Topless Returns

Text: T T
By Dan Guarino

What is a renaissance without art? Among other things, Rockaway’s resurgence has certainly been advanced by an infusion of art and the creativity of artists, both homegrown and new to the peninsula.

Last year, artists and entrepreneurs Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum opened a first of its kind gallery space, Topless, at the corner of Beach 91st Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard.

Throughout the summer they showcased a rotating roster of contemporary artists working in media that included everything from painting to sculpture, assemblage to mounted television screens.

Topless went over so well that Birnbaum and Crain already began making plans for summer 2015.

On Saturday, June 13, from 6 to 9 p.m. Topless reopens with a new exhibition and reception in its new space at 189 Beach 96th Street.

While getting things ready for the big day, Crain and Birnbaum took some time to talk to The Wave about what’s coming next at Topless.

“0.5 Mommy Man will be our first exhibition of the 2015 season and is comprised of works by artist, Sam Davis,” they said. “The title of the exhibition alludes to Sam's perception of Antaeus, who, in Greek mythology, is the son of Poseidon and Poseidon's grandmother/earth itself. Antaeus derives his power from contact with the earth, his mother, and dedicates his sole purpose in life to building a temple of human skulls for his father, a father who did not have a hand in Antaeus's upbringing.”

Crain added, “Mommy men are all around us, and to be honest, I think there is a little bit of mommy man in all of us. The exhibition will also feature special guest appearances by the honorable likes of Matteo di Giovanni, Orion Martin, Marisa Takal, and the memory of Nick Bastis. 0.5 Mommy Man will open Saturday, June 13 and run through Sunday, June 28.

“This summer we will be following the same formula as last year. We will rotate our exhibitions every three weeks. Visitors are welcome to enjoy Topless' program Saturdays from 12 to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 12 to 6 throughout the duration of summer.

“Our second exhibition is due to open on the 4th of July and will host a new body of paintings by artist, Anna Glantz. Our third exhibition will open on July 25 and is to be a three-person group show. Our fourth and final of 2015, an even larger group exhibition, will begin the 15th of August and extend through the last weekend of that month,” Crain says.

“Aside from the cultural components inherently offered by an art gallery, Brent and I feel like we have something additional and more tangible that we may further offer to the community. Our goal for the past two seasons has been to reside in spaces neglected since Sandy's passing. Our intention is to modestly bring these spaces back to a point of usage where they are more manageable for long-term tenants to inhabit once our season has come to fruition.


Jenni Crain (left) and Brent Birnbaum are ready to reopen their gallery, Topless, with a new exhibition in a brand new space at 189 Beach Beach 96th Street on Saturday, June 13. Jenni Crain (left) and Brent Birnbaum are ready to reopen their gallery, Topless, with a new exhibition in a brand new space at 189 Beach Beach 96th Street on Saturday, June 13. “Last summer, we couldn't have been more fortunate in finding a uniquely special space abounding in atypical beauty,” Crain continues. “As our renovations ensued we continuously encountered unexpected delights, like the domed windows, which had been boarded and hidden by dropped ceilings for over 30 years or the flaking, palmpatterned wallpaper bordering the crown of the walls where they met the immensely high ceilings, which were around 14 feet. We chose to leave these elements in the most raw state possible as evidence of the building's history and experience.

“This summer Topless will call a two-story abandoned house at 189 Beach 96th Street our home. Allegedly a former brothel, this space is the apparent antithesis of our former. Here, we certainly won't discover any secret sources and floods of sunlight, but we are equally excited by the existing cavelike quirk and character. We do have palms again. Real palms this time.”

Talking about his own background and how Topless came about here, Birnbaum said, “I moved to the Rockaways right after Sandy and noticed a lot of storefronts were remaining empty. I wanted to do my part to give back to the community I was now calling home by re-activating these forgotten spaces. I know art, and how to run a gallery. I sought out a partner who shared my vision and passion and we opened for business last summer.”

From there, Crain continued, “Our dear mutual friends, Adam Parker Smith and Carolyn Salas, introduced us specifically with this project in mind. When Brent described his initial intentions for the project there was no way I would decline to participate. As someone who has thoroughly enjoyed the distinct personality that Rockaway offers I was immediately completely in. I was grateful that we could offer something new, something that Brent and I are ourselves so passionate about, to the community.

“For now our goal is to keep having fun for as long as the project can possibly prevail.”

They both agree that “For us, Topless is really about the community we are a part of and the community we are creating. We hope to continuously expand that whatever the longevity of Topless may be.”

What do you like best about Rockaway?

“Surfing, then the people, then the food!” Birnbaum enthusiastically answers.

And for Crain? “The people, no doubt.

“In an interview last year, a journalist asked me what was the major difference between running a gallery in Rockaway and running a gallery in Manhattan? It made me realize that what made the experience so wholly wonderful was the support by the general public at large. There's an admirable curiosity notable in Rockaway residents, and it's a refreshing change from the closed circuit of the institutionalized/ commercial art world.”

“In Manhattan, the majority of gallerygoers are art world insiders. In Rockaway, it's anyone and everyone. The support Brent and I have experienced from the Rockaway community sincerely blows me away. It's really rare and really special to find that.”

“If you build it they will come, is what crosses my mind when I think of starting Topless” says Birnbaum.

“Jenni and I didn't know what to expect, but we believed in our vision, and the artists we wanted to show. The high points lasted all summer. Having enthusiastic interest from locals and DFDers made all the hard work well worth it, worth it enough to move on to our next space!”

“My family lived in the Rockaways in the 1940’s and 50’s,” Birnbaum recalls. “I grew up in Dallas but came to New York in 2004. After becoming restless in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I took the title DFD for many summers. I eventually graduated to DFG, and hate having to leave the peninsula now. When I'm not working "Topless," I'm working on my own art.

I am a “New Yorker through and through,” Crain offers proudly. “I spent much of my childhood living in various towns on the South Shore of Long Island and the rest of my life in Brooklyn. I suppose it's quite suiting that I now spend so much of my time sandwiched between the two. Upon graduating from Pratt Institute with a BFA in sculpture, I became the manager of a Lower East Side gallery. It was just a blink between moving on from that position and taking on Topless. My own art practice is just as important to me as my curatorial projects. I essentially dedicate 100% of my time to both.”

Before getting ready to open a re-imagined Topless in a brand new location, is there anything else they’d like to say to Rockaway?

“Thanks again and looking forward to seeing you round our new locale!”

2015-06-12 / Weekender

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