A conversation with a man who was there.
Giulia Berebi, an editor of Loci, speaks with Barnaby Ruhe, a painter with a doctorate in shamanism and art practice. As a professor at Gallatin, Ruhe teaches “Discovering Manhattan: Drawing and Painting in the Spirit of the Modern Art Pioneers.” Images above document their walk through the Lower East Side.
The world suddenly stops; the chaos surrounding me disappears, along with the colors of summer. I now could see the golden leaves carpeting the curb, creating a roof over my head and flying around me; could hear the music they make underfoot echoing the purest sound. I wander in the streets of the Lower East Side, the sky covered by a dense gray blanket of clouds like a shield protecting me from the sun. The Lower East Side has secrets; its heretical past emanates from its walls, floats in the streets and summons a feeling of nostalgia within me. Is it because of the light from the lampposts on the humid pavements, or because of the sad faces behind the panes of the cafes?
Nostalgia: I cannot describe it, only its effects; a desire for the past, for what is lost, for that special place…What was happening in the Lower East Side before you and I entered this world? Who were the authors behind the graffitis on the facades of buildings? What is the story behind the names of the streets which have become so familiar to us? Barnaby Ruhe, shaman and contemporary artist, unraveled these secrets of the Lower East Side, disclosing to me its untold stories.
“It was cowboy territory.”
The Lower East Side still bares the traces of a tumultuous past. I wondered, what did it mean to be in that area at a specific time in history? In the Seventies, at a time when SoHo (the home to the then-underground artist) had been taken over by the galleries. It was the beginning and the end of an era: a counter weight exploded, SoHo was gentrified by a new occupation where art dealers occupied the creative space of the artists. The studios in SoHo had become galleries, and artists relocated to the Lower East Side.
He recalls to me the area as he first encountered it: abandoned buildings, no sewage, no proper electrical wiring or water. Nothing but a neighborhood where poverty reigned. “The point was that there was potential: it was cowboy territory,” Barnaby recalls, with a hint of longing in his voice. The Lower East Side was characterized by infinite possibilities, a place the artists had yet to give life to. “The energy was so profound you could not believe it,” he reveals, “it was drug infested, the Upper East Side collectors and the chic girls with their fur coats could hardly get to SoHo for the openings because it was so far downtown, the East side was out of question! Leo Castelli was one of the few art dealers from SoHo who would sneak over to the Lower East Side and the East Village to see some of the new shows.” The legitimization of the Lower East Side occurred precisely at that moment: when the rest of New York City perceived the potential of the people who inhabited this desolate area.
“The thing was a wild place.”
And today, as I was across Houston street, I wonder what is left of the stories I have been told. “There is still the art on the walls of the streets, the graffiti and the cafés. Yes, the cafés had a life of their own,” Barnaby tells me. But the world has changed and we live in an era where technology has replaced the need to express ourselves, yet the Lower East Side still bears traces of artistic freedom and rebellion. Street art remains an inherent part of the neighborhood’s identity, and the history of the Lower East Side has yet to be written. If not in the books, its history will be written on the walls, painted on the face of the buildings… “The thing was a wild place,” Barnaby reveals, and I wonder what he means, I wonder what The Lower East side meant to him. The answer is simple: revolution. “The revolution that I see is a break away from the hierarchy. What I mean is that I see Nico Smith, probably drunk. Hopeless guy. I see Bokov, and I see so many artists who are losers as far at the art world is concerned,” but the Lower East Side was a place where people came out to win. And the reason it was so great was because it hadn’t achieved a critical mass, everybody was there, and by everybody he means the entire underground art scene. Yes: “Truth comes out, there was Keith Haring and Basquiat, everybody was there, and I was there too.”
Read and view the complete first issue of Loci magazine, here!