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Harlem, like the rest of New York, is changing. The exhibition Sense of Place at Tatiana Pagés Gallery — part of the Hyperplace Harlem arts festival, which ran October 4 to 6 — rightly explores place more as a conundrum than a settled concept. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c 535–475 BCE) invoked stepping in a river as a challenge to fixed notions of place: “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on” and “Into the same rivers we step and do not step.” Understood literally, these mean that different water flows through the stream each time you step in it; existentially, you may also be a mildly or wildly different person when you return, so you won’t experience the river in the same way. These aphorisms kept coming to mind while exploring this thematic art survey.
The action of stepping, as well other movements, were reenacted in slow motion in Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo‘s “UNNATURAL SELECTION” (2014), an installation and performance on the show’s opening night. The backdrop and three performers’ costumes were all covered in black-and-white rippling patterns, the result of printed impressions from plywood that resembled waves of water. The tableau vivant–type performance involved the figures moving slowly around this corner of the gallery, attracting attention to every little step they made.
The river, the ripple, and other aqueous forms recur in a number of the other works on view at Tatiana Pagés as well. For example, for her Ephemeral series, Jimena Garnier poured food dye into a toilet and took photographs of the color swirling around. Garnier explained to Hyperallergic that she wanted to “make art that was ephemeral, that would only last a few seconds and then go away. Even if you tried to make it again, it will never look the same.” Her work is a poignant illustration of the singularity of a particular moment amid constant change.
Dominique Wohrer‘s “Bluegrid” (2014) is a large sculptural painting that looks like several rivers crossing each other, or perhaps a grid that’s deteriorating due to entropic forces. The way that nature is constantly in flux intrigues Walker; she once remarked, “Step by step, my paintings are shreds of shadows, byproducts of actions and occluded signs inspired by cellular senescence.” Wohrer uses art to reflect on impermanence.
Her work found a complement in swirling line drawings by Randolph Beers, on view in a one-night-only pop-up art show in a nearby empty townhouse at 2370 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd. (As part of the Striver’s Row Home Tour on October 5, this space became an extension of the Tatiana Pagés Gallery, and although the show there was technically separate from Sense of Place, it featured several artists that the gallery represents.) Beers’s pieces have a free-flowing, wild sense of line that recalls white water rapids. The artist says he tries hard not to plan his works ahead of time and to just allow his lines to form in the moment. He explained to Hyperallergic that “no line is exactly the same. Each one has to be made on its own. Each one is a document of what is going through my mind at that exact moment.” You can’t step in the same creative moment twice.
The largest work in Sense of Place is a colossal montage of Harlem by Anthony J. Locone, “My Harlem Hood” (2014). A visual stream of consciousness that includes facades of the Apollo Theater, City College, as well as brownstones and other buildings, the work has a woven, waving pattern that comes from the overlaid images. It’s Harlem as a memory, a pastiche of changing experiences.
Naturally, Heraclitus’s ideas about place don’t grapple with the ethics of gentrification, the issue underlying so much change in New York City and a topic hard to dissociate from a locally focused art festival in Harlem. It was the subject of a panel discussion organized for Hyperplace Harlem, but it would have been apt to see at least one artwork about gentrification in Sense of Place. How do we grapple with the negative aspects of this type of neighborhood change, and what are the positive ones? There do seem to be new artistic opportunities to seize in some of the moments that could only happen with the mixed demographics of today’s Harlem; the cordial but packed opening for Sense of Place was racially mixed, for example. The value of that can’t go underestimated. As we all crammed into the small gallery and mingled, a poem by Langston Hughes, “Subway Rush Hour,” sprang to mind:
breath and smell
black and white
no room for fear.
Our sense of place is far more slippery that we might initially admit — perhaps that’s why Heraclitus picked a river for his a metaphor. It’s exciting to see so much artistic interest in the messy but meaningful interplay between location and moments in time, and Harlem is just the place for it.
Sense of Place continues at Tatiana Pagés Gallery (2605 Frederick Douglass Blvd, C1, Harlem) through October 25.