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I’m skeptical of crowd-curating and crowd-sourced art-prize voting. I’ve written about it here on Hyperallergic. Still, as the date approached, I found myself really excited about this past weekend’s GO open studios event, organized by the Brooklyn Museum — not because I wanted to vote for who would win a show at the museum (I’m not voting), but because I wanted a chance to meet artists in the neighborhood where I live, Crown Heights.
Despite being the easterly neighbor of the Brooklyn Museum, Crown Heights is not much on the New York City art map. The big Brooklyn art neighborhoods are the ones further north: Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick. This doesn’t mean there isn’t interesting work being made and exhibited in Crown Heights, but for the most part, eyes are focused elsewhere, on neighborhoods where the art hype is a sort of self-perpetuating phenomenon: artists hear that Bushwick is the place to be; they move there; people open galleries; Manhattan takes notice; more artists move there. Eventually, of course, the winds will blow, the artists will drift, and a new Bushwick will spring up elsewhere. In the meantime, however, Bushwick had 241 artists registered for GO (this despite the fact that the massive Bushwick Open Studios took place not too long ago with 500+ registered venues), while Crown Heights had 50 (although where the borders are drawn between Prospect and Crown Heights these days is fairly arbitrary).
I knew from the start that I didn’t have the stamina for even 50 studios (some art critic I am), so I slimmed down my list to those who looked the most interesting, and on Saturday afternoon I set off. I began by walking further east, deeper into Crown Heights than most of the other spots I would visit throughout the weekend, to find an artist listed on the GO website as Engels Engels. As I opened the door to the building, I was greeted by three large, fairly unexciting realist paintings hanging in the entryway. My snobbish art fears got the best of me for a minute. What if everything I saw over the weekend was boring and unadventurous?
Then I climbed the stairs and met Engels.
Engels is an incredibly warm and charming Haitian man with a giddy laugh and wrapped hair that stands about two feet tall on top of his head. When he led me into his studio, I felt like I was hit by a whirlwind of creative energy. The space was an elaborately constructed mess: on one wall, he had plastered photographs of everyone who had come to visit the studio, including Mayor Bloomberg; there were sculptures assembled from found objects; and framed abstract works in which the canvas itself competed with the paint for attention leaned on and alongside easels. You got the sense that Engels’s art was almost a direct translation of whatever was passing through his mind. When asked by a GO volunteer how he starts working, he replied, “Honestly, I don’t have a clue — I just let the work take over.”
I left Engels’s studio galvanized about my decision to stay close to home, and I wandered off in search of my next studio: Eric Wiley. Wiley was holed up in a very small, hot studio room across the way from his apartment, paintings all around him on the walls. The work was a brightly colored mix of realistic portraits; trippy concentric rings of color; pieces that mixed patterns and patches of color with everyday objects — the strongest of what was on view; and a few white canvases. Despite the disparate subject matter, Wiley told me that everything was part of a new series in which he was trying to make the “simplest, shtick-less paintings” that had more heart and depth than his previous work, which he called “instantaneous.” Although the results was mixed, I admired the effort. Plus, this is what open studios are for: seeing work in progress.
My next visit was to Silvestre Preciado, a recent Cooper Union grad who actually wasn’t around. Instead, her boyfriend gave me a very capable tour and overview of his girlfriend’s work. This was also the first stop on my Crown Heights journey where the equivalence of “studio” with “home” became very clear; although Preciado is fortunate enough to have an actual studio room, her work is on display throughout her apartment. I felt a bit intrusive as I stepped around bags and stared at artwork that sat alongside personal photographs.
Preciado’s work exudes something of the just-out-of-art-school vibe: it feels a bit academic and safe. But I really enjoyed her focus on medical imaging and the human body, and a biomorphic wall relief caught my eye. Beneath it, her boyfriend showed me, sitting on the sideboard like opposing paperweights, were bronze casts of a pair of lungs.
From there I moved on to the self-ascribed “Old House,” the residence of Mariano Henestrosa and Rheanna Abbott; I quickly recognized Abbott from a neighborhood coffee shop, where she used to work and where I wrote many a grad school essay. My tour began with Henestrosa’s art: fictional portraits; mini plaster reliefs; imaginative, painted silhouettes; and pages from two in-progress graphic novels. The silhouettes and the comics were my favorites; both drew out his wonderfully expressive and surrealist tendencies.
By contrast, Abbott had a smaller showing, a mix of older abstract pattern paintings and small, clever collages in addition to her newest work: plaster underwear lamps. These were hilariously weird.
The two of them graciously fed me quiche and cookies, and Abbott recommended I visit Erin Gleason, who was in fact the next artist on my list. Gleason’s light-filled apartment was the first place I encountered other visitors, people who seemed to be her friends sitting around and chatting in the living room. Gleason was gregarious, and she did a lot of explaining, as much of her work on view was photographic documentation of performative or participatory projects she’s undertaken. In many ways, open studios privilege the traditional art object — it’s much easier to drop in, looking at painting, print, or sculpture, and leave. It takes more interaction and more time to listen to an artist detail the specifics of a conceptual work, and even then, you don’t get the full picture.
Gleason did have some strikingly intricate drawings on view, two of them representations of walks she took around the Orkney Islands. She took photos of sites she saw on the walks through a magnifying glass and then used the images as the basis for her drawn maps. The works are a form of translation, a process turned into an art object.
On the way in to visit Gleason, I had noticed some classically inoffensive hallway art hanging in the lobby. I snapped a picture of it on the way out as a nice counterpoint to all of the good work I had seen so far.
Next on my itinerary was Travis Iurato, another fairly recent art school grad but with a penchant for folk rather than academia. Iurato had laid out a lot of work, and some pieces were weaker than others, but his best canvases were fantastic. They a conveyed an understanding of the decorative patterns that make so much ancient art appealing and mixed it with the obsessive quality you often find in “outsider” art. Appropriately, Iurato told me he was interested in art that “hits your gut.”
The apartment of Mildred Beltré and Scott Dolan was next, a Crown Heights artist couple. Beltré is also interested in patterns and shapes, although she works back and forth between charged, playful drawings and paper or crocheted objects that are open forms, the outlines of shapes that she still sees as drawings when she mounts them on the wall. Mixed in among her works on view were some of these abstract shapes created not from string or paper but from her own hair — sort of gross, sort of brilliant.
Dolan is primarily a figurative artist who makes comic drawings with a strong narrative bent; he’s been contributing those to Conduit magazine for years. But he also had up a series of small, extremely bright, more abstract pieces, where he loosened his grip on the usual figures and shapes and gave himself “a space to be free of gravity,” he said. I’m not normally one for neon, but there was something incredibly compelling about these paintings.
I buzzed up to Francis Hollenkamp’s apartment at the very end of the day — 6:45 pm — hoping he wouldn’t mind that I had come so late. Luckily, he was happy to have a visitor, and we chatted for a while about his big project, “10,000,” which consists of 10,000 mini green army soldiers aligned in squares of 25. Although I immediately read political implications into the work, Hollenkamp told me that it was actually inspired by thinking about numbers and the difficulty of processing such a high figure as 10,000. “What’s the difference between 100 million and 200 million?” he asked. Unfortunately for GO visitors, “10,000” is currently installed at the Governors Island Art Fair, so all Hollenkamp had at home (besides an adorable cat and the crude beginnings of a new project) was documentation.
I had other plans and less time for studio visiting on Sunday, but I managed to stop into a few places. I was less impressed overall with what I saw on day two, but there were some highlights, including this wall of “random thoughts” paintings, as she calls them, by Nina Meledandri. Meledandri isn’t exactly breaking any new ground with these, and I have a feeling the paintings wouldn’t stand quite as strongly on their own, but there was something mesmerizing about seeing 100 of them mounted together in a grid.
Jonathan Hull lives directly next door to Meledandri, and he makes wonderful collages exclusively from the pages of fine-art auction catalogues. The cut-ups are cheeky and smart. Hull said they were inspired by his time as a security officer at the Metropolitan Museum. “I gave up on going to art school and becoming an old master,” he said, “but I figured I could always slice them up.”
My final stop was the Monti Building on Bergen Street, which as far as I know is one of the only warehouses in the neighborhood that houses extensive artist studios and creative spaces. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by my visit — some studios had closed early (or never even opened as planned), and most of what I saw was firmly average. But Nickola Pottinger stood out, a young artist whose visionary, biomorphic drawings I got happily lost in. Pottinger said she works on the pieces intuitively rather than mapping than out, and you can feel it: they convey a sense of discovery and expansion.
And another artist in the Monti building, Naomi Safran-Hon, had the most interesting process and materials I saw the whole weekend: she starts with photographs, mounts them on canvas, cuts holes in the pieces, and then pushes through cement and lace. Given that interesting contrast, some of the resulting works felt a little lackluster, but others were quite poignant.
I suppose this is where I wrap things up with a big conclusion or lesson that I learned this weekend, but in a way, there wasn’t anything besides what should have already been obvious: there are artists working everywhere, even in more under-the-radar places, and while some are better than others, their creativity is universally encouraging. At the end of it all, I walked back home feeling very tired and happily inspired.
GO Brooklyn Open Studio Weekend was September 8 to 9, 2012.