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Off-Color & On-Target: Ripe Art Gallery Sheds the Skin of Conformity
Cherie Via doesn’t expect everything at her Ripe Art Gallery to appeal to everyone. She knows what she likes and that’s what matters.
“I like weird shit.” She grins and her eyes sparkle. “Humor is what really pulls it all together for me.” Since 2006, Via has been carving out a growing niche for herself in Greenlawn, with a dedicated coterie of artists, now almost 40 in her stable, and an avid following of clients and fans who make her art openings a major event.
For a woman who claims to no longer need caffeine, this curator has the energy of a human Roman candle.
“THIS is about what I love!” she says, with a sweep of her arms as she takes in her gallery. “That’s what this is about! I don’t show anything I don’t love. I don’t show anybody I don’t love. I don’t do anything that I don’t love.”
Her aesthetic sensibility, an academic phrase that doesn’t come close to encompassing the diverse artistic styles in the Ripe Art world, is “more rock and roll, and darker, although that doesn’t always apply,” she says. “I’m not showing landscapes and lighthouses and nicey-nicey. I’m showing much more edgy work. And that’s what I pursue.”
She spells out her goal on her homepage: “Ripe Art’s aim is to present and foster Folk, Outsider/Visionary, and Self-Taught artists from our local Long Island community. Influenced by comic book art, graffiti/street art and pop culture, we represent a mix of emerging artists.”
The new work of her artists occupies the front of her space, and her thriving custom-framing business is in the back. Next to her framing table is an area she calls her Bottlecap Boutique, featuring handmade jewelry, Day of the Dead (Dia del Muerte) Mexican artifacts and some of her favorite pieces from past shows. One of those is “Mona Trooper,” a digital painting on canvas in a mahogany frame, by ZIG, an artist pal of hers now living in Florida. It depicts Mona Lisa wearing a Star Wars storm-trooper helmet and cradling an automatic weapon. On the wall nearby is a gruesome rendering of Marilyn Monroe spewing a vile liquid from her parted lips. In other words, it depicts the platinum blonde’s overdose. David Graham painted it as part of his series of “celebrity death portraits,” Via says, adding that she may never let it go. She feels the same way about a small painting of the Ramones by Stanko, one of her top-grossing artists, who’d done the piece for Ripe Art’s annual Valentine’s Day group show.
A Jersey girl, Via played the piccolo in high school and trained classically on the flute. She went to Ithaca College to study music. Once there, she became intensely interested in art, but never could take an art history class because it was always filled. So, she taught herself. She took advantage of Cornell University’s museum and immersed herself in its impressive collection. Her teachers also exposed her to John Cage and other avant-garde musicians and composers, but it was Salvador Dali who later “got in my brain,” she says. Her first job after graduation brought her to Levittown, where she ran the high school band, literally marching up and down Hempstead Avenue, for almost five years. She hated it. “You kind of have to be a fascist to run a marching band, and I wasn’t a fascist.”
For almost two years, she commuted from her apartment in Norwalk, Conn. to Long Island, leaving at 6:15 a.m. every workday because she didn’t want to give up her apartment’s water view. Levittown was all she knew of Long Island until her boyfriend took her to Huntington and it reminded her of Ithaca. That made an indelible impression.
After she left her music job, she worked at a bookstore in Huntington and studied custom-framing. In Northport she picked up the electric bass, and learned how to improvise on jazz. She had gigs but “it went nowhere.” But always in the back of her mind she clung to her gallery idea.
The first painting Via had ever bought was by Lance Laurie, who, like her, was influenced heavily by Dali. “I always told him that when I have a gallery someday [he’s] going to be the first painter I show.” For her first art show, she rented a small space in the back of a boutique in Northport. Her enthusiasm for Laurie’s surreal bent wasn’t widely shared. One of his pieces is aptly named “My Flame-Broiled Skull.”
“People were scared,” she recalls. “They didn’t like the skulls… That’s when I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of Northport because I’m not going to tame this down for this town!’” She lasted four months before taking a bigger space in Huntington for about a year. “I started showing art by my friends,” she says, “and the next thing I knew I had artists coming to me and wooing me, showing me what they do, and wanting to show with me!’”
When she finally moved to Greenlawn and opened her space on Broadway, she was scared. “The first thought I had was: What have I done?!’” But Via pressed on. Based on the framing shops she had apprenticed in, and seeing what other galleries in Huntington and Northport were selling, she figured she could succeed because their art was “kind of lame.”
In fact, she was working at a gallery in Northport when she had an epiphany that helped spark her present artistic career. A customer came in and said he wanted to buy a print by Thomas Kinkade, the late contemporary American artist known for mass marketing his bucolic country scenes (or as some say, “the muzak of art”). Via balked, and her boss wasn’t happy. As she recounts the exchange: “‘Cherie, you’ve got to sell the Thomas Kinkades!’ And I said, ‘I can’t sell the Thomas Kinkades! They’re shit!’” The aesthetic differences proved irreconcilable. “I excused myself from the position,” she says with a smile. And the Long Island art world has never been the same since.
On May 11, Ripe Art Gallery will be hosting an opening reception for a two-man exhibition, “Daydreams and Cigar Boxes,” pairing the enigmatic translucent goldfish paintings by Nick Cordone and the evocative “plein air” paintings of Long Island scenes by Doug Reina.
Reina, who does indeed use cigar boxes for his canvases, met Via before she opened the gallery and liked her immediately. “She’s a delightful spirit and so full of life,” he says. Since she welcomed him into Ripe Art, he’s been glad to show his work with her. “She made me feel good about taking chances and going out on creative limbs. You don’t always get that.”
Via said that Cordone “paints stuff that makes you think… I wanted to show Nick and I wanted to bring Doug back. They’re perfect together.”
Her show next month promises something completely different. Called “Outside the Jam,” it will feature Rick Odell’s photographs of the roller-derby women known as the Long Island Roller Rebels. Via said she’s been working closely with him for months in preparation for this exhibit, which opens June 22.
“For some people I am very much the curator,” she says. “For [others] I leave it up to them because I love them and I love their work, and I know whatever they’re going to bring me I’m going to like.”
Right now she’s never had a contract with her artists, only a handshake, but her thinking is evolving on that. “I want to take a bigger stand in people’s careers, so I’m looking for some loyalty,” she says.
The Ripe Art Gallery has a fresh aura reminiscent of the East Village art scene in the ‘80s and it’s surprising to find that ambiance in Greenlawn. Via is well aware of what’s showing in the galleries of New York City these days, but “it doesn’t influence me in any way, shape or form what I’m doing in my space.”
It’s that independent spirit that keeps Ripe Art so fresh and alive.
Ripe Art Gallery is located at 67A Broadway in Greenlawn. For more information call 631-239-1805 or visit www.ripeartgal.com. Gallery hours are Tues.-Thurs.: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday: 2- 8 p.m.; and Saturday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m.