When I said that visiting artists at work at the Sunset Park Wide Open this weekend felt more human than most art-related things I’d been doing as of late, artist Rives Wiley commiserated with me. “The gallery is just so mean and disconnected to the artist, and you never really know what it’s about,” said Wiley, who recently moved to Sunset Park from Washington, DC. “This is just better for me.”
Wiley, one of dozens of artists participating in Sunset Park’s most recent open studios event, has a cubicle in J&M Studios, which operates 65 studios and is currently at full capacity. She runs a commissions-based business selling portraits, murals, and abstract paintings, and recently designed a trompe l’oeil set for the fashion designer Wiederhoeft. Victorian steampunk models wearing structured neck corsets and larval face masks descend down the fake steps in a video she plays on a laptop. The horror underlying the runway show rhymes with that conveyed by Wiley’s work on canvas, which features scenes of domestic and suburban breakdown.
“During the pandemic, everything was so politically charged. I couldn’t paint anything except a man, a woman, and plants,” Wiley explains, as we stand before the aptly titled “Man Woman Plants” (2021). “I was like, ‘I’m going to make a painting all white, black, some plants, less colors, and buy the most generic stock photos I can find.’ I wanted to go crazy with it and see how I could make this situation wrong — because it is wrong,” she adds. I point out a few features that delight me — the plastic plant plugged into a wall socket, the splattering milk on the tablecloth coffee, the flattened coffee machine — all while repressing an undeniably brewing sense of existential dread.
Next to “Man Woman Plants” is my favorite of Wiley’s works in the room, “Woman Laughing with Salad.” To my observation that it looks like something DALL-E could have generated, she replies, “that’s a very good compliment!”
Populated with a tablet advertising images of work she’s done for hire, a video of her runway design, a painting she’s exhibited in Chelsea, and a wall of prints for sale, her studio is a snapshot of how an artist in 2022 keeps financially afloat. That’s something open studios — as opposed to fairs, galleries, and museums, which are notoriously opaque on the topic — can provide perspective on: the links between art, artists, and the economy.
Another mixed-use building sheltering several studio spaces at 169 54th Street offered a macroeconomic glimpse into how artists literally fit into the broader economy, cohabiting with cabinetmakers; a rat traps and poison manufacturer; stamp-makers; personal protective equipment producers; wood, stone, and metal fabricators; a mail-order cosmetics company; a brownstone doormaker; a granola manufacturer; an ice cream company; and a woman making peanut butter cups (which several artists called “the best peanut butter cups in the world”).
Iliana emilia garcía, who has worked in the building for six and a half years, says it’s the first time it has been included in the Wide Open event. Her studio is a narrow, closet-like space, its walls covered with pinned-up prints, framed watercolors, drawings, and two large canvases. A pretty regular scene — until I register the fact that basically everything in the room is a representation of a chair or chairs.
“I’ve been working on chairs for 20 years —” garcía says, before glancing at the floor and whispering, “— actually, more than 20 years. But that dates me.”
“The chair … holds a lot of things. A lot of memories, too — for me, it’s like home, family, and community. When I see a chair, I wonder if someone just left, or if someone’s coming. There’s a lot of expectation and ambiguity in the object,” she continued. “In the way that we deconstruct our history, I’m deconstructing the chair. That also becomes part of my history.”
Demystifying creative inspiration is one of the chief virtues of seeing artists at work — certainly why so many other artists streamed into small studios like garcía’s, which at one point held almost a dozen curious visitors. At Art Cake, an artists’ space co-founded by Cordy and Ethan Ryman (sons of abstract and conceptual artist Robert Ryman), resident Jim Condron is transparent about how some of his petite, sculptural assemblage works come into being: through close work with artists, critics, and curators, who often supply him with five objects to build his piece.
Currently, Condron is wrestling with objects that writer and artist Lucy Sante gave him. Among those items are a doorknob and a writing tablet. Also part of the piece are the keys of a typewriter that he found in Kingston, where Sante now lives. “I like to transform this stuff,” Condron said. “I try to make [my sculptures] embody the feeling of the person, rather than what they do.”
Sometimes, the history of the objects he collects will determine how they’re refashioned. Condron claims to have the last pair of shoes that the Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan ever wore, as well as her pillow. “Can I let myself interact with these things?” Condron wonders aloud. “Even though I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, there’s a weird kind of, ‘Do I have permission from the person?’”
The most unique participant at the wide open — the place I’d choose to decamp when the apocalypse comes — was MakerSpace NYC, a community space that husband-and-wife team DB Lampman and Scott Van Campen first established in Staten Island. Three and a half years ago, they opened a second location in Sunset Park. To get to MakerSpace, there’s a fair amount of navigation required through empty, concrete warehouse space, so vast that fictional scenes of international white-collar crime flashed through my mind.
For those whose creative practice benefits from variegated tools and equipment, MakerSpace is unparalleled, outfitted with machinery for welding, blacksmithing, woodworking, ceramics, and 3D printing. MakerSpace is so multifunctional that during the early phases of the pandemic, the city involved Lampman in producing personal protective equipment to assuage the shortfall in production. About 250 people currently have memberships at MakerSpace NYC.
Lampman’s own studio is situated in one of two buildings MakerSpace occupies by the waterfront, where she stores several of her sculptural works that she wears on swims in the ocean. An avid open-water swimmer who recently completed a three-mile swim around Hoffman Island, Lampman likes to experiment with interfacing with her environment in new ways. “For a while, I was making these immersive environments,” Lampman says. “At some point in time, it got to the point where, instead of people reacting to being in the environment, I wanted to actually be the environment.”
Spinning around a hanging foam vest decorated with shells and shimmery objects extending out on wiry limbs, Lampman says she’s been inspired by the “sea creature-ness of the sculptural form.” She’s enjoyed “interacting with the water as an environment, and seeing what all these little sparkly things look like in it.”
In each of their ways, the artists I met at Sunset Park — aided by the format of the event — foregrounded their work principally as a process rather than a finished product, refusing to alienate their work from everything ranging from the circumstances of their labor, the rich economic diversity of their neighborhood, past histories, their collaborators, and the environment. Evidently, Sunset Park Wide Open produced fresh opportunities for connection within the community. “I’m thrilled to get to know other artists in the neighborhood,” garcía said, adding that it’s nice to finally know the other artists down the hall and upstairs by name.