Erik Sanko with marionette

Erik Sanko with one of his marionettes (all images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

The impetus for the Bushwick Open Studios weekend is the concept of the “open studio.” It’s an opportunity for artists, curators and dealers to visit and talk to artists about their work in their spaces. But this past weekend, 56 Bogart Street served as a microcosm of the new Bushwick, where dealers with commercial galleries and artists with studios were presenting work to the public together, creating a larger event in which artists and dealers were functioning both in concert and at cross purposes at the same time. While everyone seems to agree that the presence of galleries in the neighborhood is a good thing, there were reservations about the galleries arranging their openings and events to “take advantage of” what had in the past been an artist-propelled event.

If you take the L train to Morgan Avenue and get off at the back of the train, 56 Bogart Street is right in front of you when you hit the street. This enhances the feeling that the building is the bridge between the art world of Manhattan and the frenetic activity taking place in Bushwick. The L train regurgitated throngs of (mostly white and middle class) people onto the street in front of the building all day Saturday to participate in what felt like the most expansive community art event I have experienced in New York City.

56 Bogart Street has held artist studios for at least 10 years, and those who pioneered the building did so at a time when the neighborhood felt unsafe and when coming and going was fraught with anxiety, especially for women. The artist studios are primarily on the 2nd and 3rd floors, while the galleries that have recently arrived are mostly on the ground floor. As several artists remarked to me, the presence of the galleries has emboldened the landlord to raise rents on the upper floors.

When I arrived in Bushwick on Saturday morning shortly before noon, it felt as if both the building and its surroundings were still half asleep. I began on the 2nd and 3rd floors, where many doors remained shut, their denizens presumably still asleep after the previous night’s opening activities. Nonetheless, my day started out with several wonderful surprises.

Sculpture by Nathaniel Lieb

A sculpture by Nathaniel Lieb

I walked into a studio that looked more like a thrift shop at first glance; it was the studio of Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, whose company Phantom Limb produced the play 69 Degrees South: The Shackleton Project, about the expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic in 1914, acted out by oversize marionettes crafted by Sanko and operated by puppeteers on stilts. The play was performed at BAM this past season. The marionettes in the corner of the studio caught my attention because I have a modest collection at home, and that began the conversation. I have always been obsessed with the photographs taken by Frank Hurley, Shackleton’s official photographer on the Endurance. Sanko, who is a musician and former member of the Lounge Lizards, inhabits both the worlds of theater and music and more than shares my love of Shackleton.

Next I wandered into the studio of a woman making playful and colorful sculptures. Eileen Weitzman is around my age and looked familiar, even though I didn’t know her. After a short conversation we realized we had both been very involved in Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), an activist organization formed by women artists in the 1980s.

I wandered down the hall following the distinct aroma of popcorn. Twenty years ago I had a plaster cast (a death mask) made of my face. Recently, I set out to have another cast made and spent nearly a month trying to locate the person who had made the original. All I could remember was that his first name was Nathaniel. A few weeks ago I gave up and started a search for someone else to cast my face. Then I walked into a studio at 56 Bogart filled with ephemeral works on paper and small sculptural objects made of the glue from a hot glue gun, and there he was — Nathaniel Lieb.

From there I wandered into the studio of Carol Salmanson. We talked about her antipathy towards Roland Barthes, which was based on a reading of Mythologies. I tried to convince her to give him another chance, this time trying Camera Lucida, a book I’ve returned to many times. How we got onto Roland Barthes in the first place I don’t remember.

Sofa and painting ensemble by Lori Kirkbride

Sofa and painting ensemble by Lori Kirkbride

Artists have long desired to meld art and life together. Such ambitions surfaced strongly in the pre–Soviet Realist days of the Russian Revolution and have been integral to the ambitions of countless designers over the years. California-based artist Jim Isermann has recently explored the artistic enterprise as decor with charm and ingenuity. Seeing a fully upholstered couch and pillows and a wall of resin-coated colorful paintings in the studio of Lori Kirkbride brought this ambition to mind, but it was hard to ignore the production values of the display, which were foregrounded by her presentation as well as by the purely decorative and agreeable nature of her work. It sat in some confused place between the ambitions of Isermann and Crate & Barrel consumerism.

A work by Juan Miguel Palacios

A work by Juan Miguel Palacios

Going downstairs, I encountered another studio mixed in with the galleries of the ground floor. Artist Juan Miguel Palacios, from Madrid, was congenial as he smoked in his studio, which struck me funny because it was once so typical and now seems so quaintly European. His work is physically substantial and photographs incredibly well. Palacios inserts many sheets of partially painted glass into a heavy frame, one behind the other, so that they cohere at a distance into a complete and well-rendered image. Despite the fact that I felt I could spin a theoretically substantive critical discourse around it, I also felt a bit skeptical of work that relies on a gimmick for its realization.

Aside from Palacios, once I was on the ground floor, I was in the domain of the galleries. The mainstay of the 56 Bogart Street building is Momenta Art, an artist-run nonprofit space. It feels like one of the big kids on the block, with a board of directors and a clean, open space. The current show is a solo exhibition by Mark Tribe that uses photographs of lush landscapes found in contemporary video games and a video of a militia training ground in upstate New York to investigate a new relationship to the genre of landscape representation. Tribe has come a long way from the sublime of David Caspar Friedrich and the American Luminist tradition of Frederick Edwin Church or the hyperrealism of Ansel Adams. Rather, he shows us landscape transformed into the murderous sublime — landscape as conquerable terrain, one of the two main ingredients in war (the other being body count). Tribe’s landscapes represent not just the practice field or a hypothetical and virtual battlefield, but a game space that with the slightest shift in gears becomes the quiet landscape of upstate New York.

Photograph by Mark Tribe

Photograph by Mark Tribe (courtesy Momenta Art)

Down the hall is Studio 10. It feels like a big kid too, but for different reasons. Here is a gallery that had an entire season showing serious mid-career artists, opening with the incredible “Man With a Movie Camera” by Perry Bard. The gallery has since hosted several readings and musical evenings and shown Tim Spelios, David Schafer, Adam Simon and a beautiful three-person show of Lisa Sigal, Elana Herzog and Michele Araujo, organized by Araujo. The shows were not emergent, rash and young; they were serious, developed and thoughtful. The current offering is an elegant exhibition put together by gallery owner Larry Greenberg of artists John Avelluto, Mary Carlson, Meg Hitchcock and Audra Wolowiec. Hitchcock’s labor-intensive and beautiful text works stand out, as they create magical lacework of the written word.

Artwork by Meg Hitchcock

Artwork by Meg Hitchcock, at Studio 10

Across the hall the artist Peter Hopkins has created The Bogart Salon. He started his career showing with the much-beloved dealer Colin de Land, who genuinely cared about art and talking to artists, and one hopes that some of de Land’s karma will inhabit this new space. Meenakshi Thirukode was ostensibly filming the “first ever Bollywood Soap Opera about a woman’s journey through the New York art world!” over the weekend, but in three stops at the salon, I never once managed to catch the action. Still, I think de Land would appreciate the idea of Bollywood in Brooklyn, an antidote to James Franco and General Hospital.

On my way into the building the first time, before noon, and on my last run to the bathroom, after 7 pm, when the galleries had closed their doors for the night, Oliver Warden was standing in his “Untitled Box 2.0” (2010). With the stamina of a guard at Buckingham Palace, he remained in his box all day long. Every time a passerby flicked the switch on the box, the external mirror provided for us to admire ourselves momentarily disappeared, and there Warden stood inside, illuminated and dressed in a suit and tie. Very quickly he shut the lights off, reflecting us back to ourselves.

So what did I learn at 56 Bogart Street and during my day-long adventure there? First, there are an awful lot of people who want to be artists — far more than seem likely to garner serious attention or have even a remote chance of making a living at it. This seemed both depressing and optimistic at the same time; it was probably just as true in the 1980s.

Second, when there is a glut of work to look at, craft stands out because there isn’t much of it to be had. And I say this despite the fact that I don’t think craft is a determining factor in whether work is interesting. The art of someone like John O’Reilly (over on Troutman Street) is very noticeable in a context like this, for better or for worse.

Third, there was a collegiality present at Bushwick Open Studios that is largely absent in the art world in general. This makes a certain sense, as artists are trying to engage people and get visitors interested in their work. But it extended beyond the walls of individual studios and spilled over into lunch, where I had a wonderful conversation with three very smart and much younger men who happened to be seated at the table next to me. It reminded a bit of the social transformation of public space created by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park during the exhibition of “The Gates,” where strangers felt completely at ease talking to one another under those flapping swathes of orange.

Oliver Warden, "Untitled Box 2.0"

Oliver Warden, “Untitled Box 2.0” (2010)

Finally, this brings me to an old and tired observation: this event takes place in a neighborhood that is filled with artists because, by and large, they have small incomes and have been forced out of every other neighborhood. However, this neighborhood has other inhabitants. What does it mean to have these communities converge on the same real estate, in a neighborhood where, unlike other formerly gentrified ones, the housing stock is mediocre and industrial activity is still significant?

As Jean Renoir famously remarked, “Everyone has his reasons.” Are artists in Bushwick just hoping to make it across the river, like boat people looking for a better life, or is there a commitment to a different way of undertaking and understanding art making? Some of the same tensions and contradictions mark Bushwick real estate as a potential market for gentrification, because artists have embraced it, even though the real estate market itself has less potential for it. And artists are never responsible for that, even though they know they have a relationship to it, along with a relationship and responsibility to their work.

When the economy crashed, I felt oddly hopeful. I thought that people would reevaluate how they live and their relationships to credit and shopping, to their priorities and the kinds of lifestyles that are possible if one isn’t first and foremost a consumer of junk made by workers who have replaced the ones that once created the American middle class. Occupy Wall Street is an indication that at least some people are rethinking; it’s hard to tell, but Bushwick might be another.

Bushwick Open Studios ran June 1 to 3 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Susan Silas is a visual artist and occasional writer living in Brooklyn.