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Now that the big summer auctions are over, Art Basel has come and gone, and the media seems to have gotten its fill of the Venice Biennial, the art world is preparing to settle into its habitual post-binge summer stupor. For those of us sticking around New York during these steamy months, I decided to take a look past the flashing lights and bold-faced events that mark the wax and wane of seasons.
Determined to do some digging, I set out this week to check out the DUMBO studios of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation. The program awards seventeen artists free non-residential studio space for one year. It was started in 1991 with the help of an all-star cast of artist advisors including Irving Sandler, Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein and Robert Storr. The group now includes artist Tara Donovan and Brooklyn Rail founder Phong Bui. The selection for each year’s residency program is made by a rotating jury of artists. In addition to the residency program, the foundation runs a working artist hotline and an initiative that grants awards to K-12 art teachers.
This group represented in this year’s Space Program is a diverse crowd of photographers, painters, sculptors and draftsmen. What unifies them is an overwhelming focus on the language of abstraction (though this does not apply to everyone) and a concentration on craft.
Harry Leigh and Gelah Penn carry this torch into the realm of sculpture with a particular sensitivity to space and materials. Anna Kunz’s colorful geometric paintings sprawl themselves across gigantic cheesecloth surfaces and canvasses that refuse to fit within their square confines. Martha Clippinger and Kirk Stoller squeeze beautifully into the cracks between sculpture, installation and painting with wry mirthful nods to predecessors like Richard Tuttle and Blinky Palermo. Works by Ada Bobonis also seem to fall into this category, riffing upon the architectural and the painterly. And as I looked around, I couldn’t help but think of another graduate of the program, painter Katy Moran.
Overall, and at the risk of sounding too general, the show leaves an exciting impression. The focus of this year’s program seems to be specific, if unintentional; an endorsement of those who make things with their own hands, and an emphasis on solid craft. Maybe it’s due to the influence of a nearly all-artist jury, but among this year’s participants there is a strong sense of commitment to process, and a type of work that champions the self-aware, the playful and the confident. It is a hopeful prospect that among certain emerging artists, less is no longer more.
Strikingly, the Sharpe Foundation program seems to place less of an emphasis on networking opportunities than similar residencies offer. Instead, artists rely on themselves and one another to generate buzz. Artist Vince Contarino describes how the Space Program artists encourage one another and share visitors. In opposition to glitz and hype, the focus is not on exposure but on providing artists who couldn’t necessarily afford it enough space to make the work they want, something that is increasingly difficult in New York. I am encouraged to see a group of working artists steadily building their careers in this way.
Sharpe’s Space Program is important because it serves those artists who are making a serious commitment to a career despite the sometimes tedious economic realities of what this involves. I wonder: without more programs like Sharpe’s Space Program, how long can New York sustain these kind of groups?
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