Galleries

Friday Night Gallery Crawl: Postmasters, Flux Factory, Janet Kurnatowski, Storefront, Grace Exh. Space

by Hrag Vartanian on April 9, 2010

A map showing all five gallery locations, including Postmasters Gallery (far left), Flux Factory (top), Janet Kurnatowski Gallery (center right), Storefront Gallery & Grace Exhibition Space (both bottom right). (click to enlarge)

It was Friday, April 2, and my mission was five gallery openings in one night: Postmasters in Chelsea, Flux Factory in Long Island City, Janet Kurnatowski in Greenpoint, and two Bushwick venues, Storefront Gallery and Grace Exhibition Space. It was an ambitious list to accomplish but my goal was set.

Accompanied by Hyperallergic publisher (and my husband) Veken, we dashed over to Chelsea to start the night. On the way to Postmasters’ Mirror, Mirror we ran into the ubiquitous Zach Cohen who warned us it was already full inside. We walked in and I immediately saw William Powhida chatting with Magdalena Sawon of Postmasters. He had a glazed look in his eye that was probably due to exhaustion caused by last minute preparations for the work he had on display. With his emerging fame comes the stress of constant production, and without studio assistants, Powhida was constantly under the gun. I remember thinking, “I hope he gets a studio assistant soon.”

When I finally spoke to Powhida, he pointed at the drawing “Cosmology Number 1” (2010) that included my photo in a Dungeons & Dragons matrix of character alignments. He had placed me on the Chaotic Neutral axis, safely away from the demigods who game the system (Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch) and across from fellow online pundits (Barry Hoggard, James Wagner) who inhabited a more Lawful region. In the drawing, I look boney, vampiric, and it scared the crap out of me that I was placed between Walter “I think bloggers suck but I write online” Robinson and Elizabeth “X-Initiative is my response to the recession” Dee — I didn’t really want to know what it all meant but I asked Powhida afterwards via tweet & email and I almost wish I hadn’t.

Artists William Powhida and Matthew Langley at Postmasters’ “Mirror, Mirror.” (Click to enlarge)

“You have to be very careful using names in the art world,” he started after telling me that he has a newfound interest in witchcraft. “It’s probably more dangerous than summoning a demon by name, but on several occasions, I’ve made the terrible mistake of summoning the lesser blog demon Hrag Vartanian through the Internets without drawing a restraining circle. Now that I clearly understand his demonic nature, I carry a piece of chalk in case I need to make contact with him about art. I’m sitting inside a circle right now. I may have made him very angry.”

I admit he pissed me off so to get back at him I called Sotheby’s the next day and told them I wanted to sell the one piece by him I own and I made them promise it would go for under $500 and kill his market prices … lesser demon, indeed … MWAAAAHAHAHAHA! Ok, I admit I didn’t do that. I will say though that his work has never looked better and it is a great thing to see an artist hit his stride. There is an aesthetic exuberance in Powhida’s work nowadays that wasn’t there as recent as his Schroeder Romero show last year (nowadays they are Schroeder, Romero & Shredder). At The Writing Is On The Wall exhibition in the spring of 2009, his work appeared monastic and austere. It felt like a rejection of the art world in general, like he was fed up with making pretty things. Today, some of that frustration seems tempered by more positive emotions.

Sawon offered her own take on the “Cosmology … ” piece: “[New Museum director] Lisa Phillips — This quote pisses me off the most, ‘Your drawing was merely a nuisance. We control the conversation,’ NO YOU DON’T!”

I ran into artist Yevgeny Fiks, whose Communist Party USA series was on display. Painted in a social realist manner, they are depictions of the truly marginal in America. Victims of a system that rages against them even when they don’t pose a real threat anymore. They are people who are verbally attacked every night on Fox News as unAmerican. Here they are all framed in a similar way and they come across as minor utopian heroes — lesser utopian heroes, if you will — that represent the power of the human will to forge its own path. They look empowered even though they live well outside the halls of American power.

A view of some of Yevgeny Fiks’ Communist Party USA series at Postmasters (click to enlarge)

I ran into others I knew from other shows and friends who I run into at such things: Erik Sanner, Brent Burket, Olympia Lambert, to name a few. This was a crowd I saw more often online than in person. I spotted Jerry Saltz at the opening and I didn’t want to deal with him considering Powhida had drawn me with my provocative quote about Saltz that I tweeted a while back. I knew he hated that quote. I’m sure it was one of the reasons he de-friended me on Facebook.

A work by MOMO perfectly placed in the chaos of Queens Plaza. (click to enlarge)

I collected Veken and we darted out with Sanner to the E train and ran into Marisa Sage of Like the Spice gallery who showed up to support Jenny Morgan, one of the featured artists in the group show. Flash forward and half an hour later we surfaced in Long Island City, where we immediately came across a large piece by street artist MOMO on an abandoned building at a busy intersection. It was perfectly placed and his geometry worked perfectly in the crazy chaos of that corner that included overhead subway tracks, streets that shot into each other at every angle imaginable and what felt like an endless cluster of quirky industrial buildings. We stopped for a moment to take in the scene and then walked over to Flux Factory for Man Bartlett’s first New York solo show.

Artist Man Barlett talks to a visitor at his Flux Factory show (click to enlarge)

Barlett was at the space and when we arrived he was happy to see us. The place looked clean and a little solemn. Small ink drawings were placed under glass on a table, burned wood pieces hung on the wall, one large drawing was sitting on a drafting table, and another sculptural installation stretched across one wall. There was a constant trickle of people coming in to look at the art and everyone seemed receptive. Bartlett’s work was sparse and controlled. They were equal parts cerebral and emotional, no one side dominated the other. Veken and I shared a can of beer and lingered to see how the work would change. It felt a little religious, but I’m an atheist, what do I know.

A view of Man Bartlett’s Systema Mundi show at Flux Factory. (click to enlarge)

We rushed out after checking our phones to realize time was ticking. After a brief debate about whether walking to Greenpoint from Queen Plaza or taking the G train was a better option — the G can really be THAT bad at times — we rolled the dice with the G and surfaced in Greenpoint 20 minutes later. By the time we arrived at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery the place was packed. It was a star-studded crowd for Ben La Rocco and Craig Olson’s two-person show, Love’s Uncomprehending Smile. Painter Chris Martin was talking to Janet Kurnatowski, who was decked out and looking really fantastic. Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui was darting around the room with a price list. Bui and I spoke briefly. He always shares short insights that help you see the work with a greater clarity. His encyclopedic knowledge of art helps you situate the work in a historical context.

I spoke to the artists and put my foot in my mouth with La Rocco when I admitted I couldn’t tell whose work was whose. La Rocco’s work can be very mercurial and change quickly and being unfamiliar with Olson’s work, well, I felt like an idiot. Claudio La Rocco was floating around and there were other familiar faces from the Brooklyn Rail and the milieu the publication covers extensively. It was the brainiest crowd I’d seen all night.

Looking into Janet Kurnatowski Gallery (click to enlarge)

The place was crowded but the work looked fantastic. La Rocco had started to fashion his frames to suit the paintings and some bulged, others were cut, and some works were odd shapes. Olson’s work was flatter and more linear. Stripes of bright colors zigged and zagged and one giant lemony eye forms appeared again and again. One even had a ring of incense sticks sticking out of it like eyelashes. I asked him if he planned to light it but he said Janet wouldn’t let him. With good reason, it would’ve probably asphyxiated the room full of culturatti.

Walking into a packed Kurnatowski (click to enlarge)

Kurnatowski does some of the smartest painting shows in Brooklyn, maybe even New York. If someone ever writes a book about Brooklyn’s own contribution to early 21st C. abstraction, I’m guessing this gallery would receive its own chapter. There has been so many great shows with dozens of artists (young, old, emerging, established) and they all feel connected by an aesthetic, though no one has been able to put their finger on what it is exactly.

One of Craig Olsen’s lemony eye works. (click to enlarge)

We walked out of Kurnatowski and found a yellow cab in front of the door right as it was letting out a hipster couple ready to join the fray inside the gallery. Bushwick from Greenpoint isn’t straightforward with public transportation so we sacrificed our dollars in the name of convenience and speed.

We exited at Storefront Gallery in Bushwick and immediately said hi to another dozen people who were preventing us from seeing Deborah Brown’s large canvases that used the urban fauna of the neighborhood as their source. A painter with a local studio, Brown’s work has simplified considerably and each work was dominated by one bright color that served as the ground for her artful line.

“I like these, they are more messy than she usually paints,” Veken whispered in my ear. And he was right. The lines felt free and overlapped easily. The matrix of steel fences were overlaid with the jagged loops of barbed wire and undulating vines. They felt modernist, traditional, and abstracted.

Deborah Brown’s large paintings easily fill Storefront Gallery (click to enlarge)

Deborah Brown’s fabulous shoes stuck out at her opening.

Deborah Brown was talking to Idiom Magazine publishers and art bloggers James Wagner and Barry Hoggard at one point and we were all staring at Brown’s fantastic shoes. They looked like they were marbelized. The humor of four gay guys (Veken was among the gawkers) staring at the artist’s shoes was pretty funny. I made sure to speak to gallery director Jason Andrew, he’s just lovely, sculptor Norman Jumblaut, artist Rico Gatson, Amy Lincoln, and Kevin Regan. Only Austin Thomas was not there though I wished she was. She’s a breath of fresh air in any room. Thinking of her I remembered to check out her new show at Ocketopia: a group exhibition at the Lesley Heller Work Space in the Lower East Side.

It was only 9:10 at this point and I only had one show left on my agenda, Rob Andrews’ performance at Grace Exhibition Space, which the invite promised would continue until 11:30 pm. We walked out with Wagner and Hoggard and tried to have dinner together at Roberta’s pizza restaurant down the street but the the host told us there would be an hour wait. We walked out of the establishment and Barry was the first to respond, “Bushwick is over.” He followed up with a tweet to let the art and tech worlds know. We parted ways soon after deciding that we didn’t want to settle for a mediocre meal at someplace like Life Cafe.

A vibrant mural in the Bushwick industrial park (click to enlarge)

Walking towards Grace Exhibition Space we continued our tour of street art and came across murals and pieces that looked familiar from various Flickrstreams I monitor but things I hadn’t yet seen in person. There was one stretch on our way to Grace Exhibition Space that instantly flashed me back to Bushwick of a decade ago as we walked down a block where we encountered wafts of marijuana smoke and sketchy men hanging out in or near cars parked on the street. I remembered how dangerous this whole neighborhood once felt at night and how this was the first time in years that I had felt I had walked into a possibly precarious situation. I didn’t miss that sense of fear that was once always part of nightlife in the neighborhood.

Rob Andrews performance at Grace Exhibition Space ended right before we arrived. (click to enlarge)

We walked into Grace and it was curiously quiet. We immediately saw artist Andrew Ohanesian and others from the English Kills Gallery crew, including Chris Harding and Peter Dobill. Ohanesian broke the news to us, “You just missed the performance.”

“But it’s only 10-ish,” I whined.

“Rob lost his voice,” he said. It turned out that the performance involved a musical serenade that stressed out Andrews’ vocal chords as he repeated a good morning melody. I was told that it was all an attempt to awaken an inanimate object that was spotlit on a small platform in front of the gorgeous windows overlooking Broadway. The space looked great. Recently they must have knocked down the studio that was near the windows. It felt more like the original space back in 2006, or whenever that was, before the makeshift studio was built.

A view of Grace Exhibition Space from the massive windows that overlook the Broadway El. (click to enlarge)

Daniel Aycock and Kathleen Vance of Front Room Gallery arrived after we did and they were just as disappointed as we were. Collectively we all sought solace in beer… it helped. Rob Andrews came out and apologized for ending so soon. It might have been the first time I saw him without a minotaur helmet on. I didn’t recognize him.

The night ended without a bang. We headed home to Williamsburg having covered more geography than one probably should in one night of openings. “What the hell did you do to us,” protested Veken at the end of the night. “It’s all in the name of art,” I told him. I knew I was a little nuts and over ambitious but I wasn’t going to admit it.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zachary-Adam-Cohen/761572845 Zachary Adam Cohen

    Damn this is impressive. And you think I’m ubiquitous?

  • http://newcleanblog.blogspot.com/ Lawrence Swan

    Hrag, you weren’t alone in having trouble distinguishing Ben’s work from Craig’s. I got to the opening early and had time to see how different they are. I became an unofficial guide, because three or four people asked me which was which and I pointed out the differences. I did overhear Janet say she couldn’t tell with a few of them, at first.

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