Like most gallerists, Josh Fayer is eager to welcome back the creative cognoscenti after a year of closures. But unlike most of his peers, he’s doing things differently. The former abstract artist recently opened Room57 Gallery, an unconventional exhibition space in Midtown Manhattan that aims to eschew conventional art-world trappings—think white cube galleries, a resistance to digital art, and a pigeonholed artist roster. Instead, he’s subverting these staid notions in favor of a more democratic, forward-thinking approach well-suited for the post-pandemic era.
It starts within Room57 Gallery’s space itself, which forgoes the traditional white cube in favor of an apartment-like setting that eases the often intimidating gallery-going experience for art-world veterans, newcomers, or simply those reacquainting themselves with the outside world again. “I want them to feel as if they were stepping into a friend’s home,” Fayer says of the atmosphere, which he hopes collapses the boundaries between viewers and the works on display.
That ethos informs the gallery’s latest exhibition, called “Heat Wave,” which makes a case for erasing these borders altogether. The show unites a star-studded roster of artists who often hover at the juncture of abstraction and figuration. Fayer invites you to get up close with a rippling maple credenza designed by woodworking wunderkind Brecht Gander, which plays host to a duo of blue stoneware vessels by Adam Silverman and an abstract canvas by Danni Pantel. This unity of divergent mediums creates a push-and-pull tension within the show’s multitude of vignettes, casting the works in an entirely new light. For example, viewing Rashid Johnson’s monumental Wild Wally (2013)—an evocative canvas made from burned red oak flooring, black soap, and wax spray enamel—feels entirely different when perched atop a whale-like lounge chair by Atra Form Studio.
Fayer has also quickly adapted to the rise of non-fungible tokens, which have experienced a meteoric rise unlike any other art-world phenomena in recent memory. While the potential for cryptocurrency to upend the traditional art world has been bandied about ad nauseam, Fayer is more curious about how the physical and digital realms can instead enrich one another. That symbiotic relationship is on full display in “Heat Wave,” which features digital displays of crypto works by the ascendant artists Matthew Stone, Pearlyn Lii, Osinachi, and Santlov, among others.
To celebrate the opening of “Heat Wave,” we chatted with Fayer about Room57 Gallery’s origins, how to physically display NFT-based work, and what he’s cooking up next.
Room57 Gallery is unconventional in that it eschews the clinical white cube in favor of a familiar, home-like setting. What’s the reasoning behind this approach?
Everyone should feel comfortable and welcome while experiencing art. When a person walks into my gallery, I want them to feel as if they were stepping into a friend’s home. Contextualizing the art and design on display so that they appear closer to how they might in a home—rather than in a traditional white box gallery—helps foster a sense of intimacy while experiencing the work.
How does your background as an artist inform the gallery’s ethos?
I tend to create art that is abstract, using mixed media to develop a cohesive narrative. This translates into the work that I curate for every exhibition at Room57 Gallery. I aim to bring together art that is sometimes disparate—whether in terms of medium, pedigree, or vibe—and creates a dialogue that forms at a birds-eye view. In a sense, I use the gallery as my canvas.
What were the biggest challenges of launching a physical space during the pandemic?
Human interaction played heavily into the concept of Room57 Gallery. I always saw it as a place for connection and the discovery of art and design through events and various in-person activations. The pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions cut into our original plan, and we then switched to rely heavily on virtual versus in-person moments, which forced us to think outside of the box in terms of how we can best energize and excite our audience. A physical footprint is still integral to our brand experience, but in the meantime, we’re developing a virtual platform that ensures our visitors and fans receive the best gallery view from the comfort of their own homes.
Given the closures, we haven’t really seen NFTs exhibited physically. How does your current show respond to this, and what possibilities do you think exist on this front?
“Heat Wave” subverts the idea that art must exist in a given realm. By displaying NFTs alongside physical art that employs traditional techniques, we’re bridging the gap between physical and digital in a way that makes both art forms enjoyable simultaneously and in the context of each other. Art can feel elusive to those who aren’t immersed in the community—even more so with NFTs. “Heat Wave” acts as a tangible extension of the Room57 Gallery ethos, where we want people to feel empowered to discover, engage with, and experience art in a way that’s personal and democratic.
What excites you the most about the rise of NFTs?
NFTs have forced individuals to reckon with the question of what exactly art is, what defines “ownership” and “proprietary,” and who gets to be in on the secret. I’m most excited to see how the conversation evolves. As we’ve seen with digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, NFTs are here to stay, and they’re only going to gain value and recognition as time goes on.
How did you select the digital artists participating in “Heat Wave”?
The works were selected in collaboration with curator Elisabeth Johs, who is a partner of Art She Says, a digital luxury magazine for women in the art world. I trust her eye implicitly and am thrilled to count Matthew Stone, Pearlyn Lii, Osinachi, Santlov, and more among our digital artists.
Much discourse around NFTs involves the disruption of the physical art world, but you intend to see how the digital and the physical can instead enrich one another.
Digital art will continue to gain prominence, but one challenge is how to display it or make it digestible in a way that makes sense for people. That’s what I’m trying to do with “Heat Wave”—combine physical with digital in a way that puts them in conversation, and encourage discovery and inspiration for those who visit the gallery. As digital art makes its way into more and more gallery spaces, I hope Room57 Gallery serves as inspiration for how they can be integrated.
“Heat Wave” features work that blurs the lines between abstraction and figuration, bringing up questions of our own perception versus the artist’s intention. How does the show toy with this notion?
As a gallerist and curator, it’s important to come up with your own idea of a work, and what it means, before learning about the artist’s intentions. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone sees things in their own way—particularly with abstract art. I hope “Heat Wave” spurs conversation and thought among viewers. At the end of the day, everyone will have a different experience, and I’m happy about that.
Which works best embody this tension, and why?
Wild Wally by Rashid Johnson and Bill, Out East by Jason Bereswill. They’re two incredibly different styles of paintings that embody the tension between abstraction and figuration in disparate ways, but which complement each other in the context of the greater show.
What do you hope visitors will take away after having experienced the show?
I want everyone to leave with a sense of enlightenment, and a notion that they’ve felt something. But most of all, I would like them to leave with a desire to return!
What can we expect from Room57 after this exhibition wraps up?
I’m already working on the next exhibition. I aim to have one per quarter, and I’m excited to share that with Surface as soon as it’s ready.