Purple Art

[January 10 2014]

Anoymous group exhibition and interview with the curators at 15 Warren St, New York

As I trudged through snow bound TriBeCa towards the abandoned suit outlet that is now 15 Warren, I was skeptical. I’d heard tales of debauchery from friends who attended the chaotic opening, and expected another well-intentioned but inexpertly executed downtown art show about kids by kids for kids. My cynicism left me unprepared for what I found. The three levels of the abandoned building turned pop-up gallery housed a mass of work, all anonymous, curated and presented with an impressive level of care and precision. The work itself spans every medium and subject imaginable, from liquid LSD (stolen at the opening) to oil paintings to a gaping hole dug into the foundation of the building itself, the only criteria being that the work was an effort outside of the artists comfort zone. Each work contributed to the jolting narrative of artistic discomfort, while simultaneously working to define the sprawling artistic landscape of the space. After exploring the three floors of this cold silent artistic landscape I met the creators of 15 Warren, SEAN VEGEZZI, ABELINE COHEN and ANDREW KASS and because there was no heat, nor chairs, we stood in the middle of the first floor, jackets zipped up, while they told me about their creation.

Kay Goldberg – So tell me about the space.

Abeline Cohen – The space belongs to my father. He is a pediatrician and he has a couple of offices around the city.  When he purchased the building. He approached me and said: “Do you want to do anything here, I have the building its gutted, its going to be renovated in a month, would you like to make something of it?” and I was like Yes, Absolutely. When I visited the space I was thinking a lot about all of my friends who kind of seem like bums who are always just like ‘You know if I had the connections or the time or the money or the space…’. I approached Sean [Vegezzi] and Andrew [Kass] about it because I knew they would enjoy pushing people. We started thinking about what is going happen when you actually do give people the opportunity to do something, when financial constraints aren’t an issue. So we fronted everything and said come here and you can do whatever you want. We approached over 100 people about it. Explaining that this is a chance for everybody, whether they are artists or not to just use the space how they want, we really wanted people to feel free to use the space however, even destroy it, like Sean’s hole in the basement, there were no constraints whatsoever. The whole idea for the show was inspired directly from the space, which is why it is also the title.

Kay Goldberg  Would you say this is a “New York City” art show?

Sean Vegezzi – Most importantly the show is a servce to our peers. We started off just talking to our super close friends, asking those people to create work, and we could have easily been like ‘lets do a native new Yorker show’ but that was not on our mind at all. The show is very current and there are a lot of New York artists in the show, but once we spoke to some of our friends from all over it grew.

Abeline Cohen – It is a New York show because so many of the people that are here live or are from New York, but its so important to have other artists in the show.

Sean Vegezzi – It’s so important, because people forget, as trite as it sounds, that this is essentially a city of immigrants.

Andrew Kass – I think it’s also a New York show because the space is so important to the show, it’s what it is about.

Kay Goldberg – Geographically, where this show is located – in TriBeCa, as opposed to being in the gallery district or  SoHo, or even Bushwick, is important. TriBeCa is one of the oldest parts of New York City.  I think that’s an idea that’s very present in some of the work, like the piece in the basement, a piece that is literally dug into the earth under the building or [Leila Francomb’s] piece using water from the actual Canal under Canal Street. New York has a vertical chronology; you can dig down and read the history of New York in the layers of detritus. It’s like there is some sort of friendly ghost here.

Sean Vegezzi – There are a lot of pieces that consciously channel New York history, and there are pieces and artists that are New York centric here, but there are also artists that celebrate New York just by being here and working here, that just embed themselves in that history without even realizing it, which is also really nice.

Abeline Cohen – People have come to us and been like ‘this has happened before’ and we’ve spoken to our friends who have been like ‘this happens in other places’ you know in Europe there’s the No Name thing in Italy and the things going on in Berlin, but we had to explain to them that we weren’t trying to say this is the first of its kind. We aren’t trying to separate ourselves from a whole thing that already exists, we were just so open to it being whatever it organically becomes as long as we feel good about what we are doing inside of it.

Kay Goldberg – I’m so glad you guys said something about that. I walked in sort of skeptical of the entire act of it. I am not a fan of that hyper-nostalgic romanticized idea of artists bringing back ‘old new york’. Yes, there is a time and a place for that sort of retrospection but its cheapening it to try and bring that back. I was surprised by how 15 Warren manages to successfully avoid that sort of nostalgia. And I think that’s because of what you were saying, that it wasn’t done as an effort to bring something back or be the first of its kind.

Andrew Kass – The biggest thing that we tried to address is exactly that, doing it with no nostalgia, sort of killing nostalgia, this can’t be a nostalgia show, and part of the process was disrupting the routine of Tribeca while doing something that’s been done before.

Sean Vegezzi – Of course these shows happened before and people came in and told us, ‘You’re not doing anything new but the show is awesome’ telling us about how it reminded them of a show on Warren in the 70’s, but that’s not what we were trying to do, we had no intention of reliving or reviving that.

Andrew Kass – But at the same time is it very different from what they are remembering because there are always new confinements you have to work with.

Sean Vegezzi – Staging a show in TriBeCa today makes the show more of anomaly than it ever could have been in the past. Its very different in my eyes than what has been done in the 70’s and 80’s, historically when this was for artists, made by artists. The artists made everything down here, and we’re aware of that but it’s a completely different sort of bastardized version of that now.

Abeline Cohen – and like you said we very narrowly miss it and I think that’s because the space itself provides enough nostalgia for everything, we don’t need to add anything.

Kay Goldberg – I know I am obviously biased here, but I can’t help but feel like that was aided by the fact that you guys are native New Yorkers. You don’t have that sentimental nostalgia thing because it is just your reality. You hear people lamenting the loss of ‘Old New York’ saying, ‘Fuck this, I’m moving to LA, New York is dead, New York has changed’ and of course elements of that are true, but there is also a level on which I feel like, “Okay, so then leave. Sorry you weren’t moving into the New York you saw in the movies. Leave and let me get back to actually living here instead of mourning the death of a romanticized place that never necessarily existed.”

Andrew Kass – Exactly. People need to be spoon fed that stuff, like if it isn’t happening here they need to go somewhere else, instead of making something happen.

Sean Vegezzi – That’s what people are really looking for, the people that complain like that are the people that need a pre-packaged artists’ neighborhood or a packaged idea or a scene. Really, it’s kind of way more die hard to be an artist now, there’s almost no room left. I have so much respect for people that are just in the city with no guarantee making it happen for themselves.

Abeline Cohen – I’m not going to pretend like I don’t reap the benefits from all the changes either, I’m in Whole Foods all the time, but its about being able to exist in that and live your life and also be creating work.

Sean Vegezzi – To simultaneously be a part of that and do something like this, to realistically coexist in both worlds. Deal with your aggression and your distaste for New York in a way that’s actually productive. Shut up and do a show, or make work that is communicating what you are upset about, don’t just whine.

Kay Goldberg – I agree. You narrowly (but successfully, in my opinion) avoided two major problems of a show like this. The first is how you present street art. You have street artists here, you have the graffiti, but it doesn’t make my skin crawl like that stuff usually does in a fine art setting. Why do you think that is and how does it play into the anonymity of the show? There are no name cards, no titles, no prices, no artist identification. Everything is completely unlabeled. There is a sort of vigilante street art vibe but I would in no way consider it a street art show.

Sean Vegezzi – I think we avoided it becoming a street art show because the element of anonymity was in no way a move to protect the identity of the artists or prevent them from getting in trouble. The anonymity was more so people would be forced to validate the work by the merit of the work itself. People couldn’t just look at it and be like, ‘Oh here is a name I trust, an established person’ because there are people in the show that people could easily gravitate towards because they have some prestige to their name, but instead there is this anonymous vibe, not because it’s an illicit thing but more to challenge viewers to walk up to something and appreciate it.

Abeline Cohen – And yes, you are going to see graffiti here, but that Lance De Los Reyes piece for example was actually a huge issue. The night of the show we had just finished actually painting over a lot of graffiti that was in the building and people came in and saw Lance’s piece and just started tagging everything near and around it. We had to do so much clean up. I think trying to figure out that tension of you know, are we hypocrites if we say we don’t want this in the show? Lance created a really important dialogue.

Andrew Kass – We are trying to push every participant out of their comfort zone so it’s not like we are going to give a pass to some street artists.

Abeline Cohen – Not really though, I don’t think we succeeded in doing that completely… 

Kay Goldberg – You don’t think you pushed everyone out of their comfort zone? 

Abeline Cohen – I don’t really think we did completely. I understand it’s a vague guideline to say ‘Do something you are uncomfortable doing’ but even so I am so happy to see the limits of those guidelines and see what happens and to know that if they didn’t understand, then its my fault and I didn’t explain it to them. All the different dynamics are playing in a really interesting way. To say that we succeeded with the criteria is not necessarily true though. I don’t think we pushed everybody.

Sean Vegezzi – I think that it was really hard to be firm and I think that for the sake of making the show happen we had to definitely make exceptions. Having the conversations with the people who were graffiti artists was really interesting though, because some of them just didn’t get it, they were so offended that we asked them to do something else and its like well we are asking everyone to do something else. They almost needed to be upset. 

Kay Goldberg – The second problem you successfully avoided is the ‘art school’ or immediately post-art school vibe that is very easy for group shows to fall into, especially shows like this that include mixed media, with a lot of found art and electronic art and performance based work.  This risk is even greater because the three of you are young and the show is anonymous, and there is no gallery or any authority standing behind you to validate what you have done here. How do you think you achieved this? Is it because of how the work is presented? Does it have to do with the ages of the artists?

Abeline Cohen – For sure, having a range of backgrounds and ages makes it so that you kind of hopefully avoid that right off the bat, like my dad made the piece that is the bathroom, but the main thing that was so important to us was staying away from any kind of irony, keeping everything super genuine. We wanted people to take it seriously.

Sean Vegezzi – I think a lot of people are kind of self-conscious and make shows that aren’t that serious. Young people are scared to be serious or they will use crutches to act like they don’t care. In art school, the idea of: “I’m young and I can get away with this” runs rampant. But we really wanted every one to work really hard in here.

Abeline Cohen – We worked so hard and that’s why it looks like we worked hard, because we did. And in the space you couldn’t not work hard, Andrew and Sean and our friend Spencer were scraping up raw sewage from a busted sewage pipe.

Andrew Kass – That’s what’s kind of great about the theme actually too, that no matter how technically able you are, you can make a completely different piece and usually end up working next to someone you wouldn’t hang out with.

Sean Vegezzi – I think something that is really important to address is the tension between inclusivity and exclusivity. When could the show become too messy? When do we step in and tell someone that their piece isn’t working or isn’t good? We had some instances where I was really upset with the quality of a work and was vicious about it and then I felt like the asshole, and at times Abeline was the asshole for letting it some bad work in or that’s how I was thinking about it then and I learned a lot from that.

Abeline Cohen – We didn’t have a vision for what it was going to be exactly so all of the issues that came about while we were doing it really reflected like, what is important for me when I’m talking about art?  One thing that was important for me was like, there were thousands of people at the opening and I honestly couldn’t care if anyone came.  The show wasn’t about that and so that’s something that I learned, that honestly for me that it doesn’t really matter to me who views it. Making it is what’s important.

Interview Kay Goldberg and photo Elise Gallant, Tommy Malekov and Tristan Reginato

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