Button Up: Amy Li’s Alternative Art Space

Art, Conversations
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P1180459He Zhen Snap Button Company began as a tiny store across from the Christopher Henry Gallery in 1986, the same year Amy Li was born. That was when Chinatown/LES was very quiet and comprised of primarily Chinese immigrants and Italians. Today, Amy Li has appropriated her parent’s storefront to show art. Stephanie Schroeder delves into the history of 166 Mott Street and talked to Li about her recent exhibition series.

Amy Li spent time at the button store when she wasn’t in school, taking music, art, or writing lessons. She majored in art history and studio art at Hunter College. Amy Li returned to graduate school in 2012 because she knew she wanted a career in art but felt unprepared.

When she came home to NYC in the summer of 2013 with a Master’s in art administration, Amy Li sought an event space for a short art exhibition. She soon stopped looking, realizing renting was economically only feasible for companies like Motorola and Duvel, which were renting out spaces for parties. Vacant storefronts weren’t usable for “pop-up” events either because they lacked working electricity and plumbing.

Amy Li decided to ask her dad for permission to use his storefront temporarily and he agreed. That’s how 166 Mott, a unique alternative art space – some have termed it “underground” – was born. Amy showed Alfredo Martinez in her first exhibition in September 2013. Planning to limit her energy to just that single show, and then surrender the storefront to her father, she still sought a full-time job. However, the artwork sold well and Amy decided to continue as a gallerist. Her group show “Without Consent” led to two works by artist Iara Celeste Diaz being chosen to show and auction at Beijing Poly. Amy Li Projects was on!

S2S: What’s your current exhibition?

Amy Li
Iara Celeste Diaz w self-portrait and Amy Li (right)

Amy Li: “A Quiet Summer” – It’s a series of exhibitions by artists and former participants of the 1999 experiment “Quiet: We Live In Public,” designated by ArtForum a Top 10 Art Installation and widely regarded as a prediction of the addictive and consuming social media world we live in today. The series will run June 5 – August 31, 2014.

S2S: You’re a millennial showing artists twice your age who also were part of the pre-Internet art world, how do you relate to that reality?

Amy Li: “Quiet” was obviously ahead of its time and I think it deserves more attention. I’m honored to work with these artists and to have the opportunity to host their work at my gallery.

S2S: The month-long, subversive party “Quite: We Live in Public” took place in December 1999. You were 13-years old at the time. Do you remember hearing about it then? When did it come to your attention, or into your consciousness as an adult?

Amy Li: No, all I remember from 13 was my braces and bellbottom jeans. The first time I heard about it was in September 2013 when I met Josh [Harris] through Alfredo Martinez.

S2S: How did you reach out to Donna Ferrato, Jeff Gompertz, Alfredo Martinez and Ondi Timoner to get them to participate and exhibit their work? Will they be at the opening? And, will Josh Harris attend the opening?

Amy Li: I met them through showing Alfredo Martinez when I showed him in my first show this past September. I think Josh will attend the June 5 opening in his own way, via video chat. Jeff Gompertz can’t attend because he is in Thailand and Ondi is involved with her film projects. Donna will be at her opening. (Reception June 5, 2014 from 7-9 p.m. at 166 Mott Street, New York, NY 10013).

Donna Ferrrato's invite for A Quiet Summer
Donna Ferrrato’s invite for A Quiet Summer

S2S: Can you tell us a little something about each artist and their work? And, what we can look forward to regarding the specific pieces you (or they) have chosen to exhibit this summer?

Amy Li: These artists are accomplished in what they do. Donna Ferrato is a photojournalist who works in Tribeca. She’s known for her photographs of domestic violence victims and of Tribeca post-9/11. Jeff Gompertz combines new technologies with art to create minimalistic installations. He has shown in the Whitney Biennial, ARCO in Spain and Ars Electronica in Austria. Alfredo Martinez is an old New York artist who knows almost everyone. He makes weapon collages. Donna will show the photographs she took of Quiet, which will be publicly shown for the first time. I’ll show some objects like part of the temple, uniforms, the gun replicas and Nancy Smith’s watercolors.

S2S: Where do YOU go to view artwork -– other than obvious places such as museums and other galleries?

Ami Li: Art fairs and studio visits. Lately I’ve been noticing remarkable installations and paintings on Instagram.

S2S: Is there a symbiosis between the button shop space and the gallery space? Thinking in ecosystem terms, do they support each other? Does one need the other?

Amy Li: I never thought about it that way. In terms of one needing the other, the artwork tends to attract fashion designers who are then surprised that they can also get their clothing or accessories (hats, belts, bags) completed here. I’ve been translating for my dad and explaining many things to designers that he has never been able to do before because he mainly speaks Chinese.

S2S: How far can you push it with the button shop? Meaning, is there a limit (size or content) as to what you can exhibit? Has the gallery been growing on your father as a positive thing?

Amy Li: It’s small and there are still shelves of buttons on top of the gallery walls. It’s not glamorous but it’s important that I’m not trying to make it something it’s not–it’s a candid, humble and unpretentious space. There are two small temples here so I can’t show nudity or anything else considered disrespectful to them.

My father sees it positively because I do help, for example, with the translating as mentioned before, so there are more English-speaking customers who are now comfortable with coming here.

S2S: Do you see using your space for live performances or other art forms in the future?

Amy Li: It’s not suitable for live performances. I had a film screening here in November that went well so I’ll do that again by showing unseen footage from Quiet in August.

S2S: Are you planning a show for the Fall… yet?

Amy Li: Yes, I even started planning for as far ahead as next May!

“A Quiet Sumer” at Amy Li Projects, 166 Mott Street, NYC. Gallery hours: Wednesday – Sunday 12 – 7 p.m.

June 5 – 18: Donna Ferrato

June 20 – July 3: Jeff Gompertz

July 6 – 19 Josh Harris

July 23 – August 10: The Quiet Shop (Nancy Smith, Matt and Mark Enger, Alfredo Martinez, more TBA)

August 13 – August 26: Alfredo Martinez

August 28: Ondi Timoner


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