Fred Valentine's salt-and-pepper hair easily betrays his status as an O.G. of the New York art scene. In the nineties, long before the condos came, he helped to create art and performance happenings in Williamsburg under the names Organism and Mustard. A mix of art, performance, and music mayhem, they were the forebears of the warehouse events now publicized by the likes of Nonsense NYC. Fred’s involvement in this scene climaxed in 1995 when he co-founded Galapagos Art Space in its old guise on N. 6th street. Unfortunately it didn't take very long before he and his cohorts were priced out of the scene that they helped to start. But now Freddy’s back to launch VALENTINE Gallery in Ridgewood--Bushwick's quieter, better-looking cousin. Just don't call him a pioneer.
"I don't like the term pioneer. I moved out here to see if I could be welcomed into this neighborhood, to make sure that I did everything that I could to be welcomed into this neighborhood...and at some point, to flex my own muscle."
To be sure, VALENTINE will be just the latest addition to the Ridgewood art scene. Spaces like Famous Accountants, English Kills and Outpost have already made a name for themselves. Fred tells me that he’s not looking to compete with other local galleries, but rather to create an environment where “everybody wins. I have a big agenda here, with no agenda.”
We’re sitting in the future gallery space. It’s small--much smaller than the vast warehouse spaces that he once had. Ladders and buckets of paint suggest the preparations being made for Friday’s grand opening, but for now the walls of this former knitting factory-turned-meatpacking plant-turned-Mexican brothel are bare, waiting for its latest incarnation. Fred is sipping a chilled glass of white wine. With his white linen shirt, tobacco-colored khakis and silver goatee he looks more like an aging Hollywood producer than the ringmaster of Williamsburg’s original avant-garde carnivals. Yet he speaks with the energy of a rookie boxer on his first night in the ring.
“The art schools crank out these artists and, my God, they can't afford to live this boho life, they've just got to pay those goddamned [loans] off! As a result of it you see a lot of art that…looks like homework. Because they don't really have the time to exorcise those art school demons. I hope to somehow address that by possibly just selling a few pieces or saying you can show in this space without thinking ‘I have to sell.’ It's always a challenge, but I think it's going to be a hoot. I'm looking forward to it!”
While he tells me that he “ain’t in competition with nobody”, Fred’s plan to consistently feature works in the $500-$1,000 range may help him stand out to buyers and aspiring artists alike.
“If [an artist] could every once in a while get a check for $500…it helps out, helps pay the bills. And that's sort of what I want to do because I think that that aspect has been totally ignored. That we make things that we could sell for 500 bucks. I booked a show of quality stuff that's not going to depreciate in value and you're going to love that you freakin’ bought it!”
The opening show is called Summer Collage. It will feature works by Michael Chandler (“a really good painter but I love his collage”), Casey Loose (who assists Fred Tommaselli), Tim Spelios and two local gallerists who, like Fred, also keep a studio practice--Ellen Letcher and Kevin Regan of Famous Accountants. VALENTINE’s roster is booked pretty solidly until March of next year; upcoming shows will feature artists like Jane Dickson and Andrew Moszynski.
Fred elaborates on his curatorial philosophy: “I want to see what the hell's happening after people get a few years out of art school and really start shedding, exorcising that art school demon and start making things that are…their own. The worst piece of art you can find is made by someone who knows how to make a piece of art. If it looks like art and smells like art and tastes like art, guess what? It ain't. Give it to someone else, I want nothing to do with it.”
Though he’s very excited about the prospects for VALENTINE, the long-term Ridgewood resident also fears the changes that people drawn to a burgeoning art scene might wreak. His Williamsburg experience has left psychic scars and, like a war veteran with PTSD, he’s fearful of the increasing signs of gentrification popping up in the Ridge. At one point he compares the encroaching hipsters to “Norwegian rats.”
"I see those little expensive little stores, and those expensive little restaurants…to me it's the very same thing as seeing a Kmart or a Wal-mart in the neighborhood. Christ, there are these people moving in here making it look just like they want it to look and it bothers the hell out me, it really does. It bothers me."
It’s a familiar New York phenomenon. Find a so-called undiscovered neighborhood, move there and then kvetch about how all the other people coming after you are ruining things. Fred knows that he risks sounding--in his words--like a “curmudgeonly old fart”. The next day he sends me an e-mail saying that some of his responses may have seemed a bit harsh. Yet his basic view doesn’t waver.
“I sweep in front of my building, pick up after my dog, shoot the shit on the corner and show the bottle people the same respect and greeting as anyone else. That's how I meet my neighbors. My point is I don't show up in a neighborhood and look to fix it or make it fit me when the me is the overwhelming minority.”
It reads like a creed, a vow of chastity to the soul of old New York. Or the rueful words of a reluctant pioneer who knows that it's already too late.
Summer Collage will open at the VALENTINE Gallery (464 Seneca Avenue) on Friday, July 8 at 6pm. The show runs through July 31.