Inside the Artist’s Construction Site: Dustin Yellin’s Huge Art Center in Red Hook

02/03/2012 11:08 AM |

The main exhibition space, with Dustin Yellins new 12-ton sculpture-collage in the foreground.

  • The main exhibition space, with Dustin Yellin’s new 12-ton sculpture-collage in the foreground.

“We’ve been working on it since June,” says Red Hook-based artist Dustin Yellin as he stands in the main exhibition space of a new art center in a Civil War-era warehouse on Pioneer Street. “And the key has just been to get the building operational so that artists can move in, and as soon as it warms up we can really start to work outside.” Walking through this block-long, three-story-high space, the startling size and character of the building is astounding. “I walk in here and I feel that way,” Yellin says. “Every day I walk in here and I go, ‘Where am I? This is bananas.’ Every day.”

Though parts of the building are still very much under construction, others are virtually completed, including the hulking poured concrete and drywall main exhibition space. “This room is going to be where we have exhibitions and performances and things of the like,” Yellin explains. “In the beginning we’re going to start really slow and have little shows here and friends and artists. The second and third floor are going to be an artist residency program where different artists can work. So you can come here and see a show then go upstairs and look at different artists working.” Both of the upstairs floors, flooded with light from huge windows facing toward New York harbor, provide large, open plan spaces ideal for studios and collaborations.

Yellin is also in the process of moving his studio into the building’s ground floor, a large, long space parallel to the main exhibition hall. “Behind this wall I’ll be working on my work,” he says, standing beside a huge new triptych sculpture that took him nearly a year to create. “This is the scale I want to be working on. This is about 55 layers of glass, it weighs 12 tons. The idea is to have most of my studio in a metal building in the garden during the summer, and in the meantime a lot of it is back here. And this will be my studio but it’ll also be for artists and friends.”

The whole space feels partly like a large non-profit contemporary art center, and partly like a 112 Greene Street-style artist collective—only on an astonishingly large scale.

Peering through one of the light-filled Civil War-era warehouse’s 100 windows towards the garden, Yellin’s ambitious plans for the place show no sign of slowing. “This is going to be half sculpture garden in the beginning, and farming—we’ll grow food, collect rainwater, things like this integrated with a contemporary art program with sculpture and installation and stuff out here. And on the other side is more of a sculpture lab where one could build things and fabricate things outside and work. It was just a parking lot, so this is just the beginning. We put in that little hill. My dream is to have a recording studio underneath a larger hill, so that’s sort of a maquette for a larger hill that would be over here and if you were on top of it you could be picking apples or something and seeing the city and the water, but then you could walk down the hill, down a little rock path, open a little door, and go into the recording studio. I have all these utopic, dreamy ideas for the place, that will hopefully manifest in time. I think it’s possible.”

It would seem impossible if Yellin and his colleagues hadn’t made such incredible progress renovating the building in just eight months. “I was walking in here when it was full of boxes and no windows and disgusting,” he says, “and I was still feeling that way, ‘This could be amazing.’ I knew it could be amazing. I’m in shock at how quickly it’s become amazing. That’s crazy. I knew it, but knowing it and being in it are two different things.”

Though Yellin and a couple other artists have already moved into the building’s finished areas, it’s still an active construction site. “It’s not that it’s so far off,” Yellin says, “we just want to start with quiet little performances and art shows. We’re talking to curators and folks about possibilities for a serious public opening, but we’re trying not to commit until it becomes really, utterly clear what the perfect program in that sense is.” In a city and an art world where everything is done as quickly as possible, he’s letting things happen organically, from the grand opening to the name of the space.

“We called it Pioneer and King, and then PK, because of the streets” he says. “I like also MoWA, Museum of Working Artists, because it describes what we’re doing. I also like The Fitz, F-I-T-Z, because it brings to mind Fitzcarraldo and it’s like bringing a boat over a mountain to make a place like this exist.” But he’s in no hurry to start branding the art center. “These things just end up sticking at some point, and if PK sticks it’ll be PK. People will just start calling it something and eventually you can’t stop them.”

For now, Yellin remains focused on getting the building finished—and making his largest sculptures ever, and launching a new magazine, Intercourse. He sees all these projects, from studio practice to art center and independent publishing, as a collaborative social sculpture of sorts. “There’s this idea that community, especially in the art world, is all on the internet now,” he says. “But back in the day, whether it was in Paris or wherever, there were these movements of people, people coming together. I think all artists have probably thought about a place like this, and it’s always, ‘wouldn’t it be so cool if something like this existed?’ But it’s hard to make something like this a reality. And then things like this become institutionalized, which is great, so that they can get support, but then sometimes maybe vision gets sacrificed.”

But Yellin’s vision for the art center’s future remains utopian. “I think the idea here is to create this perfect vision of what could be, and then maybe it does become an institution, and the institution works almost like half-art studio, half-think tank, half-museum. It’s almost like something I thought about and couldn’t not do. I didn’t have a choice.”

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt