BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | Sandwiched between Extra Place — where bands once unloaded equipment through CBGB’s back-alley door — and the Bowery, a new art space, Howl! Happening, is supporting emerging artists and salvaging some of that old-school, East Village sense of community.
Conceived by Howl! Arts, a nonprofit supporting local art and artists, the gallery, at 6 E. First St., officially opened March 29, showcasing former Bowery resident — and designated the Fifth Ramone — Arturo Vega.
“It wouldn’t be a gallery without Arturo,” said Ted Riederer, Vega’s longtime friend and collaborator and visual curator for Howl! Happening. “Not only did he provide a safe harbor to The Ramones, but he helped artists like me. He fostered this sense of family in the community.”
“Arturo Vega American Treasure,” which runs through April 25, features one of the artist’s paintings depicting an outstretched hand holding a 1972 silver dollar. Like many of Vega’s pieces, the American eagle held a different meaning for the artist, who moved from a repressive Mexico to the U.S. in 1971. It was the Vietnam War era, a time when many Americans questioned their patriotism, but for Vega, the symbol encapsulated freedom.
In the East Village, he found a place where there was open sexuality, where you could be who you wanted to be and dress the way you wanted to dress. Vega later designed one of the most recognizable band logos: the black-and-white Ramones’ eagle emblem.
“Arturo Vega is a catalyst,” said Bob Holman, vice president of Howl! Arts and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club. “He’s an icon of what Howl! is about, an artist who was, in his own right, known more for his work with The Ramones — who, in their own right, are the essence of punk and the essence of the Lower East Side. Vega being their biggest support system is like how Howl! is the biggest support system for the Lower East Side.”
The gallery is more than 1,500 square feet in size. Holman’s late wife, artist Elizabeth Murray, has a wall dedicated to her paintings and sculpture (which will be an ongoing installment throughout the year), which premieres with “Stay Awake,” inspired by the song by Dumbo’s mother in the animated classic.
Murray’s piece complements what Riederer believes is the underlying message behind Vega’s work, particularly in the last decade of his life: love.
“I was tired of the state of commercial art where this has been declared the age of the art fair, and galleries are forced to sell, which really pollutes the art itself,” Riederer said. “This project is really about love. I know that’s sort of a sentimental word, but how many people are talking about that — love —now?”
In addition to the Elizabeth Murray Wall, Howl! Happening will also introduce some never-before-seen works by Vega every 15 to 16 months, pulling from the artist’s collection of more than 150 pieces, in addition to capturing new emerging artists throughout the year.
“We want to show great art from artists who make their careers in the East Village and Lower East Side,” said Jane Friedman, a member of the Howl! board of directors and executor of Vega’s estate. “That’s the Howl! mission, to give exposure to neighborhood artists.”
In the spirit of Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” of the 1960s, spontaneous gatherings that opened the world of art to movement through audience participation, the Howl! Happening space will also cater to more performance art, including Vangeline Theatre, a Japanese Butoh dance company, bringing the traditional dance form to the 21st century, running from April 30 to May 3.
“It blurred the line between art and viewer,” said Friedman of Kaprow’s “Happenings,” which is also what she envisions for the Howl! gallery. “Anybody could be an artist.”
Also moving into the performance space, Lydia Lunch, dubbed “an everyday internal rebel in a sea of blandness” by Holman, will occupy the Howl! space, from May 9 to June 5, for “So Real It Hurts,” an installation and performance by the artist and friends.
Quintan Ana Wikswo will have a book signing followed by an exhibit June 11-14. This will be followed by a show from June 19-Aug. 14 by “outlaw artist” Clayton Patterson, who is known for using a handheld video camera to capture and expose police brutality during the 1988 Tompkins Square riots.
“The idea of making this idea a physical place is what is happening,” said Holman. “And using the word ‘happening,’ in the verb form as an actual place, is the approach we are taking. It’s not a static establishment.”
The Howl! Emergency Life Project (H.E.L.P.), which offers artists emergency financial assistance and social-service support, is another layer to Howl!’s mission. An ongoing series of workshops at the gallery, H.E.L.P. will cover everything from how to fill out housing applications, deal with landlords, rent-regulation issues and evictions, to how to buy real estate, as well as get affordable healthcare. The program will be held through an ongoing partnership with The Actors Fund and other groups.
“That’s a very important part of the mission that sets us apart from other galleries,” Riederer said. “You would never see a gallery opening doors to artists in this way.”
Above all, there’s always a sense of survival, which is the East Village way and the true spirit of Howl! according to Holman. He recited the opening line of “Howl!” Allen Ginsberg’s famous 1955 poem: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” The “Beat anthem” inspired the creation of the Howl! Festival back in 2003, and the same spirit embodies the new gallery space.
“That’s what this Howl! Happening wants to be,” said Holman, “so that the best minds of this generation will not be destroyed by madness but find that they have a home. That’s Allen’s legacy and what he left to the Lower East Side.”
Now a fancier mercantile row, Extra Place, where the other four Ramones propped themselves against a mound of garbage for a band photo, is now a neatly paved walkway. And CBGB was forced out in October 2006 and John Varvatos eventually moved in.
“There’s an attempt at remembering, an attempt at continuing this vibe,” Holman said. “It doesn’t just start with punk, of course. The Bowery itself was the street of populous art. That’s why I wanted to put The Bowery Poetry Club here, and that’s why the New Museum is here. There are elements of the Bowery and its relationship with art, and Howl! Happening is one of the great signs that even in 2015, it continues.”