Mar 7, 2017
Behind the Bulkhead: Artists of the Brooklyn Navy Yard
I went to the Navy Yard looking for an artist community and couldn’t find one—at least not the way I normally think of a community. Sure, there are artists, but they’re not all sitting around talking about abstract expressionism and plotting the next big trend that’s going to take the art world by storm. They’re alone, working—sometimes spending eight or ten hours without interacting with another human. From outside, you wouldn’t know where to find them or even that they’re there. Some—like Joe Bradley and Charline Von Heyl—exhibit at major galleries like Gagosian and Petzel, while others don’t show their work at all. Being there, speaking to four artists and visiting one nonprofit institution, I felt like I was glimpsing a secret pocket of Brooklyn, tucked behind thick industrial walls, that is largely inaccessible to outsiders. It’s also a place poised to change in significant ways.
So what is this place, and how did all these artists end up here? A cluster of decommissioned military buildings occupying 300 acres that stretch across Williamsburg, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Vinegar Hill, the Navy Yard employed 700,000 people in its heyday during WWII. Like the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset park, it’s been given a new mission to support economic development, and its massive spaces have been put to use by makers producing everything from whiskey to robots. Artist studios are peppered in next door to commercial printers, clothing manufacturers, and furniture builders.
It’s hard to know exactly how many artists work in the Navy Yard, since many of them sublet their studios from individuals or companies with long-term leases, but their number is growing. Ongoing development efforts—a Wegmans supermarket and food hall—will surely make the Navy Yard more appealing, but for now it sorely lacks dining options for the people who work there. Despite drawbacks like this and the lack of subway access, the artists I talked to were happy to be there—in fact, several of them see its isolation as a benefit.
After living in Europe for twelve years, painter and performer Julie Ryan returned to Brooklyn in 2012 and found a studio space in the Navy Yard on Craigslist. A classically trained opera singer, she lived in Paris and London before moving to Vienna on the invitation of the artist Mary Heilmann. Heimo Zobernig and Franz West—who became a friend and supporter of her work—invited her to do a performance for the opening of Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst. She ended up staying in Vienna for ten years, often participating in shows West organized and exhibiting in London, Frankfurt, Belgrade, and beyond. To this day, her work still sells more in Europe than in the U.S.
Though she previously had a studio in Williamsburg, she tells me she didn’t intend to move back to Brooklyn. “Vienna is amazing but it’s weird and it’s small. It’s always good to leave wherever you are anyway, and Franz died shortly after so my reason for going back was less,” she says. On returning, she found herself priced out of Williamsburg, so she ended up living in Red Hook with a studio in the Navy Yard, which she has grown to love.
A painting is perched on an easel in the corner, and affixed to the wall are a handful of double-sided paintings on paper. Black-and-white with odd-shaped cut-out forms, they’re emblematic of her former nomadic lifestyle. A couple of larger paintings with partial ceramic frames—part of a series inspired by European bathhouses—hang nearby. They’re so dominated by lines, they almost look like drawings on canvas, though pinks, blues, yellows, and muted grays manage to work their way in, inspired by the misty colors of European saunas. “I think part of the practice of making the paper pieces is they’re mobile,” she says. “Having the space in the Navy Yard, it moved to large scale paintings. That’s a privilege. That changes everything. That changes how you make work, how you’re perceived in the art world, and it’s different than having everything in your pocket.”
Originally from Virginia, Matt moved to Brooklyn to complete an MFA at Pratt and stayed. Like Kimia Ferdowski Kline (the next artist I visit), he moved to the Navy Yard after having a studio in Bushwick that wasn’t large enough for the scale of his work. As he tells it, a debacle involving a painting that he had to ride down the elevator shaft with, on top of the elevator, because it didn’t fit in the elevator, was the last straw. Now, instead of 250 square feet, he has over 500 square feet and is looking for a studiomate to take over two additional spaces his landlord—who owns a family-run printing and packaging company—wants to rent out. “Part of the advantage is just having the ability to step back and look at stuff,” he tells me. “Before I had huge paintings in front of my face and now I have the ability to step back a bit.”
Indeed, his paintings are the kind of pieces you want to be able to take in from a good vantage point. Filled with colorful stripes and rigid geometries, they channel architectural spaces like archways and theater stages. Something about them seems vaguely reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s work, at least to my eyes. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith said they “pay homage to Frank Stella but take visionary liberties.” Matt tells me “the architectural vibe in the paintings has been there for a few years,” and adds that since moving to the Navy Yard, “they’ve definitely gotten bigger.” He has shown his work in Manhattan, Houston, Nashville, Virginia, and Paris, and also has work in the Wythe Hotel’s private collection.
Tucked away down a hallway through an unmarked door, his studio feels very secluded from the world. Dozens of drawings are tacked up on the wall in the corner, large paintings hang, oil sticks are organized by color on a table near tubes of paint and brushes, and a small book case houses a collection of art titles. I asked him what the community is like here and he tells me, “I’ve been here for three months, which is not super long, and the first bit was just getting the studio settled in, but for me it’s pretty much like I go in and get to work. It’s more or less solitary.” We peer out the window, looking out at the other buildings, and he tells me the city is planning to overhaul the ferry system and add a stop here, so he thinks “the Navy Yard is about to change in a big way.”
Kimia Ferdowsi Kline
“For me, making work, there’s an element of needing to be isolated and detached and unplugged from the hectic noise of New York,” Kimia says, staring out the window at her view of the Williamsburg Bridge. “I like living in it and being able to access it, but when I make work I need to be removed from it.” It’s funny to me to be hearing her say this, because I know her as the Wythe Hotel’s gregarious art curator. Of course, I also know her as a rising star in the art world who’s always showing at galleries in New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Richmond, and beyond. I’m sitting in her 270-square-foot studio, where the dreamlike, colorful paintings she’s become known for are stacked against the walls, tubes of oil paint sit at the ready on tables, and wood scraps are piled neatly on the floor.
She tells me that after getting priced out of two studios in Bushwick, then using the spare bedroom in her apartment as a studio, she moved into the Navy Yard for the simple reason that she needed more space. “With the demands of the shows I had coming up, the amount of work I had to produce just didn’t fit in our apartment. We had oil paint smeared on our dining room table and carpets and the whole house smelled like turpentine and it wasn’t livable,” she said. She found this space listed on NYFA’s website and jumped at it. Since making the move, she’s started painting on scraps discarded by furniture makers. “I think it’s cool to be making things with materials that come from this place and having that enter into my process.” She tells me she’s thinking about making some sculptural paintings. Having the Brooklyn Grange on the roof is a nice perk—in the spring through fall she’s able to sit up there and enjoy the views over lunch. “I just feel really lucky to be a part of this space that goes a little bit under the radar from the rest of what’s going on in New York.”
Established in 1976 as New York City’s only working paper mill specializing in handmade paper as an artistic medium, non-profit Dieu Donné has provided scores of artists with the tools and training needed to make works on paper. Here, it isn’t just a material on which to draw or paint, it’s a medium of its own. Experts in the ancient art of papermaking teach emerging and established artists the end-to-end process, starting with the soupy pulp of cotton and plant fibers submerged in water. Artists are encouraged to push the boundaries of the medium, resulting in 2D and 3D projects ranging from Chuck Close’s watermarked self-portraits to Ann Hamilton’s performance piece using garments made of paper.
After forty years in Manhattan, Dieu Donné recently moved their studio to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “We were really outgrowing our space—Manhattan is an expensive place to try to run a 7,000 square-foot studio. We were on the edge of the Garment District, edge of the Javits Center, but I think not really feeling that we were part of an art-making community as much as we would like to,” Executive Director Kathleen Flynn told me as we walked through the space. “We began looking at spaces as far as Yonkers, all over Queens and Brooklyn, and I think the community here, both in terms of the artists we knew and makers in general seemed to align, and of course Brooklyn has a great reputation as a supporter and incubator for the arts, so it seemed like a great fit.”
The studio is about 25 percent bigger in square footage compared to the former space in Manhattan, but over 30 percent less expensive, allowing them to grow their programming, which includes artist residences and workshops for schoolkids and the general public. When I visited, they were hosting a workshop making valentines for women living with HIV/AIDS in collaboration with the Fire Island Artist Residency, Visual AIDS, and the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW), so the studio was buzzing with activity. Of all the studios I visited, it’s definitely the most accessible.
I’m standing in a giant, empty, slightly eerie industrial countertop manufacturer called IceStone for a few minutes before Bennett comes down to escort me up a staircase at the end of the building to reach his studio. Art director by day/artist by night, he grew up moving around and studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. He and his studiomate Chris moved into this space right after Hurricane Sandy—five feet of water wreaked havoc on IceStone’s equipment, incentivizing the company to sublet some of its space to ease the cost of damages.
When Bennett opens the door, I walk into the largest studio I’ve seen—approximately 1,600 square feet of white walls with exposed ceiling beams and a lone skylight letting in some natural light. Five large paintings lean against the walls on one side of the room, with more canvases backwards so I can only see their wooden frames. “From what I’ve seen this is an advantageous space,” Bennett says. “I’ve always had this urgency to make work so when I didn’t have a space, I found places to make work, none of them being very orthodox,” he tells me, explaining that this is his first traditional studio space. He usually comes in the evening after work to paint. “It feels very isolated, so that’s really nice ‘cause you can get into a focused headspace. Time sort of stops making sense in here.”
In terms of process, he often begins with charcoal drawings and has several oil and enamel paintings in various stages of completion that he returns to. “It’s been a pretty consistent exploration of form and overall it’s really processed-based work. The direction forward comes from searching for something new in the action of making” he says. I tell him I can’t quite characterize the paintings in terms of genre or clear influences and he’s glad to hear it. There are recurring shapes, thick black lines, and bold colors, but Bennett insists his work doesn’t fit into any particular category. He participated in a group show in Long Island City, but says, “I’ve spent most of my effort on the work itself rather than trying to push it out there, but that’s something I’m more interested in exploring now. I think someone told me once, if you take care of the work, the work takes care of you.”
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