Saturday, October 1, 2011
Guerilla Gallery Invades Chelsea
(This article was originally published in the New York Press in October 2004)
By Dylan Foley
Last Saturday, photographer Michele Gambetta was dressed for a downtown insurgency, wearing camouflage pants and a black shirt as she guarded her mobile art gallery in front of the Robert Miller Gallery on West 26th Street.
“Our goal is to provoke the galleries of Chelsea as best we can,” said the 38-year-old Gambetta, the comely founder of Art-Anon, a Williamsburg art collective, as she hustled perplexed tourists into the Rider Project, a gallery in the back of a truck.
Last week, the staid, pretentious art galleries of Chelsea got a shot of Williamsburg guerilla art, when the Rider Project parked in the area. The 15-foot truck, with an inside that had been meticulously sheetrocked, taped and painted white, was turned into a white cube art space. The work of 17 artists from Art-Anon were hung neatly on the walls. An oil painting of an aerial map of Baghdad was displayed not far from the drawing of a lynching.
“This project is meant to be an empowering event,” said Gambetta, as heavy foot traffic moved by her truck. “Any artist with a credit card can get a truck and show off his work.”
From Tuesday through Saturday, the Rider Project parked in front of various Chelsea galleries, from 21st Street to 26th Street, bounded by 10th and 11th Avenues. Every day the routine was the same: Art-Anon members would open the truck, turn on the generator that powered the gallery lights, and set up wooden steps to the tailgate. A table with a guestbook, price lists and artists’ statements was set outside.
The truck exhibit was titled, “Rider Project 2004: Cell.” “We are as big as a prison cell,” said Gambetta. “Art is also the red blood cell that moves through the city, that nourishes us.”
Some of the gallery owners were not so pleased. On Thursday, a peevish man at Metro Pictures Gallery on 24th Street threatened to call the cops, saying that the noise of the Rider generator was interfering with his show.
Legally, the man at Metro just had to stew in his pompous juices. After the Giuliani administration directed the cops to arrest artists selling their work on the New York City streets in the 1990s, a subsequent court ruling said that such artists were protected by the First Amendment. The court victory was part of the inspiration for the Rider Project.
An intense woman with a gadfly’s laugh, Gambetta had her dark brown curls pulled on top of her head. “A big part of what we do is hang out and talk to people, to have dialogues about art,” said Gambetta. “In an optimal setting, we want to create a scene.” To foster a party atmosphere on Friday night as the gallery owners locked their doors at 7 p.m., Art-Anon threw a tailgate hibachi barbecue and wine party.
Even with an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, the Queens-born Gambetta found the New York art world nearly impossible to break into. She founded Art-Anon and went her own way. But Gambetta is frank about the insider/outsider tension in her own group. “We are being upstarts with this truck, but some of our members would be interested in selling their work with established galleries.” Prices for the truck gallery’s 22 photographs, sculptures and paintings range from $180 to $2500.
For Gambetta and the other artists in Art-Anon, Williamsburg is not the grossly cute “Billyburg” of Bedford Avenue where “Porn Star” t-shirts and lattes can be purchased with ease. It is the much more gritty East Williamsburg, where granite yards, live poultry businesses and bodegas predominate. There is nothing cute about the Grand Avenue art studio building where Gambetta works. The back entrance stairs of the building are covered in pigeon dung and the building next door has 30 illegal immigrants living in a metal shack on the roof.
The artists in Gambetta’s collective have no trust funds. Most work full-time jobs and do their art late into the night. Tracy Gillman, an artist in her thirties, teaches art at a high school in Westchester and furiously does her own work on school vacations.
Gillman’s piece for the truck is four handcrafted soaps made out of glycerin and mounted on a light box. The soaps have pieces of Gillman’s skin, hair and fingernails embedded in them.
“This piece is about the neuroses of cleanliness,” said Gillman. “Soap offers the potential to be clean, but it can also be repellant, like soap scum or abrasive soaps. We are constantly shedding skin when we share soap. By cleaning yourself, you are accepting other people.”
Asya Geisberg had two photos in the show of salt formations in Death Valley. A former assistant director for a Manhattan art gallery, she expressed frustration at the isolation of being a working artist in New York.
“The longer you are in New York, the more artists you know and the more galleries you know,” she said. “You also feel less and less connected. Art-Anon is a place where artists can work together, which is not what the New York art world is about.”
Getting critics to enter the truck was hard. Village Voice art critic Kim Levin scurried away when asked to look at the Rider Project. The former MoMA curator of paintings Robert Store gave the group words of encouragement. “He told use we should do the truck again,” said Gambetta.
Gigantic canvases hang in the masoleum-like Paula Cooper Gallery on 21st Street, a former Soho mainstay. In the barren art barns of Chelsea, receptionists don’t look up as people come in to look at the artwork. The cold, callous sales calls go on in the back office, like a boiler room operation.
The Annina Nosei Gallery sits on 21st Street. Nosei made her money in the 1980s selling the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and other graffiti artists. Graffiti was taken out of the context the New York streets and hung on sterile whitewashed gallery walls.
In an ironic and pitiful rebellion, the front of Nosei’s red-brick gallery facade has been spray-painted up. “Where did all the real art go?” said a scrawled lament. Underneath a self-portrait of a face, another wag painted, “Free the Art.”
Gambetta was later appalled that a gallery owner had complained about the truck. “It is ridiculous that anyone in the art world would complain about our gallery,” she said. “Isn’t having an attitude is what the art world is all about?”
Surreal scenes abounded in Chelsea. At the Barbara Gladstone Gallery on 24th Street, an installation by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka had projectors showing black-and-white footage of deer in Poland cavorting through the grim barbed wire of an abandoned Nazi concentration camp. In front of the projection, a solitary plate circles around on a six-foot wide turntable. All that was missing was a voiceover that said, “This is the time on Sprockets when we dance.”
When outside the Gladstone Gallery, as the artists of the Rider Project coaxed gallery workers into their truck, a flatbed truck drove by with a cage on the back. Sponsored by the omnipresent and very strange Falun Gong human rights activists, the cage held two or three bloody, tortured mannequins tied upside down on the bars. A mechanical dummy dressed as a Chinese police officer slowly and eternally bashed a baby doll with a police baton as the truck faded into the distance.
No event in New York is worthy unless it has a celebrity quotient. Porn icon Annie Sprinkle checked out the truck and signed the guestbook. Former rockstar David Byrne also went inside. Actress Jessica Lange showed up with her daughter, looked into the truck, but seemed suspicious at an offer to enter.
The first Rider Project truck ran last fall from the East Village to SoHo. The $5,000 cost of renting a truck, sheetrocking the back and curating the show came out of Gambetta’s pocket from her work as an office temp. For the second truck, an Art-Anon art auction raised $2,000.
Visitors to the truck have topped 150 people each week day, and reached 200 visitors on Saturday. The truck was gutted on Sunday and cleaned so the truck rental place would never know there was a gallery inside. Art-Anon has deemed the second truck a success and are planning their next guerilla assault on Manhattan.
In more candid moments, Gambetta admitted that the 16-hour days of office work in the daytime and photographer and art revolutionary at night takes its toll. “I sometimes wonder if the sacrifice is all worth it,” she said. “An artist’s life is purely insane.”