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Sunshine scene
by Paul Smart
June 19, 2008 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ask artists in the Hudson Valley about their favorite galleries, and the lists of big not-for-profit institutions invariably give way to a handful of smaller, artist-oriented places akin to the classic hippie-era cultural centers of Europe, where the openings and concerts, lectures and open exhibition policies have bred something beyond simple aesthetics and helped create a scene. At the top of that small list is invariably Phoenicia's Arts Upstairs space: a rambling one-time apartment with great light, loads of big and small rooms, a long flight of steep stairs and the best artists' receptions, bar none, north of New York City.

The way Arts Upstairs has worked for almost five years now is quite simple - and lovable. After an earlier incarnation as Upstate Art - a great gallery of wide-ranging talent, but with higher, collector-oriented prices - a group of local friends all wanting to jump-start their own art careers back into early-'80s shape got together and rented out the space. Gavin Owen, Joyceanne Wlodarczyk, Bronson Eden, Alan Fliegel, Dana Fraser, Margaret Owen, Lesley Reich, Lynn Fliegel and Tom Fraser had all come out of the same East Village stomping grounds, and all had fond memories of a loose art scene that flourished between the SoHo heyday and the recent upswing in Chelsea. They figured, somehow, that their new hometown of Phoenicia was ripe for such energy.

They decided to split the rent, and make what they could from low commissions on any works that sold and a minor hanging fee for submissions, plus an open, pot-luck style of opening reception that would put the emphasis on fun: a big party, as with dancing, lots of talk and such.

They ended up succeeding beyond anyone's wildest dreams - first on the party scene, with a steady flow of interesting work making its ways onto the walls for affordable prices; and then, gradually, with more and more of the region's better-known or -selling artists wanting to catch in on the fun.

Over time, the gallery became known as a place where you'd see a lot of fun stuff and always a handful, and maybe much more, of standout pieces. Even more importantly, the constant stream of monthly shows has had the effect of allowing everyone the support and deadline schedule needed to improve their work, to create something of a wildly eclectic "Phoenicia look" but also redefine the community, with the aid of First Friday (called P3 for "Phoenicia Phirst Phriday") open-mic nights, classes, lectures and even a recent "Ugly Pants" benefit contest whose video on YouTube, we hear, has become something of a cult hit.

Call it the new Woodstock; maybe even a reminder of what New Paltz must have been in its harder-partying, counterculture-centering days of yore. But it's purely Phoenicia, with its own cast of stars - from the AU-founding nine to authors Sparrow and Dakota Lane to musicians Uncle Rock, Sylvia Bullett and James Jopp; from infamous Woodstock scene artists Polly Law, Lenny Kislin and Bruce Ackerman to homegrown talents; and webmaster/videographer Dave Channon keeping it all au courant online: a true scene.

Arts Upstairs' latest show, following last month's "Flower Power," is themed around the idea of "Ol' Sol," to be followed in July by "All Together Now" and in August by "Dog Days." Recently, the gallery opened up a solo room, which this month will feature the work of Karen Whitman in a show titled "City Impressions: Block Prints of the Big Apple." Themes, they say, are optional. The idea is to get a lot of art and artists inside the six or so rooms upstairs, to make it snap, crackle, pop and, most of all, inspire - which has been the trend for the last five years, at least.

Drop-offs are the second weekends of each month, with openings on the third Saturday.

That means that the next big hoopla occurs this Saturday, June 21, from 6 to 10 p.m.: the night after the Solstice night, in other words, when they used to say that anything could happen.

The Arts Upstairs Gallery is located at 60 Main Street in Phoenicia, in the center of town across from the gas station. For further information (and one of the best websites around), visit www.theartsupstairs.com, or call (845) 688-2142.

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