This LA Artist Moved His Studio Into a New York Storefront for a Month

Throughout May, watch the artist painting in his ad-hoc SoHo studio.

Mugello Gallery's "Toy Box" pop-up at 171 Elizabeth Street in New York. Courtesy of Mugello Gallery.

Walk on Elizabeth Street in New York this month and you’ll pass one storefront that looks a little different than the others around it. Inside, you won’t see merchandise or the trimmings of a business; you’ll find an artist’s studio, and a painter steadily working away on a couple of canvases depicting stuffed animals.

The painter is Brent Estabrook, a Los Angeles-based pop artist who primarily works with the imagery of childhood toys. His workspace is actually a pop-up event hosted by his gallery, Mugello.

The opening of the pop-up, titled “Toy Box,” coincided with Frieze Week in New York. Instead of paying to participate in the fair, the gallery realized they could spend just a little more money to rent a SoHo storefront space for a month, and do New York on their own terms.

“Rather than sitting at a fair booth for five days, we wanted to do something that was more our speed,” says James Wright, the founder of Mugello who grew up with Estabrook in a small town outside of Seattle. “With this project, people can witness the birth and creation of several paintings. It gives people a behind-the-scenes look, makes the art seem more approachable, and encourages social media engagement.”

In-progress works in Estabrook’s Los Angeles studio. Courtesy of Mugello Gallery.

Estabrook’s path to this point was a circuitous one. He attended the University of Arizona where he studied chemistry—a discipline that would prepare him for the field that, at the time, he thought he wanted to go into: dentistry. By happenstance, a counselor suggested that he also major in art as a way to make his dentistry school application more unique.

It worked. After graduating, Estabrook enrolled in a dental program, pursuing a doctorate in dental surgery.

“I went into dentistry for all the wrong reasons,” Estabrook tells artnet News. “I thought, I’ll go to school for four years, then I’ll get out and make a bunch of money. It seemed like that’s what I had to do.”

Eventually, though, it became clear that dentistry was not the route for him. While in the program, Estabrook spent nearly all of his free time painting. Within days after his dental school graduation, he called up Wright, his lifelong friend who had also helped him sell some art a few years earlier. “I said, ‘James, I don’t really want to be a dentist. Can we make this art thing work?’”

Brent Estabrook, 1,000 Bennie (2015). Courtesy of Mugello Gallery.

Estabrook went to live with Wright and his fiancé in their 600-square-foot apartment in San Francisco. For a year, he slept on an air mattress in their hallway.

“Every morning, I flipped up my air mattress,” he recalls. “I had my easel and palette right there, and I just painted all day long.”

At that time, he was working primarily on a series of money paintings—images of bills with the figure altered in various ways. To him, it was a joke, a way of mocking the situation he was in. “l was essentially trying to paint my own money to pay off debt,” he says. Anything that came in would go back into the “endless black hole of debt” that the dental school had left him with—$380,000, to be exact.

In a surprise to the artist, the paintings were quite popular. With Wright’s help, Estabrook sold many of the canvases and started to build a presence online. Soon thereafter, Wright decided to represent Estabrook fulltime. That, in essence, was the beginning of Mugello.

Since then, the gallery has grown significantly. It has a roster of five artists, a brick-and-mortar location on gallery row in downtown LA’s fashion district, and a steady stream of clients from around the world.

Mugello Gallery in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Mugello Gallery.

Estabrook, too, has evolved significantly as an artist, most notably in style and subject matter. Three years ago, he began focusing almost exclusively on stuffed animals.

“This subject matter makes for a wonderful painting for several reasons,” he explains. “Of course, as a painter, I love the variety in color, composition, textures that allow me to display my technical capabilities. On a more personal note, they are a symbol for following your unadulterated childhood dreams—do what you love in life! To think how close I was to pulling teeth for a living. We only get one shot at life, and I want to help inspire others to live life with passion on their own terms.”

Throughout the course of the pop-up in New York, Estabrook will make several new paintings, including one 10-by-15-foot triptych—the largest the artist has ever done. The works will all be on display at a public closing party on May 24.

Estabrook at work in the “Toy Box” space. Courtesy of Mugello Gallery.

“Toy Box” will be on view at 171 Elizabeth Street, New York through May 27, 2018. The closing reception will be held Thursday, May 24, from 5:00 – 8:00 pm.

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