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Williamsburg Art Scene
Cindy Moore

"Chasing the New"


It’s Soho with coolers of beer instead of glasses of wine; Chelsea without the architectural grandeur; a Manhattan crowd with less black, more corduroy, and a similar amount of hair products.

Over the past ten years Williamsburg, Brooklyn has gone through a drastic (if not unfamiliar) transformation. Like many of its formerly less desirable counterparts (D.U.M.B.O., Chelsea, Soho) the fine art of gentrification has transformed this once industrial town on the outskirts of Manhattan into a haven of hip. Where once there were factories and "slums," slick cafes and trendy bars now reside. And galleries, don’t forget the galleries. With several per block, the Williamsburg fleet of art venues provides an ever increasing bevy of opportunities for the hipster connoisseur.

As with most capitalist fairytales of urban reclamation, the forerunners of this particular wide spread gentrification movement were artists. When the industries abandoned Brooklyn for greener pastures, wherever they were, prospective gallery owners and artists quickly moved in. Affordable, large, and not entirely legal, the industrial spaces beckoned the hordes, promising cheap rent, at least for a time, in exchange for some uncomfortable years of having to inhabit sketchy, marginal neighborhoods. Strong in numbers these artists came and the paint stained trickle has led to a near flood of émigrés, many of them, like myself, straight from art school.

One could contemplate the koan of which came first the galleries or the artists, but needless to say they have both arrived in astounding numbers. With over forty area art venues, some residents loftily remark (in the spirit of Williamsburg’s particular brand of reverse-snobbery) that there is no need to even venture into Manhattan to gallery hop because all the best ones are a mere block away in the relative comfort of Brooklyn.

The galleries, like the new band of residents, vary in terms of ambition and funding. Downscaled versions of the traditional museum aesthetic, they are generally a little rough around the edges, yet they manage to maintain a level of professional that translates into respectability. A number of spaces take this white cube aesthetic to the extreme with miniscule viewing areas that are literally the front room of an artist/curator’s living space open to the public. Other, more established galleries, like Pierogi2000, offer near replicas of the traditional gallery setting. But this is different; this, after all, is Brooklyn.

Although the scale and magnitude differs considerably from venue to venue, the promise is the same. What Williamsburg is selling is the illusion of the contemporary. On the surface it is an alternative to the art world of Manhattan, offering a wide canvas to "new" artists with "new" approaches to a "new" audience. The validity of these claims can be debated on most fronts, but the appeal of the effort is notable. The currency of contemporary art resides in this ideal of freshness. The excitement is inherent in the unpredictability of these venues; for the time being they can afford to take chances and that’s where the real opportunity for "newness" resides, in the ability to fall on one’s face.

Many of the shows in the area do just that. Derivative, painfully ironic, overly amateurish; more often than not, these shows disappoint. Perhaps it is in light of this possibility (in some cases inevitability) that the successful exhibitions provide such excitement. The lack of a curatorial "safety-net" allows for the actual possibility of surprise, newness, and originality; and in the case of failure at least the opportunity to enjoy the carnage in style.

Calculatedly casual, Williamsburg openings are further examples of the infestation of the cool. Not only is it unnecessary to dress the part of more upscale openings, it is discouraged. The art-school uniform of the creative middle to lower class is the norm, making it easy to spot the newcomers to the area by their "pedantic" insistence on black turtlenecks and blazers. These figures are still deferred to, of course, as they may represent an important islander scouting out participants for his/her next Chelsea show.

The traditional wine and cheese event is not unheard of, but for the most part Brooklyn galleries offer respectable quantities of beer (often at a price,) and as a patron it is not inappropriate to carry around a paper-lined forty-ounce for personal libation throughout the evening. This speaks not only to the "laid-back" atmosphere of the crowds "just in it for the art" but also of the geographical/industrial past of the town. Once a major site for breweries, Williamsburg and beer share a long, heady relationship. The only historical remnant of this now extant trend is the comparatively new Brooklyn Brewery. The brewery located on North 11th Street not only supplies the beer for most of the surrounding art venues, it also showcases local artists in its large seating area. Further blurring the lines between art and party, many local bars and restaurants follow suit; the most ambitious example being Galapagos, which serves as performance space, exhibition venue, and gallery intermittently, while continuing to serve consistently large crowds of bar dwellers as well.

Gallery receptions are social events by nature, but in Williamsburg the swank dinner-party feel of Manhattan openings can translate into all-out beer bashes, closer to an artistic frat party than cultural event. Such was the case when Deitch Brooklyn hosted its grand opening/closing in the summer of 2001 with a multi-media, live web cast performance by the artistic collaborative known as FakeShop. The event was a momentus one; Deitch was the first highly respected Soho gallery to make the jump across the river, confirming Williamsburg’s rite of passage.

For this grand occasion the aforementioned Brooklyn Brewery, conveniently located across the street, donated one hundred cases of beer. The raw space of the new (and soon to vanish) gallery was epic to Williamsburg standards, and still it could not contain the swell of people. Outside the gallery, the scene was more like a block party than a reception. The excitement was palpable— it felt like the entire art community converged at this one moment. That night Williamsburg felt like the Lower East Side in the eighties; a literal Who’s Who of the art world drinking beer with the common practitioners and local personalities. Deitch was never to host another show at that venue; it is unclear whether the mainstream was not quite ready for Williamsburg or vice versa.

For now, what the Williamsburg galleries have to offer is a temporary alternative. Not that the galleries are fleeting (although a complete listing may show that several will not make it past the point of this publication) but that the solution is of a temporary nature. The energy invested in a new area, or in any investment into the "contemporary" in general, is bound to dwindle with every success. Alternatives lose their status upon acceptance; the ultimate fate of the next best thing is the realization that by nature there must be another in the horizon.

Like Chelsea in the early eighties or Soho in the decade before, Williamsburg has entered the mainstream. Although Williamsburg has an anti-franchise law barring the seemingly inevitable invasion of Starbucks and The Gap, the influx of attention that these galleries have garnered has already begun to out-price the artists that live in the area, causing a new exodus into "unclaimed" areas. Thus continues the cycle. It’s the Darwinian theory of gentrification; being the forerunners of cool only truly works for the quick on their feet, for the rest are bound to get run out by the same wheels they set in motion.

In the meantime, relax; have a beer… Williamsburg is old news by now anyway.


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