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Friday, July 30, 2004

The Brooklyn Biennial

I heard someone claim recently that there are more artists living in Williamsburg Brooklyn today than there have been total artists at any previous point in world history. It’s an interesting statement, but I’m not sure I believe it.

People tend to view their era as the exception to historical norms. Today is always the best or the worst, the first or the last, of something. But, realistically, ever since the city evolved there have been communities of artists and craftspeople living, working, fighting, and drinking together.

Rather than focusing on quantity, we could instead look at quality and ask if work being made in Brooklyn today is as interesting as work done at any point in the past. Open House: Working in Brooklyn (at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through August 15, 2004) makes the case for an affirmative answer to that question.

The show walks silently around its implicit claim that the center of the New York art world has migrated east, under and over the East River, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Any show like this runs the risk of demeaning artwork by placing it in service of the local chamber of commerce, but Open House avoids that pitfall. While some boosterism is evident in the name and timing of the show (its opening coincided with the Brooklyn Museum’s grand reopening), the work included is too good to be dismissed as propaganda for the borough.

Today’s Brooklyn-based art world is not as homogeneous as Irving Sandler’s Greenwich Village of the 1950s. There is more racial and gender diversity in the community today than there was then. The media that artists are using have also become more diverse as options have expanded beyond painting and sculpture to include video, film, sound, installation, collage, drawing, and photography. Open House makes a point of highlighting both these types of diversity.

The show presents more than 300 works by 200 artists. All pieces have been created since 2000. The curators describe the show as being “eclectic and open-ended,” and it certainly is. I’ve written recently about the inventory approach to curating monster group retrospectives, but in the case of Open House that approach isn’t a hindrance. The exhibition exists to show the panoply of artists and media in play in Brooklyn today, and the curatorial approach reinforces that theme.

The curators have used an interesting method to install the show. Most works are grouped together on two floors in the museum’s Morris A. and Meyer Shapiro Wing. A significant number of pieces, though, are installed throughout the museum’s permanent collection galleries. A map to the museum, showing the location of all Open House works, is provided for viewers.

The curators have chosen works for deployment across the museum wisely. Rob Fischer’s Untitled (Container of Ash) coexists perfectly with the mummies of the museum’s Egyptian collection. Its sarcophagus-like shape, its overtones of death and disintegration, and its focus on purification and rebirth through fire fit conceptually with the ancient Egyptian relics among which it is displayed.

E.V. Day’s G-Force over Brooklyn, several items of women’s underwear coated in resin, zooms high above the floor of the airy gallery housing Rodin’s monumental Burghers of Calais. The color and texture of the garments resonate with Rodin’s bronze, while their lightness and implied movement offer a counterpoint to the sculptures’ massive stability.

The work contained in the main installation galleries holds as much appeal, and interesting affinities appear between works. Su-En Wong’s monumentally sized paintings showing multiple images of herself in strange situations and locales demonstrate the possibilities of painting on a large scale. At two inches by three inches, James Sheehan’s high-relief paintings, Halcyon Days and The Empiricist, show what it’s possible to do with the medium on a completely different scale.

Bill Scanga has taxidermied two pigeons for the show. They stand on a small platform looking at a five by ten inch ornately framed reproduction of Asher B. Durand’s The First Harvest in the Wilderness—a painting commissioned by the museum in 1855 to inaugurate its collection of American art. In its beak one pigeon holds a small Brooklyn Museum of Art shopping bag filled with a tiny poster and even smaller postcards. While we’ve already seen Maurizio Cattelan use taxidermy to make this sort of humorous institutional critique, Scanga’s piece still delights.

The delicateness and humor of Scanga’s sculpture is countered by the size and seriousness of two Katy Grannan photographs. Her portraits of vulnerable, ordinary people who have responded to classified advertisements for photo shoot models have received sustained attention in New York this year with shows at Artemis Greenberg Van Doren and Salon 94 as well as inclusion in the Whitney Biennial. Far from being over shown, her work still packs power here.

Downstairs, in a small separate gallery devoted to Open House works, Oliver Herring is showing three videos. Each of them is interesting, but the one that captured my attention—and the attention of three pre-teens visiting with their dad—is a piece showing people spitting mouthfuls of water. Herring has reversed the video, so we watch great clouds of spray condensing and disappearing into people’s mouths. We also see gravity defied as long streams of water jump up from the bottom of the frame and into other people’s mouths. The video presents simple and banal actions, but by reversing the flow of time and jump cutting from one instance of the action to another to another, Herring gives us a work that fascinates.

Open House: Working in Brooklyn impresses. It doesn’t push the point didactically. But the show does make the case that, with the diversity and quality of art work being produced there today, Brooklyn has become the center of the New York art world.

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