All in the Mix: Joseph Borzotta and Palette Gallery
Joseph Borzotta brings his Hudson County-honed art sensibility down the shore.
A mix tape used to be a cassette compilation of favorite songs by different musical acts. Enter the all-new “MixTape”: an ongoing collaborative project for visual artists. It was dreamed up by Joseph Borzotta, longtime Hudson County-based artist and now owner of the Palette Gallery/ArtsSpace in Asbury Park.
Borzotta was inspired to start the MixTape series when he discovered stacks of forgotten paintings in his Hoboken studio. What to do with them? “It’s an old problem for artists. We either give them away, throw them out, or paint over them,” he says. Borzotta chose a twist on option 3: “I started to think about how to repurpose them.” The concept he landed on was to work with two other artists, painting over each others’ old or unsold pieces—with no rules or direction—to create something new. “It’s a form of reincarnation,” says Borzotta.
For the first installment, Borzotta teamed up with Jersey City’s Robert Piersanti and Freehold’s Kortez Robinson to cover a playful set of canvases mixing their pop, graffiti, and “wild-card” art styles. The three artists took turns working on nine pieces, which were then shown at The Dopeness in Jersey City September 2014. At the time, Borzotta was waiting on the final inspection of his new gallery, Palette, which opened the same month.
SOME DRINKS, SOME ART
Back in the ’80s, Borzotta graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in graphic art, he came to New York City for an additional year in painting at the School of Visual Arts. Borzotta was working as a bartender but couldn’t afford a studio in Manhattan. He’d heard about an emerging art population in Hoboken, and moved there in 1989. Borzotta helped found the Hoboken Creative Alliance, which soon swelled to more than 250 members. “The timing was right for a thing like that,” he recalls. “We would meet at the Shannon [bar] and we created a directory of local artists. It was all about interaction—economically, artistically and socially.”
Combining art and bars was not a new concept for Borzotta; his still lifes of cocktails, inspired by his bartending days, have been displayed in New York City and Vegas watering holes. Borzotta realized he could take the idea a step further. “I was thinking of having a place that was a bar with a gallery,” he said. So in 1997, Borzotta opened the Liquid Lounge and Liquid Gallery in Hoboken, which became a showcase spot for dynamic art. In 2001, Borzotta shut down operations to focus on his own art and also to save up to try a similar concept in the East Village. At last, in 2004, he opened 12 Inch Bar on Essex Street, just off Houston. The establishment featured a fun, kitschy decor, and DJs five nights a week. “I wish more artists did that — mix in art as an aspect of a bar,” Borzotta states. “Live music, poetry, and other arts.”
FROM JC TO AP
Jersey City today very much embodies Borzotta’s vision, with many bars and restaurants incorporating art galleries, comedy nights, bands, and more. (The Citizen, Lincoln Inn, LITM, Lucky 7’s, Park Tavern, Trolley Car Bar, etc.) Throw in spaces such as Indiegrove and Barrow Mansion with visual and performing arts, JC Fridays and the annual Artists’ Studio Tour, and Borzotta definitely likes what he sees.
“I started MixTape in Jersey City because it’s the place where this type of art belongs,” he says. Borzotta praises the artistic community for supporting each other instead of being about competition, and for having an open dialogue with both small and big businesses. He used a similar style to begin his art curation career in the mid ’90s, presaging today’s popular “pop-up” galleries. “I would hang work monthly in three businesses that had big empty window space in Hoboken,” Borzotta remembers. “I called the spaces the LOOK Gallery.”
So a natural move for Borzotta was opening a space in Asbury Park, the Palette gallery, on the Cookman Avenue’s “art block.” Palette features contemporary paintings, prints, and collectables. “Collectors are starting to come to Asbury to get artwork. They’re always looking for places where there’s a hotbed of galleries and/or young artists,” Borzotta explains. “The art scenes of Asbury and Hudson County are similar, not only in that they are hubs of creativity, but that their roots are humble. When I moved to Hoboken, it was still pretty rough and it just started to begin.”
THE BUSINESS OF ART
As an artist, Borzotta is primarily a painter—drawing his deepest inspiration from a mix of Raphael’s Renaissance works and comic books—but he also produces mixed-media works. “I do everything from cartoony to abstract,” he says. “Currently, I’m working on faces, where there are hidden messages in the hair.”
It’s just the latest of Borzotta’s many art series, including: babydolls with painted tattoos, repurposed old signs, “cheap novels” (acrylic on canvas with painted phrases from actual books alongside cartoon images), “celebrity zombies” (acrylic on paper portraits of famous faces including Bill Murray and Howard Stern), and graphite drawings of sexual acts with the genitalia eliminated. Borzotta is fascinated with his subjects, explaining they’re “a visual exploration into existentialism—analyzing existence and the freedom, responsibility, and isolation of the individual. Are they in environments that they created, or are forced to live in?”
Being an artist and being a gallery owner are not one and the same. Creating artwork may have come naturally, but earning a living took some practice. “Most art schools haven’t taught the basics of business. I came from a commercial art background of graphic design and illustration, and I applied a lot of what I learned in the field to my fine art practice,” Borzotta states. “The conundrum for artists is this: You need time and space to develop your art, but you also need to pay the bills. And if you have a large live/work space or rent a studio, that means even more overhead and less time to make art. The drawback to running a space is the enormous time it takes day to day and the overhead.”
He has found a similar situation as gallery owner. “Most galleries don’t, or barely survive, unless you have a trust fund or a large group of collectors. Galleries prosper with collectors, not walk-ins. I’ve always combined a gallery with a steady source of income like a bar or merchandise,” Borzotta explains. “Most galleries take 50% [of artists’ sales]. I take 40%, but I can understand how galleries need to take 50. I own the space in Asbury, so at least I’m building equity during slow months.”
There was a delay to the gallery opening, as Borzotta dealt with some health issues and also returned to his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, to raise his newborn baby. As a result, Palette has been a slower expansion than his previous projects. “Everything in life has its pros and cons,” he says. “I miss the convenience of city life and proximity to New York and my studio. But now I have a driveway, a yard, and breathing room only 10 miles away.”
THE PAST REPEATS?
Being a business owner in Asbury may have slowed Borzotta down in production, but it hasn’t stopped him from creating. He loves the challenge. And he’s not selfish about the space. “I love art, so having the ability to create shows and show people whose work I admire is a joy,” he says. The three original MixTape artists came together again for a second series, “Composition 2,” which was on display at Pallette in January and February of 2015.
He does have one concern about Asbury, however. “The growth of Asbury Park parallels Hoboken to an astounding degree; it’s déjà vu,” Borzotta says. “The rise of successful bars parallels Hoboken, and along with that is going to come the same problems, and I wish the city anticipated them. When downtown Asbury becomes Party Central and the residents freak out—as they did in Hoboken—it’s going to become a huge clash of money versus lifestyle.”
But there’s always a silver lining: He hopes that the increased foot traffic will result in more art sales.
Borzotta still has a studio in Hoboken, because he enjoys the proximity to New York City. “That energy carries across the river,” he says. “It makes people up their game.”
Having the two physical spaces also allows him to keep collaborating and curating with Hudson County artists. For “Album Cover Redux” — at Palette in March and April of 2015— 17 artists were invited to create new art (via paint, collage, or drawing) on the record cover of their choice. Jersey City artists Kayt Hester, Norm Kirby, and Robert Piersanti were among the participants. A percentage of the sales from this exhibit were donated to Covenant House.
“I like the freedom to cross-pollinate,” Borzotta says. Across cities and across the arts, there are no boundaries.
The current exhibit “Mixtape: Exquisite Corpse on Steroids” featuring Jerry Khan, Norm Kirby, Robert Piersanti, Porkchop, Rascal, Kortez Robinson, and John T. Ruddy will be on display through July 31, 2016. The Palette Gallery/ArtsSpace is located at 716 Cookman Avenue, 201.981.2395. For more information, visit palettegallery.net and for more information on Joseph Borzotta’s art, visit josephborzotta.com. This article originally appeared in the 2015 Fall issue of JCI Magazine..
Top photo: Joseph Borzotta at the Palette Gallery. All photos by Beth Achenbach. Jack Silbert contributed to this article.