Just blocks from the Knickerbocker / Myrtle M stop, El Sótano Art Space occupies the bottom floor of a residential building. Not much goes on on its quiet street; a small market draws groups of neighbors to the corner, but that’s about it. The gallery’s storefront, to the extent that there is one, is a label on a buzzer. To get down the stairs and into its exhibition space, you have to ring number 1.
El Sótano was designed with warmth and geniality—not gallery-coolness—in mind. Its co-founders and curators, Julio Alejandro Rodriguez and Victoria Luzuriaga Bastidas, opened the space to the public towards the end of last year, in the lower floor of their shared living space (the gallery’s name translates, aptly, to “the basement”). It is low-ceilinged and somewhat small, with the sweet markings of a home: the hum of a coffee maker upstairs, a couple of suitcases stored neatly in a corner.
Still, there’s no doubt that El Sótano is serious about being an art space—and a thoughtful, progressively-focused art space. Earlier exhibitions centered on language and immigration. The current one, “Queer Revolutions: The Body as Terrain for Insurrection,” seeks to expand narratives of queer rebellion beyond the traditional collective ones (like the story of Stonewall).
Rodriguez, who spearheaded the curation of this one, was interested in looking at more individualized and physicalized instances of rebellion. “The queer community is such a diverse community,” he said. “But what is the one thing we all have in common? Our body: we all express some sort of resistance through our body.” On the wall behind him, as he spoke, was a collage of photographs of one queer couple: they’re pictured in tons of insitutional spaces, municipal buildings and churches and banks, having illegal, rebellious, public sex.
When Luzuriaga Bastidas moved to New York as a hopeful creative, she was disappointed by an art world that felt incredibly commercial, overly pristine, and inaccessible in a number of ways. “The barriers to entry were higher than I anticipated,” she recalled. “Too often I found my work under-appreciated, misunderstood, or wrongly identified within the ‘white cube’ setting.” New York galleries were not open-invitation places, and they weren’t places that encouraged deep communicating. People weren’t connecting with others over art—not their own, or anyone else’s.
Museums were not much better on accessibility, including for patrons. The first time Rodriguez and his father visited New York together, they went to MoMA and saw a Jeff Koons piece: two old vacuum cleaners encased in plexiglass. “My dad was like, ‘Why did I pay to see vacuum cleaners? I could have gone to Target!,’” Rodriguez recalled. “That’s not a critique of Jeff Koons—it’s a critique of museums, not willing to make art understandable for everyone.”
So El Sótano was born, in part, of frustration with art-world norms. By building an art space in their home—literally opening their doors to artistic conversations—Luzuriaga Bastidas and Rodriguez hoped to dissolve some of these barriers between humans and artworks. In terms of accessibility for artists, the co-founders emphasized the incredible gift of full curatorial control, which allows them to feature whoever and whatever speaks to them. “I have been given the privilege of being here, of having a space. When I see good, quality work, work that is strong and meaningful and thoughtful, I want to open the space,” Rodriguez summarized.
The current exhibition features work from well-established artists like Tony Whitfield, as well as from emerging creators like Karen Blandon (her large, striking collage, “Revelaciones,” currently covers a full wall). The works in “Queer Revolutions” are also geographically diverse: they come from all over the United States and Latin America, where Rodriguez, a native of Mexico, and Luzuriaga Bastidas, who is from Ecuador, retain deep artistic ties. One particularly moving piece, “Refugio,” is by Mexican artist Ainé Marín; it’s a commentary on the experience of being trans and seeking hormone replacement therapy in Mexico, where medical shortages are far too common. “Refugio” features a “corridor” of dying, upside-down roses, hung from the ceiling as a metaphor for fading femininity; on the wall beside the roses is a calendar, on which handwritten “T”s mark the days of scheduled testosterone application. Eventually, the “T”s vanish altogether, and the viewer can learn, by reading the piece’s written description, that the disappearance of testosterone is due to medical shortage: “negligence…in a country where trans or gender nonconforming people are not a priority,” in Marín’s words.
In terms of accessibility for visitors: El Sótano’s not-for-profit, totally out-of-pocket financial model is aimed at keeping the space open to everyone (Rodriguez admitted he has three paying jobs, to help him sustain the space). The curators, when they created El Sótano, were thinking about anyone walking by on their residential street, including the person not necessarily seeking out an art experience—the guy who just happens to wander inside. They want their homeyness to encourage dialogue. “My hopes for El Sótano is to [have] productive conversations around culture, art, and society,” Luzuriaga Bastidas said. Rodriguez echoed this sentiment: “We wanted to make a space where people can come and not be afraid to say, ‘Hey, I don’t get this!’ The same way if you had a painting hanging in your house, and you had your friends over and they asked about the painting, you would casually talk about it.”
On the gallery’s website is a quote from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space: “Space is not a thing, but rather a set of relations between things.” That’s a slightly heady summation of what they’re trying to do here, which is actually quite short and sweet: they want the experience of consuming art to be relational, not institutional. So if you happen to wander into El Sótano and feel confused—or feel like you’re looking at a thing you could have seen in Target—know that either Luzuriaga Bastidas or Rodriguez will be floating around (they do live there, after all). And you should absolutely ask them about it.