Works by Jim Torok, Susan Hamburger, (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Works by Jim Torok, Susan Hamburger, Ann Pibal, and others occupy one wall at Pierogi Gallery’s Unhinged show. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pierogi Gallery’s Flat Files have an almost fabled status in Brooklyn’s contemporary art scene. Started 18 years ago with 20 artists, the Flat Files have developed as a type of breeding ground for artistic talents and a place where collectors, curators, and others can dip into with ease. Through the years, the Flat Files, which are indeed stored in a flat file cabinet at the Williamsburg gallery, have been a barometer of the area’s art scenes and roughly 750 artists are currently represented in the collection.

Since the vast majority of works are priced under $2,000, many artists who were once staples of the evolving collection (including Amy Sillman, Fred Tomaselli, James Siena, Thomas Nozkowski, and Lawrence Weiner) have graduated to a higher price point that makes their inclusion in the Flat Files nearly impossible.

Pierogi co-owner Joe Amrhein spoke to Hyperallergic about the impetus for the Flat Files, which began during the gallery’s early days. “We first thought of it as a resource for people in the neighborhood,” he says. “It grew into the idea of traveling, we traveled the files. And the idea of that was to break down this barrier of inaccessibility of work and have this class context that you could never acquire art work because it was too expensive and you don’t know what you’re doing. So, it was opening this door to people to collect art on a different level.”

Amrhein showing off the intricate small boxed works by Charmaine Wheatley.

The discussion about the origins of the Flat Files idea sounds remarkably similar to the origin stories of many online art sales services, such as Artsy, Artspace or the now defunct 20×200, all of which trumpet their “democraticizing” of the art buying process. Making art available to a wider public is something the art community has always longed to do, even if not always successfully.

“When Susan [Swenson] and I first started the gallery, we were really involved in just creating a dialogue with other artists,” Amrhein says. “It was a climate like today with the economy really low and people were not buying art work, so it was just a way to be yourself and to be engaged in a proactive effort to be involved in the art world. It was a place — not really a gallery — but a place for artists to gather and talk and the Files were a great way to develop that and they still are but they have never really been a big money maker. It takes a lot of effort and work to maintain the files, though we do sell a lot of work out of the files.”

As a credit to Amrhein and his commitment to the collect, the gallerist still sees 4–5 new potential artists every week, all of whom he considers for inclusion into the Flat Files. Artists already included also regularly come to update their files. This e living and breathing archive is now on display at the gallery on North 9th Street and they certainly make a big visual impression. There’s a strong propensity for linear work and highly detailed imagery in a lot of the work on display.

“A lot of curators come in sometimes and they’ll fill out a show with artists they may not know or collectors from out of state or from a different country come to see different things,” he says.

The current show, which brings together works from 250 artists, is a visual feast that includes artists as varied as Dawn Clements, Ryan McGinness, William Powhida, Tom Burckhardt, Summer Wheat, Tony Fitzpatrick, and Mike Ballou.

Unhinged continues at Pierogi (177 North 9th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) continues until July 28.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.