I’ll admit, it took an assignment -- "I’d like a report about exhibitions in another borough!" declared my editor -- to get me to galleries in Brooklyn. Shocking, I know, shameful even, but it’s the truth. Lucky for me, last weekend the Williamsburg and Greenpoint art scene was hopping, as it is most weekends, or so I gather. So out I went, despite frigid winds and nearly insurmountable snowdrifts, and found myself in good -- and good-looking -- company.
My first stop was Figureworks, a quaint, second-floor gallery that seems to occupy someone’s living room. The gallery was opening with "She Works Hard for the Money," an exhibition of paintings by the Swiss-born artist Claudia Butz, a graduate of the New York Academy of Art. Figureworks specializes in "fine art of the human form," and for this series, Butz painted Amsterdam prostitutes posing like mannequins behind shop-windows. Quiet and sorrowful, her women are rendered in a melancholy palette of deep blues, grays and tans; the canvases are sleepy but sexy, and her stroke is skillful.
To complement her show, the gallery has also hung in the room next door -- the den? -- paintings and drawings by several artists that engage with notions of sex and gender, not to mention the female body. Some are reminiscent of well-known greats, most notably Sigmar Polke and Fernando Botero.
Around the corner, on Roebling Street just south of Metropolitan Avenue, The Front Room -- where Parker Posey was among the visitors, who spilled out the graffitied gallery doors onto the sidewalk -- hosted "An Uncommon Thread," a show of eight artists organized by painters Emma Tapley and Paul Caranicas.
The art is, in a word, thrilling. Visceral and material, the works integrate the organic with the manufactured: mint-green plastics hammered into something like sea glass, glue woven like macramé into tiny 3D models, resins that simulate honeycomb, and flinty, charcoal clay are all used to represent not nature but human innovation -- shopping carts, apartment complexes, highways.
I grabbed a plastic cup of Pernod on the rocks -- ah, a cordial -- and made my way around the crowded room. Mary Early, a D.C. artist who is director of the Hemphill Gallery there, contributed a sculpture Untitled (Arch) built out of glue and beeswax. Arching like a gymnast from the floor to the wall, it appears solid and stable when viewed from the side, but from above reveals a labyrinth of interlocked chambers, reminiscent of honeycomb, that in fact constitute its core: the structure as a whole supports itself based on congeries of independent-yet-interdependent voids.
Against the opposite wall, Leonora Loeb’s Outskirt consists of a row of sea anemone-shaped objects displayed in a glass vitrine. Zoomorphic but artificial, each object is a clay base stuck with metal clips that extend out like attenuated tentacles. From one end of the row to the other, the clips fan out wider and wider, progressively opening up, as if blooming. The cumulative effect is something akin to that of a diorama which documents the evolution of a natural process.
Susan Graham’s Beautiful Ohio occupies a stretch of floor with an assembly of model vehicles, offering an aerial view of a weekend highway jam-up: cars, semis, cabs, trailers are all made of a delicate threading of white substance that reads like porcelain.
Fragile and dainty, the sculptures are made in a way that suggests folkloric traditions of artisanal craft. Graham’s subject is in fact neither romantic nor archaic, however, but rather the epitome of the modern condition: vehicles stuck in city traffic. The juxtaposition is a shock, and this seemingly paradoxical negotiation of the organic and the mechanical may be the "uncommon thread" that runs through the show.
Other noteworthy works include Caroline Burton’s mini-cityscape, whose individual structures are composed of a gallimaufry of mediums including rubber and hydrocal -- one of them is even topped with fur, like a rooftop garden -- and Nancy Cohen’s sculptures: a dolly and a shopping cart made from decaying wood and draped with oozing sheets of what appears to be green sea glass.
In a corner of the gallery, Adelle Lutz -- the designer, actor and former wife of David Byrne -- presents Blond, a chair the color of human skin that has been outfitted with long strands of wool and hair -- a personified manifestation of the meeting between human body and ergonomic fabrication.
Katherine Daniels, who has long specialized in beaded sculptures and paintings, here presents Pearl Bed. The work reads like an exhibition in the butterfly room of the Natural History Museum, with each insect elegantly impaled on a long pin stuck into the wall, mapping the evolution of the species. But Daniels’ display features molecular bunches of pearls instead of butterflies. They surge and sweep across the walls of the two connected galleries in bold loops that almost look like a swarm of bees, comprising a study not in lepidopterology but in human luxury.
Cold and lazy, but committed to my itinerary, I headed to Greenpoint. And good thing I did: ringing in at probably the most exciting of the evening’s events, Allan Nederpelt gallery -- a gargantuan loft space on Freeman Street -- was the victim of an attempted robbery, which took place during its opening for "Rules of Engagement," organized by sometime Artnet Magazine interviewer David Coggins.
No worries, though -- Martin Nederpelt, the gallery’s resident "long-legged Dutchman," saved the day, sensing a young attendee’s mounting agitation just seconds before watching him snatch a small, $1,200 Ridley Howard drawing from the wall and bolt out the door. After some drama, the painting was returned, no damage done -- though the would-be thief spent a night in jail.
Ironically, the exhibition revolves around the notion of "restraint," with the goal of displaying modest artworks in a vast, bare space so that viewers are encouraged to engage with the art slowly and thoughtfully. The eight artists in the show work in various mediums: Ridley Howard contributed a painting, for instance, while Sarah Malakoff is showing digital C-prints and Javier Pinon collages.
But the show’s real message is one of emptiness and alienation. Malakoff’s gaudy images of vacant wood-paneled interiors are not restrained, but they are definitely dysphoric. And in Andrei Roiter’s moody oil paintings, isolated objects -- a pile of bricks, a pup tent, a dilapidated roadside sign -- are clearly abandoned. Works range in price from $1,200 to $8,000.
As the clock struck eight, I hopped back on the subway train towards civilization and Art101, at 101 Grand Street in Williamsburg, to see a new exhibition of paintings by Xanda McCagg. Directed by Ellen Rand, the gallery is a tiny, window-filled space with white walls and clean, white floors. McCagg’s abstract oil paintings -- which feature glorious, sweeping swaths of pigment, a kaleidoscope of colors and varying textures -- are simply breathtaking. Small canvases start at around $350 and the larger works range from $2,400 to $8,000.
Claudia Butz and selected artists, "She Works Hard for the Money," Jan. 14-Mar. 7, 2011, at Figureworks, 168 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, New York, N.Y. 11211
"An Uncommon Thread," Jan. 14-Feb. 6, 2011, at Front Room Gallery, 147 Roebling Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11211
"Rules of Engagement," curated by David Coggins, Jan. 14-Feb. 13, 2011, at Allan Nederpelt, 60 Freeman Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11222
Xanda McCagg, "Paintings," Jan. 14-Feb. 6, 2011, at Art101, 101 Grand Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11211
EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.