Volume 74, Number 28 | November 17 - 22, 2004



Villager photos by Jennifer Bodrow

Melinda Brown at Bombora House with her new work, “Voussoir,” a response to a fable by Eric Dartan.

Hidden Meat Market art space is a world unto itself

By Divya Watal

Never judge a book by its cover, they say. In Melinda Brown’s case, a more appropriate adage would be: Never judge a building by its facade.

On any day, but particularly on this rainy, late fall day, the approach to Brown’s house, what she calls “a living sculpture,” on Ninth Ave. and 13th St., is nondescript, almost seedy. Passersby hurry past the two-story brick building, ignoring the shabby gray door with a painted sign saying, “Bombora House.” Nothing in the building’s outward appearance betrays the secret treasures that lie scattered inside.

“As an artist, I create spaces that transport the visitor from the outside world to a world that bears the mark of infinity,” Brown said, sitting at a long, Arthurian table dwarfed in one of Bombora House’s many halls, while the rain pattered quietly outside.

“It’s the physical presence of the building as a whole — that in itself is a sculpture,” she said.

Brown, who declined to reveal her age, except to say she was in the middle of her life, hails from Australia. When she moved into this mid-19th-century Meat Market building, one of the oldest in the area, during the blizzard of 1993, she found that it had been rotting for the previous 30 years.

“I wanted to exploit the fact that it was really funky,” she said.

Before long, she had transformed the dilapidated interior into a museum of eclectic art, housing sculptures and paintings made by herself and her friends, some of them her protégés, who tapped into their creative juices while living in the “living sculpture.”

One of the smaller rooms, for instance, displays the works of Sean Lyon, a young artist who stayed at Bombora House during the spring of 2003, producing a space within it called “Zen Weapons.”

“It’s a meditation on the hypnosis of violence,” Brown said, referring to one of Lyon’s pieces titled “Bullet Mandela,” a Tantric-looking circular board decorated with bullet casings.

Another artist, Koan, left his mark on Bombora House with “Tokonoma,” which translates from Japanese as “little room.” His pièce de résistance — an anthurium gazing out of a curvaceous vase, set in a dimly lit space — was part of a radical ikebana show, Brown explained, referring to the Japanese art of floral arrangement.

“It gives you a moment to pause and reflect,” she said of Koan’s red flower with its phallic protrusion, wedged in a connecting corridor between two halls. “The shadows reflect on your past — it’s a transition space.” The piece seemed to complement a book of “Japanese Death Poems,” peeping out from one of numerous bookshelves in the house.

Edlin Pitts, a resident artist from Belize, who stayed and worked at Bombora House in the winter of 2003, left a more unusual gift: a 400 million-year-old trilobite. It now ornaments a charming old bathroom, no longer functional but with an antiquated bathtub still in place.

So, how do budding artists apply for space in Bombora House?

“Oh, it’s really by word of mouth,” Brown said.

As she weaved her way through the labyrinthine house, she pointed with particular pride to a canvas made by her 28-year-old daughter, Wandjina, whose name comes from an Australian spirit figure. The potato-like subject of the painting meditated serenely on a table as if it were contemplating its existence in the Bombora universe.

Brown’s house tour stopped in front of a giant paper screen, this one her own, with a distorted calligraphic symbol in red pure pigment splashed across the white surface. The piece was titled “Open Ventricle,” she explained, because it represented the vulnerability of those falling in love.

“It’s classic New York,” Brown said of her metamorphosed space, which she spent years beautifying.

“In the early 1990s, there were still a lot of empty buildings in this area. The owners felt lucky to get someone to lease this place,” she said. “When I moved in, the ceiling was collapsing.”

Brown is currently using the building’s top two floors. The entire building is about 12,500 sq. ft. It was originally built as four stores with residences above, and was eventually joined as one. Brown claims they are the oldest buildings in the Meat Market “under the shadow of the newest.”

A bombora, according to Brown, is “a large benevolent wave traveling on the same frequency as other waves but with its own rhythm; it brings in the fish and you ride it all the way to shore.”

Within the next eight years, the period for which her lease is valid, Brown says she plans to convert Bombora House into a museum — an official one, with a revamped facade.

“Artists have to be businesspeople, you know. I’m being as creative as I possibly can,” she said, adding that the money for the astronomical rent has to come from somewhere, so why not project her artistic space as a retail platform.

“When the going gets weird, the weird get professional,” she quipped.

However, an impending bankruptcy makes her business agenda an especially pressing one for Brown. She’s been having difficulty paying a recent rent increase and a holdover tenant isn’t making things any easier by not helping foot the bill, Brown said. Brown holds a net lease for the building, as which she has subtenants on the ground floor, a pastry shop.

But she hopes to pull through the financial difficulties and realize her dream. If not, the artistic space that Brown has so lovingly cultivated may cease to exist, at least at its present location.

“Unless a white knight appears I will be forced to sell my lease,” she said.

Yet, perhaps the changing Meatpacking District, increasingly populated with trendy bars and fancy hotels like the Hotel Gansevoort, right across Ninth Ave. from Bombora House, might welcome an idiosyncratic commercial addition.

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