowitz accompanied dear mockingbird; dear earlybird with plaintive whistles and instinctively masterful pecks on the typewriter. Like Ulysses in the Gulf of the Sirens, I could happily have passed my evening listening to this enchanting ensemble. But Bushwick is a big place and I needed to sail along the L train to the vast gallery building on Bogart Street.
Hundreds of young artists were milling around Morgan Avenue or entering and exiting 56 Bogart, an industrial building that previously housed needle trades. As manufacturing moved overseas, artists moved in, renting handsome and affordable studio spaces. Then came the galleries, which now include NURTUREart, Momenta Art, THEODORE:Art, The Bogart Salon, Agape Enterprise, Interstate Projects, Studio 10 and CCCP (Creative Curators Collective Project). I descended street level stairs into NURTUREart and found myself in the company of twenty-something artists who were mingling or perusing video monitors. Bat Yam, a video work of 2009 by Polish artist Wojciech Gilewicz caught my attention with its playful intrusion of sculptural objects into everyday urban environments.
Moving along to the 56 Bogart ground floor, I encountered Oliver Warden’s Untitled Box 2.0, a Caligari-like cabinet standing outside the Agape Enterprise gallery, which was presenting his work. The face of the cabinet had a mirror surface with a switch on the right hand side. A young woman approached the cabinet and flipped the switch. For a fraction of a second, the interior of the box illuminated, revealing the surface to be a two-way mirror and the presence of a man inside, dressed in a three-piece suit and standing rigidly at attention. Further down the hall, in Suite 1G, I discovered Seung Mo Park’s elegant and elusive wire mesh constructions. Park cuts and re-weaves wire mesh to create different tonal values and produce grayscale images. Most haunting was the image of a woman’s face that gently disappeared and reemerged from different points in the space.
After surveying other galleries and studios, but with no time to lose, I bid adieu to Morgan Avenue. There was one more important stop for the evening: Holy BOS, an exhibition in a former Lutheran church on Bushwick Avenue. After circuitous meanderings on the L and J trains, I found myself on the ground in a desolate neighborhood. At Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, around 10:00 p.m., there was nary a soul in sight and all the shop windows were shuttered, contributing to the general atmosphere of urban decay and foreboding. Past neon check-cashing signs and a mysterious parking enclosure that housed taxicabs from the 30′s, I made my way to Bushwick Avenue and caught site of the church spire. A gatekeeper carefully studied my driver’s license and ushered me inside. From the courtyard in which I found myself, I descended steps into what might have been the crypt of a European church. I made my way through fifty feet of musty, subterranean space to another staircase, which delivered me into the church.
I don’t believe the German brewers who erected this place of worship could have imagined its rebirth, after decades of neglect, as a venue for new art, music and light shows. But somehow, cleared of pews, the church felt perfectly suited to this purpose. Around the perimeter of the vast, whitewashed and wood-paneled space were wooden columns that supported upper galleries with expansive organ pipes at one end and what must have been the pulpit at the other. Currently, a new music band was doing sound checks in preparation for a set that would shortly commence. I climbed to the upper gallery to better survey the installation.
From my perspective on high, Ben Wolf’s sculptural installation of painted found panels seemed to cascade, like a torrent, from the upper gallery to the church floor. Horizontal groupings of panels shared patterns, palettes and gradations, and their physical structure suggested a makeshift dwelling. Something like a baroque Mario Merz igloo in an austere Protestant space. I turned my attention to religious paintings that graced the upper gallery wall by Don Pablo Pedro. On taking a closer look, what appeared to be a deposition scene was also a polysexual, intergenerational orgy between beings that were not quite human. The bearded Christ wore nail polish and had a vagina. A serene looking woman with a third eye cradled Jesus with one arm and stroked the cheek of another woman who was performing fellatio on a muscular disciple who was bearing Christ’s weight while a gleeful pink putto frolicked about.
I walked further along the gallery to Eusoon Ahn’s gilded hanging sculpture that was shining like a celestial constellation. Ahn had traced out the silhouettes of each of the fifty American states on foam core, cut them out and covered each in silver or gold leaf. They were suspended in differing relationships to one another, and outside their continental context, seemed both mysterious and familiar. At this point I noticed a graceful young woman who was wearing a crown of feathers – something like a Mayan princess. I introduced myself and asked if she was one of the artists. She was, it turned out, Sabrina Yasmine Smith, the co-curator, along with Henry Glucroft, of this interesting and unorthodox exhibition.
Raised in France and educated at Fordham, Smith founded the ARTGYPSY tales, an online platform for “Discovery + Inspiration + Collaboration.” Smith explained to me that, in addition to currently exhibited works, Light Harvest Studio had taken detailed measurements of the church architecture and produced sophisticated time-based works in light that would be unveiled over the coming days. Furthermore, The Body Actualized Center would be hosting a Cosmic Yoga session in the nave of the church the next morning. It became apparent that I had missed perhaps the most ambitious installation in the exhibition: Desert Forest by an artist named Phoenix. Sabrina generously accompanied me to take a look.
The work, some fifty by fifty feet, was installed in the church courtyard and consisted of hundreds of parallel clotheslines running the expanse at a height of some eight feet. Hanging from these clotheslines were thousands of strands of white plastic sheeting. Sabrina and I removed our shoes and entered the forest, but, rather than soft moss beneath our feet, there was a vast plush white carpet (which nonetheless felt divine). The vertical strips of plastic made murmuring noise as people brushed them aside while traversing the work. We could glimpse people nearby through fissures in the strands and, at one point, I ran into a stranger who was moving in the opposite direction, but the experience was generally quite new and pleasant.
At our feet, illuminating the work from below, were hundreds of egg-shaped plastic lamps in magenta and green plastic. I was beginning to feel lost in an episode of Star Trek when Sabrina and I sat down on the plush carpeting. She explained to me that Phoenix would install this work at Burning Man later in the summer in the Nevada desert. Just then, a gust of wind brought the work to life. The practically weightless plastic danced around us, exposing others near and far, who were also seated in the work or walking through it. I was beginning to appreciate how blinded I’d been to this vibrant creative community, living together in Bushwick and united by art.
Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.
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