Dealing in the Hamptons: Inside Halsey McKay | BLOUIN ARTINFO

Dealing in the Hamptons: Inside Halsey McKay

Dealing in the Hamptons: Inside Halsey McKay
Ryan Wallace and Hilary Schaffner, co-directors of Halsey McKay Gallery.
(Photo by Eric T. White )

Halsey McKay is a breath of fresh air in the Hamptons. This upstart gallery, which recently celebrated its fifth year in operation, has brought an enviable roster of talent to East Hampton, including Ted Gahl, Denise Kupferschmidt, Rachel Foullon, and Joseph Hart. Through June 22, the gallery is presenting abstract canvases by Patrick Brennan and ceramics by Jennie Jieun Lee, along with mixed-media paintings and collages by Brion Nuda Rosch. On June 27 they open shows by Elise Ferguson and Hayal Pozanti. ARTINFO’s Scott Indrisek spoke with co-owners Ryan Wallace and Hilary Schaffner about their young gallery’s history, what existing models inspire them, and what else to see (and eat) in the area.

The artists you represent are a very eclectic group, but there are certain shared themes or concerns, like the expanded field of photography. You also work with a number of artists who, while technically classified as painters, seem more concerned with the sculptural or textural possibilities of material itself — people like Timothy Bergstrom or Lauren Luloff. What tends to get you excited? Do you find yourselves in agreement, aesthetically, or is Halsey McKay’s roster more the product of compromise and dialogue between two differing opinions?

HILARY SCHAFFNER: I think it is important to have continuity but in a lot ways it isn’t conscious. Personally, I am very attracted to textural works; I grew up in a house with quilts everywhere, folk art and chintz. It is impossible not to be influenced by this: material and textile are just part of my visual vocabulary. I am a photographer and Ryan is a painter. I think the “expanded field of photography” is definitely a middle ground for us.

RYAN WALLACE: We both look for work that is sui generis regardless of style. I feel like we have a clear vision but it spans from the loosest approaches to abstraction to the most finely executed naturalism. It’s very collaborative. It’s not like I get to pick my 10 artists and Hilary gets to pick her 10. We opened as a platform for those who we knew and thought were making exciting work. That circle has been greatly expanded but its growth has been pleasantly natural and communal. 

 You’ve recently begun collaborating with gallery artists on projects outside the main space — as you did with Chris Duncan at the Elaine de Kooning house, also in East Hampton. How did that come about, and do you foresee similar ventures (at that property, or others) in the future?

RW: I visited Joe Bradley when he had a residency at the house and first met Chris Byrne, the property’s owner. Chris also runs the Dallas Art Fair and we have done on-site collaborative installations at that fair. We had been talking about doing something together as it related to the house but I was never really sure what it might be. When Chris Duncan showed his series of sun-bleached works with us I mentioned it to both of them and we were all really excited. Duncan’s work requires blocking out the light of a space so that it can trap the UV from the sun for prolonged periods of time. This, effectively, would ruin the main attraction of the gorgeous light filled studio at the Elaine de Kooning house, so we came up with the idea of doing it over the winter when there isn’t a guest artist in residence. Duncan’s project was literally made by the house, and for that body of his work, which is so closely related to architecture and light, it was an ideal situation.

Does your gallery’s location lend itself to a more seasonal exhibition cycle than you might have in Manhattan?

HS: Yes, we pack it in when the season begins. We do three-week shows so we can get the artists in front of as many people as possible. It’s exhausting! We did 23 exhibitions last year, between the upstairs and downstairs spaces.

Ryan, in addition to your role as Halsey McKay’s co-owner, you’re a working artist. How does this complicate your identity as a gallerist — what are the benefits, and also the obstacles?

RW: It all feeds itself. I feel way more participatory in the art world now that we have the gallery. I’m much more comfortable promoting those that I believe in and care about publicly; I’m not shy on their behalf. It’s actually pretty easy to keep the two headspaces separate. And we run the gallery intuitively. Yes, it’s a business and we definitely need healthy sales to keep going, but I think we both approach the programming with the best shows in mind, and trust that the money will show up. The very few times that we have stretched this ideal have not felt right or worked out. Some collectors definitely see me as a gallerist and I think that makes them less interested in my work, but mostly I think people trust my eye more. I don’t talk about my work when I’m at Halsey McKay, so many aren’t even aware and figure it out on their own. Some really prominent collectors saw a show of mine in Los Angeles this past year and only then put it together. I prefer that people come to it on their own terms. That benefits everyone. 

If someone makes a trip out to Halsey McKay, what else should they do in the vicinity if they want to make a full day of it?

RW: Definitely visit the Parrish Art Museum, Longhouse Reserve, the Pollock Krasner House, the Flavin Institute, and Guild Hall. Go to Camp Hero State Park. Georgica Beach in East Hampton is my favorite to just sit on. Eat at Villa Italian here in town, or the Crow’s Nest in Montauk. And go surfing.

Do you each have a Halsey McKay show in mind that was especially memorable?

RW: I’ll say some of the group shows just because they are more difficult to put together. I loved “Tone Poem,” I had an idea of the vibe of the show but couldn’t really describe it to the artists when I was pitching it to them. We got to work with two of my favorites, who I didn’t know — Rosy Keyser and Elias Hansen — as well as with several close friends. It was the first time that we worked with Matt Kenny, who we now represent, and we saw in this show what a force he would be. I remember sitting in the gallery with Adam Marnie the night we finished installing and talking about Matt by the black-light glow of Hansen’s throne. Adam cut a hole in the wall for his piece upstairs and you could see through to the trees outside. It was totally unexpected but added such a nice touch to the piece, which had a floral-photo element in it, in this wonderful way.  HS: That’s like asking who your favorite kid is. I love them all and they are all memorable. But if I have to answer it would be a sentimental one. I love our very first show, which was with Patrick Brennan. We hung it so sparsely in this huge, newly painted white rectangular space. We had people coming in all the time and asking us why there were so few paintings up. It was the right choice for the work and it looked great and it felt really good to stand behind that decision in our first endeavor.

An exhibition view of "Tone Poem." Courtesy Halsey McKay Gallery

When you’re reflecting on where the gallery is headed in the future, what sort of models do you think of in terms of people who are getting it right?

RW: I’ve always seen CANADA as a great model: A group of artist friends and family who have shown what they believe in. They were fully committed to several artists long before the market caught on. Seeing how they have grown and expanded without any compromise in vision or the program is really inspiring. 

HS: I think a lot of the galleries that pioneered the Lower East Side are getting it right, like Rachel Uffner, Lisa Cooley, and Laurel Gitlen, because they are artist-driven, which is exactly what the art world needs now. I was reading an interview with Alain Servais and he was describing the “old” model of the gallery as one that supports and grows with the artist and nurtures their careers. I thought: Wait a minute, that’s exactly what we do now, and it’s why we opened our space. I can’t imagine operating any other way.