Like Her Instagram Feed, Collector Carla Shen’s Brooklyn Heights Home Is Filled With Contemporary Art. See It Here
The Brooklyn Museum trustee and #CarlasCamo star lives amid works by artists including Mickalene Thomas, María Berrío, and Tom Sachs.
Arts patron Carla Shen began her collecting journey one decade ago while moving into her spacious townhouse in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on a quest to fill its bare walls. With its 14-foot-tall ceilings and original 19th-century details, including fireplaces, moldings, and archways, the space has turned into a showcase for her trove of contemporary art. “I know I have too much art on display, but I don’t care,” the Brooklyn Museum and Green-Wood Cemetery trustee told Artnet News. “To me, it feels like home to be surrounded by art.”
Thanks to her mother, a ceramist who spent 35 years working in the conservation lab at the Brooklyn Museum, where her financier father served on the board, Shen has a “soft spot” for the medium, as illustrated by the Natalie Frank and Scott Reeder ceramics in her collection. It also features experimental textiles by the likes of Sophia Narrett and Katarina Riesing, along with pieces by Asian artists whom Shen proudly champions, such as Dominique Fung and Lily Wong.
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Shen is known for her colorful Instagram account, with its cleverly curated feed of #CarlasCamo portraits, where her outfits mirror the art on view (recently, the body-painter Trina Merry painted Shen’s nude body to blend in with the Mickalene Thomas portrait of Aaliyah in the collector’s living room). Likewise, her home is vibrant, dynamic, and bursting with personality.
“I just got this happy pig ceramic by Katie Kimmel, and I put it right in my living room,” said Shen. Initially, she’d planned to move the piece somewhere more discreet “because it almost felt too silly,” she said. “But then I decided, ‘Why not?’ You can’t help but smile when you look at it.”
Indeed, Shen’s home is filled with joyful and humorous works—and they comprise a serious collection. She invited Artnet News inside for a tour.
What is your philosophy when it comes to incorporating art into your home?
I tend to just buy things that I love, and then I figure out where they go afterwards. I’m always rehanging as I get new pieces. About every quarter I’ll have my wonderful art hanger Gordy come in. He was just here in September. I had dozens of works I decided I finally wanted to hang, so Gordy created two big, salon-style walls. One is almost all portraits of women.
What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?
On our honeymoon, my husband and I bought a photograph of a Hawaiian plant by a local artist in Maui. I think we paid $300, which felt like a big purchase at the time.
The first “real” artwork we bought was a really large Ruben Toledo collage of New York City scenes. At the time, around 2005, Isabel Toledo was showing her clothing at Barneys, and her husband Ruben did all the artwork for the store. I had seen this work outside of Freds and fell in love with it. It was such a New York piece. It was about $10,000, and we used the cash savings from our wedding gifts plus some of our own money to buy it. We’ve hung it next to a portrait of Isabel and Ruben by Maira Kalman.
What was your most recent purchase?
I bought a drawing by Lily Wong, whom I love. During Frieze Seoul, Harper’s had a pop-up exhibition of Asian-American artists who created drawings on stationery. Collectors were allowed to choose one piece, and I got my first choice, which is this graphite-on-paper self-portrait.
Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
I would love a work by Anna Park—there is so much emotion and life in her art—as well as a painting by Dominique Fung. She had an amazing show at Jeffrey Deitch last year, and I was able to get one of her birdcage sculptures. I also went to see the Sasha Gordon show at Deitch last spring—I love her paintings. I’d love to get an Oscar yi Hou portrait, too. He just had a solo show open at the Brooklyn Museum (through September 17, 2023).
What is the most expensive work of art that you own?
The most I’ve spent on a piece is a Mickalene Thomas portrait that we bought in 2016, but from a current value perspective, it’s a María Berrío piece we have. I am so in love with María’s work, which I discovered upon randomly walking into her show at Praxis Gallery in New York around 2015. Every few months we get crazy unsolicited offers for the piece that we have. It’s my favorite artwork that we own at the moment, so I would never sell it. It’s currently on loan in a museum show.
Where do you buy art most frequently?
I buy a lot of art at the smaller fairs, like Untitled, NADA, Spring/Break, and Independent. I mostly buy art through galleries, and more recently I’ve gotten a lot of pieces through online exhibitions. I probably have bought the most pieces sight unseen through online exhibitions with Taymour Grahne. I love his program and his taste. Through him I discovered Maia Cruz Palileo, who is one of my favorite artists. Of all the artists I collect, I own the greatest number of Maya’s works because I’ve been buying her for the past eight years.
Is there a work you regret purchasing?
There’s not a single piece I regret buying.
Do you ever create #CarlasCamo moments in your home?
I have matched three of my artworks. During the pandemic, I created the ultimate #CarlasCamo with Trina Merry, who is an amazing body-paint artist that I’ve worked with three times. Trina came to my house and painted me for around three hours to completely blend in with the Mickalene Thomas portrait of Aaliyah I have in my living room. It’s a very weird but cool experience to be body-painted naked. We did it again at the Brooklyn Museum, and that was fun in a different way.
What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?
My sofa floats in the middle of my living room, but on the walls surrounding it are two large pieces—the Mickalene Thomas portrait and a Vaughn Spann rainbow piece, which is a promised gift to the Brooklyn Museum. My hanger Gordy has these brilliant out-of-the-box ideas, like hanging tiny works next to huge ones. Beside the Vaughn Spann I just hung a small Natalie Frank ceramic. On one side of my Mickalene I have a Sophia Narrett embroidery, and on the other side there’s a tiny Cassi Namoda painting and a small Andrew Cranston painting on a book cover.
In my powder room, there’s a painting of nude women by a fountain by Vera Girivi, a self-taught artist who lives in Genoa, Italy. I also just hung a tiny ceramic tile with a painting of a girl peeing by Winnie Sidharta, which I thought was appropriate.
Do you have a favorite artful nook or corner that you go to for creative inspiration?
Right now my favorite area is this salon-style wall that we just hung along the staircase from the first to the second floor—mostly works on paper that I’ve had for many years, but haven’t found space for. I included two self-portraits that my daughter made last year, when she was 12.
What is the most impractical work of art you own?
A few years ago I bought a collection of Scott Reeder ceramics from Canada gallery. It’s 35 ceramic recreations of everyday objects, like cigarette butts, Cheez-Its, a sneaker, and a bong. It takes up my whole coffee table, so now I can’t put anything else on it.
What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
There are so many! I wish I bought more María Berrío works. In 2016, when I was in LA and bought the Mickalene Thomas at Susanne Vielmetter’s gallery, there was also a Charles Gaines grid painting of a tree. I was deciding between the two, and while I don’t think I actually could have bought both, I wish I did. And there was a group show at James Cohan many years ago with a small work by Jordan Casteel before she really took off—I kick myself for not buying it. I’ve also always loved Genieve Figgis’s work and regret not buying her work when I had the chance, because now they’re out of my price point.
If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?
One of the works that I love so much at the Brooklyn Museum is Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses by Lilly Martin Spencer, from 1856. It’s a wonderful image of a lady preparing food, but she’s looking very teasingly and provocatively at the person who wants to kiss her. It’s unusual to see that that kind of domestic scene with a woman being so bold and flirtatious. My friend, the illustrator Jenny Kroik, made a painting of me looking at that painting.
Do you plan to take your collection in any new directions?
I don’t consider myself a design collector, but visiting design galleries and fairs has gotten me more interested. In our Westchester home, we just got wooden dining chairs by Tom Sachs from Salon 94 that I love. It’s my goal in the next couple of years to start investing in design pieces that match the quality of my art collection.
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