At first glance, Bushwick looks like a collection of random, disconnected artists from all over the country who came to New York to “make it.” They came to this neighborhood for its abundance of available studio space, and a community developed organically simply because of proximity.
Still, there are aesthetic and cultural similarities that link artists in Bushwick together. However, to identify what’s happening in Bushwick requires not only a lot of consideration, but careful positioning. Artists tend to get annoyed when lumped into categories.
Regionalism is the linchpin of Bushwick artists. Bushwick is the last neighborhood in New York to exhibit a kind of regional specificity: Williamsburg and Greenpoint have arguably been assimilated into the general New York cultural zeitgeist (a k a the international art world), and in fact, several of the best Williamsburg galleries have since moved to Chelsea (Schroeder Romero & Shredder) and the Lower East Side (Klaus Von Nichtssagend).
Bushwick is similar to Hackney in London and Neukölln (formerly Kreuzberg) in Berlin. These affordable neighborhoods have become centers of emerging art and are sprinkled with artist-run exhibition spaces and apartment galleries, just like Bushwick.
Bushwick-based artists, typically transplants from the Midwest, experienced the surprise of ending up at an opening at Pocket Utopia in 2007 or 2008 and realizing how enormous their community is. Based on the overwhelming number of artists participating in Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) 2011 (especially those who weren’t even included in the over 400+ open space list), I’m guessing that Bushwick now houses not hundreds, but thousands of artists.
You can spot them from a mile away, especially when they’re showing in Manhattan. Painter Andy Piedilato’s (b. 1974, Bushwick 2007) ginormous canvas stood out like a sore thumb at the Independent 2010; defying international trends, Piedilato continues to barrel forward with his aggressive, unapologetic project of making nautical paintings on boat-sized canvases.
But the neighborhood itself has already hit critical mass (or terminal velocity) in which the shows mounted by artist-run spaces, such as Through the Warp at Regina Rex, which included a Lawrence Weiner, are getting really good. Artists’ studios are also becoming formidable and citable cross-sections of what’s being made today, such as the show that painter Mike Olin curated in his studio, Purple Nurple, which presented 10 painters all working in a provisional style.
An excellent example of this style (which has arguably become emblematic of the work being made in Bushwick) is perhaps best represented by the unmonumental paintings of Brooke Moyse (b. 1979, Bushwick 2008). The daring color combinations and intensive layering of paint in Moyse’s small, subtle, yet oddly powerful canvases underscore her seriousness despite their intentionally provisional finish.
In the wake of the global economic downturn, many artists in Bushwick work as artists’ assistants, art handlers, and gallery assistants, while others keep day jobs at giant international corporations like McGraw-Hill or DDB. Working and exhibiting in Bushwick is a way of exercising control in a world without financial control.
This is not to say that a Bushwick artist would turn down a commercial gallery show. They wouldn’t. But maintaining full-time jobs is what gives them the freedom to experiment in their work and their exhibition spaces.
The DIY attitude has been echoing throughout American culture, where there is a sudden but growing interest in organic rooftop gardens, private apiaries, composting, moonshine, environmental sustainability, and home-grown rabbits. We are witnessing a return to making as American identity, a kind of spiritual therapy for the national zeitgeist in a time of crisis.
Similarly, there is a consistent trend of making things by hand in the Bushwick art community. Material dictates form, and intuition trumps conventional logic. Sculptor Brent Owens (b. 1979, Bushwick 2007) hand-carves wooden sculptures with a whittling knife that reference obscure crafts from the American south, and he frequently serves homemade moonshine at his openings. There is an economy of scale in Bushwick. Work tends to be small, pieced together, made with affordable materials. The lack of polish lends to its perceived authenticity.
Artists work in their apartments, dirty studios, and in backyards, typically without assistants or professional facilities. This resurgence of making things of quality by hand has fueled a return to process-driven studio practices. Painter Matthew Miller’s (b. 1981, Bushwick 2006) studio is in his apartment, where he makes slightly distorted, domestic-sized self-portraits on traditional, high-gloss black backgrounds. Miller’s paintings, which recall Antonello da Messina’s (Sicily, c. 1430 – 1479) highly emotive close-up portraits in oil, would under normal circumstances be ignored as the work of a reactionary figurative painter. Yet, when his five nude self-portraits, heavily layered with pentimenti, on their stark black backgrounds, were presented in the narrow, oppressively white Famous Accountants gallery in Bushwick, it was clear Miller is winking at us from behind the camera; his paintings address the history and current issues of painting itself.
These emerging artists are diametrically opposed to fetish-finished Jeff Koons, hyper-commercial Takashi Murakami, and the international fabrication standard of Roxy Paine. Particularly in Bushwick, the homemade quality of things, and the immediacy of their creation, supersedes professional fabrication and commercial salability. The neighborhood’s hodgepodge, pieced-together industrial landscape is echoed in its aesthetic language.
Historical guideposts include Robert Rauschenberg (1925 – 2008), Lynda Benglis (b. 1941), and Jessica Stockholder (b. 1959). Sculptor Ben Godward (b. 1980, Bushwick 2007) uses polyurethane foam in large, colorful sculptures, which are frequently compared to Benglis, yet Godward brings a detachment and abandon to his sculptures that is unique. One of his works, which was over 20 feet long, had to be physically chipped off the floor of Famous Accountants. Benglis’s and Stockholder’s solitary studio practices and almost mystical connection to materials, and Rauschenberg’s lighthearted drunkenness during interviews, spring to mind while traversing the Bushwick gallery circuit.
This is a rejection of the conceptually-driven practices of the 1980s and ’90s. Artists in Bushwick tend to position themselves in opposition to conceptual critical theory; you’d be hard-pressed to find a Jeff Wall (b. 1946) photograph or an Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) installation. Instead, they rely on process (how stuff is made), aesthetic (what it looks like), and intuition (what they felt like doing). They employ materials found in their immediate surroundings to speak to the present moment. Actually making work seems to be more meaningful for this group than developing a complex theoretical reasoning for what they make.
Sculptor Elle Murphy (b. 1964, Bushwick 2001) recalls working as a conceptual artist, and then, she told me, “I woke up in the middle of the night and realized, ‘I have to make a great big green yarn thing.’” Constructed of materials native to children’s craft projects (yarn, beads, foil) and associated with women’s work (braiding, weaving), Murphy’s colorful and typically room-sized sculptures and installations nod at Feminism while standing independently as powerful formal works.
No one has written a manifesto for Bushwick. But do we need one? A manifesto closes doors and limits possibilities. Bushwick is the last regional art-producing neighborhood in New York, and as such, our manifesto would probably be something like, “I am going to make what I want and I don’t give a shit what you think.”
Artists in Bushwick are distinctly American artists, displaying the pioneering attitude of small business entrepreneurs and a stubborn push toward new frontiers. For Bushwick to realize its full potential, however, it needs to engage in an increasingly close dialog with the work being made elsewhere in the city—if only to reject it outright. Bushwick needs to become more critical of itself, enter a period of self-analysis, locate itself in a specific art-historical context, and, yes, produce a written polemic—without which, all our efforts, at least in terms of history, might disappear.
This article was originally seen in print in The Brooklyn Rail July issue.