There is no skirting the intimacy of a studio visit. Even if you’re not in a one-to-one situation, you’re still in the private space of a person for whom that environment is charged in a very unique way. You’re conscious of this immediately, or, just as likely, you’re overwhelmed and distracted by the plethora of tools and studio detritus that give the place character and always correspond with the idiosyncrasies of the artist. As I thumb through the pile of cards I collected, the fact that no two are even the same size strikes me as a good analogy for the sheer variety of studios I now know exist in Bushwick.
The Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), whose sixth iteration has just passed, pushed the idea of intimacy to its breaking point. To be fair though these were not studio visits in the sense we tend think of them. If the studio visit might be compared to an invitation into someone’s home for dinner, an open studio would be approximate to an open house, replete with all the exhibitionism that accompanies such an affair. This is not to say the BOS wasn’t fun (it was a blast), nor that it was uninformative; on the contrary it offered some real insight into the state of affairs at what is arguably the nexus of Brooklyn’s artist scene.
Portrait of Wink Wink Pony, art and design team, in 56 Bogart
Subdivision is the norm, and though it seems like one big happy family when everybody’s doors are open, that’s not how it really is. Enter 56 Bogart, a four-story building almost fully rented out to artists (a number of whom are being priced out by the gentrification of the building which has been spurred, at least in part, by incoming galleries). Here’s Sam Simon, a jovial painter in bedazzled blue spectacles with a cup full of lollipop juice (read: spiked punch) and a heaping pile of candy on a worktable: “It seems like we’re all friendly, but the truth is that most days these doors are all shut. I’m meeting a lot of neighbors for the first time.”
It was the same story at 1717 Troutman, a two-story building as long as a city block that probably houses sixty studios and close to eighty artists, as well as a chocolatier and a salsa maker. The visual overload exceeded that even of an art fair; painting, it turns out, is the popular practice. In Rob de Oude’s studio I noticed red dots beside sold pieces. “I’ve had a very good weekend,” he reported, “not only have I sold some things but curators have come in and given me their cards. There seems to be a lot of interest.”
In a few instances there were pockets of community inside the building’s larger make-up and in these tight little groups the artists looked out for one another. I was impressed with Jeremy Olson’s sculpture, Anticave (2011), and surprised to see that there was a list of works neatly printed up for the sculptures and paintings he had on display. But where was the artist? Away for the weekend I soon learned from his friend Bob Szantyr, a fellow NYU grad and one of ten artists who’d gone in on a huge space and cleverly built it out to accommodate everyone’s desire for their own nook. “We promised to keep his door open,” Szantyr said, “to keep an eye on his work and make sure there’s a pen handy for people to leave their emails.”
Portrait of Joseph Gillette in his studio at 1717 Troutman
I raised the question of intimacy to a number of artists, many of whom were first time participants in the grand weekend of open studios. The general consensus was that it was best not to even try. Joseph Gillette, an artist whose studio looked like a yard sale in an attic, suggested there wasn’t any real chance for an intimate encounter. At best one could hope to make an impression, and if the art wasn’t enough, Gillette had icy cold one-dollar beers to help you remember, and maybe stay a little longer.
A discussion with true depth was unlikely; the circumstance of the engagement simply wasn’t conducive to that kind of an experience. Part of the reason was the abundance of studios; there are literally hundreds of artists in Bushwick. Another factor is the maundering mentality a program such as this fosters. With so much to potentially see the standard visitor can do little more than window-shop, skipping along the surface of what the artists have to offer like a flat stone hurled across still water. Does it serve the art to be seen in such a way? Do these gargantuan programs of open studio access actually do anything for the artists’ careers or are they merely facilitating the gentrification process that will ultimately uproot many of the artists these programs are designed to serve?
The last event I attended was a video and film screening in an old church. The woman who was running the event announced that most of the artists whose work we’d be seeing were in the audience. So if anyone wanted to talk to them, there was a good chance they’d be able to. The implication was that the onus of effort was on the visitors, and I understood then that the degree to which the participating artists’ careers might be enhanced was directly proportional to the amount of effort the visitors put in. If we failed to take note of the talent, to be diligent about what we discovered, then the whole operation was going to be a wash. As I flip through the stack of cards I collected I can see I have some real work to do.
(Image on top right: Jeremy Olson, Anticave, 2011, Mixed media sculpture. All photos by Charlie Schultz)