Trent’s Top Gallery Picks—October 2011

Detail of “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn,” 2011, an installation by the People’s Art Collective at the Bogart Salon. Photo by Matthew C. Lange

Detail of “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn,” 2011, an installation by the People’s Art Collective at the Bogart Salon. Photo by Matthew C. Lange

The Bogart Salon, 56 Bogart St., through 10/17

At the center of the Bogart Salon, toys and trash make up a sprawling model of two very different allegorical places, the “Art Scene” and “Hedge Fund City,” connected by choo-choo trains. The model was supposedly devised by a clandestine group of art collectors from the wealthy suburbs of Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County,Connecticut. They call themselves the People’s Art Collective.

In the “Art Scene” section of the model, we find many familiar characters from across Brooklyn’s artsy enclaves—toy figures of bearded men, a deejay, laptop users in a coffee shop, and giant rats along the Gowanus Canal. There’s a box wallpapered in the visage of an artists’ loft called Heartbreak Hotel. And a “Volcano of Youthful Passions” made of empty beer bottles, crushed cigarette packs, foam peanuts, and Mickey Mouse souvenirs, wrapped in tape and painted blue. Crowded and dirty, the “Art Scene” encapsulates an outsider’s perspective of our fair borough, a disdainful view that is more-or-less accurate.

On the opposite end, in bucolic “Hedge Fund City,” horses graze on green grass, piglets suckle their mama’s teats, a man humps a sheep, a mermaid splashes in a blue pond. Instead of a volatile volcano, the area is powered by a “Self Re-Generating Windmill of Wealth” made of Lego blocks. Catalogs for Williams-Sonoma, Coldwater Creek, and L.L. Bean fan out across the landscape. It’s a land of plenty, with ample space for its rich residents, a place not dissimilar to Westchester and Fairfield counties.

Taking on such aliases as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Splinter (characters from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), the members of the People’s Art Collective seem to have a nostalgic yearning for childhood.

And their toy model extends this idea. The whole thing is juvenile and reckless, which could also describe a lot of hedge fund managers.


Kristyna and Marek Milde’s “In Loving Memory,” 2011, installation at NURTURE Art. Photo by mildeart

NURTUREart Gallery, 910 Grand St., through 10/31

Perhaps the cheapest piece of furniture that one can buy is the white plastic garden chair. It is ubiquitous on porches and in yards throughout the world, especially among folks with little disposable income. And, at a few dollars a pop, the chairs themselves are pretty much disposable. Artistic duo Kristyna and Marek Milde found one of these chairs on a Chelsea sidewalk and decided to put it in an installation.

“In Loving Memory” solved a practical problem for NURTUREart. The gallery had a huge roof deck but nowhere for people to sit, so the Mildes hit the streets of New York and brought back a clashing collection of ten discarded chairs, which they cleaned and restored to working order.

The chairs alone are a ramshackle and hideous bunch, but the artists have outfitted each one with a commemorative plaque—much like the plates affixed to park benches in dedication to deceased loved ones—that elevates them to objects of conceptual intrigue. There’s a ratty green lawn chair inscribed as “In Loving Commemoration of the Obsolete,” a rounded red chair honoring the “Awkward,” a lifeguard chair memorializing the “Washed-Out,” and, of course, a white plastic garden chair for the “Uncool.”

This project was meant to demonstrate how, with a little elbow grease, a piece of garbage can be resurrected as a perfectly usable throne. But it also shows that, by labeling an object as uncool, it suddenly becomes cool. Such is the power of irony.


Detail of “Gregory Green: Through the Night Softly,” an installation at Regina Rex. Photo courtesy Regina Rex

Regina Rex, 1717 Troutman St. #329, through 10/16
During the display of “Through the Night Softly,” two unrelated events took place in New York that made Gregory Green’s installation seem almost prophetic: protesters occupied Wall Street for weeks on end and Palestine applied for state membership in the United Nations. What do these occurrences have to do with Green? His work explores empowerment of the little man over the powers that be.

Scattered across the gallery floor are 2,552 tire spikes made of slightly rusted steel. Any of the four-sided points of these spikes, which look like a malicious game of jacks, promises to puncture the sneaker of a gallery goer who does not watch his step. A painful proposition.

Green’s past sculptures have included a pipe bomb, a suitcase bomb, and a nuclear device—functional objects, the artist has claimed, minus the explosive material that could make them deadly. The tire spikes are tamer offshoots of these projects, all of which are meant to demonstrate that, without specialized training, any schmuck from Brooklyn (i.e., Green) could violently disrupt the day-to-day operations of society. In the case of the current installation, however, aesthetics also comes into play. Dispersed in an abstract pattern and gently lit under spotlights, the hand wrought spikes are as handsome as they are dangerous.

Which brings us back to Palestine’s application for statehood. A clearing around the prickly objects leads to a tiny flat-screen television. Here, in crisp documentary-style footage shot by Canadian filmmaker Jody Shapiro, we see Green standing at the head of the UN general assembly hall.

He wears a blue suit and wire-framed glasses and holds an open laptop in his hand. Reading from the computer, the middle-aged artist delivers a three-minute speech proclaiming sovereignty for the “New Free State of Caroline,” located in the Caroline Atoll, an uninhabited string of islets in the South Pacific. But no dignitaries are in attendance; Green is speaking to an empty room. Still, it’s thrilling to see a person stand up before the world and declare his independence.

John Tapper: Trailblazer


Stylized street clock in front of gourmet grocery The Garden. Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

By Mary Yeung

He always had it, that compassion thing, says John Tapper, president of The Garden, a health food supermarket in Greenpoint. Even when he was a rebellious teenager, doing things that would drive his mother into flying-plate rages. If he saw a kid being picked on by a class bully, he would always come to the kid’s rescue. It was just who he was.

Tapper owns the long-running and celebrated grocery on Manhattan Avenue. I was going to start by asking him about the store, but all Tapper wanted to talk about was his life: Buddhism, a vegetarian lifestyle, and how eating healthy food can provide you with amazing healing powers.

I tried to get a fix on his life. “Tell me about that rebellious kid again,” I prompted. Tapper shrugged and said maybe it was because his Austrian father was an atheist and his Polish mother was a devout Catholic, and he felt he had to take sides. Or maybe because his early childhood was spent in Poland and it just wasn’t easy for a kid with a Austrian last name. Or maybe it was just his being a middle child in a family of ten kids, trying to adjust to a new American life while his parents were working long hours away from home. Who really knows why kids rebel? But he remembers hanging with a rough crowd and getting kicked out of Catholic school from time to time.

As he got older, Tapper saw some of his friends on a familiar path to drugs and jail. He found music and the strength to turn his life around. He graduated from Brooklyn Tech, and went on to study classical music at Queens College.

In the 80s, Tapper found a job as a musician at the Metropolitan Opera. He moved to Manhattan and lived in a large loft on West 27th Street with a small group of artists, musicians, and writers. Those were transformative years. He and his friends stayed up late, composing music, talking about literature, religion, politics, and food. He found the Buddhist philosophy particularly compelling, the concept of the push and pull, having compassion for all living things, and the idea of karma, where whatever kindness you put out will come back to you manifold. Today John is a vegetarian, and so are his wife and eight-year-old twins.

Tapper said when he was 24, he opened a wine and liquor store on Norman Avenue. He made good money and was somewhat happy. But in the late 80s, he visited Austin, Texas, and stumbled into a beautiful supermarket that sold organic produce with a health-oriented, gourmet deli counter. He was so impressed. He just knew that these kinds of stores were the wave of the future. “The store was Whole Foods,” he recalls. “It was privately owned and there were only two branches at the time.”

He came home inspired, and in 1994 he opened a store modeled on Whole Foods on Manhattan Avenue. “In the beginning, we were really idealistic. We only sold organic fruits and vegetables, our deli counter served only vegetarian meals, and we didn’t carry any kind of snack foods. But Greenpoint just wasn’t ready for a store like that 17 years ago.”

Tapper, who manages the store with two of his brothers, said they struggled for the first seven years. “We couldn’t even pay our rent in the summer; everybody was out of town and we had these huge electric bills.” Fortunately, his landlord understood, and he rescheduled his payments so they could pay the bulk of it in the winter, when the holiday season kicked in.

To help the business grow, the Garden today functions much like a mini Whole Foods supermarket. In addition to organic produce, it has non-organic fruits and vegetables, and carries natural meat, cheese, baked goods, coffee, honey, snacks, and healthy frozen food. This is the local place where you can find quality baking chocolate and natural cleaning products, too. “We try to order food that is free of chemicals and artificial coloring whenever possible.”

Today, the demographic in Greenpoint has changed, and the average New Yorker is much more receptive to paying more for organic food. So business is good.

Tapper says he believes in the healing power of healthy eating because he did a stint at a holistic health clinic in upstate New York back in the 80s. “I think they were called ‘Fat Farms’ in those days,” he laughs. “I saw firsthand how people came into the clinic barely able to walk, and three weeks later, after a healthy vegetarian diet, they walked out happier and healthier.”

He is alarmed by the changes in food quality worldwide in recent years. “Twenty years ago, when I visited Poland, I found the fruits and vegetables there amazingly flavorful, much better than what we had in the states. That’s because people in Eastern Europe were still farming the old way—bio-dynamically. Three years ago, I went back to Poland, and the produce changed; it tasted just like the commercially farmed products here. Americans can’t sell their gmo food to rich Western European countries, so now they’re pushing it onto poor Eastern European countries,” he sighs.

Tapper doesn’t buy the argument that many Americans can’t afford to eat organic. “In Western Europe, there are just as many low-income families as there are in the U.S., and although the food there is a lot more expensive than here, still, people are doing okay,” he says. “Instead of buying three or four tasteless tomatoes, why not buy one beautifully grown heirloom tomato and savor every bite?”

I pointed out that with a median income of about $50,000 a year in America, I’m not sure that a family of four on that income can afford a steady diet of organic food.

John conceded that I might have a point. He said small scale organic food farmers may need government subsidies so markets like his can bring the price down. It makes sense. Since the government subsidizes corn and tobacco, why not organic food?

“I recently heard a proposal from Mark Bittman (The New York Times food columnist). He suggested that we put an extra tax on junk food, and use that tax to subsidize organic farmers. Now normally, I would oppose the government imposing special taxes on anything, but in this case, I think it makes sense. We have a major obesity epidemic in this country. We need to do something!” he says.

The Garden
921 Manhattan Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn 11222
(718) 389-6448

The Making of Maison Premiere

Bartender Brian making a cocktail for Eric, our photographer: a Saint Helena, made with aquavit, cane syrup, lemon, sugar, champagne and yellow chartreuse.

Shrimp cocktail, a selection of oysters; detail of atmospheric decor. Photos by Eric Ryan Anderson

By Mary Yeung

From the minute it opened, Maison Premiere made a big splash with food critics. The New York Times says, it’s better than what it tries to imitate—an old seafood bar in New Orleans. Even hard-to-please New Yorker magazine was smitten, saying lovely things like “pitch perfect” and “Utopian.” Pretty impressive for a new barstaurant in South Williamsburg run by a 26-year-old, what with all the Williamsburg-hipster bashing going on of late.

So what is co-owner Joshua Boissy’s secret? Does he have a billionaire father writing him checks? Is he the son of a local celebrity with great media connections? Actually, neither. Boissy was raised by a single mother who worked all her life as a restaurant and hotel manager. After school, young Boissy, who spent his childhood in New Hampshire, would hang out where his mom worked. “I did little chores for the owners. They’d send me to the basement to get a bag of flour or they’d say, straighten out this shelf. And at the end of the week they might slip me a $20 bill, and that was a big deal for me,” Boissy recalls. He says he did every job in a restaurant. He washed dishes, mopped floors, made pizza dough, anything they asked. When he got a little older, he waited tables. When his mom took a position in Florida, he got a job waiting tables at Nikki Beach Club in Miami. “It’s where the rich and famous go to party. People drop a thousand dollars just on champagne. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

One day he spotted Calvin Klein having dinner with friends, and he was determined to meet him. “Well, everybody always said I ought to be in the modeling business,” he says. “I heard people say if you want to meet a celebrity, you should quietly pay for his dinner and just go up and introduce yourself.”

Well, Boissy didn’t pay for Calvin Klein’s dinner, but he did walk up to the fashion icon as he was leaving the club and introduced himself. “I told him I would like to work for him.” According to Boissy, CK said a quick ‘Hi, how are you’ and walked on by. But one of his managers slipped him a business card and encouraged him to come to New York for a test shoot.

And that was how 18-year-old Boissy ended up in the Big Apple. He quickly found representation at the famed Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. He tried out the fashion modeling life for a couple of years, but decided it wasn’t for him and went back to waiting tables. “I got a job at the Buddha Bar, another amazing place. It had three kitchens and served 1,500 people a night. All kinds of dignitaries and movie stars came through there.”

Around then (2007), he was living in East Williamsburg. A new restaurant had opened on the ground floor of his apartment building, called Le Barricou. The restaurant wasn’t working, and the owner Jean-Pierre Marquet (Marquet Patisserie) was thinking about closing it down, but instead of selling, he offered Boissy a partnership in the business.

Bartender Brian making a cocktail for Eric, our photographer: a Saint Helena, made with aquavit, cane syrup, lemon, sugar, champagne and yellow chartreuse.

“I was like, I don’t have the money to invest in a restaurant, I’m a waiter,” recalls Boissy.

But Marquet said he wouldn’t need much money. The restaurant was already built, all he had to do was manage it—improve it and make it work. So what’s a 22-year-old kid to do when someone offers you a chance of a lifetime? He called his mom in Florida, of course. Mom said, “What have you got to lose? If it doesn’t work out, just go back to waiting on tables like you’re doing now.”

So young Boissy accepted the challenge. To save money, he continued to work as a waiter, but immediately set out to remake Le Barricou into a classic French bistro. “I visited all the French bistros in New York. I bought books on French bistros. I just immersed myself in the subject. He and Marquet flew to Paris to do their research, eating at dozens of French restaurants and visiting vineyards all over the South of France. “That was when I noticed all these absinthe houses in France. They call them Maisons. I knew we had just legalized absinthe in the U.S. and I was thinking we could build a theme bar around that.”

Boissy came back full of ideas. Every few months, he and Marquet spent another few thousand dollars to improve the space, until it had the look of an authentic French bistro. Boissy’s mom flew in to help. Business was picking up. Young professionals were moving into East Williamsburg in droves, enjoying their lovely weekend brunch with a complimentary flaky croissant at Le Barricou. Boissy later hired his friend Krystof Zizka to help manage the place. “Krystof selected bluesy music and micro beers that were appealing to young people. He kind of made the place hip,” says Boissy.

But no matter how many improvements they made at Le Barricou, they were never able to entice food critics to come do a review. “I think they saw it as an old restaurant. I wished we had changed the name,” he says.

“So Maison Premiere is a project born out of frustration. I said to myself, this time I’m going to build something so good that the critics can’t ignore us. I’m going to make it the most beautiful, most interesting bar in town, and they’ll have to come.”

Once the partners decided the theme was going to be New Orleans, they got right to work. Boissy flew to New Orleans to study their bars, while Krystof read everything he could about oysters and lobsters.

“We were pouring over two-dollar used books we got from Amazon, books with black-and-white pictures of old New Orleans bars.” Boissy designed the bar and garden and enlisted the interior design team of John & Kevin McCormick (Moto, Five Leaves) to help bring his vision to life.

The bar, with its bluish mottled walls, century-old sconces, balloon shaped chandeliers with tarnished chain netting, faded paintings, and old photographs, evokes a certain time and place. An etched glass panel serves as a tantalizing backdrop for the circular bar.

Since they knew the cocktail and absinthe program was going to be an important part of the concept, they went around town to sample cocktails from different bars. They found three bartenders they liked and invited them to join the team. Two came, saw the place, and declined. “When they were here, the place wasn’t finished yet. I had to explain to them what it was going to look like,” he says. But Maxwell Britten, from Freemans Restaurant, saw the possibilities and joined the team. Together, the trio came up with a strategy for success.

To get press attention, they decided to advertise as the bar that served the largest variety of oysters in New York. “We have somebody calling the Oyster Bar (Grand Central Station) every day. If they’re serving 31 varieties, we will buy 33; if they’re serving 22, we’ll order 23.” This way Maison Premiere can legitimately claim it has the largest selection. They also tell the press that they’re the bar with the largest selection of absinthe.

To get the public excited, they offer $1 oysters during happy hour (4 to 7). “One dollar for every variety of oysters listed on the menu, not just the cheap ones.” Boissy points out that the $1 oyster happy hour special is not just a grand opening gimmick, they plan to continue it long into the future. “It gets us the crowd and a lot of free press,” he explains.

The restaurant’s pricing structure is very smart, especially for these challenging economic times. You can spend 6 bucks on a beer, plus a few bucks more on oysters during happy hour, or you can spring for a three-tier seafood platter, filled to the brim with fresh lobster, crab legs, oysters, etc., for a mere $140.

Not an oyster fan? They also serve shrimp cocktails and ceviche. Come fall, there’ll be chowders and sandwiches, too.

The indoor space is not very large, but an expansive glass roof is now under construction for the garden, so you’ll be able to enjoy your absinthe and crab claws under a wintry sky.

I said, “Look Joshua, you’re too young, too good looking, too competitive, and too successful. People are going to hate you, so tell me something sad so people can relate.”

“I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Equipment is breaking down constantly; all that sand from the oysters is clogging up my drain. Between the two restaurants, I have to manage 70 employees, and the dollar oysters are not exactly making us rich. And all the antiques I have around the restaurant? They are fragile. People bump into them and things get loose. Every morning, I have to check on each piece of furniture and tighten up every loose screw.”

Still, he says, his story is one that can only be written in a city like New York. “One day I’m a waiter; the next day someone hands me the keys to a restaurant.” One day, Boissy is an obscure restaurant owner, the next day; he is reviewed in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Esquire. Maison Premiere was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire, and the world has come calling. Meanwhile, Joshua Boissy walks around town with a wrench and a screwdriver in his back pocket. Poor baby.

Maison Premiere
298 Bedford Avenue
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211
(347) 335-0446

Bloomberg Takes the Stand

It was a rare event. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the stand in the trial of political consultant John Haggerty, who is accused by the Manhattan District Attorney of stealing $1.1 million from the Mayor. $600,000 of that was paid to Haggerty himself. The money was said to be used for poll watchers on Election Day when the Mayor was running for his third term.

Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance claimed that Bloomberg gave $1.2 million from his personal account to the New York State Independence Party, to Haggerty and his Special Elections Operations. But Haggerty used the funds to purchase his late father’s estate in Forest Hills, Queens. Haggerty’s lawyers questioned Bloomberg’s spending habits and tactics. Haggerty’s lawyers also questioned why the Mayor paid for ballot security in such an indirect fashion: donating $1.2 million to the state’s Independence Party, which then transferred most of it to Haggerty.

“From an election lawyer’s point of view, the interesting issue is the transfer of the funds from the Mayor,” said Henry T. Berger, an election lawyer who represents the Democratic Party. “It appears to most election lawyers that I’ve talked to that there’s at least one, and possibly two, violations in that transfer.”

Haggerty’s lawyers questioned the legality of Bloomberg’s personal contribution to the Independence Party for his campaign. Berger said campaign finance rules prohibit money in a party’s housekeeping account from being used on a campaign. Haggerty’s lawyers said they would argue that once Bloomberg gave the money to the Independence Party, he lost legal control of the funds.

As the Mayor took the stand for two and a half hours, his testimony was vague, as he often seemed unaware of details of his own political campaign.

A mayor who portrays himself as one who runs a tight ship, it was stunning how many times questions about his political operations were answered with, “I have no recollection” or “I don’t recall.”

Haggerty’s lawyers’ questioning was so tough, the lead prosecutor claimed the defense was conducting a “trial by ambush.”

Haggerty’s lawyers showed that Bloomberg paid no attention to how much money he spent, or how he spent it. The lawyers also claimed the Mayor had no interest in the Independence Party.

When Haggerty’s lawyers grilled the Mayor asking him if his donation to the Independence Party should have followed political contribution limits, Bloomberg said, “I’m just not familiar with the details. You have to call the state government.”

Bloomberg avoided details so many times that Haggerty’s lawyers had to constantly ask, “Can you answer my question?”

Haggerty was supposed to be in charge of “ballot security” on Election Day, monitoring polling places for problems that could interfere with voting. Yet two memos were read alleging Haggerty’s job was to make sure that there was strong white turnout for Bloomberg on the Republican line against Bill Thompson. It was hoped jurors will take a dim view of how the Mayor ran his campaign. Remember, Bloomberg won by less than 5% of the vote.

So who is guilty, Haggerty or Bloomberg? Stay tuned.
Still on Fire

Book Review: Newspaper Biz Thrives

Emus Loose in Egnar

These days, small papers such as this one occasionally suffer crises of vocation. If one listens only to the lamentations of major-market media, one has to conclude that newspaper work is in its death throes.

As New Yorkers, we might pick up a newspaper in a fit of nostalgia or when we need to box our breakables, but in general, it is a far-from-essential part of our daily routine. This is the era of Twitter feeds and 24-hour cable news, after all. What need do we, technological sophisticates, have for a thick stack of broadsheet pages that you actually have to pay for?

Judy Muller understands the travails of the modern journalist as well as anyone. She is a Peabody Award-winning reporter and associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. So when Muller writes in her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns, that in some places around the country “the weekly newspaper is not just surviving, but thriving,” she knows what she’s talking about.

Emus Loose in Egnar is a kind of Blue Highways for small papers. It celebrates the newspaper’s role in rural American life and profiles the colorful characters who run them.

Take M. E. Sprengelmeyer for instance. In an all-too-common story, Sprengelmeyer lost his job as the Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News when the large Denver paper folded in 2009.

But rather than sending his resume and clips to other, also-struggling city papers, he packed up and moved to the little town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, bought its 2,000-circulation Guadalupe County Communicator, and took over as publisher, editor, head writer, sometimes ad salesman, and newspaper deliveryman.

As Muller writes, “Issue after issue has featured …professional coverage of local events and people, with stunning photos to match.” The quality of Sprengelmeyer’s journalism has so invigorated Santa Rosa’s local media that the editor of the town’s other paper has gone so far as to say, “M. E. is making me a better newspaper man.”

Or take the current editor of the Canadian Record of Canadian, Texas, Laurie Ezzell Brown. She belongs to the second generation of Ezzells to own the paper and continues the family tradition of “practicing the First Amendment with…gusto.” The Canadian Record has a long history of left-leaning firebrand journalism that has sometimes inflamed its conservative Texas audience. But despite the conflict, “Thursday morning, when the papers are delivered…the residents of Canadian start showing up early to get their copies. Parking becomes a problem. The residents here are hungry for local news, the kind that no other outlet can provide.”

Muller quotes one Canadian resident as saying, “If there were no paper…no one would know about community and school events and the politicians would know that no one was watching.”

Emus Loose in Egnar is full of tales like these. While their big-city counterparts are struggling to compete with emerging media and withering under the influence of mega-conglomerate corporate ownership, small-town newspapers remain powerful forces of influence.

In local communities, the paper (“my paper,” as rural weeklies are ubiquitously called) serves a vital democratic function, holding the powerful accountable and speaking out for the interests of the powerless.

Even for rural papers, though, the Web beckons.

“[Online is] the future whether we like it or not,” Muller says. “That’s the truth. Weeklies are well advised to look ahead. Out there in the hinterlands, even those who like to hold the paper and to cut out articles are going the way of online. To ignore that is folly.”

But she believes small papers are uniquely situated for the future. “I think by definition anything that is hyper-local is one of the best business models for success right now. [Small papers] keep staff small and overhead low, but obviously they have a captive audience and a somewhat captive advertising base. That’s how they stay in business. It’s tight; sometimes they are just two major advertisers away from bankruptcy. But they stay in business.”

For media watchers, Muller’s book acts as a radical rebuttal to the accepted wisdom about the future of the newspaper industry. For others, it serves as a vivid portrait of the characters and concerns that define small-town life. And for those of us who work on small papers of our own (though we may live in the big city of Brooklyn, New York), it offers a heartening reminder of why we do this job in the first place.

Hipsters & Hassids

Elke Reva Sudin’s “2am Loft Party,” 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 36 × 60 in. From the painted series, Hipsters & Hassids.

Elke Reva Sudin’s “2am Farbrengen,” 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 36 × 60 in. From the painted series, Hipsters & Hassids.

Maybe you’ve seen Elke Reva Sudin, 24, walking around Williamsburg’s Northside? She’s petite and pretty, and, up until recently, had a full head of dreadlocks tucked into a headscarf, and was probably wearing a long skirt. Sudin also walked around the Southside dressed much the same way, but chances are you didn’t notice her there. She “passed” just as easily on that side of the neighborhood, taken by residents for another young, religious girl—albeit one carrying a sketchbook and a cadre of felt-tip pens. Sudin talked to everyone she met, found out their “stories,” and drew them (later making paintings of them in acrylic). All this was in service of a series she was creating as part of her senior bfa thesis at Pratt, its title: “Hipsters and Hassids.”

Today Sudin has become something of a human bridge between the worlds of contemporary art and Judaism. Along with her filmmaker husband Saul, 28, Sudin runs Jewish Art Now, a website that’s a clearinghouse and news organ for all things dealing with contemporary art and underground Jewish culture. She curates shows (Industry City in Sunset Park; Gallery Bar on the Lower East Side) and produces ambitious live-music/dj events that are helping to galvanize an already strong scene of young, Jewish-identifying artists. By winter, Jewish Art Now will also launch as a print publication. I sat Elke down during the high-holiday break to ask how the neighborhood helped forge her inner, cool-meets-Jew comfort zone.

SS—Tell us about your art education, and how you started figuring out the early forms of what you’re doing now.? ERS— I was at Pratt—like a lot of people who end up in Brooklyn—and it was an exciting time; in school you get to delve into your art and explore all these things that are pretty private. My professors really took me to a place where I could find myself—even if they personally couldn’t relate at all. Professor Sayler [portrayed in the film Art School Confidential], he was into transformationalism, using art, drawing, as a way to explain how you experience the world. I started hearing Judasim in a new way that was Kabbalistic, seeing how it really connected to my art.

Who helped you with your senior project? My illustration professor, Veronica Lawler, encouraged me with “Hipsters and Hassids.” My idea was to make a book where I would walk around Williamsburg drawing people on the street, as well as in interior locations, but it would be about paying a lot more attention to how people really react to one another. Originally I thought I was going to explore only the Hassidic women of Williamsburg. I was really fascinated by the women; even though I was Jewish I didn’t know what their customs were. Eventually I ended up doing the men, too, on both sides.

How did you manage to “pass”? Getting people to trust you is so important. I was definitely able to weave between both sides. Sometimes I’d wear an outfit that was more “for” one side or another, but basically I had a long skirt, and a long, vintage coat I bought from Beacon’s Closet, from “hipster Williamsburg,” that would always make the [religious women] feel comfortable with me—in particular in the daytime when they’d be pushing their baby carriages, looking for social interaction. On the Northside, I’d just wear what I normally wear, but maybe I’d pick a skirt that was a little bit trendier. I was also using a sketchbook, not a camera, so that’s much less invasive. You really just want to blend in—not be “noticed.” I clocked in a lot of experience on the streets of Williamsburg and ended up seeing a Brooklyn you don’t normally see.

Maybe you can break down the scene on the Southside for us a bit more. What are the main sects and where’s their cultural center? Williamsburg is predominantly Satmar, with Hassidic Jews coming from Hungary and Romania. The fact that many of them died in World War II has provoked an extra-passionate lifestyle. Hassidic life is guided by the Rebbe, and the center of the community, where it all happens, is really the home. That’s where important values are instilled, and there’s lots of kids and family—so much family. You’re in your home or in a cousin’s home, and you have SO many cousins. It’s the mother who takes care of the home, and the father is learning all day, or working, and there are all sorts of avocations.

Sounds like the strangers you met on the religious side of W’burg really opened up to you. I found a lot of people were eager to talk, and find out more about the “hippies.” One bearded guy I met who was a young father, he was driving a van. He spoke in broken English and asked, “I wonder why they [the hipsters] all dress the same?” [Laughs] That was amazing. Then he said, “maybe they want boyfriends and girlfriends.” It was really sweet. He could picture that other groups have their own customs, and their own world, too.

It’s interesting that, in terms of your own religious observance, you opt to wear a head scarf. What “kind” of Jew—as obnoxious as that question may sound—do you think you are now? I generally don’t like to classify Jews. But I also understand that stereotypes help other people understand where you come from. That said, I would say that I’m kind of obviously observant—I observe Sabbath, I keep strictly kosher even though I’m vegetarian. But I’m also a very creative Jew and a Jew who asks a lot of questions. Now I cover my hair. There’s a tradition of Jewish married women—I got married while I was at Pratt—covering their hair. Wearing a head scarf is almost like gang symbols in a way. It’s like a secret code in observant culture that says, “Hey, I’m married, so guys: back off.” Some people might say that I’m “Modern Orthodox” but I hate those terms.

Tell us about your projects since Pratt and how they led up to Jewish Art Now. I started a blog later in 2009 called Hipsters and Hassids because it still seemed so relevant after I graduated. Later I was encouraged to do canvas paintings and not just illustrations, and so I’d show mirrored compositions: one hipster, and one, Hassid, to make this correlation of hey, they do the same things: look! Then the whole “Hipsters and Hassids” article came out in New York magazine and they showed all these conflicts, when I was trying to find common needs and interests.

Elke Reva Sudin’s “2am Loft Party,” 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 36 × 60 in. From the painted series, Hipsters & Hassids.

Your career took a real DIY turn. Why? Basically, I saw that there was no venue for me; there was no gallery that “got” what I was doing. Just having anything “Jewish”—people get really turned off. So I kind of created my own scene. My launch was a one-night gallery opening in an untraditional space with a whole concert lineup. It was a Saturday night in February, and it went from 8pm until 2 in the morning and it was really rad. It was packed. I did all the PR, which I had to learn really quickly.

What sort of people came? There were Hassidim from Williamsburg and there were hipsters, and there were non-hipster types who lived in Williamsburg—500 people! It really showed that you can have all these different walks of life together, and that we can all come and hang out together over art.

Sounds like you were filling a need. Then I curated an art show in July of that year at Gallery Bar on the Lower East Side. I worked on that with a Jewish hip-hop music label, Shemspeed, and a Jewish ethnic and racial diversity organization called Be’Chol Lashon. And there were other events. And then we started the website. And now, the book. I started becoming involved with the Jewish Art Salon; they opened me up to other Jewish artists—they hold bi-monthly sessions and I could see all these Jewish artists coming together. I mean, every other ethnic cultural identity has an appreciation for their art work; they don’t say “oh, that culture is tacky, we’re not interested.” They have pride. But Jewish subject matter is never cool in the artworld. Now I see all these cool people and they’re doing cool stuff, so I figure, “Let’s make it legit.”

Can you tell people about some of the neat, “new” takes on observance that are going into the book—like the “Sketch Chumash” that lets you take notes, art-school style, next to the traditional Hebrew text of Genesis; and the custom kosher wine labels? Artists are interested in finding new Jewish symbols, not just the Star of David. They want to give us new ritual objects. Ken Goldman is one; every day he comes up with a new wacky way of relating tradition. (He also went to Pratt.) For instance, he came up with a memorial candle that’s a usb-powered electric light.

So I could use it the next time I have to commemorate a yahrtzeit [annual memorial] for my parents? And I would just plug it into my computer? Yeah. Halachically [legally] it may not be kosher, but the concept is there. And it might be acceptable if candles aren’t allowed for some reason where you are.

Cool. I’ll ask my rabbi. I actually find Judaism is quite lenient about things like that.

Here are a few quick references on the new Jewish culture scene…
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