By WILLOW GOLDSTEIN, JAN. 2015
There is only standing room left as the first artist begins to delve into her current body of work. Pale legs opened wide appear on the walls, the projector washing out some of their hues, as the captivated audience listens. For eight minutes, the artist tells us where the ideas for the paintings come from, about her artistic process, and real life anecdotes masked in the lexicon of art school. The speaker is artist Kelsey Shwetz, who soon would become the Director of Exhibitions for Bushwick Art Crit Group.
Moving past the media headlines dubbing Bushwick Hipster Heaven and The 7th Coolest Neighborhood in the World, what does being an artist in Bushwick actually mean? As Bushwick Art Crit Group (BACG) founder Christopher Stout will tell you, “It’s not just the fact that Bushwick is where people are making it, it’s that the things that are going on at this point in our history are of crucial importance and are changing the game.” There is real passion here, demonstrated by both the DIY attitude that crams art shows into basements, rooftops, and tiny apartments as well as the work being exhibited at some of the neighborhood’s top galleries.
While artist salons and crit groups aren’t new to NYC, there was a lack in the artist-saturated North Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick in the Spring of 2013. Surveying the landscape, Stout saw a neighborhood brimming with galleries and artists, but he wanted to do something different. Previously having presented his work in the Lower East Side group E32, run by artist Linda Griggs, Stout realized that this forum could be brought to the neighborhood.
BACG generally meets monthly on the third Wednesday of every month. Each presentation usually opens with a note from Christopher, a quick story of how he met the artist and a ringing of praise for their work. The event offers something unique, an evening without the cold face that the art world sometimes shows. Especially for younger artists, forming your presentation demands that you synthesize your body of work in order to clearly convey yourself.
Stout saw starting the crit group as a way to engage the neighborhood, a project that would be interesting to him as well as to the community. Peer-to-peer critiquing would not only be a chance to understand the philosophy of a person’s work, but it would provide a networking platform in a democratic format. Anyone could present and, while the calls for artists were frequent at the beginning, crit sessions get booked up in advance now. But still, BACG is open to everyone, all you have to do is reach out.
Sessions are never grouped according to a visual theme and the media varies from presenter to presenter; however, crit does follow the discourse in the art world and contextualizes crits to focus on issues such as the underrepresentation of woman in the arts. BACG has organized special promo crits for events such as Bushwick Open Studios (BOS), gallery exhibitions of past presenters, and organized groups shows in fairs, such as Echo Art Fair.
Since it’s inaugural crit in March 2013, BACG has grown from a visionary of one to a team of five, including Daniel Plaxe, Director of Development, Kelsey Shwetz, Director of Exhibitions, Eric Gottshall, Director of BACG Artist Film Library, and Drew Van Diest, Director of Social Media and E-commerce. Through various coincidences, Stout met the five of them, separately, last year during Miami Art Fair Week although the partnerships formed independently once they were back in NYC.
BACG’s growth over the past two years has been consistent and organic. In the beginning, presenting artists invited a handful of their friends, but now crit carries a clout of it’s own and the events are packed. While their audience has grown alongside them, crit nights are still first and foremost about the artwork. For eight to ten minutes, all eyes fall on the speaker. Some chose to talk about the technical execution of their work while others weave a tale of their lives. While questions are asked of the artist during the presentation, the discussion usually carries on at the bar afterwards.
BACG is now a fiscally sponsored non-profit through Fractured Atlas. While the first year was exclusively about the crit, new members brought new strengths. Shwetz, Plaxe, Gottshall, and Van Diest each brought with them an area of expertise and the second year has seen exhibitions, fairs, panels, and books added to the BACG repertoire. Despite this success, Stout says that they have reached the breadth of what they want to focus on. The upcoming year will be about excelling in their current work, particularly building the BACG Film Library and promoting artists via their Instagram account, which features artists at work in their studios.
BACG showcased nine artists and continued their book fair, a curated selection of hardcover artist books, at Select Fair in Miami. Artists have been categorized according to the following: the subversives, the post feminists, and the category expanders. Stout says of the selection process, “[it was] about looking at our program over the past two years as a lens for the most exceptional work we’ve seen in Bushwick and trying to really codify what it means to be in the arts in Bushwick. We know where it’s located, we know who is there, but it was really trying to put some definitions about what it means.”
The subversives will feature the work of Meryl Meisler, Andrew Cornell Robinson, and Phoenix Lindsay-Hall. Collectively, their work challenges the status-quo. The post feminists addresses the underrepresentation of women in the arts and presents the work of Lisa Levy, Alison Brady, Beata Chrzanowska, and Kelsey Shwetz. This definer is not directly about the work, but about the artists themselves. They embody the idea of the title. The category expanders is a collection of artists who are reapproaching what is means to be a painter, a photographer, or any artist working to expand the field of their area of expertise. Artists Thomas Stevenson, Drew Van Diest, Eric Gottshall, and Andrea Wolf were crucial in communicating this ingenuity.
So what does it mean to be involved in the arts in Bushwick in 2014? The media buzz focused on Bushwick for the past few years often only captures the surface of what is happening. “People think it’s this hipster-whatever, but no, it’s hot, it’s hard, it’s exciting, it’s raw - it literally picks you up and makes you pay attention,” WM
Willow Goldstein is a writer in New York.view all articles from this author