Third Thursdays – Featured Gallery: Allegra LaViola

Allegra LaViola at her gallery - photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis for thelodownny.com

Tomorrow night, the neighborhood will stay open late for Third Thursdays, a new monthly event from the LES Business Improvement District showcasing the Lower East Side’s flourishing arts scene.  Galleries will be staying open until 9pm and the New Museum is offering free evening admission. As media sponsor of Third Thursdays, we’re pleased to offer a series of participating gallery profiles. Last week, we visited the Allegra LaViola Gallery.

Since moving in to the space at 179 East Broadway, some of the shows the Allegra LaViola Gallery has offered up include a non-stop, three-day live action Dungeons & Dragons tournament with art and performances, monthly “performative dinner parties,” where guests are treated to dinner and art and performance by the artist/s in residence for the evening, and most recently, a collaborative performance and interactive show involving meat, potatoes and knishes.  Oh, and then there’s that provocative exhibit which caused quite a stir in the neighborhood a few weeks ago.

I spoke with LaViola and asked her about the recent controversy.

“Oh yes, the ‘Pornucopia’ show,” she said, “obviously the press made it in to a much bigger deal than it actually was. It was very, very, very mild – every single press person who came in here, including the ones who were supposedly outraged, walked in here and were like, ‘wait, where is the porn?’ I mean it was an oil painting of a woman frolicking through a field with her boobs.”

“I think also the phrase ‘in the window’ led to a lot of problems,” she continued,  “there was nothing ‘in’ the window,” (it was hanging on the wall near the window). “I think it led people to believe there was basically a kind of Amsterdam scene going on in the front of my gallery with a live naked woman pleasuring herself or something.”

LaViola received complaints from some Rabbis and members of the local Orthodox community, who were concerned about their boys having to walk past the gallery on their way to the Yeshiva down the street.  She also received some threatening emails, but not everyone was shocked by the show.

“It did get a good amount of attention,” she said. “It certainly got people interested, which was nice…I got a large amount of people from the Lower East Side, who’ve lived here for a long time, coming in and saying, ‘We really support you and we’re glad you’re here and don’t let this get you down.’ That’s been great.”

I asked what inspired her to open the gallery here (she opened in September of 2008 with a partner, but became the sole owner in January of last year):

“It really seemed like the Lower East Side is somewhere that has a rich cultural and artisitic heritage – even when I was growing up, as a teenager, I was going to places like ABC NoRio and places like that. And then when Soho moved to Chelsea and then Chelsea – well Chelsea hasn’t exactly moved to the LES, but obviously this is somewhere that is blossoming.”

LaViola said it seemed like a logical place to be. “When I saw this space, it seemed clear this was a fabulous area – I think I’m further down and further east than almost anybody – I think it’s great, this kind of crossroads here – the Chinese community, the Latino community, the Jewish community, white, black – everybody’s here, it’s a real cross section – that’s fun.”

Chuckling, she said, “When I first opened there were all these crazy old ladies asking if they could take a painting class.  I think they think this is a branch of the Educational Alliance (which is just down the street).”

LaViola said deciding on her shows is a very organic process. “It’s really for me – art that I respond to immediately – I tend to like visual art where you can walk in and have an immediate connection with the work. It’s not like a crumpled ball of tape on the floor where you say, ‘Okay…now I need to have a thirty paragraph explanation for this and a background in conceptual art to understand it’…It comes from the gut. But also I like what I would call immersive art, that’s creating an atmosphere and environment where the whole space is transformed.”

“A lot of the shows have a performative element and I also do a monthly series of dinners and performances called the ‘Supper Club,’ at which we’ve had portrait drawing sessions, burlesque shows, memory card games…It’s a fun way of getting away from the idea that the artist is separate from the people who are coming to see (their work),” she said.

Paintings and pastels from Jennifer Riley: "Fire-Fangled Feathers," currently showing at the Allegra LaViola Gallery

We talked about the burgeoning gallery scene on the LES. LaViola agreed it has exploded, but she added, “I think the gallery scene here is no different than the scene anywhere else. There’s going to be people who emerge on top or are able to hold on, and then there are people who might pop up for a little bit and then have to reorganize or do something somewhere else or it just didn’t work out for them. And there will be fabulous creative spaces doing innovative things and there will be junky terrible ones doing crappy things.”

She admits some of the changes in the neighborhood have surprised her:  “I’ve been amazed – literally my head spins every time I walk on the Bowery, spins. I got over the East Village a while ago, I understood that transformation, but on the Bowery? I’m still…wondering, where did all this come from?”

Which brings up the New Museum: “Obviously the New Museum changed everything,” she said. “If they had not been there, nobody probably would have bothered. They opened the door for everyone to come in – but you know when you open the door, you can’t just open the door part way.”  She conceded that’s always how New York has been – in constant flux. “I mean (when) I told my mother (her parents are native New Yorkers) I wanted to open a gallery here, she said, ‘you mean where the linen stores are?’ ”

Looking ahead: The Allegra LaViola Gallery will participate in the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas with a light and fog show by Timothy Hutchings.  LaViola says, “He’ll be filling the gallery with light and fog so you’re assaulted by light walking down the street and you’ll want to come in.”

Beginning May 11th, the gallery will host a two man show featuring Danish graffiti artist HuskMitNavn and Brooklyn based Matthew Craven.

Then, on May 19th, the theatrical company Glass Bandits will take over the downstairs space for four weeks to present wolves in abasement, an adaptation of the Strindberg play, Playing with Fire.

Along with the other galleries taking part in Third Thursdays, Allegra LaViola will be open until 9pm tomorrow. The gallery will also be included in two free tours being offered, one at 6 pm and one at 7:30 pm, from the Lower East Side Visitor Center at 54 Orchard Street. For more information on the event, which will be offered every month through the fall, visit the LES Business Improvement District’s web site.

The Allegra LaViola exterior, on East Broadway

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