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|The East Village Revisited
by Calvin Reid
|If you're strolling through the grand art palaces of the Chelsea art district or gallery-hopping through the little artist-run spaces in Williamsburg, it's easy to forget what a wild and creatively chaotic gallery scene existed in the East Village and throughout the Lower East Side from the late 1970s through the '80s.
By 1984, as many as 100 small storefront galleries were spread throughout the East Village -- a development that was as controversial as it was celebrated. Of course they're all mostly gone now -- though not completely. A quick walk around the East Village and the Lower East Side today turns up several spaces that remain from the glory years, plus a few recently launched ones as well.
Gracie Mansion -- the art dealer, not the mayoral residence -- was one of the first to open an East Village gallery. Today, she runs her eponymous art space from the first floor of a brownstone at 54 St. Mark's Place, an elegant successor to her former gallery on Avenue A.
Gracie Mansion remains open by appointment through these last few weeks of summer, and if you hurry you can see Sally Davies' hilarious and colorful photographic dioramas. She builds meticulously decorated domestic sets and fills them with dark-eyed, green-skinned alien figures dressed up as shopaholic consumers, yuppie couples and housewives resplendent in plaid jumpers.
Davies has met the aliens -- and they are us. They live in fashionable lofts, drink Mountain Dew and even show up at the odd gallery opening. Her works are a colorful and comic photographic amalgamation of Jeff Wall, Tina Barney and the X-files.
Around the corner from Gracie Mansion is another space that East Village gallery hoppers will remember -- The Emerging Collector, located at 62 Second Avenue. Opened in 1985 by Christine Louisy-Daniel, the gallery was noted for its monthly auctions of works by a contingent of East Village artists such as FA-Q, Linus Coraggio and others (including this reviewer). But Louisy-Daniel no longer holds the auctions. "We didn't really make money on them," she said. "And its more difficult now, everyone has gone to Chelsea." The space is currently showing works by gallery artists. Louisy-Daniel is busy planning an expansion, to a second space uptown in Harlem on 121st St., due to open any day now.
But the real veteran of the Lower East Side gallery scene is Kenkeleba House, opened on East 2nd Street in 1978 by Joe Overstreet and Corinne Jennings. A sister space, the Wilmer Jennings Gallery, is located across the street at 214-16 East 2nd.
Kenkeleba House has a long history of mounting exceptional historical surveys of African American art. Currently on view is "19th & 20th Century African American Art," featuring rare works by the 19th-century portrait painter Edward Bannister and the fanciful landscape painter Robert Duncanson as well as a wide variety of works by such distinctive 20th-century artists as the pioneering black female sculptor Augusta Savage and painters Eldzior Cortor, Norman Lewis, Hughie Lee-Smith and Charles Alston. Although the show has officially closed, it will hang for a while yet and the gallery remains open all summer for visitors.
Across the street at Wilmer Jennings is a large group show called "In the Hands of an Artist," showcasing more than 60 artists working in collage and assemblage. Take particular note of Shawne Major's obsessively decorated wall piece, Tide Pool. Fetishistically bejeweled with glass, beads, buttons, plastic flowers and an endless encrustation of compulsively applied materials, it suggests an eerie human form that seems to rise up and out of the surface of a impossibly compulsive, irresistibly detailed Technicolor shroud.
Not far from Kenkeleba House is A Gathering of Tribes, the longtime arts and performance space at 285 East Third Street, presided over by writer and Lower East Side grassroots arts impresario Steve Cannon. The gallery is currently presenting "Identities," a show by Diana Giraldo Kurk of black-and-white photos of residents of a Colombian village. Cataloging the endless variety of facial and emotional types, the works are aligned in a relentless grid of identically formatted headshots covering every inch of wall space. Together the photographs command attention by the sheer power of generic visual rhythm.
Just below Houston Street is a cluster of recently launched galleries set up on Clinton, Suffolk and on Rivington Streets. The spaces project a savvy creative insight while also sharing the neighborhood's funky street ambience and informality. The founders all live right in the neighborhood and the galleries -- Gaga, Mark Pasek Gallery and Walden -- all have a refreshing and stylish idiosyncrasy. The three spaces have joined forces to schedule openings and support each other.
Gaga is a modestly sized space at 137 Rivington Street with a big front window offering a view out to the street and the school playground beyond. The gallery was opened in 1997 by Gregory Allen, an exhibition installer, who says he looks for "honesty and individuality" in the works he shows. "Something particular, the Gaga edge." Over the past year the space has shown works by Elana Herzog, Beverly Semmes, Mary Judge and Kate Shepherd. Closed for the summer, the space will reopen in tandem with the other galleries in September.
Mark Pasek Gallery, located at 122 Suffolk Street, is the newest of the three. Pasek too is a former artist and exhibition installer, who says he opened his gallery because "I do better talking about other artists' works than my own." Currently on view at Pasek are works by Larry Krone, a consistently interesting artist known for eccentrically handcrafted sculptural works reflecting his delightfully sappy, forlorn country and western sensibility.
Visitors to Pasek Gallery can also take note of the serenely spare, iconically rigorous abstract paintings of Olivia Boudet, the gorgeous, day-glo minimalist painting/sculptural objects of Simon Aldridge and the gracefully water-bound kinetic creature-objects of Bruno Pelassy.
Walden opened at 9 Clinton Street last September. Its owner, Robert Walden, is an artist himself and, like his colleagues, an exhibition installer as well. He says his gallery is "about community. In New York you find your own environment and create your own community."
Walden's final show of the year, a two-person exhibition titled "Drawing Lines" and featuring paintings by Robert Landsen and drawings by Joachim Griess, remains on view throughout the summer by appointment. Tiny in scale, the works in this show are delightfully visual. Landsen's collaged paintings are composed of eyeball-shimming arrangements of bar-code strips cut from the corners of business-reply postcards.
In perfect complement, Griess' tiny black and red drawings were made with the underscore key of a manual typewriter. Griess manages to produce inventively shifting formal relationships and visual transparencies in works admirable both for their puckish humor and obsessive formal variation.
Other spaces in the neighborhood include Gallery 128, launched in 1986 at 128 Rivington Street by the Japanese artist Kazuko Miyamoto. Two Lower East Side "alternative spaces," both of which celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, are ABC No Rio at 156 Rivington and the PS 122 Gallery Space, housed in the performance space's building on East 9th Street.
Deep Dale Gallery is a funky, ad hoc gallery space located at 248 1/2 Broome Street. Founded in 1996, the gallery invokes the old artist-run spirit of the East Village, and features a show of work by John and Anthony Zito, father and son painters. Last but not least is the Mars Bar, a perfectly grungy dive at First Street and Second Avenue that continues a regular series of artist-curated group shows of invigorating albeit wildly uneven quality.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a revival of the East Village art boom of the early 1980s. Still, one can hope. "The East Village scene started because so many artists lived here," said Gracie Mansion. "They can't afford to now. But I hope it does come back. I hate going to Chelsea. Everyone does."
CALVIN REID is an artist and a freelance art critic who lives on the Lower East Side.