Gary Petersen
1.25.12 — Brooklyn Beginnings by John Haber (haberarts.com)
Topics: Bushwick, Gary Peterson, Halsey Hathaway, Norte Maar, Rob de Oude, Storefront

Only a cynic could resist looking to the new year for new beginnings, and what better place to look than Bushwick? That is just where I found myself on New Year’s Day—and in a new gallery to boot, Storefront Bushwick. The abstract painters there might even be said to live on border lines. Only some of the most promising signs were quite familiar, and so was the tension between change and tradition. Rob de Oude's Curvilinear Dissection (Storefront Bushwick, 2011)

In a sense, art in Bushwick is all about new beginnings, especially in its own eyes. It has seemed downright determined not to become one more entry point to gentrification and the art world, like Williamsburg before it to the west. Where even East Village art grew out of a reasonably small but determined circle, Bushwick has made anything but a scene. It has been all about sprawl, in everything from geography to equally outsize group shows. If it has a hub, that has emerged not on mixed-race residential strips but converted manufacturing spaces, wide empty avenues, and narrow dead ends. On a cold evening, without coordinated openings, it can seem dark indeed.

Could this have been another kind of beginning? On a sunny, warm winter afternoon, one even had a choice of beginnings. Three quarters of a mile further out, Norte Maar epitomized the neighborhood’s “do-it-yourself” esthetic. Curated by “Guilty / (NOT) Guilty” has only four talented artists—Ellen Letcher, Francesco Masci, Alfred Steiner, and Pablo Tauler—but one might never guess from the flurry of sketches and images in painting, ballpoint drawing, and photos ripped from everywhere. They spill across the Bushwick pioneer’s ground-floor apartment, through January 29, as if the dealer had asked thirty or forty of his nearest and dearest friends to contribute a work and stick it anywhere on the walls. And that, too often for my taste, is still exactly what Brooklyn group shows tend to do.

Back at Storefront, through February 5, one could make quite the opposite mistake. It has three artists, but one could easily imagine just one or two. Each works with flat but layered surfaces, completely covered with paint—and each uses geometry to play against the symmetry of the ground. They would not look out of place around 1970, when critics and aspiring artists worried ever so much about pure painting. Only instead of an epistemological question, about the true or proper nature of art, formalism here becomes an entirely practical question about art and illusion: however is that done?

For Gary Peterson, for starters, how could such off-kilter compositions seem so deliberate? His paintings, on a small scale, seem assembled from strips of colored tape on an off-white ground, in slightly off-kilter and incomplete squares and diamonds. But no, he has built those hard edges and abrasions the hard way, in paint. Halsey Hathaway carries the hard edges to a larger and more voluptuous scale, with curved fields whose muted colors clash ever so softly. Some soak into the canvas, becoming brighter close up. Others retain brush marks in a flat but palpable finish, almost the texture of a fabric collage.

Rob de Oude’s edges are even more painstaking, but freehand—and, when it comes down to it, an illusion. His thin, mostly diagonal lines run nearly the breadth of his small paintings, most often in bright primary colors. Wider diagonals and bursts of light ripple outward from the sheer overlap and juxtaposition. Imagine if Georges Seurat decided to copy Frank Stella and Agnes Martin. The results make an intriguing contrast with Robert Sagerman’s dense, leaf-like splotches in Chelsea, at Margaret Thatcher through February 11. His colors look squeezed right out of the tube, into Day-Glo autumn foliage.

Then again, as new beginnings go, everything here seems awfully familiar right now, starting with the very revival of abstraction and its “geometric days.” Even Hathaway comes close to so many others, like Suzan Frecon. And that, too, is part of Bushwick’s open question. One subway stop at last holds at least half a dozen galleries and the largest concentration of studio buildings, not to mention the neighborhood’s one famous restaurant, Roberta’s. Then again, NURTUREart has merely moved closer, its block looked bleak as ever that New Year’s Day, and Deborah Brown has simply reopened Storefront after her partner chose to concentrate full time on, yes, Norte Maar. Still, with luck, Bushwick could learn something from her focus, at a time when art everywhere is mixing up past, present, and future.

Note: at least for now, I have made this a postscript to my two past reports on the neighborhood. I apologize that this coverage of Bushwick has itself become a bit of urban sprawl. To help, I have moved a review of Sarah Baley to go with others who have turned instead to the waterfront.