“Crossing Houston” at Smart Clothes Gallery is a fascinating look at the artists who created the East Village Art Scene in the early 1980’s. “Crossing Houston” refers to the journey these artists took from first exhibiting in the East Village, moving over to Soho, up to Chelsea, then showing internationally before returning to the Lower East Side where a new art district is burgeoning. It is curated by Gracie Mansion, the first important gallerist in the East Village and Hal Bromm who pioneered these artists from their beginnings.
The East Village in the early 1980’s had many comparisons to the Ashcan School in 1915 or the Tenth Street School of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950’s. It was by contrast, much more pluralistic incorporating neo-expressionism, surrealism, social realism, graffiti and later neo-conceptualism.
These artists incorporated various elements in a postmodernist pastiche. They infused their work with a quirky individual personality and an American exuberance as opposed to the rather cold International Trans Avant Garde that prevailed at that time. They influenced what was later called Pop Surrealism in California and artists such as Mark Ryden and John Currin.
Because the multiplicity of styles and approaches that became difficult to categorize, the East Village baffled most art historians. Writers started referring to it as a “scene” rather than a movement or period since there were so many aesthetic crosscurrents. Like the School of Paris in the 1920’s, the East Village also had a wide contingent of European artists such as Norwegian Kjell Erik Killi Olsen and Frenchman Thierry Cheverney.
The artists in this show express a diversity of styles and methods. David Worjnarowicz’s poster manipulations used the technique of Détournement along with “culture jamming” to subvert viewer expectations. Jim Radakovich combined surrealism with East Indian miniatures and oceanic totems, creating hybrid urban characters questioning the drama of modern life. McDermott/McGough dressed and lived in a fantasy world of 1918 and using old master techniques, painted a world of nostalgia with poetic longings. John Ahearn sculptures appeard like Renaissance busts of social realist urban dwellers. Jane Dickson preserved the seedy side of New York like a latter day John Sloan as did Rick Prol like an angst filled Willem DeKooning. Rodney Alan Greenblat elevated cartoon figuration to fine art. Mike Bidlo channeled modern art legends with handmade simulations of Pollock and Brancusi.
The East Village sits in a precarious position historically. Starting in 1981 and ending in 1988, it was an alternative to the art establishment in Soho and a threat. Occurring between neo-expressionism, appropriation and neo-conceptual art, it combined almost all the styles and influences of that time in a confusing explosion of artists, dealers and critics and hangers on. The East Village Scene eventually became one of the most creative and exciting periods in New York’s art history.
Nina Sheffield Sept. 2012