Lost in a Metro-North commuter train daze, I watched the Wassaic Project pass by the train window without recognizing it. But the giant slingshot and makeshift teepees that decorated the lush green grass next to a towering grain elevator hinted that artists and their ilk may be nearby.
I was on a day-trip art adventure coordinated by Recession Art, an NYC-based organization devoted to emerging artists, to visit both the inventive Wassaic Project arts community to preview what will be seen at its festival this coming weekend, and the Granary private art gallery. With only tenuous clouds blotting a blue sky and the angry heat of summer subdued to a slow burn, it was a beautiful day to explore the contemporary art scene of a more rural part of New York state.
We started at the Granary, which is actually just over the state border in Sharon, Connecticut. Ryan Frank, its Collection Director and Director of Education, led the tour of the private gallery space which houses and exhibits the extensive collections of Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy. The modern, materials-based exterior would have made Bruce Goff proud, but the interior is as pristinely placeless as any Chelsea gallery. (No pictures were allowed within — BOOO! — your imagination will be required below.) Designed by Steven Learner Studio, the L-shape building has several large and small exhibition spaces, with strategic windows diffusing natural light in through the granite and cedar-lined exterior walls.
On the sculpture terrace we were confronted with Eric Fischl’s “Tumbling Woman,” a jolting bronze commemorating those who leaped in desperation from the World Trade Center. The controversial statue was removed from Rockefeller Center after a brief installation, its quiet horror now overlooked by serene tree-covered hills, far from a skyscraper shadow’s reach.
Inside, the current exhibit in the main gallery, Not on Your List and Not Present, was a clamorous storm. While Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism dominate, with beautiful pieces by Agnes Martin and Gary Hume, clashes of the unconventional refuse to let a singular current form. A stunning end wall has three sculptural pieces, Jan Fabre’s “Bath,” Annette Lemieux’s “Comfort Pillow,” and Richard Prince’s “Point Courage,” each offering a statement of form and color. Just when I’d gotten swept up in the intricacies of the layered jewel beetle’s on the Fabre’s bathtub, I suddenly found myself in 1980s Cologne through a small back gallery covered salon-style with works by artists like Dieter Roth, Rebecca Horn, Gerhard Richter and Imi Knoebel. After climbing a staircase lined with cityscapes, I entered a bright flurry of contemporary photography. Sharply real works where the otherworldly lurked included stand outs by Cang Xin, Sabine Hornig and Alec Soth.
We then caravanned over winding roads to Wassaic, New York. The Wassaic Project is located right by the train tracks in what used to be Maxon Mills. In fact, the whole hamlet resembles a town built for a model train set. Yet like many picturesque small towns across the States, Wassaic has suffered economically from a decline in local industry. The Wassaic Project has an ambitious vision for small town sustainability, envisioning art as a way to engage a community through an annual arts festival, artist residencies, and repurposed industrial exhibition space.
The first Wassaic Project Summer Festival was in 2008, and this coming weekend, August 5 to 7, they will exhibit over 80 artists accompanied by 25 musical acts. Co-Founder Bowie Zunino introduced us to the towering, beautifully raw space, where we explored the Wassaic Project Summer Festival exhibit, as well as two guest-curated shows.
Connected to the mill are the decayed remains of a narrow hotel, which curators Ryan Frank of the Granary and Risa Shoup, development director for the Wassaic Project, transformed into Ode Hotel. Each of the seven rooms houses a separate installation resident, and other art creeps along the hallway, reminding me of the invasive sounds that must have seeped through the thin, now paint-peeled walls from the train tracks, mill and restless neighbors.
Unlike most of the Wassaic Project spaces, the old hotel is still in an abandoned state, and the art is equally raw, some of it sprouting from cracks like weeds. The whole Wassaic Project is ideal for installation art, and the works in Ode Hotel make full use of every alcove, playing with, without adhering too much, to its pleasingly creepy vibe.
Moira Kelly has drawn ghostly men that might have once been hotel guests on her room’s walls, and invites visitors to touch the old possessions that naturally inhabit the room. Hairy flowers by Michael Galvin and winding cardboard fans by Ian Trask haunt the ceiling and Tracy Walter-Ferry installed alien creatures that seem to have grown from a shipwreck in a coral reef.
Just outside Ode Hotel, we entered a completely different realm: The Finishers curated by Eric Gleason of Marlborough in Chelsea and artist Ethan Greenbaum. While there were a few site-specific pieces, the majority would not have been out of place in a white walls-environment. It was interesting to see them out of their natural environment, transitory residents of a new hotel.
The rest of the mill’s many stories (I think I counted seven, but I was out of breath at the top and perhaps delirious), is given over to the 2011 Summer Exhibition that is held in conjunction with the Wassaic Project Summer Art Festival. You can really lose yourself climbing up into the reaches of the mill, stumbling upon a labyrinth made of men’s dress shirts or spying an illuminated bird cage in a dark chasm. Rather than the incomplete feeling I often get at eclectic group shows, I really enjoyed not knowing what to expect in each room and welcomed disorientation.
Before climbing the heights of the mill, I got some early vertigo from Ghost of a Dream’s “Remember When Tomorrow Came,” a chamber where mirrors make up the ceiling and floor and used lottery tickets pattern the walls. Although it wasn’t working at the time, I would have loved to ride Sera Clara Creston’s “The Knowhere Machine,” a bike that rotated drawn landscapes in a pulley system.
Ascending up more and more stairs, I encountered installations that skillfully used the natural framing of the mill. Ryan Frank, of the Granary and Ode Hotel, had installed in a staircase a segmented lightbox of a transporting cliff vista. As I’m easily won over by wunderkammers, I was instantly drawn to Jackie Mock’s “The Reliquarium,” which included a cabinet of dirt from all 50 states, a piece of the headstone of the wandering mummy Elmer McCurdy (read his insane post-mortem adventures if you are unfamiliar), and a pigeon found in Greenwich Village, inexplicably wearing a birthday hat. I aspire to have such a collection. Further up the tower, “What Moves You?,” a collaborative project that addresses global issues, had a striking installation on immigration.
Finally, at the very top of the mill, cool air blew in from the windows into a dark, hand-sewn environment that could be from a more unsettling corner of the 1980s American television serial Fraggle Rock. Jeila Gueramian created the installation and it’s accompanied by sound by her husband Scott Anderson. The details of the forest are incredible, and if you get overwhelmed there is even a helpful illuminated guide in a corner to identify the dwelling creatures.
We ended our visit at Luther Barn, a converted livestock auction barn where Wassaic Project residences have studios between the corral fences and give artist talks in the auction ring. I spotted that strange slingshot I’d seen from the train, along with the stick teepees, on the sprawling lawn outside the barn.
Back on the train to Grand Central, buildings soon cluttered over the landscape and trees fell back to concrete. I was left with an impression of the strong sense of community that the Wassaic Project has generated in only a few years. Hopefully their ambitious vision will continue to make Wassaic an unexpected center for contemporary art.
The Wassaic Project Summer Art Festival takes place August 5 to 7 in the scenic town of Wassaic, New York (19 Furnace Bank Road, Wassaic, New York).