Atlantic Cities

The Mysterious Paintings Popping Up in Doorways All Over New York, Explained

The Mysterious Paintings Popping Up in Doorways All Over New York, Explained
Dan Glass

It's kind of a  joke that New Yorkers, even with so much to look up at, never look up. Like urbanites everywhere, they can assume that in their neighborhoods, they've either seen it, or they don't need to. A collective called the Free Art Society knows this, and for the next two months will be turning the East Village into a puzzle of art and exploration.

The 13 Portals project is a story that unfolds in the form of mural "doorways" appearing throughout the neighborhood each weekend from July through October, each with a QR code that leads to a riddle, clue, or mini-adventure to complete in order to "pass through" to the next portal. Participants receive email messages as the scheme progresses, and are in pursuit of one of 64 keys that provide entry to an experience that will resolve the whole mysterious allegory. What could await those who make it through the last portal? A puppet show? Pagan tea party? A gallery opening with wine and prints for sale? Considering that one Free Art Society event concluded at the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, with 30 people in a steel chamber worthy of a superhero's (or super villain's) lair, it will probably be otherwise.

Galleries aren't really their venue in any case. Founder Nicolina Johnson, 31, has always put her work in the public realm, painting murals on funiculars in Chile and mototaxis in India, as well as orchestrating events like guerrilla Mad Hatter Tea Parties in public parks or an "art explosion" of installations along a two-block stretch at 5 a.m. as a surprise for emerging commuters. And this past winter she wrapped up Flutuarte, her most ambitious collaboration to date, which attracted over 60 artists from around the world to paint the rooftops of 58 fishing boats in the Quadrado da Urca, an historic harbor in Rio de Janeiro. Hers is a wholesome brand of subversion, fitting for her role as resident artist of the Lower East Side Girls Club. Ms. Johnson, known professionally as Nicolina, cites the international collective's mission, which is simple in concept but often complex in action — "to explore the degree to which art in public places can affect the community that owns it."


Artists at work on Flututarte project in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Dan Glass

The Flutuarte project also brought into her realm Perola Bonfanti, with whom she's co-creating the 13 Portals. Bonfanti went to meet the artists, and while exploring the Guanabara Bay by boat later that day, their mutual excitement at the discovery of an abandoned fort set the friendship in motion. Bonfanti joined the Flutuarte crew, and not long afterward came to New York for an extended visit.

Sharing a fascination both with doorways - "frames always tend to stick out," says Nicolina, "they just look like something should be painted in there," - and spiritual symbolism, their idea for magical doorways became a series of portals, which then became an interactive story. Each is an original painting on heavy paper, with the ornate, tarot-like images mounted before dawn on reveal day.

Bonfanti didn't expect the community environment she found in the East Village. "People say good morning to you in the street and look you in the eye, and are curious about you, and share with you — people randomly in the streets," she says. "I was so happy to see that, and wanted to be a part of it, and contribute to it."

Seattle transplant Nicolina has lived in the East Village for over ten years. Though it's no longer the artist haven she'd heard about when she arrived, "what's still great about the East Village," she says, "is that you can walk down the street looking like whatever, doing whatever, and it's fine, no matter how out there you are. They're so used to expression."


Portal number one (left); Third portal, across from former squat. (Right) Photos by Dan Glass

For the unveiling of portal number two , a small parade of people wearing all black (participants who'd been invited via email) converged with a group dressed in white. Asked by an onlooker where they were going, one participant said, "I don't know - to a mass suicide?" All ages, colors, and styles of people stopped to take photos, swooped in for a quick dance to the drums and bells, or tooted bike horns as they smiled by. A clutch of half-drunk bros tagged along, half-heartedly poking fun. The parade swelled and ended with a rooftop party at an old church turned community center.


The unveiling party at Portal Two. Photo by Dan Glass

Each painting is about three week's work, says Nicolina, so it stung when one was torn down, presumably by a landlord, though she says they did their best to get permission for locations that weren't abandoned. They took the risk if the space looked unattended to. The paintings tell a story rooted in research of numberology, ancient history, and science, according to Bonfanti, who served as an assistant professor at Rio's esteemed Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage. But they are also just to put some beautify out where it's needed, added Nicolina - among regular people in their everyday lives. This is the core motivation behind the Free Art Society -- to free it from institutions, from economic barriers, and in the end, from people's own minds. Asked about the potential actual effects of these projects, she says, "Hopefully this opens other people up to be more expressive themselves. Creative expression is contagious.  

Of course, whenever you make an aesthetic change to a public space, there will be detractors. Images stenciled along a stretch of sidewalk as part of another FAS event in 2010 were power-washed off at the behest of a church across the street that thought the images -- weird clowns, abstract flowers, a Guy Fawkes mask -- were satanic. And a scavenger hunt preceding the Fourth Portal Unveiling at a preciously tended community garden was truncated due to sour vibes from a Garden Board member, who said she was "freaked out a bit" and didn't care for their artistic execution.

Critiques aside, however, conversation drifting around the event indicated new introductions, coincidental connections, and other small bonds being formed. In the case of Flutearte, this kind of interaction may have even saved unique community.

Some in the affluent neighborhood of Urca were looking to oust the fishermen and their ailing boats, says Maxine Nienow, a commercial and fine art photographer who co-lead the project. But then celestial seahorses and stained glass bees appeared on the rooftops, and all these colorful canvases bobbing in the arena-sized frame of white stone around the harbor became an image worth keeping.


A view of the Flutufesta from a helicopter. Tours have a new stop on the itinerary. (Courtesy Nicolina Johnson)

A nearby school even asked if children could paint one of the boats. The harbor became a minor tourist attraction, and the first captain to agree to the project, Joao Silva, says that the fishing had weakened, but he now makes half of this income taking tourists to the many nearby islands. "It was exciting to think that I had the ability to use art to join a community or help transform it," says Nienow. "I want to do it again. Everything I do, I want it to have all those qualities."

Gentrification seems a tired subject lately, even to cynics. There aren't many supporters of neglected spaces or the trash, urine, and graffiti tags they can collect. But those untended spaces are also frames begging to be filled, and so there is more expression in poorer neighborhoods. And people like expression -- which is why some of these areas become popular places to visit, and eventually, to live. Walls are either then kept blank, or rented to advertisers who use street-inspired graphic design or hand-painted billboards to play off the creative legacy while appealing to a new upmarket demographic. It's an attempt to fit in, but touches no one in any real way. Who wants to go to a party where everyone makes small talk only so they can hand you a business card?

There was a young man in shiny shoes and unbuttoned dress shirt having his photograph taken in front of Portal Zero on Third Street recently. The photographer liked the contrast between the totemic, street-style imagery and the dress clothes being modeled. He lives in New Jersey, but comes into the city to shoot in neighborhoods like this. Growing up in the 1980's, he says he remembers when graffiti had more rebellion behind the expression, but that there used to be much more of it. It's hard to tell if this scene was symbolic of something either positive or negative.  It probably depends on how cynical one is.

Dan Glass is a freelance writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired.com, American Public Media, and the Los Angeles Times. All posts »

Join the Discussion