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Art Talks with Topless Gallery

Brent Birnbaum and Jenni Crain are taking art on vacation with the new Topless gallery at Rockaway Beach.  In hopes of rehabilitating the storefronts that were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, Topless is a nomadic summer project fixing up vacant properties each season, bringing the art culture of the city to the chill atmosphere of the beach. Out here, the white cube is a distant memory, the work is refreshingly new, and the ocean is only a few blocks away.

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How did you start Topless?

BB: I found the best gallery partner in world and we hit the bumpy Rockaway streets. We spent a month looking at a half dozen moldy places, negotiating with crazy landlords, and then another month fixing up our current space.

Since Sandy a lot attention has been put on the growing art and
culture scene in Rockaway. Why did you pick to start Topless there?

BB: I live here and I’m tired of traveling to get my cultural and social needs met. Plus I knew lots of artists were hitting the beach on the weekends, so I saw an opportunity. I had also been asking myself what skill set do I have to give back to my community that was still showing scars from Sandy. Some of these public wounds are the numerous empty storefronts from businesses not returning, following the Hurricane. You could say it was the perfect “storm” of factors. (Too soon?)

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How is having a gallery at the beach different than a conventional space?

JC: I find that there are two major differences. The first is that we have the opportunity to be a bit more experimental with our program, and to take more risks. This has mainly to do with the fact that we are not operating based on a fear of meeting a paralyzing rent quota, as faced by many NYC & BK galleries. Needless to say, another contributing factor to Topless’s quirk is undoubtedly Brent’s and my own, shall we say, sorta out there imaginations combining into one delightfully wacky program.

The second and most obvious difference has been the encouragement, excitement, and support extended by the local community at large. Brent and I are so grateful for and continuously amazed by the wonderfully warm embrace with which Rockaway has greeted us.

Can you talk a little bit about the current exhibition?

JC: Our current show, A Sphinx Has Lain Down Next To Me, is a two person exhibition featuring new paintings by Paul DeMuro and a one-of-a-kind video installation by Scott Gelber. These are two artists that Brent and I are extremely jazzed by and whose inclusions in our program were non-negotiable. Whilst curating and finalizing our Summer 2014 program, we tentatively matched the two artists for a show and well, it was undeniable magic.

Paul has two new paintings at Topless, which he has been working on for over a year now. His oil paintings are exceptionally labor intensive with their minute details and precise color gradations. His paintings, which have a back-lit quality to them, simultaneously context more formal qualities of painting, like the hierarchy of light and illusionistic space within, with a more experiential reaction to that light. When painting Paul has said he thinks about the times when he is comfortable versus humiliated, about space and what it means, and all this information passed through light and space and how he/we are affected by it intellectually and psychologically.

Scott’s video installation is equally intense and absorbing. The piece is called UVHS, or Uncanny Valley High School, and is comprised by HD video within a sculptural frame and HD floor projections reinforcing the information within the video. The piece’s title is a play on the peaks and dips of a viewer’s empathy towards the subjects of the/a film. Scott feels that as the portrayed subjects begin to resemble humans that the observer’s empathy grows, but when the image renders close enough to realism, that the observer’s empathy reverts to repulsion. He is relating this concept to a broader picture, to the aesthetics and concepts of civilization.

The exhibition will run through Sunday, July 20th and our third exhibition will open on Saturday, July 26th.

We’ve also recently hung some seriously stellar signage on Topless’s facade at the corner where Rockaway Beach Blvd. meets Beach 91st St. The works are by Greek artist, Panayiotis Terzis. Pan’s the man and we gave him complete freedom to work his magic and have fun. The resulting pieces have blown us away and we are really proud of them.

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What’s coming up next?

JC: We are in the midst of our second exhibition at Topless this summer. We have a four exhibition program and so two more are still to come! Our next show features works by three artists, Alex Ito, Izabelle New, and Jared Buckhiester. It will be opening Saturday, July 26th, with an opening reception held from 6-9 PM. Following that we have one more last hurrah for Summer 2014. It is a group exhibition that we are very excited about and will open on August 16th. We imagine that we will also hold a closing shebang at the very end of August. There are so many more thrilling things we have been tossing around for summers to come, but I’d rather keep those under wraps for the moment. Stay tuned…

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What is your WILD Wish?

BB: A few days ago Jenni and I posed for a portrait in front of the best painting being shown anywhere in New York right now. It happens to be by Paul DeMuro and is at Topless. I was a hair uncomfortable being asked to pose in a scripted way. I’ve been thinking how a lot has been said of our gallery name, and in a flash I thought this photo shoot would be more bearable if I was bottomless. That’s turned into this small fantasy that I can be bottomless in my gallery whenever I want and everyone will proceed just like its no big deal.

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text by: The WILD










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