By Courtney Vinopal
Forget SoHo and Chelsea. New York artists are now flocking uptown, all the way to an unassuming corner of the South Bronx.
On a Saturday evening in mid-September, purveyors and creators of art came to the corner of Alexander Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard in the Port Morris neighborhood of the South Bronx where two galleries hosted art showings. One, Wallworks, is already a well-established gallery specializing in graffiti art. The other, Haven SBX, is a new contemporary art gallery founded by Bronx local Barry Kostrinsky.
As guests browsed through more than 60 works of art, they listened to poetry, as well as classical music from flautist Jill Austin. They took photos with a model painted by body artist Andy Golub, and spoke with a number of sculptors and painters whose works were on sale that night. The diverse array of entertainment offered was typical of Haven SBX, which Kostrinsky, 56, hopes will attract artists from throughout the city, and serve as a gathering place for the South Bronx community.
Kostrinsky’s gallery is emblematic of changes happening in the neighborhood. During the 1960s and 1970s Port Morris was hit hard by the violence. But today, more than 40 years later, as the neighborhood continues to recover, the waterfront area is on the radar of many real estate developers, as well as gallerists.
“In the last three years, it’s exploded,” Kostrinsky said. “There was a major move-in, and there’s going to be another one in two years. There’s going be a lot more people here.”
The South Bronx’s emergence in New York City’s art scene is part of a bigger sea change occurring in New York over the past decade, according to Anthony Haden-Guest, an art critic and cartoonist who has contributed to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Observer.
“New York has no art center anymore,” he said at the Haven SBX opening Saturday evening. “It did, but now it’s scattered due to the horrible rent situation.”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, artists could find affordable loft space in Chelsea, for example, but many artists and gallery owners today have been driven out by inflated rent prices and expensive real estate developments. Haden-Guest said that because of rising rent prices, galleries are becoming more dispersed, and neighborhoods such as Port Morris more attractive to artists.
Carol Zakaluk, the former co-director of Haven Arts Gallery, has lived in Mott Haven all of her life. She said that she first started seeing artists moving into Port Morris loft spaces around 2001, when she was working for artist Tim Blum.
“They were looking around for a cheap place that wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” she said.
Because Port Morris was once a hub for piano factories, many of the buildings—with their high ceilings and abundant light—are ideal for art showings. In addition to Haven SBX and Wallworks, the neighborhood is now home to Bronx Art Space, the gallery of artist Ronald Draper, and Red Hook-based studio, Still House Group, which has a location on 3rd Avenue called To__Bridges__.
Kostrinsky, meanwhile, is trying to make his gallery stand out. An artist himself, Kostrinsky always has his eyes open for new pieces. “Many artist friends send me works—I got three today,” Kostrinsky said when explaining how he acquires new pieces. “And then I get people walking in the door. Ideally as a gallerist, I leave at 6 p.m., I go to the right openings, I network.”
From 2004 to 2009, Kostrinsky ran Haven Arts Gallery, first out of a small space on 141rst Street Abefore moving to a larger space on Bruckner Boulevard. He closed the gallery because he was unable to sustain enough profit to pay the rent, but the experience helped him forge connection with artists from around the world, many with whom he’s stayed in contact. When he decided to open Haven SBX, he started reaching out to them.
The pieces currently on display range from sculpture to photography to abstract paintings. Prices go from $50 all the way up to $32,000. Those in the six-figure range are priced upon request. Whether experienced or amateur, all of the artists that Kostrinsky showcases at Haven SBX have one thing in common: they try to buck tradition in some way.
Artist Heide Hatry, for example, looks for non-conventional materials to work with when creating her pieces. For her latest project, she salvaged materials from a slaughterhouse in the Meatpacking District to create and photograph doll-like renderings of women. One of the photos from this project is currently on display at Haven SBX. Her work is also featured at galleries in her native Germany, as well as several in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Another featured artist, Steven Montgomery, is influenced by industrial machinery, as well as debris and decay. Although his work is made with ceramics, it often looks like steel. “What I do has very little to do with ceramics, even if it’s made that way,” he said. The Detroit native has a studio in Williamsburg, and his work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. One of his current featured pieces at Haven SBX is a ceramic gun, spray-painted blue against a white sheet. Titled “Blue Blood Gun,” it is meant to symbolize the economics of the weapon industry.
Artists like Hatry and Montgomery, having worked for many years in New York, are already well established. But Kostrinksy also seeks to invest in new talent at Haven SBX, even if these pieces might not go for thousands of dollars.
“He’s been a fixture in the Bronx for a while,” said Montgomery. “His gallery is not all about commerce.”
Kostrinsky is always willing to consider adding a new piece to his collection. “I’m always looking at art,” Kostrinsky said when describing how he discovers new pieces. “No matter who you are, I’ll look at your art, give you criticism, put something in the back of my mind for when I curate a certain theme.”
Ruonan Yan, a recent graduate of the New York Academy of Art, is proof of Kostrinsky’s approach. Her first piece was on display at Haven SBX thanks to a connection with Kostrinsky, who knows an artist for whom Yan works.
“He critiqued my piece and gave me a lot of advice, and pointed out that my work is particularly strong when I stay loose, focusing on broad strokes,” Yan said.
At Haven SBX, he plans on looking for sponsors to fund educational projects, and wants to set up a website so that he can attract buyers on the Internet. But mostly Kostrinsky wants Haven SBX to remain a space that is more focused on community building than it is on making money. He hosts art classes every Wednesday, as well as potluck dinners on Sunday, where he welcomes Bronx locals as well as artist friends.
“The beauty of art is that you are not just making it for your clientele,” he said. “I want this to be an art space that the community can see.”