Behind Closed Doors, A Visit with Artist Michelle Handelman

Dumbo artist Michelle Handelman is currently exhibiting her new work at Sign and Symbols at 102 Forsyth Street in Manhattan.

The work is an offshoot of her video Hustlers & Empires which was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018.  Working as a Dumbo artist since 1998, Handelman also holds the prestigious position as Chair of the department of Film, Media and Performing Arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC.

Her 68 Jay studio was fortuitously preserved by the angels of Dumbo’s past. Never touched by renovation, her sprawling loft still retains the elements of pre gentrification including hard concrete floors, 14’ ceilings, distressed window casements, and flickering fluorescent lighting. The atmosphere is uncannily symbolic of her work which explores life underground

The work is an off-shoot of her video Hustlers and Empire which was commissioned by the San Francisco MOMA.

Born in Chicago, she was 10 years old when her parents divorced. While her mother took the path of the straight and narrow, and remarried a prestigious art dealer in Chicago, her father owned and operated a “Massage Parlor”. He was a middle class guy who morphed into a unique combination of counter culture hippie and sleazy underworld entrepreneur. “From the age of 11, I spent a lot of time around hookers, pimps and drug dealers and learned a lot about the underground life” says Handelman. When asked how her mother felt about her life with her father Handelman confessed, “I don’t think she ever knew just how deep it went, it was a family secret.”

“From the age of 11, I spent a lot of time around hookers, pimps and drug dealers and learned a lot about the underground life”

Hustlers & Empires examines the outsider. Whether it be racial or gender oppression, Michelle  explores how such individuals survive within a system that they feel is totally rigged against them. Her exhibition at signs and symbols focuses on one of the characters from this commissioned work. The character is loosely based on the life and writings of the French writer Marguerite Duras. This particular character played by Latinx artist and activist, Viva Ruiz  explores how a woman in society survives when every part of her existence is sexualized. Ruiz was brought up in the streets of New York and adds her own personal style to the portrayal of this character that was written in collaboration with Handelman and the original texts of Duras.

For this exhibition Handelman decided to focus on gender oppression as a result of the politically charged situation in our country. “While positive changes are happening such as the #MeToo Movement, which is calling out misogyny, at the same time we have women’s reproductive rights being challenged more aggressively and cruelly  than we have seen in decades” The most insidious example is the the outrageously harsh and oppressive bill that has just passed in Alabama restricting a woman’s right to choose without an exception for rape or incest. The law is a purely political stunt to have the new law heard by the conservative Supreme Court which could possibly overturn Roe vs. Wade. In the meanwhile women and girls in that state are being used as sacrificial lambs.

Handelman’s exhibition, LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL  is a multi-screen video installation with live performance. Michelle has  transformed the gallery with custom wallpaper and large photographic pieces, in addition to the videos. As an added bonus, posters with the writings from Handelman’s Hustlers & Empires monologues are complimentary, available for viewers to take home from the gallery. There will be an Artist talk with writer Emily Colucci on Saturday May 25, 4pm. The exhibition runs through Sunday May 26, 2019.  Don’t miss it.


Artist talk with writer Emily Colucci, Saturday May 25, 4pm, 2019

Exhibition on view through Sunday May 26, 2019

Signs and Symbols
102 Forsyth St. nyc 10002,

Gallery Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-6pm


SFMOMA Hustlers & Empires

Artist website

FIT Faculty

Michelle Handelman Studios