Brooklyn History Still Speaking to Us

Exhibition Title Image, Brooklyn Historical Society

When you’re next at The Brooklyn Historical Society, be sure to visit their exhibit Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy  on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson.  While he’s best known for desegregating this sport, throughout his life Robinson was thrust into the turmoil around racial integration.  Born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919, the following year his family moved to a white neighborhood in Pasadena, California where Robinson learned to stand up for himself.  While attending the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), this multi-talented athlete played on their basketball, football, track & field, as well as their baseball team, winning letters in all four of these sports.  In 1945, he played one season for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. 

In the U.S., attitudes towards racial segregation had been changing, and Branch Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers understood that integrating baseball could be good, and signed Jackie Robinson to the team.  

Opening day at Ebbets Field, April 15, 1947, was historic – 26,600 fans, of which 14,000 were African Americans, turned out to see Robinson create history – until then, baseball had been segregated.  However, even though he could now play with white team mates, when they traveled in the South, Robinson couldn’t share facilities, hotels, or restaurants with them.

Wheaties ad featuring Jackie Robinson

But Robinson’s talent couldn’t be denied: in 1947 he won the Rookie of the Year Award, in 1949 he became the first black player to receive the National League Most Valuable Player Award, and he later earned other accolades, including six All Star awards. Like other sports stars, his image was used to sell various products, including Wheaties.

Display with magazine covers featuring Jackie Robinson

Testament to Robinson’s star power can also be found in the display which features several of magazine covers he graced, including such major publications as Time and Life.

Throughout his career, Jackie Robinson faced threats and insults, especially as he became more involved in the civil rights movement, touring the country with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and supporting black businesses. But he never stopped.

His retirement from sports in 1957 led Jackie Robinson to business, where his achievements including becoming the first black Vice President of a major American company, Chock full O’Nuts, as well as helping to establish Freedom National Bank. 

Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972.  Despite all he achieved, there’s clearly more work to be done to fully honor his legacy.  A good place to start is with this exhibit, Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy, which  will be up until June, 2018.

Circular Yacht in Prospect Park, Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1878, Terrence J. Allen Prospect Park Collection, Brooklyn Public Library

While you’re at the BHS, stop by  The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park  which celebrates the park’s 150th Anniversary.

Created by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Manhattan’s Central Park, Prospect Park is often described as the park they wanted to build. 

Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds and Places in Kings County, 1946, C. W. Nenning and James A. Kelly, Brooklyn Historical Society

The exhibit begins by pointing out that Brooklyn was the home of various Native American tribes, especially the Lenape Indians, for over 9,000 years before the Europeans arrived in the 1600’s.  Be sure to take a look at this great map created in 1946 by then Brooklyn Borough Historian James A. Kelly.

First the Dutch, then the British began establishing farms and towns in the area.  The local inhabitants were caught up in the historic events of the Revolutionary War when, in 1776, the land that is now Prospect Park was the site of a major battle between the Continental Army and the British (including the Hessians who fought for them).

It wasn’t until 1861 that the first plan for what is now Prospect Park was created – however, the Civil War deterred it’s implementation.  After the war ended, in 1865 Olmstead and Vaux were invited to submit their design, which they created with the intent of giving park-goers the illusion that they were no longer in a city. 

Lawn Tennis in Prospect Park, Harper’s Weekly, July 11, 1885, Bob Lenine Collection

The exhibit highlights the ways in which use of this 585 acre tract has changed over the years.  The park now includes active uses such as an ice skating rink, a bandshell, baseball fields, as well as a zoo.

It also makes clear that you can’t separate the park from it’s urban surroundings, detailing how the park suffered during the NYC fiscal crisis in the 1970‘s and subsequent reductions in government funding. However, in 1980, Tupper Thomas was appointed the first administrator of the park, which led to its turnaround.  She also helmed the Prospect Park Alliance, created in 1987, which raises funds and other support for the park’s upkeep.  (This exhibit is presented in partnership with the Alliance)

The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park will be at the Brooklyn Historical Society  through July 13, 2018. 

Every month, the BHS has a FREE Friday evening program.  They also offer – at a very low cost – some wonderful lectures, author talks and films on the history of Brooklyn, as well as current issues that affect us all, no matter where we live. I’ve been to several – in addition to learning something new, I’ve always enjoyed them.   Be sure to bookmark their Calendar  

The BHS is located at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights.  (Go for a stroll along the Promenade or at Brooklyn Bridge Park when you’re done!)

CANSTRUCTION: Art to Feed the Hungry

I was amazed at the ingenuity of this year’s entries for CANSTRUCTION , a competition that challenged 26 teams of architects, engineers, and contractors to build sculptures made entirely out of unopened cans of food.  These large-scale sculptures can be found throughout both levels of Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan. (When you’re on the upper level, take a look at the works on the lower level – you’ll see them in a new way!)   Some of the Canstructions are best viewed through a camera, as their creators used the cans as oversized pixels.   The best part of this exhibit is that the cans that comprise these structures will be donated to City Harvest for distribution to those in need. This display is up only until next Wednesday, November 15th, so be sure to visit Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan before then.  Bring a can to support this wonderful event.  Below are my top five picks:

May Kindness Bloom, AKF Engineers; main ingredients: salmon, spinach, corn, peas & carrots, green beans, mixed vegetables, sliced peaches, fruit cocktail, diced mango, pear

A Rising Tide, Leslie E. Robertson Associates; main ingredient: sardines

Game of Buildings, Metropolis Group, Inc.; main ingredients: sweet peas and organic split pea soup

Popeye the Sailor CAN, Gensler; main ingredients: tuna, salmon, spinach, vegetables, beans

On Track to End Hunger, Turner Construction Company; main ingredients- sardines, tuna, beets, black eyed peas, black beans, corn, green beans, pears

Boleros and Art in the Bronx

There’s a new exhibit at Longwood Gallery @ Hostos, organized on the theme of boleros, music that originated in Cuba in the late 19th century, then spread to Puerto Rico, other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America  (not to be confused with bolero music that originated in Spain in the 18th century).  These songs of love and life, while often sad, are also about the power of love.  They’re also especially good for coping with a break-up.  Prominent bolero artists include José Antonio Mendez (Cuba),  José Feliciano (Puerto Rico & the Bronx),  Agustin Lara (Mexico), Luis Miguel (Mexico), Tito Rodriguez (Puerto Rico) and Celia Cruz (Cuba).  Curator Juanita Lanzo decided to organize a show around the theme of boleros when a group of students visited the gallery and told her they didn’t know this music.  While some of the artists’ work in this show relates specifically to bolero, others used the more general theme of music. At a recent artists talk, I learned more about these works directly from their creators.

Güiro, Glendalys Medina, 2017, marker, and ink on paper

Glendalys Medina, a Bronxite from Puerto Rico, spoke about her work Güiro. She was inspired by the ribbed percussion instrument of the same name made from a gourd, originally by Taíno Indians ( a stick or tynes are rubbed against the notches to create a ratchet sound). Glendalys grew up with music, as her father plays the congas.   When she was young, she would listen to the music of Louis Miguel, especially on Saturdays, which was cleaning day.  When  you look closely at her Güiro, you’ll find symbols such as owls and coquís (frogs native to Puerto Rico).  I like her use of oil-based marker, which captures and diffuses the light, giving her piece a flat, but lightly polished sheen.

Ode to Nina Simone, Maria Dominguez, 2017, painted paper, collage

A New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Maria Dominguez has two pieces from her Hothouse series, born of her passion for jazz, which is reflected not only in her choice of subjects (here, Nina Simone and Wes Montgomery), but also in the intensity of her colors, and the sense of movement that infuses them.  Maria informed us that when she created this series, she first painted the paper until she got the texture she wanted, then she ripped it.  Earlier in her career, Maria was a muralist, and discovered that pulling the paper always revealed a story. 

Dancers, Mott Haven, 1979, David Gonzalez, archival pigment print, courtesy of David Gonzalez

David Gonzalez is a columnist and photojournalist for The New York Times. David, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, grew up in the Bronx with music – his father, a guitarist, would play on the weekends with his uncles.  Music is what kept David sane in his youth – today it helps him work.

David took the above photo in 1979 at a block party on 140th Street (the salsa band was behind him).  He pointed out that in 1979 no one cared about the Bronx, and contrasted that attitude with the way people in the photo are dressed – the dancers take pride in their appearance and are relying on their culture, especially music and dance to sustain them.  David sees music as a survival skill, especially for people who are marginalized – their culture binds them together and enables them to negotiate the world.   

David also had some great advice for artists – emerging, established or otherwise.  He recounted how he had completely forgotten about this photo until 2009, when he was scanning his old work.  This image is a perfect illustration of the intersection of skill and luck; David took only two shots. I don’t know what the other one looks like, but this one says it all.  As David advised, “look back through your archives every now and then – you might be surprised how good some of your earlier work is.”    

Untitled, Rafael Melendez, watercolor on Xerox copies

For Rafael Melendez the boleros theme of the show connected him to music, and made him think about MTV, which was his introduction to America (he is of Mexican heritage) as well as his connection to contemporary art and to living in NYC.  Against one wall is a video loop of the drawings he made while bartending, and also a series of drawings that are like musical notes and the thoughts they have that makes them write music.

La Gloria Eres Tu, Norma Marquez Orozco, 2017, paper, marker and acetate

Norma Márquez Orozco grew up in Mexico with  boleros, which her mother and sisters listened to.  When she was young, Norma would sing these songs, which made her feel like she was in love.  Later she discovered – as we all do – that the lyrics, which you didn’t understand when you were young, you experience differently when you’re older.  Her piece is based around one of her favorite boleros, La Gloria Eres Tu by Jose Antonio Mendez.  Norma wrote the lyrics on translucent paper which she cut into strips.  Now, when she revisits the song  and moves the box, the lyrics take a new shape and feeling.   

Maria Bonita, Blanka Amezkua, 2015, embroidery on printed fabric, and crochet

There was always music in Blanka Amezkua’s life (she was born in Mexico and raised in California), particularly on special occasions (or after a heart break).  For her, boleros connect the generations.  Blanka trained as a painter for 15 years, but now embroiders. She mentioned that sometimes people have had strong reactions to her two pieces in this show, and explained that  the images she embroidered came from Mexican adult comic books, and that her mother crocheted the frames on her work.  This piece is entitled Maria Bonita, for Maria Felix, the wife of bolero composer Agustin Lara.

Birdman, Phyllis Sanfiorenzo, 2011, oil on illustration panel, and gold leaf

For Phyllis Sanfiorenzo, who was born and raised in El Barrio in Manhattan, bolero is romance and love that was innocent, pure and true.  Her paintings are a combination of her own speculative fiction, and her take on the Renaissance, with its romantic images of solitude and study.  This piece, Birdman, was was inspired by  Albrecht Dürer’s picture of St. Jerome in his study.  Phyllis noted how the hermit in his solitude often has a connection to an animal (St. Jerome and the lion).  The hermit in her picture has pigeons, inspired by someone Phyllis knew in Harlem who kept them.

Night Seats, Patricia Cazorla, 2017, watercolor on wood panel

Patricia Cazorla grew up in a household of women in Venezuela. Her introduction to boleros was hearing her mother singing Besamé Mucho.  The above picture is one of three she painted of a trip she took to Las Vegas.  For Patricia, both Las Vegas and bolero music are full of risks:  Las Vegas is where people go to get married or divorced (often spontaneously), and boleros, being songs of love and life, are full of emotional risks.

The Couple, Esperanza Cortés, 2008, Chairs, knitting needles, pearls, glass beads, crystals, rings, and mother of pearl

Esperanza Cortés comes from a family of singers:  her father sang in the Metropolitan Opera chorus, and her sister is a professional salsa singer.  Born in Columbia, but raised in the U.S., Esperanza didn’t start speaking Spanish until she was 11 years old, when her aunt and grandmother came to live with her family.  They listened to boleros and cried, and Esperanza wanted to know why.  For her, bolero lyrics express a belief in poetry and beauty.  Her piece The Couple is about love – what you give and get,  the variety of landscapes you live through when you’re in love.  Esperanza detailed the symbolism of the elements of the piece: the chairs, which she upholstered herself, signify how one person is always more dominant in a relationship; the pearl necklaces represents semen; the crystals, tears; the blue brocade, our dreams of love; the 500 rings, our promises to each other, and the knitting needles, the pain we inflict on each other.   

Be sure to get up to Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos   (450 Grand Concourse at 149th Street in the Bronx to see more work by these artists before Boleros closes on December 6th.

Wonderful Discoveries at the Gowanus Open Studios

I like going to open studios, because then I get to see a lot of work across a variety of mediums and styles, by both emerging and mid-career artists; plus, it’s usually easy to talk to them about their art.  On October 20th, I visited several of the studios of the 350+ artists who were showing at the Gowanus Open Studios  in Brooklyn (even if I were a centipede, I don’t think I’d be able to visit them all).  Here are my highlights.

Caroline Otis Heffron and her husband Adam Clayman held a joint show on the parlor floor of their house. 

from the series, “What Statues Should Remain?” Caroline Otis Heffron

Caroline Otis Heffron  (who’s a potter and painter) has created a lovely series of intimate paintings, based on photos she’s taken in museums (mostly of sculptures) and on the streets of New York City.  She then cuts these photos and recombines the images to create collages with a new narrative, which she then translates into drawing and paint. For Heffron, the gestures and the moment guide her work.  

hardwar aarti overhead, from Tirtha Yatra: A Visual Pilgrimage of India, Adam Clayman

The first thing that struck me about Adam Clayman’s photographs is that the majority of them were black and white.  He confirmed that he works primarily in that mode, as he’s drawn to it.  The photos he was showing were primarily images of Italy, India and Brooklyn, especially Coney Island. 

Over at 540 President Street, Spaceworks has created low-cost artists studios in a very large two-story building. (They also offer low-cost rehearsal space in Brooklyn and Queens).   About 30 of their artists participated in the open studios…

Bird from a B52 bomber, Peter Patchen. ABS plastic coated with acrylic and iron

In his Migration series, Peter Patchen uses a 3-D printing process to transform models of war planes into birds – for him the planes, like the B-52 above, are gorgeous but destructive.  His work tries to answer the question of what would happen if they became autonomous…

work in progress, Taylor McMahon, plastic lanyards

When I entered Taylor McMahon’s studio, I blurted out “are those the strips we used as kids to weave key chains?” (I know, you can’t take me anywhere) and she confirmed that she does, indeed, work with plastic lanyards. I like discovering artists using non-traditional materials, especially when their use of ordinary or mundane items elevates them without making them pretentious.   McMahon, whose weavings combine strong geometric and abstract patterns, told me she doesn’t use a chart, since she usually has an idea of what she wants the piece to look like as she works on it.  I can’t wait to seen the above weaving when it’s finished.

My Dirty Laundry, Victoria Morales, 2009, oil on canvas

This oil by Victoria Morales brought back many memories of my childhood, when clotheslines were everywhere, from back yards to the windows in the alleyways between apartment buildings!

Promenade V, Tegan Brozyna, Painted paper, thread, nails and wood

Tegan Brozyna  showed work from her series Traverse, where she interweaves painted paper shapes through layers of vertical threads whose tension holds the pieces in place.  There’s a certain playfulness in her work, and I like her sense of color.

Right around the block, on the ground floor of 505 Carroll Street, is the Brooklyn branch of the Textile Arts Center (there’s also one in the West Village), where they’ve just expanded, adding more artists studios.  They run a 9-month residency program, and offer classes and studio space to the general public. Check them out!

various pieces by Jose Picayo at Textile Arts Center, Brooklyn

At the Center they were featuring the work of Jose Picayo, a photographer who took a weaving class at the Center, got hooked on it, then took almost all their other classes, and is now making his own designs!

interior of Blue, The Tatter Textile Library

On the second floor you’ll find BLUE: The Tatter Textile Library which opened its doors this summer.  Not only does it have a library of over 3,000 textile-related books, it also has the  hosts workshops and lectures.  It’s a fabulous space and a great addition to the community.

untitled, Patricia Stegman, 2017, watercolor, gouache and pastel

I was happy to see my Boerum Hill neighbor Patricia Stegman, who was showing ten of the lovely nature sketches she made with watercolor, gouache and pastel this past summer while visiting family in France.  The above is the most abstract work in that series, but is in the same color palette as the others.

The Brooklyn Workshop Gallery was holding it’s last show, as it closed on October 29th.  This is a loss, as the Gallery not only hosted exhibits, but they also held workshops and other community events.  Here’s some of the work they were showing…

Inalienable, Iviva Olenik, 2017, hand embroidery

Immigration is a central theme in much of Iviva Olenick’s  work.  In this vein, she’s created a Flag series, including the above, which was hung in the Gallery’s front window.  The text reads:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning for affordable housing, comprehensive healthcare, credible news, resource-rich integrity-driven schools, unrestricted travel, sanctuary cities, a whole country as sanctuary from the wretched refusals  of our most basic inalienable human rights.

from the Terra Madre series, Gisella Sorrentino, 2017, Digital C print

Gisella Sorrentino showed work from her summer residency at the Gallery, which resulted in a series, Terra Madre, about becoming a mother.  These are self-portraits, built around a dream she had about becoming a mother, a year before her son was born.  They also express the duality of being pregnant, and how it made her softer towards the world.  The photos were hung in the Gallery’s backyard/garden, which was the perfect setting for them.

work by Signe Bresling Rudolfsen

This intriguing multi-paneled work by Signe Bresling Rudolfsen …

weaving by Martine Bisagni

was being reinterpreted as a weaving by Martine Bisagni, the Gallery’s founder.  I hope she opens another space in Brooklyn. 

I’m sorry I couldn’t get to more of the Gowanus Open Studios – check out their website if you missed the show – I’m definitely looking forward to next year’s edition!

Golden Venture Paper Sculptures Tell a Story for Today

Statue of Liberty, 1994, Papier-mâché, cardboard and colored markers, MOCA Collection

Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America tells the story of some of the passengers on board the Golden Venture when it ran aground near Rockaway Beach Queens at 2:00am on June 6, 1993.  I remember the confusion in the initial TV, radio and newspaper reports – how many passengers (often referred to as “aliens” or “illegal aliens”), where they came from (“Asia”, “China”) what happened, why they were on the boat, how many died…   

Perhaps the best place to start your tour is in the smaller gallery across from the main exhibition space in which you’ll find the below sculpture and an eye-opening video edited by David Tan & Ya Yun Teng, that provides context for the exhibit and also ties it into today’s debates around immigration.  Made in 2017, the video features lawyers and residents of York, Pennsylvania, talking about not only their efforts to obtain justice for the Golden Venture passengers who were detained in the York County prison, but also about the actions taken over the last 20-odd years to restrict immigration to the U.S.   

Statue of Liberty atop the U.S. Capitol dome within Chinese city walls, 1994

In many ways, the story of the Golden Venture begins in 1989/90, when President George H. W. Bush, angry about the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, issued directives and an Executive Order, which had the net effect of allowing Chinese nationals – even those here illegally – to stay in the US while their applications for permanent residency wended their way through the system. However, that opened the floodgates for smugglers (a/k/a snakeheads). 

Freestanding eagle looking straight ahead, 1994, Folded paper, papier-mâché, glue and colored marker, MOCA Collection

When the Golden Venture crashed, there were 286 migrants on board, mostly from Fujian Province, who had embarked on a 6-month ocean voyage that took them to Thailand, then to Kenya, then around  the Cape of Good Hope, and on to the U.S. Each passenger (and/or their families) had paid the equivalent of US$5,000 to smugglers, and agreed to work off the balance (US$30,000) mainly by laboring in restaurants and sweatshops. 

The Golden Venture  posed a problem for the U.S.: ten passengers died when they jumped off the ship in the Rockaways and tried to swim to shore.   There was a lot of media attention, and it gave the impression that the authorities did not have things under control.  The World Trade Center had been bombed a few months earlier. Anti-immigrant sentiment was starting to grow, and in the previous two years, a number of ships with passengers smuggled in from China had been apprehended in US waters.

Previously, foreigners in the US illegally were not imprisoned – they were required to report to US Immigration periodically, but were effectively at liberty until their cases were adjudicated.  In order to deter other smugglers, the Clinton administration took a hard line, detaining the Golden Venture passengers in various prisons across the country.  Speedy deportation hearings were held; about half the passengers were returned to China, and another 50 were sent to other countries.  A group of men were held in the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, where most of them stayed for 3 years and 8 months. The exhibit is about their experiences, as well as about the art they created.

Golden Venture bird cage, ca. 1994, Rolled paper, papier-mâché, cardboard, glue and colored marker, MOCA Collection

A grass roots group, People of the Golden Vision comprised of residents of York County and pro bono lawyers formed to help the detainees obtain better conditions and asylum; they organized letter writing campaigns, held vigils and fundraisers for over three years, keeping the plight of the detainees before the public.

In 1996, a small group of exceptionally artistically talented detainees were released and given a special visa for “aliens of extraordinary ability.”  In 1996, President Clinton paroled the remaining detainees. Today, 15 former detainees are in the US and still have no clear path to permanent legal residence, even though they work, pay taxes, and even own businesses. 

Large vessel with lid, ca. 1994, folded paper, papier-mâché, glue and colored marker, Courtesy of Jeff and Cindy Lobach

The exhibit features some 40 objects made collectively from papier-mâché (which the detainees fashioned from toilet paper, glue and water)  and from folded and rolled paper (mostly magazines and legal pads).  Over the course of their detention, the detainees made these works as gifts to the people who helped them, or to be sold at fundraisers to pay for their defense.

Many of the sculptures in the exhibit are quite elaborate, and certain images dominate:  eagles, peacocks, boats and bird cages.  Many, such as the pagodas, are also very large.

detail, Pagoda Tower with Eagles and Pineapple, 1994, Rolled, cut and folded paper, papier-mâché, cardboard, blue and colored marker, courtesy of Jeff and Cindy Lobach

While the sculptures are amazing, be sure to watch the videos in this room: one of the male detainees singing Amazing Grace in Chinese and thanking their supporters; another featuring the paper sculptures made by the detainees, who we don’t see (many didn’t want to appear on screen), but we hear them talking about their quest for freedom, the boredom of prison, learning to fold paper, and their yearning for a better life.

Lantern, 1994, Folded paper, thread, plastic beads, glue, colored marker

 

I also encourage you to visit MOCA’s core exhibit With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which details the history of Chinese immigrants in America, beginning in 1784 when the Empress of China left New York City for Canton, to trade tradition Appalachian ginseng, furs, and Mexican silver for Chinese  luxury goods such as porcelains, teas and silks.

Soup Plate, custom-made in China for NYS Governor Dewitt Clinton, ca. 1805, courtesy of the NY Historical Society)

Through photos, paintings and political cartoons, you’ll learn about the Chinese Americans who contributed to the American economy and culture: the anonymous workers who built ships and constructed the railroads; the entertainers who worked on the “Chop Suey Circuit” (Anna May Wong being the most famous); and current icons such as YoYo Ma and Vera Wang.  Renowned Chinese American architect Maya Lin designed the Museum.  There are also, sadly, artifacts detailing the devastating effects of the Chinese Exclusionary Laws, and also the ways in which Chinese Americans were caricatured and discriminated against.

The Museum provides a relevant and much needed lens on the history of immigration in the U.S., reminding us how easy it is for government and citizens to demonize “the other,” and how harsh measures to restrict immigration damage not only the targeted groups, but all of us.

Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures will be at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) until March 25th, 2018.  But get there much sooner. 

MOCA is located at 215 Centre Street. 

Bruno Miguel: Seduction and Reason

Bruno Miguel (1981) trained as a painter in his native Brazil – however, that might not be your first thought walking through his show at Sapar Contemporary.  Not content with the two-dimensional plane, Miguel uses everything except canvas as a platform for his colors.  Rather than painting horizontally, he unpacks the elements of a painting, then stacks them vertically – almost as if he were painting in three dimensions.  Through his mixing of traditional, luxury, quotidian, festive and personal elements, the artist creates an opportunity for new narratives.

Fé (Faith) from series Sala de Jantar (Dining Room), Bruno Miguel, 2014, Oil and colorjet paint on set of 54 porcelain and earthenware plates purchased in antique and solid round plates of enamel paint

As you enter the gallery, your eye will be caught by Fé (Faith) from the series Sala de Jantar (Dining Room) (2013), which takes up the better part of the wall.  As you approach this cross-shaped sculpture, you’ll see that it is made from antique porcelain and earthenware plates.  Look closer, and you’ll see that they’ve all been manipulated by the artist in some way –

detail, Fé (Faith) from series Sala de Jantar (Dining Room), Bruno Miguel, 2014, Oil and colorjet paint on set of 54 porcelain and earthenware plates purchased in antique and solid round plates of enamel paint

sometimes he painted over them, or he painted designs on them, or he put down several layers of paint, covered them with masking tape, and then cut into the tape or reshaped it.

detail, Cafezinho? (Coffee?) (mother), Bruno Miguel, 2014, Polyester resin and pigment on 31 plastic cups that belonged to the artist’s mother

If you look to the left, however, you’ll find two works that take you into the artists’ personal life while simultaneously reflecting on the history of immigration in Brazil.  In the front window is  Cafezinho? (Coffee?) (2014), a collection of 31 small coffee mugs, used by his mother to serve coffee to her guests, especially when she had Tupperware parties.  By filling these cups with brightly colored – indeed Carnival colored – resins, the artist seems to be linking his mother’s identity as an immigrant with his identity as a first-generation Brazilian (his mother was from Mozambique and father from Portugal). 

Todas as cores (All the colors) (father), Bruno Miguel, 2014, Polyester resin and pigment on 3 shot glasses that belonged to the artist’s father

Nearby you’ll find Todas as cores (All Colors) (2014), three  shot glasses which belonged to his father, who was an alcoholic.  By filling them with bright resins, the artist is rewriting his history, without judgement, and linking it to his artistic practice.

49 from the series Essas Pessoas na Sala de Jantar (These People in the Dining Room), Bruno Miguel, 2012-2014, Spray paint, cold porcelain, polyurethane foam, wire, acrylic resin and paper-mâché on porcelain bought at an antique auction

In the rear of the gallery, on the floor, you’ll find Essas Pessoas na Sala de Jantar (Those People In the Dining Room) (2012–2015), a riot of whimsical sculptures of tropical trees and fantastical islands/creatures that might bring to mind  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince; when you look closer, you’ll notice that these islands/creatures seem to be simultaneously swallowing and spouting antique porcelain cups and saucers.   For the artist, porcelain reminds him of dinner conversations, and he uses it as a way of inviting dialogue with the viewer.  With these works, Miguel plays these traditional, serious tea sets (which he purchased at auction) against the bright, playful Carnival materials that engulf them, inviting the viewer to consider how history is absorbed and presented.

New Neoconcrete, #8 from the series Totems, Bruno Miguel, 2015, Oil paint and spray on sign with wood

On the lower level you’ll find work in a completely different style: four neo-concrete totems, that were made from actual New York City parking signs (who hasn’t wanted to paint over them?)  This one, New Neoconcrete #8 is dedicated to the Brazilian Neo-Concrete artist Hélio Oiticica.

This is only a small selection of the work you’ll find in Bruno Miguel: Seduction and Reason, which is on only until November 5th.  So get over to  Sapar Contemporary Gallery, 9 North Moore Street in Tribeca soon!

The Visual Arts and World War 1

World War 1 and the Visual Arts, the excellent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commemorates the centenary of the U.S.‘s entry into that conflict.  Consisting of pen & ink drawings, photographs, posters and  lithographs, primarily by European artists – French, British and Russian, the exhibit also contains work by German artists, which I haven’t seen in the other shows on this subject. The 136 objects, drawn mainly from the Met’s collection, highlight how artists were conflicted by the war: some eagerly used their talents to create pro-war propaganda, while others sought to convey the horrors of the conflict through their art.  Several served as war correspondents, medics and even soldiers; some who started out in favor of war came to reverse their positions.

5-1/2% War Loan, Russian, Color Lithograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the hall leading up to the exhibit there are 10 posters from France, Belgium and Russia, whose bright colors and bold graphics exhort viewers to support the war – in this case, urging them to buy Russian war bonds.

Banking at 4,000 Feet, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 1917, Lithograph, Purchase, Reba and Dave Williams Gift, 1998

Christopher Richard Wynne (CRW) Nevinson (1889-1946) was appointed an official war artist  by the British government in 1917, after having volunteered briefly in France and then with the Royal Army Medical Corps.  This lithograph is based on an airplane trip he took over the English countryside.  Notice how the artist inserted his own hand, gripping the side of the plane – I’m sure it was a “white knuckle” experience! Nevinson’s work is prominently featured in this show, with ten pieces.

Recruits, John Copley, 1915 Lithograph, Johanna and Leslie Garfield

John Copley (1875-1950) was a prolific British printmaker. This image of recruits lining up to enroll – and standing very straight – illustrates how the war affected all strata of British society.  The wall label informs us that “By fall 1914, so many lives had been lost that the criteria for enlisting was changed:  the minimum height for male volunteers shifted from 5’8” in August 1914 to 5’5” in October and 5’3” by November.” 

In the Somme, Village in Ruins, Pierre Bonnard, 1916, colored chalks and watercolor, private collection

When I saw the above work, I was surprised to discover it was created by  the French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), as his name always brings to mind interiors.  It turns out that there is only one known war painting by him:  A Village in Ruins near Ham.  This chalk and watercolor was made in preparation for that 1917 work.

The Exodus, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, 1915, Lithograph, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sadly, The Exodus -1915 by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) has an all too familiar feel. Even though it depicts people fleeing Belgium after a German invasion, this image echoes (or should I say, presages) ones on the front pages of today’s newspapers.  Much of Steinlen’s art during the war focused the plight of refugees.

Doomed City, Natalia Goncharova, 1914, Lithograph, Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was a Russian avant-garde artist and writer.  She also designed sets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, where she was living with her future husband Mikhail Larionov, when war broke out.  They returned to Russia for Larionov to do his military service, then went back to Paris in 1917.

Mothers, Käthe Kollowitz, 1919, Lithograph, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928

I have long admired German artist Käthe Kolowitz (1867-1945) whose work centers on the lives of the working class and women.  The above lithograph is from her series Krieg (War). She appears as the central figure in this work, embracing her two sons; the younger one Peter was killed in combat when he was 18. 

from The War, Otto Dix, 1923-24, Etching, aquatint and drypoint, The Richard Harris Collection

Initially welcoming the start of World War 1, Otto Dix (1891-1969) served as a machine-gun operator in France and Belgium, where he was seriously wounded.  His war experiences turned him into a pacifist, known for his imagery of a corrupt, brutal and decaying post-war German society.  Der Krieg (The War) is a series of 51 prints, based on Dix’ memories of battles, as well as contemporaneous photographs, and is modeled on Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The disasters of war).

In the section The Intersection of Of Arts and Arms, you’ll find a set of helmets that were designed by Met curator Bashford Dean.  Thirty-three Met staff members served in the armed forces in World War 1 – in the Great Hall is a commemorative plaque for the two who lost their lives.

The Human U.S Shield, Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas, 1918, Gelatin silver print, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987

You’ll also find a work by American photographers Arthur S. Mole (1889-1983) and John D. Thomas (died 1947), who were commissioned by the US military to create photographs to lift war-time moral.  Using thousands of soldiers, they made a series of “living photographs” of icons of American history, including  the Statue of Liberty, Woodrow Wilson, and the Liberty Bell.  The U.S. Human Shield, above, was staged at Camp Custer in Michigan, using 30,000 men, and shot from an 80 ft. high viewing tower. 

Study for “The Coming of the Americans,” John Singer Sargent, 1921-22, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on off-white laid paper, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known as a society painter of the Gilded Age (especially for Madame X), but he also documented the horrors of the first world war (the monumental Gassed of 1918 is probably his best-known work of that era).  This study is for a painting, The Coming of the Americans, commissioned by Harvard University to commemorate alumni who died in the war. There are four other works by him in this show.

This is just a small sampling of the works you’ll find in this thought-provoking exhibit.

World War 1 and the Visual Arts   is on through January 7th at the Met, 1000 Fifth Avenue (83rd Street). Put it on your “to see” list!

Art Takes on the Prison System

This Land is Our Land aka Justice, Tasha Dougé, 2016, Synthetic hair, chicken wire, cotton, thread, 3’ x 5’, NFS. Photo courtesy of Bronx Art Space.

State Property, an exhibit spread across 3 locations in the Bronx, will force you to rethink everything you thought you knew about life behind bars.  While its focus is on prison labor, the show also confronts the issues of mass incarceration and solitary confinement. Many of the artists have work in all three venues, and I encourage you to visit them all.

I started at the Bronx Art Space, whose small but thought-provoking exhibit will make you ask, every time you see a “Made in the U.S.A” label, where exactly the item was made. 

At the entrance you’ll find Tasha Dougé’s This Land is Our Land, aka Justice (photo at the top of this post), a rendering of the American flag in synthetic hair, chicken wire, cotton and thread.  In the accompanying text, Dougé speaks of the contributions made to the American economy over the centuries by people of African descent (especially through the labor of enslaved Africans).  She further points out how today, many people of color are in private prisons and deportation centers, where they  provide cheap labor for US firms.  Even though the incarcerated are learning a trade, they can’t use their skills when they leave jail, because companies don’t want to hire people with felony convictions.  It’s no surprise that we have high rates of recidivism.

installation by Incarcerated Nation

Along one wall is an installation by Incarcerated Nation, featuring a chart listing several American corporations, including Mc Donald’s, Victoria’s Secrets and Starbucks, whose products have been made using  prison labor (sometimes through a subcontractor).  The exhibit informs us that many ex-prisoners are unable to get jobs at the companies whose wares they made when they were in jail, because of their felony convictions.  Also in this installation, you’ll find the outline of a solitary cell on the floor, and a virtual reality headset that lets you experience solitary confinement.

Pushed to Prison, Natalie Collette Wood, 2017, acrylic, spray paint and enamel on canvas

Natalie Collette Wood’s piece, Pushed to Prison, is a visceral commentary on how our schools fail to give kids the tools they need to succeed in life – one of the biggest problems affecting prison populations is the rate of illiteracy.  Besides the visual punch, the fact that the artist is an art teacher in public schools adds to its potency. 

There’s more to see in this exhibit, including Emma Lee’s outta sight, outta mind composition note book, which invites viewers to write their responses to various prompts such as “When is a debt paid to society?”  “Should prisoners have rights?” and “Justice for all.”

Bronx Art Space  is also having screenings and discussions – you can find more information here.  Their exhibit continues until October 21st.  Bronx Art Space is located at 305 East 140th Street in the Bronx.

Swing Space is a raw storefront space on the corner of Grand Concourse and 162nd Street.  The focus of this exhibit is solitary confinement and how it affects both prisoners and their families. 

Jumpsuit (Swing Space)

The most vivid invocation of this theme is the orange prison jumpsuit.  There are three,  one inscribed with the name of Kalief Browder, who spent three years in Riker’s Island – mostly in solitary confinement – without being convicted of a crime.  Accused of  stealing a back pack when he was 16, Browder was sent to jail when his family couldn’t make his $3,000 bail.  After his release, Browder experienced mental health issues, and in 2015, he committed suicide at age 22.

Melt, Five Mualimm-ak, 2009, charcoal

You’ll find three charcoal portraits by Five Mualimm-ak, who served 12 years in prison on a weapons charge, 5 of them in solitary confinement.  He has subsequently become an activist against solitary and mass incarceration.  When you look at the portraits, be sure to read the stories next to them. This one is a portrait of Melt, an immigrant from Fujian Province, China.  Because he had a tattoo, the authorities deemed him a gang member (even though the tattoo said  Love & Peace in Chinese characters), and he was confined to solitary.   

Paradox of Violence #5, Jennie West, oil on canvas

At first glance, you might think Jenny West’s oil painting is one of flowers, but it actually is a rendering of bullet holes.  For West, there’s an intense force that comes from violence, and she tries to capture that transformative energy in her art.

The show also includes two videos.  In the back, off the main area is Duran Jackson’s video Haze a looping a 41-second clip of surveillance footage found on YouTube, showing a corrections officer and an inmate fighting inside a prison. There’s also a video by Solitary Watch, of photos created in response to requests by prisoners in solitary confinement; the images range from seascapes, to animals, to religious images to current views of their old neighborhoods.

The exhibit at Swing Space, 900 Grand Concourse (at 162nd Street), is up until November 20th.

The Andrew Freedman Home  hosts the largest of the three shows, and it has more of a fine art focus.   

Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx)/Freddy Gray urn, Roberto Lugo, ceramic, China paint, lustre

Robert Lugo calls himself a ghetto potter. He was a self-taught artist until his mid-twenties, when he received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute; in 2014, he finished the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University. 

He’s created this fabulous ceramic urn, juxtaposing an image of Freddie Gray (who died at the age of 25 in police custody in Baltimore in 2015), with that of Fred Sanford (the TV character played by the late comedian Redd Foxx).

The Completely from Scratch Steer to Sirloin Cookbook, Nava Atlas, 2012, archival inkjet printed on rag paper

Nava Atlas looks at the industrial prison complex through the prism of food.  She has mashed up a 1931 USDA guide to slaughtering steer with a 1969 Better Homes and Gardens meat cookbook, noting that prisoners are making up more of the labor in slaughter houses, and wondering if they are forced to do this kind of work, or if they can refuse. She’s not the only one who wants to know.

Cell Game, Pamela Talese, 2014 mixed media

For Pamela Talese, “a board game seems an appropriate expression for the US System of Corrections”, and so she’s created Cell Game.  In the accompanying statement, she notes that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and that state and local governments are incurring huge debts to build prisons or to have them run by private entities, with no concurrent benefits to society.   Around the board are squares with facts about prison life and the prison industry.  Like typical board games, Cell Game has cards that tell you how you can move; Cell Game‘s are orange and have instructions like “CCA takes over your prison: reduces food intake by 20%: BACK 2 SPACES” or “The NACCP takes up your case & gives you hope:  AHEAD 4 SPACES.”

Reflections of our (inner) Societies, Alice Mizrachi, 2017, assemblage

I would have liked to know more about this assemblage by Alice Mizrachi, as it is quite different from her usual murals…

There’s much more to see:  The exhibit continues at the Andrew Freedman Home,  which is at 1125 Grand Concourse (165th Street) the Bronx,  until November 20th. 

If you can, see all three exhibits – if not, be sure to see at least one. 

Brazilian Luciana Brito Opens a Gallery in NYC

Last month I attended the opening of Luciana Brito-NY Project  in Tribeca.  Hailing from São Paulo, Brazil, where she’s had her eponymous gallery since 1997, Brito will be collaborating with Espasso Annex, a gallery for vintage Brazilian furniture, where she’ll mount three exhibits over the next twelve months.  It’s great to have a leading Brazilian gallerist bringing her country’s artists to the Big Apple.  Welcome Luciana!

The current show is dedicated to the works of artists associated with the Brazilian Ruptura movement.  Founded in the 1950‘s by Geraldo de Barros, Waldemar Cordeiro, Luiz Sacilotto, Lothar Charoux, Kazmer Féjer, Leopoldo Haar and Anatol Wladyslaw, they sought to move art away from figurative representation to art based on “space-time, movement and material.”  These artists were part of a larger movement of concrete art, that, like constructivism, was born from post WW1 art upheavals.  I was not familiar with Grupo Ruptura, so it was great to learn about them.   I was struck by the clean lines, bursts of pure color, and industrial materials in much of the work. Below are some of the highlights:

Idéia Visivel, Waldemar Cordeiro, 1951, enamel on Kelmite

Waldemar Cordeiro (1924-73) was born in Rome to an Italian mother and a Brazilian father.  After studying art in Italy, he emigrated to São Paulo, initially working as a journalist, art critic and newspaper caricaturist. In 1952 he co-founded Grupo Ruptura, the São Paulo branch of the Brazilian concrete art movement.  In the picture above, painted a year earlier, he’s already articulating many of the ideas he would later publish in the group’s Manifesto.  In the 1960’s he became one of the first Brazilian visual artists to use computers in his work.

Arranjo de Trés Formas Semelhantes Dentro de Um Circulo, Geraldo de Barros, 1963, enamel on Kelmite

A central figure in the Brazilian Concrete art movement, noted especially for his photography (scratched negatives, multiple exposures, montages) and painting, Geraldo de Barros (1923-98), was also a furniture designer (in 1954 he established a furniture factory, Unilabor.)             I especially liked the rhythmic feel of the above painting, and the use of enamel gives the colors some punch.

Concreto 101, Judith Lauand, 1958, china ink on paper

Judith Lauand (born 1922) was the only female artist invited to join Grupo Ruptura.  A painter and printmaker, who trained as a fine artist,  she’s known for her modernist geometric free-floating abstractions.

Untitled, Luiz Sacilotto, 1955/1980, oil on fiberboard

Luiz Sacilotto’s (1924-2003) work spans painting, printmaking, sculpture, design and architecture.  He studied drawing at the Brazilian Association of Fine Arts, painted landscapes, still lifes and portraits, then moved on to Expressionism, which he left for geometric abstraction.  His work, with its squares, parallel lines, diagonals,  and symmetry was a major precursor of op-art in Brazil.

Untitled, Anatol Wladyslaw, 1960, gouache on paper

Anatol Wladyslaw (1913-2004) started his professional life as an electrical engineer, but in 1944, he began studying painting and drawing.  His early works were geometric in style, then he moved to informal abstraction and figuration.   I like the energy of this gouache.

This is a small sampling of the works you’ll find in this show, which will be on until November 6th. Don’t wait until then to see it.

Luciana Brito-NY Project is located at 186 Franklin Street.

Celebrating 20 Years of African Art in NYC

Axis Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  Founded by South Africans Lisa Brittan and Gary van Wyk, PhD., the gallery specializes in art from Africa, and by artists of African descent, whose works often have a social or political bent.  To celebrate the gallery’s milestone, they are mounting two thematic exhibitions, the first of which, Liquid State, is currently on view.

As its title implies, Liquid State, which features the work of six artists, is about change, transformation and slipping away…  Here are a few works that caught my eye:

Rally Welcoming SWAPO Leader, Sam Nujoma, after thirty years exile, Gideon Mendel, 2017, from the Damage series, Windhoek, Namibia, September 24, 1989. Giclée print from water and mold damaged negative on Epson enhanced matte paper

Photographer Gideon Mendel began his career documenting the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  He created this image from a negative of photos he had taken in the 1980s.  That negative was subsequently stored in a box of transparencies and negatives in a friend’s garage, where they got wet and moldy.  He became fascinated by the effects of water on negatives and prints, seeing them as an invitation “to reflect on the idealism behind revolution and the outcomes that the march of history produces”.  The above print (which takes up one wall) of a welcome rally for SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma, is one of many works Mendel has created using images of past political struggles that have been damaged by water or fire.  

In that vein you’ll find another work from his Dzhangal series, as well as the “Water Chapters” from his Drowning World series, a looped video exploring responses by individuals, families and communities to floods in various locations, including the Philippines, Nigeria, India and the US.  Mendel’s work may make you reflect on the duality of water – at once a life and creative force, but one also capable of violent destruction.

flowernuit, Al Miller, 2017, oil paint on aluminum and resin

Al (Algernon) Miller is a Harlem-based artist and  Afrofuturist whose eclectic influences include jazz, Egyptian mythology, African beading and quilting,  landscape design, and technology.  This work, flowernuit is one of several at the gallery from his  Angle angle series, made with oil paint on aluminum and resin, that have a delicate but powerful feeling.

Katangais money copper, varying patination, variable dimensions

Sammy Baloji has created an installation based around his birthplace of Katanga, a resource-rich region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining has been the major industry and export earner for the country since the early 20th century.  On one wall, you’ll find a grainy large scale print of a black and white photo of the Singers of the Copper Cross, a boys choir in Elizabethville.  They are wearing large Katanga crosses – which resemble the St. Andrew’s cross – that were used as currency in pre-colonial times.  In a vitrine on the opposite side you’ll find 80 of these pieces (photo above).  There’s also a video, Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode 1 that was commissioned for Dokumenta 14, featuring historic photos of the Choir and documenting how copper wire is made from ingots; in the background the soundtrack of a choral mass plays throughout.  This installation calls into question the relationship between currency, Christianity, colonialism and commerce.

There’s much more to see, so make your way over to Axis Gallery before this exhibit closes on October 21st.

The second anniversary exhibit will run from October 27th to November 18th.

Axis Gallery is located at 625 West 27th Street. 

Congratulations Lisa and Gary on your gallery’s first 20 years – here’s to the next 20!