Never Has My Breath Been Taken Away Like It Was at Knockdown Center

Brooklyn’s Knockdown Center. Photo: Jerry Saltz

I don’t think I’ve ever had my breath taken away in New York the way I did when I first set eyes on the artist-run operation in Queens known as Knockdown Center. Not only did I not feel like I was in New York, I remembered the jealousy I always feel when I’m in Berlin or Los Angeles, walking in off some street through an unassuming doorway to a hidden huge courtyard and a magical vast building for art. I was staggered at what I saw, and then starting seeing, as possible art-world futures. New York must have a lot of derelict industrial spaces like this, in Maspeth and elsewhere, I thought. It was the most hopeful real-estate moment I’ve had in New York since the days of the East Village in the early 1980s (or maybe since galleries settled Chelsea in the 1990s). Somehow the man who saved Knockdown Center from developers coveting the site found a way to transform this magnificent 50,000-square-foot former door factory into a “radically cross-disciplinary” space devoted to “diverse formats, nourishing experimental impulses, questioning traditional notions of authorship, cultural production, and reception.” The space also “accepts proposals” for shows. You can propose something. I met an artist who did and the show is there now.

Photo: Vanessa Thill

I thought I knew what’s what in much of New York. But the place has been having exhibitions for four years and I’d never heard of it till artist Liz Nielsen told me about it. I was visiting her and her girlfriend’s teeny Bushwick storefront gallery Elijah Wheat Showroom to see the work of a few young artists. As I was leaving she told me that she and her partner curated a show at Knockdown Center. (“What’s that?”) When she told me it was 50,000 square feet I didn’t want to go. I thought it’d be another gigantic slick space with collector baubles and a couple of little independent projects to lend cred. She persisted.

Installation view of Anna Mikhailovskaia and John Schacht’s exhibition. Photo: Anna Mikhailovskaia

When I pulled up in front of the space on Flushing Avenue I was sure I was in the wrong place. All I saw was an open roll-up garage door. Another car-parts-and-auto-glass place? I walked in. A large cracked blacktop courtyard. Total quiet off the street. Then this 100-year-old big red brick building. Amazed, I walked up a few stairs thinking “every Lower East Side gallery could fit into this complex of buildings.” The space was entirely open, not a wall in sight, just wooden arched roof, beams, and columns, clerestory windows, light, and the erotics of open contained space. Around a corner was another internal outdoor space, this one with the ruins of brick buildings.

Bad Water Pavilion by John Furgason, Serban Ionescu, and Carlos Little is the first in a series of outdoor exhibitions. Ionescu (left) and Furgason (right). Photo: Vanessa Thill

Michael Merck, one of the space’s two artist-organizers, talked about Knockdown as “a tool for people to do things they can’t do.”Transaction,” the show curated by Nielsen and Carolina Wheat, is 23 objects, each one a “special thing,” given by an artist, suspended by a wire over a mat and red pillow. Magic happened as I read the simple thumbnail explanations from each artist. Carol Bove supplies a “mystic token” made of  “unknown” material that she dreamt about the night before she saw it; Yevgeniya Baras, a piece of fabric she found in the streets of Jaipur that to her has “code embedded”; Kenrick McFarlane’s is a photograph of his parents embarked on “working their way up from Jamaica to the US in search of a better life.” The whole show glows like this. Nearby, another show gives us the late unknown Chicagoan John Schacht and the very excellent twisted sculptures and surfaced paintings of Anna Mikhailovskaia. A real artist to watch. Rounding out the offerings, a three-person sculpture show fills the ruins outdoors.

Knockdown Center exterior, at night.

Back in my car, I sat for a few minutes. Three broadening shows; great spaces; a sense of real promise about a generation of artists finding ways to make an art world out of themselves despite financial odds; creating places in neighborhoods without displacing anyone, showing and supporting one another. The whole experience resonated with similar assuring signs I’ve seen like this all over the city, coming from energies and art on the Lower and Upper East Sides, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Harlem, even in Chelsea and elsewhere. I left with no cynicism, knowing that artists, art, the system and the city is more self-repairing, activated, porous, and open than we know. Art always finds a way.

Saltz: Never Was My Breath Taken Away Like This