By Jordan Davidson
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Basements are rarely works of art, but some of Northern Manhattan's subterrarean living spaces will take center stage at a Chelsea gallery later this week.
Basement Sanctuaries, a photo showcase created by Inwood artist Gesche Würfel, 36, aims to shed light on the personalities of the supers who work in Washington Heights and Inwood through images of the underground spaces they take time to lovingly decorate.
The idea for the collection struck Würfel while apartment hunting in Inwood in the spring of 2010 when her husband insisted on seeing the basement of every building they visited.
“He was looking for cleanliness and roaches,” she said. “I noticed the amazing decorations.”
Keri Oldham, 31, co-owner of Field Projects in Chelsea where the show will open Thursday, said Würfel's vision for the project was unique.
“The basement is a common space everyone uses," she said. "We don’t think of it that way, but supers live there and they do.”
Sam Barzilay, 33, of United Photo Industries, curated the show.
“I immediately knew there was something special about the work,” he wrote in an e-mail from China, where he is taking part in the International Photographic Festival of Shanghai. “Funny and poignant, these photographs evoke a genuine sense of intimacy.”
As a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. in 2009, Würfel said she immediately recognized the way supers use decorations to connect the space with their homeland.
“Many supers uptown are from Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said. “How do you connect a basement with no natural light to a tropical environment? It’s very interesting.”
The photographs show plants thriving under fluorescent lights, bucolic paintings, and beach imagery. Others focus on brightly lit furniture or rugs. One shows a life-sized porcelain dog nestled between hanging ivy and fake flowers.
Barzilay said analyzing what the objects featured in the photographs reveal about the supers attracted him to the work.
“The images that comprise this show serve as portraits of the ‘supers’ as individuals with cultural roots and deeply-held beliefs,” he wrote. “This is a story told in details.”
A favorite piece of decoration donated by the workmen will accompany each photograph at the exhibit.
Würfel has invited the men whose decorations are featured in the photographs to participate in an artist talk at the gallery on Saturday, which will be moderated by Diana Caba, 29, former program director of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA).
“It’s exciting to go downtown to show off uptown,” Caba said.
NoMAA awarded Würfel with an Individual Artist grant in 2011 to initiate Basement Sanctuaries and a creative grant this year for a book publication based on the project, which Caba called "original."
“We liked that the project focused on immigrants and how they transform a space to make it comfortable for themselves and for the people in their buildings,” she said.
Würfel faced several challenges creating Basement Sanctuaries. Unable to speak the first language of many of the supers she contacted, she struggled to explain her project and found miscommunications led her to wait around building fronts for supers who never showed.
Dim basement lighting presented another problem, as she insisted on using only the light available in the basement.
“It’s important to show conditions as they are,” she said. “Some basements are very dark and had little daylight to no daylight. It’s sad because daylight makes a difference in your quality of life.”
Würfel works with film cameras instead of digital, which makes the process slow and expensive.
“It’s a slow way of working,” she said. “But the quality is much better, so it’s worth it.”
For Augustine Gomez, 67, a Mexican superintendent whose basement in the rental building at 181 Street and Pinehurst Avenue will be featured, the medium didn’t matter.
“I’m glad to get some recognition,” he said. “I work hard to keep the building nice. Everybody comes down here, so I keep it nice. It’s better to see pictures than a naked wall.”
Basement Sanctuaries opens Thursday, Oct. 25 and runs through Saturday, Oct. 27. at Field Projects at
526 W. 26th St., 807. For more information about gallery hours, visit www.fieldprojectsgallery.com or email