Puffin Room's Loft Show looks backwards, and forwards

By Traci Kampel
The Villager (September 15, 1999) pp. 9 & 21

Not all of this country's founding fathers wore powdered wigs and toted around quill pens for emergency document-signing - some preferred paint-splattered jeans and palettes. The Puffin Room's fourth annual Loft Pioneer Show pays homage to this latter group, the painters and sculptors whose colonization of Soho, Noho and Tribeca in the 1960s and '70s re-molded the one-time industrial neighborhoods into New York City's artistic centers.

Showcasing the varied styles of a dozen artists still working in these Lower Manhattan areas, this year's show shies away from a particular theme and focuses instead on the geographic link between each contributor.

"It's all very personal. Everyone has their own expression," says Carl Rosenstein, the Puffin Room's executive director and the show's curator. "It's a celebration of these people who created a new lifestyle and established New York City as a cultural mecca of the world."

Featured are Vincent Arcilesi, Nora Crain, Rick Klauber, Iria, Louis Mendez, Peter Passuntino, Mark Scheflin, Dustin Spear, father and son Gian Berto and Ruggero Vanni and husband and wife Ann and Jim Walsh.

"Basically, it's an eccentric, diverse show that represents what's happening in the arts," Rosenstein explains. "The show symbolizes what our mission is about- to give as many artists as possible the chance to show. It's our gesture of support for Lower Manhattan."

Among the artistic offerings with Downtown roots are Spear's Degas-inspired female figures, loosely defined against white backgrounds, crafted from sections of canvas seemingly stitched back together and looking upward as if asking, "Why?" Spear's young daughter is currently battling cancer.

Brightly-colored fragments speckle Iria's meringue-like acrylic constructions, while wooden frames and back lights bring to life Scheflin's safari-taken photographs of hippos and a lion. Ann Walsh, whose painted sculptures, Rosenstein notes with a smile, intentionally hang across the gallery from her husband's, are panels drenched in swirls of jungle green, neon, orange and yellow then attached and arranged into different formats.

Klauber, who brings a large canvas filled entirely with black, white and gray paint droplets to the 1999 Loft Pioneer Show, shares his recollections of Soho. Long before the streets south of Houston evolved into a shopping district to rival upper Madison Ave., he reports, they provided a quiet, atmospheric haven for artists of all genres.

"I remember looking from Houston towards Canal, and seeing one parked car. It was dark and lonely as you'd walk down the street, but you'd look up and see these lights and know there were artists working," he says. "[The mood] was tough-minded. Not cynical or ironic as it is now, but tough-minded - there was a different intellectual condition."

And just when did the proverbial black turtleneck become a stylistic requirement for artists? No one can give a definitive answer, but Klauber does address the issue of unofficial uniform, which shifted gears around the close of the 1970s.
"There was a certain fashion line that had to do with when you could wear paint on your paints and when you couldn't. You could walk with paint on your pants until a certain point, and then you took on a poseurish look."

Defining hipness, Klauber says, were characters and venues like bar-owner Bill Prescott, the art movement Fluxus, jazz great Ornette Coleman, the Kitchen, then on Wooster St., the Spring St. Bar and then the Broome St. Bar, Fanelli, Paula Cooper, Castelli, OK Harris, Nancy Hoffman, Cunningham Ward, W. Broadway's The Ballroom, which housed a mural of Soho's "founders," Food and De Roma's, the ultimate hang-out for the after-Hippie crowd.

But hipness wasn't always floating through the air, notes Ann Walsh, a Community Board 2 member from 1990-96 and a current co-chair of the Noho Neighborhood Association. When she and her husband Jim moved to Noho in 1980, she says, it was the rag trade - makers of hat bands and leather goods - that occupied the streets.

"It was a very different place. People visit us today and say, 'Look where you live! Wow, that's so great!' But when we moved here no one wanted to live here. It was desolate, and raw. There were no services, no facilities, no food stores. There was no neighborhood here, that's for sure. It was all about space-- studio space, and places to paint."

In fact, Walsh continues, that "hip" flavor with which these pioneering creative-types infused the area may actually have helped contribute to the neighborhood's arts-threatening commercialization.

"The whole idea of space is that artists come in and gentrify an area and make it so chic they can't afford to live there anymore," she says. She and her husband say the tide turned in their part of the city when Tower Records opened on E. Fourth St. several years after their arrival. "That's when things started to change. Suddenly Broadway became develop-able."

With retail rents soaring into the tens of thousands - according to Soho Alliance head Sean Sweeney, D&G pays about $20,000 each month for its space on W. Broadway, and even the spots on quieter W. Broadway. Of the approximately 1600 who responded to mailings, 56 percent gave their profession as working artist and 76 percent said they worked in an arts-related field. The average number of years each respondent had spent in Soho was 16.

The recently-renewed Loft Law, a 1982 amendment to the Multiple Dwelling Law which protects residents of 800 buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens from being priced-out of their homes, remains intact. The city is considering, however, revoking Soho and Noho's unique M1-5B zoning status, an act which would do away with the current requirement that the area's residents be artists certified by the Department of Cultural Affairs. Both the Soho Alliance and the local community board continue to lobby against this change, fearing the ensuing influx of non-artist residents and development would push the area further out of reach for the creative community.

Despite the ongoing controversy of whether or not the death of Soho's art scene looms on the horizon, few would argue that its pulse beats at least a little slower than it once did.

"What's happening on the street isn't very pretty," Rosenstein admits. "The tackiness, it's a difficult place to live and work, especially on the weekends. A lot have moved to Chelsea due to the carnival-like atmosphere here… The greatest threat to the arts is real estate. It's prohibitive for a new generation of artists to come here. What the art scene will be like in 40 years, that's where you'll see the difference. That's gonna be felt."