June 29 - July 28, 2017
“IF HISTORY WAS ROBBED, WE TAKE IT BACK BY PEELING AWAY AT LAYERS OF WIKIPEDIA DEBATES (SUBJECT LINE) RE:AUTHENTICITY.”
— Juliana Huxtable, “Mucus in my Pineal Gland”
In 1894 in New York, an estimated 170,000 horses filled the streets as the city’s main source of transportation. 30 to 40 of these horses were said to collapse on the side of the road every day until their corpses were eventually hulled to Barren Island, a small island near the Rockaways in Brooklyn inhabited by Black, Irish, Italian and Polish communities. By the late 19th century, the island had become Manhattan’s landfill. So many horse corpses were brought to the island that a plant was built there to render horse bones into glue. In 1936, the communities of Barren Island were evicted, the landfill was capped, and six million cubic yards of sand were pumped from the bottom of Jamaica Bay to create the grounds for Floyd Bennett Field — New York City’s first municipal airport. In the 1950s, the east shore of the landfill cap burst, as if the dead horses of New York were returning, filling the air with the scent of their rotten corpses, fish, and trash. The area was later given the name Dead Horse Bay and while the name is entirely appropriate, it fails to remind us of the many communities of people who once lived on Barren Island. The displacement that took place in Dead Horse Bay is the subject of the work of Lena Henke and several such leaky histories serve as inspiration for this group exhibition. The artists included are each dedicated to an elastic processing of the world as a means of undoing mainstream historical narratives.
Henke’s ceramics, four of which are on view here, deal with the urban expansion of the BQE. They are proposals for architecture devoted to those who were tragically displaced by the building of the highway. They resemble horse feet cum architecture and offer a distinctly anti-functional and highly hypothetical alternative to form-follows-function-modernism. Intentionally connecting the BQE to all urban developments designed by Robert Moses, Henke’s equestrian forms conflate the BQE with the Marine Highway Bridge built to create Floyd Bennett Field.
Cy Gavin’s paintings often focus on Bermuda’s landscapes and lesser known historical figures. The painting on view, titled Marsden Cemetery at Tucker’s Point, 2017 refers to Tucker’s Town, a 19th century settlement on Bermuda for emancipated slaves and their families. In the 1920s, it was seized through eminent domain and the community was supplanted with a tourist resort, with residents dispersed and shunted to tenements. While the characters and environments of Gavin’s paintings are, on the one hand, factually accurate to Bermuda’s untold past, there is a an elastic relationship to history, where the artist allows himself to create unrealistic dreamscapes of altered realities and, at times, characters that play between the symbolic and the specific. The figure in Marsden Cemetery at Tucker’s Point isn’t a specific person, but has a large disc-like head similar to the wooden fertility dolls of the West African Ashanti people known as akuaba. Gavin’s figure celebrates fertility while hovering over a grave in Tucker’s Point cemetery, showing a resilience of African traditions in the face of colonialism.
Layers, 2016, by Doreen Garner, is constructed of cinder blocks, carpet padding, and fiberglass insulation. These construction materials are covered with tinted silicone to mimic the texture of skin and all that bubbles underneath. Layers is based on the 1989 discovery of 10,000 human bones and skulls beneath the foundation of the Medical College of Georgia—the remains of illegal medical experimentation occurring at the university between 1835 and 1912. It was discovered that most of the bodies were stolen from an African American burial ground. As Harriet A. Washington explains in her book Medical Apartheid, “For blacks, anatomical dissection…was an extension of slavery into eternity, because it represented a profound level of white control over their bodies, illustrating that they were not free even in death.” Washington also points out that, “Such exploitation of the dead was hardly limited to the South. Most of the bodies used by New York City’s Columbia University and New York University were from the Negros Burying Ground. In 1712 and again in 1741, New York slave rebellions were actuated in part by the refusal of slave owners to allow slaves to bury their dead.”
Rochelle Goldberg’s Dead Pan Fish Revival, 2016, presents a ceramic fish head on steel delineation of a pan. The surface of the fish head is dark, black, and slick, as if it is the remains of a tragic oil spill, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that poured 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William sound in a matter of hours. Goldberg’s work finds the tension between fish as a resource and fish as a creature. The exaggerated scale of both the severed head and pan animates the corpse from the position of consumed to that of a potential consumer. Resting in its eye socket is an eight ball, referencing the magic 8 ball toy oracle that gives statistically improbable answers even if a precise question has been asked.
Catharine Czudej’s Trap 5, 2017, and Rat Trap 1, 2017 are inspired by weapons designed and utilized by the Viet Cong and early 20th century American rat traps, respectively. The latter are collected as Americana— nostalgic ephemera that portrays an idealized life of gritty small town America from 1880 to the First World War. Czudej’s structures idolize substantial un-manned defenses from scrap and crude engineering. Czudej points to the group psychology of a prolonged hunt on a global scale and the aftermath of a uniquely American style of cultural maiming.
In Untitled (Casual Power), 2015, Juliana Huxtable gives an ecstatic description of New York. She leaves breadcrumbs for specific places, events, and people—Harlem, the area along the Bronx River, the Hoover administration, Octavia Butler, Left Eye—but resists a single narrative. Huxtable recently described her stance on writing poetry, “I like the alternative idea of a schizophrenic voice: one that can’t reside with any stability in the first person, third person, and so on, and that doesn’t even permit a predictable relationship between subject and verb. You’re jumping between persons, switching characters and exploding history into a play place. Allowing myself space for that mode of writing and thinking to happen is a more honest and dynamic reflection of how I’m processing the world.”
Sam McKinniss’s paintings feature earnest portrayals of celebrities, shuffling well-known figures from popular culture into so-called high art scenarios. Ellie Sattler, 2017, features Laura Dern as the beloved paleobotanist from the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park” in which a commercial site of leisure is transformed into a site of terror. McKinniss’s affiliation with, or rather his affection for Dern is best expressed in the baroque wistfulness of her character’s khaki pleated shorts as depicted and perhaps exaggerated here. McKinniss reminds us that the popular icons of our not so distant past may be worthy of faithful veneration, redistribution into camp, or redramatization.
Elaine Cameron-Weir’s Lamp 2, 2016 features used laboratory hardware rigged into the support structure of an incense burning apparatus. A tilted motorcycle mirror simultaneously doubles and provides another vantage point of this operation with an almost perverse ‘upskirt’ specificity of focus on the flames contact with the burning material. A neon squiggle, also affixed with laboratory clamps, casts an icy blue glow on the action, giving it the air of sci-fi. All of these elements are adjustable and easily recognized as such: knobs, nuts, threaded rods, exposed cords. These seemingly provisional elements are the result of a DIY design and problem solving akin to the kind used in Czudej’s installations, but with a particularly meticulous aesthetic, as though they had been written about or described previously in great detail. Indeed, Cameron-Weir has spoken about using writing as a way to ‘sketch’ her work, often beginning with the mood or tone evoked by writing fiction. Despite the obvious specificity of the details in Cameron-Weir’s installations, they conjure a time in history that seems both of the past and of some imagined future, of a hoped-for beauty and a dystopian possibility.
Anna Betbeze’s dyed and burned works made with flokati rugs have been understood by some as a highly formal painting practice, but to constrain them to those terms alone would be to neglect the sense of touch that the works evoke, as well as the suggestive meaning of using a found support. Like Cameron-Weir, Betbeze’s works are highly sensual, she describes this experience as “when seeing becomes breathing, stroking, tasting, and sound—often simultaneously.” Included here is a new body of work made from wooden vessels that have been burned and transformed into charcoal. The charred black vessels retain their woodgrain and the scent from burning, allowing their history to be sensed as well as seen.
Liz Craft’s sculptures make reference to 1970s counterculture in America, encasing ceramic mushrooms, tiles, and lit candle sticks within modern day text message bubbles. These works question the logic of language, confounding the very building blocks of history. Like those central to Terence McKenna’s ‘Stoned Ape’ theory, mushrooms are catalysts for heightened communication, boundary dissolution, and harmonious societies.
William Hawkins was raised on a farm in Kentucky in the early 1900s and learned to draw by copying illustrations from horse-auction announcements and calendar pictures. When he was twenty-one, he moved to Columbus, Ohio, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Hawkins began making the paintings of cityscapes and fantastic animals that he is most known for today. Hawkins once said that he drew “for all the young people in United States.” Hawkins is often described within the category of “outsider art” because he had a third grade education, but the terms fails to acknowledge how the education system neglected and neglects certain people due to their race, class, or financial position. Untitled (Snake), 1990, is a Loch Ness monster, rendered in enamel house paint and it features Hawkins’s traditional signature: his name and the date and location of his birth.