Transformer: Native Art in the Digital Era

We Will Again Open This Container of Wisdom That has Been Left in Our Care), 2006, video still. Digital video projection with sound. Collection of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Transformer – Native Art in Light and Sound, the wonderful new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, forcefully makes the case that Native art didn’t stop at the 19th century, but rather continued to move and develop through to the present, when Native artists are employing contemporary materials such as light, sound  and computers to convey beliefs and customs across time.  Through their use of technology and electronic media, the artists in this show demonstrate how tradition and transformation combine to create art that remains culturally authentic, thereby challenging pre-conceived notions of what “Native art” should be.

Still Life #3, Raven Chacon, 2015, Sound and light installation with text. Voice and translation by Melvatha Chee. Collection of the artist.

When you enter the room housing  Raven Chacon’s Still Life #3, you may at first be captivated by the walls, which are bathed throughout the day in the glowing light of one of the four sacred colors:  white (dawn), blue (midday), yellow (dusk), and black/red (night).  As you move around the room to read the wall panels containing excerpts from the Diné creation story in both English and Navajo,  you’ll hear a voice, projected from row of speakers suspended from the ceiling, reciting other excerpts from that story. The speakers have a sound delay, which serves to dimensionalize the sound, moving it through both time and space. Chacon has combined the temporal and spatial aspects of both light and sound to give us a sense of his Diné ancestors moving from one world to another.

Four Generations, Jon Corbett, 2015, Single-channel video. Collection of the artist.

Jon Corbett is pursuing his doctorate, with the goal of indigenizing computer code based on the Cree language and concepts.  In Four Generations,  we have an idea of what this could mean.  Corbett has electronically created portraits of himself, his grandmother, his father and his son.  The images are created pixel by pixel, not in the usual grid pattern, but in a spiral, starting with the sitter’s right eye – think digital beading.  Once complete, the image begins to unwind and a new one begins to be created, connecting each of the sitters through a kind of digital DNA.  I especially appreciated this work, because one of the hardest things to do in cross-stitch embroidery is to create curved lines, since you’re stitching on a grid.

Aosamia’jij-Too Much Too Little, Jordan Bennett, 2017. Installation with commercial speakers, black ash, sweetgrass, medium-density fiberboard. Collection of the artist.

Jordan Bennett learned weaving from his aunties a few years ago.  His audio installation, Aosamia’jij-Too Much Too Little, features five speakers he built from scratch with the help of members of the Mi’kmaq people in his home community of Newfoundland, Canada.  Take a look a the speaker grills, which Bennett wove from split black ash and sweet grass, as well as white ribbons from his grandmother – they each have a  different pattern.  Against the opposite wall are black and white photos taken by anthropologist Frederick Johnson in 1931 on the Conne River reserve in Newfoundland.  As you look at the photos, listen – the speakers are playing the sound of the landscape in the images. 

detail, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Kevin McKenzie, 2015. Cast Polyurethane, acrylic, neon. Collection of the artist.

Kevin McKenzie’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost derives from his upbringing.  McKenzie was raised a Catholic, but in his teens, he started to embrace his indigenous culture and spirituality. Through his choice of objects and their lighting, his installation evokes a chapel and a honky-tonk.  He explained that the buffalo skull is a sacred object, the center of ceremony and tradition; these are made from super high-tech materials,  including liquid plastic and carbon fibre mesh cog (the neon is custom made).  McKenzie sees his work as being about aesthetics, both high-tech and ancient, but for me it reckons with two different religious traditions, and how they collide. 

still from Our future is in the land: if we listen to it, Julie Nagam, 2017, installation with digital video projection, sound, paint. Collection of the artist.

Julie Nagam’s installation, Our future is in the land: if we listen to it, wraps around the room.  Different segments of a landscape are highlighted, then individual inhabitants, such as a bird, a dragonfly or a wolf appear.  Sometimes you’ll hear nature sounds or music in the background; at other times, a voice talking about the trees.

The Harbinger of Catastrophe, Marianne Nicolson, 2017, Glass, wood, halogen-bulb mechanism. Collection of the artist.

You may want to spend some time with Marianne Nicolson’s ingenious installation, The Harbinger of Catastrophe.  In the center of the room is a glass bentwood-style box with carved pictographs that are projected on all four walls, rising and falling as the light  inside the box moves, bringing to mind stories of great floods.

There’s lot’s more to see in this exhibit, including the videos by Nicholas Galanin  of a hip-hop dancer moving to traditional music, and a traditional dancer in traditional dress performing a Raven dance to electronic music (photo at top of this story)

I really enjoyed this exhibit.  The Museum has staged several fabulous shows in the last few years that have expanded our understanding of what Native art is, and how Native artists continue to honor their traditions and culture while also being part of the larger contemporary  world.

Transformer – Native Art in Light & Sound  will be open until January 6th, but don’t wait ‘til then to see it at the Museum of the American Indian, One Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.

Tinker Labs

Inspired by the artists and artwork in “Transformer,” visitors can explore the intersection of art, science and technology through hands-on, experimental activities in a tinkering and workshop environment. “Tinker Lab: Exploring Art + Technology” projects change each month and focus on a different artist and their work in the exhibition. The program begins in January 2018 and runs through June 2018 on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Admission is free, but an RSVP will be required; recommend for ages 9 and up. For exact dates and registration, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/education/.

Uprooted in DUMBO

Made it to the opening of Uproot  at Smack Mellon in Dumbo, Brooklyn.  Featuring work by some 50 artists, the show makes no bones about its political bent – all of the works are in response to the 2016 US Presidential election.  While there is a sense of rage and outrage in some of them, most of the works seem to confront issues, especially the environment and immigration rather than point fingers. As the exhibit press release notes: “In these troubling, uncertain times, it remains important to turn to artists and creative thinkers for guidance”.  I couldn’t agree more! 

Many of the works are large scale, especially the fibre art ones, but there are also paintings, prints, videos.  Here are a few works that caught my eye:

January 2017, Rebecca Graves, 2017, Needlepoint

This needlepoint by Rebecca Graves was featured on the exhibit brochure, and describes the tone of much of the work.  However, I would say that her admonition is relevant, no matter who is in power.

Still Structure II, Linda Cunningham, 2012, Pastel, ink, collage

Linda Cunningham’s piece addresses environmental concerns in a straightforward fashion.  Photo transfers of left-over skeletons of former iron and steel factories in the Ruhr Valley, Germany (but they really could be anywhere) are overlaid with pastel and ink renderings of endangered ancient olive trees (over 400 years old) in Apulia, southern Italy, demonstrating the enormous contradictions between what people do to the earth, and how nature nourishes the planet.

Veritas Inverso, Cecile Chong, 2017, Encaustic and Western Arborvitae

Cecile Chong took the title of the show literally, and, after much effort, found a young tree with a root ball, which she then inverted and coated with encaustic paint (wax and resin) in the colors of the U.S. flag, to demonstrate how people are feeling today.

Green Unplugged (Expanded), Borinquen Gallo, 2017, Debris netting, plastic bags, caution tape and URL cables

I like how Borinquen Gallo transforms recycled garbage bags and “caution” tape into an intriguing tapestry, Green Unplugged, exploring themes of environmental degradation, excessive consumption and climate change denial.   

AD ASTRA, DaaPo Reo, 2017, Cotton, polyester, vintage African textiles, leather suitcase

AD ASTRA is one of a series of 12 flags being created by DaaPo Reo, that speak to the issues facing Africa in the 21st century.  The artist moved to Brooklyn from Nigeria several years ago.   Next to this flag is a wall text which alludes to the journey some African men make from the Continent, to South America, then to the US.  AD ASTRA means “to the stars” in Latin…

Maquila, Ana de la Cueva, Embroidery on linen with hoop

U.S.-Mexico border issues are the subtext for Ana de la Cueva’s Maquila; be sure to watch the video (also part of the piece) which shows the work being stitched by a commercial sewing machine whose movements are  timed to lively background music.

Arrested Symphony, Esperanza Cortés, 2017, Jewelry chains on clay sculpture, encaustic on wood panel

Having just seen Esperanza Cortés work at Longwood Art Gallery (my review here) I was delighted to see her Arrested Symphony, using jewelry in an intriguing way.

America’s Social Contract, Diana Schmertz, 2017, Watercolor on laser cut paper

America’s Social Contract by Diana Schmertz is a bit over 2’ high and 14’ long.  Each of the 7 panels is painted with a watercolor image of two or more hands of diverse races reaching and pulling each other up. When you get closer, you’ll notice that the paper on which the image has been painted, has been cut out with the text of the U.S. Constitution!

This is a very small sampling of the works in this show.  Uproot runs until December 31st, but don’t wait until the end of the year to see it.  The gallery is also hosting a number of talks and performances so get over to Smack Mellon, 92 Plymouth Street, in DUMBO, Brooklyn. 

Woman as King

I finally made it over to King Woman , the fabulous exhibit at Pen + Brush, featuring work by 25 international established and emerging female artists.  Organized by guest curator Mashonda Tifrere (founder of ArtLeadHER), King Woman features realistic, hyperrealistic and abstract works across a variety of media: painting, video, photography and fibre art.  Here are some of my highlights:

Artemis, Ingrid Baars, 2017, C-print face mounted on dibond, framed

Ingrid Baars’ photo Artemis derives its title from the goddess of Greek mythology; its composition is inspired by Renaissance portraits, which were often in profile. Her image captures Artemis’ duality – the huntress who is also the protector of young girls, virginity and childbirth.  Measuring almost 4’ x 5 ‘, it is captivating.

Indestructible, Stephanie Hirsch, 2016, Hand-sewn beads on shaped canvas

I can’t begin to calculate how many hours it must have taken Stephanie Hirsch to embroider Indestructible, made from beads hand-sewn on canvas.  She uses flowers to invoke our own individual metaphorical garden.  However, Hirsch isn’t giving us some vapid, floral, feel-good image – look again, and you’ll see the serpent slithering in between the petals and leaves, reminding us of life’s lurking perils.

Double Bind, Lacey McKinney, Oil, graphite and metal leaf on polyester film

Lacy McKinney’s Double Bind caught my eye because of the striking way the faces combine, overlap, and come apart – there’s a very strong sense of movement and struggle in this painting.

toni parks, SALT series, Lola Flash, 2011, photograph

Lola Flash uses a 4 x 5 large format camera to create the portraits in her SALT series of iconic older women who are photographed in their homes.  Her goal is make older women more visible, and to challenge the way we see them.  The portrait above is of the photographer Toni Parks, who is also the daughter of photographer Gordon Parks.

detail, I Am a Dreamer, Azi Amiri, Acrylic, ink, transfered image, watercolor on paper

Azi Amiri aims to reexamine the form and function of the headscarves (hijab) in I Am a Dreamer.   She created this work (49 pieces) by asking friends in Iran to send her their headshots wearing hijab and a note containing a fact about them.  By focusing solely on the hijab as a decorative accessory, and combining those images with text that is alternatively assertive, wistful and funny, Amiri forces us to confront our own views of women who wear headscarves. 

Subway Windows, Swoon, Silkscreen and acrylic gouache on found object

As a subway rider, I was especially drawn to this work by SWOON (the artist Caledonia Curry) who’s known for her urban-based work examining the relationship between people and the built environment. I also like how she repurposed an old window.

Hold Back My Power Elizabeth Waggett, 2017, 24 Karat gold, ink charcoal and graphite on cotton

I was struck by Elizabeth Waggett’s depiction of a lobster – not simply because of it’s size.  At approximately 10’ x 5’, hanging from the gallery’s ceiling, it is a powerful image indeed.  By rendering it in black with just a band of gold on its claws, the artist is forcing you to confront the value and status of this sea creature, which is often the most expensive item on a menu.

Tango Tease, Lynnie Z, 2017, acrylic on wood panel

I was immediately seduced by the bold, lush colors and composition of Lynnie Z’s Tango Tease, whose images combine to create a tropical femme fatal. 

I also recommend that you pick up the catalogue, which at $10, is an absolute steal!

King Woman is on through December 9th, but don’t wait until then to see this wonderful show.  Pen + Brush is at 29 East 22nd Street, and is open from 12:00 – 6:00pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays.

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. 

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.