Christopher Stout, founder of Bushwick Art Crit Group, has just opened his gallery in the disputed territory of East Williamsburg, the realization of plans we first heard about in early September. I had a chance to check the place out on Friday, and found that Stout is already keeping good on his pledge to show “subversive art.” The centerpiece of the gallery’s inaugural show, Shepard by Phoenix Lindsey-Hall, is a massive, meticulously crafted porcelain replica of the iconic fence Matthew Shepard (the victim of a notorious hate crime) was bound to before he was tortured and left for dead back in 1998. Not easy-to-swallow material, to say the least.
Christopher’s relationship with Phoenix, like the ten other artists represented by the gallery, is heavily indebted to the Bushwick Art Crit Group. “I met everyone here because of a relationship with BACG, with the exception of Linda [Griggs], who is the only person I knew before,” the gallerist explained. “Everyone here, I’ve shown repeatedly under the monicker of Bushwick Art Crit Group and I’ve heard lecture and I’ve worked with too.”
Phoenix first participated as a part of a Pride Crit BACG meeting. “She was the result of a Google search– isn’t that great?” Christopher laughed. “I discovered her work and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is this? This is right here under my nose.'”
Last December, Christopher told Phoenix the first solo show was hers. Knowing this, she was able to create Shepard. “As artists we all have these pet things in our arsenals, like what we would do if someone ever gave us ‘The Thing,'” Christopher explained. “And Phoenix knew she had this space and this time, so she just pulled it out from her greatest possibilities sketch book.”
Phoenix agreed. “I always knew I wanted to make this work, for years, but was waiting for the right time. A lot of my previous work is about queer hate crimes as well, so I always knew in the back of my mind that this fence was coming.”
Shepard is a weighty, imposing piece. It occupies the entire main room of the gallery not just in physical presence, but in its emotional weight. The structure resembles white painted wood so closely, I was shocked to hear all 52 individual pieces that make up the 14 logs are porcelain.
“The thing that’s striking to me as an artist, is that it’s this huge porcelain object,” Phoenix explained. “When you think of porcelain you think of nice china or dinner plates, something like that. It’s an everyday, common material– we all have coffee mugs– but here it’s really elevated to pay homage, to honor, and to respect.”
It’s impossible not to meditate on the pain and sense of loneliness and hopelessness Matthew Shepard probably felt in his last moments spent bound to a fence just like this one. But Phoenix doesn’t exactly see it that way. As an inscription on one of the gallery’s walls reads: “Matthew was left for dead, but he was not alone. He was surrounded by his life-long friends, the star-filled beautiful night sky, the morning dew of a cool autumn dawn, and the warmth of the afternoon sun. Through it all he was breathing in the smell of Wyoming sage brush and the scent of pine trees from the range.”
Though Phoenix was trained as a photographer, when the subject matter of her work veered into more violent, political territory, she felt it necessary to switch up her medium too. “I’ve never even taken a ceramics class but when I started doing work about hate crimes, I felt that having photos wasn’t right– that it needs to be a physical object,” she explained. “You need to be able to feel it. I needed to be able to take the fence and put it in this room.”
The artist was in high school when Matthew Shepard was murdered, and we both remember the hate crime and ensuing news coverage clearly. “It’s really potent for our generation and I think just the object as a symbol is really important but it’s also iconic– when you ask people what they remember about the Matthew Shepard case, for me, I remember the fence,” she explained. “I remember that the person who found them said they thought he was a scarecrow. I remember thinking of that big beautiful Wyoming sky. It’s such an interesting tie to nature, and here we are talking about life and death– it’s really very powerful.”
But Phoenix has a truly visceral connection to the Shepard case, informed by a personal connection to Shepard’s suffering. “It happened the year I came out and a few months later a friend of mine was murdered,” she recalled. “For me, Matthew Shepard was an individual, of course, but he also stands for all the people who have lost their lives to hate crimes.”
Phoenix, who is from North Carolina, also identifies with Shepard’s struggle, having felt trapped in a place where homophobia is rampant. “I grew up in the South, and being queer in the south, there’s a kind of violence that feels like it’s just under the surface and can feel imminent,” she recalled. “I’ve had friends, you know, who have been victims– in small and large ways.”
Though Shepard is a solo show, there’s an adjunct room open for viewing too. A permanent fixture of the space, the room is filled with works in a variety of mediums (video, paintings, and mixed media) created by the Stout gallery’s remaining artists. “Every month, ten people are making a statement about the major work in the show– so this, for example, is a very cold show, because it’s about death. It’s about gay hate crime. It’s about all kinds of things,” Christopher explained. “Next month is emotionally a very hot show, so these same people’s work will probably feel totally different. Aesthetically, the look will change so much but the people are identical.”
While the works in this adjacent room were meant to be in conversation with Shepard, some certainly succeed more than others. One piece that struck me as having the same dark resonance is a painting by Linda Griggs, the artist behind the gallery’s November show, The First Time is Not Like Porn. At first, the image of disembodied can of computer duster and an ash pile against a taupe-ish gradient background with simple text underneath seemed hollow. It almost reminded me of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. But once Christopher explained what was behind the inscription, “Blake Ferris 1968-2011,” the painting took on a whole new depth and a disturbing life of its own.
“He was an important Lower East Side artist who became addicted to duster,” Christopher explained. “He was found dead behind a CVS.” Apparently the chemical, a dangerous inhalant you can pick up at any convenience store, was responsible for Blake’s pitiful demise. The painting is part of What to do with the Body, an ongoing series of works depicting death stories.
While this particular work was the only obvious connection to Phoenix’s show, it’s also helpful just to see the variety and types of works Stout is interested in showcasing at the gallery. But save for a group show in December, the only other non-solo exhibition Stout is putting on is one devoted to Bushwick natives, artists who were born and raised in the neighborhood, a few of whom were represented at a BACG meeting this past summer.
Christopher noted before the gallery opened that he planned to host a “Native Bushwick pop up” during Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) 2016, an arrangement that follows up on the promises made at a special Native Bushwick BACG meeting earlier this summer. That meeting came after a local artist, Anthony Rosado, spoke out against the crit group on social media (and subsequently at a Bushwick Open Studios event) for promoting an atmosphere he understood as an exclusive one. In a follow-up interview, Rosado explained to us that although the meeting was a successful one, he still understood the crit group as a “predominantly white space.” Stout closed that meeting with a promise that the relationship between the existing community and BACG would continue.
“I’m giving them the whole space during BOS,” Christopher confirmed. “I’m giving them the white box treatment.”