Chapel of dark art

Freddy Gallery, Harris, NY

CASS COLLINS
Posted 10/17/18

The little white clapboard church building that is Freddy Gallery stands in a field of green just off a main road in Harris, NY. Behind it, the black iron gates of a cemetery protect the living from …

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Chapel of dark art

Freddy Gallery, Harris, NY

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The little white clapboard church building that is Freddy Gallery stands in a field of green just off a main road in Harris, NY. Behind it, the black iron gates of a cemetery protect the living from the dead. Or is it the other way around? The first question I have for Joshua Abelow, the artist who transformed this building in Sullivan County, is “How did you get here?” I didn’t say “end up here” because it’s clear the man has a long way to go in the world, having  achieved some measure of success in the art world already.

He modestly replies that it was “an artist friend and old boss” who sent him the listing. That artist friend is Ross Bleckner, for whom the younger Abelow worked for “six or seven years” in NYC after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design and before pursuing a Masters at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Abelow has a calm confidence that has served him well in his pursuits. The Bleckner connection was made when he decided to write to an artist he admired upon moving to New York from his native Maryland with no prospects.

But connections don’t make the man. He has a seriousness about art that goes beyond making it. He is genuinely interested in the psychology of seeing art. Hence, his entrepreneurial interest in curating a gallery space that also serves him well as a studio.

Before studying at Cranbrook, he was “deeply unsatisfied” with his work until he had a breakthrough about painting as an activity—a connecting force—rather than the solitary experience of an artist at an easel. At the same time he became interested in how the placement of things elicited different responses from viewers. It was the beginning of Abelow as curator.

In 2010, he was living and working in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There was a “DIY energy there” after the financial crisis of 2008. It became OK to view and make “art in alternative spaces” and there was “a new interest in new artists.”

In 2011, he had his first solo show in New York City at James Fuentes gallery on the Lower East Side. The year before, in March 2010, he had begun a blog as “Freddy” titled “Art Blog Art Blog” that 

quickly made him a known presence in the art world, especially among less mainstream artists. Abelow credits the “synergy of time and place” for his early art blog success. It was as Freddy that he posted every day for five years, sometimes more than once a day. Abelow thinks of the blog as “a visual radio show.” In it, he blogged about other artists—often promoting their careers in the process because of his large audience—and about poetry, literature and culture. This was pre-Instagram (hard to remember there was a time pre-Instagram), but it saw the future of people sharing images on a daily basis around the world.

Abelow is deeply interested in creating visual community. The first incarnation of Freddy as a gallery space was in a rented Baltimore storefront a year and a half before finding the Catskills church he now owns. It should be mentioned that the name Freddy has dual meanings for Abelow. Freddy Krueger, the horror film character is his alter-ego. And Frederick, MD, is the artist’s hometown. Since moving into the Harris, NY, space in May 2016, he has curated 35 exhibitions by artists who are somewhat “off the radar.” At Freddy, he shows work that blurs the line between fiction and reality, and that often has a dark side. Some are of late-career artists with a connection to the area, like the show during my visit earlier this October.

Mary Jane Hanja (nee Mazuchowski): ‘80s Paintings, curated by Rachel Willis and Jashin Friedrich, opened on August 25 and ran through October 14. Relatively unknown before her death in 2006, she was a prolific artist with a wide-ranging ouevre, according to the curators, who were personally known to the artist through their parents. Willis spent her childhood summers in the same Monticello bungalow colony as the Hanja family, and remembers Mary Jane as deeply spiritually connected as well as a sensitive teacher. The idea for the show came to the two curators after the wedding of Mary Jane’s daughter, Siri Hanja, at the old bungalow property in 2017. It was there they felt the spirit of Mary Jane present all around them.

The work is dark, to be sure. The paint is applied thickly in places, and scraped away in others. Pigments are strong and deep. Images are of wolves and of babies held too near to barbeques, of women in gowns outside drinking martinis, and young boys dressed as generic superheroes. No one is tethered to the ground. Spirits seem to fly through the empty spaces. A blue crystal ball appears to glow. The gallery notes say that the exhibition—seen publicly for the first time since her passing—is an attempt to conjure Mary Jane. As a person, “she brought delight to those who knew her,” says a friend. “But the paintings show the conundrum of Mary Jane, the dark vs. light,” says Willis.

Abelow is drawn to the work’s mystery. “They are deeply personal, almost private paintings. It’s what I love about them,” he says. The work is “authentically expressionist.” Only one of the canvases is dated, but all are from the 1980s, before the Hanja children, Rudi and Siri, were born.

Freddy Gallery’s next show features Esopus, NY artist Richard Bosman; see page 23 for details. The gallery is open seasonally between May and November by appointment; email info@freddygallery.biz.

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