Brooklyn Dispatches: Cool Island and Garden of Chill

Susan Homer, "In from the Garden II," oil on canvas 12" × 9". Photo courtesy of Metaphor Contemporary Art.

The dog days are here. Feverish nights, sweltering days, humidity like a scalding damp towel. As the temperatures climb, my brain goes boggy. With no house in the Hamptons, I’m clueless enough to still be here in Red Hook. Summer in the city offers a few consolations, however, like group shows that are long on simple pleasures and short on mental calisthenics, a tradition that goes back, if I’m not mistaken, to the last Ice Age

I’ve spent decades looking out the back windows of my loft, across Buttermilk Channel, and fantasizing about bucolic Governors Island. It’s taken nearly thirty years, but in early June I finally made the ten-minute ferry cruise from the Battery to visit in-site, a rambling exhibition organized by the Sculptor’s Guild and curated by Jerelyn Hanrahan, the Guild’s president. Just stepping into the Governor’s Island Ferry Terminal in Lower Manahattan, with its elegant Victorian façade and vaulted cast-iron ceiling, begins an immersion in another era. Disembarking on the island, I was astonished by the height of the hills, which were built up as fortifications when the island guarded the entrance to Upper New York Bay. The campus itself, with its rolling lawns punctuated by ancient trees, is made up of rows of officer housing and stately commanders’ residencies surrounding oval courtyards. This sea-breezy, shade-dappled setting was the perfect antidote for the blistering asphalt and dusty byways of Red Hook, and with temps several degrees cooler than the mean streets, it proved delightful for an art-filled stroll.

A thriving military base from the eighteenth century to the late 1960s, Governor’s Island now feels like a well-preserved ghost town, frozen in time, a context that heightens the aura of a surrealistic time warp surrounding many of the exhibition’s site-specific works. Take “Ship of State,” a wind-activated piece by Tom Broadbent. Invoking the island’s past, it presents three ships’ sails, complete with “cannonball-holes” cut into their dark striped fabric, lashed to steel masts and planted on a gentle slope. The four-meter-tall sails, tethered with cables and spikes against the chance of high winds, highlights the absurdity of small forces attempting to change the direction of momentous government objectives; a possibility as likely as the wind in these undersized, shot-up sails blowing the island off its moorings.

Hundreds of inch-thick branches are bound together by thousands of knots of raw twine in “Bound Sticks” (2008) by Kathleen Vance. They snake along a plot of grass, bulging like a recently fed python before coiling into the branches of a nearby tree. The coloration of the work’s natural materials, many collected on the island, and its obsessive wrapping and tying create an organic form that literally fades into the landscape, where it lies in wait to bite the consciousness of viewers the moment they recognize its presence.

Jerelyn Hanrahan’s tripartite “Trilogy” evokes sci-fi insect/humanoid mutants or some recently discovered deep-sea life forms. Its immaculate surfaces painted in high gloss auto body enamel and balanced on low bases like Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” the piece stands several feet higher than the average person. When compared to the painted sculpture of David Smith or Sir Anthony Caro, who derived their color from the applied pigment of collage, Harahan’s colors seem of a piece with the sculpture’s forms, what in painting would be termed “body color,” with one column terminating with a virtual sun burst of appropriately brilliant deep cadmium yellow.

Maleficent concrete babies line up like duck pins on a rolling green in An Ti Liu’s “Sir, Yes Sir” (2006). Flaws in the casting process resembling the corrosive symptoms of Hansen’s Disease are the only distinguishing features in these otherwise identical figures. Their chubby bellies and round faces may aspire to the harmless charm of a wayward cherub, but positioned in military ranks, eyes facing forward, these little guys are as sinister a presence as three dozen Chuckys (the horror movie icon), at once comical and menacing.

Inside one of the commander’s houses, I couldn’t help envisioning young officers in crisp white dress uniforms and their wives in 1950s cocktail dresses mingling among the sculptures, Martini glasses in hand. A cardboard construction by Peter Dudek seems to have caught the same retro vibe. This low-slung piece hugs the wall at the base of a staircase, alluding to a modernistic amoeba-shaped side table but simultaneously inviting viewers to locate it within their own stylistic expectations of sculpture, furniture or architecture.

“The King” (2008), a large basswood bust by Stefanie Rocknak, is much more academically crafted. Rocknak shows her stuff with the delicate yet confident rendering the king’s spiked crown, which looks like a starched fabric head wrap, the shaping of the face, and the theatrically baroque swirls of hair. Decorative details like the medallions of the necklace feel more manneristic, and seem to stem from an overly ambitious display of proficiency.

A breath of whimsy is found in a group of multicolored treelike constructions by Yuliya Lanina. Festooned with miniature birdies and tiny kewpie dolls, its innocence doesn’t obscure the feeling that somehow it holds an underlying mischievously perverse narrative.

Urban tri-athletes seeking real refreshment can dive into the bay and swim four hundred yards due east to the base of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. Jog a few blocks further to Metaphor Contemporary’s Back to the Garden. This show, which takes its title from the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock,” presents the work of eleven artists all using some extrapolation of the classic “flowers in a still life” theme.

Monopolizing the central atrium like Jack’s beanstalk is “Tree” by Melanie Fischer. Its twisting tendrils give the impression they’re growing and grasping as you watch, like a sentient Gothic vegetable from Tim Burton. The painters Ketta Ioannidou, Jung Hyang Kim, and Callie Danae Hirsch mimic the growth patterns of plants in the development of their painterly abstractions. Their pictures’ arrival at subtle floral evocations seems almost coincidental. Amy Talluto’s “Thicket,” the only straight-ahead landscape in the show, and Susan Homer’s small still lives with birds (in which the only floral references are wallpaper or tablecloth patterns) make up the traditional contingent of the show. They breathe fresh life into these classic motifs through keyed-up color, a facility for brushwork and an emphasis on abstract compositional devices. The bouquet as icon would aptly describe the paintings of Cara Enteles and Julia Schwadron, though there the similarities end. Schwadron isolates a hanging bunch of ghostly white flowers on a reductive black ground, like a wreath on a monument to the Minimalist paintings of Reinhardt and Stella. In contrast, Enteles paints a garland with aplomb in vibrant autumnal tones that bespeaks of harvest time, provoking a premature nostalgia over the shortness of summer.

Rachel Selekman in “Yellow Velvet Spray” riffs on the readymade by fabricating galvanized watering cans with multiple spouts that jet out bunches of yellow flowers instead of water—a simple but effective piece that put me in the mood to visit my local nursery. Ilene Sunshine contributes an amorphous organdy wall sculpture whose image oscillates between a succulent blossom and a sea anemone. The hot red pigment on the tips of this spiky form seem to float on its translucent mesh skin, delivering a vaporous quality unobtainable in flat painting.

In “Theft in Paradise” Tim McDowell peers through the veils of the moment, combining the timelessness of ancient Asia with contemporary Pop. On warm golden grounds he appropriates Persian miniatures and Hindu and Tantric manuscripts, abrading the surfaces to simulate age and inducing dreamlike visions of Shiva the Destroyer, or perhaps, as Joni sings: “the bombers/Riding shotgun in the sky/…turning into butterflies/Above our nation.” I feel cooler already.

Contributor

James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.

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