An Unusual Anniversary Show, From a Reliably Unorthodox Art Dealer
On a Tuesday afternoon, James Fuentes revels in an empty office. “It is what I’m used to,” the art dealer says, before catching himself. “Of course, I like it when everyone is here, too.”
Fuentes’s namesake gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary this January, and he’s in the midst of preparing for an exhibition dedicated to those who have supported his gallery over the last decade — but haven’t necessarily been exhibited there. “I knew I wanted to do a group exhibition to commemorate the moment where I’m at,” Fuentes says. “I thought it would be interesting to feature artists who have had little to no presence in the program but are almost the invisible artists around the gallery, those that have really buttressed my program.” That group encompasses everyone from loyal opening attendees and customers to friends and friends of friends.
The forthcoming anniversary exhibition will be a living model for Fuentes’s historically inclusive philosophy. Younger artists like Diamond Stingily and Lucas Blalock will be joined by more established voices, including David Altmejd, Cecily Brown, Jim Drain and Dana Schutz. “What is great about a show like this is that it’s free from a didactic theme,” Fuentes says. “In no other context would these artworks be shown alongside one another. That is when the sparks usually fly. When I can surprise myself, that is when things really get interesting.”
Fuentes opened his first gallery on the Lower East Side at age 21 — in a space that served as an apartment, too. “It was in the tradition of the off space, or artist-run space,” Fuentes says. “I was just trying to figure it out and experiment.” After a short run as his own boss, Fuentes worked for Jeffrey Deitch and Lombard Freid Gallery; but the dealer couldn’t stay away from the LES for long, and in 2007, he opened his eponymous space. “When we opened, it was much harder to get people to come, even New York museum curators,” he says of early days. “Now it’s mandatory.”
The born-and-bred New Yorker has a unique perspective on the evolution of Lower East Side. “I am an unusual case: I was born in this neighborhood. As you know, there is a polarity down here between the old and the new, the haves and the have-nots; I understand both sides of it,” he says. “When I first moved into the neighborhood, there was talk of galleries gentrifying the neighborhood. It was something I struggled with. How can I be gentrifying myself?”
The space’s dark-green brick exterior serves as a kind of camouflage — you could walk by without noticing the entrance, save for the metal handles, and occasionally local graffiti artists take advantage of the blank canvas. For the group exhibition, Fuentes will turn the facade over to the artist John Ahearn, who became famous in the 1980s for his public relief sculptures depicting the people of the South Bronx. “What made him remarkable was he was monumentalizing a forgotten people,” Fuentes says. “I reached out to him to do the facade because right now we are in this moment between old and new. It’s the perfect time to embrace this impasse and talk about it.”