On a typical Saturday, the streets in industrial Bushwick feel vacant. On Morgan Ave., an open gate shows the inner workings of a factory. It is turning out coffins: cedar box by cedar box.
But in these quiet streets reside thousands of artists—meek creatures, living often illegally in industrial spaces, who emerge one weekend a year to open their studios to roving eyes, to don flop-eared rabbit costumes and cycle through the streets, or just to lollygag on stoops and watch the spectacle: Here is the East Village in the seventies, Soho in the eighties. Here is a kind of loose artistic mess, the fuel that feeds the Chelsea machine.
In a gun-holster tied at her waist, artist Jessica Grindstaff packed an iPhone. “The theme this year,” she said of the small party she hosted in her studio, “is a hoedown.” There were deviled eggs on red-and-white checked tablecloths. Eating them were the border patrols of gentrification, the frontiersmen throwing down their packs and raising rent for the natives, the prophets and protestors of condos. This was Bushwick Open Studios, the coming-out party in this “up-and-coming” neighborhood that has already come out (this year, the fete made The New York Times).
Over the past three years, the event has expanded from a handful of interested galleries to a three-day spectacle overtaking 100 spaces with over 200 events. It’s a show of force. By pushing artists out of hiding, “We can do something that has not been done,” said Laura Braslow, an organizer of the loose, non-hierarchical Arts in Bushwick. “With the distinct cultural and political weight of artists, we can come together and plan in a competent way,” Braslow said, “before we’re talking about finger towers and everything they were talking about in Williamsburg.” And in a way, the neighborhood appreciated it. “To bridge the cultural situation, on the street, all you have to do is just smile,” said longtime resident David Erespo to a panel on the neighborhood’s development. And out on the streets, this weekend at least, they were.
This is also an event to energize the artists themselves, who are curious about their neighbors. Artist Maggie Pounds, who helped organize the first event in 2006, recalled, “You’re introduced to people. I had just moved here, I was an outsider. I didn’t go to art school, I majored in Science.” In the event, she met collaborators, saw spaces, got hooked up. “Artists don’t want to be trapped in their studios,” said Steve Weintraub, an organizer who daylights at a more buttoned-down gallery in Chelsea. “Or if you do work in your bedroom or whatever, you can show it. We want to connect everyone together.”
At Apartment 107—literally, an apartment on Moore Street—the tenants were now “curators,” part of the wave of those with living rooms now throwing exhibitions. “It’s a fun, lovey dovey way to meet cool people who really have ideas,” said Erik Johanson, across from a miniature diorama of perhaps his own living room, illumined with a flickering TV and viewable only through a lens—a work by the sculptor Jonathan Aves entitled “Dream Loft.”
Four years ago, when Jessica Grindstaff moved into the building at 56 Bogart Street, she was the first artist, she says. Now it’s stuffed. Upstairs another artist describes her work as “The soft porn of the apocalypse…a paquet congo of our culture.” The sculptor Jerry Blackman had hewed giant cartoonish lips out of rough wood. “My sculpture eulogizes the lost hopes of a failed utopia,” his statement read.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, there was an event called “Viking Mountain Funeral.” There is a man who cultivates a hydroponic farm indoors. There is a couple, the woman raised in Ethiopia, who dig enormous, five-foot wide rocks out of the ground and transform them into sculptures. They serve PBR on their roof and invite you to pick the wild strawberries. At the gallery English Kills, just out back, Japanese artists make sound art from motorcycle engines. At Pocket Utopia, a gallery on Flushing Ave., the artist Ben Godward had engineered two beer kegs to stand-in for the breasts of a giant, mythical creature he had sculpted from a wire cage brocaded with neon-hued foam. The visual effect was startling, but it played out just like a regular kegger—an enormous snaking line held questionably underage women.
Out on the street, blonde boys are running. In their hands they held electric guitars. They were filming a music video. The band name: “Colors in the Air.” It’s in the air, people. This is Utopia.
Outside the “Bushwick Biennial” at NurtureArt on Grand Ave., the artist Kim Holleman was hanging out with friends in her “Trailer Park”—a real trailer she had transformed into a real park. She had popped a bottle of champagne and sat there, relaxing. Having lived here for ten years, “I’ve seen all the waves come in,” she said. But the newest wave is different: “They’re artistic or fans of art without being artists,” she said. “They’re not pioneers.”
She sees them moving away. “People move away for a better way of life. They say it’s too dirty.” As she sees it, that’s ridiculous. “That’s the reason to be here. There’s a lot of trash, so it’s fertile. The place has potential.”
Inside Pocket Utopia, the work “Cracked Canyon with Flowers” by Valerie Hegarty arranged a romantic, commercial print of a wild frontier over a wall that was cracking—such that the commercial image of nature was split by actual natural decay. Through the crack, a flower grew.