Exhibitions of paintings have been an ongoing challenge to present over the past several months. Given the restrictions prescribed to protect citizens from the novel coronavirus in crowded environments, the automatic reflex has been for museums, galleries, independent curators, and artists to turn immediately to virtual programming as a surrogate method for viewing. Yet those of us who know the differences between the texture, light, and scale of a painting in real-time and space and its presence on a screen also know why the latter is no match for the former. So then, how does one transmit the presence of a painting online in a manner that is convincing? Is it really a viable alternative? Fortunately, painter Sono Kuwayama has come up with an alternative: inviting artists to use the plywood sheets that cover shuttered storefronts as their canvases. Carried out in cooperation with neighborhood businesses, this is a project that reflects not only the condition of quarantine, but also the reality of ongoing popular uprisings against police brutality and systemic racism.
In late May, we were shown a horrendous event in Minneapolis: George Floyd, a Black man, being strangled to death in “real time” by a police officer. The message went viral. Within a few hours, large crowds of protesters began organizing in New York, primarily (but not only) in lower Manhattan. Although this was a peaceful demonstration, it soon became clear that professional gangs of looters had taken advantage of the situation, seizing the opportunity to shatter plate glass windows and rob small stores, many of which barely made a living.
In the following days, storefront facades were boarded up with large sheets of plywood throughout lower Manhattan. It was as if the absence of people on the streets over the preceding weeks were not enough. Now we were given visual reminders of violence nailed over storefront windows, providing the lives of New Yorkers with yet another level of discouragement and despair. This became apparent among those quarantined in their rooms and apartments, needing a positive environment with fresh ideas. One might ask: What is happening to life in New York? How could art possibly continue in such a place? And where do we go from here?
When I heard about Kuwayama’s project in the New York Times, I thought—Yes! This opens up a whole new possibility to think about art in a public environment removed from the seductive dissuasions of marketing: “Our neighborhood has a long history of being home to artists of all disciplines,” writes Kuwayama. “In the past 100 days, our streets and our lives have changed in myriad ways. With the recent landscape of plywood, the vibrancy of our history and our neighborhood has also been shuttered. I would like to propose a project of bringing artists back…to paint beautiful images and words on these blank canvases. I envision The Bowery and 2ndAvenue and all the streets in our neighborhood that have been boarded over becomes a beautiful museum…free for the public.” It was a gift that Sono prepared and gave to neighbors and store-keepers.
In this way, the signs of violent activity perpetrated by unscrupulous looters—opportunists seeking to exploit legitimate and community-minded protests for their own gain—could be turned to a restorative purpose. And while not quite as museological as she might have envisioned it, Kuwayama’s project emerges as intelligent, diverse, deeply relevant, and clearly energetic. Largely due to the communal support of store owners and the persistently active engagement of the painters, the artistic transformation of the neighborhood became—if only for a relatively short period of time—a superb example of how artists might work independently and cooperatively with one another in a public space.
Street artist Daniel Miranda’s painting on the façade of the 7-Eleven situated on the east side of the Bowery, north of 4th Street, was one of the first works to catch my eye. This large-scale frieze of faces is not just a painted sheet of plywood—it is deeply involved with a specific content. It communicates a kind of exegesis of personas from the neighborhood, all struggling together to represent a point of view. These large-scale portraits come together to form a mixture of personalities from diverse backgrounds including age, gender, race, and culture. The overall effect of Miranda’s work is inextricably bound to the place and time. The moment is one that defines their collective social history.
The diversity of the Kuwayama’s project may be found in four paintings across the street that adorn the exterior of the boarded-up 310 Bowery Bar, close to 1st Street. These include an abstract black and white composition by De Zalv; a memorial, titled Who Killed Emmett Till, by Robert Blodgett and Catt Caulley; a densely overlaid word painting by James Rubio and Hitomi Nakamure; and finally, an indispensable work, titled People have the Power, by Scooter LaForge. Three out of these four paintings deal either directly or indirectly with various aspects of continuing anti-racist protests.
One of the most prominent painters involved with this project is Charles Hudson, who normally divides his time between painting landscapes and demure abstractions that focus on color. I am recalling, in particular, a large painting of a flowering tree with red buds, posed within a striated ground-plane, that I saw mounted to the right of the Sweetgreen entrance at 347 Bowery. To my mind, this painting questions whether it should remain in an outdoor urban environment—there is an uncertainty to the image and its staging that seems somehow necessary, if the artist is to reveal the dimensions of space he aims to show us. Unfortunately, this ambiguity has already been resolved, as the painting was sold and hauled away, most likely to an interior location where, sadly, few will have occasion to view it.