“I’ve learned how not to DO too much. Sometimes it’s just done, that’s it.”
The beige brick facade of an industrial building hovers over Ingraham Street, at the corner of Porter Avenue in Bushwick, New York. The drab behemoth, once a factory or shipping facility of some sort, is now home to a complex of studio spaces that are rented out to artists who have gravitated to this neighborhood looking for the ample space and cheap rent that is required for their work. Bushwick, a historically working-class neighborhood that is predominantly Hispanic, has hosted a flourishing artist population for decades. The world has taken notice. Now the bottling plants and meat packing supply companies mingle with blue chip art galleries like Luhring Augustine and “branded experiences”, courtesy of companies like Facebook and Tumblr. The exquisitely colored murals that adorn the neighborhood speak to the mix of high art and urban street culture that is Bushwick’s hallmark
I’m buzzed into a bleak studio complex on Ingraham by long time artist and resident, Bruce Dow. The halls are long and wide. Commercial lighting overhead illuminates an endless series of nondescript white metal doors which form an outer seal protecting the delicate ecosystems contained within. The cold building pulses with latent potential as each door beckons with the possibility of a new encounter.
Bruce greets me at the door and ushers me inside the large, open studio space. The place is raw, but refined, like Bruce and his work. The rugged utility of the workshop highlights the clean lines and sparse precision of his practice. Bruce is fixated on the mid-century era of American modernist design. Not only does his fixation show in his work, but it is revealed in the tools and methods he uses. There are no computers here. Bruce prefers an old drafting table set by the window. Its neat rows of graphite pencils, metal rulers, and X-Acto knives are reliable and perfect for their job. It’s the simplicity that strikes me. Things work; they do what they’re supposed to. Even the uniform silver metal thumbtacks and paper clamps used to display his work reveal his understanding of the necessary simplicity and elegance of proper design.
Bruce is fixated on abstractions and patterns that seem to have been with him his entire life. He’s distilled his childhood fascinations with muscular efficiency. He grew up in Cape Cod. “I always been attracted to modernism,” he says, “I remember a trip with my mom, driving along the coast in Maine. She loved those shingled Cape Cod-style houses, but I didn’t. I was drawn to the modernist glass box perched on the rocks. So, I’ve always had an interest in it, and I guess the same goes for race cars and motorcycle, it’s that kind of aerodynamics and speed that attracts me.” His lifelong interest in motorcycles is another thread that runs through his work. The influence is echoed in his pencil drawings and cut-out collages that seem to trace some imaginary speedway. They echo the curves of his furniture-sculptures and mimic another fascination: roller coasters. It’s the patterns and shapes that Bruce repeats that form a narrative through the body of his work.
As we talk, Bruce focuses in on three things: motorcycles, post-war modernist furniture, and The Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. I realize that these three interests were all one thing to him: there is a commonality of function, speed, and nostalgia that tie these elements together. I can see the thread, but I can’t quite grasp it yet. It’s Bruce’s sober and deliberate focus on simplicity that enlightens me. Bruce is a master of the clear statement. His practice, at once modern and primitive, has nearly absolved him of his duty as an artist to DO anything.
RA: You seem really interested in mid-century modern design, why didn’t you just become a designer?
BD: It’s about altering. It’s about changing how you see something that you are really quite familiar with. People from my generation, we sat in these chairs. Whether in college or high school, cafeterias, lecture halls; they’re part of our history. I wanted to do something with that history… and change it. Does the world need another thing? No. But, I can re-work what already exists. So, I’m not really making something new, I’m taking something that already exists and making something new out of it.
RA: So the chairs are your raw material? Tell me about your sourcing process.
BD: Originally, I was sculpting forms from plaster… but they just reminded me of Eames chairs, so I thought, why not just use the chairs. They are already there and they were plentiful then. Now, they are harder and harder to find for a good price, though. In the last several years they have gotten really expensive.
RA: So, you found an efficiency in your work?
BD: Yeah, I guess I have. I think I’ve learned how not to DO too much. Sometimes it’s just done that’s it. Like, sometimes I’ll go into a painter’s studio and see a painting that’s in its early stages and think “Ah, it’s great”. Then I’ll come back like a month later and they’ve turned it into this ponderous thing that they’ve overworked. And I think, oh…you should have stopped.
RA: What is your attraction to The Cyclone?
BD: I’ve just always loved the thing. It’s a blast. I can get really comfortable on it. I’ll ride it over and over again. I guess it’s one of those New York things for me. When I first moved to the city in the 80’s, we used to go hang out in Coney Island and it was, like, really rough, a really rough scene. I’ve always liked that edge. Maybe that’s what I like about The Cyclone, it has that edge. It reminds me of what I’ve always loved about New York.