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ABXY Gallery: A Question of Intention

Allison Barker's guest artist Bettina Werner, who is known as "the Salt Queen" with Leo Castelli.

By KURT MCVEY, Feb. 2018 

In 2015, around the same time the budding, independent art advisor Allison Barker was nurturing young artists and selling their work out of her SoHo apartment, Culturefix-a hybrid bar, gallery and event space on Clinton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side-was shuddering its doors after a successful, at times challenging, but indisputably groundbreaking five-year run. At peak stride, Culturefix was working in tandem with Superchief Gallery, an ever-growing, irreverent, post-punk art collective that now boasts at least two successful but wilder, warehouse-sized gallery spaces in tough but gentrifying neighborhoods on each American coast (Ridgewood, Queens & Downtown LA). This former, craft beer-fueled curatorial collaboration, which fostered a quirky Warholian Factory meets CBGB’s sanctuary vibe, in conjunction with an organic interest in local community engagement, helped Culturefix establish itself as the best “art bar” in America (Complex, 2014) at a time when the LES and NY at large were struggling to reestablish a relevant and youthful cultural identity a decade into the new millennium.  

Mentioning the admittedly corny-named “Culturefix” in certain downtown circles is capable of inducing similar nostalgic yearnings as the above-mentioned, now legendary cultural hubs, but without the requisite time and proper context for this distinction to fully marinate. After Culturefix closed, the floor-through duplex at 9 Clinton St. remained empty for over two years (sans the occasional, forgettable pop-up), primarily due to counter-productive commercial tax incentives and a predatory landlord whose shady, destructive dealings were made known throughout the neighborhood. Luckily, this toxic real-estate despot was pushed into greener pastures and the building eventually changed hands. Serendipitously, right around this time, Barker was ready to move her operation into a proper brick and mortar space.

Bettina Werner, Salt and mixed media 

In October 2017, Barker, who started her art world journey with an internship at Marlborough Gallery, unveiled her debut exhibition, a group show featuring young artists within her close network. Many of these artists were conveniently utilizing the gallery’s lowest floor (Culturefix’s old bar space) as a working studio. The show was appropriately titled, Now We Here and featured work by Corey Wash, Vernon O’Meally, Malik Roberts, Zeehan Wazed (responsible for the adjacent street mural that replaced a work by Yok & Sheryo), Sam Fryer and Grave Guzman.  

The work in Now We Here wasn’t exactly terrible, but it wasn’t exactly good either. Viewing art is a subjective experience as we know and it’s absolutely true that we like what we like. That being said, there is an objective, universal through-line upon which most credible, proven voices in the art world can agree. Our eyes, our hearts, our souls continually ask: Is this work an expression of a unique voice? Does this artist have an eye for composition? Is there an original aesthetic? Does this artist have something to say or is this work blatantly derivative, way too green for earnest public consumption, or generally uninspired? Now We Here declared, with peacocking swag no less, a bold new arrival, but of what exactly?  

To be clear, Barker deserves an immense amount of credit and goodwill for nurturing these young artists, not to mention anteing up and throwing down as a young female entrepreneur in a tough economy and unforgiving NYC small-business ecosystem. It could be noted here that many of these young artists are people of color and/or women, but does this disqualify or isolate them from receiving honest critical feedback? 

Bettina Werner, Salt and mixed media

It could be said that the opinion of a white, cis-male art writer in his early thirties isn’t needed or wanted, but upon closer inspection, the value of this work and the artists’ general opinion of themselves are clearly and grossly inflated. Though Barker has created an admirable, all inclusive space where work is made, incubated, shown, sold and stored, the echo chamber vibe is just a bit too conspicuous for everyone except those operating within its confines-the downtown art gallery equivalent of a carbon monoxide leak.  

Boesky East, an annex of the normally exciting Marianne Boesky Gallery, which opened across the street from Culturefix like a pretentious barnacle in the spring of 2014, suffered from a similar myopia, though with a different set of resources and an admittedly built-in cultural cache. This didn’t prevent the gallery from vanishing within two years like a fart in the wind. Marianne Boesky claimed the decision to close was based on the “interests and needs of our artists” and has since consolidated and simultaneously grown her Chelsea space, but the fact remains, the Boesky East experiment was, if not a failure, then at least a waste of space.  

This is what makes ABXY’s latest exhibition all the more intriguing, if not a tad baffling, as it is an extreme departure from what Barker’s mission appeared to be: a fresh space for young, marginalized, “outsider” artists doing their thing, naysayers be damned. This mission isn’t a huge departure from what Superchief Gallery did and still does. The difference is, those guys are surprisingly self-aware in regard to who and what they are and who and what they’re showing. More importantly, the “why” remains consistent.

On Tuesday, February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day, Barker opened her latest exhibition, a solo show with the Italian artist, Bettina Werner (born 1965), also known as “The Salt Queen.” The Enlivening Velvet Heart brought together a broad selection of Werner’s colorful salt works, each in a gorgeous (at times gaudy) frame and teased with God or Eve’s (Werner’s) mischievous finger, creating sensual crevices, mini-mountains and simple phrases that push us to examine the elemental nature of our existence. It is by far the best show in ABXY’s brief history. It also doesn’t seem to shy away from the halfway to Hallmark nature of the work on display or its rather strategic timing with Valentine’s Day. At the opening, besides the full, open bar replete with handsome black-tie waiters, Barker served up custom lollipops and cookies made by Werner herself, which directly mirrored the aesthetics of the salt paintings. It was a playful touch.

Barker’s audience created a strange if not playful juxtaposition with Werner’s crowd, who, though small in number, shuffled around a bit uncomfortably, as if they stumbled into an undergrad dorm room party as visiting PhD alumni. All in all, the vibes at an ABXY opening are good and to see Werner and Barker, these two women, both risk-takers from disparate countries and generations uniting under one roof was cool to see.

Bettina Werner, Salt and mixed media 

"I like to embrace the vibrant and energetic young generation,” says an always buoyant Werner. “My foundation, The Salt Queen Foundation, has always been in direct relationship with up-and-comers within the art world and finding innovative creativity. I appreciate Allison Barker's background of working for one of the most historically powerful galleries in New York, The Marlborough Gallery, and wanted to show my support for her venturing out on her own; especially in Lower Manhattan, where I have been living and working since the early nineties." 

Context is everything in the art world, whether you’re a new gallery, a young artist trying to get a grip on your particular niche, or if you’re someone like Bettina Werner, who landed in New York City in 1989 without the blessing of her family and only a few dollars in her pocket. Nevertheless she went on to establish a successful, enduring international practice. Not long after her arrival as an aspiring artist, Werner began ingratiating herself into the downtown art scene. She soon struck up a fast friendship with famed dealer Leo Castelli. They bonded over the love of their respective Dalmatians. Leo had his Patrick and Bettina had her Tibino. You can actually see this enduring love for this particularly spotted breed in every dollop of splotchy dark pigment in Werner’s work. Though Werner never worked or showed directly with Castelli, she did establish a professional relationship with Marisa del Re, an influential dealer and female pioneer in NYC who gave Werner her first show in 1991 at her eponymous 57th Street gallery.

Much like her gallerist, Werner was also a pioneer, not only with her medium, but also as a woman in a man’s world, at a time when that really meant something. A tour through several decades of the artist’s imagery showcases Werner’s seemingly performative inclusion of her inherent sexuality, not solely as a woman, but as a young, vibrant human whose physical and emotional connection with the chosen material is a more than essential ingredient in the larger transfiguration process. Sex is salty. Salt is sexy.

Bettina Werner at work.

When taking in The Enlivening Velvet Heart, which collectively, in a retrospective capacity, does begin to create a unique, at times metaphysical doorway into a larger understanding of our material and existential makeup, one wishes Werner would go a bit deeper into her own experiences, thoughts, anxieties, desires and insecurities. For this exhibition, manifesting now in the super-saturated 2018 landscape, somehow less isn’t exactly more, especially since we feel like we’re being asked to appreciate this body of work like it was made yesterday, while ignoring the fact that the fruitful ripples of its initial splash, once seismic, have settled calmly into the oceanic art history cannon. That being said, if anyone is the rightful steward to recontextualize these works in a contemporary setting and for a new generation, it might be the audacious Barker.  

Werner’s father passed away this winter, which the artist relayed to me during a studio visit in early December. It hit her deeply, as one could imagine. “A father is a daughter’s first love!” states Werner. "My dad and I have always had a unique bond; he gave me the freedom to conquer my own destiny. I'm grateful to him. This exhibition is for my dad.”

Werner hopes to return to Milan in the near future to renovate a country villa that her father left to her and her siblings and dreams of turning the estate and its grounds into a personal gallery, archive, museum, studio and international residency space. Based on Werner’s impressive history, there is no doubt that she will execute this grand vision. Though The Enlivening Velvet Heart leaves healthy room for even healthier criticism, both Werner and Barker seemed to be there for each other exactly when it counts most.

For the many art and culture lovers who remember what this space accomplished in the past, the pressure is on for Barker, not only to live up to Culturefix, but also to surpass it in cultural and community relevance. Whether she cares is her business, literally. Werner’s current show might have been the perfect exhibition (see: backdrop) for an affordable bottle of blended Portuguese red and some small, haphazardly thrown together tapas. The show might even be better suited to Culturefix’s famed, private, prohibition-style after hours, when the front gate would be drawn, the rusted “hand chair” brought inside and the front door secured, while only a select few would be invited to remain behind, to wax poetic into the wee hours, play the music too loud, drink from a special reserve, willingly join the “five steps down club” or perhaps twist and burn a few too many to ashes. Alas, in ABXY Gallery, the work stands alone, for better or worse. WM

 

Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.

photo by Monet Lucki

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