Is Buffalo the Next Berlin?
Report from…Buffalo, NY
Is Buffalo the Next Berlin? As the capital of Germany, obviously not. But in terms of an art city, rich in cultural associations with a thriving bohemian sensibility, Buffalo can already begin to think of itself as a new Philadelphia: a serious contender, that is, for artists priced out of New York who just need a place to hang their hats and make work.
In a recent trip there, however, Berlin kept coming up. I met more than one young artist who had spent time there before putting down roots in, or reconnecting with, Buffalo. Nestled on the border with Canada in the western reaches of New York State, and 90 minutes from JFK, Buffalo is a rust belt town that’s closer to Cleveland than Manhattan in more than just miles. But that is not a bad thing in forging an alternative art city. Philly has never shaken the patronizing notion of being “the sixth borough”, unable fully to develop an identity distinct from New York City. Think of Buffalo, instead, as Hudson with warehouses — upstate and then some — and its burgeoning art life might beckon.
Buffalo enjoys a spot on art world maps thanks to significant museums and extraordinary architectural heritage. Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces attest to the times when the home of a world’s fair and the first city to be fully electrified was a cosmopolitan hub. The SUNY Buffalo art department has enjoyed international attention since producing Pictures Generation luminaries such as Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. Museum-wise, even a young English critic in 1987 knew to stop here, en route from Toronto to NYC, to catch the superlative holdings of Abstract Expressionism at the Albright-Knox. I was back in Buffalo, a newly minted New Yorker, fifteen years later for a superb Modigliani exhibit. A massive expansion of the museum is now planned for 2019 with a new pavilion by the architects OMA/Shigematsu. And since that last visit, a new museum has been added to the mix: the Burchfield Penney Art Center, on the Albright-Knox’s doorstep, showcasing Charles Burchfield, Buffalo’s most famous artistic son, with related contemporary exhibitions. This time round, however, what lured me toward Niagara Falls was living art.
The painter Rebecca Allan (a longstanding and valued artcritical contributor) hails from Buffalo but hasn’t exhibited here since 1986. This summer she showed her ecologically-informed lyrical landscape paintings at Anna Kaplan Contemporary, one of several young galleries active in the city. Last fall, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New York, staged an in-depth exhibition of this series, curated by Cynthia Bronson Altman. Paintings in her Buffalo show, titled “Debris Fields”, derived their toxic beauty from the arbitrary waste and negligence of industrial and mining sites. While abstract in compositional strategies, their paint handling has a lush naturalism that recalls the late Robert Berlind. Burchfield is also clearly an inspiration, with his transcendentalist meditations on the use and abuse of nature. But in the collisions of synthetic and organic palettes and tight painterly negotiations of layers and twists, Allan mostly channels the New Mexico landscapes of Richard Diebenkorn. Her paintings are pervaded by a provocatively gentle sense of foreboding.
Allan was also included in an earlier installation of paintings at the fabled Hotel Henry, the H. H. Richardson-designed former New York State Asylum that lay dormant for decades until being masterfully converted to boutique hotel usage last year by Deborah Berke Associates. Architectural Digest had cited Anna Kaplan Contemporary as part of a Buffalo renaissance in which the reclamation of the landmarked psychiatric hospital plays a central role. Kaplan has joined forces with two other women, Elisabeth Samuels of Indigo Art and Emily Tucker of Benjaman Contemporary, to launch Resource:Art, a consultancy that places contemporary art in institutional and pop-up venues. In the second floor public spaces of the Henry they have established a series of exhibitions of kunsthalle quality, with imaginatively installed, interlinked displays of significant local artists. Richardson and Berke are clearly the curators’ friends: the setting could not be more spectacular, well-lit and generous with wall space. With its Romanesque spires and the sinister decay of its unreclaimed wings, the historic asylum might seem the epitome of the gothic horror loony bin, but in its day Richardson’s hospital was a model of progressive treatment: the sumptuous hallways were designed for inmates to learn socializing skills. These now provide incredible gallery opportunities that put paid to any negative connotations of “hotel art”. Especially prized spots are the semi-circular walkways linking the main body of the hospital to its wings, which are especially well suited to sculpture. The handsomely enigmatic works of Kevin Kegler, for instance, managing to simultaneously recall Martin Puryear and Louise Bourgeois, exploit a master craftsman’s years as a boat builder. The Light Will Blind You (2017) is a smooth totemic construction, at once face-like and functional, with a suggestively luminous niche-orifice at its golden core.
At the June 8th reception for the latest Resource:Art display I met Kegler and his daughter, Kyla Kegler, recently returned from years of studying and dance performance in Berlin. Kyla Kegler took me to see her solo exhibition, “Feel Me: How to dwell in daily sensation, a manual for finding feeling” at the BOX Gallery on Main Street in downtown Buffalo. It is an expansion of her recent degree show at the University at Buffalo. In her own words, her work “probes the phenomenon of haptic sensation through visual, audio, text, and performative experiences.” Her installation consists of uninvitingly utilitarian MDF furnishings and accoutrements for various massage therapies. At one end of the gallery, under an orange neon of the word “Feel”, is a textured wall of cast breast-like forms that visitors are invited to interact with as they choose. Accompanying audio, delivered in deadpan, corporate voice-of-god tones, describes physical and spiritual benefits to be derived from the therapies under offer. Kegler’s project, which was also just recently shown at Kunstraum in Brooklyn as “Three Acts, Three Scenes: Your Care, My Care, Careful Care,” recalls Maryam Jafri’s “War on Wellness”, seen earlier this year at Kai Matsumiya, although Kegler’s intentions are more ambivalently poised between earnestness and irony than the aggressively deconstructive Jafri.
Kegler lives in a sprawling and — to this Manhattanite’s eye — to-die-for loft downtown, on the same block as the 1912 Electric Tower. Buffalo is a city not only of architectural gems — besides Lloyd Wright’s pioneering residences there are the Guaranty Building skyscraper by his mentor Louis Sullivan, the recently landmarked grain elevators of Silo City, the Saarinens’ Kleinhans Music Hall — but also of miles upon miles of warehouses and mills screaming with potential. Inevitably, artists, in their perennial quest for viable places to live, work and exhibit, are leading the way in reclamation, but the problem is an embarrassment of riches. How many kunsthalles can a city of quarter of a million support?
But that’s not any individual artist or entrepreneur’s problem. Ryan Arthurs is another returning native: he received his M.F.A. in photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2012 and had been teaching at Harvard and elsewhere. He held a pop-up exhibition, Liberty, during Buffalo’s pride week at the end of May that, luckily, extended beyond its intended 72 hours for me to catch sight of it. The title of the show recalls the furloughs granted by the military while playing on the sense of the artist taking liberties with his materials, as well as celebrating liberation. Arthurs explores issues of masculinity and sexuality in prints and installations that delicately juggle appropriation and transformation. He has troves of historic family photographs of young servicemen at leisure whose grainy textures he processes through lithography with overlays of geometric shapes, reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly, in pastel hues. He also presents collages made from vintage gay postcards by the pioneering Bob Mizer that he has collected in depth. He artfully arranges his diverse, variously framed and pinned materials on printed wallpapers, adding a further layer to his installation. Freedom to experiment with what could be prohibitively expensive printing techniques is something crucial to his work, which is where the move to Buffalo adds another dimension of liberty, by providing space and resources beyond his reach in Boston.
Arthurs’ show was staged in a recently renovated store belonging to Frits Abell, the developer behind a burgeoning portfolio in the Five Points neighborhood on the West Side. There’s already a popular wine shop, a cafe, a Pilates studio and other mixed use, commercial and residential projects spreading out from this intersection of avenues. Savoring the upbeat vibe of the Five Points bohemian hub on a cool summer afternoon prompted the thought: to build an arts metropolis, it takes a village.