What becomes a Legend most? You. At the Vogue Ball. If you work it. On the dance floor.

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Albert Einstein said “Dancers are the Athletes of G-d”; if that’s true, Vogue-ing balls are the dance Olympics. Event: The All Night Ball, held on Oct. 27. Olympic Stadium: Lucky Cheng’s, the drag-queen restaurant in the heart of the theater district transformed by screaming fans, disco balls, two DJs, four judges, and more than 30 athletes-of-the-night competing in not one, but two divisions: Vougeing (Old Way — think: Paris is Burning, and New Way) and Hustle. No Aryans at this party. Far from homo-geneous, this scene bridges age, gender, ethnicity, body type, and sexual preference. It is both welcoming and glam.
It is where you need to be if you want to understand how freestyle dance is an accessible, and yet rigorous dance form that deserves to be taken seriously.

Or rather, as serious fun.
Pictured above is the couple who won the $100 Hustle competition prize; but the squeaky-close runners’ up — Anna and David — were a May-December couple who had, to my eye, about three decades separating them. That said, his rock-solid form supporting her swirling blonde tresses and sylph-like delicacy garnered nothing but respect from the largely gay male judges. Olympics, sans discrimination — and politics. It almost sounds like a perfect world, right?

My favorite vogue competitor ended up winning. Can I pick them, or what?
Princess Lockeroo, our hostess (above), performs while the judges deliberate. The 27-year-old dance diva hosts numerous events around the City, many of them featuring Waacking, the dance form begun in gay clubs of the 1970s, in which flamenco-like rapid-fire hand movements are used to carve out melodic and rhythmic song elements in the air. (Lots of body, gesture — and attitude — are also in play.)

As if to illustrate the DIY drama that courses through the beating heart of the Ball scene, Lockeroo’s fellow dancer (and Waacking student) is here pressed into service as human mike stand. A nice touch.
You can wear a work-out suit and vogue. You can wear fishnet stockings and vouge.
And, as one of the judges, the Legendary Javier Ninja told the crowd, “A good voguer can vogue to anything. Opera. Country Music. Anything.”

photo of waacking dancers and of lockeroo from the front, courtesy of choreographer, Angie Chen

all other photos, courtesy of Paulius Nosokas

Pocket Utopia “Gallerartist” and I Team Up for “Session One”

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“Gallerartist” Austin Thomas, and her shadow image, at the first Pocket Utopia Gallery. Gallery image photo by Catherine Bindman

By Sarah Schmerler

What’s the role of the art gallery in the 21st century? Why are some artists successful, while others spin their wheels, forever seeking career satisfaction? For Austin Thomas, artist and owner-director of Pocket Utopia Gallery, the art world is a kind of ecosystem, and we are all viable elements within it, sustaining it and make it whole.

In this intimate conversation with Thomas that took place at Pocket Utopia—the gallery she started in Bushwick and then moved to the Lower East Side—you’ll glean some of the answers. Full disclosure: Thomas and I are recent collaborators; on August 4, we conducted a mind-blowing, four-hour lab session with nine artists called “Session One” of “Pocket U-niverse-ity.” To put it simply, we felt we could forge a radical anti-grad-school form of collaborative learning whereby an art gallery serves as the hardware, the art market serves as the software, and the artists provide the content.

So, what really ended up happening?

That night, Thomas sat the nine participants down and, after oiling them up with some beer, casually informed them: “I’m giving you a show here at Pocket Utopia. One work each, from all of you. You are the group that will inaugurate my fall season. I’m calling it ‘Session One’ and it opens September 8.”

I went on to lecture on phenomenology and teach a short writing seminar. I also talked about radical art historian Aby Warburg, and what sets one group show apart from another.

After dinner, (yes, Thomas gave the artists dinner, as well as a show) we were still stunned, so we did shots of Johnny Walker Black. No one expected a gallerist to put their money where their mouth is. No one.

Post Pocket-Poem Day Report: Aaargh!! Reading poems to strangers takes beer—and balls.


DATELINE: April 21, 2013, Brooklyn. REPORTER: Sarah Schmerler

It was much harder than I expected. I mean, I have nerve. And I have creative ideas. But reality did not cooperate with my over-active imagination of just what would happen on April 18th, official “Poem in Your Pocket Day.”

by 8:00AM:  I had already read a bawdy poem to the proprietor of my local coffee shop. He liked it. See?:

It was called “Them Moose Goosers” and I’ll let you have it (apologies in advance for any offense or copyright infringement issues):

Them Moose Goosers

by Mason Williams

How about Them Moose Goosers,
Ain’t they recluse?
Up in them boondocks,
Goosin’ them moose.

Goosin’ them huge moose,
Goosin’ them tiny,
Goosin’ them meadow-moose
In they hiney.

Look at Them Moose Goosers,
Ain’t they dumb?
Some use an umbrella,
Some use a thumb.

Them obtuse Moose Goosers,
Sneakin’ through the woods,
Pokin’ them snoozy moose
In they goods.

How to be a Moose Gooser?
It’ll turn ye puce.
Gitchy gooser loose and
Rouse a drowsy moose!

Don’t jump to conclusions. I am very very highbrow in my taste. I’m just telling you that I had to, you know, change up, keep it ‘real’ and all that.

8:15AM: a gentleman whom I had told about PIYP day was waiting for me inside the coffee shop, ready with a stack of fresh poems. He has a weekly poetry group. He writes his poems ‘old school,’ by hand. And he didn’t have any spare copies. I said I didn’t feel comfortable carrying around originals, so we sat and listened to him read them to us. I had already copied one down by hand for myself to fit into my pocket. Here it is, called “Wheat and Water Dreams”:

All the books you see in this post aren’t mine — they belong to Alanna Wray, who got her poetry M.F.A. from Hunter and introduced me to a whole lotta great poetry.

9:00 AM: I try to read something to a woman in the coffee shop, but she censors me first, saying she refuses to hear any Ezra Pound, and I must be sure to pick something else. So I read her “Shedding Skin” by Harryette Mullen.

Shedding Skin

by Harryette Mullen

Pulling out of the old scarred skin
(old rough thing I don’t need now
I strip off
slip out of
leave behind)

I slough off deadscales
flick skinflakes to the ground

Shedding toughness
peeling layers down
to vulnerable stuff

And I’m blinking off old eyelids
for a new way of seeing

By the rock I rub against
I’m going to be tender again

She nods, quickly. Rushes off. Impossible to tell, but I think she liked it.

9:30AM: My friend, Alanna Wray, showed up with a sh*tload of impressive poem books. One of them was of the work of Eileen Myles. Turns out, not only is Alanna packing Myles in her book bag, but she’s also driving Myles’ personal pickup truck. So we pile in (no, it does not smell like a rotten banana, even though Wray unceremoniously removes a rotten banana from the front seat) and head out to a local bookstore where we figure people will be more ‘well disposed’ — literary types, aching for fresh art. Alas, “Girls” the TV show is filming up and down the block and has taken over the bookstore vibe completely with their whirring generators and long trailer-trucks. As we sit in the pickup, Alanna spots a short-story writer walking down the street. She comes over, and assails us with her many observations about life and contemporary culture. (Translation: we all bitch.) She calls our little quest “cute” and then says she feels bad that she doesn’t have any poems for us. She asks us if “Green Eggs and Ham” would be okay. I say ‘sure.’ But she still doesn’t recite it.

11:30AM: We go into the bookstore (which has displayed its contemporary poetry holdings prominently) and see all the titles of poets and writers whom these two gals know, all of whom seem to have been published before either of them. Jealousy sets in and gets layered over our desire to be open and happy poetry lovers. We look around, and Alanna and I pick out the shortest poem ever by (one of my very favorite authors!) Proust. Who can begrudge Proust fame? We decide that if she takes the first line, and I take the second, we can memorize it. It goes like this (apologies if I memorized it incorrectly!):

Perhaps you love much less than me, these storms.
Could be. The mind is varied in its forms.

The day is far more overcast and cold than we’d like. Why can’t it be a sunny day? Ah, well. Maybe there’s poetry in that. It seems appropriate, the unsettled feeling we’re having… Outside the book store, I stop a lovely Jamaican man on the street, and recite “Wheat and Water Dreams” for him. He gives over some verse, something (I forget!) he learned back in his early school days. Heartened, we pile back into the truck.

1:00PM: My editor texts and says we should try to see a sculptor at Long Island University who, ostensibly, will have someone in a local faculty or class or something to whom we can read. We drive and drive. We can’t find parking. We head on up to Pratt Institute, my Alma Mater, largely because it’s not far away.

2:00PM: After a few more random encounters, Alanna and I are pretty tuckered out, and I am rather car sick. I suggest that we just start drinking beer. Only, no place is open yet. The only place we can find is the cafe of a yoga studio, and the only near-fermented style thing we can have there is Kombucha. So we drink. We read each other really dark things like “(Carion Comfort)” by Gerard Manley Hopkins and “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath. We start to feel a bit better, but I think the yoga studio people must be bugging out:

40. (Carrion Comfort)

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

3:30PM: We go, at my insistence, to a coffee shop where Alanna used to work, and where I know the baristas enjoy poetry (it was a barista there who first introduced me to Harryette Mullen’s work). We assault a lovely Czech woman who is writing her dissertation on Modernist architecture while waiting for her kid to get out of school. She loves everything I read, and says what a great idea this all is. But we are already too cynical for words. We leave the coffee shop and move on, killing time until 4PM and the first bar we can find, opens. We sit down, order a Tecate and a Jameson, and I, finally, get to read the Ezra Pound. No, I don’t like his politics or his taste in much of anything, but what he says speaks to me:


—from “Ripostes” by Ezra Pound

WHEN I behold how black, immortal ink
Drips from my deathless pen – ah, well-away!
Why should we stop at all for what I think?
There is enough in what I chance to say.

It is enough that we once came together;
What is the use of setting it to rime?
When it is autumn do we get spring weather,
Or gather may of harsh northwindish time?

It is enough that we once came together;
What if the wind have turned against the rain?
It is enough that we once came together; Time has seen this, and will not turn again;

And who are we, who know that last intent,
To plague to-morrow with a testament!

5:00PM:  We part ways in the too cold and slightly rainy evening. We have little more to say.


How to Read a Poem in April—A Primer


By Sarah Schmerler

Is there a poem in your heart? There’s always one in mine, but I never quite know how to get it out. Sometimes you’ll find me, standing on the street, staring out into the distance, trying to put some amalgamation of light and sound and air I’m feeling into words, but, alas. Someone always comes along and interrupts my reverie with a ridiculous question that they’re convinced passes for conversation.

“Hey, you look like you’re in a daze,” they’ll say, adding: “What are you thinking about right now?”

“Um, sunlight, actually,” I’ll retort.

Solitude is precious.

Any form of inner-voice-forging, soul-nurturing time invested is time well spent.

Last fall I set about a challenge for myself: I’d read more poetry, and even try to memorize poems; that way, I’d always have one handy if someone asks what’s on my mind.

I started with “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats. Easy-peasy to memorize. But much harder to recite—and harder still to find the right occasion on which to recite it.

In a bar? I figured that’d be perfect. So one night, over take-out Chinese broccoli and rice at a pub on 23rd Street, I recited it for what I thought was a receptive friend.

“Uh, huh?” and “Okay” were all I can remember that he said. It wasn’t encouraging.

My next attempt was at a coffee bar, in broad daylight; I shouted it over the noise of the cappuccino machine at my barista, who is red-haired, and Irish-Irish, not American-Irish, so I figured she’d like it. She looked at me, stunned and more than a little horrified, as if at a faux pas, as if I’d struck her. She said, “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” and “I can’t hear you properly,” and other more encouraging stuff like that.

The third time I chose a bar as my setting (I figured that worked at least), and I chose the person with more care (a writing major from the University of Iowa who wrote a thesis on modern poetry), and I waited until our second shot of Jameson. I leaned in to her as if I were about to tell her some personal anecdote, and recited it, not quite softly, but not quite vigorously— taking time with the words, knowing that they were good stuff. The second I finished she leaned way back, a smile on her face and said. “Oh my G-d, thank you, I never heard it, I mean, really heard it, before.”

This is SO much fun.

You try.


April is National Poetry Month, and if you go to Poets.org, you’ll get all sorts of suggestions for activities. My favorite is April 18th, which is “Poem in your Pocket Day.” The latter is an event, officially sanctioned by Mayor Bloomberg, in which you, or anyone like you, is “allowed” to go around town with a poem in your pocket: the idea is, you take it out, recite it to anyone you meet on the street, and no one can stop you. Now, you have no excuse.

Got the nerve?

It’s not easy, I admit, so I will give you a few pointers:

Have more than one poem to choose from so you can change up.

All the books you see in this post aren’t mine — they belong to Alanna Wray, who got her poetry M.F.A. from Hunter and introduced me to a whole lotta great poetry.

Select at least one really short poem. That way, before the person freaks out, you’re done!

Ask the person if they have a preference for a particular poem or poet.

Group what you have by theme. Anything you like. My choices thus far are: Dreams, Friendship, Stuff that Rhymes, Lesser-known Contemporary Poets. (This could be you, your friend. I intend to read stuff by my neighbor who is actually pretty darned good!)

Write one or two yourself about the experience.

And don’t let anyone interrupt you. Tell them “April is National Poetry Month” and leave it at that.

Deep Listening Happens at The Control Voltage Faire, Participant, Sharenyc

Rose Kallal, 16mm projections; image courtesy of Participant, Inc.

Rose Kallal, 16mm projections; image courtesy of Participant, Inc.

A lot has happened since we weighed in with the ‘Synth Geek’ just a couple weeks ago. Tons of geeks converged on The Control Voltage Faire at the South Street Seaport (as we promised) and we were among the converted. Upshot: this is an amazing subculture, in which everyone listens deeply, attentively, and (seemingly) without harsh judgement. People will stand around and be ready to take in whatever you throw down.

Loud Objects at work; image courtesy of Andrew Reitsman

Loud Objects consisted of a trio who, with solders and exposed wires in hand, created unfiltered sound that had lots of people in the room either fitting earplugs or hunched over in contorted shapes — in a good way. This was noise generated on-site in real time, namely, by hooking microchips up into circuits that increased in complexity as the performance went on. An old-school overhead projector allowed you to see the shadows cast by the basic elements themselves, and (if you could still concentrate amidst the Absolute Din) the abstract shapes that resulted were pretty compelling.

Mark Verbos’ instrumentation at Control Voltage Faire; image courtesy of S. Schmerler

Apologies are in order, in that we didn’t catch every single act; that said, without question, our favorite artist was Mark Verbos, who, among other things, is an afficionado and repairer of the Buchla electronic music box — a role he understatedly describes as a ‘very specific obsession.’

Obsession = Good in this genre, and Verbos’ choices of (sorry, nomenclature-lack alert) what needed to happen where and for how long were spot on.

At the end of the eve, Xeno and Oaklander rocked.

Earlier in the week, we caught Robert A. A. (Lichens) Lowe (whom we also featured in the synth article) at Participant, Inc — a venue most people associate with visual art. The walls were blank; the room dark; and Lowe set to work collaborating with an artist named Rose Kallal live while her 4-channel video played on 16mm projectors. It was a much more ‘harmonic’ affair than the previous entries here — though the visuals read as somewhat static in the midst of all the amazing looping sound.

One added venue we ought to mention isn’t so much a venue as an opportunity to participate — it’s open to any artists working with sound, and (in the right context) visuals.
It’s called ‘Share’ and you can find it online at http://share.dj/ or on Facebook at sharenyc. Right now, the weekly meetups are located in Gowanus.

Artist-Graphic Designer Paulius Nosokas featured in animated projects at ‘Sharenyc’; image courtesy of S. Schmerler

When we say ‘open’ we mean it: we participated, no prob. Pictured above are visuals that this reporter threw up on the wall and ceiling — even though she only just arrived with a laptop and an idea. ‘Share’ (read: Keiko Uenishi and Geoff Matters, the event’s organizers) are most accomodating. No one judges harshly at ‘Share’; everyone listens respectfully — no matter how bold or how subtle your efforts.

It’s like Utopia — only louder.

Participant, Inc’s show, “Start Begin Feel Again” by Rose Kallal, remains open until July 22.

“Loud Objects” is actually a collaboration between Kunal Gupta, Tristan Perich, and Katie Shima, and you can see what’s on their sonic horizon at www.loudobjects.com.

Sarah Schmerler’s wall projections at ‘share’ combine two videos by Berlin-based artist Paulius Nosokas: one is called “Cardboard Frame”; the other is looping footage from the artist’s series of animated geometries called “Random:Motion.” 

Synth Geeks Call Williamsburg Home; Newbies Welcome

An ultimate synth musician Robert A. A. Lowe, is a friend of, and advisor about synth technology to Marihito “Mari” Ayabe, owner of MeMe Antenna. Check out Lowe’s latest work at lichensarealive.com.  Photo by Rebecca Ann Rakstad

Synth musician Robert A. A. Lowe, is a friend of, and advisor to Marihito “Mari” Ayabe, owner of MeMe Antenna, on the subject of synth technology. Check out Lowe’s latest work at lichensarealive.com. Photo by Rebecca Ann Rakstad

By Sarah Schmerler

Clayton, a tall, skinny guy in dark jeans in his early 30s, steps up to the glass display counter at MeMe Antenna, located in the Bedford Avenue Mini Mall. He’s talking in what appears to be another language—let’s call it “Synth Geek”—with Mari, the store owner, who listens patiently to his every question:

“I mean, I know what quantizing does, but…”

“Wait, does this play scales?…Of course it does! Totally, I see, it transposes octaves…”

[epiphany coming here]: “…so if you have a non-occilating signal, it will step it up a scale.”

The object of desire in question is an A156 Dual Quantizer by Doepfer. Even after a few more queries, Clayton isn’t ready to buy. He decides he ought to do some more research online, and Mari concurs. Instead, an Analog Delay by Pittsburgh Modular is produced from the case. Like all Euro Rack Synth modules, it looks to the naked eye like little more than an exposed green circuit board attached to a metal face-plate with jacks and knobs (knobs are key!) and some ribbon connector cable, all small enough for Clayton to hold in the palm of his hand. He regards it, however, like a piece of handmade jewelry. The two lock eyes, and now they’re speaking the language of pure desire. “It’s great,” says Mari, succinctly. “I’ll take it,” says Clayton.

MeMe Antenna, a gift shop and music store located in the Bedford Avenue mini-mall, is the epicenter of synth purchasing on the East Coast. Pictured here is an Euro Rack modular synthesizer. Photo by Benjamin Rosenzweig

Clayton is hooked on synthesis, and he’s not alone. There are probably thousands of users out there right now, and the appeal is growing fast. If you’re not one of them, but want to be, you should be happy to learn that Williamsburg is a mecca of synth. Until MeMe started carrying synth in October (it’s at the back of the store, behind the vintage bric-a-brac), there was no place on the East Coast you could go to physically hold, and road test, your new synth purchase in person. Lots of enthusiasts, wide eyed at the fact that synth-selling exists IRL (in real life, as opposed to online where it usually lives) came in long after Clayton left. An analog lover but decided synth newbie, I decided to ask a series of un-esoteric questions on the topic. (Online research, and some long chats with Mari and his advsor Robert Lowe, yielded the answers.)

What is “modular” synth and why’s it so great?

In the past synthesizers were at times monstrously large units, with all their capabilities hardwired into one mainframe (think keyboard with lots of knobs on a stand). Now, with modular synth, you customize your experience with a synthesizer, breaking it out into separate more controllable units (think of sections in a modular couch, or toy blocks in a tower) that allow you to get the sort of sound you want. You “rack” them—put them into a hollow metal frame—one at a time as you acquire them, and in the process gain an amazing sense of artistic control. The Euro Rack system of Modular Synthesis (the sort Mari specializes in) offers users all sorts of practical advantages: the systems are lightweight (you literally pack them into a “suitcase” and carry them off); they allow you to make sound right away (no omberchure required); you can master the basics by reading a book (yes, we’re leaving a lot out, but it’s true); and there’s tactile pleasure involved of the sort you don’t get with digital sampling. Levers need to be wiggled, and knobs need to be tweaked, imparting an ineffably satisfying slight-delay response as you twist their plasticene caps under thumb and forefinger. Like any old-school instrument, a modular synth system will reward any student who is well disposed to trial and error.

What kind of music—or just plain sounds—can I make?

Noise. Dance music. Ambient. Minimal techno. The tones and beats are infinitely tweakable, and the sound quality warm. Think b&w film developed in a dark room vs. a digital color image adjusted in Photoshop; think the “terrior” of a French red made from old-world vines vs. the fruit-bomb “nose” of a Pacific Coast pinot. Sure, there’s quite a bit of digital capability in the modular synth world, but basically synth is an analog-lover’s paradise.

Name some artists I might know who employ analog synth?

Gary Numan is a committed synth artist—and a great one. YES. Depeche Mode, Human League, OMD, Japan…electronic music like it was meant to be, back in the day (crafted before an item called the DX7 pushed analog to the margins around 1983). There’s a sweeping overall “lift’ to analog that you just don’t get with the more choppy digital. It carries you through all of music’s individual idiosyncrasies; you feel it in your solar plexus like a wave of cosmic love at a Rave that’s taking place only in your brain. You just know the vibe. The Normal, FAD, Yellow, the list goes on…

Where can I go to hear synth now?

There’s a big festival coming up this summer called the Control Voltage Faire (on June 28th) at the South Street Seaport, but New Yorkers can find synth everywhere if they just look. See it live in Williamsburg at a venue like Zebulon, for instance, once you learn some of the artist’s names. To give you one example, Robert A.A. Lowe (local synth enthusiast who’s advised MeMe on stock), plays there as “Lichen.” His sound is an ambient/trippy/alert mix of vocals and harmonic overtones. Paying attention to the way his compositions cycle through patterns is sort of like noticing the way one thought moves through your brain and gets replaced by another. You’ll have to get comfortable first to appreciate his transportive compositions. The fact that there will probably be brightly-colored psychedelic shapes projected on the wall behind him that move like billowing clouds, and prayer rugs stacked on the stage floor, won’t hurt. It helps set the mood.

A synth band to look out for: In the tradition of the DIY Minimal Wave and Synthpop bands of the 1980's, Xeno & Oaklander (Sean MacBride and Liz Wendelbo) make music with the use of analogue synthesizers, instruments and equipment to write and record. Their Bushwick studio is a well-equipped, synth-filled heaven of cables and knobs. They play locally, check out their website: xenoandoaklander.com. Photo by Benjamin Rosenzweig

Where can I go to do more research?

One word: online. Unless you’re buying in person at MeMe (or at the new store that’s about to open on Lorimer Street called Control), or with other people at a show, you’re going to be tapping keys, and in this subculture, the users are very open and it’s all there.

Muffwiggler.com is the main (and indispensible) chat room resource.Analogheaven.com and Schneidersbuero.de (in Berlin) are good merchandise sources, and of course, YouTube, where you’ll find video with titles like “fun with the rS110 filter” that actually kind of open your mind to new sounds.

Alex Melamid, Artist Healer-in-Residence

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by Sarah Schmerler

Chances are you have never met an iconoclast like Alexander Melamid. A conceptual artist turned self-proclaimed “art healer,” he’s had a pretty impressive (if the word can even apply to iconoclasts) career. Back in the 1990s, he was known as part of the duo Komar and Melamid, when their art was spotlighted in such august, fame-dispensing institutions as the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and the Guggenheim. Among other things, the two polled the American public and came up with “The Most-Wanted Painting in America”—a cheesy, bucolic landscape complete with George Washington, a deer, and other treacly fare. (It’s a project they did in 16 other countries as well, with equally queasy-making results.) Melamid split from Komar in 2004. At 66 years old, his work leans so far to the edge of irony that it makes Duchamp look conservative. These days, Melamid is concerned with reaching a greater public beyond the walls of museums, using masterpieces—or perhaps, the public’s sheeplike “faith” in fine art—as a method of healing ills of all sorts: insomnia, impotence, depression. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he has declared himself an art healer, an art prophet, and even, yes, a deity. He’s given out art-healing communion (absinthe) on the streets of London; opened a functioning art-healing clinic in Soho (where you could strip and have masterworks like Van Goghs and Renoirs projected onto your body); and is currently serving as a bonafide healer, making rounds at Queens Hospital. Yes, he showed me his security badge, it’s real. I met Melamid at a donut shop and found him to be a charming character of the A-1 variety; an artist who wants what every artist you’ve ever met wants: to save the world. Warning: before you read our conversation, know that Melamid is serious. He embodies what he is/does/says. Play along, or play…alone. P.S. He healed me.

SS—Mr. Melamid… AM—That’s not my name. I just want you to know, you can’t call me that.

[taken aback] Okay…what shall I call you? That’s the name I took. It was simpler, you understand, to have a history, a past. You have heard of Melamid? I am more or less the same age as the original. Comrade Melamid: one of the greatest Russian artists who ever lived.

[confused] Really? He wasn’t really that famous, was he? [looks slightly hurt] Well, I suppose…perhaps not so much… but by Russian standards he has had a glorious past. And honestly, I am trying to make a career but it’s very hard here. As Melamid I have at least a past, some shows…you understand.

That’s fine, it’s only natural for artists: self merchandizing, branding. Yes, it’s only natural to want to brand. And I cannot pretend I am Jasper Johns. I mean, with this Russian accent?

Yes, I see. Okay. Will you let me guess your real name? Is it something like “Malefischinski”? Something like that? Yes. That’s great. You can call me that.

Good. Mr.…Mr. Malefischinski, can we get started? Certainly.

Great, because I’m in need of healing. My problem isn’t that I don’t see enough art—my problem is that I see too much of it. And the big thing is, almost all of it is mediocre! I’m becoming genuinely anxious… No, no, no. Calm down. You have it all wrong! If we go deep down we understand there is no “good” or “bad” in art. In the 19th century there began a new notion, “art for art’s sake”; now, it has grown into a secular religion. Before [in other ancient, tribal cultures] art was depicted as having an outside power; now the power is within us. It is a [closed] system and museums and the like are its temples, its churches. When you are outside of a system, everything seems crazy, its beliefs nonsensical, but when you are inside it’s [fine]. Christianity, Marxism, Freud. There are still some Marxists out there! There are still people who believe that Freud made great discoveries! But it’s all lunacy. My parents said to me [as a child]: everything about art is good; you have to study it, you have to look at it. And only lately I’ve said: “Well, what is it exactly good for?” It’s good for this. For healing!

[Melamid takes out his laptop and a portable projector. I close my eyes. He beams an image on my forehead for about a minute. I feel much better.] Look, that’s what I used on you.

[An image of Vermeer’s portrait, “Woman with Pearl Earring” is projected on the donut shop wall.] I also must confess that I have a lot of trouble with money, making enough, managing it, keeping enough around, even for basic necessities. Wow. That’s serious. A nice person like you. What do you do? And why do you look at so much “mediocre art”?

I’m an art critic. Ha! No wonder you don’t have any money! Being an art critic is one of the most unhealthy professions there is. It’s like working in medical science and saying you’re a medicine tester. Here you are, eating the medicine. What happens if you take too many aspirin? You get sick! You can’t experiment on humans. [Laughs] Maybe we should have animal testing for art critics?

Yes! I could take a hamster and put him in front of me, between me and the painting… A hamster would be fine. He would block the negative energies.

And if the hamster survives… …You would know, the art is not “bad,” it’s safe.

And if he dies… …if the hamster dies, the art is “bad.”

Would it be okay to take canaries to Chelsea? Canaries would work, sure. But wait, I have something for your finances.

[Melamid beams another image on my head. This time, an image of one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans. Once again, I feel better, plus a bit warm and woozy.] Now you are cured. Your money problem will resolve itself in a couple of days. Don’t worry any more.

Thanks. So, are you G-d? Well, sure, yes, I am so great that…

Typical artist response. What’s your next project? I am instituting a prize for artists 80 years old and over. Like the Turner Prize, but for older artists. I feel we are in a time of senility. The end of a glorious epoch. Modernism started with young vigorous men with their penises up; now we are in a stage of the limp, of senility, and those greatest artists are of course older: Richter, the late Picasso, de Kooning. We forget things. “Neo-Senilism,” that’s the future of art. What’s happened years ago keeps happening over and over. I am now trying to get money for this prize.

Speaking of money, I am thinking of switching from art criticism to selling art. Do I have your blessing? Of course! That’s the only thing art is good for. To make money. Tell me, as a writer, are you paid for this article by the word, or are you given a flat fee?

A flat fee. Then we’d better stop, no? You’ve done too much already.

I agree. 

Three Ladies of Chill Repute

Screen Shot 2012-01-30 at 7.27.14 PM
(From left) Deborah Brown, Sarah Schmerler, and Gwendolyn Skaggs, curators of recent shows in Bushwick, stand in front of an abstract street mural by Dan Gausman. © Photo by Allen Ying

Why art galleries in Bushwick don’t recognize the Generational Divide

By Sarah Schmerler

Want a formula for getting your (totally deserving, yet under-appreciated) artwork out of your studio and into a larger context? Want to join that invisible art world phenomenon called “The Dialogue”? Find yourself a middle-aged lady who curates. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. My own statistical research has proved it. When women with two plus decades of experience in the New York art scene are given free reign to curate in places like Bushwick (see below), they cut boldly across styles, typologies, and generations. They know for a fact what’s going to be the next hot thing. Why? Because they’ve seen it all before. And just maybe, it’s you.

To prove this incredibly scientific theory, I conducted an experiment. On January 8, 2012, I invited two women art impresarios of Bushwick—Deborah Brown and Gwendolyn Skaggs—to participate in a three-way, round robin series of interviews and gallery visits. (My own curatorial turn, “Guilty / (NOT) Guilty,” which included four artists, plus two extra projects, had opened the week before at Wyckoff Avenue’s Norte Maar.) I said, “Let’s all visit each other’s shows, and respond to them?” This is the result.

JAN 8. 12:30 PM

Sarah visits Deborah Brown, proprietor of Storefront Bushwick (in business as Storefront since 2010). Deborah responds:

Can you tell us a little about how you, a working artist with a dedicated studio practice, got into curating and starting a gallery?  Artists run 99% of the galleries in Bushwick, so what I do is not so unusual! I got on the path to opening Storefront Bushwick in 2006 when I bought a vacant factory building on Stockholm Street to use as my studio. I became friends with curator and neighborhood arts activist Jason Andrew, who was interested in showing my paintings of Bushwick, possibly in a pop-up space. I had the idea to open a gallery and approached Jason about renting a space for a year, and curating shows for it together. I found the space at 16 Wilson Avenue on craigslist, and we opened Storefront on January 2, 2010, with “New Year, New Space, New Work.” Our first opening was absolutely mobbed, and I knew we were onto something. After two plus years, I now direct the gallery, but still approach it as the artist that I am, running it as an aspect of my artistic practice.

Name some of the ways you’ve discovered artists outside your ken, whom you might not normally or otherwise have discovered.

People think you consult the entire universe of artists when you curate shows, but in fact all curators organize shows from the universe they already inhabit. I, too, use my circle, but it’s a pretty big one because I’ve lived in New York since 1982. I was in a discussion group for women artists  (aka “The Girl Group”) and an artists’ philosophy reading group during the 90s. Some of the artists I have shown at the gallery date from those years, when I met many people whose practice was very different from mine. I have shown Drew Shiflett, Elana Herzog, Mary Jones, Theresa Hackett…the list goes on. I also show artists whose work I found by traveling around Bushwick and seeing shows in the neighborhood. I found Halsey Hathaway in a show at Small Black Door Gallery, an artist-run basement space in Ridgewood, Queens. That’s where I also found Martin Bromirski and Matthew Mahler, whose work I’ll be showing in the coming year. These discoveries are essentially “word of mouth” in that they come from visiting artist-run spaces that present work by artists with studios in the neighborhood. I found Cathy Quinlan through Sharon Butler’s blog, “Two Coats of Paint.” I read Paddy Johnson, Hrag Vartanian, Josh Abelow, Martin Bromirski, and others to learn about artists. Often I get ideas from seeing work donated by artists for benefits, like those for NURTUREart and  Momenta, on whose boards I serve. I truly feel that benefits create opportunities for artists to have their work seen by people who are in a position to help them.

What are some ways artists can “take the reins” in their own careers?  I’m an example of how an artist might do this. I opened a gallery and now have a platform to express my ideas about what should be seen. I already had representation (Lesley Heller Workspace on the Lower East Side) when I opened the gallery, but having Storefront Bushwick broadened that platform.

Artists can take the reins by organizing their own shows, whether it’s in a pop-up space or in a one-night-only event in their studios. Participate in events like Bushwick Open Studios, go to openings at galleries and artist-run spaces in the neighborhood, collaborate with other artists—these are ways you can help yourself. If you stay exclusively in your studio, waiting for fame to strike, chances are it won’t.

Can you give some examples of artists—and their venues—who are doing just that?  Small Black Door Gallery in Ridgewood, run by Matthew Mahler and Jonathan Terranova; and P.A.C., run by Denise Kupferchmidt and Gina Beavers above Public Assembly in Williamsburg. Artist Lynn Sullivan curated a one-night group show at her studio on St. Nicholas Avenue last fall. Through that show, I found Casey Ruble, whose work I will be showing in a group show in July. As I mentioned before, all the galleries are artist run: Factory Fresh, Famous Accountants, Regina Rex, Centotto, Sugar Bushwick, Airplane, Outpost Artists Resources, Small Black Door, Sardine, Microscope, Valentine, The Active Space, Botanic, and Pocket Utopia (now closed). Even the galleries located at 56 Bogart Street, in what I think of as “the new Bushwick,” are run by artists: Bogart Salon, Agape, and Interstate Projects. English Kills Gallery is not run by an artist, but it is a kind of performance piece by Chris Harding!

What’s the result of all that, and how might it affect the art world in the future? The commercial gallery system is what it is, and it isn’t going to change. What we are doing in Bushwick is creating an alternative universe like the Bizarro World in Superman comics. Sometimes it feels like we are on our own, but sometimes we intersect with the commercial art world. Our Justen Ladda show was reviewed in The New York Times, the first gallery in Bushwick to receive a Times review. The commercial gallery world gets its ideas from Bushwick and from places like ours—the artist communities where new work surfaces. Artists always know the most interesting artists first, and we frequently make good curators.

The other day we were discussing how important it is for people working in the creative arts to fight discouragement. How can artists do this? And how might we as “professionals” help in that? Being an artist can be tough. My husband observed that it’s a lot easier to be a gallery than it is to be an artist. As an artist who directs a gallery, I try to create as many opportunities for other artists as I can. As an artist, I know that egos get bruised easily and that there is a lot of rejection that comes with the territory. Artists can fight discouragement by creating opportunities for themselves, by allying themselves with other artists in their community, and by working together to achieve recognition.

How has the Bushwick scene been shifting? Where might you want to take it, if you had the say? The beginning of the old Bushwick art scene is over. We are now in the next phase, where we are joined by not-for-profit, alternative spaces like Momenta and NURTUREart, and by commercial galleries like Luhring Augustine. Some of the pioneering artist-run spaces have closed or will close. The mix is different than it was five years ago, and there are more players. What’s to come? Who knows? What I find remarkable is that, in my thirty plus years in New York, I have never seen commercial galleries open spaces this far out of Manhattan. We are the cool kids now, and the larger art world is paying attention. As long as artists retain some of the platforms for the display of their work, we will influence the dialogue in Bushwick and in the larger art world. It is imperative that we be part of the mix of voices as Bushwick’s art scene evolves, or this community will lose something very special. It’s been my good luck to be part of it, and I am not giving up easily.

JAN 8. 1:40 PM

Deborah visits Gwendolyn Skaggs, curator and owner of Sugar, a curatorial project that began with “Alcove,” in Chelsea, in the winter of 2006 and has been housed in Bushwick since 2009. Gwendolyn responds:

How did you start doing what you’re doing now? Through circumstance, I stopped making objects. When I was making artwork I brought together objects, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements; in that process I was focusing on—and finding—equilibrium and learning the magic of implication. The end result (at that time) was installation art and mobiles. Sugar is now, overall, an installation. I approach it as a work of art. I seek out an artwork, look for another artwork that will “unbalance” it, or tweak it, find another artwork that will pull those two works in another direction, and so on. I’m more interested in the pushes and pulls.

Whom do you admire as a curator? Most are too academic for me to admire. However, I have recently gotten interested in Rudi Fuchs; I dig his approach to curating. I like this snippet I read on Artnet.com by Abigail R. Esman: “To view a Fuchs show right is to take a leap of faith, to trust that what appears to have no sense is rich with reason…”

Whose work organizing shows has inspired you the most? Recently, artist Fred Wilson—and not so much inspired, as encouraged. I find inspiration elsewhere: Phillipe Petit, the high-wire artist; Alex Honnold, the free-solo climber; Judith Scott, also an artist.

What was a favorite moment or learning moment you had as a show impresario? When I have worked through something that was difficult, pushed my boundaries, and set new limits for ideas.

What’s a hard thing about hanging other people’s work that artists, and others, should know? It’s just like working on a painting, in a way; some things get worked out for the better, along the way, and there are great happenstances. The more difficult, the better. I have an art handling background, with extensive knowledge of art preservation/framing. At Sugar, I am the preparator. Hanging work is not hard for me. The hardest thing for me is asking for help. Most of all: handle with care.

What would you change, if anything, about how contemporary art is displayed for the public? Legalize street art.

JAN 8. 3 PM

Gwendolyn visits the show curated by Sarah Schmerler’s show “Guilty / (NOT) Guilty,” at Norte Maar, and writes:

My name is Gwendolyn Skaggs, outsider artist and founder and creator of Sugar. I’m an admirer of intuition, and I was asked by Sarah to give my impressions of “Guilty / (NOT) Guilty” at Norte Maar.

It was late afternoon when Sarah first walked me through the exhibit, citing references both personal and art historical that the artists were making. Meanwhile, I took in the work—the actual imagery, techniques, and determination the artists have. I found my eyes moving back and forth as if I were witnessing a tennis match, listening and watching her and returning to the “impressions’” on the wall. Then, the sunset hit the work of Pablo Tauler. The shadows emphasized what I saw in his pieces—how I interpreted it. I interrupted Sarah’s explanations and grabbed my camera. Within seconds a blank canvas appeared next to Pablo’s “The house I grew up in, my dog always by my side, lazy summer days,” full of light particles. Timing is everything and I’m a fan of happenstance. I think there’s a lot of it in this show.

My visit is supposed to be an interview, or was, but I can’t think of too many questions to ask Sarah, because I think I know what she is doing with the guilty not guilty business. The layers of art history, her history of writing, conceptualizing, and debating, between her intellect and gut, and a wee bit of her heart. Inside my head I am gleeful, and tickled by the challenges taken and boundaries pushed. Appropriating, copying, experimenting—all are acts of play, and great things often spawn from playing. Though a diverse collection, each artwork relates harmoniously with Sarah’s internal vision.

SARAH RESPONDS: That “wee bit of heart” comment is really wrenching for me, Gwendolyn. You are so right; I must try to put more heart in my shows in future. That said, I put it in the Project Room. The two photos there are images of 27-year-old artist Wade Schaming’s mom, who is struggling with dementia. There aren’t any easy answers in those images. I hung them knowing full well that every time I looked at them, I would have to think about my own mom, who passed away a year-and-a-half ago—from dementia—and say to myself, “but this is not that.”

GWENDOLYN ADDS: I remembered this, and that’s the “wee bit” I was referring to, the Project Room, though a little tucked away. You gave us a little bit of your heart. That photograph I took of Paulius’ iPad [Berlin-based Paulius Nosokas has videos on display in the Project Room]: while his video “Light+Time=Form” was running, the iPad held the reflection of Wade’s “Mom and Storage Shed.” It seemed apropos to me, that moment. The reflection put her in another place, another dimension, not accessible to us, or anyone.

SARAH: Thanks. Before you even wrote this I was going to tell you that I think it’s possible, as a curator, to make choices that are well thought out without necessarily being linear or programmatic. In this respect I’ve been very influenced by the radical art historian Aby Warburg ,who died in 1929 (Luis Perez-Oramas of MoMA turned me on to him). Also by Hudson, of Feature gallery, who makes idiosyncratic yet totally trackable decisions in what he chooses to hang. By writing about art, I’ve gotten to work both sides of the fence, and find that, well, there isn’t one.

John Szarkowski once said that the act of photographing is essentially one of pointing, of saying, “hey, look at THIS.” It’s an over simplification to say that that’s what I did with this show. Yet it’s true. I also had to face things I might not otherwise like to look at in myself in the “pointing” process. You said, while we were standing in the show, that you run from the word “curator” like dodging a bullet, and I couldn’t agree more. Somebody ought to help us find a better word, since we’re both convinced that there’s more art in curating than “simply academics” or “craft.” Let’s consider that an open call.

SUGAR is located at 449 Troutman Street, #3-5, Third Floor, and is open Friday–Sunday, 12–6pm, by appointment only.

NORTE MAAR is located at 83 Wyckoff Avenue, #1B, and is open Saturdays and Sundays, 1–6pm, as well as by appointment.


STOREFRONT BUSHWICK is located at 16 Wilson Avenue and is open Saturdays and Sundays, 1–6pm.


45Projects is a virtual exhibition space run by Berlin-based artist Paulius Nosokas and Sarah Schmerler. It is located at www.45projects.com.

The Gallerist—It’s Always Valentine’s Day in Ridgewood

“The Pile” by Mike Ballou exhibited at Valentine Gallery, last month. Photo courtesy of Valentine Gallery

“The Pile” by Mike Ballou exhibited at Valentine Gallery, last month. Photo courtesy of Valentine Gallery

Ridgewood’s Valentine Gallery boasts a not-so-whopping 550 square feet of programmable space—not counting its tiny “gift shop.” But what’s on display there is choice: well-chosen fare by local artists you wish someone would have the balls to show more often. Thanks to Fred Valentine—its owner, curator, and man-about-studio—the married artists Lawrence Swan and Lori Ellison got to display their individually impressive artistic oeuvres in unison (they’re a local couple no one had thought to exhibit together before); Mike Ballou got to stack his papier maché animal heads (“Bitey” the shark, “Rickey” the rat) up to the ceiling like some colorful, shamanistic totem; and later this month, painter Andrew Moszinski exhibits wallpaper of people in mid-coitus and paintings in gouache.

Valentine forged his curatorial program in the school of hard knocks by way of pure insight. The former co-founder of The Mustard Factory and Galapagos’ Curator, he came to Ridgewood in 1999 long before it was on the greater artworld’s mental map. (He came to W’burg in 1984.) Along the way he’s set up studios, raised a family, and found ways to give back to his artistic community. Valentine, at 464 Seneca Avenue, began in July of 2011.

In person, he’s a charmingly gruff sweetheart-of-a-guy, with some honest and brave ideas about where things have been, and where, if anywhere, they might be going. P.S. His only request, when we scheduled the interview, was that we refer to him as “ruggedly handsome.” Happy to oblige.

SS—Fred, I just want to start out by saying how ruggedly handsome you look today. FV—Why thank you. But you didn’t have to say that. I was just kidding.

We’re standing here in your gift shop. Could you point out some of the objects for sale? Tote bags by Jane Dickson for $20. A book of photography by Chris Verene for $65. Original felt-tip pen sketchbook drawings by Lori Ellison for $200. A Tamara Gonzales spray-paint on canvas for $350. The gift shop is six by eight feet right now, but we’ll be expanding.

Those are some amazing bargains. It’s sort of my version of the Flat Files without being a flat file. “Art for under $500” or something like that. For my part, I take 25% off anything under a grand.
A very compassionate profit ratio for artists; how do you pull that off? This way, an artist can easily walk away with $375 in their pocket, and that helps—buy materials, pay bills. On the buyer’s end, I’ve got a killer installment plan.

It’s called the Valentine Lay Away Plan. I have a number of people buying “on time,” and I’ll go up to three payments, so nobody’s hurting, everybody benefits. I learned that from Mary-Ann Monforton: if everyone involved is a winner and there are no losers, then it’s a perfect formula for success and everything’s right with the world.

Speaking of what’s “right” with the world, or just plain weird: what do you think of Williamsburg as a neighborhood lately? I walked down the waterfront, and I hadn’t been there in a while, and I didn’t even recognize it: glass towers, walkways, and people in their tennis whites. I don’t see a recession in Williamsburg. I mean it’s really nice and all. But, there’s a Rite Aid—on Kent Avenue. Before, I could never imagine anyone wanting to hang out there after dark.

How’s Ridgewood striking you of late? More of the same in store? I saw my first Trustafarian begging with one of those sad little pit bulls on Myrtle Avenue the other day. And I paid $10 for a pint of beer. So yeah, the same things are happening out here.

What made you start Valentine? After Galapagos I wanted to do something new. For my part, the way I see it is, on the one hand, there are so many artists out there that don’t deserve to be shown. There are so many art schools that just crank them out. Back when I was in school if you couldn’t cut the mustard you were asked to leave. They didn’t take your money. But that said, there are also so many artists that do deserve to be shown. So far my range of showing has been in the 30- to 60-year-old range. Older artists who still have a passion for making the work, but they have given up on pushing it, you know? Those are the people that I like to show—and maybe give then a little kick in the butt in the process.

Tell us about Williamsburg, c. 1990. We started Club Mustard. I had a studio on Lorimer and Richardson, and then on Metropolitan there was an old abandoned mustard factory. I had just returned from Dublin—a bunch of us had just gone to Ireland—to do a large brave performance called “Cat’s Head,” and we decided we wanted to do it here, do this art happening, not like a one weekend event, but permanently. It was at 60 Metropolitan, and at our first event we had over 2,500 people show up. It was called Organism. People from all over the world, mostly Europe,
came. We charged ten bucks to enter. And then we gave it ALL to the artists, split it up. [laughs]

Money for artists. Wow. Do you feel it was a success? Yes, a huge success. We had anything from live bands to dance parties to raise money for the space. I did a thing along with Jessica Nissen called “Paintings and Unrelated Stories” and it was two weekends of painting and storytelling—Bruce Pearson, Laura Newman, Chris Martin. They started up around 3:00 in the afternoon. I made a stage and grew grass on it so the storytellers would have actual grass to sit in. People would tell stories for families in the afternoon, but then, as the night went on, it became more and and more adult, until 3 in the morning it became like Charles Bukowski on amphetamines.

It sounds like you’ve always come up with unique ways to show art and promote artists. What sort of art-show format might we have seen at Galapagos? I had this thing called “Pek” [“peek”] where we would give an artist the space at Galapagos one day a month, and it was like a big giant studio visit, you could invite anyone you wanted. The artist had access to our lighting, our sound. It was a way to make money for the bar on a Tuesday, which was a slow night. I wanted everyone to be a winner. The artists invited friends, collectors, anyone, and after a while we started to get our own group of collectors. It gave the artists visibility and a chance for interaction. I remember visiting a girl living in a railroad flat, where she’d take her paintings off the stretcher and tack them over each other, and when I wanted to look at the paintings she’d would have to peel them off in layers. That wasn’t one of the most effective ways of looking at art. I figured we can do something else, better.

Name another Galapagos-era alt-show format. “Familiar Strangers” was a salon-style open call to anyone in the neighborhood. They could bring in any artwork under two feet and we would hang it. It was called familiar strangers because once they did that they were no longer strangers; everyone got to meet each other.

What kind of changes have you seen in the last couple of decades in the art scene, both here in Williamsburg, and in general? I think I see a hell of a lot more artists that approach it like a path to fame rather than a passion for making art—a necessity, a need. I see a lot of kids who wind up owing 50–75 grand and they got a degree in painting from School of Visual Arts and they can’t afford to live the Boho life. So they just have to start making stuff that’s “acceptable.” I believe it was Barbara Kruger who said, “It all starts looking like homework” and I think that’s what it is. A lot of artists want, need, to be surrounded by people who give them only positive reinforcement, and not the real world, not the world at large. That’s why I originally moved to New York: for the diversity. That’s what makes Queens so special.

I don’t want to sound like too much of a curmudgeon, though. There truly are a number of really good, dedicated, passionate artists in this little scene here. Young kids, older people. Ethan Pettit is opening a gallery here. I like what Kevin Regan’s doing. I like a lot of the artists at English Kills. Meg Hitchcock, she’s fantastic. Matthew Miller. It’s really an exciting time.
Hey, do you want to hear a hipster joke? Okay.
How did the hipster burn his mouth? How?
He ate pizza before it was cool.

Andrew Moszinski, “Recent Work,” at Valentine Gallery
November 18–December 11, 2011
464 Seneca Avenue, Ridgewood, Queens 11385

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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