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.

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. 

Bronx Artists Residencies Exhibit

This summer, the Bronx Arts Space offered residencies (6 weeks studio space and a $500 stipend) to a group of six artists.  At the end of August, they held an exhibit of projects this inaugural group had worked on during their residencies. I had a chance to speak with three of the artists, and I definitely want to continue following their work.  Here’s why:

untitled, Alexis White, book pages and crayon

I was very attracted to Alexis White’s book-based work.  Against one wall were several works featuring  strong geometric patterns with vibrant colors – on closer inspection, these figures were drawn in crayon on the pages of a book.  Alexis began this series when her father, who works at a psychiatric facility, came home one day with a psychiatric book about “Children of Color.” 

Untitled, Alexis White, mixed paper and book collage

She also created a second collage series using pages from a found book (Les Etoiles by Alfonse Daudet), on which she pasted images cut from magazines.

Melissa Calderón’s embroidery art grabbed my attention immediately – it turns out her grandmother is a seamstress.  Melissa employs unconventional surfaces, such as wood, to create her sculptural embroidery pieces. Her work covers a variety of social issues, from the environment to housing. 

The Arctic Meltdown, Melissa Calderon, 1979-present, thread and wood

Against one wall is a series of 8 pieces, which show how the Arctic ice has been melting since 1979 and will continue to shrink through 2035, based on the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The Bronx Housing Court Monster, embroidery on linen, Melissa Calderón

I especially liked The Bronx Housing Court Monster – the title and the image say it all!

 

diarama of room in Harlem with videos of Shilo, OH by Erica Bailey

Erica Bailey’s dioramas deal with transience and impermanence.  She exhibited two rooms: one a recreation of her childhood room in Shilo Ohio, and the other, her first studio apartment in Harlem. As the artist noted, she wasn’t the first person to live in these spaces, and she won’t be the last.  In the “windows” of each room are street scenes from the other location, demonstrating their connection despite their differences.

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next from these three!

Constructions of Cultural Identity at the Bronx Museum

Love Thy Neighbor, the last of the 3-part installation The Neighbors is on view at the Bronx Museum.  The exhibit, curated by Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy, explores “the stranger” versus “the neighbor”; by reinserting them into contexts that are familiar but unknown, the artists explore the roles that  “the other” plays in a community.  The three featured artists have created new works for the exhibition.

Image from Antisocial, 2017 by Ignacio González-Lang

Ignacio González-Lang has been working on his series Antisocial for 10 years.  He creates collages using police sketches of either missing persons or people who have committed crimes, then overlays them on photos of people who match those images, which he’s found on Instagram at #NYC.  With his I-phone he photographs these combined images and laser prints them on ceramics. 

Image from Antisocial, 2017 by Ignacio González-Lang

Mr. González-Lang told me that by recontextualizing these images, he’s asking, “How do you know who you’re looking for?” His project calls the notion of identity into question in a very powerful way. You may notice that the 135 photos are displayed at a lower height than normal; this was done so they can be accessible to the school children who take classes in this gallery.

From the series Requiem for a border crossing of my undocumented father, 2016, Irvin Morazan

Irvin Morazan’s work revolves around movement and agency, evoking his own immigration as a child, alone, to the U.S. from El Salvador.  Many of his works reproduce maps from the Historia Toteca Chichimeca (a 16th century manuscript diagramming Spain’s territories in what is now northern Mexico), on which he then superimposes imaginary immigration routes as well as sketches made by undocumented immigrants.  In several of these drawings you’ll find characters from the cartoon series “The Flintstones,”  which his father drew as a young man.

Border Crossing Headdress, Irvin Morazan

A recurrent theme is that of El Coyote, the agents who help people cross the border.  When I attended the Museum’s Open House, Mr. Morazan performed “Volver, Volver”  (Return, Return) employing this Border Crossing Headdress, which is also in the exhibition.

Firelei Báez has two pieces in completely different styles, but that both investigate identity, especially Caribbean identity.

Untitled, Firelei Báez, acrylic on paper

Her large scale acrylic on paper started with two figures that are in  a struggle or an embrace; once she decided on the shape, then she chose the colors.  For the artist, the  struggle or embrace is beyond those two individuals – it involves society as a whole.  Ms. Báez told me that the idea for this piece  came from a wilding video on the Internet, in which girls are being encouraged to fight by  a parental figure (who, according to usual societal strictures should be discouraging them).  She then took apart the idea of having those two girls in the midst of an embrace/struggle, to see what comes out of it.  The wall label also notes that in her new paintings, Ms. Báez reinterprets the old fable of pollination between a wasp and an orchid, on which French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari based their theories of identity.

Untitled (Daccessioned Book Pages), Firelei Báez, acrylic, ink and chine collé on found paper

This piece was created on a page from a deaccessioned book.  The woman wears a headdress that Ms. Báez based on masks of the Dogon people of Mali, with their intricate patterning and complex cosmology creating  a way of seeing yourself as being beyond your physical self. 

When Ms. Báez was a student at Cooper Union she learned that libraries all over the country deaccession books.  She sees this as not just a physical but also a conceptual clean up – observing that the figures she gathers on the Internet would have been excluded from the histories embodied by the books.  Ms. Báez also learned medieval bookbinding at the Center for Book Arts.  She noted how in miniature Persian books, the artists could put what they wanted to in the margins,  but not in the central figures because of history and cultural restrictions.  She observed that “Bringing the marginalia of current society to the forefront is reforming how we think of ourselves and what we consider proper.   What’s going on now could be a sensory overload or it could be a treasure trove”.

You’ll want to see Love Thy Neighbor before it closes on June 11th.  The Bronx Museum is at 1040 Grand Concourse (165th Street) in the Bronx.

Noir in the Bronx : Capturing the Melodrama

Red Sin, Boo Lynn Walsh, digital photograph 2016

It really didn’t take much to get a reaction – once I said “noir” it all tumbled out of her, like the lock of blonde hair that obscured her right eye:  cynical detectives, cheap hotels, lonely dames, traitors, tough gumshoes running down dark, rainy streets, chasing after clues that proved as elusive as the Yeti…

Noir as a genre elicits visceral responses: a certain frisson … a hint of danger … the thrill of trying to figure out whodunnit …  fathoming why …  It immediately conjures up that distinct iconography of grittiness, isolation and strict social roles embodied in classic films such as Double Indemnity, or the stories of Raymond Chandler.  Back in September, Longwood Arts Gallery issued a call for artworks that define noir, and the results are on display in Noir: Defining the Melodrama. The exhibit of almost 40 works contains primarily photographs and oil paintings, but you’ll also find some in ink, graphite and video.  Below are  highlights.

Alyssa Clear with her digital photograph, How I Dissolved My Marriage No. 8, 2016

Alyssa Clear plays the pin up girls and femme fatales who populate her photo scenarios  based on  true crime stories, giving them a voyeuristic, glamorized view.  You can find more of her work on her Instagram feed, Arsenous Apple Pie 

Nikki Johnson with The Pursuit of Happine$$, 2014, C-print on metal

Photographer Nikki Johnson is a fan of film and literary noir, especially Alfred Hitchcock and James Ellroy.  For her, it starts with the concept of a plan, where something goes awry, so she often shoots street scenes at night.  Her piece, the Pursuit of Happine$$, speaks to sex, intrigue and proposition…

Rasheed Humphrey with Woman at the Bar, 2014 digital print

Detective and the Dame, Rasheed Humphrey, chalk pastel on paper, 2016

Rasheed Humphrey was inspired by old films he was watching; he made sketches, then worked out the lighting, scanned the drawings, then painted over in chalk pastel.  The technique he employs as a comic book artist clearly suffuses his work, with its clean lines and bright colors.

Prospect Station, Daniel Hauben, oil on canvas, 1994

I liked Daniel Hauben’s use of  strong, directional brush strokes and the way he layered the paint to convey the grittiness of the sidewalk in his oil painting of Prospect Station.

In the exhibit you’ll also find Jeanette May’s humorous photos of toys murdered by pets that are a sly commentary on how TV cop shows have anesthetized our view of death;  Carey Clark’s photos of a set design she did 2 years ago  in Poland for a stage production of Goodbye My Lovely, which was cancelled 3 days before it was to open; and Néstor Daniel Pérez Molière’s  photographs of the folds of his body.  There’s also a video screen looping excerpts from classic noir films such as M, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice. And there’s more art.

On Wednesday, March 1st, at 6:30pm, Longwood Arts Gallery will host a discussion with visual artists Carey Clark, Jayson Keeling, Jeanette May and Jaimie Permuth, who will talk about the stories behind their photos and how they relate to the overall theme of the show. 

The show continues on through May 3rd, at the Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos, 450 Grand Concourse (149th Street) in the Bronx.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx Inspiration

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, artist unknown

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, artist unknown

Perhaps no other American author is as associated with Halloween as Edgar Allan Poe: lyric poet, inventor of the modern detective story, and master of the macabre.  Born in Boston in 1809, he was an orphan by the age of 3, subsequently living in many places: Scotland, England, Richmond, VA and Baltimore, MD, among others – but it was during his stay in the Bronx that he penned some of his best-known works:  The Bells, Annabelle Lee, and The Cask of Amontillado.  You can visit his former home, Poe Cottage, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (it was originally at Kingsbridge Road, some 450 feet south).  Poe moved there in 1846 with his wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law (and aunt) Maria Clemm, when the area was known as Fordham Village, in the hopes that by living in the “country”  Virginia’s  tuberculosis would be cured.  Alas, this was not to be – Virginia died there in January, 1847.  Poe lived in the cottage for almost another two years during which he used the library at my alma mater, Fordham University, which was then St. John’s College.  It’s been claimed that The Bells was inspired by the chimes from Fordham’s chapel??  Poe died on  October 7, 1849 in Baltimore – to this day, the cause of his death is still unknown. 

Poe Cottage, Grand Concourse, the Bronx

Poe Cottage, Grand Concourse, the Bronx

Poe Cottage is a lovely one and a half story white wooden frame farmhouse, built by the Valentine family for one of their farmhands.  Even back then, it was like many homes in today’s NYC – not enough space. 

Sitting room/living room Poe Cottage

Sitting room/living room Poe Cottage

And it also has very low ceilings.  On the ground floor you’ll find a kitchen, a living/sitting room with fireplace, as well as the very small room where Virginia lay bedridden for some six months.

Virginia's Bedroom, Poe Cottage

Virginia’s Bedroom, Poe Cottage

The house was known for being sparsely furnished, and a few of the original furnishings are on this floor. The small space upstairs had a bedroom and Poe’s study.  I took a guided tour, and had a great time.  Even if you don’t make it to Poe’s Cottage for Halloween, get up to see it another time!  The Cottage is owned by the NYC Parks Department, which has more information on its website  ; the Bronx Historical Society administers the Cottage and there’s more information on its website.

Theatre Poster for "The Raven"

Theatre Poster for “The Raven”

On Saturday, October 29th, from noon until 3:00 pm, From Poe’s Porch  will feature poets who will read from The Cottage’s porch from 12:00-1:10 P.M. This will be followed by special workshops and panel discussions in the adjacent Poe Park Visitor Center, from 1:30-3:00 P.M., just steps away from the historic house landmark. Tours of The Cottage will be available and both programs are free. More information here  

If you can find Hal Willner’s Closed on Account of Rabies, a record featuring actors and musicians such as Christopher Walken and Marianne Faithfull reading works by Poe, grab it!   You can find bits and pieces on-line at Open Culture – Iggy Pop’s rendition of The Tell Tale Heart is not to be missed!  

Latin American Art in the Bronx

The Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos is once again hosting a terrific exhibit, the 5th Bronx Latin American Art Bienal/Biennial.  Featuring about 20 works by artists from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Cuba,Venezuela and Peru, this compact show offers a variety of styles and media.  Let me give you a few of my favorites:

The Dog House by Sandra Mack-Valencia

The Dog House by Sandra Mack-Valencia

Sandra Mack-Valencia, who hails from Colombia, has three paintings on wood panels which revolve around the theme of “home”, especially the American dream of home ownership vs. the reality, so in all three pieces you’ll find homes floating in a cloud-like atmosphere.  In the foreground of The Dog House, a stack of gold and red houses run up the middle – underneath the top house, there’s a small picture of an elderly couple –  and in the background small doghouses are scattered about. While the painting could be a riff on the expression, “to be in the doghouse” the artist told me that perhaps something else is going on – she wants the viewer to make their own interpretation.

El Creador, by Freddy Rodriguez

El Creador, by Freddy Rodriguez

Freddy Rodriguez,   who hails from the Dominican Republic, is showing two pieces, both acrylic on canvas.  In El Creador, vibrant patches of bright aqua, yellow and white burst from a black background, on which he’s painted, in Spanish, a quote from the Argentinean writer Julio Cortazar (Hopscotch) “The Creator is always forging himself” which mirrors Rodriguez’ own philosophy that work always needs to change, whether in technique or subject matter. “And,” Freddy added, “it should have a sense of humor”.

Theories of Freedom: Golden Landscape, by Scherezade Garcia

Theories of Freedom: Golden Landscape, by Scherezade Garcia

Theories of Freedom: Golden Landscape by Scherezade Garcia (Dominican Republic)   is a powerful wall installation composed of inner tubes painted gold and blue, some bearing airline luggage identification tags (often decorated with an image of the Statue of Liberty) and tied together with plastic safety ties, that speaks clearly to migration – both historic and current – by those fortunate enough to fly and those forced to flee on rubber rafts, as well as the enslaved people who were bound and forced to migrate.

Puente / Socorro by Jose Morales

Puente / Socorro by Jose Morales

The rear space of the gallery is given over to Puerto Rican artist Jose Morales’ commanding installation, Puente/Socorro (which means Bridge/Help), which is in two parts:  the above structure and…

Puente / Socorro by Jose Morales

Puente / Socorro by Jose Morales

on the walls, a series of cross-hatched panels, each with one letter of the word Socorro inscribed on their surface, recalling the scratches that prisoners leave on their cell walls.

You can find more images of the show on my Instagram feed.  Better yet, be sure to get up to the Longwood Art Gallery@Hostos before this fabulous show closes on December 7th!

Happy Times in the Bronx – book review

Prof. Mark Naison, Liz Daly and Bob Gumbs (l-r) Photo by Trevon Blondet, Black Blonde Images

Prof. Mark Naison, Liz Daly and Bob Gumbs (l-r) Photo by Trevon Blondet, Black Blonde Images

Too often, when people think of the Bronx, they think of abandoned houses, empty lots, gangs, drugs and fires.  While that description certainly applied to a large portion of the borough for many years, today you’ll find vibrant communities in previously devastated areas, as well as neighborhoods that are rebuilding themselves.  Developers are now actively pursuing projects in locations they wouldn’t have dared walk through 20 years ago.

But before the Bronx burned, it was a largely middle-class, prosperous place, even in areas that were later ravished by drugs and abandonment, such as Morrisania, which is profiled in a new book, Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s .  I recently attended a talk by the book’s authors, Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and Bob Gumbs, a graphic designer, artist and author.  Having grown up in the Bronx, in Hunts Point and later in the Castle Hill projects, to me this book is a much needed corrective to the popular image of the borough.  As a Fordham alum, I’m proud that they’ve created the project that inspired this book, and published it. Through the voices of seventeen people, who grew up in one neighborhood, Morrisania, the story of the Bronx comes alive, and provides a vantage point from which to consider the effects of private market practices (especially in real estate) but also public policy.

The book had its genesis in an oral history program, the Bronx African American History (BAAH) project,  that Fordham University started 14 years ago, with an interview with Victoria Archibald-Good, the sister of the basketball great, Tiny Archibald,  who recounted her happy recollections of growing up in the Patterson Houses, which, at that time, was a multi-racial, middle class neighborhood with great schools.  Then Bob Gumbs got involved with the BAAH and over time more community members told their stories.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, blacks from Harlem, the South and the Caribbean settled in the Morrisania section of the Bronx – in contrast to other neighborhoods, they were welcomed there, by landlords trying to fill apartments that had been vacated by tenants who had been evicted or had moved to the suburbs.  Through the recollections of individuals who grew up there, the book provides a snapshot of a stable community – which also had its problems – that provided the foundation for the success achieved by many of its residents.  The neighborhood’s history is told by residents who went on to become teachers, musicians, public servants, a theologian, an architect and sports journalist.  A strong work ethic was central:  many of the families had fathers who had steady employment as Pullman porters, mail carriers, tailors, and some who had second jobs.  Neighbors watched out for each other’s children, and didn’t hesitate to tell them when they were misbehaving.  The churches were also integral to peoples lives, providing not only spiritual nourishment, but also community, youth activities, and a link to larger forces, such as the civil rights movement.  The book’s participants speak about attending schools that were racially integrated; caring teachers; after school programs that went on until 9:00 pm; and community centers that provided activities which kept them away from gangs. The Police Athletic League offered community programs led by police officers, allowing for friendly contacts between NYPD and local youth.   But it’s music that permeates this chronicle: public school music programs that let students take instruments home for practice, providing training for a future musical career (Jimmie Owens, Joe Orange, Arthur Crier), and mentorship and camaraderie for the kids.  There were  also plenty of opportunities to mingle with neighbors from the area’s diverse populations and musical traditions: salsa, soul, doo-wop, jazz, rock…. In the local clubs you could listen to Herbie Hancock, Edddie Palmieri, Valerie Simpson, the Chantals, some of whom grew up in the area.

Before the Fires also raises the question of how Morrisania, and so many other stable neighborhoods fell apart. Through the individual stories, it becomes clear that drugs, especially heroin, were a major culprit, as were  the loss of decent paying jobs, especially in manufacturing, the disinvestment in cities by the Federal government, and worst of all, in my estimation, the disinterest and neglect by the City of it’s public housing stock, and its public schools, especially the defunding of music and arts programs, as well as after school activities. 

The voices and stories in Before the Fires  are not only authentic, but engaging – if you’re interested in urban history, this book is a must read.

The Bronx African American oral history project continues at Fordham:  to find out more, or to listen to some of the stories, click here 

Impressions in the Garden

Ideal Violets at the New York Botanical Gardens

Ideal Violets at the New York Botanical Gardens

This heat has gotten to your intrepid blogger, so with some friends I headed up to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx to see the current exhibit, Impressionism:  American Gardens on Canvas, a small but well-curated exhibit of paintings by American Impressionist artists active at the turn of the twentieth century.  Influenced by their French counterparts, the work of the Americans shares many of the same characteristics; an emphasis on the overall composition; capturing the ephemeral quality of light; thick, rapid brushstrokes and scant attention to detail. Outdoor subjects were particularly well suited for this impressionistic style.

The exhibit, in the Mertz Library, is divided into about half a dozen sections, each with 3 to 5 paintings, by both noted artists as such as Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent, as well as lesser-known painters like Maria Oakey Dewing and David Putnam Brinley.

As cities became more crowded, dirty and industrialized, the late 1800’s saw the rise of the urban beautification movement, with the construction of large rambling parks such as Central Park and Prospect Park (both by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux), built to provide green lungs for city dwellers who couldn’t escape to large private estates far outside the city such as those owned by John Rockefeller (Pocantico) and James Deering (Vizcaya) – take a look at John Singer Sargent’s watercolors of the fountains on their grounds. In the suburbs and cities, homeowners with land began employing a a simplified domestic garden style inspired by the informal dooryard gardens of the colonial era.  Plantings would change with the season; depending on the time of year, you’d find  crocuses, daffodils, pansies, violets, poppies, hollyhocks, roses, sweet peas, morning glories or sunflowers.  I lingered over  Maria Oakey Dewing’s Rose Garden, a 1901 oil which hearkens back to the Old Master’s in its realism and technique.

Celia Thaxter's Garden 1890 by Childe Hassam via Wikicommons

Celia Thaxter’s Garden 1890 by Childe Hassam via Wikicommons

During this period, artists colonies started becoming popular, not only as places to work without the distractions of the metropolis, but also as retreats where artists could meet each other to exchange ideas and gossip. Two were especially noteworthy:  in Old Lyme, Connecticut,  Florence Griswold operated a boarding house at her home that became known as the “American Giverny,” while  on Maine’s Appledore Island, many artists stayed at the hotel owned by the family of writer Celia Thaxter – her home on the Island was noted for it’s garden as well as for the salon she hosted.  Two of my favorite pieces in the show were painted there, both by Childe Hassam:  Celia Thaxter’s Garden 1890, with it’s view of the sea from the garden; and Summer Sea, Isles of Shoals, a1902 oil depicting the coast line at Appledore Island, with an especially brilliant blue sea.

Because this is a small exhibit, you’ll have the luxury of being able to take the time to look at all the works closely – they’re all lovely.

After the show, you might want to take a leisurely stroll over to the Conservatory, where you’ll find an interpretation of Celia Thaxter’s old-fashioned, cottage-style garden, evocative of the smaller gardens often depicted by the American Impressionists. 

If you’ve worked up an appetite, I can recommend Hudson Garden Grill, close by on the Garden’s grounds, which serves a tasty lunch in a delightful setting.

Impressify version of my photos of daisies

Impressify version of my photos of daisies

Two last things:  before you go, read the on-line exhibition guide  which will give you a good overview of what you’ll see. And try Impressify,  the Garden’s on-line tool that allows you to upload a photo and transform it into an impressionist painting either as a still image or a moving one (GIF).  It’s a lot of fun! You can see my transformed daisies on the left.

The exhibit runs through September 11.

Fibre Art With a Message in the Bronx

Modren-Graves Russian Tiger, hand-knit by Ruth Marshall

Modren-Graves Russian Tiger, hand-knit by Ruth Marshall

I got to Charm & Vinegar at the Bronx Arts Space  just before it closed last week.  Featuring works  of various styles – soft sculptures, embroidery, knit textiles and dolls – by four artists, this exhibit wore it’s title well.  Two of the artists were at the gallery, and I was able to talk with them about their work. 

Ruth Marshall  hails from the state of Victoria in Australia, and even though she’s been living in the Bronx since the 1990’s, the broad vowels of her homeland still pepper her speech.   She came to New York to study art at Pratt Institute, after which she made sculptures in steel and resin.   But it was her work at the Bronx Zoo that impelled her change to fibre art – as a means of raising awareness of endangered species, and raising knitting from a craft to a fine art.  At the Zoo, she worked by the snow leopards, and fell in love with them.  Through her job, she had access to the storage areas of the Museum of Natural History, where she could see animal pelts up close.  And that’s where she realized she wanted to talk about the animals in her art.  Ruth’s mother and aunt taught her how to knit as a child, but she put it aside for a number of years.  It was on a trip back to Australia that she took it up again, knitting socks for her family members in an Estonian style, with lots of color and patterns. 

Detail, Ocelot #6, hand knit by Ruth Marshall

Detail, Ocelot #6, hand knit by Ruth Marshall

Which, in many ways, gave her the skills to make the intricate, detailed stitches needed to render endangered animals in knitted textiles. Starting around 2005, in the back rooms of the Museum, she would make drawings from the specimens, which she used to create a chart she could knit from.  Ruth spends about three months on the larger animals.  Her attention to detail is striking, and is easy to see in animals with distinct markings or contrasting colors, such as the siberian tiger, or the possum, or the numbat.  It really hits you with the animals that are seemingly one color; for example, when you look at the black jaguar from far away, he appears to be made from one shade of black yarn;  get closer, and you’ll see she’s used two shades of black, and recreated the rosette patterns found in the jaguar’s fur in nature. Each of her pieces are unique, even though she may do a series of one animal (i.e., 4 ocelots).  Ruth has also knit a series of 70 species of coral snakes, whose images she found in a reference book on reptiles.

Je ne sais quoi, by Cinnamon Wilis

Je ne sais quoi, by Cinnamon Wilis

Cinnamon Willis peopled the room with Melandollies  –  art dolls that are sad, melancholic… As an only child, Cinnamon would often get dolls, which she noted,  were all smiley, happy … not always the way she felt.  So Cinnamon decided to create dolls that expressed our other, darker feelings – she also likes horror movies – and around 2010 started making them from paper clay, with wire armature, wild hairdos and hand-made costumes.  Some of the dolls are based on actual people – one is based on an Instagram musician.  Her emphasis is on the face of her dolls (and busts) – you can really feel their individual personalities.   

Also in the show is a larger sculptural piece that Cinnamon created in response to the loss of neighborhood identity which often accompanies gentrification – in an attempt to create a new “identity” for neighborhoods that have seemingly negative connotations, realtors and developers will

Sculpture by Cinnamon Willis

Sculpture by Cinnamon Willis

propose new names (i.e., the “Piano District” for part of the South Bronx, “Bedwick” where Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant meet) or attempt to have cultural markers erased (apparently there was an attempt to have “Ave. of Puerto Rico” removed from some of the “Graham Avenue” street signs in Williamsburg.)  I’ll be interested to see how her art develops in this vein.

Crocodile, embroidery by Edith Isaac Rose

Crocodile, embroidery by Edith Isaac Rose

The show also featured embroideries by Edith Isaac Rose,  whose images revolving around war and power are not easy to decipher, but her masterful stitching – wolves and weapons juxtaposed with delicate flowers – creates haunting works. 

The Peruvian artist Liliana Avalos Mendoza  had several soft sculptures, some incorporating indigenous Peruvian imagery on original silk-screened fabric.  Her household appliances were enhanced by her beautiful embroidery.

Escudo 4 by Liliana Avalo Mendoza

Escudo 4 by Liliana Avalo Mendoza

Even though this show has closed, take a look at the work these artists are doing.  I’d also recommend that you get up to see the new work at the Bronx Art Space  which showcases emerging and underrepresented artists, and often hosts talks with the artists.  Every Saturday through August 13th, they are having spoken word workshops, led by Bobby Gonzalez, that are free and open to the public – ages 14 through senior!