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“Willliamsburg Without the Fluff”

Opinions vary; ether it’s over, done, dead, soooo last millennium, or it’s vibrant, challenging, a great place to experiment, push the envelope, take your shot at the “big leagues”.  In many cases declarations like the former, are delivered with rolled eyes, smug sneers or raised brows, made by blabbermouths who, though not openly admitting it, got their ignominious beginnings within the Williamsburg community. 

When I was approached to write yet another Williamsburg over-view essay (seems I’ve written this at least five times since 1997) I decided to cut the crap scrap off the fluff and tell it like it is.  Williamsburg is Williamsburg, a neighborhood in transition, a real estate developer’s dream, a place under incredible pressure brought on by its own success, a boom town with oblivious crowds mining for that last nugget, a place where “fucked up shit happens”, where careerist goals and opportunist ambitions twist relationships like pretzels and still, occasionally, magic. 

Welcome to Williamsburg 2.0.  So what’s new?

Like the terrible mixed metaphors of the proverbial blind man and elephant (if you can’t see the big picture it’s a totally different critter depending on whether you’re touching the trunk, the leg or the tail), and “you don’t want to see how sausage is really made”, Williamsburg fills a messy and complex yet profound place in New York’s cultural heritage.

Let’s Remember

As part of a research project involved with my exhibition “Greater Williamsburg: We Are Our Own Art History” I was able to document during the years between 1985 and 2006, the existence of over 140 galleries/art-spaces in the neighborhood, a number nearly twice as large as the East Village in its heyday.  Remarkably, nearly all these spaces were founded by artists who felt shut out of the EV, Soho, 57th Street and Chelsea systems.  To remedy this, these intrepid pioneers developed a DIY (Do It Yourself) attitude that is still a hallmark of local endeavors.  Collaborative happenings like “All Fools Show”, (1982) “The Mustard Factory” (1993), “Cats Head” and bunches of other transitory cultural potlatches influenced groups and individuals and resonated far beyond the Bedford/Metropolitan Avenue nexus.  By using a highly developed informational grape vine, organizers, on short notice, could summon swarms of energetic artists to clean up, prop up, and show up for art raves/exhibitions/concerts.  In the late eighties, as the East Village scene foundered, a few brave souls sans business plan or marketing strategies came over the bridge and started impromptu galleries.  Ward Shelley’s famous “Williamsburg Timeline Drawing” designates this period as the “Golden Age” and for some, in their own prime, it was. 

I began to establish my own art critical beat here in 1997 when you could walk between the half-dozen or so galleries in twenty minutes, but without the now numerous coffee boutiques and juice bars to refresh ambulating explores.  Then, as now, most galleries schedules were weekend affairs squeezed in after grueling day jobs.  As central Williamsburg became more pricy the adventurous began to pitch camp ever farther north, south and east.  Enclaves in Greenpoint, east of the BQE and south to Flushing Avenue have come and in some cases gone.  With pangs of nostalgia I picked up a crappy mimeographed listings (perhaps computer simulated mimeography) published by something called Godsofmars informing us about a cluster of risky galleries at the burg’s eastern boarder with Bushwick, once again raising hopes for a new destination to cruse.  Unfortunately, no sooner than reports of the establishment of spaces like NUTUREart, 3rd Ward, Ad Hoc Art, Pocket Utopia and English Kills come, than we’re informed Taste Like Chicken, the ground breaking neighborhood venue, has been forced into paralysis by an anxious landlord.

At the risk of seeming insensitive and stirring up hurt feelings I’d like to mention some of those who have passed through the nab and gone on.  Though they might play it down or deprecate their associations, several of Chelsea’s hottest young galleriests are Williamsburg veterans.  Leo Koenig, golden boy dealer and scion to one of Europe’s most influential art families, recipient of a New Yorker Magazine profile, weathered his apprenticeship with his first gallery attempt at Four Walls, the same location now occupied by VertexList.  Becky Smith together with three friends maxed out their credit cards on their way to founding Bellwether in the upstart Greenpoint district.  She then went solo, relocated to Grand Street, and left mobs of grumbling locals still pissed off at her meteoric rise and eventual departure to raise havoc in Chelsea.  Joel Beck of Roebling Hall and his former partner Christian Viveros-Faune (who has forsaken art dealer-hood to peruse criticism for the prestigious Village Voce) were community stalwarts and opened first a satellite gallery in Soho, eventually relocating the whole shebang, like many former burgsters, to West Chelsea, beyond 11th Avenue.  The above are just a few of the many who come to mind, and though some Brooklyn hold-outs bare grudges both personally and professionally, we all recognize that Williamsburg is still the place where ambitious kids come for on the job training in creating their own art world.

Beyond the petty beefs that fill our gossip quotas we’ve also had a roster of real tragedies:  we lost Annie Herron, credited by many as having opened the first “commercial” gallery Test Site in the early 90s, to a rare form of cancer.  When Sophia Loren (or as rumor has it, a Sophia look-a-like) visited his show at Pierogi, it was too late for Mark Lombardi who’d committed suicide in 2000 just as he was beginning to taste the fruits and receive serious recognition for his maniacal mapping of international political networks.  Steve Parrino was killed coming home on his motorcycle from a holiday party in the wee hours of the new year 2005 and won’t see his draped and “misshaped” canvases gracing the walls at Gagosian on Madison Avenue this October.

Despite all the buzz killers, Williamsburg is still the territory of unique events and venues that could happen no place else.  The now legendary Christmas exhibition that’s morphed into “The War Is Over” show at Side Show is one of New York’s largest independently currated affairs.  The 2007 edition featured the works of nearly 300 artists from three generations and lends credence to the notion that the burg is not just a place where the young come to break into the scene, but where mature practitioners (some with impeccable credentials) who’ve fallen from grace, can be rediscovered.  It may be counterintuitive considered the ever expanding square footage of Manhattan galleries, but here, thinking small may be a good thing and Holland Tunnel is ahead of the curve.  This garden-shed cum gallery has hosted national and internationally known artists’ work in a space about the size of the average urban bathroom.  And speaking of small, David Gibson, the hardest working curator in the neighborhood, has been organizing shows for the past four years at Real Form Project Space in the very heart of the scene at Bedford and North 5th Street. Gibson took over this 6 x 3 x 7 foot store window from Larry Walczak, whose eyewash productions now exists as a “migratory gallery”.

Clement Greenberg said that art on the edge might initially “look ugly”, weird, or strange, not in a good way.  Some venues here have pronounced agendas supporting “new media”, “techno art” or gadgets and installations that challenge our norms of aesthetics.  A cluster of galleries on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint boarder have displayed an allegiance, at least in part, to questioning the connections of technology and art.  Vertexlist specializes in work that crosses the line between high-tech gizmos and sculpture.  Artmovingprojects also delves into the techno as well as video and on-line new media.  On the South-East side Dam & Stuhltrager consistently presents installations and sculpture that might be as dangerous to the viewer’s life and limb as they are to their excepted ideas of beauty.

Every aficionado seeking a forum that reports and critiques on all things cultural from a Brooklyn perspective owes a debt to the Brooklyn Rail, its publisher Phong Bui, and the art scene staff headed by John Yau.  In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve been a writer for the Rail for nearly eight years now, and I’m proud and amazed at the dedication of its reporters and the determination that has taken what was an armature journalistic project and developed it into one of New York’s most influential arts publications.  Much of the critical attention and examination of local endeavors has come from the Rail.   Beyond the hard copy, the Rail has organized discussions and symposiums, giving natives a connection with the grand flow of New York art history.  An intriguing panel, held at Pierogi concurrently with the Philip Guston retrospective at the Met, was attended by Irving Sandler, Wolf Kahn and Nicholas Carone, all three members of the famed “Artists Club”, the ad hoc organization responsible for the establishment of the “New York School”.

The WAGA (Williamsburg Art Gallery Association) has been tirelessly organizing district wide events with galleries and art venues, a feat akin to herding cats.  Williamsburg Every Second is a second Friday of every month shindig featuring openings, late gallery hours, special performances and rollicking gallery crawls.

A brief story by way of comparison: While visiting some galleriest friends (former Brooklynites) at their new digs in one of those massive, airless, windowless Chelsea gallery buildings, the clock struck 6:00.  Our conversation stopped.  Designer jackets were slipped on, elegantly spare briefcases toted.  On cue, my friends and the six neighboring dealers walked out, locked their shop doors, waved to each other and headed to 10th Avenue to flag cabs for home.  I jumped on my bike, peddled across town and over the bridge.  By the time I hit Grand Street it was way past closing time, but lights were still on in many of the galleries.  Folks in grungy paint-stained camo shorts were yakking in the front doorways, people watched the pigeons wheeling overhead.  Antsy women with facial piercing and breaded strands of torques and magenta hair debated reviews in the Rail.  Everyone was engaged, and mostly the subject was art, real, genuine, messy, stinking art.  They were living it, they were talking it, and they were making it, not just trying to sell it.  Sure you can stroll the hundreds of look alike white box galleries in Chelsea (I still do) leaving a trail of bread crumbs so as not to get lost in the endless maze of simulacrum. But lest we forget, for over twenty years now Williamsburg, despite all the confrontations, is still the place to go for an authentic, unfiltered, free range art experience.