This past weekend, a group of twenty-six artists displayed their waterlogged, molded, faded, and warped artwork in a gutted collective studio space on 133 Imlay Street in Red Hook, where a five-foot high flood line was still visible. The event, dubbed “Flooded Art Party,” was a fundraiser for the participating artists—all still seeking relief—and featured a joint dance party and silent auction. With bracing optimism, their posters invited the public to join in a “celebration of Sandy-transformed art works.”
The day following the event, I visited the space to talk to Charlotte Kidd, a photographer who used to run 133 Imlay as the gallery Kidd Yellin, and Z Behl, a painter and co-curator of the Flooded Art Party along with painter Paul Korzan. I watched as the show was de-installed by groups of artists and supporters operating heavy machinery. There was a surprising and heartening display of spirited humor and energy in the face of such unfathomable loss, which for a number of artists meant an entire lifetime’s worth of work was gone.
While giving me a tour of the artworks in the space, Charlotte told me that this event offered the first chance to feel ok in over three weeks, then with a laugh she showed me her favorite part of the space—the bathroom they built for the party with stalls separated using fragments of damaged paintings. Z, who seen the post-Katrina trauma in New Orleans, later relayed to me how curating this show has altered her own practice, and that she sees it as a step towards her goals to found a school, start an art movement, and have a New World’s Fair in her lifetime. On this matter, and with the Flooded Art Show in mind, Z said, “I believe art is a catalyst for action, and people need to be incited to react to this difficult and changing world.”
Below, a Q&A with Z and Charlotte, who talk about their experiences putting together the show, and how they envision themselves and other affected artists moving on with their practices and their lives, along with more pictures from my visit. For images of the flooded art event, see the WSJ Online feature.
SQ: When you approached other artists with your idea, did you receive a common reaction to the show?
ZB: Yes, mostly extremely positive, like, “Thank god, a release—something to take my mind off cleaning up, and to celebrate something that I don’t want to throw out or feel bad about.”
CK: Everyone was really eager to participate. I think a lot of people’s work had been affected and they were kind of at a loss for what to do with it. We were not ready to just throw work out, but it’s no longer gallery ready. It was a chance to show the creative power of the storm.
SQ: In dealing with such emotional and vulnerable states, did you have difficulty picking your own and others’ works to include?
ZB: Definitely. People ran the gamut from flexible to very particular about what they felt comfortable showing. Then some wanted to take the show less seriously, or not invite certain people if I wanted to show [their] older work…but some artists were incredibly adaptive and found a way to create new work even for the show. For instance, Coke Wisdom O’Neal gave me a kitchen table full of love letters from his ex-wife and son’s mother. Coke’s work is not text-based, or relic-based, but that was the most powerful thing he felt he’d made or saved. That touched me.
CK: It was very difficult. You sort of thought you had dealt with the situation, but it was a fresh punch in the gut with every piece of your own work you came across. It’s easier to be objective with others’ work because you are not as emotionally connected.
SQ: How were your own artistic practices and processes affected by the storm? By the exhibition?
ZB: I haven’t been able to paint or make work since the storm. I keep meaning to write about it, but I find myself really bottled up. Just the idea of going through my salvaged supplies, throwing [more] out, and continuing to clean, is so energy-deflating that I keep procrastinating on facing reality. I was lucky that Dustin Yellin gave me an emergency residency and let me store stuff in the interim, although my studio, as of yet, has no heat or lights installed. I’m trying to change my responsibilities—I’ve been curating. For some reason seeing other people’s studios wrecked has helped me to feel more like myself, less upended. It’s also made me feel much closer to Paul (my studio mate) and everyone else who worked in my studio. I guess we can all be unhinged together.
CK: Basically, processes were all put to halt—not only were studios destroyed that we have to rebuild, but also it feels like too much has happened to just pick up a series and work from where I left off. It would be wrong to continue and not include response to the storm.
SQ: Were you able to find support or aid for the project and for your own works? In terms of building a community and a system of support through this exhibition.
ZB: Charlotte, our landlord, was very supportive of the idea. I knew Dustin would give us a piece, and Ray Smith too. Benjamin Keating and his team also helped so much. Dustin, Ray, and Ben all lent me their staff to help hang the show. Paul’s sister and best friend helped bartend. Kenan Juska, who is one half of [DJ group] Chances with Wolves with Kray Diobelly, also works in our space and he DJ’ed. After I had those guys, and such an incredible space (our studio is 6000 feet once gutted), I figured artists might be willing to trust me. Still, it required cold-calling people, personal visits, and a lot of Googling to figure out who was affected and interested. The most support I felt was from my friends who contributed; I couldn’t believe how many people were bidding—small amounts of money, but still trying to make an effort to give to people who felt really [lost] and needed (emotionally!) to make a sale.
CK: There were no outside institutions who gave money or anything, but the community of artists was incredible; everyone has been offering their time and hands. One day after the storm, eight neighborhood people spent the whole day helping me wash and clean and hang all the negatives in my archive that were underwater during Sandy.
SQ: Was there a reason that the event only lasted a weekend? And why at this particular time?
ZB: The party was in our studio, which is under renovation. We want to rebuild that space ASAP and make a new studio, so we had wanted to do something right away, before Thanksgiving. But then we felt it was too soon. And we couldn’t staff a show to keep it open to the public. Paul and I are just two people.
CK: We wanted the event to happen while the storm and it’s damage is still fresh in everyone’s mind. The five-foot water damage line is still apparent!
SQ: What do you think will be the short-term and long-term actions you plan to take as residents and as artists?
ZB: Short term, I plan to make a book about the flooded art show. I’m applying for a residency to get away from all my things until our studio on Imlay Street is back to being rentable. Long term…I love organizing and bringing people together. My work is already somewhat collaborative, and I think I need to embrace that more with my art.
CK: Short-term—cleaning up and helping the community get back on its feet! Rebuilding studios, repairing damage. Long term will be planning how better to prepare in the future if this happens again—we want to do what we can so that it won’t be such a devastation.
SQ: Was there a surprising positive side in any of this?
ZB: —that people had so much fun and were so happy. I didn’t think we could pull it off as well as we did, and the show looked great. People sold much more work than I anticipated. And I might have found new studio mates through searching for people with damaged studios, so definitely community building all around.
CK: It was amazing how the community rallied together—incredible support from restaurants cooking their food for us, people helping me clean my studio—it really made you realize who was there for you and would go above and beyond to help. Also, in some ways, there has been a fresh energy, a chance for a fresh start to rebuild and correct your mistakes you made the first time around.