is chinatown the new chelsea?
A new wave of young art gallerists take on the last frontier of downtown New York
Chinatown somehow resists the prevalent gentrification of the rest of New York City. In this remaining vestige of bohemian downtown, one can still find old signage, garbage-laden streets, and (just-barely) manageable rent. While it's nothing new for artists and galleries to inch toward Chinatown from neighboring Soho and Lower East Side (think Still House on Howard, Tom Sachs on Centre, and Terence Koh's longtime Canal Street spot), a fresh wave of galleries is redefining the art scene in the area. Joining new haunts like veggie-heaven Dimes and chic dive bar Mr. Fong's which have cemented the neighborhood as a daily destination for some creatives, are three new galleries of note: New Release, 56 Henry, and Jeffrey Stark.
"Chinatown does feel like one of the last true untouched areas of New York. New York constantly is warping, flipping, mushing and this area of the city has a great and interesting history. I see my move as a creative addition in a long line of stories about one of the best neighborhoods in NYC," says Erin Goldberger. After curating a successful group show this summer in an abandoned old video store on Mulberry Street, Goldberger (who is also the director of Bill Powers' Half Gallery) decided to take over the space and open a proper gallery. New Release was minimally renovated with the help of friends, keeping the striped wall paneling, beat-up wooden floors, and Chinese window sign intact. The first show of the new year is a two-person exhibition with artists Robert Davis and Esther Ruiz. It's titled The Dark Clicks On and "fusions their works together in a functional dysfunction of space and sight."
Ellie Rines, whose previous gallery 55 Gansevoort (at 55 Gansevoort Street) in the Meatpacking District showed work by artists like Leo Fitzpatrick and Jeanette Hayes, was forced to relocate. "When 55 closed suddenly because the building was bought by a mass-production furniture company, I was sans location for a few weeks and I started to lose my mind," says Rines. 56 Henry, also named after its location, has a storefront exhibition space and a separate white-box viewing room. Her upcoming show presenting work by Wade Oates (you may know him as the bassist of The Virgins), will feature an ice sculpture in the shape of a hermaphrodite resting atop a simple wooden base from where it will melt into a water cooler. "Wade and I have wanted to do a show together for two years. He came up with an idea that speaks to what 55 Gansevoort was about and what 56 Henry will be about. I want to show work that is challenging but not too precious. Relatable for the general public but still developed, original and good."
The most recent addition and perhaps the most inventive location-wise is Jeffrey Stark, opened by art collector Angelo Lanza in the basement of the East Broadway Mall (a dingy, disorganized complex housing a random mix of Fuzhou Chinese vendors). "My choice to be in the mall was, contrary to what people may think, less a gimmick than the fact that it was literally the only place in downtown Manhattan that I could afford. When I first walked into the space, it was in shambles: cracked tile floor, drop ceiling and broken sheetrock walls. The only thing I saw was a small label on the wall next to the light switch that said Jeffrey Stark. I asked a security guard if he knew who Jeffrey was. He told me that he was the head of security at the mini mall for many years and my space was his office until he retired. I was struggling with trying to come up with a name, but I knew I wanted one that was as neutral as possible, which wouldn't make a statement or elicit any sort of preconceived idea of what kind of place it would be. A person's name is the best for that, in my opinion, and I didn't want to use my own. I liked his so I took it." Jeffrey Stark's forthcoming exhibition curated by Torey Thornton will feature drawings by artists like Phillip Lai, Susan Cianciolo, Eric Mack, Marisa Takal, and Christopher Knowles.
Chinatown will likely start challenging the Lower East Side in the number and caliber of art spots, but we're hoping the authentic vibe of the neighborhood will remain. As Lanza said: "People have been trying to gentrify Chinatown for years, with a bit of success, but it still stays pretty damn Chinese. Not sure what it will look like in 10 years, but I have a feeling it will still smell like dead fish and people will still be spitting on the floor outside of Jeffrey Stark while smoking cigarettes next to the sprinkler system."
Text and photography Paige Silveria