In New York City where, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are 1.6 million people living in homeless shelters or transitional housing, the high tally of vacant condominium units in all five boroughs is bewildering.
Although they’re not solving the problem of homelessness, at least one empty building is being put to use by a group of artists called Super/Prime. They’ve taken the 4th floor of 717 Prospect Place – in the heart of Crown Heights – and transformed it into a space for Brooklyn-based artists to show their work during the month of September. Tungsten Property, the real estate brokerage firm that represents the building, offered the group the space in hopes of gaining exposure for their luxury condominiums, as developers so often do these days.
“The crash of the contemporary art market loosened up the status quo,” said Brittany Taylor, 22, an organizer of and painter in Super/Prime, an exhibit put together mostly by a group of recent graduates of Oberlin College who have just begun to enter the Brooklyn art scene. “[Our exhibit] is a natural reaction to that, an inevitable development of it that we have been able to capitalize on.”
Super/Prime, composed mostly of artists in their early and mid-20s, has covered previously bare walls with found images incorporated into paintings and collages; acrylic paintings featuring repetition of motion and form; 3-dimensional constructions made out of frames from Chelsea art galleries; and experimentations with language on the backs of book covers. Their works and ideas fill a total of about 8 large rooms in units 4A and 4B of the otherwise void-of-life Crown Heights condominium building that boasts of open attic staircases, large windows, roof-top perches, sleek wood floors, and swanky island kitchens.
At the core of the exhibit is the notion that every artist should have a place for his or her art to be seen. “If people are making work,” said collage artist Ashley May, one of Super/Prime’s ten participants, “they should have the opportunity to show it. The creative process moves forward when ideas are shared.”
While some of Super/Prime’s artists are interested in exploring ideas about urban space that are necessarily brought to mind by the physical context in which the art is presented, the exhibit is largely about the art itself. In fact, despite what seems to be a blatantly political undertone of a show that has as one of its written goals the appropriation and inhabitation of “the unoccupied and raw domestic spaces left vacant in the urban landscape of New York City,” Super/Prime’s organizers are interested more in aesthetics than in ideology.
Ms. May does not consider the exhibit to be particularly politically charged. “The pieces are tied together aesthetically through a sense of elegance,” she asserted, “and conceptually through the use of unconventional materials.”
Ms. Taylor shied away from the politically obvious, believing that there are comments to be made “regarding gentrification and the current state of the real estate market, but that isn’t what this is about. The only way that [the exhibit] is political is that we are providing a forum to present the work of artists who don’t have many opportunities to participate in the traditional art economy.”
Creating a physical place in which to give voice to young, emerging artists for whom formal art galleries are relatively inaccessible was the fundamental impetus for the creation of Super/Prime. While some of its artists have had prominent exposure in the art world, like David Smith, whose video installations and sculptures have been exhibited in cities throughout the country, most are relatively new to the art scene. Their work, though, displays sophistication and thoughtfulness that make these creators seem as though they are seasoned artists-but artists who have not lost their sense of innovation.
Roland Tiangco, 28, a Williamsburg resident originally from Texas and a graduate of the Parsons New School of Design, considers himself to be a designer rather than an artist; but his work in Super/Prime is more thought provoking than one would expect a function-oriented design piece could be. Stretched across one expansive wall of the condominium is a to-scale (431.8 x 213.36 cm) photograph and silk-screen reproduction of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1963 oil on canvas portrait of John F. Kennedy, which Tiangco has also bound page by page into a book. His artistic vision probes deeper than mimicry, though, as he sets out to explore ideas about space and technology, computers and changing modes of cultural production. His project, he said, is to create “life-size reproductions of everything in our world.” No joke.
His art functions as a challenge to art itself. “I kind of, in a way, really hate art,” said Mr. Tiangco. “I kind of really hate where it’s positioned in society; I kind of hate how much it’s worth. I kind of hate that it doesn’t have purpose and that’s the beauty of it, you know? I mean, I appreciate it and I really dislike it at the same time. When I did these it was kind of a reaction to the worth of art.”
Mr. Tiangco’s other piece, displayed in a room adjacent to the one containing his Rauschenberg reproduction, is another life-size photographic image, this one a reproduction of a bookcase filled with books. At first glance appearing as the epitome of a functionless piece of art, Mr. Tiagco considers his work to be a form of cartography, a mechanism for mapping the physical world. “I’m not trying to impart on the user the ability to use that which is in the book,” he says. “I’m not trying to say ‘here’s a bookshelf’ or ‘here’s a window that will actually open.’ What’s functional to me is the book form itself.”
As far as displaying his art goes, Mr. Tiangco is pleased with Super/Prime’s incognito location. “The fact that this is a vacant living space makes it perfect for my pieces. If I was ever asked to put these works in a show, in a very white cube, I probably wouldn’t.”
The work of Ms. May, a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Oxbow School of Fine Arts, is less confrontational but just as striking as Mr. Tiangco’s art. In her collection of interconnected collages, collectively entitled “The untraveled world whose margin fades,” she has used found postcards and paintings to piece together captivatingly unique images that at once evoke tranquil memories of rivers and sunsets and arrest our notions about the natural world. “Generally these items use commercial and/or amateur techniques to portray what I find Sublime and eternal in the natural world,” she says, describing the vision behind her art. “Nature can be commoditized, but its voice is still loud.”
In “Forecast,” a piece by Super/Prime artist Zachary Bruder, a collection of approximately fifty disjointed and somewhat nonsensical phrases that have been mounted onto book covers that coat a full wall of one of the condominium’s empty rooms (top image). “Language is always recreating itself,” he said, explaining the motivation behind the work. The piece combines found phrases and original ones in a humorous and provocative medley of words. “Lost bear cubs,” reads one. “Gate mouth,” “seven fold to fail.” “We’re saying things,” said Mr. Bruder, “and we have no idea where they came from.”
Ms. Taylor’s work, a series of monotone paintings entitled “Not perfect,” is meant to complement the condominium’s minimalist and Modernist aesthetic. “My main body of work right now deals with obsessive repetition of motions and forms,” she pronounced. “Setting up rules for myself to follow but allowing those rules to be slightly broken to allow for variation.”