In the late 1970s and early 80s, Meryl Meisler, then a young photographer and self-described club kid, began documenting the bacchanalian nightlife of the city’s most notorious downtown clubs. In the early 1980s, as a New York public school teacher, she also started photographing the near-total devastation of Bushwick, Brooklyn, a neighborhood looted, burned, and abandoned by the city and its landlords. The resulting dual body of work is now a stunning book and exhibition, opening on Friday, May 30 at Bizarre Black Box in Bushwick.
The juxtaposed imagery of Meisler’s two worlds is mesmerizing. Arranged in pairs, the photographs echo one another in ways both emotionally compelling and visually fascinating. In “Three Amigos” (Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1983), three young men pose triumphantly in front of a boarded-up building covered in graffiti. On the opposing page three members of The Village People exit a club in full, iconic regalia. Drag queens pose invitingly, mirrored by cheerful giggly teenage Bushwick girls in an eerily similar stance. Two worlds, so close and so distant, married by a single, discerning artist’s lens.
Meisler shot the club world primarily in luminous black and white. The resulting high-contrast prints depict a world going gleefully to hell. The photos are raw in both contrast and content, capturing a soulless hedonism. Everyone is having “fun,” but when you look closely, the fun is hard to find.
The Bushwick photos were shot with a cheap camera and 35 mm color slide film, then transferred to prints. Meisler’s process yields images with a rich warm glow. The saturate colors of life in Bushwick belie a desperately poor and hard-edged world, but somehow a visual warmth blankets in the content of Meisler’s photos. Though never sentimental she conveys empathy and generosity towards her adopted neighborhood.
This exhibition is a terrific document of life in NYC during an era past. At the same time it serves as a potent metaphor for life in post- Bloomberg NYC . Bushwick is no longer burnt out, and the Manhattan club scene is long gone, but New York remains a tale of two cities. Ironically Bushwick, now too pricey for many of its historic residents is now a haven for artists, galleries and foodies, themselves displaced by a Manhattan of oligarchs and overpriced real estate. Thirty years later, and still the best of times and the worst of times.
A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick runs May 30–September 10, 2014, at Bizarre Black Box Gallery (12 Jefferson Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn). There will be a Disco Night Opening Reception on Friday, May 30, 7p–4a, with performances and special events throughout the weekend. A monograph of Meisler’s work will be published in conjunction with the show.