New York

Rick Lowe, Untitled, 2018, paint marker on collaged paper, 6 × 12'. From “Storage_.”

Rick Lowe, Untitled, 2018, paint marker on collaged paper, 6 × 12'. From “Storage_.”


When the social-practice conference Open Engagement came to New York in 2014, I remember being struck by how much vital work in reimagining art’s capacity for community involvement was happening elsewhere in the United States, and by how comparatively little of it was reflected in the city’s vaunted museums, venerable nonprofits, or myriad commercial galleries. That may now be changing. Two of the most influential figures in the field of social practice, Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe—the founders of the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago and Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward, respectively—both made their Manhattan debuts last fall, albeit at markedly different scales. In Chelsea, Gates staged his first New York solo exhibition at Gagosian’s flagship space on West Twenty-Fourth Street. More modestly, but perhaps more consequentially, Lowe contributed a single painting to “Storage_”, the inaugural group show for Storage, a new space started by artist Onyedika Chuke. The underscore in the exhibition’s title evoked the file names in inventory databases while also nodding to Storage’s “underground” location, in the basement of a building on the Bowery.

Storage was conceived not as a business venture—because, seriously, what could be the economic rationale for opening a gallery during a pandemic?—but as an alternate means of furthering the aims of this past summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. When I visited the exhibition in October, Chuke explained that his program would focus on women and artists of color whose work plumbed historical memory and whose practice moved between the studio and sites of pedagogy or community organizing. In both respects, Lowe’s Untitled, 2018, is paradigmatic. The twelve-foot-wide painting is layered with references to Project Row Houses and its historical antecedents. A lattice of black lines the artist made by tracing the edges of dominoes—a reference to a popular Third Ward pastime—lies over bright swaths of orange and yellow acrylic, which in turn partially occlude photographs of shotgun-style residences constructed through PRH’s urban-development initiatives and an advertisement for the iconic performance I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974, by Joseph Beuys, whose concept of “social sculpture” Lowe cites as a significant influence.

The image of a felt-swaddled Beuys beside a coyote was one of many allusions in “Storage_” to the cultural politics of the 1960s and ’70s. Footage of Nina Simone singing “Four Women,” 1965, coursed through Jazmine Hayes’s video montage A Round of Applause, 2020. William Cordova’s collage Tetragrammaton (tusuq, laykas, CCB, MCSD), 2020, stitched together checkerboard patterns inspired by the iconographies of Andean traditional dance and early New York hip-hop. Austin Martin White constructed a haunting portrait of Frantz Fanon from materials, such as rubber vinyl and cotton mesh, historically associated with slave labor. A print from Leslie Hewitt’s series Riffs on Real Time, 2012–17, showed a photograph of the aftermath of a 1970 car bombing sandwiched between a found snapshot and the floor of the artist’s studio. In other circumstances, these citations might have come off as borrowed nostalgia or threadbare radical chic, but Chuke paired them with pointedly timely prints by Emory Douglas, the former “minister of culture” for the Black Panthers. An illustration from 1971, for instance, called for community control of policing. Next to it, an issue of the Black Panther newspaper from the same year exposed the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments under the headline GERM WARFARE DECLARED AGAINST BLACKS!

A number of the artists in “Storage_” will present solo exhibitions and public conversations at the space throughout 2021. A sculptor who has worked both for galleries and as an arts educator for Studio in a School, Foster Pride, and the Rikers Island jail complex, Chuke is also planning a mentoring program for teenagers, Application Readiness Technique (ART). The relative dearth of support for social practice in New York derives in part from the assumption that community outreach and commercial dealing are incompatible. Storage aims to counter this misconception through its programming and, for now, its founder’s sweat equity. “These galleries making six figures in sales each month,” Chuke told me, “they could be doing more—we are open to partnering on this endeavor.”