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An Elegant Swansong at Brooklyn’s NURTUREart

After 22 years of activity, the gallery bids goodbye with (Im)perfection, an exhibition that perfectly embodies its spirit and mission.

Right: Donna Cleary’s “Hybrid 1 Holobiant” (2019), yarn, up-cycled plastic shopping bags, 30 x 28 x 17 inches. From the exhibition (Im)perfection at NURTUREart (All photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted otherwise)

The art community in Brooklyn, New York is lamenting the imminent loss of veteran Bushwick-based nonprofit gallery NURTUREart. After a long period of financial precarity, drained funds have finally forced the gallery to begin closing its doors after 22 years of activity in various locations around the city. The gallery’s current exhibition, ending on June 30, will be its last.

(Im)perfection, a group exhibition featuring six artists at different stages of their careers, is a fitting swan song as it embodies the spirit and mission NURTUREart has come to be known for and explains the esteem this small gallery has earned from the community. This embodiment stretches beyond the artworks exhibited in (Im)perfection to the show’s curatorial approach itself. All the works were selected by students from Juan Morel Campos High School in Williamsburg, under the mentorship of curator Simone Couto. It’s the last iteration of NURTUREart’s decade-long initiative Project Curate, an education program that trains a class of high school students in curatorial practice. Each year, selected students attend workshops and lectures, conduct studio visits, write curatorial statements and press materials, and even install artworks in the gallery for openings. Several students, the gallery says, have gone on to become artists themselves.

This last exhibition investigates notions of perfection — the daunting and futile search for it, and the acceptance of its absence. It is a theme that befits the struggles of the artists included, as well as those of its adolescent curators. The participating artists were chosen from a pool of entries in response to an open call issued by the students. Their artworks offer a sobering but ultimately optimistic message to visitors: life is little more than a long sequence of sufferings, riddled with malaise, loss, angst, and the inevitable atrophy of the body and mind. And yet, wholeness can still be found in imperfection.

(Im)perfection, installation view

This message is acutely conveyed in Jason Rondinelli’s installation “Genet’s Bed” (2017), wherein two rotting cabbages suspended in netted shopping bags ooze their malodorous juices into pipes that drain into ceramic bowls brimming with balms and salves. A layered wall fragment flanking the construction absorbs the cabbage juice as well. The foul odor fills the gallery’s space, especially on hot days. In this work, Rondinelli recalls a hallucinatory moment during his recovery from invasive surgery, when he saw the walls of his house become stained with ointments and salves before cracking open to reveal the pipework inside. Cabbages are replaced once they dry out, and the cycle of decomposition begins again.

Themes of disintegration continue in Jon Verney’s “Birthday” (2019,) which features the scorched image of what appears to have been a perfectly happy birthday party. Verney has actively dissolved the emulsion of a found birthday celebration photograph and frozen the chemical process in resin before it consumed the entire image. The birthday cake at the center of the photo, and the hand slicing it with a kitchen knife are the only parts rescued from the acid abstraction. The memory is damaged and eroded, but not completely lost.

Winnie van der Rijn’s Memories (2019) is comprised of a series of shell-like wire armature sculptures dressed in knit fabric evoke shells or ossified remains. The sculptures gain an added dimension with the shadow they cast on the wall, which suggests an echo or an afterlife for the hollow and decayed bodies.

Jon Verney, “Birthday” (2019), archival pigment print, 42 x 43 inches, (courtesy the artist and NURTUREart)
Winnie van der Rijn, Memories (2019), knit fabric with wire armature, 15 x 10 x 10 and 20 x 11 x 11 inches

Similarly, Donna Cleary’s “Hybrid 1 Holobiont” (2019,) presents an intricately knotted organ blooming out of mannequin legs and pouring sideways on the floor. Cleary, who’s also an herbalist, pays tribute to “our holobiont selves,” as the students’s press release puts it, referring to the theory that the human body lives its life in constant negotiation with symbiotic species of bacteria and viruses in and around it.

The relationship between humans and the environment turns somber in Jude Griebel’s sculpture “Washout” (2015) which depicts a catastrophic scene of a small town destroyed by a landslide, melded into a sickly and curmudgeonly human face. Call it a statement on climate change or a reflection on self-harm.

Lastly, Kate Donnelly’s video work “(Un)settling” (2018,) set inside a cardboard box, alternates between the artist and her avatar doll in various states of discomfort. “I just can’t get comfortable,” the artist pronounces while questioning the ideal of happiness in an unstable and unsettling world.

Jude Griebel, “Washout” (2015), resin, wood, plastics, oil, 11 x 14.5 x 5 inches

It’s hard not to think of the exhibition as a metaphor for NURTUREart’s travails. The gallery’s financial woes have been building over the past three years. “We have been fortunate to have consistent funding from major government and private foundation grants, but we have hit a glass ceiling where there is just only so much money out there for small organizations like ours,” said Ivan Gilbert, the gallery’s Interim Managing Director, in a conversation with Hyperallergic.

Gilbert assumed his position in this past February during a torrid time for the gallery: previous executive director Will Penrose had to leave the gallery for family reasons, and its annual benefit, which provides for much of its budget, had yielded disappointing results.

“We have found ourselves without the funds to make new hires or maintain current staff as it exists today,” Gilbert said. “Concurrently, our operating expenses have been rising every year, including annual rent increases, to the point [where] it has put a strain on our already minimal operational budget. Over time these trends have depleted our unrestricted reserves to critical levels.” This untenable cycle of precarity led the gallery to the conclusion that the best course of action to preserve its legacy was to put its remaining resources into concluding its scheduled exhibitions and events program, and archiving its previous ones. Once this work is completed, the curtains will be drawn.

“Our space and programs will be missed,” Gilbert concluded, “but I know NURTUREart will be remembered fondly and many of the relationships formed will continue.”

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