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Bushwick Open Studios

by Emily Nathan
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Looking for New York's latest hip art hot-spot? I hate to tell you this, but you're going to have to cross the East River, plunge deep into Brooklyn -- maybe six or seven stops on the always unreliable L train -- and go to Bushwick. There, you'll find a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of old warehouses teeming with a new population of the art scene’s up-and-comers.

How many artists, you ask? Last weekend, Bushwick Open Studios (BDS) presented 390 art events at over 130 sites, all organized by Chlöe Bass and Laura Braslow of the volunteer association Arts in Bushwick. The bonanza’s handy online map even allowed attendees to search for festivities offering "free refreshments."

Beyond the cornucopia of art happenings, the fest included the BOS Music Festival and the BOS Film Festival, which was organized by Peter Burr under the auspices of Microscope Gallery.

According to artist William Powhida, now widely celebrated for satirical drawings puncturing art-world pretensions, the Bushwick scene’s notable galleries are English Kills, whose stable includes Brent Owens, Andrew Hurst and Andrew Ohanesian; Norte Maar, a nonprofit housed in the apartment of Jason Andrew, who also runs Storefront; Famous Accountants, which has been reviewed by the New York Times; Factory Fresh, which recently exhibited works by street artist Sweet Toof, featured in Banksy's debut film; and the "new kid on the block," Regina Rex -- housed in a huge building chock-full of artists' studios, and run by a collective-in-residence. (It has also been reviewed by the NYT.)

The neighborhood recently welcomed new-media nonprofit Momenta Art, which has moved its home-base from Williamsburg to Bogart Street, just off the L train’s Morgan stop.

Powhida, meanwhile, acted as guest-curator for a serious, even existential show -- no jokes, this time -- at Storefront. Titled “Dunkle Wolke” -- which translates from the German as “dark cloud” -- the exhibition's five artists explore darkness “as a condition of their environment, history [and] politics.” For upcoming shows, Storefront has invited other notable guest curators, including artist Jules de Balincourt and New York City percent-for-art curator Sara Reisman -- a smart move to get on the mainstream map.

In “Dunkle Wolke,” Bill Abdale presents large charcoal drawings of book covers, among them Dostoyevsky’s 1866 melodrama of moral responsibility, Crime and Punishment. Abdale’s delicate treatment of the scars wrought upon the covers by use -- tears and smudges, erasures, creased pages -- suggests that each book has received painstaking attention throughout its history, and embodies the challenge to understand that is presented by any cultural artifact.

“Like a Blind Man” -- Jenny Vogel's series of black-and-white abstractions presumably made by repeatedly photocopying photocopies -- reduces each undecipherable source image to its most basic elements: light and shape. While a blind man might rely on the fundamental textures of things to understand the world around him, an equivalent reduction of visual information fails to communicate.

Björn Meyer-Ebrecht’s four black book covers, which hang on the wall, have been sliced and reassembled into flat, winged forms that suggest an open book in three-dimensional space. Their pages are gone, but their covers boast the names of Modernism’s famed architects: Richard Neutra, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer. The tension they create between flatness and depth recalls the dialogue about concept and execution -- how to give Modernist theory physical form? -- that reflects the zeitgeist of that period. While the works share a sleek, minimalist design, stripped of image and content, they conjure a loaded visual and philosophical history.

Meyer-Ebrecht also has several sculptures in the show: Neo-Plasticist-styled, shelf-like wooden stands, each brandishing a yellowing, soft-cover book, written in German. Subjects include “democratic critique” and Bauhaus patriarch Walter Gropius. The relationship between the theories espoused by the texts and the decorative structures Meyer-Ebrecht has crafted to support them is seemingly paradoxical, and ultimately undermines the authority of both.

Abdale's drawings are $1,400-$1,800; Vogel’s abstractions cost $500 each, and Meyer-Ebrecht's works go for $2,000-$2,400. 

Following Storefront’s opening, the stylish, bespectacled crowd headed to Greenpoint for a Bushwick Open Studios event presented by the Art Book Club at St. Cecilia’s Convent -- an eccentric art space I reviewed in February. The exhibition consisted of three separate shows, each installed on its own floor with its own conceit and curator. While coherence was certainly not the name of the game, there were standout pieces to be sure.

On the second floor, beer flowed -- not freely, but cheaply -- and a performance by Art Book Club’s Gina Beavers, #notmaking meyouthem (2011), drew a crowd. Billed as a “zine-publishing performance. . . using Twitter to tell a story of. . . what the artist does in her studio when she’s not making art” -- à la Mapping the Studio, Bruce Nauman’s self-reflective 2001 performance piece -- Beavers offered viewers a printed set of the instructions she intended to follow. These included sitting at a table with a pencil and sheets of paper, recording observations about the people in the room until she got “bored or tired,” then turning to her iPhone, checking facebook, twitter, email or the New York Times, and taking screen shots as she surfed the net.

After one hour, she connected her iPhone to a printer and printed all the screen shots, assembling them -- along with her “site-specific” writings -- into a zine that she photocopied and distributed to each person in the room: a compelling meta-document of the state of the arts in today’s technology-saturated culture, and a portrait of the artist “at work,” as it were.

The third floor, “Improbable Self: Notes from the Void” was curated by Fran Holstrom, and it explored the idea of the “dislocation of self” -- twins, replacements, mirror images -- that results from the advent of reproductive technologies. In the hallway, Jason Hoelscher offered a mocking parody of the act of self-expression: a narration of his own translation of Guy Debord’s seminal text The Society of the Spectacle with a “rather egregious lisp,” as the cover of his book, The Society of the Spectacle: The Lisp Translation (2009) -- which leans against the wall beneath the recording -- describes it. Paperback editions of the text are for sale on Amazon at $12; the Collector’s Box Set, complete with 5 archival audio books, will be available for $2,000 in July.

Above the landing between the second and third floors, David Scanavino inserted a 2 x 2 ft. square of newspaper pulp -- which looked like still wet, or barely dry, cement -- into the convent's wall. Covered with imprints of fingers and palms, Untitled (New York Post, February 13th, 2010) (2010), bears the marks of its making. That it does not stand out from the wall -- as an art object which has been hung on a completed surface -- but is integrated into the very structure of the building, suggests the presence of an author in the spaces we assume to be anonymous. It is offered at $2,000.

Saturday morning was bright and hot, the perfect weather for an amble through Bushwick on a bike. My first stop was Camel Art Space on Metropolitan Avenue -- written up as one of BOS’ “hub spaces.” I was pleased to discover an exhibition organized by the savvy curator Lauren van Haaften-Schick in the second-floor gallery. ”Get on the Block,” on view through June 12, offers a range of “humorous” responses to what Berlin-based critic Jan Verwoert has termed “the pressure to perform” -- the expectation that cultural producers create “absolute, correct assertions.” Instead of conforming to that pressure, the artists included in the show present works that question the standards by which “success” or “failure” in the art market are traditionally evaluated.

Philadelphia-based Matt Phillips’s bold, geometric paintings seem almost to be rendered according to the rote mathematics of perspective and volume taught in elementary art classes -- but they aren’t quite right. He has distorted and modified the grid as per his artistic preference, proposing a visual negotiation of the “rules” of art with creative license.

Liz Zanis constructs charming miniatures of commonplace objects -- bouquets of flowers, train tickets, tee-shirts -- and quotidian spaces, such as neighborhood streets and a home-office. But her streets are lined with signs that express anxiety and confusion instead of offering authoritative directions -- “I don’t know,” they read -- and the miniature desk, which might represent her studio space, is littered with bits of paper and the detritus of production. Zanis thus injects the behind-the-scenes of her creative process into the art gallery, asserting that an artist’s everyday toil is as much a part of the artwork as the finished product, and exposing the labor of art-making.

Sharing the second floor with the gallery are a number of artists' studios, one occupied by Camel Space gallery director Rob de Oude, who invited me in for a look around. His works are, for the moment, concerned primarily with line. “I was a lousy painter in school,” he admitted, “and I was interested in investigating how on earth to make a line -- quite simply -- straight.”

Like all things, he concluded, the problem could be solved with a formula; so he constructed a four-part ruler that he hangs on the wall -- like a frame around his blank canvas -- and manipulates according to “algorithms,” thereby producing a variety of compositions based on intersecting matrices. Though the rules are stringent, de Oude says he can’t predict what the application of each formula will produce visually; his process therefore allows him to “dive into the unknown.”

On his desk, I noticed a grove of colorful little turrets made from aggregations of dried, leftover oil paint. “I call these Genesis,” he explained; “I was interested in the idea of creation from refuse.”

After years of skimming the films of pigment that accumulated on his palette, de Oude decided one day to re-purpose them, integrating them back into the system of production instead of throwing them away. He sorted them by color and assembled them into eccentric arrangements of hue and texture, using glue to connect the layers, some curled like wood shavings, others smooth and seamless like slicks of oil.

De Oude says his goal is to ultimately “close the circuit” of creation, and to bridge mediums. The idea goes like this: these are sculptures made out of the leftover material from a painting; de Oude is currently photographing them to produce a series which is an artwork in its own right; finally, he intends to make large-scale, detailed paintings from the photographs, bringing the whole process back to its source.

The sculptures are $1,000; paintings that are a little more than a foot square go for $1,500-$1,800, while larger works are $3,500.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email