The arrival of a big, new gallery in Chelsea should be a cause of interest. If I am not mistaken, before the arrival of the Highline Park, there were around 300 art galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood. With the arrival of the Highline came a building boom of upscale hotels and residential units which have jacked up rent fees and wiped out over 100 of the galleries which used to exist in this area. Just look at 511 W. 25th, which used to be packed with galleries.
The arrival of Gallery SHCHUKIN was, indeed, heralded with much fanfare and whoop-de-doo on Thursday May 1st, as you can see by the amazing photos by Max Noy. This seems to be a big-money, powerhouse gallery with an office in Moscow and space in Paris and New York. The space is just amazing – two-levels and 3,500 square feet. The gallery was initially created by psychotherapist and collector Nikolay Shchukin in 1987 and was one of the first places in Russia (then the Soviet Union) to begin representing Russian artists internationally.
My guess is that the Socialist Realism of the communist era, coupled with severe state censorship and the inability to show experimental or meaningful work, seriously set Russia back in the visual arts and it is only now just beginning to significantly reveal itself in the international art market. Difficulties in regard to financial patronage of the arts in a country struggling financially (where the income gap seems even more severe than in the USA) may also help to explain Russia’s relative absence from the current art scene (and we have to remember that Russia’s population is a mere 143 million people).
For their big New York City opening they chose to show work by Aladdin Garunov, an artist who hails from Dagestan but who lives and works in Moscow. Most of the gallery’s crop of artists, however, is from outside of Russia, as this gallery seems interested in maintaining an international flavor.
Looking briefly at Garunov’s work, he seems to be interested in two themes in his current show. He has a few pieces which are comprised of a combination of traditional Muslim prayer rugs and sheets of rubber. He has other pieces which are comprised of prayer rugs and empty shoes or prayer rugs that bear the traces of individuals who have been praying but no longer seem to be doing so.
Garunov, himself, comes from a Muslim background and seems to be interested in the culture clash of western commercialism and the egalitarian and community values that represent Islam at its best. In some canvases he’ll have half a prayer rug and half a sheet of rubber. Or he’ll have a prayer rug that has rectangular sheets of rubber running across it. The implication would be that modernity, industrialization and commercialism are factors that can vitiate or corrupt the central principles of Islam. Islam was created for little communities in the Middle East – the entire rationale for the creation of Islam seemed to be to unify rival, warring tribes into one peaceful community. So how has Islam adapted to expansion and inclusion into a global community? The fact that there is a clear discrepancy between rubber – an industrial by-product – and a hand-made prayer rug seems to suggest that the artist implies that Islam and modernity are still in conflict – there has not been a smooth resolution or combination of these movements.
In the other pieces where you see the empty shoes next to the prayer rugs, this, to me (and I could be wrong here) might indicate that people are ready to commit to the rituals of Islam on a certain level but, in reality, may be challenged by other priorities or may have their faith challenged by the priorities of commercialism and westernization. The empty shoes are there, but the people are not employing the prayer rugs. However, in one piece you see a prayer rug and a sheet of gold with bullet holes in it. The artist explained to me that this represents the stereotypical view of Islam in the west. To many westerners, Islam is nothing but ritual and violence.
So I think the opening of this gallery is quite significant for a couple of reasons. First, it’s good that a major Russian presence has joined the New York art scene – even if most of its artists are non-Russian. Welcome to New York and to Chelsea – this is an added piece of cultural diversity. I also think it’s significant that the latest new edition to the Chelsea galleries is a big-money foreign powerhouse. This could well be the trend for this district. Chelsea will probably not disappear as far as an art destination in the city, but it will showcase more established artists in larger venues. As the global economy leads to greater art markets overseas, we’ll see more of these folks trickle over here. So Gallery SHCHUKIN could well be a harbinger of the Chelsea galleries to come. They will be fewer, but bigger and perhaps more international.
Aladdin Garunov at Gallery Shchukin
524, W 19th St
New York, NY, USA, 10011
Tel.: +1 (212) 929-7222, Fax: +1 (212) 929-7266