Curated Chaos: A Retrospective on 17 Frost Gallery

Written by Michael Lodato

“I never say no.” That’s Javier’s mantra as a co-founder and creative director of 17 Frost Gallery in Williamsburg. For fifteen years, 17 Frost was an engine for artistic collaboration. From the early days, Javier had an instinct to invite teenagers tagging the street inside the gallery. Over time, he gave countless artists the chance to exhibit their work. “You want to do a show?,” he would say, “Show me what you’re doing.”

Javier recalls that Maya Hayuk, who painted the mural on the facade of 17 Frost, once observed “We never get tagged.”

“Yeah,” Javier said, “That’s because all the taggers hang out here.”

17 Frost Gallery’s original facade

Javier recalls that Maya Hayuk, who painted the mural on the facade of 17 Frost, once observed “We never get tagged.”

“Yeah,” Javier said, “That’s because all the taggers hang out here.”

Javier Hernandez-Miyares has lived by his mantra for quite a while. Just before 17 Frost, Javier was packing up his recording studio in DUMBO. “I got a phone call from a childhood friend, Steven Pacia, who had been writing some songs,” he said. Steven was a neurologist, but also a poet. According to Javier, Steven had a bohemian side and a craving to fraternize with artists and outlaws. Steven was interested in setting up a recording studio. Javier said yes.

As teenagers, Javier and Steven hung out with other creatives in “grungy raw spaces” in Soho and Lower East Side, now a rarity but ubiquitous at the time. By the late 2000s, Steven was capable of financing the project and both knew what they were looking for. 17 Frost fit the bill. Javier describes the area, now surrounded by ritzy condos, as akin to a graveyard in 2008. “There was an abandoned chocolate factory next door. Across the street was the Abbey Engine Company, which was built in 1880,” he said. The space needed some work. They built out a recording studio in the back—Javier envisioned a gallery space out front.

One of the earliest stories of collaboration at 17 Frost began as an online coincidence. Javier stumbled upon some street art under the BQE and posted a picture on Flickr. Aakash Nihalani recognized his work and contacted Javier, who responded by inviting him to 17 Frost. Javier explained that Aakash Nihalani knew Ellis Gallagher and Poster Boy—together they were the “Neo-Con Collective.” (Gallagher says the name was Poster Boy’s idea.) The trio showcased their street art indoors at the gallery’s first group show.

Each of the Neo-Cons worked in temporary mediums. Aakash used gaffer’s tape to create installations that jump out of the wall—although they are flat, he creates the illusions of three-dimensional objects. Gallagher worked with chalk to outline shadows on the street, for example, capturing the ones left by a bicycle at a certain time of day. And Poster Boy was known for transforming subway advertisements with a razor blade, twisting commercial propaganda into a new meaning. “There’s a show behind those walls right now,” Javier said, pointing towards the front gallery. “It’s a Poster Boy.” In a way, the Neo-Cons are literally in the bones of 17 Frost.

Gallagher soon became a 17 Frost regular—he was a resident artist and later a curator. Gallagher said that his approach was based on his predecessor, Alex Itin, the second curator of 17 Frost after Javier. “Sweat equity,” Itin called it. “The whole idea was that you put the time in,” Gallagher said, “You mop the fucking floor, you help install shows, you help de-install shows. You become a liaison between the gallery and the artist. You help, and then you get to utilize the place as a studio. You could do whatever the fuck you want here 24/7/365.”

Photo by Rene Harriman

“You mop the fucking floor, you help install shows, you help de-install shows. You become a liaison between the gallery and the artist. You help, and then you get to utilize the place as a studio. You could do whatever the fuck you want here 24/7/365.”

Itin encouraged Gallagher to do a solo show at 17 Frost, but as curator Gallagher never felt comfortable. “In lieu of a solo show, I’ll invite all my friends here, once a week for a month straight. I’ll bring paper, I’ll bring canvas, I’ll bring paint, I’ll bring markers,” said Gallagher. That idea was the beginning of “sticker night” or “family night” at 17 Frost. All were welcome on community nights. “It was like a Love-in in the sixties,” said Javier. Javier and Ellis hoped to demystify the art scene for young people. “I sailed a lot of ships at Frost,” said Gallagher. “I turned all my colleagues into street artists,” he added, grinning. He describes sticker nights as his proudest accomplishment. Javier described sticker nights as warm gatherings of like-minded people, talking shop, sharing their work, and collaborating. “In Spanish, it’s called ‘tertulia,’” Javier explained. Javier was proud to say many of the teenagers who, years ago, popped by a sticker night are now established in the arts.

Photo by Rene Harriman

“I sailed a lot of ships at Frost,” said Gallagher. “I turned all my colleagues into street artists,” he added, grinning.

The team at 17 Frost shared a love for bringing people together and colliding worlds. René Harriman recalls Javier encouraging him to throw a show. He connected Harriman with Itin, who together created Scrawls on the Walls. “According to Ellis, he and co-curated Scrawls on the Walls, after Ellis encouraged both Itin and Harriman to form a duo and create stickers together as @wordsonthestreet, with the exhibition reflecting that alliance.The show featured quotations Harriman found on bathroom stalls situated against an abstract background. The illustrated quotes range from funny to bizarre to deeply poignant. The gallery has been known for featuring street artists in collaboration between disparate art communities. Scrawls on the Walls saw participation from acrobats and interpretive dancing. According to Harriman, the show felt like “curated chaos.” With so many wild nights in its history, “curated chaos” could be a tagline for the whole gallery.

Photo by Rene Harriman

17 Frost had a reputation for a type of creativity where anything goes. On a now famous night, 17 Frost hosted an election day Biden vs. Trump “death match.”

17 Frost had a reputation for a type of creativity where anything goes. On a now famous night, 17 Frost hosted an election day Biden vs. Trump “death match.” It was a choreographed wrestling match, a show that surely meant catharsis for anyone enduring life in November 2020. “They had effigies burning outside. It was a total spectacle,” Gallagher recalled. The New York Post covered the story when someone posted the fight on Twitter. “They tried to paint me as an underground fight club leader,” said Gallagher, “My brother called me. He was like ‘Dude, what are you fucking doing in Brooklyn?’”

During the CASH4SMELLS exhibition, the police showed up, and Gallgher was “charged with [a] violation of an emergency measure, violation of an executive order and a $15,000 fine.” True to form, the community came together to cover legal fees with a fundraiser. The tickets were eventually dropped. Asked about that night, Gallagher said “It was cool! It was a great show.”

Javier thinks of that night as a moment he felt tension with his rapidly gentrifying environment. He recalled that an internet commenter accused 17 Frost of ruining the neighborhood. Then he got animated, “We were here when your stupid building didn’t exist. The reason you’re here is because the cool people came here!” Even as Williamsburg underwent change, Javier knew the team at 17 Frost had made their mark on the art scene. Reflecting on its closing, Javier describes the 17 Frost community as part of “the DNA of the next generation of New York City art.”

17 Frost held its final exhibition on December 16, 2023. When I spoke to Ellis that night, he had plans for a second and third closing party. He introduced me to his colleagues. There was always someone else you had to meet if you want to truly understand 17 Frost. Every participant was part of its story. Just as Javier intended, 17 Frost belonged to no one in particular. As he says, it was more like a public park that belonged to everyone.

Photo by Alina Perez

Just as Javier intended, 17 Frost belonged to no one in particular. As he says, it was more like a public park that belonged to everyone.

“Frost coincides with the exponential growth of the internet and virtual spaces,” said Javier. After all, he met the Neo-Cons through Flickr. “But the more that grew,” he added, “the more I saw it would never, ever substitute this. The greatest work of art of all was the space itself,” he said.

I asked Ellis what he planned to do next. He wrestled with whether to call it a museum or art center, but he spoke about building a new destination outside New York City, a Stormking or DIA Beacon for street art. Javier and René have their eye on another space down the street where they plan to host another show. No matter what the future holds, Javier was confident that the community network would long outlast the building.

When I asked Harriman how he felt about the closing of 17 Frost, he spoke less about the physical space and more about their open-door policy. “It’s been a communal space,” he said, “You just have to come with good energy. Or if you are having a bad day, you can vent, then other people around will help out.” “I’ve seen people change their whole mindset here,” he went on to say, “It was like therapy.”