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by Mary Rinebold
On Orchard Street on New York’s legendary Lower East Side, surrounded by 100-year-old tenement buildings long home to tailors, cut-rate men’s-wear outlets and Chinese manufacturers (and now trendy boutiques), sits Miguel Abreu Gallery. With its off-white exterior and shelves of books across its two storefront windows, Abreu is one of several contemporary galleries and art projects finding a home in the newly subversive art scene below Delancey Street.

Among them are Orchard, an 11-person, artist-run collective gallery (including artists Andrea Fraser and Gareth James) located at 47 Orchard Street (Abreu is at 36 Orchard), and Scorched Earth, a monthly magazine produced by Gareth James, Cheyney Thompson and Sam Lewitt that is headquartered around the corner at 41 Ludlow Street. Reena Spaulings Gallery is nearby (moving from Grand to 165 East Broadway), and Maccarone has been on Canal, though the gallery is now on its way out of the neighborhood, a factor that only emphasizes the area’s subversively contingent nature. Also nearby on Rivington Street is the nonprofit space Participant Inc.

Abreu’s gallery has a classically intellectual aura that is perhaps best defined by his affection for the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet. Abreu inaugurated the gallery in March 2006 with an exhibition of arguably poststructuralist paintings by Blake Rayne, presented along with screenings of Straub and Huillet films, including The Death of Empedocles (1987) and Cézanne (1989). "Everything I want to do was in that show," Abreu said in a recent conversation, noting that his curatorial approach is inspired by the layered dependency of images within a single film scene, a style that characterizes Straub’s and Huillet’s works.

To enrich the texture a bit more, Abreu distributed copies of "Straub, Hölderlin, Cézanne," the essay (with English translation) on Straub’s and Huillet’s work by Dominique Païni. According to Abreu, he was seeking to reinforce links between the geometric figures in Rayne’s work and the influence of Cézanne. In a stylish letterform press release for the show, Abreu called this layering of historical and contemporary figures a "distant confrontation with the masters." 

Abreu’s summer show, "Hands Up/Hands Down," July 11-Aug. 20, 2006, borrowed its title from a 1969 photographic work by Vito Acconci, in which the celebrated Body Artist took two black-and-white photos in the woods -- a kind of Postminimalist pastoral -- according to the blunt instructions to point his hands down and point his hands up. As an investigation of the ways in which the body functions in the manufacture of images, the show ranged from Scott Lyall’s hard-edge abstractions with their organic, real-world traces, to Pieter Schoolwerth’s cartoonish distortions of the painterly narrative. Other artists in the exhibition were Matt Bakkom, Sam Lewitt, Jimmy Raskin, Raha Raissnia and Paul Pagk.

Abreu’s interest in film dovetails with his experience as a filmmaker. Starting with the biopic Mark Kostabi: The Kostabi Phenomenon 1989-90, Abreu went on to produce numerous films during the ‘90s, and also completed an MFA in film and video at Cal Arts. Along with Tim Nye, Abreu also established the nonprofit Thread Waxing Space in Soho, and in 2002, the pair set up Foundation 20 21, a multidisciplinary art collecting organization, and Vestry Arts, a gallery space located in the National Arts Club.

Next up at Abreu, opening Sept. 10, 2006, is the first solo exhibition in New York by the Toronto-based Lyall (b. 1964). Lyall has gained an estimable reputation for works that make intricate and sophisticated reference to representation and abstraction with recent shows at Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto and in "When Hangover Becomes Form," the dissolutely witty collaborative installation he made this summer with Rachel Harrison at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. Coming up in November at Abreu is an exhibition of works by Raha Raissnia.

Abreu seems determined to remain rigorous, maintaining his gallery as a locus for esoteric historical and contemporary investigations within the very real context of a commercial exhibition space. It is, as he intends, a series of layered images, a cinematic experience whose story continues to unfold.

MARY RINEBOLD is a curator and writer based in New York.