By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan, is a testament to the unaffordability of old-school New York. Williamsburg is the grubby, boho outpost of Manhattan's East Side, and these past several years, it seems every state-school grad with an art degree and some restless ambition has landed there. And now even Williamsburg rents are outstripping the modest incomes. The really broke, really determined kids are straying into such unlikely enclaves as Bedford Stuy, Queens and Harlem, just to be close to Manhattan and its residual title as the art world's Mecca. But for all the time it takes them to commute downtown, they may as well fly in from Boston. And the question ricocheting off the low buildings of these outlying territories: How can I make art when I'm spending every dollar and every ounce of energy just surviving?
Good/Bad, a collective of University of North Texas artists formed in Denton in the early '90s and slowly transplanted to Brooklyn over the past three or so years, is now faced with the inevitable rent hike on its hard-won Williamsburg space. The individual artists are worn out; most of them can't afford the time or money to make their own artwork, and the collective's schedule is on indefinite hold. Good/Bad veterans Martin Iles, Will Robison, Karl Conrad--all terrific artists in their own right--are finding that what worked so well in Texas (the media, the crowds, the financial ease) is much harder won in New York.
Meanwhile, two former members of Good/Bad have unlocked New York's tricky heart from North Texas. Erick Swenson, who makes his fantastical sculptures in a studio in Dallas' Expo Park, is scheduled for a one-man show at the blue-chip James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan in May. Brian Fridge, a Fort Worth-based video and sculpture artist, made his debut in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Both of them enjoy the push of local curators and dealers. In the 90 days following September 11, tens of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs. Not a climate for career-minded, B.A.-carrying rookies.
As New York braces itself for a lengthy recession, there's hopeful media discourse about how creative impulse and resourcefulness spring from the ashes of such hardship, the most recent historical example being the 1970s, when New York's reeking mean streets gave birth to the scrappy, surprising movements of punk and disco. We can only hope the world will benefit from such windfall again. But this time around, with the information superhighway running strong and the cultural roots of other metropolitan areas dug deep, it's time for decentralization to make its move. Young artists can make the choice: You wanna move to the East Village and sleep on a mattress on the floor of a $1,000-a-month efficiency (don't forget the $1,500 deposit and maybe a $1,000 broker's fee, so never mind renting studio space in Brooklyn) while you wait tables every day and hope to land that gallery assistant job that might lead to connections who recognize your talent? Or you wanna get a decent apartment somewhere in Texas for a fraction of the price, find a cheap studio, work a cush job 30 hours a week, attract local attention with your prolific art-making and whoa! make your New York debut shortly thereafter? One Dallas artist and former Good/Bad member recently said, "New York isn't where you go to make it anymore. You move to New York after you make it."
So if not New York, or even Dallas, then let's try Vegas. Strange but true: Las Vegas harbors a damn fine art scene, fed by University of Nevada at Las Vegas and gently guided by resident art-crit guru Dave Hickey. David Quadrini has kept at least one finger in that sparkly pie for years, and one of the two artists currently on show at his Angstrom Gallery is a former Good/Baddy and graduate of UNT who hiked up to Vegas for grad school. For the Angstrom show, Curtis Fairman's "readymades" are just that--everyday objects barely disguised in their artistic use: Tupperware bowls are paired with bicycle reflectors, cooking colanders are neatly stacked, plastic vases are mated at the lips, all to form new dubious-use objects that evoke a sort of "lifestyle" package of retro-future optimism. Walking among them is like walking through a 1959 issue of Life magazine, with all its predictions of how much easier life can be with a bit of home-ec invention. That, or watching clips of Mystery Science Theater while playing "spot the kitchen utensil as special effect." And everyone knows a hubcap off an old Chrysler makes a fine stand-in for a UFO.
Fairman's objects are playful and easy on the surface, though the undercurrent is wry criticism of "lifestyle" magazines such as Wallpaper and their penchant for making everything vintage so desirable, again and again, and all in the name of some postmodern pedigree. Maybe it's just me, but this unending yuppie penchant for tweedy linear sofas and kidney-shaped ashtrays is beat to death, and my guess is Fairman feels the same.
Christina Rees, a formerDallas Observer staff writer, has been living in New York and London since leaving Dallas in early 2000.