A scowling woman shoved a plastic bag in my face and gestured toward the mound of grapefruits at a Chinatown grocery like any other. “No thanks,” I smiled, pointing toward the rust red door with chicken scratch white paint that reads: 94 1/2. “Oh,” she said knowingly and smiled. Unlike everyone else clucking around the piles of produce, I wasn’t shopping. I was looking for an art show supposedly behind this dingy door. I tentatively knocked and heard no echo, no indication there was anything but darkness behind there, let alone an exhibition dedicated to work by the street artist RAE, some recent and some that might have otherwise been lost had it not been for a helpful neighbor.
RAE creaked open the door and peered out from big dark circles under his eyes as well as what looked like a dark stair case leading to nowhere. But he had a sincere smile, so this all seemed very natural and welcoming. He reached out his hand, “Hi, I’m RAE.” I stepped downstairs, my eyes adjusting to a the wonderland-like transformation from bustling Chinatown above to a basement wholly converted into one-part natural history museum and another part art gallery.
The setting is familiar to the Brooklyn street artist in two ways. A little more than a year ago, he converted a vacant East Village bodega into his very own art house, complete with RAE murals on the building, and filled with his work inside for a show called Word of Mouth. Again, RAE has taken a familiar trapping of the cityscape and converted it. What was once “a butcher shop since 1943, I believe” is now a fully functioning exhibition space.
The setting for Trunk Work has a personal connection, as well. The new exhibition includes work from four years ago running to recent creations, personal belongings (a photo of RAE as a 7-year-old with his pet cat, paint splattered studio sneakers), found-object sculptures, ephemera (RAE’s radio playing a Biz Markie tape), and of course the artist’s globular, latexy, multi-layered amorphous people paintings.
But Trunk Work is much more than a collection of RAE’s work, it’s also the anatomy of an incident. The exhibition incorporates artifacts from a scenario that, depending on how you look at it, could be the product of humans behaving badly (but not, like, super badly) and unintended consequences.
Four years ago, RAE had a studio space in an apartment building in Midwood. He knew his neighbors and had a friendly relationship with most of them. “There was a magician who lived there, pretty cool guy,” RAE nodded.
One day, RAE decided to conduct what he calls an “art experiment” of sorts. He’s vague on the details, but let’s just say the “experiment” involved a microwave and resulted in an explosion. “Maybe I wasn’t thinking, maybe I wasn’t in my right mind,” he admitted. “There was some metal and paint in there and stuff, I was just trying to mess around with some ideas.”
A video installation at Trunk Work (screened inside an old walk-in meat refrigerator where guests can comfortably sit atop what the artist described as an “old meat shelf”) gives RAE’s neighbors the opportunity to help tell the tale. One neighbor: “You heard people screaming and running down the hallway.” Another: “I was not going to die in there.” A man: “There was paint everywhere.” An older gentleman: “Big deal!” Another: “The landlord showed up here with his nephew who may or may not have been Russian.”
Luckily no one was hurt and the damage was minimal.
The explanations, like the exhibition, are nothing if not multi-faceted. “The connection between the art and the social issues of the story and stuff really make sense — most of my work is about people interacting with people, everybody having different emotions at the same time,” RAE explained. “And how do we make that work in society? Everybody has different opinions about what happened. Some people didn’t think it was a big deal and other people had problems with it.”
After the explosion, RAE was forcibly removed from the studio without having the opportunity to collect all of his belongings from the basement, which were stuffed inside a large metal trunk. Though, he was able to grab a few things. “I was trying to mount some evidence in my defense of the situation, that’s why the microwave door was saved,” he explained. “You may have rights as a tenant, but this is Brooklyn. There are different ways things are done.”
RAE wasn’t sure if he’d ever see his stuff again until years later he got a phone call from a friend of his in the building. “Listen, there’s chaos here, I don’t know what’s going on or where the landlord is, but the door’s open,” RAE recalled. He arrived on the scene to find that his former neighbors were getting kicked out of the building, with a dangerous crack in the facade to blame.
The media was there in full-force, interviewing the tenants about getting evicted so abruptly. A brief clip of video inside highlights a figure that is supposedly RAE stealthily moving across the screen, his trunk in hand. The work and, of course, the trunk are both now back inside a basement. “I found the trunk in a basement, so it makes sense to have the show in the basement,” RAE explained. “The trunk wasn’t too light either. You’d be surprised what you can fit in a small trunk like that — canvases, rolled-up paper — I mean, there’s a lot of things you can squish in there.”
The exhibition space is inseparable not just from the incident but also from RAE’s work. Everything fits together so perfectly that it’d be hard to wrap your head around what this place looked like before the exhibition, if not for the industrial sink, leaky drain pipes and a half-hearted attempt to stop them with stuffed up paper towels. This is also tied to RAE’s work — as a street artist, his work is about taking what’s already in existence (objects, trash, and facades and anything else that might otherwise blend into the urban background) and bringing attention to it by transforming it into something beautiful, covering these things in globs of paint where faces and words emerge from the background like out of a smoke puff.
But RAE eschews typical art galleries, so this place was never going to be a white-walled pristine affair. But I wondered how on earth he’d gotten access to this place. Rae explained it exactly as this: “So a friend of mine on a whim had his uncle’s friend who bought his electric business and he’s the brother of this guy, you know? And so when I showed up and my friend came along they didn’t even know who he was because it was through ten different layers of people.”
Right. It’s just as well the circumstances of how he acquired this space, much like the story and the work and everything inside of here, remain muddled and murky. Sometimes it feels like you’ve stepped inside a proper museum — the lighting (though RAE claims it was really cheap) is fantastic and the artifacts are meticulously labeled and protected under glass inside light boxes.
You are definitely in a basement and your senses are eventually, inevitably overwhelmed by the reality of the space. It smells like an old butcher shop, a meat stank lingers that no bleach could ever scrub out. Just when you’ve found yourself having a moment with one of RAE’s paintings a dolly creaking loudly overhead and people arguing above brings you out of your trance. Natural light streams break through cracks and disrupt the soft museum glow.
And if you think about it, the exhibition is all about this tension between reality and the surreal. Watch the interviews closely. They are just a little too comically timed. I had to ask, “Are those really your neighbors?”
“Oh yeah,” RAE confirmed. Though they (including a hilarious old couple who are also given plenty of air time) weren’t interviewed by RAE himself but by his friends.
It’s also impossible to tell what if any of the objects used to hold the art work (cheap, retrofitted cabinets that look as though they were pulled off the street, old meat cookers) were here before the exhibition. RAE admits he brought in a fish tank but said most of what was down here was removed to make way for the art.
And the museum aspect really highlights the idea of there being a single, reliable narrative. Sure, RAE has his version of what went down at his Midwood studio, but we also have all these accounts from various people who were also there at the time of the explosion. We can piece together the objects somewhat in our brains, but without the people to fill in the cracks we’ve got little to go on.
But after hearing the neighbors, and listening to the local news heads jabber on about the later incident at the studio that led to the evictions, you begin to see cracks in the story and understand that nothing is ever just as plainly as it seems at first glance. And is that RAE’s point? That objects and paintings and whatever else can only do so much, that what you really need are people, a city, a backdrop to tell a story? That’s my guess.
“A lot of my ideas come more from writing than sketching,” RAE explained. And under a glass case you’ll find notebooks salvaged from his trunk recording dreams, tidbits of human interactions, and scribbles of interwoven faces.
If you stare hard enough, it’s actually hard to imagine the work outside of this basement. It really does live here in a way. “The man upstairs who owns it has just retired from the butcher shop,” Rae explained. “For now we have a tentative relationship, until of course they kick me out.”
RAE’s Trunk Work will be on display at 94 1/2 Bayard St. @ Mulberry St. in Chinatown until April 19th. The exhibition will be open Thursday-Sunday (except for Easter) from 1-7pm.