Last week, I wondered how the partnership between the Deep Space gallerists and the artist Shamona Stokes would transform the viewing experience at the Hamilton Square and Majestic Theater Condominiums. Jenna Geiger and Keith Van Pelt at Deep Space have their own peculiar way of doing things; Stokes has one of the most developed and immediately recognizable styles in town. It’s easy to get excited about a Stokes/Deep Space collaboration, but how will their visions harmonize? What other artists would they pull into their elliptical orbit?
Turns out we can start answering those questions already — but we’ve got to cross the Hudson to do it. A sneak preview of Deep Space ft. Shamona Stokes (or is it the other way around?) is accessible this weekend at the SPRING/BREAK art fair in Manhattan (625 Madison Ave., NYC), and it’s glorious. Is it worth thirty-six bucks plus train fare for a ticket to the event? Well, that depends on how much you enjoy art blowouts. If you do like immersive experiences, Jersey City’s spellcasters have certainly shown up for this one.
SPRING/BREAK, an annual event that transforms a couple of floors of a Madison Avenue office building into a visual free-for-all, has welcomed Deep Space to its roster of attractions before, and residue from their 2021 installation enlivened the thrift shop beneath the gallery for months afterward. In 2022, the Gallery has assembled an all-star team: Stokes, painter and Elevator building studio neighbor Rebecca N. Johnson, and Brooklyn designer Deming King Harriman. “Drink the Sun” (it’s in room 25 on the tenth floor) is an enchanted tea-and-flower shop, a pocket fantasy world worthy of a Cheshire cat or Mad Hatter, and, in its whimsical spirit, near-Edwardian tone, and precise-yet-playful execution, it’s very different from the boisterous balance of SPRING/BREAK 2022.
Neither Stokes nor Johnson nor Keith Van Pelt in his glass-cutting “TF Dutchman” mode look backward very much. Deep Space hovers right on the event horizon of new art, a riptide of danger and barely repressed grief lurks beneath the surface of Stokes’s adorable illustrations and ceramics, and Johnson’s paintings confront the fragility of Mother Earth at a time of widespread habitat destruction. But a funny thing has happened to these artists when they’ve put their heads together. Collective action has amplified the parts of their work that draw from tradition and art history. In the makeshift drawing-room context of “Drink the Sun,” Johnson’s paintings seem to allude to classic portraiture: images of dignified women, some stubbornly clinging to their outlines, some dissolving into verdure the way that Thomas Dewing’s subjects did. The impress of Johnson’s delicate but firm touch is all over this installation — she’s decorated some of the ceramics on the central table, place-set for fauns, perhaps, and drawn the outlines of scores of girls, each on in pink ink, on the flowing drapes that cascade down the glittering golden walls. The sweetness of the setting has taken some of the serrated edge off Shamona Stokes’s barbed little sculptures of half-animals and shattered-eggshell female figurines. Stokes’s work is always winsome, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her do anything quite as unambivalently pretty as the tiny sculptures of flowers that she’s set on the tabletop. As for Van Pelt, his gorgeous stained-glass work still doesn’t feel much like anything you’d encounter in a church. But his sunburst-flowers, hanging high on the walls like a pair of clocks, glow with so much warmth, and with such a feeling of contentment, that they seem holy anyway.
It may be the presence of the painter and printmaker Deming King Harriman who has brought the sugar out of this crew. Harriman shares with Stokes a fascination with fairy stories and myths, and a deep understanding of the gruesome undercurrents of Grimm’s tales. Yet Harriman’s paintings are so meticulously rendered that there’s never any question of whether the artist is in control. Unlike Stokes, who often paints and sculpts like a woman afraid of the forces she’s unleashing, Harriman spins each strand of her elegant web with precision that borders on dispassion. If her beautiful, slightly sinister blooms and strange and aperture-filled fruits seem a bit carnivorous to you, that’s not because she’s been possessed by a nature spirit. It just means she’s firmly on the side of the plants.
Harriman was part of last year’s Deep Space contribution to SPRING/BREAK. Some Deep Space-affiliated creators are so closely associated with street art that their influences are tough to trace; Harriman isn’t one of those. Another closet traditionalist who Deep Space loves is the painter RU8ICON1, whose storytelling work will hang at the gallery (77 Cornelison) for the next two weekends. His techniques, and the elusive quality of his canvases, suggest the urgency of street art. But his images of urban interiors, mansion houses busy with a combination of shadows and daylight, and his animation of psychologically complex social scenes is reminiscent of Edward Hopper. I’ll have much more to say about RU8ICON1 when Deep Space brings his work to the Majestic Condominiums in a few months. The reach of the small Cornelison St. gallery continues to grow. I promise I’ll write about somebody else next week. Hey, it’s not my fault. These characters just keep doing cool stuff; what can I do but respond?