Cleopatra’s is a lively four-year-old storefront gallery on Mesarole Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, poised more or less halfway between the hipster haven of central Williamsburg and the MoMA PS1 neighborhood across the causeway in Queens. Operated by a team of four women -- Bridget Donahue, Bridget Finn, Colleen Grennan and Erin Somerville, who tend to have jobs at larger galleries and art nonprofits -- Cleopatra’s is nothing if not imaginative.
As is not uncommon with such enterprises, the name was adopted from the previous tenant, a deli (which begs the question), with the faded letters still visible on the awning. The gallery is open primarily on Sundays, and until recently operated a sister space in Berlin; new curatorial projects for Detroit and Warsaw are also on the drawing board.
In the meantime, Cleopatra’s is presenting an exhibition of drawings by Leszek Knaflewski, a founding member of a Polish Neo-Expressionist Punk Art collective from the late 1980s called Kolo Klipsa, or Klips's Circle. The group, five artists in all, made a splash at Documenta XIII in 1987 with an installation of oversized animals, star-trees and gremlins constructed out of dust, mud, ashes, feathers and trash.
In Greenpoint, Knaf, as he is called for short, delineates a world of fairy tales and dreams via works in pencil, crayon and ink, which depict things like walking tables, one-legged moon-headed characters and mice with boats in their bellies. You could describe these pictures as gentle descendants of the more scabrous graphics by fellow Polish artist and playwright Stanislaw Witkiewicz. Prices for the drawings are modest, $1,500-$2,500 -- but hurry, the show closes on May 27, 2012.
For cognoscenti, Knaf’s drawings carry the history of their post-Soviet origins, a time that saw the end of martial law but was gloomy nevertheless. Unlike Neo-Ex in the West, which celebrated the triumph of Capital, in Poland artists like those in Kolo Klipsa turned inward, rejecting both Communist doctrine and Catholic orthodoxy (and the prevailing conceptualism of the underground avant-garde) in favor of notions of inner creativity and freedom. Their art was political precisely because it abandoned politics.
The show at Cleopatra’s, along with the Frieze Art Fair, also brought two young Polish artists to town, Honza Zamojski and Radek Szlaga. The project of these two young men, titled Transatlantic, was presented at Frieze by Warsaw’s Leto Gallery (which also represents Knaf). Part of the work was to take a nine-day trans-Atlantic trip by cargo boat, like legions of earlier immigrants (although perhaps more comfortably), working on handmade books and flags, a newspaper, photos and even cultivating potato plants.
The two artists provided further details of their trip in conversation with Nancy Choi, one of the proprietors of Spare Room, a project space in Bushwick. Their nautical routine included basketball games with the crew, talking about every girl they ever met, and lots of fried food and sleeping. At the interview, sausages, pretzels, pickles and other “Polish” snacks were provided, and Radek passed around his handmade journal.
The day before, Honza had appeared with Uri Aran, an artist who shows with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, at the Museum of Modern Art library to promote Bus, Aran’s new book. A hodgepodge of photographs and drawings, the cryptic publication echoes the artist’s complicated and poetic sculptures, which are arrangements on tables of materials like shredded wheat, dust, wood shavings and false eyelashes.
Honza published and co-edited the book on his own imprint, Morava, which he launched in 2010. Morava has also published a collection of recipes by the Japanese American grandmother of Brooklyn artist David Horvitz, and plans a three-part opus on Kolo Klipsa, whose activity is too little-known outside Poland.
Leszek Knaflewski, “Drawings,” Apr. 27-May 27, 2012, at Cleopatra’s, 110 Meserole Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11222.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.