“I wasn’t going to pick up,”Johnny Knapp, one of the members of Auto Body tells me over the phone, “but then I saw the 631 area code.” The collective’s in-house architect, Georgia Read, says more or less the same thing. The members of Auto Body and I are all Long Islanders in some way—sharing an area code that includes the village of Bellport, where the gallery-turned-curatorial collective has been shaking up Main Street for the last few years.
The group has already lived many lives since forming in 2014. Its namesake, a vacant, crumbling auto-mechanic building, became a labor of love between the eight friends, who along with Knapp and Read, include Tyler Healy, Aria McManus, Claire Read, Will Rose, Quinn Sherman and Charlie Stravinsky. Artists and creatives of all stripes, brought together by an earnest, enterprising spirit, had the gusto to realize a gallery that rivaled the scope of cavernous Chelsea spaces, to then lose their lease last year. It was a moment of introspection for Auto Body— tethered to the village they were subtly transforming, yet realizing their expansion might be inhibited by rent and available space.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Read admits, even for collaborators already deft in moving between the role of artist and curator, “but it helped us think outside the box. Instead of hanging a show in a white box gallery, we can put billboards up along Montauk Highway—something that reached a much wider audience.”
Read is referring to a clever project with the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill last summer, where Auto Body installed offsite pop-signage along a much traveled stretch of Long Island highway, featuring smart wordplay that guided viewers to secret spots and sites of natural beauty. This simple gesture with high impact is one example of what sets Auto Body apart.
When I spoke to members of Auto Body, they were in the thick of their late fall schedule, as usual, straddling their island and city communities. While putting the finishing touches on a show taking place at Brooklyn Public Library branch, featuring studio-mates Molly Lieberman and Kevin Evans, they are also planning their annual Fall Harvest benefit dinner in Bellport. “A work of art in itself,” Read calls the event, with Auto Body producing the entire affair, curating the produce, seafood, beer and flowers, which come from local farms, fisherman and breweries. Sculptor Marianne Vitale, who has shown with Auto Body in the past, acts as guest chef, part of a wave of artists intermingling their practice with the conviviality of food, from Susan Cianciolo’s Run Restaurant to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Thai food–infused gallery hangouts.
An ever-growing list of projects keep the Auto Body crew on their toes, including an 8 Ball Radio show, guest curation projects and even spreading the Auto Body brand via products that grace the shelves of sceney Dimes Deli in Chinatown. Still, Auto Body is itching for a new space—preferably back in Bellport. The village has become the tie that binds the collective, even as most members live and work in the city, or even further afield.
“It would be another chapter,” Knapp insists. “It wouldn’t be recreating what we did before, but challenging ourselves to come up with something new.”