This weekend, hundreds of Gowanus artists opened their studios to the public. The industrial canal-front neighborhood teemed with visitors following the balloons and signs that led them from space to space. Inside, artists sold their art in discount bins and straight from the walls. The art ranged wildly in medium and subject matter — from palatable wall paintings to deeply personal investigations of intimacy to dark reflections on claustrophobic societal norms.

At 540 President Street, the massive Brooklyn Art Cluster space was cramped with visitors flooding the hallways and common areas that were turned into exhibition spaces as art overflowed from the small studios. Ella Hepner had tacked her large oil paintings to the walls, attracting waves of viewers who lingered for longer than the quick stops necessitated by the sheer quantity of art on view. Her stunning paintings, which offer glimpses into intimate scenes of everyday life with a focus on the interactions and spaces manufactured by the pandemic, are filled with morphing shadows and faces lacking defined details: Facial features are suggestions that the viewer can project their own thoughts onto, and I found myself wishing I knew what the subjects were thinking.

Some of Hepner’s scenes reflect the extended time she’s spent in Cuba, and others reflect on intimate aspects of her own life: Paintings of her partner, ruffled bed sheets, and a self-portrait of her sunburned body after her first beach visit of the summer adorned her studio walls.

In this pandemic portrait, the matriarch melds into the tablecloth. A painting by Ellas Hepner.

Hepner said she started thinking about the occupation of shared space during lockdown, “because you’re either totally isolated from people or right up against them.” She confronts this thought often in New York, a place where she is forced to be close to people constantly.

“I started to think a lot about the intimacy that comes with that, and how to redefine or desexualize intimacy,” Hepner said. But she doesn’t paint strangers sharing tight spaces on the subway or in crowded restaurants.

“A lot of them are self-portraits or love letters to people in my life,” she added.

In a packed exhibition space on Union Street and Nevins, Sinae Lee showcased a series of work that was extreme in both its minimal composition and its dark subtext. Lee told Hyperallergic that her gilded paintings reflect women’s experiences with pregnancy, but no trace of children could be found in the works on her walls.

Sinae Lee does not show the faces of any of her subjects.

The subjects’ faces are always covered. Some perform acrobatics, and in one particularly striking image, two women face each other with hats covering their eyes, dragging balls and chains as liquid gold drips from their nipples — rewards of their labor that they can neither reap nor see. The paintings are pessimistic, but the series’ golden orbs and clean aesthetic brings them lightness, or perhaps render them even more subversive as their incongruity comes into focus: The series considers the weight of societal pressures to maintain a happy facade in the face of internal struggle.

A striking Sinae Lee painting shows two women’s breast milk seemingly being collected in a pot of gold.

On a side street next to the Gowanus Canal, Doug McNamara’s studio was notably busy as he blared a playlist consisting mainly of The B-52s and sold hand-made prints for $5 and yards of banner prints for $15. McNamara shares the studio with his wife Amy, a novelist and poet. His illustrations read like a Dr. Bronner’s bottle. The text — a mix of nonsense and thought-provoking prose peppered with lines from his wife’s poems — is printed onto a varied assortment of imagery (a cute snake, an adorable ghost, a haunting series of zombie-like women).

Nearby, Steven Solomon had taped his comics to an outdoor window. Like McNamara’s work, the series, titled Speed Paste Robot, placed the artist’s patchwork, referential, and unfiltered inner thoughts on paper. Reading a page and contemplating each drawing is a dense and absorbing process, and although Solomon explained that every comic is full of literary and historical references, they are so impossible to decipher that they become open-ended.

A few blocks away, Manju Shandler had arranged her mixed-media work in a corner of a shared exhibition space on an upper-level floor of an old studio building. She uses sewing and collage to annotate and reimagine the art historical canon, using classical themes to illustrate modern topics.

Using her sewing machine, Shandler, a former costume designer, stitches seams onto the paper of her prints and overlays 19th-century etchings onto the vibrant ink-blotted paper. On canvas works pinned to the walls, Shandler created a series depicting the horoscope. She made “Libra/Lady Justice,” portraying a single figure comprised of sculptures depicting women from Classicism, after the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade as a testament to women’s anger and power.

Manju Shandler, “Libra/Lady Liberty” (2022) (courtesy Manju Shandler)

While many of the studios showcased art that was easy to look at — and acquire — Karen Gibbons’s sculptures were more difficult to imagine in one’s home. The wooden sculptures appeared extremely heavy, a layered and rough paint job lending them depth and gravity. The artist is a yoga teacher and art therapist, which might explain the works’ meditative quality.

Quiet but imposing, Gibbons’s work was a welcome break from Open Studios’s endless visual feast of colorful wall art. Most of the work on view was set at accessible price points, and people strolled through the studios carrying envelopes of pieces they’d purchased earlier in the day. Inside their studios, artists contemplated intimacy, society, and the working of the inner mind to create stunning collections of work. At Gowanus Open Studios, visitors were lucky to catch a glimpse into that process.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.