Brittany Natale used to call her dad “Jekyll and Hyde.” “He’d go on a drug binge, come home, do the craziest stuff,” she says. “Lock my mom in the closet, or beat her.” A “bad Long Island City kid,” as she puts it, growing up he bounced from job to job, all of them in New York City — his penchant for the town being the lone taste his daughter would come to share.
This month, the 26-year-old curator and Queens native funnels her lived experience through “The Darkest Side of Paradise: Navigating the Modern-Day Drug Culture,” a collection of visual art on view through mid-April at the Wayfarers gallery in Bushwick. Work by young coastal artists such as Juliana Paciulli and Matt Starr joins with that of more established New Yorkers, like the Long Island City–based Priscila De Carvalho, whose graphic canvases can be found around the city. The show is characteristic of Natale’s curatorial style, inspired by her personal life but broadened to speak to larger concerns. One of the points of particular interest here: opioid addiction in the heartland, a theme also leveraged by Donald Trump on the campaign trail as a sign of lost American greatness.
Natale is a curiosity, a “good girl” in a sea of conflicted ones, says Bianca Valle, the alt-model-slash-photographer whose naturalistic portraits were part of “Mood Ring,” Natale’s previous Wayfarers exhibition, which ran in the fall of 2016. Natale’s shows tend to feature young women, often fellow New Yorkers, but they aren’t, according to Valle, the “usual culprits” — those “certain girls who have their moment, and they’re involved with several things, and people hear their name quite often.” Good girls, Valle says, work for love, not fame, an impulse she sees as a rarity in a “young female art world” polarized toward the limelight. “What’s beautiful about Brittany is she puts these shows on without incentives. She doesn’t care if ten people come or a thousand people come.”
Wayfarers is an enigmatic part of the Bushwick art scene, partly by design. Its sign’s font and style mimic that of a tire shop down the street, a symbol of a hope to blend in, though the gallery’s very presence suggests change. Natale embodies this split desire, at once “savvy and informed about the art world and contemporary developments, but [with] a populist approach,” says George Ferrandi, Wayfarers’ owner. Since joining the gallery last year — she answered an ad posted online, and curates for free; she makes her living in marketing — Natale has attracted record numbers and press with buzzy shows like “Teen Dream” and “Weekend With Bernie,” the latter a fundraiser she co-curated for the would-be Democratic presidential nominee that brought in hundreds of visitors. Echoing Valle, the Wayfarers proprietor also credits a certain abstemiousness for Natale’s feats: She doesn’t drink or smoke, for one. “She’s really good, and she has no social life,” said Ferrandi, jokingly.
Instagram, it would seem, suffices for letting the id out, and Natale is at ease on hers: flashing a peace sign at a show’s opening night, exiting a homeless shelter following a volunteer shift, protesting at Trump Tower. In person, she’s more vulnerable, almost jittery. She apologized repeatedly for talking too much about a life Horatio Alger might have rubbed his hands at: hours spent lost in watercolor projects and Mazzy Star songs on the floor of her mom’s old bedroom, dreaming of an adult life in the borough over the bridge, whose skyline a friend had drawn on her wall. She’d been shuttled to her grandma’s home in Queens after a series of domestic dramas: Her parents split and her mom moved to Pennsylvania, leaving Natale, by then old enough to choose who to stay with, to opt for her drug-addled dad — though really she chose New York City. “He’ll never leave,” she says now, matter-of-factly. When her dad’s neighbor called her grandmother, worried that he’d started pimping girls out of his apartment, Natale found herself in the informal custody of her gran, who couldn’t drive or attend to her in the way she needed.
The phrase “straddling two worlds” came up, too perfect not to invoke. World one: Manhattan at its finest, where a great-aunt Natale adores and still visits lives in walking distance of the Met. Her mom’s side is full of artists, all women, their careers stunted by marriage and professional hurdles. One aunt worked for Christian Dior. Another played piano at Carnegie Hall. Her mom went to Parsons, and her grandmother painted watercolors. When it was time for college, her mom warned against art school — too cutthroat — so she went to Marymount College. Eventually she transferred, to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied marketing. The goal was only to get back to the city. FIT is a state school; it won based on cheapness.
Today she manages her mental health through talk therapy, nutrition, and spirituality. Panic is always with her, a semi-controlled companion, most often creeping in while she’s on the train, which represents confinement as much as escape. Her dad worked for the MTA — he still does — and she killed many a teenage night at a train depot in Queens while he cleaned cars. She had her first panic attack in high school, at fifteen: She left health class to splash water on her face. “I couldn’t breathe. Nothing felt right,” she told me. “I went to the nurse’s office and just lay on the floor, telling her, ‘I’m dying, you have to call 911.’ ”
Internal strife makes for rich art. Panic, or addiction, or sadness — all so hard to explain in words, or to understand unless you’ve been there yourself. Off the canvas, they split victim from viewer. They isolate, trick. A panicking person looks fine but is not: is dying, or dead, losing breath, thinking the thoughts. That classic feminine sin, of being dramatic, gets thrown around. A panicking person might even accuse herself of it. (And she is likely a woman — a recent study out of Cambridge University suggests that women are twice as prone to anxiety.)
After that memorable first bout of panic — she thought it was a heart attack — Natale realized her physical pain came from an emotional source. “Everything wasn’t working anymore. I remember sitting on the nurse’s office floor and having that realization, like, ‘OK, my mom’s not around anymore. My dad’s not around. I live with my grandmother and she doesn’t drive, so she can’t pick me up from school.’ I don’t even think she had a car. All those experiences and emotions that I didn’t process eight months earlier, that’s when I processed them.” Her openness almost seems like an affect, a part of the art. She tells me it is, in a sense. She wants to take down what she calls “the ‘I’m fine’ culture”: Even as we self-destruct in interesting and tragic and novel ways, we like to say we’re fine. “Everyone is totally cool 100 percent of the time,” she laughs, when “the real answer is, ‘I am getting my period, and I just had a panic attack on the M train.’ ”
‘The Darkest Side of Paradise: Navigating the Modern-Day Drug Culture’
1109 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn
On view Sundays, 1–5 p.m.
Through April 16