Brooklyn Fire Proof, July 31 – September 7, 2008
“Grandma” is a word that can mean either nothing at all apart from a kinship designation—grandmothers are women, and a woman can be a lot of different things—or a set of familiar stereotypes associated with things like antimacassars and tea cozies. The group show Grandma at Brooklyn Fire Proof focuses on the latter idea, and while I admit that the “home baked cookies with discount soda,” mentioned by the press release hit home (did everyone else’s grandmother buy White Rose cola, too?) I would like to have seen more works representing the grandmother as individual rather than anachronistic saint. Many of the works start from a framework of individual memory, but they often arrive at the same place. I thought of Miwa Yanagi’s series My Grandmothers that showed at the Chelsea Museum last year, in which she asked young Japanese women to envision what they would be doing in fifty years, then made photos of them as old women, riding motorcycles or whatever else they had pictured. Grandmothers can be mean, adventurous, sensual, or five-times-married, as my mother’s mother was. Among the works in Grandma, only Hein Koh’s installation of chili peppers drying on a tatami mat introduces a feeling of ambivalence about grandmotherhood to the show. There seem to be almost too many peppers involved in the obsessive kimchi-making, while at the same time a painting above the mat depicts a black-and-white Seoul that exists only in the artist’s imagination, fusing a cloudy nostalgia to the second- or third-generation immigrant child’s sense that her Halmoni does things which she finds inexplicable, embarrassing, or even repulsive.
More often the works reference folk art and craft projects, such as a giant stuffed meatball and spaghetti arrangement by Stacy Fisher, or paintings of a remembered farmhouse by Ann Toebbe. These are done in a style so simplified that at times it looks pixilated or quilted; they can have the haunting quality of authentic folk art, a clumsy and painfully expressive evocation of grandmother’s difficult past as if it were happening right now. I particularly liked the patterned rings of smoke in Burning Down the Second House, a title and image that hints at a complicated backstory. Another work I liked for its novelistic quality was Deb Sokolow’s But You Like Fruitpies, Don’t You? with its flow chart of the weirdoes inhabiting a Chicago apartment building and the narratives that emanate from them; although it seems a stretch to connect this work to the theme of the show, it does remind the viewer of one of the most piquant aspects of old age, and something that I would bet almost all of grandmas have in common: the stories they tell.