Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Jesse Gee, curator at Galleria J. Antonio, with the painting that is on display in the gallery’s window and which has been generating debate on Avenue A.

East Village’s newcomers don’t take to bare breast

By Ronda Kaysen

“Who doesn’t like titties?” asked Janet Santiago, standing on Avenue A with her husband, Anibal, and a bundle of fresh dry cleaning slung over her shoulder.

Janet craned her neck to get a better look at the “titties” in the window. “Whoever takes offense — they’re ignorant,” she declared with a flip of her hand.

The breasts belong to a nude portrait of a woman with flaming red hair and startled green eyes propped up in the storefront window of Galleria J. Antonio in the East Village. Painted by Mohawk artist Joni Sarah White, the haunting image — of the artist’s mother — is called “Portrait of My Mother, Helena Embracing,” and includes one exposed breast. The subject’s other breast and nether regions are concealed.

In the week since the gallery’s curator put the painting in the window, several local residents have requested he remove it, a young male passerby asked permission to masturbate in front of it and someone spit at the window.

“What a bunch of nerds these kids are!” said Jesse Gee, the gallery’s curator, standing inside his store on a recent Friday afternoon.

Gee would happily remove the painting — for $5,000. “One woman came into the store and asked me to take the picture out of the window. I told her, ‘Sure, give me your credit card and I’ll charge $5,000 to it and you can do whatever you want with the painting. You can give it to the Salvation Army, if you like.’”

She didn’t bite at the offer.

The East Village, formerly the bastion of New York City hedonism, has changed in recent years. With real estate values skyrocketing, the once dicey, drug-infested quarter has morphed into a destination for moneyed New York hipsters.

Gee, a slight, cheerful man, worries the outrage against “My Mother” is a harbinger of a new generation of East Villagers to come. “I can’t imagine we have young people moving into this neighborhood who can’t see a picture of a naked woman. One woman [who complained] couldn’t have been more than 25. This is ridiculous,” he declared.

Gee has a theory about the critics: “Their parents are prudes and so are they. Totally weird. The kids who have moved into these new buildings are from Illinois or Ohio. They’re a different breed; they’re not your typical New Yorker.”

The galleria is a colorful crafts store with jewelry, pottery, handbags and even doggy costumes peppering the walls and display cases. An artists cooperative, the galleria was located on Christopher St. from 1979 to 1989. After a 15-year hiatus when the store’s founding artist and namesake, Jose Antonio, died of AIDS in 1989, the shop reopened in 2000 at its present location on Avenue A and E. Fourth St.

White, the artist, was stunned to learn that the piece she painted last February of her mother had evoked such ire. “There’s a whole history in art of people who paint nudes, they sculpt nudes. The statue of David is a nude and it’s in a very public place,” she said, speaking to The Villager from her studio in the Akwesasne Mohawk territory, which straddles the New York-Canadian border. The 31-year-old artist has been a member of the galleria collective for nearly four years.

Much of White’s artwork has a startling quality to it. Another painting of hers, in the back of the galleria, is a chilling image of two Mohawk women, their heads covered in hooded cloaks, their faces etched with deep, sorrowful lines. “Art is part of our society. Art doesn’t have to give you a warm fuzzy feeling and make you think, ‘Cool, that’s beautiful or glorious.’ It’s more than that…. Art speaks to people in good ways and bad ways and in ways that they don’t want to deal with.”

Gee’s business partner Pedro Antunes suggested moving the painting to a less-prominent location. But Gee will have none of that. “The point is that I am on Avenue A, this neighborhood is changing, but I’m not going to succumb to this new group of people coming in here,” he said.

The Villager conducted a totally unscientific survey of the neighborhood and found no evidence of the artistically squeamish newcomers Gee fears are taking over the East Village. “I think it’s ugly, but I don’t have a problem with it being there,” shrugged Avenue A resident Oren Uziel, his dog tugging at his leash.

Monica Forde, who works on the block, stared at the painting briefly before hurrying off. “What’s there to be upset about?”

For Anibal Santiago, the painting evoked memories of a childhood since passed. “I used to take showers with my mother when I was a baby, that’s how I found out about where I came from,” he mused. On second thought, he considered the childcare center on the next block and wondered if the same painting might be inappropriate on a block peopled with small children.

“My Mother” will stay exactly where she is for at least another week. Gee has no intention of moving her. White agrees with her curator that the painting should remain front and center. Her advice to the faint of heart: “Don’t look at it. You know it’s there now.”

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