At Proteus Gowanus gallery, it’s art for more than art’s sake

June 27, 2012 By Carl Blumenthal for Brooklyn Daily Eagle

With its iron-gated alley-way entrance around the corner from the Gowanus Canal, and its exotic name, Proteus Gowanus might have been a speakeasy during Prohibition. Sasha Chavchavadze, an artist who with husband PK Ramani founded the “interdisciplinary gallery and reading room” in 2005, reinforced this impression by insisting “once people find us, they get hooked.”

Given that the gallery will close for the summer on July 15, Brooklynites should hurry down to 543 Union St. and feed their addiction for the paradoxical place the Gowanus holds in their hearts.

Start with the Hall of Gowanus, an archive organized by activist and urban planner Eymund Diegel. Among the marvels, inspect an EPA sample of canal water, get the lowdown on the neighborhood from taped walking tours with residents, and read about the legendary Merman of Gowanus Bay chronicled in 1857 by the Brooklyn Eagle.

Imbibing this mixture of the freakish and miraculous draws visitors and volunteers to all Proteus Gowanus’s exhibits, not just those concerning the canal and its environs.

Chavchavadze, who teaches art at Saint Ann’s School, and has occupied a studio since 1981 in the 1900 box factory that also houses the gallery, explained the group’s mission: “After years of being an artist, I wanted to connect more to the world, to other disciplines; to collaborate and be inclusive. Almost immediately after we opened people came in to help.”

Now scientists, anthropologists, urban planners, and artists of all stripes, join with laypeople in their search for new or forgotten methods of inquiry to solve life’s puzzles.

For example, on Thursday, June 28, at 7 p.m., Smudge Studio will provide flash cards for identifying the vehicles that transport nuclear waste in what amounts to a dangerous, international shell game. And on Friday, July 6, also at 7 p.m., the gallery’s artists in residence, Lado Pochkhua, Sal Randolph and Eben Kirksey will sum up their works on this year’s theme: Future Migration.

That effort includes “A Fool’s Journey,” a current exhibit organized by the Jersey City gallery Curious Matters to show “the fool, childlike and curious, eagerly embark[ing] on new experiences without hesitation regardless of future difficulties.” Also anthropologist Eben Kirksey, host of the Mutispecious Salon, contributed his own “Utopia for the Golden Frog of Panama” to the discussion of unforseen obstacles and opportunities.

Notebooks by travelers to unknown destination. Photo courtesy of Proteus GalleryOf course, Proteus Gowanus doesn’t always live up to its billings. On the evenings of June 15 and 16, a number of self-styled time travelers struggled with the cliches of disasters past, present, and future. Most successful, due to the precision of their forecasts, were Christina Cornfield’s cautionary film strip about romance and reproduction in the 1950’s; Donald Dedalus’ slide show on humanity’s last stand on Antartica, circa 2500; and Sarah Bouchard’s song cycle of flood and redemption, gleaned from current newspapers. In spite of its many collaborators, the organization’s very versatility can leave it stretched too thin.

Plus, going against the grain of convention can be trying. Chavchavadze emphasized, “the general public doesn’t know how difficult it is to start an arts organization and keep it going. We’re running on air.” At least that air is rich enough for a $150,000 annual budget, including full-time director Tammy Pittman, who says the money and volunteers create “a free zone where people think what they want and don’t worry about where [their work] fits in a rarefied marketplace.”

Who else would invest in the dreadful atmosphere of a Morbid Anatomy Library and its antidote, the Reanimation Library, where old books are brought back to life. Or the Writhing Society and The Fixers Collective, who repair broken words and things, respectively. Not to mention the Observatory for programs of “rational amusement” and a reading room where you can view Proteotypes, books by the gallery’s publishing arm.

However, with the name “Proteus,” the adventurers next to the Gowanus seem to recognize the ever-shifting nature of their endeavor. Proteus was the Greek sea god who could tell the future but changed animal shapes to elude being pinned down. Only those not intimidated by his twists and turns forced him to fess up. Thus Proteus Gowanus keeps up with its namesake by changing themes every year. Next year’s will
be Battle, starting in September with “War of the Words.” So send your verbal bullets to Proteus Gowanus, 543 Union St., Brooklyn NY 11217 or [email protected]

For more information, go to or call 718-1243-1572. Hours are Thursday and Friday: 3-6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday: 12-6 p.m.