Artist Brings “Post-Apocalyptic” Bushwick to Life
Lodged in the Lesley Heller Workspace on Orchard Street, Deborah Brown’s “The Bushwick Paintings” claim to capture what Brown describes as “a post-apocalyptic landscape of rubble, urban decay, defunct businesses and abandoned houses.” L Magazine writes that Brown paints Bushwick with a “dreamy, pastoral aesthetic that doesn’t quite romanticize poverty so much as isolate moments of beauty amidst the ugly.” The Village Voice titles their review of Brown’s exhibit “True Grit.”
“The Bushwick Paintings” display cotton candy-colored skies that back graffiti-covered buildings and chain-link fences. The exhibit depicts a human-less struggle between post-industrial junkyards and wild vines — attempting to capture the neighborhood’s energetic danger with epileptic brushstrokes that suggest barbed wire and spotty trees. This collection is seductive, but when taken out of the context of Brown’s community activism it is in danger of losing its meaning.
The 1977 blackouts in Bushwick were a spark that lit a tinderbox of social unrest: looting ravaged 134 stores on Broadway alone; fires, some accidental, some intentional, claimed 44 of those buildings. Housing fraud, arson and a decline of public services left the community in shambles through the ’80s and into the late ’90s. It is this Bushwick that Deborah Brown references when she says “post-apocalyptic.” “I don’t paint the new buildings of Bushwick because they are sort of generic and don’t capture my fancy as much,” Brown says. “But, I’m interested in this old Bushwick of the decaying factories and neglected housing stock
against this renewal of nature which symbolizes a rebirth of this community.”
Five years ago, Brown and her husband bought a building on Stockholm Street in Bushwick that doubles as her studio and his orthodontic clinic. A room put aside for neighborhood children to do their homework quickly familiarized the couple with the surrounding community. Simultaneously, Brown and her business partner, Jason Andrew, founded Storefront, a gallery located off the L train at Morgan Avenue. The pair works to engage the rapidly expanding circle of Bushwick artists with the surrounding neighborhood by curating annual exhibits of local children’s art collected from neighboring daycare centers.
As a member of the Bushwick community board, the negative symptoms of the transformation of Bushwick don’t worry Brown. She insists that “the community in Bushwick has protections in place to keep it from going through the divisive gentrification that other neighborhoods in New York have experienced.” Still, when art video-blogger James Kalm posted a YouTube video of Brown at the opening of “The Bushwick Paintings” she said, “I guess we’re part of the problem [of gentrification], but we’re having a good time with it and we love our space out there.”
There is a conflict between Brown’s alleged intention in this collection and the way it has been reviewed. At the heart of this seems to be the Bushwick one sees when they view the paintings: for Brown they commemorate a landscape’s (and its community’s) 30-year struggle; for the Village Voice they capture a stunning “new frontier,” a “cha-ching sound” in the pockets of brokers.