860 E. 136th St., Bronx, NY, 10454
Upcoming Exhibit: Dionis Ortiz | Heaven and Earth
Opening Reception, Wednesday, December 9th at 6pm via IG Live
by Zach Frater
The success of Empty Set Gallery in COVID-era New York is an inspiring testament to resourcefulness and collaboration among artists. This South Bronx project space is run by a collaborative of artist members who have been consistently rolling out both virtual and in-person programming since February of this year. Though forced very early on into virtual curation, the Empty Set crew have since found innovative ways of presenting work on various platforms. Last week, I spoke with Patrick Perry and Rachel Sydlowski, two of the seven artist members who co-run the space. They provided insight into Empty Set’s formation and the unique challenges of opening an art space in uncertain times.
Patrick and Rachel both left Lehman College, like most graduates, seeking direction and community within the art world. They explained how Empty Set began to germinate at an art opening at their alma mater. Some members of the Lehman co-hort were interested in opening up their own space, somewhere that could give burgeoning artists like themselves opportunities to show their work outside of a traditional gallery setting. After the opening, Patrick and Rachel, along with Sohhee Oh, Nels Erickson and Sarah Rowe started attending monthly meetings at Patrick’s apartment on Brook Avenue. The newly formed collective started to amass funds and formed different committees to serve the needs of the project. After months of planning and saving, they were eventually able to rent out a space inside of 860 E 136th Street, an address shared by Bronx Brewery, and which also houses several converted artist studios.
The initial vision for the space was to show work by the original artist members and their growing roster. Indeed, the first three shows featured work by artist members. Patrick Perry holds the dubious distinction of being the only member to have had an in-person show before the onset of COVID-19. Once the pandemic hit, Empty Set programming immediately went online.
Of course the online platform provided unique challenges, but there was plenty of enthusiasm from the artist members to keep the project going despite the difficulties. The crew deftly handled the curveball; they continued producing monthly exhibitions and started to use IG Live to host virtual artist talks to accompany them. In some cases, they even had artists conduct virtual tours of their studios in place of in-person displays. As New York slowly opened up, the collective tentatively allowed visitors into the physical artist space in pairs to view select installations. Empty Set’s consistent and diverse programming allowed the space to gain considerable traction during the pandemic. Accordingly, the collective began to invite curators from the greater artistic community to present work from outside their personal network. David Rios Ferreira curated their first online exhibition in July titled Expect Some Discomfort, which featured a diverse roster of artists that can still be viewed on the Empty Set Gallery website.
According to Rachel and Patrick, there is no specific curatorial agenda for the gallery. Empty Set is so-named because its curatorial content is completely up to those who engage with it. They present artwork executed in various mediums and from artists with diverse identities. On the organizational side, the Empty Set collab makes an earnest attempt at collective decision-making. There is no hierarchy to folks’ roles and each artist member contributes saliently to the project whole. The collective is constantly changing, and now boasts a total of seven members including Sima Schloss and Vanezza Cruz. What has ensued from this spontaneous initiative is an organic community that motivates and propels itself. In a time of imposed isolation, the already solitary practice of art-making is brought into even clearer focus, for better or for worse. It is indeed inspiring to see how creative communities have continued to foster connectedness and intellectual stimulation in what at first appear to be desperate times.
Empty Set Gallery’s ambitious programming continues with an upcoming solo exhibition of the work of Dionis Ortiz. Dionis, an artist with roots in the Dominican Republic and Harlem, creates tesselated floor tile installations that at once recall both everyday New York architecture as well as the spiritual power of sacred geometry. The show will be viewable in-person by appointment and will be accompanied by a virtual studio talk with the artist on Friday, December 11 at 6:00 PM. Follow @empty.set.gallery on IG for updates.