If you’re on the hunt for veggies at the Essex Street Market this month, you might get sidetracked (as I did) by the shoebox art gallery in the corner running an exhibition called Lettuce, Artichokes, Red Beets, Mangoes, Broccoli, Honey and Nutmeg: The Essex Street Market as Collaborator.
It sounds like the contents of a health nut’s grocery bag (we’re sure mango-artichoke-nutmeg smoothies will be all the rage soon) but Cuchifritos, Essex Market’s resident gallery run by Artists Alliance Inc, has something else in mind.
The exhibit, running through March 27 and curated by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful, tries to graft the colorful dynamism of the surrounding market into the gallery space. With Essex Market poised to move out of its 76-year home, across the street to a tricked-out modern facility (part of the large $1.1 billion Essex Crossing development) Estévez Raful thought it was an apt moment to examine the role of markets on, well, the market.
“For this exhibition I invited six artists to interact with the market, meaning the actual market as a space– the customers, the vendors and the visitors — in any way that maybe intersected or triggered some interesting dynamics with their practice,” he explained. (That’s also where the name of the exhibit came from– each ingredient corresponds with the first letter of the contributor’s names.)
For some of the artists, this meant working with found objects, of which the market has many. Harley J. Spiller, an avid collector, gathered and framed the “material culture” of the market at this moment in time– bits and pieces of each vendor’s existence and mark on the world, like business cards, menus, receipts and old labels. While the detritus of a “day in the market” feels familiar, almost humdrum, today, it’s also easy to imagine it, a few decades from now, acting as a freeze-frame testament to what Essex Market looked like and felt like before it moved across the street.
Mary Ting, who often works on environmental sustainability themes, used old cardboard fruit and vegetable boxes to make her piece, Refuse Redo. Hoping to find a thread between pollinators (represented with cardboard bee and flower sculptures) and the chemicals sprayed on many of our everyday crops, Ting worked with the Lower Eastside Girls Club to construct the figurines and dioramas out of the boxes.
“Mary is inviting the Lower Eastside Girls Club to create elements that reference nature out of all of these materials, that actually triggers a conversation on how we might be treating our environment,” said Estévez Raful.
Antonia Pérez also reimagined the market’s mundane material, crocheting plastic grocery bags into unexpected shapes. Visitors can also donate their own plastic bag to her ongoing effort. For now, she’s made a large sack out of the bags, and a colorful cylinder-shaped form, reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss hat.
The piece contributed by Beatrice Glow is perhaps the most whimsical attempt to capture the market in its current form. She specially concocted scents based on the smells of the market’s history, such as mangos, tobacco and bacon. Like a small ritualistic ceremony, visitors can sniff the scent on display within a small glass sphere. Later, she pours each scent into an “Essex Street Market Time Capsule,” creating an olfactory portrait of the market’s place in time.
With a new market on the way, the exhibition is a welcome moment to contemplate the space in its current incarnation – from the riot of fruits and vegetables at the Dominican market next to the European cheese shops, to the Ukrainian barber and Shopsin’s cranky diner, it’s all going to feel different in a fresh location.
“I see the market as a living organism, not just a building with shops,” explained Estévez Raful. In 2004 he held a residency in the market, so coming back to curate feels something akin to a homecoming. “I think this is a pivotal moment because [the market] is changing,” he said. “It has always been changing, but it’s maybe changing faster, and also the market is moving. So I was curious to highlight and underline some of the dynamics that are taking place right now.”