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Brooklyn Pastiche: The Brooklyn Art Scene

The 21st century will be the century in which we redefine ourselves as the first country in world history which is literally made up of every part of the world. 

– Kenneth Prewitt, Census Bureau director, 01/01/01

The Brooklyn art world consists of a multiplicity of personalities and ideologies of equal interest to the inquiring or receptive. This small selection represents galleries operating within a more traditional commercial model, those with a more educative and social focus, and those dedicated to cultural discourse. Spaces for art are pasted on the Brooklyn map in increasing and changing locales.


The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporian Arts (MoCADA) opened last year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with the efforts of director Laurie A. Cumbo. Joyce Shelby related Cumbo’s story in a Daily News article last spring. Armed with a Master’s in Visual Arts Administration from NYU, she sought counseling in her job search. “I want to work in a museum,” she told the counselor, adding, “I want to work in Brooklyn and I want to work with contemporary and emerging artists of African descent.” She told me I’d either have to work outside Brooklyn, or start my own museum,” Cumbo recalls. MoCADA’s present home at 281 Stuyvesant Avenue sports bright white walls and several pieces of fine furniture donated by local merchants, including a carved African wooden chair.

For its recent exhibit Challenging America’s Conscience: 21st Century Artists Speak Out on Civil Rights and Social Wrongs, Cumbo invited six members of the community, all lawyers and judges, some with little or no prior involvement in the arts, to select works from among a pool of 20 artists she had chosen. This creative experiment brought work informed about civil rights issues and African American history. At times “hard-hitting,” as Holland Cotter said in the Times, and also polemical, the show included several highlights, especially the movingly dispassionate paintings of homeless men and women by Lloyd Harrison Stevens, the assemblages of found objects by Mark Broyard, Francks François Décéus’s small collage/painting/drawing, Kip Omolade’s “Flashback,” and Bradley McCallum/Jacqueline Tarry’s excellent and engaging witness call box installation about police brutality.

In Décéus’s powerful “Man Down,” the titles tells all. A bright yellow inference of target and drawn target marks a black skinned youth and relates the pain and fear that result from profiling. “The work deals with the absence that family and friends feel after having lost a loved one to gun violence,” says Cumbo in her press release. This young artist of Haitian descent delivers “a message of unity, hope, faith and family.” His work will be among those featured in the upcoming exhibit of Brooklyn collagists.

On March 2, Master’s Choice: Visual Interpretation of Diaspora through Collage opens at MoCADA. Art historian and writer Brett Crenshaw presents the work of Brooklyn artists Décéus, Leroy Campbell, Sadikisha Saundra Collier, James Denmark, Jewel Golden, William Tolbert, Karl McIntosh, Otto Neals, and Jimmy James Greene. For these artists, the medium of collage, with its “assembled harmony and ease of navigation through spatial and chronological planes,” provides a natural aesthetic frame for the African American diaspora.


Lost and Found: Reclaimed Moments,” selected guest curator Mihee Ahn explains in her catalogue essay, “explores the use of discarded objects and materials in art-making.” The objects are animistic and embody melancholy and loneliness. In using them to create sculpture, even this abandonment can be overcome by asking viewers to pay close attention. In both the use of actual body parts (Yoko Ohashi’s hair) and in imitating or representing them (Eung Ho Park’s painted eyes), a relationship between the organic and the inorganic is formed.

In Jean Shin’s installation of leather shoe soles, the repeated objects reflect the lives of each wearer like the wrinkles of his/her face. Shin’s configuration of bottom-up leather soles provides an unsettling view of a crowd (upside-down). The rippled pattern of the installation evokes a reflection in water. She uses the configurations of different heels of both men’s and women’s shoes to create gender-specific portraits. In this floor piece she creates a new context for the discarded “souls,” which can be viewed, as in a traditional sculpture, from different angles as you walk around it. In the center of Ohashi’s room are rocks standing like headstones; small stones are piled like those left by visitors to graves of the Jewish deceased, or like Korean wishing stones.

Park configures found bottle caps into networks that evoke social groups. He paints glowing eyeballs inside each. In them, the multiplicity of humanity is represented. Fred Fleisher’s installation of groups of dolls, toys, stuffed animals, teletubbies, and toys simulate our everyday interactions with family groups or with friends, like child-play with dolls. The curator and Rotunda’s education director Meridith McNeal have collaborated with artists in encouraging viewer interaction. Viewers are expected to race model cars on a track, wind-up toys, and switch on implanted lights and wired teletubbies. In an opening event, bottle caps were fitted with copies of Park’s eyes and offered like van Gogh’s lithographs of his charcoal drawing “Sorrow” to the masses.

Han Sam Son weaves strips of corrugated board articulated by knife gashes. The detritus of human consumption is layered so that the wall installation is in relief. In a second relief the repeated element is an ovoid shape also with some dimension and flecked with colors naturally occurring in the compacted mass. Amy Elizabeth sets out a cart of balls that are built with wound string and encase objects found under the Manhattan Bridge. Exposing the cart’s contents in X-rays overhead makes the private public here, and suggests a medical finding of something that doesn’t belong. The found objects are imbued with an importance and, like Yoko Ohashi’s “Hair and Rocks,” call careful attention to insignificant items like a single strand of hair, a pebble, or a rusty can opener under the bridge.

The exhibit continues through March 10.


In Flipside’s drawing show Picture This, Matt Blackwell’s small morning sketches made with coffee washes depict varied ruminations, including a breakfast of kipper, hash, and eggs, and “A Bird on a Wire.” A sketch of a Trojan bunny was later built as a toy-sized, riveted and caulked sheet metal sculpture. To artist/curators Tim Spelios and Caroline Cox, Blackwell’s sketchbook seemed an artifact of a bygone era.

David Cohen describes David Brody’s paintings as “abstractions involved with similar energies and issues as architecture.” This is a helpful context for these drawings of Lego-like constructions or foundations. Some illusion of depth is created with the use of subtle color modulations and perspective. Three drawings: a boxy ground plan, a labyrinthine mall garden, and a tentative elevation, bring to mind the step pyramids with their utopian auras. Gentle and harsh, laugh and cry, pain and fun are proximal in Jim Torok’s confrontational comic strip about a serious medical condition. The autobiographical nature of the drawing allows a powerful commentary. Torok’s dark humor takes the edge for the viewer and lightens the load with some fun. Joyce Pensato exhibits a signature charcoal drawing of windup mice and duck figures bunny-hopping. A vigorous gestural background creates the illusion of movement, as in Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Brian Coleman’s drawing on big top tent is “a miniature recreation of a garden folly.” His marks articulate the clear vinyl walls with the illusion of metallic filigree. The scale and “construction material” of the tent, normally a temporary structure, questions the issues of shelter and stability, perhaps paralleling the contemporary artist’s lot.

In his drawings from recent projects, Ward Shelley shows a beanbag chair in its voyage down the East River and a tunnel constructed in a gallery space where workers wearing kneepads and hard hats crawl unobserved. A platform complete with a visitor’s center is “The Voyager,” which traveled both upward and from one end of Socrates Park to the other; it did so by transferring the back section to the front and building upward extensions. This labor-intensive, wormlike journey must have been Sisyphean: pushing forward like a segmented Annelid, plodding through life—the mode of locomotion indeed most similar to our own walk.

The Bubble Boy originally proposed for Arena@Feed in 2000 is depicted in a charcoal drawing with rich blacks and erased highlights, complete with accessories. Boots, jockstrap, turtleneck, and wristbands are depicted in penciled notes. It appears to be a self-supporting system of man and shelter—perhaps a man-made approximation or anticipation of reentry into the womb.

Mike Ballou shows one drawing of an installation view of an artist-run gallery in Germany with a notation referencing Matisse’s “The Red Studio.” A second interior, in which there are “short films and videos made by people outside the mainstream media,” is painted in a Hopperesque palette. Another recreates a puppet show presented in Norway in 1996 called “Way Repressed.” The puppet show itself recreated a panel discussion held at Ballou’s venue Four Walls, in which practicing psychoanalysts considered the exhibit on view, The Neurotic Art Show.

Ballou copiously credits the work he is appropriating and tells the story of each piece in accompanying texts. The sum of these three parts is a 3-D maquette of a gallery interior with murals of these scenes lining the walls. The homey browns, ochers, sap greens, and venetian reds of the first half of the 20th century are painted with a sort of anti-tech remembrance of things past and embrace of the human.

Picture This continues through February 14, after which the exhibit Outsource will run from February 25 through the end of March. Artists featured will be Lisa Hein/Bob Seng, Mike Ballou, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, and Ward Shelley. The show is premised on the notion of collaborative art making, and the utilization of services and labors involved in the work of the artist. The deteriorated myth of the omnipotent artist will thus be considered.


Tamara Zahaykevich’s small, glued foam core sculptures line the walls of the “drawing space” at Arena@Feed. She has nicknamed them with terms of endearment—“Lil’ Airport,” “Chairy”—which befit their poetic quality and evocation of children’s toys. Though vaguely referential, interpretations may be as varied as viewers. Tiny upright piano twins or sedentary grandparents seem to stare at you from seats on the veranda. There is also a small pink baby grand, a white camera we can’t take seriously and which could at any moment spurt water at us, an off-color, oddly shaped battleship, and a bathroom toothbrush holder with slotted depressions for cups.

These warm and intimate objects complement Frank Webster’s large oils of alienated corners of Americana in the main gallery. Scenes from a Chelsea sidewalk or a Midwestern storage facility are painted in the same colorless palette, equalizing the locales and calling into focus the unifying emotive power of his work. The same anonymity could be experienced on a Los Angeles freeway or at a Staten Island Sheraton.

Here are those notoriously ugly and alienating '60s façades that now interest us. The view changes with time as the diner is demolished and a Bar-B-Q Hut goes up in its place. Architectural styles evolve and we embrace or disdain them, but have little control. In the same way that an artist chooses his/her subject, we observe buildings without taking responsibility. When we arrive at LaGuardia, the American Airlines terminal greets us.

In his painting “Storage Space and Mountain,” Webster shows us a desolate scene with a majestic mountainous shape colored as if in cloud cover. It fits our conception of “The Rockies.” In reality, Webster admits he grew up in Indiana and the shape was inspired by a gravel heap that had significance for him because he had seen it so often as a kid. It is this kind of transformation—of mundane sidewalk edges or childhood memories into quiet vistas, cool and anonymous; of a child finding a “majestic mountain” in a gravel heap behind a storage complex—that brings the work to life. A watchtower, strangely flat and permeable like an ethereal God, is thus entitled “Air Traffic Control Tower.”

The work of Frank Webster and Tamara Zahayevich will be on view until March 4.


Lori Ortiz


The Brooklyn Rail


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