“Why the East Village?” is the first question host Jenny Dixon poses to Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher from Nature Morte Gallery and Dean Sevard of Civilian Warfare. It’s partly economic they say, but the move to the East Village also reinforces their philosophical and aesthetic differences with the SoHo scene. For example, gallery owners in the East Village are often artists themselves (mainly in their early to mid-20s), who live behind the storefronts where they show work. Nature Morte focuses on two- and three-person group shows, largely consisting of their artist friends, and Sevard describes Civilian Warfare’s shows as “anti-SoHo” and having a tacitly political focus. His list of recent openings includes “Black Art Now”, “The Art of Tyranny”, and “Hit and Run Numbers One and Two.”
“… there are so many artists right now that… our generation can’t live in SoHo because of the rents… for us, being young, we don’t have a lot of money. So we have to go to the East Village, because that’s where the storefronts that we can afford are available… It’s just that it’s more of a support system for young artists. It’s just as hard to show in Soho as it is Uptown, now.
Nature Morte we’re really trying to go out of our way to present something new every single month. And in this way we can use a lot of artists that don’t necessarily… we look at artists’ work and we find artists in similar veins and then we’ll put together a two or three man show. So the art plays off each other… And people that are doing work that goes against the grain of the majority of the stuff that’s being shown in Soho we will be more receptive to that. Just to give them an outlet. To show people in New York, the art going public, that there’s just as much pluralism as there was in the 70’s and to keep people aware of that.” [Interview with Nature Morte and Civilian Warfare galleries on the Rise and Fall of the East Village]
“The East Village in New York, for example, is a whole neighborhood whose history is being erased and rewritten to serve the interests of its new owners and occupiers. Ten years ago it was nowhere, a place deeply embedded in that desperate, unshakable dirt of relentless poverty. Now there are elegant places to eat and drink on the most surprising corners. It used to be very clearly an immigrant ghetto, a place where people tried to come to terms with their new culture without losing the important parts of the old. Now it is more a showcase of ethnic diversity, a sort of World’s Fair for the gourmet, a place where you can eat around the globe. There is a melancholia to the East Village, a deep sadness lost in the sushi bars and chic cocktail lounges, a recognition that an out-of-control parodying and posing is a strategy of despair. In the midst of this new nowhere is an art scene, one that revels in its celebration of a hopeless, endless return. It is an art scene that privileges the déjà vu, valuing a debased version of what are usually less than exalted originals. Examples abound: Rene Ricard’s rhapsodies on graffiti (reminding? Ridiculing? Validating?); Norman Mailer’s prose poem of eight years earlier; or Mike Bidlo’s recreations of notorious art parties at Peggy Guggenheim’s or Andy Warhol’s. Or the reappropriation of the tactics of some of the artists originally associated with the Metro Pictures gallery by the younger group who hang out at Nature Morte. Or, strangest of all, the reemergence as a new group of a bunch of marginal, and mostly bad, expressionist painters who made up the demimonde in Soho in the mid ’70s, throwing huge loft parties and organizing big shows like the “Whitney Counterweight,” shows designed to prove that those without talent also have rights. These artists, taking their cue from the success of the neo-Expressionist fad and the less successful neo-Surrealist or neo-Pop fads, are trying for fame and fortune once more, once again organizing and staging huge shows, shows that retain their earlier efforts’ oddly innocent mixture of wishful thinking and paranoia. Looking at all this work, all this “new” work, is like looking at a dreamscape, a fantasy of life in America, a big success story writ small, so that a greater number can believe they share in it. Wherever you look things seem disconcertingly familiar, until you can no longer tell if you are looking at what, for want of a better term, is called an “original,” or at a copy, or a copy of a copy, or a copy of an idea of a copy. Mimicry has replaced innovation as a creative value. Such a situation can be understood to be critically informed, or not, and such ambiguity is an essential irony. Without it we would merely be watching history repeating itself as farce. With it, that farce holds out the possibility of some other beginning. [Thomas Lawson on the East Village]
Our position was decidedly not dictated by the fact that we were a gallery in the East Village. We behaved as a New York gallery, reactionary to our immediate environment. Content-wise, for the most part, we avoided anything that seemed too personal, sentimental, therapeutic, or talented. Our bent was one of historical foundation coupled with an adventurism of experiment, and we threw in a heavy whack of critical think. My own view was always to detour in the opposite direction of what was already going on. In the most basic sense, we found that the garish color of the time in neo-expression, figuration, and the neighborhood kitsch and graffiti, appeared cheap and unconsidered, se we gravitated to black and white, grays and primaries – even the gallery walls were a light gray to emphasize our color vision. I came with a heavy regard for Euroepean 60s and Pop culture and was sharply trend-aware, and Peter’s foundations based on Futurism and Dada, coupled with his voracious appetite for information and contemporary criticism. We had a very good balance that way, and found that we usually appreciated the same art and the same people. It’s not like we didn’t show painting, but we definitely gravitated toward photo-based work and sculpture. If work was thoughtful and layered, not a quick read, then we were drawn to it. We avoided a stable mentality, as we were more concerned with whatever we would be showing next, and we enjoyed a certain unpredictability. We never sold a lot and the prices were low, so commercial potential was rarely addressed when we were considering work. We assumed the histories would be constructed around advancements and risks, and realized later on that it was the works that got placed well, and select personalities, that would eventually supersede actual events on timelines. A few friends are viable references for what went on – a couple crowned themselves authority figures. We took matters of legacy minor out own hands by publishing our complete exhibition history in Flash and Artforum. And these days we are both still around to fact-check and callout falsehoods. [Alan Belcher in conversation with Bob Nickas]