A frame shop enters realm of fine art
By Nitasha Tiku
After hours at Gallery 225, owner Peter Wallach and curator Victor Friedman stood gazing at a series of color photographs of the Coney Island boardwalk taken earlier this year. In one, a squat brick building with the words Shoot the Freak stenciled across its side was juxtaposed with the façade of Cha Chas Bar & Café (Entertainment for the Hole Family). Behind the buildings, the empty carts of the Wonder Wheel beckon. The vibrant series, taken by Brooklyn-based artist Deborah Matlack, was one of seven featured in Worlds Apart, a photography exhibit at the gallery running until August 23. Shes catching things that wont be there very long, said Friedman, referring to the fate of Astroland at Coney Island.
The gallery is actually one-half of Wallachs neighborhood frame store, the 14th Street Framing Gallery at 225 W. 14th St., which hes owned for the past thirty years. And Friedman, a photographer himself, is one of Wallachs long-time customers. The space used to house a collection of antiques, but it never did very well, said Wallach. At Friedmans suggestion, he decided to open a gallery last Februrary to showcase pieces by local artists and photographers, some of whose work he has been framing since back when it was still possible to live in the Village on an artists salary.
In New York, good work often gets ignored by galleries that can only afford to show pieces by celebrated artists, said Friedman, There are so many dedicated, wonderful, productive people, but to get to the top of the art world is very difficult. Unlike its upscale Chelsea brethren, 225 is more of a community endeavor. Were not a gallery that has the backing of some rich person, Friedman explained. The idea instead was to focus on really good art that they could sell affordably in many cases by lesser-own artists who had created significant work in their own right.
Look at Erika Stone, she started when she was 12; shes 82 now, said Friedman. Stone, a member of the much-lauded New York Photo League (started by Paul Strand and Bernice Abbott in 1931), was one of two artists featured in the gallerys last exhibit. After fleeing Nazi Germany for New York at age 12, Stone went on to produce an arresting series of black-and-white photos taken at Sammys, a raucous Lower East Side hot spot, when she was only 17. I didnt know very much about flash photography at the time, but I was young and gutsy, Stone said recently by phone from her Manhattan apartment. I climbed up on the counter and took pictures of the Bowery Beauties from the top down.
The idea for Worlds Apart came when Friedman went to see Stone speak on a panel run by Professional Women Photographers, a non-profit headquartered a few blocks away. Friedman was impressed. Ive got to be able to get a show out of a group like this, he told himself. He and Wallach put in a call for entry from the PWP, ultimately sifting through over 60 submissions, much more that they expected for a fledging community gallery.
Rather than adhering to any particular aesthetic, said Friedman, they looked for just plain, damn good work. When the dust settled, it turned out that the photographs they picked encompassed many different styles from an antique-looking series of lith prints by Anne Marie Rousseau taken amid the detritus of an abandoned New England mill, to a hyper-real series of trees by Jackie Weisberg, Photoshopp-ed to emphasize natural color contrast.
The works some better than others also turned out to have been taken from around world.. A collection of digital prints of color negatives by Nancy Sirkis were set in train stations from India to England, each taken at shutter speeds of 2 to 6 seconds, so that in one instance, a pair of bare legs poured into bright blue pumps waiting on the platform the body invisible becomes two. Jody Watkins, whose series of black-and-white photos was taken over five years in Oaxaca, Mexico, followed the lives of three families she first met in a community center in Monte Albon. Watkins had an interest in photography since high school, but spent much of her life working as an airline stewardess.
The idea of photography as a passion, rather than a full-time profession, is something you hear a lot at Gallery 225. Friedman himself as worked as a hairdresser at Kenneths Beauty Salon in the Waldorf Astoria about as long as hes been a photographer. But that doesnt mean theyre any less serious about their work. In fact, photographs of Friedmans are in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Art in Houston. And Watkins Oaxaca series was done under the tutelage of noted photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark.
So how has Wallachs endeavor paid off? Better than antiques, he said wryly. Passersby have started popping in intermittently to check out the latest exhibit. And on opening night in late June, more than 150 people gathered into the space, spilling out onto the sidewalk outside. That night, Wallach even made the first sale of the show, a photo from Weisbergs tree series called Big Tree, Little Tree, taken in Prospect Park. The lucky recipient of the photo a soon-to-be Brooklyn transplant was even promised a tour of the park to see the tree.
Its slow, but were new and I think it has the potential for being a really good gallery, Wallach added quietly, sounding somewhat unconvinced.
Petes worried, said Friedman, smiling. But I have confidence. Friedman looked up at the demure, pink glow of the miniature halogen lights Wallach installed before he decided what to do with the space a sharp contrast with the industrial, fluorescent lighting in the adjacent frame shop. He had the instincts to make a gallery all along he just didnt know it yet.
Gallery 225, 225 W. 14th St., between 7th & 8th Aves., 212-691-8156, 14streetframing.com.