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MF Gallery: Ten Years of Monstrous Art

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This summer, Brooklyn’s MF Gallery is celebrating 10 years of showcasing art inspired by horror, monsters, toys and other dark/pop culture. To mark the anniversary, Fango sat down with founders/owners Martina Secondo Russo and Frank Russo (with their beautiful baby boy Joe Butch Russo) to talk about the last decade, and what the next one may hold…

FANGORIA: Tell us about yourselves and your backgrounds, and how you came together to open the gallery.

MFGALLERY1MARTINA SECONDO RUSSO: We are both artists and lived in California for four years while we attended the California Institute of Art, and I guess it was there we were exposed to this phenomena they call “lowbrow art” or whatever. Especially at the La Luz De Jesus Gallery. Wacko was our favorite spot to go. When we came back, we realized there weren’t that many places in the city that were showing underground art of that genre. So we decided to open up a space to show our own work, the kind we liked and our friends’ art, and just do what we wanted.

FANG: How did you actually start it up?

FRANK RUSSO: We searched around the city and came across a spot on Rivington Street, right across the street from ABC No Rio [the legendary nonprofit punk venue and arts workshop].

MARTINA: That was kind of perfect. We actually found it on Craigslist. It was a store that was closing, so we took over the lease. We knew we wanted something in the Village/Lower East Side area, and actually found that this place had a good deal—even for a time when, of course, rents were a lot cheaper.

FRANK: It had a basement that we rented out to different bands and people who wanted to rehearse, because we didn’t care about the noise. The noise we were making upstairs was way louder anyway. That helped us pay the rent.

FANG: And it was fortuitous that it was across from ABC No Rio…

FRANK: It was! We grew up going there all the time. And then the kids would come [to the gallery openings] and eat up all the food and drink all the beer.

MARTINA: ABC No Rio also has a print lab, so we would end up going there to print up all our screens. It was great, because we print and sell all our own T-shirts.

FANG: What was the original vision for the gallery?

FRANK: It was tough when we first started out to break into galleries, and get our work shown there. We wanted to be more accessible and have no pretensions.

MARTINA: At the same time, we started out showing some bigger names, people we looked up to like Liz McGrath and John John Jesse.

MFGALLERY2FRANK: They are a lot bigger now.

MARTINA: We tried to mix the work of known artists with newcomers—give new talent a chance, but also provide them more exposure by showing them with the better-known people.

FANG: Can you talk about your interest in monster art and movies?

FRANK: I’m pretty much into monster films; I have a lot of monster tattoos. Those movies help me chill out.

MARTINA: And we do a Halloween show every year, so a lot of the art there is monster-themed. In addition, we’ve done a lot of zombie-oriented shows.

FRANK: We’re kind of geared towards that. We only show what we like, and we like those things.

MARTINA: We did one called The B-Horror Show where all the art was based on low-budget genre movies [Full disclosure: the author had three drawings and four collages in that exhibition], and we do a yearly toy show—all handmade toys. Like Frank said, we show what we like, so a lot of those end up being horror-related.

FANG: Aside from scary movies and monsters, what other cultures are you interested in? What other themes turn up in the gallery?

MARTINA: We’re really into all kinds of toys—the art toys that have become more popular lately, and Frank is a big collector of vintage ones.

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FRANK: I’m 37, so I grew up in the ’80s, and they really hit us hard with the kid culture of gross-out stuff—booger-eating Garbage Pail Kids-style things. Even He-Man, the Filmation stuff that came with a toy line. Cartoons had toys come out at the moment the cartoon started airing. The work we show is mostly from our age group; they have a lot of the same inspirations. Since I collect toys, it’s a big part of what I do.

MARTINA: Some of the artwork we show is horror-related but with a poppy, colorful angle—not so dark but more inspired by cartoons and toys. Also a lot of tattoo art—we exhibit a lot of skin artists who also draw or paint.

FANG: Do you find that the collectors you draw tend to be your age, since they share common interests?

FRANK: It seems so. It’s a strange thing, because we’re not that old; we’re still a little bit young. The people who are into the stuff we’re into don’t have that much money; we try to keep things priced down so they can afford it. There are a lot of buyers out there who are our age and definitely gravitate towards these things.

FANG: Tell us about the MF branch on Italy.

MARTINA: We have a gallery in Genova, my hometown. That just sort of happened because my father has a restaurant over there with his brother, and there was a little space next door that they were using pretty much as storage, but it was a really nice storefront space. It was being underutilized. So we decided to fix it up and make it a gallery—which is pretty small.

MFGALLERY4FRANK: It has an upstairs and downstairs.

MARTINA: The upstairs has a permanent—or semi-permanent—collection where we keep stuff from previous shows. We have a little cabinet there with toys and things like that. Downstairs, we do a new show about every two months. We can’t go there as much as we’d like to, so we work with local artists and have assistants over there who help us run it. It’s along the same lines as the Brooklyn one. We brought a lot of American artists over there for the first time, and exhibited a lot of Italian and European artists here that wouldn’t have been possible without having a foothold there.

FANG: What was the vision for the 10th-anniversary show?

FRANK: It was an opportunity to look back at all the many different people we’ve shown in the past and to work with everybody again—to get as many artists involved as possible. It was good to see everybody again.

MARTINA: We invited everyone we’ve ever worked with, and some new people. We also wanted to give back to our collectors, who have been pretty loyal. When we moved to Brooklyn, it’s obviously not as much of a foot-traffic area as the Lower East Side, but many of our clients and friends still come out for the openings. So we wanted to give back to them by pricing everything at $100—which is low for a lot of these original artworks. When we decided to do that, we figured a lot of the artists were just gonna give us small pieces—which would have been fine—but they all went above and beyond and gave us amazing works of art that are worth way more than $100.

MFGALLERY5FANG: What is the most rewarding thing about the last 10 years of doing the gallery?

FRANK: The ability to not have to jump through hoops to exhibit our work; to be able to show in our own space was a great gift. I’m not the kind of guy, especially a while back, to do what you tell me. I’m a bit of a rebellious person, and I’m not going to show up with slides or anything like that and establish a rapport, because I don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of me. I get to show here whenever I want, whatever I want. It’s my gallery. If I want to express myself, I don’t have to worry about someone saying yes or no. Or “This is too much, this is too risky to show, why did you do this?”

MARTINA: At the same time, it has helped us achieve more exposure as artists and get shows in other spaces. For me, a very rewarding thing has been the opportunity to live with all the art for the duration of the shows. Often, we like to pick up a piece here and there for ourselves. Sometimes, it’s sad to see it go at the end of a show. It’s nice to enjoy the art for the time that we have it.

FRANK: The thing we didn’t plan on was having this family of friends who are all artists. We have a great group who are all creative people, and meet up with them once a month to discuss art-related subjects. It helps you pursue your dreams and your goals as an artist.

MARTINA: We’ve created a little artists’ community around the gallery.

FANG: What do you think the next 10 years will be like?

MARTINA: It’s been cool over those years to see a lot of people we started showing in the beginning get really big. Many of them are more famous than when we started working with them. I can’t say that for everyone, but mostly they’ve stayed really loyal to us; they’re selling pieces for $20-30,000, and they’ll still do a show like this and put something in for $100. It will be cool to see what happens in the next 10 years as more people get to that level.

FRANK: We’ll be around for another 10. You just stick around and watch.

MF Gallery’s 10th-anniversary show is open all summer long by appointment. The gallery is located at 213 Bond Street in Brooklyn; MF Gallery Genova is located at Vico Dietro Il Coro Della Maddalena 26A, Genova, Italy. For more information, see the official website or e-mail info@MFgallery.net.

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About the author
Michael Lee Nirenberg
Michael Lee Nirenberg is an artist and filmmaker whose works have been exhibited at festivals and galleries throughout the world. His feature directorial debut, BACK ISSUES: THE “HUSTLER” MAGAZINE STORY—based on his father’s experiences as creative director at Hustler in the 1970s and ’80s—will be released in the U.S. on July 15 via iTunes, Amazon Instant, Xbox, PlayStation, Google Play and VUDU. It’s currently available in all VOD platforms in the UK, and comes out in August on DVD in Australia and on HBO in Canada. Nirenberg lives in Brooklyn with his son Oliver.
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