An Upbeat Moment for a Downtrodden Area

Holland Cottter, The New York Times, December 1, 2007

Things are changing fast. In the last few years several new galleries have put down roots. Canada, Cucchifritos, FusionArts, Participant Inc., Reena Spaulings and Rivington Arms led the way, later joined by Miguel Abreu Gallery and the artist-run Orchard; more recently James Fuentes, Fruit and Flower Deli, Smith-Stewart, Sunday, Eleven Rivington and Thierry Goldberg have opened.


In addition, there are some transplants: Janos Gat and Luxe have moved down from the Upper East Side, 31 Grand from Williamsburg and Envoy from Chelsea, with Feature coming in January. And satellite spaces are popping up: Lehman Maupin (Chelsea), Greenberg Van Doren (57th Street), Salon 94 (Upper East Side) and Museum 52 (London) have all opened Lower East Side extensions.


Of the new crop, the start-ups are by far the most interesting. James Fuentes LLC is slightly below Canal Street in Chinatown, in a part of town remote enough to have kept traces of the past. One of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the United States is here, as is the Roman Catholic church for which the street, St. James Place, was named. The young Mr. Fuentes, who operates out of a wedge-shaped storefront, grew up in the area, and the art he favors smacks of the street, and of the post-punk music scene identified with the Lower East Side.


The artist on view now, Lizzi Bougatsos, is a member of the band Gang Gang Dance. The tentlike sculpture in her solo show was inspired by an encounter with a homeless person who made birdhouses. Her piece, assembled from found bits of cloth and cardboard, was conceived as a human-size version. Mr. Fuentes has ambitious plans for projects that will extend into the Lower East Side and relate to its history and character. For starters he has produced an excellent art map of the area, available at his gallery, with both existing and vanished galleries noted, perfect for an in-depth tour.


The scavenging punk spirit of Ms. Bougatsos’s work is shared, with certain refinements, by the artist Peter Gallo, who lives in rural Vermont and has an excellent show at Sunday. A collagist and draftsman of considerable invention, Mr. Gallo is also an art critic and historian, a psychiatric social worker and a wide-ranging reader and music lover, all of which comes through in intensely referential work that embraces Freud, Roland Barthes, Dusty Springfield, gay pornography and ornithology.


Mr. Gallo’s art has an insider-outsider look that can, in other hands, turn precious and generic, but he makes it work. I lingered over each piece, and if I had to choose a favorite artist from my tour, he would certainly be on the shortlist.


If I had to name a favorite gallery, the choice is clear: Fruit and Flower Deli, which feels like a work of art in itself thanks to its carefully stage-managed image. The gallery’s press material says it is an emanation of a goddess-muse named Snofrid, otherwise known as the Oracle, who is embodied in a painting of a mirror by Ylva Ogland, a Swedish artist represented by the Smith-Stewart gallery next door.


The concept is clearly borrowed from another local gallery, Reena Spaulings, named for a fictitious artist-dealer-writer, but with a kind of New Age aura added. Fruit and Flower’s director, Rodrigo Mallea Lira, who is married to Ms. Ogland, refers to himself as the Keeper, appointed by Snofrid, whom he speaks of with studied reverence. When I was there, traces remained of a recent performance, though they may be gone by now. (A Belgian collector snapped them up.)


In any case, a new show, “Son of Man,” opens today. It’s by the European collective called Friends International, which has agreed to pay the gallery’s rent for a year as part of an art project. As for what the opening holds, I can only tell you what the Oracle told me via the Keeper (via e-mail): At 3 p.m. there will be a sermon delivered, in which “someone will eventually say something,” in consequence of which “love will extend over time, building bridges.”


One of the great attractions of Fruit and Flower Deli is that it doesn’t feel as if it had been shipped in preassembled from elsewhere, which is the impression given by other recent arrivals.


Museum 52, for example, has not taken advantage of its move to the Lower East Side to experiment with the standard white-cube gallery format. But at least its inaugural group show, fittingly enough on the theme of display, has a stimulating mix of artists.


Sarah Greenberger Rafferty approaches the theme literally, with elaborately mounted photographs of souvenir plates. George Henry Longly renders it subliminal in paintings that fade into the wall. A sculpture of broken mirrors by Philip Hausmeier thwarts attempts at self-regard, while the talented young New York artist Sean Raspet turns transparent hair gel into an exhibition medium.


Lehman Maupin’s new space is an ideal place to see a beautiful installation by Do-Ho Suh: a sculpture, made from translucent fabric, of an arched gate he remembers from his parents’ house in Korea. Colored the blue-green of celadon porcelain, the sculpture is self-reflective, standing upright on a sheet of clear fabric suspended halfway up the gallery wall, with an identical image hanging upside down below. Because the new gallery space has a balcony, the piece can easily be seen from either vantage point. (Mr. Suh also has work at the gallery’s home base in Chelsea.)


Aïda Ruilova’s short video, “Lulu,” at Salon 94 Freemans turns the story of Wedekind’s theatrical femme fatale into a short, all-male psychodrama that feels like the resolution of a longer film we don’t see. Ms. Ruilova’s Gothic sensibility feels at home in a part of town once known as the last Manhattan frontier of a cultural underground. But I’ll miss the gallery this one replaces, Silo, which regularly offered an alternative to market-approved fare.


So does Janos Gat. Mr. Gat has long specialized in presenting European artists of an older generation little or never seen in New York, and he has made an excellent choice in this survey of paintings by Judit Reigl. Born in Budapest in 1923, she fled Hungary in 1950 for Paris. There her fantastic figurative work caught the eye of André Breton. But Surrealism per se held little interest for her, and she moved on to do a remarkable series of abstract paintings, changing her style to avoid settling into a routine.


The examples here run through the 1970s; rich in themselves, they document a career that fruitfully took alternative paths every step of the way.


Maybe “alternative” is just a sentimental notion. It has long been useful for selling art, but with the market so flush, nobody even needs it anymore. Yet some people still want it, and live it, and have a kind of faith in it: the “it” that can’t be mass-produced, can’t be packaged for museums, can’t even be made to make sense. Fruit and Flower’s zaniness is somewhere in this area. Mr. Fuentes has an instinct for far-outness that I hope he will cultivate.

Participant Inc. seems to be built on underground-culture foundations, which has always made its life a little chancy. Earlier this year this nonprofit gallery lost its space to rent increases. (Museum 52 is in there now.) Its new home in a former sex club turned coin laundry is raw, to say the least: dirt floor, battered brick walls, no heat. The place will be spiffed up for an official January opening. Meanwhile it’s a perfect setting for performances of a dark-toned play, “Erase,” by Tom Cole and the artist team Lovett/Codagnone (John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone), which has performances tonight and tomorrow.


Participant’s founder and director, Lia Gangitano, is a longtime Lower East Side habitué. She’s a connoisseur of shoestring operations. She knows the neighborhood’s hidden histories. So far she has kept afloat in a rising tide of gentrification that will almost certainly never recede.


It’s great for the art world that the New Museum has come to the Lower East Side — so much space! — and that Chelsea is staking colonial claims. But it’s even greater for art in the world, including New York City, that Ms. Gangitano has stayed.