“Lots of artists are flooding the mountains these days,” Peter Schjeldahl says. The New Yorker art critic and poet has kept a place in the Catskills for 40 years and entertains locals and the art world alike with epic firework displays every Fourth of July, an event that has been growing (1,400 guests last year) as fast as the creative community. Schjeldahl’s next pyrotechnic celebration is scheduled for this Saturday.
Indeed, in this vast mountainous region that begins a mere hundred miles north and west of New York City, the influx of artists might qualify as the biggest cash crop for this rugged and persistently depressed swath of jaw-dropping beauty. To list them all would take a phone book, but even a cursory survey, including the likes of Dan Colen, Kiki Smith, Polly Apfelbaum, Roxy Paine, Dike Blair, Linda Montano, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Carolee Schneemann, Terence Koh, Nicola Tyson, Jim Jarmusch, Pauline Oliveros, and Olaf Breuning, proves how impressive it can get when Catskills locals start asking around about their neighbors.
While nature, relative proximity to the city, space, and affordability may be the most obvious appeals of the Catskills, what the area also offers is that complex dynamic between town and country—a chance to measure how urban notions of culture fit within the rural setting, and the kinds of esthetic, social, and political navigations that artists make in dealing with the land and its people.
“I’m generally on the side of the locals, families that have been here for hundreds of years getting by on nothing,” Schjeldahl admits, but as he measures this place of “going back in time but entirely in the present,” he notes that the interaction between what some call the “citiots” and the denizens of the locals is incredibly valuable. It offers a chance to “see the other side and what they’re like” that the city does not.
This summer seemed a good time to take some measure of what this place means for the artists who have chosen to be here. I went into my exploration of the community expecting to do a story on the “hickster” esthetic, a term of some currency based on the conjunction of hipsters and hicks. It seemed from my perch in the hills to be a topography of outliers, crazy old freaks doing their own thing, loners whose disenchantment with society might bring out radicalisms of profound difference and remove.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. While the artists quickly disabused me of hicksterism as something too trendy and trivial for the rigor and seriousness of their practice, the society up here offers far more commonalty than difference. Though the opportunity for isolation and solitude are intrinsic to the experience, what proves far more vital is the construct of community, of interaction between all types of people—not just the fellow artists who live down the road, but also the farmers and everyone else scrabbling to get by.
As Akira Ohiso, a neighbor who until recently ran an arts magazine called Green Door, explained, “people come up here to opt out of the mainstream, to find space to roam and do whatever you want. That’s the frontier, and it’s a tough go, but it’s not about hiding out; it’s about searching for something, and out of this desolate environment springs all these amazing creative things that are about the beauty of a brief experience, about something that is alive.”
With that in mind, here’s a bit of what I found happening around the area:
Peter Coffin & The Last Weekend
Peter Coffin is one of a group of artists who have been slowly moving into Masten Lake, which was originally a Jewish settlement and then a rumored organized-crime enclave. Coffin was looking for space, but he found that “being away from the city and the city mentality, the peace of mind it gives me, is important and inspiring for me.”
Three years ago Peter and friends started The Last Weekend, a mini-festival that takes place on the last weekend of summer at a kid’s sleep-away called Camp Lakota. It features bands and DJs, a campwide radio station, guest chefs, a local farmer’s market, and activities that range from mushroom-foraging walks and symposia on sustainability to archery with artist-designed targets, vogueing workshops, and crafts like ceramic and (yes) tie-dye.
Coffin’s conceptual practice runs amok through various mediums, producing enigmatic sculptures and installations. “Music for Plants,” an ongoing series he has produced at galleries and art spaces over the years and now up (through September 16) in the form of a 15-foot-tall vertical garden as part of his show “Living” at Red Bull Studios in New York City, involves getting musicians to play for the flora.
“I like how musicians change behavior for an audience,” Coffin explains, “The moment you ask the question of what might be going on invisibly with the plants, even if it’s a joke, your mind tries to answer it.”
Founded by artists Julie Mehretu and Paul Pfeiffer and architectural theorist Lawrence Chua, Denniston Hill in Sullivan County is an artist residency program whose participants are selected by nomination rather than application. They work closely with local farmers, resident chefs, and artisanal culinary entrepreneurs like Aaron Burr Cider, which is producing a hard cider made of wild heirloom apples from Denniston Hill’s orchard in collaboration with the artist Zoe Leonard. A lot of good art is produced here, but they’re just as interested in bringing scholars, writers, poets, activists, musicians, dancers, and farmers into “a fertile site for interdisciplinary conversations,” says Chua. That is, not simply about making art but about the material conditions that surround it.
From the start they were “thinking about how to create an ethical micro-economy in a very unsustainable part of upstate New York,” Chua says, and they are trying to address fundamental questions like “Where does our food come from?” and the related contemporary conundrum, “How do you make art that is not solely driven by the ontology of the marketplace?”
Eteam is the husband-and-wife collaborative of Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger, computer/internet/video/performance artists who employ a hybrid of land art and relational esthetics. Their nomadic practice has them working in museums internationally and less trafficked zones like the desert, where they bought a remote parcel of land, called it a 1.1 acre flat screen, and then auctioned it off as “a piece of dirt.”
They’re talking now about a plan to purchase Koch’s, a diner in their town that was once a garage but was reconfigured ages ago into a seven-day-a-week operating family restaurant, and to re-imagine it as a sort of timeline. The restaurant today is in limbo. Lamprecht and Moderegger intend to “keep it Koch’s—a place where the uncertainty of awaiting something important can be experienced while eating a piece of pie and digesting your personal download.”
Founded by artist/fashion designer J. Morgan Puett and artist Mark Dion, Mildred’s Lane (named for the woman who had lived on the property since 1902) occupies 93 acres deep in the woods on the Pennsylvania–New York border. It’s a residency program, a school, and a home where Puett lives year round. She insists that Mildred’s Lane is not about making art. “We tell everyone to leave that word behind them when they come here,” she said. It’s about combining creative, social, and political approaches toward what they call “workstyles.”
Mildred’s Lane seems to get most of its support from its partnerships with colleges and art schools on a variety of research-driven projects as well as sponsorship of residencies by faculty and students (or “fellows”) who enjoy a ratio of three guest artists to every student.
Centered on issues of domesticity informed by feminism, according to what its founders term an “ethics of comportment,” Mildred’s Lane is, much like Denniston Hill, based on radical philosophies, or as Puett explains it: “We are co-evolving pedagogical strategies by practicing a generous and rigorous engagement with every aspect of life.”
Peter Nadin & Old Field Farm
I used to see Peter Nadin around the city in the ’80s. He was pretty successful, but though he had museum shows and credible commercial-gallery representation, he was more of an artist’s artist, questioning and wrestling with his medium. As artists he had collaborated with in the past (Richard Prince, Robin Winters, Jenny Holzer) were getting big, Peter was disengaging and working to get smaller, more intimate, and more hermetic. Then he just kind of disappeared. He kept his place in the city and he wrote a book called The First Mark: Unlearning How to Make Art. It was brilliant, and couldn’t have been more out of step with the time.
Three summers back, the art world finally got an idea of what Nadin had been up to when he put together his first gallery show in some 20 years at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Called “First Mark,” it was revelatory. All the art was made from the elemental materials of his farm in the Catskills: beeswax and honey, eggs, wool from his Kashmir goats, black paint from his walnut tree, and white carbonite paint made from pissing on sheets of lead.
Up at his Old Field Farm in Greene County, he seems far more like a farmer than an artist. Living in a 1790s farmhouse and managing 180 acres with pigs, chickens, goats, rabbits, apiaries, greenhouse, and gardens, Nadin bills his enterprise as “art and agriculture,” selling the fruits of his land and his studio to the city as commodities seemingly equivalent in his mind. We don’t talk much about the art world. I doubt he pays it much mind these days, but, he says, “I can tell you exactly how much pork bellies are going for.”
Clad in a spotless white shirt and boots without a trace of mud, leading us over lawns so manicured they remind us how truly English he remains, Nadin admits it was no easy task to keep 80 pigs alive over this past harsh winter. The grounds and the scale of his operation are amazing, and so is his studio, where the “First Marks” series is receding behind newer works, where chicken coops are migrating off the farm directly onto his canvases, and narratives take the form of the artist wrestling with Abe, his 800-pound aging great boar who has fathered most of his heritage-line pigs while serving as a complicated alter-ego and muse to the artist.
Nadin explains how he manages it all. “I start my morning feeding the pigs first thing, then I go to the studio. I work there for maybe an hour at a time, but a lot throughout the day, taking breaks to get the eggs from the chickens, honey from the bees, rotating the animals and tending the garden. I like working with the rhythm of the farm.” This seems as healthy an approach to creativity as one can imagine, and though Nadin admits it’s been a steep learning curve to become a farmer, what he has “unlearned” about making art is filled with wisdom.
Mike Osterhout & The Church of the Little Green Man
One of the most challenging conceptualists of recent memory, Mike Osterhout makes work that is uncomfortably funny, religious art that is all but godless, and assemblages whose erratic beauty does little to ameliorate the oft-disturbing elements they contain.
Osterhout was part of the East Village scene in the ’80s, operating the noncommercial gallery Mo David, but he packed it all in to buy the oldest church in Sullivan County and move the performance art and rock music–based services of his Church of the Little Green Man up there. Building a thriving counterculture community of oddball farmers, artists, and musicians from the area, he filled his church with boisterous revelers more intent on self-expression and fun than prayer. Osterhout describes it as “a congregation without religion in a church with no mission or orthodoxy.”
For whatever mayhem may take place within the confines of his simple church, the public aspect of his project is pure roadside carnie, as his lawn sprouts billboards with messages like “God Loves Fags” written in Hebrew, a “Crucify thy Selfie” made of quotations from three famous art-history crucifixion paintings with a hole to stick your head through, and a lion’s cage made of an old hay wagon.
Recently Osterhout purchased an old synagogue for his studio, where he produces magically bizarre sculptures made from the detritus of the constantly failing Catskills and the animal trophies of his hunting. His art practice-with-a-gun, he says, is “so much about failure and how you embrace that failure that it’s very much like making art.”
The brainchild of veteran arts administrator Nicholas Weist, the Shandaken Project opens each summer in a rented house on a magnificent 250-acre estate in the town of the same name. So modest in its mandate, the Shandaken Project is disarming and deceptive, belying the creative rigor and ambitions of its vision. Allowing just three residencies at a time in two- to six-week slots, the Shandaken Project boards guests in the house and offers studio spaces in mobile hut-like structures scattered around the grounds, allowing residents to fashion productive experiences out of completely unstructured time in a wonderfully stress-free environment.
Driven by notions of community experience and a focus on process, the project is anything but a program; events like film screenings and performance-art presentations are treated with the pomp-free candor afforded a fiddler at a farmer’s market. Visiting art-world dignitaries are there not for studio visits or lectures but for simple porch-side conversations. With stays greatly determined by the interaction of the guests, and the studio work not emphasized but just taken for granted as what artists do with their time, the Shandaken Project is surely the most at-ease of retreats, kind of like a summer camp without all the activities.
As much as the Catskills are about space, they are somehow also about the sound that occupies that space, and tucked away in the northeast of these mountains is Wave Farm, a pioneering purveyor of sound and transmission arts. Operating on a number of fronts, Wave Farm is at once an international visiting-artist residency program for musicians to work over ten-day stays; an archive of experimental music and broadcasts; a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week radio station, WGXC 90.7 FM, based in both Greene and Columbia counties with studios in Acra, Catskill, and Hudson; a media-arts grants and assistance fund supporting electronic media and film throughout New York State via a re-granting partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts; and a physical site in Acra that houses not just the Wave Farm Study Center with its residency program and radio station but a veritable sound-garden of installations by audio artists around the property.
Born as a micro-radio station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1997, serving the emerging (and now famous) music scene, the Wave Farm of today is a world away from such pirate-radio roots, in terms of both its location and its technology. Meeting with director Galen Joseph-Hunter in the library, I heard roots Americana music coming from the radio. Where was the noise, I wondered.
Joseph-Hunter explained, “We began very much as an act of civil disobedience, but when we came up here in 2004 we wanted to engage the entire community. The more experimental work happens on weekends with our residents, but this is a working-class area that needs more than that, so we have local news, morning and afternoon shows, the syndicated ‘Democracy Now’ show, even a local right-wing talk show.”
And when we flinched at the very notion of right-wing radio, Joseph-Hunter looked straight into our eyes and repeated, “The entire community.”