At New Dumbo Gallery, Cops Critique Recession-Proof Art

Peter Baker, 'Untitled From Essex St., 2007
Peter Baker, ‘Untitled From Essex St., 2007

“We’re just going to do it,” said Kris Graves, sitting on an ottoman in the center of Kris Graves Projects, his new eponymous Dumbo gallery.  “Fuck it.”

It was a recent Sunday afternoon and Mr. Graves, 26, was explaining the sentiment he felt when he and his cousin Gravelle Pierre, 29, decided to open the gallery.  It’s a sentiment that seems to have pervaded Brooklyn’s creative class as of late.

“We can afford it now so we decided to just go for it,” Mr. Graves continued.  “Here we are a few months later, still here.”

Last November with the recession in full swing, Mr. Graves, a collection photographer at the Guggenheim, and Mr. Pierre, a Wall Street defector who left before the bust, had an idea to open a gallery focused on a network of Mr. Graves peers, many of which studied at his alma matter SUNY Purchase.

“If someone can build [the Manhattan] bridge we can do this gallery,” chimed Mr. Pierre, describing his inspiration-filled route to work from his home in Fort Greene.

By December, they were looking at spaces, and on January 16, they signed a lease at 111 Front Street, Gallery 224.  Nestled into a building filled with fourteen galleries, Mr. Graves partially walled off the back of the room as to have a small office and started putting up art.

“We have something that a lot of other galleries don’t have,” said Mr. Graves, sporting a Wu-Tang Clan shirt and shorts befitting the unusually warm weather.  “We have a group of strong, amazing photographers.”

“Even though they are young emerging artists, they never stop shooting,” added Mr. Pierre, sitting adjacent his cousin in the bright white space.  “They’re shooting and they’re developing their own photos – I think that’s what’s going to distinguish us as a gallery.”

Since opening the gallery, Mr. Graves has kept his day job at the Guggenheim and cites his peers at the institution for the great advice and direction he’s received over his two-year tenure there.  His weekends are usually spent manning a desk next to his cousin in the back of the space, leaving little time for a life outside of work.

Despite his young age, this isn’t Mr. Graves first time curating.  In 2005 he began organizing large shows, often including 80 to 100 pieces by artists emerging from the SUNY Purchase fold.  Though he didn’t sell anything, Mr. Graves says it was in this period that he established a hefty mailing list and got a better sense of the curating process.

Now, the young photographer turned curator has also turned publisher.  A pile of limited edition art books Mr. Graves and London-based photographer Sergio A. Fernandez, an adjunct professor at SUNY Purchase from 2000-2007, published together through a company called Iris Editions Limited sit on a shelf near his desk.  Mr. Graves says 30 of the 100 editions sold at the first opening reception, at $100 a piece.

Now wrapping up its second show – which opened on April 17 – Kris Graves Projects currently features My Lost City: Photographs, cityscape portraits by Peter Baker, and Makeshift: Proposals for amateur architecture and other improvised monuments, illustrations by Libby Hartle.

‘Untitled From Essex St., 2007’ by Mr. Baker depicts a rooftop shot of Lower Manhattan’s changing landscape, documenting a moment in the rise of the Bernard Tschumi-designed luxury condominium development simply called Blue.

The image captures the stark contrast between the blue glass behemoth and nearby urban renewal era towers on the Lower East Side, and was taken from an adjacent roof – a process that’s brought another type of attention to the photographer.

“One day the police were waiting outside our building,” emailed Mr. Baker, who shot the images with a noticeably large 4×5 viewpoint camera.  “They knocked on the door as soon as we got home and asked us questions about what we were photographing.”

Mr. Baker and his roommate, a fellow photographer, figured out later that they had been shooting close to a power plant and the financial district, respectively, and it was enough to draw the suspicion of the authorities.  So they paid a visit to his Lower East Side apartment.

“I was happy to show them my work,” Mr. Baker continued.  “I thought, ‘Oh, this is a good opportunity to get a different point of view on my work.’ It was like having a critique with two undercover cops.”

“We’re farmers tilling the soil,” said Mr. Pierre, of the gallery’s close proximity to a network of guerrilla photographers capturing the landscapes of a changing world.   Each piece, he said, citing Mr. Baker’s encounter with the authorities, is born from a unique process.

Another aspect of the gallery, which might set it apart from others, is it’s do-it-yourself aesthetic.  Mr. Baker prints his own work, Ms. Hartle’s work is all handmade, and Mr. Graves says much of the gallery’s economy is based on the trade of its creative network – like framing or matting prints, and getting the word out about new exhibitions.  The next which opens on May 13, and also includes Mr. Baker’s work, among nine other artists, for a ten day run during the New York Photo Festival.

While buying art – especially during a recession – seems like a stretch for many, the work featured at Kris Graves Projects is not exorbitantly priced.  All works fall under $2,000, and start as low as $50 for small handmade prints.

“We don’t have money, but we don’t think we need it,” said Mr. Graves, who, unlike Wall Street, is more interested in the long-term investment of growing his artistic community, adding, “I can only represent the people I love.”

Nicole Brydson Written by:

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