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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

27. (Ridge Street, Attorney Street, South Bronx)

A young graffiti artist creates an elaborate series of tags on the wall of a handball court on the Lower East Side. His mentor, a poet-playwright who learned the craft of writing while serving a sentence for armed robbery in Sing Sing, admires the graffiti so much that he urges a painter friend to immortalize it on a canvas. The graffiti artist is a member of the writer’s “posse” of four young men who hang out with him in the painter’s apartment at 141 Ridge Street, which is just a couple of blocks from the handball court. This is important because, as the painter later explains, “Everything I paint is within four blocks of where I live and the people are the people I know and see all the time.”

There are no figures in the resulting painting, but the tagged wall and redbrick tenements rising behind it are accompanied by numerous quotations, some in standard text, others in disembodied hands that spell out words in American Sign Language. At the top the title (Attorney Street Handball Court) and year (1982) of the work are given twice, once in text, and once (on the artist-made wooden frame) in ASL. A similar doubled inscription is visible at the bottom of the painting where the artist has adapted some lines spoken by his writer friend (who is also a sometimes actor) in a recent Hollywood movie about police and drug dealers in the South Bronx: “It’s the real deal Neal I’m going to rock your world make your planets twirl ain’t no wack attack.” But the most important text in the painting is an autobiographical poem by the writer about growing up on the streets of the Loisaida. The artist has packed the poem into a narrow wedge of gray sky just above the tenements. In an interview two years later, he connects his habit of placing texts in the sky to his Chinese heritage. “Basically, I’m a Chinese landscape painter. If you look at all the Chinese landscapes in the museums, they have writing in the sky. They write a poem in the sky and I do that, too.”

(Martin Wong, Miguel Piñero, Little Ivan)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues