On Friday night I found myself in a concrete basement, sitting on a cushioned bench inside a bathroom-sized fridge that used to store meat. In front of me a flat-screen television played interviews with Brooklyn residents, on loop. I wasn't lured there by some Tinder date gone awry, but by artist RAE on the occasion of his new exhibition, titled Trunk Work, on view now through April 19 at 94½ Bayard Street.
The show is the culmination of 15 years of work, but by no means a retrospective. It took RAE five of those years just to recover the art from his former studio apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn.
The story behind Trunk Work is one familiar to many New Yorkers: the unpleasant experience of an unreasonable landlord. RAE's former landlord hated his taste in hip-hop as well as his artistic practices. The last straw broke in October 2010, when RAE caused a "small" explosion with his microwave. RAE was forcibly evicted and not allowed to access the building. Unable to enter, RAE's trunk filled with sketches, artwork, and personal items was left behind. Last year, he was finally able to retrieve the trunk when the apartment building was evacuated due to cracks in the facade caused by construction work next door.
Full disclosure: I am a big fan of RAE, and have been since I moved to New York eight years ago. I was introduced to his work by chance, simply on the street à la Peru Ana Ana Peru. It just seemed to be everywhere, like breadcrumbs I would follow throughout the city. His murals can be seen from Cleveland to Africa. His sculptures have been installed in a Brooklyn subway station and in the streets of Berlin. I've even run into his work at the annual Arts Night Out, a chichi event held at the Park Avenue Armory.
RAE's work feels tangible. At times it reminds me of Basquiat without the drama. He considers his genre Urban Folk Art, but states that he "tends to go off of the materials" he's presented with. "Found paint or objects dictate what the next piece will be like," RAE says. "I'm influenced by things that are made crudely and for practical use."
The extraordinariness of RAE lies in the presentation of his work. He likes to be in complete control of the story he is telling, and will retell it by transporting you to the place where the work was first conceived, way back when.
In 2013, I covered his solo show in an East Village bodega, where his work was displayed alongside an old beef-patty cooking tray. One of RAE's motivations when building a show is making the space become "an extension of the painting."
The basement in Chinatown, where Trunk Work will be housed for the next month, used to belong to the now-defunct butcher shop upstairs. "This place was a mess," a friend of RAE's told me. "I don't know how we did it."
RAE wanted this show to have the pristine quality of a gallery space while also replicating the experience of unearthing his treasured art trunk. Even when I finally had the address to the show, I still couldn't locate it. I knew it was a basement, but the ½ part was peculiar.
The steps that lead down to the basement are carpeted. When I finally got downstairs, I was met with a spotless, concrete space. Gallery-style lighting showcased the art, some of which was behind custom-built glass, atop dressers. Other pieces, like a sculpture titled "Snob" made out of a reclaimed air humidifier and constructed with wood, a metal drain pipe, plastic typewriter keys, and other found materials, sat inside an empty steel fridge.
Also on display, aside from paintings, sculptures, journals, old Nikes, and video installations, is what's left of the busted microwave (the cause of his eviction) and the actual tin trunk that carried his art.
One thing you won't find at this show is RAE himself. The reclusive artist never attends his openings and will not be photographed next to his work. "I rather not have the spotlight on me," RAE says. "I rather have the spotlight on the work because if that were the case, I'd be dressing myself up. I'm here to have the people have an experience from top to bottom. When you come in, you are in the show. You are now part of the show."
Trunk Work runs until April 19. The exhibition will be open Thursday-Sunday (except Easter) from 1-6 PM.