Art That Survived Sandy Debuts During Nemo

KeeganBuildingFramesNatalie Rinn Keegan building frames.

While Sandy’s unforgiving surge forced dozens of Chelsea gallerists into frenzied damage control, Brooklyn-based artist Ray Smith, whose own Gowanus studio held five feet of water, made the best of a bad situation.

Tonight, a series of ten ink-on-rice paper drawings formed by Mr. Smith, his assistants and a loose network of around fifteen fellow artists and friends will go on display at Parade Ground gallery on the Lower East Side. Most of the work was exposed to Sandy.

“To begin with, the idea was already sort of damaged,” said Mr. Smith of the paintings, which evolved thanks to a process of “organic chaos.”

From a distance, the bursts of images and text on white backgrounds resemble the jumbled composition of Picasso’s “Guernica.” But up close, the viewer sees something different: the artists’ reactions to social and political news fodder, and musings on their daily lives over the course of two years. Succinct insights on Occupy Wall Street are pitted against lewd fart jokes and reflections on a breakup.

SmithInOfficeNatalie Rinn Ray Smith in his office.

“It’s an organic discussion among friends. They’re writing against each other,” Mr. Smith explained, adding, “There’s a spirit of fun. Everybody likes to have fun.”

Mr. Smith’s surrealist work has figured in the New York City art scene since the mid ’80s. In recent years, he has dedicated considerable energy to encouraging creativity and collaboration — his sprawling studio, a re-purposed 19th-century ice house with 50-foot ceilings, has become a safe haven for budding artists.

Mr. Smith is a self-professed autodidact and eschews the dictums of academic art, theory and the market. “I purposefully avoided learning the jargon,” he said, reclining gingerly in his orange office chair. “I never believed in any of it. I felt uncomfortable with these specific distinctions.”

One of his assistants, Keegan Monaghan, stood at a studio worktable, building a frame for the show. “We lost all our tools in the storm, but our friends had nicer tools than the ones we ever had,” he said with a smile,  as he wielded the borrowed drill.

While Mr. Smith and his assistants dried and restored a good portion his work, Mana, a large warehouse facility and depository of art for collectors and museums in Jersey City, was eager to oversee the rest.

“Mana came to the rescue after the storm,” said Mr. Smith, who will have a solo show there in March. “They said, ‘we know you’re underwater, and here come our trucks.” Mana also invited the artist to work in one of their studio spaces, an invitation he was happy to accept.

In addition to casualties in Mr. Smith’s work, Sandy did a number on the Ice House’s electrical and sewage systems, and the complex sprouted mold. “It would be a good break to start some place new,” said Mr. Smith of his move to Mana. “I could get rid of all these bastards and paint by myself!”

SmithInstall2Natalie Rinn

Keegan poked his head into the office and told Mr. Smith that he and his twin brother Eamon had finished framing the first drawing for the show. The chaotic image leaned against a wall on the studio’s lower level, inches from a penciled water line that stretched close to five feet.

Mr. Smith examined the product up close, approving, while the assistants stood by and exchanged profane jibes. The heat was on the fritz. It was cold.

“Turn on the damned heater!” piped Mr. Smith.

“No, I’m scared of it,” said Eamon.

“You know why you’re scared?” asked Mr. Smith, rhetorically. “You’re scared of comfort.”

“That’s why I work here,” replied Eamon, without skipping a beat.

“Ray Smith Studio” opens tonight at 7 p.m. at Parade Ground, 187 East Broadway. Through March 1.

SmithInstall1(1)James Powers