Two Shows Open At Topless
On Saturday, June 11, the seasonal pop-up art gallery returned to the peninsula to usher in another summer of modern art in intimate spaces.
Topless – whose name acts as both a symbol of the democratization of the art world and an homage to the scantily-clad beachgoers a few blocks down – is the brain child of Brent Birnbaum and Jenni Crain. Now in its third season, the duo has turned Topless into a staple of the burgeoning Rockaway art scene, a button-pushing counterpart to the well-established Rockaway Artists Alliance and MoMA PS1. For the past three years, the gallery has migrated throughout the Rockaways, capitalizing on a new vacant storefront each summer. A quick but thorough overhaul has turned an eye doctor’s post-Sandy storefront, a long-abandoned bungalow on Beach 96th Street and now a vacant tattoo parlor into temporary homes for the exhibition. Crain says all she requires is that the space is “quirky,” offering something other than the gallery standard of white walls and little else. Their current Beach 91st Street location gets its flavor from what it lacks, most notably a ceiling, an unintentional nod to the gallery’s title. During renovation, Birnbaum and Crain removed any trace of ceiling tile to reveal an intricately molded baby blue roof. “You just discover continuously these little bits of unassuming beauty,” Crain says. Two large window panes were cleaned off to allow viewers to peek into the popup from the street.
From sunrise to sundown, the windows allow natural light to pour onto the works of Beverly Semmes and Larissa Bates, the two artists’ chosen for Topless’ opening show. Upon entering the space, Semmes’ work strikes the eye first, a pool of velvet leeching out into the center of the exhibit. Velvet, Crain says, is one of Semmes’ M.O. While her earlier work used the fabric to craft oversized dresses, in recent years, Crain says her sculptures have become increasingly abstract with dress shapes devolving into primary shapes. Now the swathes of velvet stop at squares and squiggles. Due to the sprawling nature of the piece and the common courtesy expected from viewers to not step on the artwork, Crain says she appreciated the way Semmes’ sculpture “forced the viewer to navigate the space in a very specific way.” Sure enough, to side step the sculpture, viewers must be less than an arm’s length from the work of Larissa Bates, Topless’ other artist on display.
Five of Bates’ tiny 14 x 11 paintings stud the walls of the gallery, a sharp contrast to the sprawling velvet work on the ground. While Semmes’ sculpture deals in the abstract, each of Bates’ paintings read like a story, a gilded freeze frame from a fairy tale. A woman bearing a plump cat in gloved hands tells one tale, a somber family of nine tells another. But all speak to the same theme of culture clash, a family history rooted in Costa Rica and complicated by an upbringing in rural Vermont.
For the next two weeks, Bates’ and Semmes’ pieces will cohabit the space before passing the baton to the next group of artists, a trio from Toronto who have crafted a green foam fountain which will decompose throughout the show. A glass sculpture, and finally a video piece will follow.
And then Topless will be gone like the half-clothed visitors its title trumpets, fading into the background until next summer.