Sampling Brooklyn, Keeper of Eclectic Flames

If you say art and Brooklyn in the same sentence, you probably mean Williamsburg, which for about a decade has been the only viable alternative to Chelsea as a New York gallery scene. It's also an art neighborhood in the old, un-Chelsea way: artists live, work, kvetch and party there, even when their art commutes to Manhattan.

Not that everything is idyllic. Clubs, bars and latte joints continue to elbow aside the diminishing number of Polish-American shops. Rents are now punishing, with the result that artists and galleries have scattered into neighborhoods like Greenpoint, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook. The borough's public exhibition spaces have always been outside the Williamsburg orbit, and still are. Several of them have joined forces this winter for an ambitious if problematic survey of African art.

A provisional account of this evolving activity will arrive in April with the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Open House: Working in Brooklyn," a historical overview of art produced in the borough since the 1970's. Meanwhile, that history is still in the making, and here's what it looks like — a little of it, anyway — at the start of 2004.

Maybe it's a winter slump, but the Williamsburg gallery situation feels static these days. Flagship commercial spaces like Pierogi, Bellwether and Roebling Hall have been augmented by a clutch of newer arrivals. But the census hasn't changed significantly in a while, and Manhattan remains an all-but-irresistible pull. Bellwether is moving to Chelsea next fall. Roebling Hall has opened a satellite space in SoHo. The successful young sculptor Robert Lazzarini, long represented by Pierogi, recently left the gallery to manage his career on his own.

Actually, one of the recent complaints about Williamsburg is that its art is undistinguishable from that shown across the river. The alternative is no alternative. Yet a difference in atmosphere is undeniable. This is less a function of architecture than of attitude, with Brooklyn continuing to value a degree of financial informality, an aesthetic of process, a we-won't-grow-up sense of community.

As a result, startup ventures are still possible, even if they last only a month. Some of the best art is in the form of events, the most formal of them open video nights at Four Walls; screenings of experimental work at Ocularis; and performances at Galapagos and Parlour Projects, where a video karaoke project with viewer participation is scheduled for February. There is a lingering sense — you get it on the Lower East Side, too — that flames could burn here that would die for want of air in Chelsea's concrete shells.

Williamsburg Solo Shows

Spontaneity and confinement both play roles in one of the odder one-man shows of the season so far, Ward Shelley's "We Have Mice" at Pierogi. This Brooklyn artist gained attention when he and some colleagues built a full-scale live-in version of the Mir space station from plywood and plastic a few years ago. For his current solo he has taken up a month's residence in Pierogi, though it's unlikely you'll see him there: he is living in passageways behind and between the walls.

He has equipped these tight quarters with a computer station, a work table, a bed and an enclosed overhead bridge to the gallery's bathroom. He spends most of his time on the premises making art. Video monitors in the gallery carry live feeds of his activities; new work keeps showing up behind little doors in the walls.

There are plenty of precedents for Mr. Shelley's self-immurement. Vito Acconci and Chris Burden come immediately to mind, though the obsessiveness and masochism that marked their work have little to do with his. "We Have Mice" is basically a wacky fantasy about how the average artist can keep working and living in a city priced way beyond his means by taking the irrepressible urban rodent as a model. And like a mouse, Mr. Shelley leaves his burrow periodically, usually at night, "to forage for food, materials and mating opportunities."

Other solo shows also involve environments, though less encompassing ones. For her New York debut at the recently opened Monya Rowe Gallery, the young Argentinian-born artist Gabriela Micchia has assembled a grottolike garden, replete with a waterfall, from potted plants. Visitors can join her there for a cup of matι on Sunday afternoons and examine her sweet, small collage-paintings made with moving parts.

Thornier strains of whimsicality run through shows by Kimberley Hart at Bellwether and Rosemarie Fiore at Plus Ultra. Ms. Hart looks at conventions of gender through memories of her own childhood as a committed tomboy who had more interest in the Daytona 500 than in Barbie. Her installation plays havoc with the stuff of prepubescent feminine dreams: a life-size stuffed-doll horse lies on the floor as if dead; an assortment of frilly sachets serve as pedestals for toy race cars.

Ms. Fiore's environments take the miniaturist form of ceramic tabletop sculptures based on the classic cartoon saga of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. The stories turned on a recurrent plot device: in every episode the coyote invents fantastically complicated traps to catch his prey, only to have the Roadrunner avoid them at the last second. In Ms. Fiore's brightly painted sculptures the coyote gets his revenge as his nemesis is squashed, stabbed, throttled and blown to bits. Whether you take the sculptures as confectionary jokes or as comments on pop cultural aggression, they're funky and neat.

That said, the shows at Rowe, Bellwether and Plus Ultra are all afflicted — Ms. Fiore's least — with a cuteness factor that is proving to be the Achilles' heel, or one of them, of the New Craftsiness. The same was true in the 1980's, when childhood and adolescence first became both a theme and an attitudinal pose for artists. Neo-Conceptualism, newly emergent at the time, toughed things up a little, and still can.

You can see the corrective dynamic in action in two solo shows at Priska C. Juschka Fine Art. Debra Hampton's paintings of vaguely floral forms, executed in blown and dripped paint, have an urbane, all-of-a-piece prettiness favored of late. By contrast, Lucas Ajemian's installation of videos, sculptures and photographic images seems diffuse and eclectic. Yet its texture is unsettled enough to be intriguing, and it sharpens into focus with a display of magazine pages on which the artist has drawn turnstiles and revolving doors so that every image — Prada models, a picturesque mosque, a battle scene — is about detainment and restriction, an apposite idea delivered with a light, clean touch.

Not all the concept-based art is effective. Kenn Bass's video and sculpture installation at Roebling Hall is too intricate in its information and spare in its visual means to be as alluring as it seems to want to be. On the other hand, Liselot van der Heijden's two-video installation at Schroeder Romero, no less rich in ideas, goes right for the gut. The artist made both films in Africa. One is a continuous, looped shot of the head of a dying zebra, facing directly into the camera. In the other a flock of vultures tear apart a corpse — whether of the zebra or some other animal, we don't know — as words appear on the screen: "this is not political," "this has nothing to do with oil."

I don't know exactly what Ms. van der Heijden is getting at, but hers was the only piece I encountered on this gallery tour that had stayed with me by the end of a long day.

Williamsburg Group Shows

In January, as in July, group shows abound. Williamsburg has its share, most of them at galleries fairly recently opened. Champion Fine Art was established last fall by Drew Heitzler (an artist) and Flora Wiegmann (a dancer) specifically to present a series of 20 exhibitions with artists as curators. The third in the sequence, "No. 18," is the work of Allyson Vieira, and she has done a nice job.

Of the three artists, Macrae Semans has a big assemblage-style sculpture involving a deconstructed futon and baskets, and Molly Welch has a site-specific piece that suggests a cracked Minimalism. Alex Kwartler's paintings, which have the stylistic variety of a group show, knit together references to Modernism, Romanticism and Pop with a purposeful nonchalance that is one of the most attractive features of new art today.

The curator of Champion's inaugural offering last fall, Reed Anderson, is also responsible for "On a Wave," a show at Jessica Murray Projects that takes its title take from Thad Ziolkowski's coming-of-age surfer memoir. The theme gets a clever workout in a surfboardish sculpture by Vincent Szarek and a sand-sprinkled one by Rosy Keyser, in Chris Gentile's photograph of a living room tsunami, super-eight videos by Mr. Heitzler and an elaborate, mandalalike California-dreaming collage by Mr. Anderson himself. Brady Dollarhide's "Never Forever" has no surfer connection that I could detect, but it's such a good painting it doesn't matter.

Midcareer artists make splashes elsewhere. The Finnish photographer Jaako Heikkila, in his New York debut, delivers a fine exhibition at Sideshow. At Parker's Box, John Bjerklie and Matt Blackwell, longtime Williamsburgians, have ignited a kind of painting-sculpture explosion with help from a young artist, Andrew James. And Jack the Pelican Presents, after a memorable David Shapiro solo, brings together work by four women whose careers have been in forward motion since at least the early 1980's.

In that show, "Wry Material," Margaret Evangeline contributes a set of classy abstract reliefs created with sheets of stainless steel and a shotgun. Samm Kunce moves Earth Art into the gallery and lets it grow. Fariba Hajamadi photographs images of war and everyday life reflected in droplets of raw petroleum. Elana Herzog, in three 2001 pieces, unravels the fabric of patterned bedspreads thread by thread, leaving whatever remains intact attached to the wall with thousands of staples. Altogether, the work is formally direct and art-historically trenchant; it makes much of what's happening elsewhere look tentative.

A show of drawings introducing several young artists opens today at one of the best young Brooklyn galleries, Southfirst. The senior presence is Lemi Ghariokwu, the Nigerian artist who created the fabulous cover art for many of Fela Kuti's albums. He is surrounded by estimable junior contemporaries from New York, some of them familiar from Chelsea. Peter Coffin, for example, has shown at Andrew Kreps. Sterling Ruby has a solo at Foxy Production. Nick Mauss, with the best work of all, is in "The New Romantics" at Greene Naftali, though he looks even better here.

Beth Brideau has the largest piece, an impressionistic watercolor derived from a photograph taken from a plane. Other newcomers include Benjamin Cottam (with thumbnail portraits of deceased artists), Mari Eastman (an underwear design in the form of a bat), Corinne Jones (pictures of stalactites), Yuh-Shioh Wong (watercolor collages), Joshua W. F. Thomson (an update on Goya), Tucker Nichols (text paintings and Japanese-y flowers) and Hrafnhildur Arnardottir (drawings of big hair).

The art-and-music collective LoVid breaks the works-on-paper barrier with a video image incised on a ceramic tile, and Eduardo Santiere, who is based in Madison, Wis., gracefully messes up formal distinctions by using a needle to scratch a paper surface into all-but-invisible sculptural relief.

One Southfirst participant, Ms. Wong, is also in "The Neon Forest Is My Home" at *sixtyseven, where paintings by Anke Sievers and Jeana Baumgardner and minute cutout sculptures by Satoru Eguchi stand out. For size and variety, though, no exhibition matches "Kult K48 Klubhouse," an art-collective extravaganza overseen by Scott Hug and installed at Deitch Project's cavernous Brooklyn outpost.

In addition to providing a mazelike sequence of cubicles jammed with work by dozens of artists, the gallery serves as a performance space for bands, a hangout and a think tank — it's an artist community within Williamsburg's wider artist community. The show is scheduled to close, after an extended run, this weekend, but I suggest that Deitch Projects just hand over the keys to Mr. Hug and let the Klubhouse stay open, like, forever.


At Naked Duck Gallery, one of a handful of modest-size spaces in Greenpoint, an art-music link is the focus of a show organized by Marc Gartman, a musician and filmmaker. It includes work by five artists who are also members of indie jazz and rock groups.

Rob Mazurek, a cornetist and composer and a founder of Chicago Underground Ensembles, contributes color prints of his own abstract paintings. Bill Callahan, singer-guitarist of Smog, draws and paints Jesus-like men with big eyes, though the best piece is a picture of a vermilion chair in a room. The Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner has a thing for cars, which he paints with expressionistic generosity.

Ida Pearle, a violinist for Magnetic Fields, Low and her own band, Ida, makes cut-paper collages suitable for children's books and for her album covers. Finally, Zak Sally, Low's bassist, is an expert comics artist. A sequence of some four dozen original drawings is on view, along with prints and a cool, weird self-published zine. Mr. Gartman's search for art by musicians proved so fruitful that he has enough material for several shows, of which this is the first.

Elsewhere, the artist-run Vertexlist has opened with a solo show by the new-media artist Joe McKay. A kind of electronic fun-fair, it includes a wide-screen voice-activated video Ping-Pong game and a motorized version of a paleo-Macintosh screen icon, sure to have geek appeal. Of most interest, though, is an online database of clips produced by digital camera users who accidentally used movie mode when they meant to take still pictures of family and friends. The results have the unflattering awkwardness of old-time candid snapshots and are just as funny and touching.


Such snapshots now have a gallery of their own in Brooklyn's Dumbo section, where M. F. Adams opened in September. The gallery is devoted entirely to what is sometimes called vernacular photography, the sort that accumulates in drawers and attics and ends up for sale at church fairs. Giving such material full commercial gallery treatment may sound like a stretch, but the current show, "Objects of Pride: Houses, Cars and Pets," is genuinely engaging, for formal, historical and sentimental reasons.

Selected, framed and hung on a white wall, images that might look like nothing in another context assume a real presence, with their hints of unknown lives and untold narratives. If you need proof of how socio-politically loaded such snapshots can be, pay a visit to the International Center of Photography's great maelstrom of an exhibition, "Only Skin Deep." If you want to feel the individual picture as a shock of private, frozen time, check out M. F. Adams.

While in the neighborhood — which seems to be losing rather than gaining galleries — drop by Dumbo Arts Center for "Home," a solid group show organized by Bruce Brown, curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. The 16 artists are a New England-New York mix.

Diana Cherbuiliez, for example, formerly of Brooklyn, now of Vinalhaven, Me., contributes a sculptural Tower of Babel made of crossword puzzles from The New York Times Magazine. But here and there a distinctly Down East spirit of place emerges: in David McQueen's tiny mechanized snowscape; in Pia Walker's sweater made of burdock burrs; in John Bisbee's hallucinatory, rapid-fire video; and, most insistently, in Melonie Bennett's devastatingly candid family photographs.

Brooklyn Heights

A short walk away, in Brooklyn Heights, Rotunda Gallery has one of its series of exhibitions introducing young curators. The choice in this case is Katarina Wong, a New Yorker with graduate degrees in art and Buddhist studies. And her show, titled "A Slow Read," considers various time-release techniques that art uses to reveal itself.

Paintings dense with incident, like those by Carey Maxon and Alex O'Neal, take time to sort out visually, while the images in drawings by James Nelson and in the inky paintings of Stephen B. Nguyen are so abstract or delicately executed as to be hard to see. In some cases, subjects elude identification, as in Elizabeth Fleming's close-up photographs of household dust. In others, sleight-of-hand manipulation of material holds the eye: Adam Henry's ingenious architectural collages work this way.

"A Slow Read" is Ms. Wong's first show anywhere. She has a sharp if not faultless eye and a subtle way with an idea. They could take her far in the future.

'Kenya Art'

Far into Brooklyn is where "Kenya Art" takes an art-trekker set on visiting all five of its widely spaced sites. Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, the project was organized by a pair of Kenyan curators, Judy Ogana and Carol Lees, drawing heavily on two sources in Nairobi, the private Gallery Watatu and the Kuona Trust Art Studio, near the National Gallery.

It should be said right away that like many survey-style shows of contemporary art from Africa, this one is rife with problems, art-historical and aesthetic. Its choice of artists is chronologically circumscribed and leaves out many influential figures going back to the Modernist pioneers of the 1950's and 60's. And in an exoticizing definition of "contemporary art," it heavily favors self-taught painters of village scenes. Little overtly political work is included; a single comic strip drawn by Frank Odoi suggests a vast resource left untapped. There is no work in experimental media. In what is best considered a highly selective "personal choice" show, the lessons taught by recent exhibitions like "The Short Century," seen last year at P.S. 1, are ignored.

But by the same token, Kenya, and East Africa as a whole, have been all but ignored by Western institutions, so "Kenya Art" is at least turning its sights in the right direction, and it has brought together a lot to look at and think about. Much of the work on paper, which makes up a substantial portion of the show, is at the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch (Mr. Odoi's work is here) and at Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook. The library's lobby display is big and rambling; individual pieces — including polished work by Joel Oswaggo and beautiful paintings by E. M. Kuria and Alan Githuka — are seen to better advantage in Kentler's concentrated quarters.

Welancora Gallery, housed on two floors of a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone, and a real find, has large-scale paintings, including a politically inflected allegorical piece by Sebastian Kiarie. And among the paintings at Salena Gallery at Long Island University is a delightful piece by Richard Onyango, part of a long series documenting his relationship with a white woman.

The most persuasive installation is at Five Myles in Crown Heights; the gallery's director, Hanne Tierney, initiated the project. Pictures by Peter Ngugi and Meek Gichugu share the antic flair and polish of European Surrealism. A brightly colored stop-sign of a painting by Michael Soi is one of the show's handful of abstract works. A collage by Rosemary Karuga, one of the show's few women, is composed in part of clips of 57th Street gallery listings, making a Kenya-New York connection concrete.

Despite its shortcomings, "Kenya Art," with its bright colors and accessible figurative style, should prove to be a public draw. And that it has been made available to a public at all is remarkable. It's hard to imagine five Manhattan institutions lending their time and space to a comparable project. But Brooklyn, short on resources and generous with art-frontier spirit, has done so. More power to it.

- tom moody 1-23-2004 9:06 pm

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