Textile Artists Bring New Life to an 18th-Century Building

In one of the oldest buildings in South Street Seaport in New York, more than 100 artworks by 61 artists using textiles inventively have taken over a former mercantile warehouse and its unused machinery.

“The Golden Thread: A Fiber Art Exhibition,” on view through May 12 in tandem with multiple art events around the city, is organized by Karin Bravin and John Post Lee. The married partners run the Chelsea gallery BravinLee programs and saw an opportunity to repurpose the 1790s red-brick building, 207 Front Street, which had been vacant for a year and a half since its longtime tenant, a TV production company, left.

“The bells went off in my head,” said Bravin, who imagined an explosion of billowing gossamer fabric hanging from the chunky exposed wooden beams after touring the building operated by her friend Ivan Wolpert, principal of Seaport Associates L.P.

“Fiber art holds up to the power of the space,” Lee said. He pointed to the number of artists today shifting the medium from its history as “women’s work” to the center of the art world (well over half the artists in the show are women). The collapsible portability of fiber work also made it viable to install in a four-story building with no elevators.

The exhibition was timed to overlap with fairs like Frieze, TEFAF and Independent and to capitalize on the art-focused public they galvanize in the city. “We’re trying to use some of the characteristics that the art fairs use to create an event and an exciting experience but reinvigorate the soulful aspect with a space that doesn’t look like an ice cube tray,” Lee said, referring to typical fair layouts with rows of booths. For about the cost of a small booth at Untitled Art, an independent fair in Miami Beach, they negotiated with Wolpert the use of 10,000 square feet.

“This project gives us an opportunity to work with different galleries and a whole different group of artists,” Bravin said, excited to extend the couple’s reach beyond the four walls of their second-floor gallery space in Chelsea. Lee described the exhibition “as a call to action for gallerists to empower themselves and wrest control.” (BravinLee no longer participates in art fairs.)

The couple commissioned 10 site-specific pieces, including works by Natalie Collette Wood and Alexandria Deters that are grounded in research about the Seaport’s history. Elana Herzog constructed a tall tree trunk from cut logs streaming with colorful fibers and rising through the building’s open stairwell. From the tallest ceiling, Sara Jimenez has hung two 37-foot-long columns of diaphanous hot pink fabric, pooling on the floor and ornamented with sequins and jewels, that subvert the symbolic authority of the gray neo-Classical architectural columns they are modeled on.

Jeila Gueramian plays with fantasy and nostalgia in her immersive environment pieced together from familiar textiles that scale the brick walls and windows and ceiling of a room on the first level of the show. “It’s like making a blanket fort under your grandmother’s dining table gone wild,” said Gueramian, who combines found materials like patchwork quilts, embroidery and beading. She unraveled blankets that she reconstituted into long three-dimensional tendrils creeping around the space and stretched crocheted fabric on mandala-like hoops that she placed over the windows like stained glass, emphasizing the spaces between the stitches.

“I try to come around the back door to surprise people, hopefully,” she said, “and point people to observe art in a new way.”

On the top floor, an iron and wood wheel 12 feet in diameter, once used to hoist grain unloaded from ships into storage, inspired Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s piece “Rest Is a Place for Wild Things.”

“When I saw the hoist, I was moved by how it was a stalwart workhorse,” said Phingbodhipakkiya, who has enveloped the relic in a cascade of cotton and silk threads evocative of lush ferns and soft mosses. “In its retirement, it can become this symbol of beauty and potential.”

To the artist who goes by the trademarked name Woolpunk, the building screamed of Americana. “It’s exciting to look at that space used in commerce trade for New York,” said the artist, whose work is inspired by politics around immigration, working families and the American economy. Woolpunk, whose grandmother immigrated from Italy through Ellis Island and sewed flags at a New Jersey factory, has knitted a large fraying American flag, attached to another hoist and suspended in the room. It suggests “our democracy hanging on by a thread,” she said.

“I felt the mobility of the old machinery that was there, or the lack of mobility now, was something I wanted to work with,” she added.

Other than vacuuming and putting in new lightbulbs, Bravin and Lee took the space as it was. For Wolpert, the landlord, the exhibition is an opportunity to activate his building in a new way. While he said he might have rejected the idea out of hand before the pandemic, “if you’re in a commercial real estate world right now, you need to be flexible.”

For the gallerists, the collaboration has been energizing creatively. They hope that, with any luck, it will also be energizing financially. “If people who own buildings and art galleries aren’t thinking about how to break conventions now, they should be,” Lee said. “We need to repurpose this space that’s sitting empty.”

Bravin added, “Who better to use it than artists?”

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