Brendan Dugan knows that it sounds a little complicated. He designs artist books, he has a bookstore, and he has a gallery, too.
In the 2000s, the New York-based graphic designer, operating under the name An Art Service, began collaborating with artists in designing posters and books and assisting with production and publishing. As An Art Service developed, Dugan wanted a place where he could showcase the projects he worked on. Since he already had a studio in an old storefront space, it easily became the location he was after.
Now, along with the bookstore, Dugan operates two gallery spaces, and it all comes under the umbrella of Karma. The name, in fact, came about quite by accident.
The Birth of Karma
It turns out that the word “karma” was painted on a sign as a gold-leaf version of a text painting by a friend of Dugan, and the sign was put in a window when the bookstore was originally under construction. Dugan actually liked the ambiguity surrounding the term – was it a nightclub, yoga studio, bookstore, headshop or something else? The moniker stuck, and he came to see in it a connection between the idea of “karma” and the old and rare books featured at the establishment; it’s like history repeating itself, something that comes back from the past to affect the present.
This all happened in New York’s West Village, but Dugan eventually moved Karma to the East Village, taking over the hallowed space that St. Mark’s Bookshop had occupied until 2016. Karma thus found a place in an eclectic area where old-school bars, music venues and performance spaces share the real estate with upscale cocktail lounges and trendy restaurants. At the epicenter of postwar American bohemian counterculture, the East Village was the gathering place for musicians, writers, poets, actors and artists, and it provided fertile soil for new, ant-establishment ideas and movements to be born. Luminaries like Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker and Andy Warhol felt right at home in the East Village. Pink Floyd, Madonna, Blondie and the Velvet Underground found an audience there before anyone knew who they were; it’s said to be the birthplace of punk rock, hip hop, anti-folk and other musical genres. To live in the East Village meant to be at the forefront of everything new and unorthodox. It meant breaking free from humdrum mainstream society and having the possibility of making one’s own unique mark on the world.
The neighborhood has hardly lost its bohemian character, as the streets are populated with galleries, theaters, tattoo shops, museums, quaint restaurants, cozy cafés and trendy shops and boutiques. All of this makes it a perfect place for Karma’s gallery spaces, which are located at neighboring properties on E 2nd Street, and the bookstore is a block away on E 3rd.
The Evolution of Karma
Founded in 2011, Karma at first was dedicated to project-based exhibitions and presentations. However, Dugan’s artist friends began showing their work at the location, and he suddenly and unexpectedly found himself becoming an art dealer. One month it might be an established and well-known artist like Laura Owens, the next it might be a couple of assistants from a neighborhood studio. Karma became a good place for artists to display experimental work that they normally wouldn’t exhibit at their own studios.
These changes led Dugan, starting in about 2015, to shift his focus from project-based exhibitions to more formal artist representation. Today, Karma handles work in various media, including drawing, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture and video. Eight to ten exhibitions are held each year, and Karma-published monographs and artist books are offered in conjunction with many of them. The art on exhibition is a mixture of works by young, established, and emerging artists as well as artists’ estates. Karma is continually working to expand its formal roster.
More than Just a Gallery
Dugan’s enclave, in fact, expands beyond the boundaries of books and art. It’s a neighborhood hang-out of sorts, a research library, and a space for organizing. In November 2018 – the month for mid-term elections, to provide some context – Dugan, along with eight other New York-based galleries and studios, teamed up with the politically centered organizations Downtown for Democracy and Swing Left to help the Democratic candidate from the 11th Congressional District gain a victory. On election day, Dugan chartered a Greyhound bus that took about 60 artists and art professionals from his gallery to Staten Island, where, in the space of three hours, they knocked on more than 1,000 doors, urging people to get out and vote.
Past exhibitions at Karma have highlighted work by dozens of artists including Mark Flood, Ann Craven, Woody De Othello, Marley Freeman, Paul Lee, Urs Fischer, Ida Applebroog, Jonathan Berger, Rebecca Kolsrud, and many more.
Included in these exhibitions at Karma was Blue, a solo show that featured works of artist Matthew Wong. His nocturnal landscapes and interiors utilize the full spectrum of the blue palette, and visitors to Karma were drawn in and mesmerized by his compositions as well as the spatial and psychological complexity of his work. Wong and Dugan worked together closely to put the exhibition together, even carefully planning the sequencing of works throughout the gallery. Sadly, Wong passed away just one month before the scheduled opening, but the exhibition went on as planned in November 2019.
Another exhibition in 2019 at Karma featured nearly 70 works from American surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie. The gallery was absolutely filled with her stunning work; it covered most of her career, from 1934, just two years after she began to paint, to 1971, when she had to curtail her activity because of failing health. It was the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in New York City since 1952. As it often does, Karma produced a large book that contained additional Abercrombie works as well as essays discussing her background, life and the influences that led her to become an artist.
Karma’s growing roster is impressive, with such artists as Louise Fishman, Mathew Cerletty, Jean Conner, Robert Grosvenor, Paul Lee, Thaddeus Mosley, Maja Ruznic, Kathleen Ryan and Mungo Thomson joining the Karma coterie. In conjunction with the gallery, Sotheby’s Home offers pieces by many of these artists as well as Alex Da Corte, Dike Blair, Henni Alftan, Paul Mogenson and Will Boone.