The Art of Running a Theatre Company

Jonathan Hopkins (right) talking to Patrick Harvey, Smith Street Company member

At the end of June, I caught a performance of Richard III by Smith Street Stage, held outdoors in Carroll Park in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.  The production was fabulous – the actors, especially Michael Hanson who played Richard, were great – despite the occasional horn or siren or screaming kids.  I later spoke with Jonathan Hopkins, who not only directed that particular production, but is also the Executive Director of Smith Street Stage.  Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Liz: Tell me a bit about your background.  I see you came to New York to study acting at NYU. How did you discover theatre? Shakespeare?

Jonathan:  I like Shakespeare because in my senior year of high school we read Hamlet, and it had a really big impact on me.  It’s one of those experiences that people have with the arts and with literature, where you feel that something speaks to you or makes you think about something in a different way.  And for me that was reading Hamlet in Ms. Hobeika’s senior English class, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

I came to New York as a freshman at NYU.  I had done theatre and speech debate in high school, so I was already into performing, and I wanted to pursue it professionally.

In the NYU training program, you’re placed in one of several conservatories;  I was placed into the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting ….  a studio that puts a lot of focus on the classics, particularly Shakespeare, so that cultivated the curiosity I had coming into school.

 Liz:  In addition to acting – on stage and film – you’ve also directed, you run the Smith Street Stage, and you teach at the Stella Adler school.  How is it moving among these different roles?  Is there one you might like to do more of?

Jonathan: I think all of them have skills and insights that help with all of the others, but you have to pick and choose what skills and insights are most appropriate, especially going from acting to directing. Acting is a subjective experience; it’s about something that directly connects you to your character or performance of that character – an experience inside something.  Directing is the opposite. Having the vocabulary is helpful, having the experience is helpful.  You do, I think, have to adjust your viewpoint a bit as you go from one to another.

Liz:  You’ve acted both on stage and in film; is there one you prefer?

Jonathan:  I like both of them.  I’ve done so much more stage, so I have more experience and more of a sense of whether something will work or won’t work.  I don’t have nearly as much experience in film so I just have to try my best and hope that it’s ok. 

Liz:  And what about teaching – you teach at Stella Adler.

Jonathan:  The last six or so years I’ve been teaching at Stella Adler, and I really love the opportunity to work with young actors. These are not Shakespeare classes, they’re voice classes – training actors to use their instruments in a healthy, effective and compelling way.     I love trying to help actors understand how to approach the material, how to rehearse the material, how to use their breath and their voices and the sounds of the language to help make acting material easier. In Richard, a lot of the actors were students I had had. That’s fun too, you can see the students develop and then work their way up to a professional stage.

Liz:  While we’re on the subject of Richard, what led to the founding of Smith Street Stage in 2010?  

Jonathan:  It wasn’t me at all, I never would have done it.  It was my girlfriend at the time – she’s now my wife – Beth Ann Hopkins.  We had worked for a Shakespeare theatre in New Jersey,  and developed a small cast Romeo & Juliet that we did there in a workshop format. We wanted to do it there for a full production, [but] we couldn’t and that was very disappointing.  At the time Beth Ann was living in Carroll Gardens and had the idea that we could do the show in that park.  That was the beginning of it.  She wanted to start a theatre company and I didn’t.  So we did a 5-actor Romeo & Juliet [in the park].  It was our first production, and the response was very positive. Beth Ann said, “We’re starting the company.”  I don’t think I would have had the courage to do something that difficult, so it was Beth Ann who started the company. 

Liz:  It seems like you’ve grown the company very well – you’ve got around 20 actors.

Jonathan:  Yes, 20 actors plus musicians, designers, production help, someone working on marketing/publicity and someone working on our graphic design.  The number of actors we have is contingent on the needs of the show.  But we are able to increase our audience, increase our production support, staff support, and we try every year in someway to increase the quality of the production we present in the park. 

Liz: What are the challenges of running a theatre company in New York?  I think first of all you’ve got the challenge of growing the company, and then there’s the second challenge, separate from that, of doing a production in a public space like the park where you have many limited facilities ….

Jonathan:  The second part of your question is easier.  The challenges of the space – noise. Ambulances, helicopters, kids.  But I’m of the mind that in many ways those challenges are a benefit, in that it makes our audiences more appreciative of our efforts to present something in that space.  The idea is that the show we’re making should serve an audience, provoke thought in an audience, entertain an audience, and make an audience think about human conflict and things like that. I think that there’s an element of those challenges that makes our audiences more appreciative of our efforts to produce something in a space that’s public and easy to access, and free. 

The hard thing about running Smith Street Stage – it’s hard to give a concise answer because the challenge is everything.   When you manage something, you’re more or less responsible for everything, and that’s not a challenge that is particular to theatre, or to our theatre company, but I would say that’s one of the hard things.  Because in New York there is a lot of arts programming available, trying to carve out your company’s voice in that space can be a challenge, [as can] trying to maximize the resources you have to present something of top quality. 

Liz:  Besides the park, what other venues are you using? How is it finding rehearsal space?

Jonathan:  Finding rehearsal space can be tricky – we have some luck because when rehearsing the park shows, we can use the park and the park house, which ultimately becomes our dressing room.  Because I work at the Stella Adler Studio, that body is very generous to us; when their space is available we can use some.  This summer we were lucky, one block down Carroll Street there’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and on multiple occasions when we lost rehearsal space, that parish came through and allowed us to rehearse there.  So we’ve been very lucky but it certainly can be a tricky thing, especially for a small to medium sized company like ours.

Liz:  How often do you do shows in a year?

Jonathan: We do 3 to 4.  We do one main stage production, that’s in Carroll Park, and then the last couple of years we have also done readings and workshops throughout the year.  We just did A Winters Tale, directed by Erik Pearson, in April.  In August we’re doing an adaptation of An Enemy of the People, which is being directed by our Artistic Director Beth Ann Hopkins. The last couple of years we shifted our model, so to speak, to still be centered around the Summer Shakespeare in Carroll Gardens but also to produce different writers and to include workshops and readings that take place in different venues, that are done with different directors, and can be performed in different styles.  It’s all an effort to diversify what we produce. 

Liz: You’ve sort of touched on it, but what makes running a theatre company in Brooklyn easy?

Jonathan:  The people – that was one of the easier answers. This feeling that you’re building an artistic home for people, the ability to control the way you work and what you value in the work, and being able to nurture a community of talented and smart and conscientious artists is, I think, consistently the most rewarding thing, along with the response from the audience, the feeling from the audience that you’re doing something that has value for them.  They look forward to the shows and they come out every summer.  I was talking to one audience member who said, “I come every year. Last year you did Tempest, right, and before that you did Henry IV,” and we went down the list – he had seen every show except our first.  That’s really rewarding, the idea that you are fostering an appreciation and a respect and a relationship with that literature and the audience members who come to see it.   

I guess the question was “What’s the easiest part” and I’m sort of changing it to the most rewarding … but being able to work with those artists and create a home for those artists and learn from them and from how they work is very rewarding.

To answer the actual question, I would say the easiest part is working on the shows, rehearsing the shows, that part doesn’t feel like work … fundraising can feel like work, and getting our park permits in on time can feel like work, but when you’re actually in a room with the actors, acting a scene or directing a scene, or talking about a scene, that doesn’t feel like work. 

Liz:  Do you know what you’ll be presenting next year?  How long is your lead time?

Jonathan:   Before we do An Enemy of the People (August 31st & September 1st) we’ll be having preliminary discussions about the Summer Shakespeare shows and the other shows and making our decisions for that in the fall.  Then we have an end-of-year fundraiser in November/December, which is usually when we announce what we’ll be doing in the next year.  So we’re now in preliminary discussions, brainstorming about what will come next for us.  The year after next will be our tenth year in Carroll Park so we’re already talking about that and trying to make it something special.

Liz: What can people expect when they go see Enemy of the People?

Jonathan:  This will be an indoor production. From what I’ve heard, this will be a more experimental adaptation of the story.  Enemy of the People is a great play, it’s a terribly relevant play.  Beth Ann is taking the story that is at the heart of the play and finding a way to express that through movement, through dance, through music, as well as through scenes and monologues that she and her assistant director, Matthew Sciarappa are adapting.  One of the reasons we’ve done this workshop series is to give us an opportunity to work in styles of theatre that may be more experimental, or bold, or more strange, or take more risks.  So I think that that could be one expectation for people who come, that they will see the story of An Enemy of the People but they will be seeing it through a really new and unique lens. If they saw Richard, they could now expect to see something quite different in its style.

Smith Street Stage will be performing An Enemy of the People on August 31st and September 1st at The Actors Fund, 160 Schermerhorn Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

You can find more information on Smith Street Stage on their website.       

Smith Street Stage cast of Richard III taking a curtain call in Carroll Park


Text and Image

There’s a great show at Site: Brooklyn on word-based art, juried by Edith Newhall, the art critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Featuring the work of some 50-odd artists, the  exhibit highlights the intersection of text and image, in many ingenious ways.

History of Flight One, Ian Campbell, mixed media

The title of Ian Campbell’s piece, History of Flight One, is the title of a book whose images form the basis of this collaged piece.  Campbell cut each lithograph, over which he laid one or more pieces of polyester film, and then wrote on them, repeating this process several times. By layering and tiering the lithographs, he’s created an image that has a lot of depth. 

Rorschach, Annette Barbier, modified book

Annette Barbier has chosen to use a book – Breakout, by Martin Russ, about a battle in Korea by the US Marines) as a sculptural material – which could explain the way the figures seem to be trying to escape from the book, as well as the piece’s title.

Is it Working?, Kara Dunne, screenprint on fan

For Kara Dunne, it’s important that her art be seen and that it be affordable, so she often screenprints her work on low-cost items.  She got the idea for Is It Working? from an old hand fan which was filled with patriotic imagery. Dunne updated the image of the woman, putting her in a suit, to reflect that today women work, and changed the houses in the background to a row of brownstones. Dunne also added the words “working away from” after the words “The American Dream”, reflecting her view that this ideal is no longer attainable.

RichardGabriele_Palimpsest_Blue_No3 (image courtesy of the artist)

Richard Gabriele’s inspiration for his work came from two books: “The Lotos Eaters” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the Odyssey by Homer.  In order to “flood the plane with calligraphy,” he painted successive layers of different colors, starting with the background, for which he used watercolors.   Then, using egg tempera, he overlayed it with rows of Greek letters, then turned the paper 90º and wrote in cursive English. I love the way the colors bleed onto the edges of the paper.

Expecto Pantronum, Brooke Jana (image courtesy of the artist)

Brooke Jana created this stag from strips which each contain a spell from the Harry Potter series, and took the work’s title, Expecto Patronum from the spell that he uses to conjure the stag.

Murmuring House, Jung Eun Park, embroidery thread, pencil, paper collage on Korean paper

I’d love to see the front of this piece to hear what the house is murmuring ….  On her website, the artist Jung Eun Park says that these works “are simply the record of my intimate life, but also imply the psychological narratives of human being living in a new environment.”  I was drawn to this piece by it’s simplicity, and the embroidery.

Guns and Roses, Francine Gintoff, oil pastel on paper

Francine Gintoff’s work is primarily large format drawing, combined with oil pastel in pink and indigo, evoking vintage tattoos.  She always includes the title of the work directly in it, seeing it as integral to the piece.  The images have personal significance to the artist, creating her own visual poetry.

Letters from Home, Dare Boles, collage

Dare Bole’s piece links the African and African-American families in this collage, not only through the letters which join both halves of the canvas, but also through her depiction of the role of women in both communities, and the red and white dresses in one half that play on the brick pattern in the other.

L.B.D., Andrew Neumann, vinyl letters, wood and paint

I found this piece, L.B.D. by Andrew Neumann to be lots of fun.

Do see the show before it closes on July 16th.  Site: Brooklyn is in the Gowanus neighborhood, at 165 Seventh Street.

Bigger, Bolder, Better in Brooklyn

There’s a great group show  Bigger, Bolder, Better  at 470 Vanderbilt Avenue in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.  Sponsored by Chashama, which organizes exhibits in unoccupied spaces in buildings around the City, the show – inspired by January’s Women’s Marches – features the work of 16 women artists whose large-scale works take advantage of this cavernous space.  The show closes on June 17th.  Here are some of my picks – in no particular order:

detail, Spill, Jaanika Peerna, site specific – pigment & water on hand cut mylar

Jaanika Peerna‘s site-specific piece, Spill, is in two parts – this detail shows the lower half of her flowing work created from hand-cut mylar that was pigmented.  Walk around it to see how this graceful sculpture changes – you’ll notice something new every time.

Halfway, Suzan Shutan, site specific – tar roofing paper, hand-made color paper, industrial glue, plexi rods and fish line

Suzan Shutan has created a site-specific piece, Halfway, from tar roofing paper with a delicate feel and the graceful quality of a gymnast.

Accumulations #4, Jaynie Crimmins, 2016, 12” x 12” x 12”D, shredded household mail over armature, mounted on wood

Jaynie Crimmins has three ingenious pieces which she made by shredding household mail, rolling up the strips and sewing them onto a backing, transforming junk mail, which often can’t be recycled, into lovely sculptures, which for me, evoked flowers and sea creatures.

Paper Dragons, Elizabeth Riley, ink jet video stills of Dragons of Iceland videos, and video images

Elizabeth Riley has taken several images from her video Icelandic Dragons, and printed them on large sheets which she’s rolled and assembled into Paper Dragons. You can contrast them with the images on the video screens at several points inside the installation.

Breaking Patterns 4, Christina Massey, acrylic, enamel, oil & water color on canvas, linen & paper with zippers, patterns and yarn

Christina Massey‘s  large (approx. 5ft x 4ft) textile piece, Breaking Patterns 4, incorporates zippers among the woven fabric strips, set against a partially painted background of canvas, linen and paper.

On the Horizon 1-45, Etty Yaniv, acrylic ink, film, paper, cable on cavases

Etty Yaniv showed On the Horizon, 45 small collages, each one a delicate, impressionistic slice of life.

From the Outskirts, Alyse Rosner, site specific – graphite & colored pencil on yupo and raw canvas

Alyse Rosner  used graphite and colored pencils on yupo, a synthetic Japanese paper made of polypropylene, to make From the Outskirts, rubbings of sycamore leaves from her yard. There are several strips of rubbings, each over six feet long.  These are very different from the work you’ll find on her website.

Bigger, Bolder, Better closes this Saturday, June 17th, so put it on your list of things to do!

Reconstruct: Artists React to the Changing Fabric of the City

Highest and Best Use (111 Lawrence Street), Lawrence Mesich, archival inkjet print on polypropylene film

The Salena Gallery at Long Island University (LIU)   in Downtown Brooklyn is hosting an exhibit that speaks to the rapid changes to the urban fabric, with its location at the epicenter of  urban transformation making it particularly pertinent. I live close by, and I am constantly astounded at the rapidity with which new buildings, both commercial and residential, are puncturing the skyline.   These are not your row houses or low rise buildings of yore, but rather glass and steel behemoths designed to house hundreds of residents and workers.  Needless to say, these developments have not been without controversy, especially as regards the lack of concomitant development of the area’s infrastructure. The exhibit, curated by Michal Gavish and Etty Yaniv, showcases the work of nine artists.  Here are my highlights.

Lawrence Mesich’s work is perhaps the most direct response to the changes in Downtown Brooklyn, as it expressly examines the 2004 rezoning of downtown Brooklyn.  In this exhibit are his 12-foot long digitally manipulated photographs of facades of some of the newest and tallest residential towers that have been erected in the borough. Their size, and the way they overflow onto the floor conveys the dislocation and disorientation that accompanies these new buildings. It’s title, Highest and Best Use calls into question the validity of that term as justification for much of the new residential development that is going on.  “Highest and best use” is a real estate valuation term to designate the use of a property that is physically, legally and financially feasible, and will also produce the highest profit.  Very often residential wins out over commercial, even though commercial use, such as office space, might make more sense in a given location.

Pennsylvania Avenue, Michal Gavish, archival ink and paint on layered paper and fabric

Michal Gavish has taken three panels of synthetic silk onto which she’s printed photographs of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where she lived for several years. The middle panel depicts buildings on the south east side of the avenue; on the other panels you’ll find the government buildings that populate the north west side, such as the FBI, the Department of Justice, the White House, etc. There’s also the occasional building that the artist has hand-painted. 

Buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue (SE), Michal Gavish, photos and watercolor on synthetic silk

The arrangement of her  photos, some of which are washed over in watercolor, reflect the crystalline geometries she studied in her previous career as a scientist – Michal has a PhD in Physical Polymer Chemistry – from our own CUNY!

from the Supernova Series, Simona Prives, screenprint, monotype and archival inkjet collage with ink, graphite and xerox transfer

Simona PrivesSupernova series of fantastical landscapes are full of ambiguity – it’s not clear where the boundary is between what’s natural and what’s imaginary. The finely-rendered intricate images in her densely layered prints – which combine drawing, etching, monotype, photo transfer, digital and physical collage – have a strong sense of movement underneath them, and you’ll find something new every time you look. 

Simona Previs, still from Death of a Sun, digital video

I enjoyed her short video, Death of a Sun, that brings together all her techniques, as well as sound by Ross Williams, to create what seems to be a narrative on the continuum of destruction and rebirth. 

Brett Wallace explores the intersection of art, technology and commerce.  Last September, he started Amazing, a start-up in the form of art, that’s now a production company.  He explores the questions of how an artist reconciles labor, surveillance and technology, and the role of labor in the digital age. 

BS-i2-1.0_2016, Brett Wallace, Mixed media (hat, t-shirt, acrylic, steel hardware, wood, inkjet prints)

The background of this assemblage mimics the step and repeat logos that corporations often use.  In the plastic boxes are a real hat and tee-shirt worn by workers in a fulfillment center.

Drone Delivery 3, Brett Wallace, inkjet archival print on dibond

This photo is taken in front of a gallery to which he was shipping art in laser cut boxes with different phrases – the first time a drone was used to deliver art!

Elizabeth Riley with City Remix installation. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Elizabeth Riley‘s City Remix is the result of a multi-step video-digital process.  She used her video “Dragons of Iceland,” to create a new video of a growing city.  She then selected stills from that second video, manipulating and ink-jet printing them onto fabric, plastic and paper which she’s draped over installation racks, so that by moving the racks, you can change what the “city” looks like.   

detail from City Remix, Elizabeth Riley, digital film images on paper, cloth and clear plastic

It’s fun to get up close to the racks, to see how the colors and patterns look close up, and how the background material affects the way they look. I really like her use of color.

There’s more to see in this show, which is up only until April 26th.  So find your way over to the Salena Gallery at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn, and see this show before it closes. 

Bushwick Open Studios Review

I hadn’t been to Bushwick in a long time, and boy, has it changed.  I went up to see the open studios last weekend, but I never got out of 17-17 Troutman Street.  Walking from the train, I was impressed by the quality of the street art, which was way beyond the graffiti tags of yore. (Photos are on my Instagram feed).

Good luck flowers adorn Lulu Yee's wedding dress

Good luck flowers adorn Lulu Yee’s wedding dress

I’ve always liked open studios because you get a chance to chat with the artists, and see work in a wide variety of media and subject matter.  I started out in the studio of Lulu Yee,  whose colorful, quirky ceramic figures – especially the Norse god Loki in his salmon disguise, and the Tree Creatures – brought a smile to my face.   Lulu also displayed her 2009 wedding dress, which was a fabulous marriage of art, community and functionality.  She and her husband-to-be asked their family and friends to send them a good luck flower that Lulu then sewed onto her plain garment, which is now covered in 280 of them. Absolutely Wonderful!

Graphite drawing of the Catskills by Amy Talluto

Graphite drawing of the Catskills by Amy Talluto

Amy Talluto   was exhibiting several graphite drawings on paper of the landscapes of upstate New York, especially the Catskill Mountains area.  She’s a fabulous draughtsman, whose detailed depictions of the local trees, mountains and rocks capture the essence and form of nature in this region.

from the Drawing Series by Mona Kamal

from the Drawing Series by Mona Kamal

Mona Kamal  displayed brightly colored abstractions and floral pieces, from her Drawing Series.  On one wall were 6” x 8” gouaches on paper, patterned with abstractions inspired by nature, in the manner of tile mosaics found in Islamic architecture.  Another series is composed of abstractions of gouache on veneer, about 8” x 8”, where the artist uses the pattern of the natural grain of  wood.  Yet another series has floral themes painted on birch bark of varying sizes.   I have to admire the painstaking technique necessary to do this, and I think the artist has a great sense of color.

untitled by Jonathan Chapline

untitled by Jonathan Chapline

Jonathan Chapline   creates large scale collages composed of on-line photos from magazines, movie scenes and mobile phones to create fantasy spaces that seem real, but have an alternate dimension, containing many simplified objects (some were on display), as well as suggestions of objects.  He also has a wonderful sense of color, which adds to the mystery of his work.

untitled work by Gordon Fearey

untitled work by Gordon Fearey

Gordon Fearey  was showing his large-scale textile paintings, in which a garment (or undergarment) is painted over to create an entirely new image with three dimensionality.  He has a fantastic sense of color and composition, and his brushstrokes give an urgency to his work.

Unfortunately, I was running out of time, so I only paid cursory visits to Ned and Shiva Productions   a collaboration between Javier Barrera and Shiva Lynn Burgos, were displaying stills from American Gothic, a series of 25 individual prints (some of which are presented as lightboxes); Abel Lenz,  who had intriguing miniature motorized animals and people from his Protoype Horse series; and Brian Bald, whose photographs of drying paint are amazing – and not retouched!

My only regret is that I couldn’t visit more studios, so I’m putting this event on my calendar now for next year!

Pop Up Art in Park Slope

Attendants/artists Annie Pettinga and Kati Rehneck at Not For Sale

Attendants/artists Annie Pettinga and Kati Rehneck at Not For Sale

On my way to the library, I stopped at the Soldiers and Sailors Arch at the entrance to Prospect Park, to check out what seemed to be a newsstand – but it was painted pink, and had a sign saying Not for Sale.  Turns out, this is part of the Park Slope Art Festival, and in fact, the structure (constructed and painted by artists Annie Pettinga and Kati Rehneck in photo at left), is modeled after a newsstand, but instead of the usual candy and reading materials, it holds art made only by artists – over 90 from 10 countries – who identify as female.  The brainchild of Girl on Girl Collective,  an art collective based in Brooklyn, the newsstand features works which can’t be bought – however, it is possible to acquire some by fulfilling certain conditions, the idea being to create interaction between the artists and the public.

For example, I got one of Hadley Leary’s mini matchboxes, which are mostly covered with photos of women in water, simply by speaking with one of the attendants/artists, and expressing interest in it. If, however, you wanted to get the “Lucky Alive” candy cigarettes, then you would have to be a smoker, so the artist could talk to you about the dangers of smoking.  In a nod to the newsstand theme, there was a giant cookie onto which the news had been “printed.”   There were some lovely hand-painted postcards, and several art zines.  Not for Sale will be open through September 25th, which is also the last day of the Park Slope Art Festival.  Stop by and chat with the artists – you don’t have to buy anything, and you might leave with something of value.

Textiles: More Than Fabric for Clothes

Heads of Manatas and Indigo Trinidad in installation by Laura Anderson Barbata

Heads of Manatas and Indigo Trinidad in installation by Laura Anderson Barbata

I started my celebration of Textile Month by taking in Material Cultures, a lovely compact exhibition at BRIC House, which explores how 8 different artists employ textiles in their art.  Most of the featured works tend toward sculptural or 3-D, with only one artist using fabric to create clothing.  Hailing from Mexico, Peru, Canada and the US, many of these artists are re-interpreting traditional materials and/or techniques, allowing them to be seen in a new light, or referencing the collision of tradition and modern life.  Here are some of my favorites.

Laura Anderson Barbata created a group of ten imaginative, fanciful figures garbed in costumes mostly made of hand-woven indigo dyed cotton, thus exploring the possibilities of this widely used fabric, whose designs are often freighted with the political and social implications of the communities in which they are made.   

Luna Park by Adrian Esparza

Luna Park by Adrian Esparza

Adrian Esparza has deconstructed a serape, transforming this traditional garment into a large-scale, modernist “drawing” that is Op-Art in its feel, by pinning different colored threads to the wall, creating lines and shapes that intersect and overlap, resulting in new colors and geometric abstractions.  Despite it’s size, I found his work to have a very open, delicate feel. 

Papel tejido, Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia, hand woven acrylic on paper in Material Cultures at BRIC

Papel tejido, Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia, hand woven acrylic on paper in Material Cultures at BRIC

Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia  created several joyous brightly colored tapestries made from long strips of painted paper  which he’s woven into complex abstract patterns.   

Oulad Bou Sbea by Marela Zacarias in Material Cultures at BRIC

Oulad Bou Sbea by Marela Zacarias in Material Cultures at BRIC

Marela Zacarias large-scale monochromatic sculpture cascades down one of the gallery walls like a softly-draped piece of white satin, which belies the complexity of its structure.  The artist has fashioned the underlying form from wire screening which she attaches to wooden supports, to which she applies layers of plaster she then sands, polishes and paints.  You’ll also find two smaller works which she has painted with geometric patterns, giving the impression that they’re silk scarves that just happen to be on the wall.

detail of crocheted mandala by Xenobia Bailey

detail of crocheted mandala by Xenobia Bailey

Up the stairs in a small bright room you’ll find the joyful, vibrant hand-crocheted  work of Xenobia Bailey, which references various philosophies and traditions, but is rooted in the African-American popular culture of the American South.  The bright pink walls are decorated with her colorful, concentric mandalas, imbuing the space with energy and the visual rhythms of jazz. In the center of the room you’ll find the Funktional House, a tent of lively, varied patterns crocheted from brightly-colored yarns (unfortunately you can’t go in) that transmutes the energy of funk. 

There are more artists who’s work is on display;  you can find more pictures on my Instagram feed .

On September 28th, at 7:00pm, BRIC will host a panel discussion with several of the artists in the show. FREE with RSVP.

The exhibit continues on until October 23rd, at BRIC House 247 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.

A Contemporary Take on African Masks

The Brooklyn Museum is exploding with vibrant shows, on subjects from Africa to Coney Island.  In fact, there are two shows, each devoted to one of these distinct areas, side-by-side on the 5th floor.  They’re both powerful, and will leave you thinking a bit differently not only about these geographic locales, but also about life. This post will focus on Africa; the next one is about the Coney Island show.

Gelede Body Mask, artist unknown, Benin, 19th century

Gelede Body Mask, artist unknown, Benin, 19th century

Disguises – Masks and Global African Art  is a powerful display of masks, sculptures, photos, prints, and videos, mostly by African artists (or artists of African descent).  The exhibition is organized thematically, i.e. “Becoming Another,” “Masks as Disguise,” often placing historical masks in dialogue with contemporary artists, fostering an exploration of the different roles that masks play, and the possibilities they open up to their wearers. 

As the wall labels explain, masquerading is a catalyst for engagement with issues of a given time, whether sacred or secular; it’s also a platform for artistic creativity, allowing the wearer to make statements he/she otherwise could not.  Masks, in the form of iconographic characters express archetypes, and the wearer’s role is to teach a lesson.  However, masks live in a specific cultural context; when they  are separated from their costumes and from their wearers – as they are in museums – their larger messages are lost.  This exhibit explores these themes from historical and contemporary perspectives.

Frighten Children mask by Chuckwu Okora, Nigeria 1960

Frighten Children mask by Chuckwu Okora, Nigeria 1960

At the beginning of the show, you are greeted by a 19th century Gelede body mask, in the form of a woman, from  Benin, standing on a pedestal, slightly off the floor.  There are cases containing 19th and 20th century wooden masks from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Benin: several very large, stylized human faces, and some have animal characteristics.  One of the standouts for me was a smaller, oval shaped yellow, brown, white and black “frighten children” mask by Chuckwu Okora, of Nigeria, who created it in 1960 as a theatre mask for an evil character, representing greed and social illness. 

In the next room are 4 large photos from the Oikonomos series by Angolan artist Edson Chagas, in which he covers his head with shopping bags from around the globe that are now found in Angola, creating a commentary on the consumer market that is now found there.    Close by is Woman #3 by Paul Anthony Smith, who used the 18th century technique of pictotage on photos of a Kuba mask and his mother, transforming them into a completely new mask with a jewel-like feel to it, evoking Asian theatre masks.  Across the room you’ll find Willie Cole’s work:  in the center is a photo of a scorched iron; on one side is is a photo of the artist with the same scorch marks superimposed on his face; on the other side is a woodcut depicting an iron as a mask. The palette of brown, white and black, as well as the motif of the iron serve to unify the pictures into a triptych.

Aluminum and brass (razor) wire mask by Walter Oltmann, South Africa

Aluminum and brass (razor) wire mask by Walter Oltmann, South Africa

In the next room, you’ll find several spectacular masks by the South African artist Walter Oltmann, made from aluminum and brass (razor) wire.  He’s also constructed several “suits” from these materials, but with the caterpillar and Kafka’s insect as their underlying inspiration, making you think about how we use clothing to separate ourselves from others, or to identify ourselves with a given group, or to transform ourselves.  As someone who had to wear a uniform for twelve years, his work spoke very powerfully to me.

Be sure to see the Egungun series of oversized photos by Leonce Rafael Agbodjélou of Benin, which are wonderful portraits of egungun performers in Porto Novo – the colors and patterns of their costumes are stunning, and are made more intriguing by the wearers’ faces being covered.  Also take a look at the oversize photos by Frenchman Jean-Claude Moschetti of masked figures in Benin – not only the two triptychs with the brightly colored, elaborate costumes, but also the solo photo of a person – whose face is also covered – wearing an all white costume decorated with cowrie shells, and set against a deep sky blue background.

In another area are 7 pieces by Nandipha Mntambo of South Africa; two oversize photos of the artist dresses as a bullfighter, in a white matador’s suit she made partly from cowhide.  There’s also a series inspired by the myth of Europa (who was seduced by Zeus disguised as a white bull) consisting of a photo in which the artist transformed herself into Europa as half bull, half woman – a fascinating hairy female face with horns; this same image is also rendered as a bronze bust.  You’ll also find two small, spare, pen & ink drawings of a bull, reminiscent of Picasso.

NeoPrimitivism by Brendan Fernandes, Kenya

NeoPrimitivism by Brendan Fernandes, Kenya

In another area you’ll find the Anomalia series by Brendan Fernandes of Kenya, his digital drawings of mythical, futuristic animals whose heads are African artifacts (masks) mounted on animal bodies.  In a separate installation, NeoPrimitivism he has put fake white masks on fake deer, who are standing next to masks made of neon, highlighting the loss of cultural context and spiritual meaning when “authentic” masks become commodities, sold on the street (as on Canal Street).

In the next room is a video installation, in which two Makonde masks from the early 20th century are place in dialogue with Jacob Dwight’s digital masks whose constantly changing images are projected on two screens.  The walls of the room are covered in black & white wallpaper created by Sam Vernon from images he xeroxed and altered as well as hand-drawn patterns.

detail from ChimaTek installation by Saya Woolfalk

detail from ChimaTek installation by Saya Woolfalk

In the center of the entire exhibit is a large installation ChimaTek which defies description.  Created by Saya Woolfalk, it has a very 1960’s psychedelic/futuristic feel.  This is the latest work in a series she’s created over several years, around female characters called “Empathics”   I recommend that you read the wall labels, then watch  the short video about how ChimaTek will allow you to transform yourself into a post-modern person through a process of hybridization that gives customers the opportunity to try on new hybrid identities.  Seemingly a combination of sci-fi fantasy and parody of medical advertising, it is simultaneously very funny and very scary – an ingenious installation that’s a sly commentary on how we chase happiness by changing ourselves.

There is so much to see here – I’ve left out lots of things such as, William Vilalongo who’s put African masks over reproductions of western nudes, and also placed works by Frank Stella and Alfred Jansen over Pende masks, creating masks on masks…  or Iké Udé’s “Sartorial Anarchy #23” in which he dresses in “post-dandy” style, wearing an embroidered Nigerian man’s gown, with a reproduction of a 16th-century ruff collar, and a French fencing mask from the 1940’s.. and other items that are detailed in a guide by the photo.

Sartorial Anarchy #23 by Iké Udé, Nigeria

Sartorial Anarchy #23 by Iké Udé, Nigeria

Leave yourself plenty of time to take in this exhibit; it’s not only that there’s a lot to see, but also understanding the layers of meaning  as contemporary artists struggle to reinvent the mask. (More images are on my Instagram feed) 

The exhibit runs through  September 18th.  However, I recommend that you go well before then, as you’ll probably want to see it again.

Dreaming of Coney Island

one of the ICY SIgns

one of the ICY SIgns

Coney Island is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull) at the Brooklyn Museum is a witty show by artist Stephen Powers, who’s organized works by ICY Signs, a collective of artists, sign makers and people who want to make signs.  The exhibit is an assemblage of the group’s output over the last 10 years, all of which is hand-made in either Brooklyn or Philadelphia, and also includes some found and vintage signs.  There’s a short video in which he talks about the exhibit, which is worth watching.

The signs employ the typography, graphic designs, catchy phrases, bright and pastel colors of commercial signage, especially of an earlier Coney Island, but when you read them, you’ll see that they’re really commentaries on life, with all the joys and messiness of love, work, relationships, and everyday activities. 

one of the ICY Signs

one of the ICY Signs

The signs are not displayed one after the other;  instead, some are grouped together on several large canvases, around the perimeter of the space, and seem to revolve a round a theme: “Let’s go anywhere”  “The job is getting up again”   One canvas contains some 21st century puns, such as “Server not responding” with a picture of a fork.  There are two which are each devoted solely to one word, “Adore” and “Eyes” playing with each’s linguistic and graphic possibilities.

In the central rotunda of the room, you’ll find two columns festooned with signs.  One contains images and messages you’d expect to see at Coney Island:  “Have your handwriting analyzed by Sister Nassia” or an advertisement for “4-Train snake-bite gym bag” (I want one of those!), as well as a charming 3-D depiction of bathers on the beach.  The other column is more political in nature, with a visual commentary on relations between residents and the police in housing projects.  On one wall is a witty “calendar” for an 8-day week, illustrating activities for each day from “Mundane” through “Someday”

Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to read the signs;  it may look a little overwhelming, but it’s well worth the effort. I guarantee you’ll walk out with a smile on your face.   More images are on my Instagram feed

The show runs through August 21st.


Landscapes in Brooklyn

Mobile Home, by Randy Van Dyck

Mobile Home, by Randy Van Dyck

Last night I got to the opening of the lovely new show “Landscape:  A Sense of Place” at Site:Brooklyn  gallery in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn.   I got lucky and snagged an interview with the exhibit’s curator, Annette Rose-Shapiro.  I’ll let her tell you about it.

Liz Daly:  How did this show come about?

Annette Rose-Shapiro:  Denise (Amses) and Chris (Cosma) had asked me to come up with an idea for a show, and I wanted to do something on landscapes. 


I was wondering, do people do landscapes anymore?  It’s not the Thomas Cole, Hudson River School kind of thing, but what are people doing in terms of landscape.

I was very happy to see the kinds of works people submitted, using all types of media, all very, very different – there was a lot of great work.  There were over 1200 submissions to the show, and I had to narrow it down to about 75.  Which was not easy. 

So how did you decide?

I looked at whether they all had a sense of place, which was part of the title of the show; and whether they all had a place that I would personally want to go to.  That’s how I thought about it: I want to go to that place, I want to see what it’s like, I want to explore there, I want to see what that person saw in that place.   

I noticed that some of the pieces had environmental themes.

Yes, there were some that did, and there were some traditional landscapes, there were some very abstract ones, there was a quilt; that was great.

A Time and Place by Rosemary Hoffenberg

A Time and Place by Rosemary Hoffenberg

As an embroiderer, I’m always drawn to fibre pieces, so I noticed the larger quilt (A Time and Place by Rosemary Hoffenberg) the smaller one (Quilted Construction #1 by Sara Drower), and the felted landscape (High Country by Ginger Summit).

The great thing about this show is that people express themselves in many different ways, but it was all about a place.  As I explained before, when I was choosing pieces, I said, “I want to go to that place, I want to explore it; maybe I’m afraid to go there, maybe I’m interested in going there.”  That’s what drew me in – I saw a specific place.  And that’s what I based my choices on.

Where did the submissions come from?

All over the country.  It was the same with the show I did last year on portraits – people from all over the country submitted, and they came to the show – from San Francisco, Atlanta, Texas, Wisconsin, even Hong Kong.  They came to see their work, and that was such a wonderful thing for me.  They all said, “This is the first show I’ve had in New York, this is great!” 

Poem to the Horizon, by Robin Colodzin

Poem to the Horizon, by Robin Colodzin

It was wonderful to see people so excited about their work.  I love giving people a chance to show their work, people who wouldn’t ordinarily get to show it.  Because they’re not going to get into Gagosian, or Pace, or Marlborough – which is those galleries’ loss – and that’s too bad, because there’s a lot of wonderful work that never gets a chance to be seen.  The greatest thing about doing shows here is that people get a chance to be seen, and they should be.

“Landscape – A Sense of Place” will be on view until June 26th, at Site:Brooklyn,                  165 Seventh Street (btwn 2nd & 3rd Aves), Brooklyn.  Put it on your list!  More photos are on my Instagram feed.