In Discussion With: Amanda Bhalla Wilkes
In many ways, Amanda Bhalla Wilkes is precisely what you would expect from someone who works in the art world. She's poised, eloquent, sophisticated, soft-spoken, subtly reserved, and for lack of better words: extremely chic. On the other hand, she's not necessarily what you'd expect from an art world persona because she also happens to be remarkably warm, welcoming, and nothing akin to the figures portrayed in pop culture (AKA Velvet Buzzsaw).
We meet up with her on a Monday morning in Chelsea where she is the director at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. It's closed to the public when we arrive, but the exhibition makes the space feel distinctively open and energetic. The current show is with José Parlá and hung from wall to wall are his large-scale colorful paintings that almost take your breath away even before stepping up for a closer look. Wilkes is wearing a black blazer over a crisp white blouse, her 3x1 jeans, and a pair of Maryam Nassir Zadeh's sand-colored wedges. Her petite stature mirrors her gentle voice (she has a British accent), and it becomes quickly clear why she's successfully been in her line of work as long as she has been.
"I grew up in England, and my parents are Indian, so they traveled around a lot. I was in boarding school most of my life, but I came here to NYU to study art history and psychology," she tells us. Her first interaction with the industry was an Indian art course a friend convinced Wilkes to take with her. "It was really through that class that I got interested in the art history side; it wasn't something from my childhood. I wish I could say I was a talented painter or even a not-talented painter [laughs]."
From there, Wilkes went on to work at famed auction house Christie's where she dove head first into a range of disciplines. "Whether it was contemporary art or printmaking or 19th-century paintings or antiquities, these people are all specialized in their fields, so it was a great place to learn about all the different areas of expertise." She eventually settled into contemporary art, and that's where she met Bryce Wolkowitz, who was then working in the photography department. "When he left to open his gallery, I followed him quite shortly after and he took me on."
At that time, they were working in the realm of new media. "It's basically artists using new technologies," she explains. "For example, we had an artist named Jim Campbell (who we still represent) who was working with LEDs. He builds these motherboards that run a film that plays through LEDs. So new media is all more experimental like that."
Once Wolkowitz and Wilkes had the opportunity to move into the current gallery space, they took it, and through expanding the program, they also began to take on painters and sculptors, all the while still working with their new media artists and photographers. The process of putting together a show at a gallery is, as one might expect: a bit complex. "It starts with first identifying the artist," Wilkes begins when we ask her to dissect her role. "Usually it takes a couple of years when you're introducing an artist to the gallery. First, you might want to do a group show with them, and then you would maybe take their work to art fairs and then decide to come up with an idea for a solo show."
For example, Wilkes first met José Parlá ten years ago. She was in Paris with her now-husband at an art fair and after meeting Parlá and being drawn to his work, returned to Wolkowitz to discuss her curating a group show with him and Young Kim aka Suitman. Parlá has now had four solo shows at the gallery. "It's all come full circle!"
On the less glamorous side of Wilkes job, there's the administrative component. “There's shipping, invoicing, and a lot of paperwork," Wilkes laughs. “Strangely, I love these organizational tasks. I love really mundane things because it's almost meditative. I love Excel!"
Of course, there's a great deal more to be done in addition to identifying artists and filling out spreadsheets. The aforementioned art fairs are a huge part of the business. "We do Untitled in Miami, we do The Armory in New York, and then AIPAD, which is the photography fair. My colleague and Bryce are also going to London for Photo London," she says. "It changes because we like to do different fairs each year. It's always evolving, so you have to stay on top of those shifts. It's worth it because you're exposing your artists to a whole other audience." Despite Bryce Wolkowitz gallery being situated on 24th street in the middle of New York, the need to travel and meet new colleagues in the industry is crucial to the business.
With fairs, openings, installations, meetings with collectors, and the ilk there is — as you'd expect — ample opportunity to reflect on the rewarding aspects of a gallerists' career. For Wilkes, it's her relationship with the artists. "Seeing them develop and change and grow in their own ways is great. Because I've been doing this for a long time I've seen the trajectory a little bit more," she explains. "I mean, it's just not that easy being an artist. They're tremendously inspiring and so hardworking; it's such a difficult area to be recognized and successful in."
When we ask Wilkes for a few artists, she currently has her eye on; she grins because when you're a gallerist, you have your eye on so many people and pieces of art. Nonetheless, she indulges us. "I just went to the African art fair and saw some great work. There's this guy Kyle Meyer who takes photographic portraits of the LGBT community and weaves them with fabrics from eSwatini (formally Swaziland). Those struck me. At Frieze, I saw these Mandala paintings by Lisa Alvarado that were so beautiful as well. I love a lot of these crafty works that I'm seeing now. I also love the figurative paintings of Maryam Hoseini, and sculptural installations of Diana al-Hadid whose work is magnificent.“
Wilkes also mentions she is seeing a rise in socio-political art, with work that's reflecting the current state of affairs. "It can make art more interesting," she says with regards to this movement. "I think that right now, people are not afraid to say what they believe. And they want to. And they feel like they need to. They're engaging in the political world and supporting diversity. You can't get away from it, and that's a good thing."
The gallery's current show with Parlá titled "Anonymous Vernacular" hits on some of these motifs. In addition to his paintings, he created a sculpture of reworked found objects that sits at the entrance to the space. "The shopping carts belonged to a homeless couple in the Gowanus neighborhood where his studio is," she says. "When they abandoned the carts, he took them and created a sculpture with found objects around the area. He wanted to make a statement about the homeless population in his neighborhood that they are part of the fabric of the community."
The show opened at the gallery in late April and was met with a positive reception. These types of events — exhibition openings — are where fashion and art tend to come to a head, she explains. “I like to experiment with fashion, and there are times you can do that in the art world; we have parties and openings and stuff like that when we can go crazy.” Wilkes nods to Simone Rocha, Batsheva, Wendy Nichol, and a few other lesser-known labels like Hatch and Karu as current designer favorites. “I do love to dress up, but I think I used to be a lot more fashionable,” she quips. Wilkes, in addition to her career, is also a wife and mother, which she joked makes it difficult for her “to get it together” when it comes to dressing (we disagree entirely, for the record).
Her everyday style is, as she describes, prescriptive. "It really all comes down to a uniform," she says. "In general I would say it's my black 3x1 jeans, some sort of bootie situation or a low heel, and a blazer and a blouse. Every day. It's professional and easy and comfortable."
In other words, Wilkes is an archetypal New Yorker: She wears a lot of black, cycles to work most days, is sad that the original Souen closed, and is still enamored with walking around the West Village during the spring. When she’s not at the gallery, she’s with her husband and 7-year-old daughter named India who is “a draftswoman; she's very good at drawing,” Wilkes adds. “She gets that from my husband.”
We close our interview with Wilkes asking the same question we ask all participants in our journal series, which is: What does "Made Here" mean to you? (For us, it’s a reference to making jeans here in our Soho atelier. But, in a larger context, Made Here is also a reference to making things here in the USA, in our home - the sense of pride we have in what we do, how we do it, and where we do it.)
"Well, I was born in Hong Kong so technically I'm made in China," she laughs. “But my family, my group of friends, and my career has all really been made here, so that notion means everything to me."
The José Parlá exhibition is on display through July 26th.
Words by Nicole Kliest @nickliest
Photos by Elena Mudd @elenam