"Not an Aesthetic, But an Attitude": Artist Deborah Brown on the Future of Bushwick's Art Scene

"Not an Aesthetic, But an Attitude": Artist Deborah Brown on the Future of Bushwick's Art Scene
56 Bogart Street, the new home of NURTUREart and Momenta
(Courtesy Lucie Alig)
Everyone seems to know that Bushwick — also known as "the coolest place on the planet" — is New York's latest arts mecca, yet no one understands the neighborhood's mysterious inner workings as well as artist and curator Deborah Brown. Not only does Brown depict the neighborhood's local industrial landscape in her own paintings (her studio is filled with vibrant portrayals of nearby salvage yards), she also co-directs Bushwick's Storefront gallery, serves on the board for two prominent nonprofits (Momenta and NURTUREart), and promotes the area's artists everywhere from the "armpit of the world" (i.e. Flushing Avenue) to the bright, white cubes of West 25th Street.

Despite Bushwick's turbulent history, "optimistic" does not even begin to describe Brown's tone as she spoke to ARTINFO about the surprising lack of an overarching "Bushwick" aesthetic, the influx of specialty galleries off the eastern half of the L subway line, and other reasons why this area is poised to persist as a hub of contemporary art.

You recently curated a show at the StandPipe Gallery called "Fresh Paint from Bushwick." Were there any challenges in re-contextualizing Bushwick artists in the hub of Chelsea?

That's a good question, because sometimes I see Bushwick as the antithesis of Chelsea. When Alison Pierz at StandPipe approached me about this project, I saw it is a way to give Bushwick artists a different platform. The galleries in Bushwick are usually run by artists, and they often double as someone's studio or apartment. I first saw Halsey Hathaway's work in a basement show, a space about as different as you can get from a Chelsea gallery. So the chance to give Bushwick artists a different kind of envelope for their work was intriguing to me.

How did you go about selecting the show's artists?

I focused on painters because, as a painter myself, I pay particular attention to what my peers are doing in that medium. I didn't think so much about making a statement about Bushwick art; I just tried to pick the most interesting painters I could and build bridges between their works. For example, Halsey Hathaway's stained, minimal forms relate to Adam Simon's silhouettes and cutouts, as well as the reductive seascapes of Kerry Law. Together these artists present an interesting dialogue between figuration and abstraction.

People like artist and videographer James Kalm [painter Loren Munk] had asked me if there was anything specifically "Bushwick" about these works, and I answered, "probably not." In the East Village in the 1980s, there was a specific aesthetic of appropriation; artists like Cindy Sherman or Richard Phillips were using media images as artistic strategy. I'm sure there was a defining aesthetic in Williamsburg in the 90s, and SoHo in the 70s, but I don't sense that in Bushwick right now. The artists in "Fresh Paint from Bushwick" are working with pertinent ideas in painting, and that's what I aimed to showcase.

Do you think Bushwick's ever had a uniting aesthetic?

The artists who were here in the early 2000s — clustered around the Morgan L stop and Life Café — may have felt a renegade aesthetic, but I don't really know. Now, I think the Bushwick attitude is all about collaboration: working with other people to make exhibition spaces, to show each others' work, to put on collective performances and events like Bushwick Open Studios. The Manhattan environment I experienced as an artist coming up in the 80's was cutthroat and competitive. Artists were intent on getting gallery representation and promoting themselves, often denigrating others' work in the process. In Bushwick, artists help other artists and, by doing so, they help themselves. To me, Bushwick is not an aesthetic so much as it is an attitude.

I've been reading about the expansion of the Luhring Augustine Gallery — the prominent Chelsea gallery that represents Glenn Ligon, Larry Clark, and others — into this area.

Like it or not, this is going to be a game changer. Some people think Luhring Augustine won't be much of a presence here, but I think they've already been "a presence" before they've even opened. Artists are certainly aware that they're coming, and I think real estate speculators are as well. Luhring Augustine bought their building, too, which is a long-term commitment.

Their expansion to Bushwick represents a new model because we've never seen a blue-chip Manhattan gallery take up residence in an area so far from the commercial art world, in the land of D.I.Y. Up until now, things have worked in reverse. Once East Village galleries got something going — clients, collectors, press — they moved to SoHo; Williamsburg galleries went to Chelsea. Now, that model's being challenged. It will be interesting to see if other Manhattan galleries follow suit and open an experimental space here.

Can you talk a little more about your gallery, Storefront, and the Bushwick gallery structure at large?

The first galleries in Bushwick were Pocket Utopia and English Kills. Pocket Utopia was a sliver of a space started by Austin Thomas, who ran it as a very experimental salon. Chris Harding's English Kills was a huge area for large-scale installations and performance work. Harding has a yard where he makes soup and serves beer. His gallery is a social scene that's kind of an extension of his personality.

Since 2007 all kinds of other spaces have opened. There's a new gallery called Microscope that shows primarily video work. Factory Fresh, run by Ali Ha and Adam Deville, is a street art gallery that focuses on international street art and also curates a wall on Vandervoort Place. There's also Centotto, run by Paul D'Agostino in his loft apartment. He gives "reading assignments" to the artists he exhibits.

Storefront, which I direct with Jason Andrew, opened in 2010. We rent a space at 16 Wilson Avenue, at the Morgan L stop, next to a liquor store and a barbershop. It's a little storefront space that used to be a tax accounting office, and it still sports the blue "PM Taxes" awning of its previous tenant. Initially I had envisioned that we'd curate the space for a year, showing friends' work, my work, whatever occurred to us. But we quickly developed a large following, and now Storefront is this polished, curated space where we try to display art in a jewel box setting, in a manner that places the artist's intention at the forefront. We've shown older artists, younger artists, established artists, unknown artists.

James Panero, managing editor and art critic for the New Criterion, has been interested in the Bushwick scene for a while, calling it the "art world's recession special." This leads me to my next question: are any prominent collectors making their way to the area?  

Galleries like ours try to sell work, and we do on occasion, but that's not our primary motivation. Storefront has a small, dedicated group of collectors who have followed our program, and support it with purchases. I think that the interest of big collectors could expand in the near future, however, as 56 Bogart, a warehouse building in the center of Bushwick off the Morgan L, has several galleries that are going to be destinations for art viewers — namely NURTUREart, Momenta, Bogart Salon, Inter State Projects, and Gift Shop.

Can you talk some more about Momenta? I heard they're moving to 56 Bogart, right next to NURTUREart.  

Momenta has had a strong following during its 25 years of existence. It was started by artists Eric Heist, Donna Czapiga, and James Mills to show non-commercial experimental work. They housed the first shows, or very early shows, of such prominent artists as Mickalene Thomas, Lucky DeBellevue, and Wangechi Mutu. Momenta has ended up predicting a lot of what would be commercially viable. By moving from Williamsburg to Bushwick, they're reinserting themselves into the center of the avant-garde art community.

Does NURTUREart have similar aims of promoting emerging artists?

NURTUREart has a very multi-faceted agenda. Over the years they've nurtured not only young artists, but also young curators. It's daunting for curators who are just starting out to find spaces to curate in. A lot of the alternative spaces have cut back, or no longer exist, or have changed their programs. NURTUREart has an artist registry, a data bank of images and information that its curators are encouraged to consult while orchestrating their shows. The organization also has an education program where artists work with public high school kids. We have three schools that we partner with in Williamsburg, and those students eventually curate a show at NURTUREart as the culmination of their efforts. Our new gallery director, Marco Antonini, started a program this summer called "WE ARE:" for which he organized ten shows, each four days long, to showcase local and international artists. Local galleries like Famous Accountants and Regina Rex have curated shows there, too.

Both NURTUREart and Momenta have negotiated 10-year leases on their new spaces at 56 Bogart, and are poised to be crucial players n Bushwick's future as an art community. Having them in the same building is a big plus for everyone. It's a big privilege for me to serve as a board member of both organizations as they move forward.

You're involved with so many things. Which pursuit would you say is taking up most of your time these days?

They all feed off each other. My practice as an artist fuels my other activities, and curating helps sharpen my eye as an artist. I show with Lesley Heller Workspace on the LES, and my involvement in Bushwick has intrigued Lesley, who has gone on to exhibit the work of other local artists at her gallery in Manhattan.

It also creates opportunities for her to do things out here. For instance, she and I went to an event at the Onderdonk House, a historic Dutch farmhouse from the 1600s that's, strangely enough, in this "armpit of the world" spot on Flushing Avenue. A young musician had curated a sculpture show in the gardens there, as part of Bushwick Open Studios. As Lesley and I walked through the show, she said "Let's do this next year." Now she and I are curating a sculpture show in that same garden. This is just one example of how things circle around. Everything is better if you have more connections to the community, and if you use those to bring people together. It just makes everything stronger.