This week I skipped the Chelsea gallery scene (the show I wanted to see was unexpectedly on hiatus when I got there) and ended up on a road less traveled for me and I am sure other art-goers as well. The destination was the Henry Street Settlement Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street between Pitt and Columbia Streets. Its an area of the Lower East Side that hasn’t yet been invaded by trendy bars and the trendier types who party at them. Rather, as I walked the several blocks from the F train Delancey stop (several more than I expected), it seemed that the dust of the previous tenement neighborhood still clouds these streets, which are lined with high-rise project complexes. Not only did it remind me that, as much as New York reinvents itself, the past is never far behind, but it was also a unique art viewing experience that I probably would not have found in the white boxes of Chelsea.
The Henry Street Settlement holds a significant place in New City York history that harkens back to when the first Jewish immigrant communities settled on the Lower East Side. Established in 1893 by the social worker and activist Lillian Wald, the Settlement was a refuge for the tired and poor to receive much-needed health care and other social services. Wald was a firm believer in providing poor communities not only with basic needs, but also with cultural and artistic outlets. Since then, Henry Street has made community building its mission with programs that assist youth, senior citizens and people living with HIV/AIDS.
The Abrons Arts Center, opened in 1975, supports both the visual and performing arts and also houses three different theaters that are rented out to artists for rehearsal and performance space. The Harry De Jur Playhouse, which stands adjacent to the center and was completed in 1915, has seen the likes of modern dance giants Martha Graham and Paul Taylor and American jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie.
During my visit to the Abrons, I caught two shows currently on view until September 3. While the Playhouse boasts a regal red brick facade with Georgian Revival details and pretty green window shutters, the Abrons building is a bit shabbier — think more 1970s public schoolhouse than art gallery.
The exhibitions hidden on the second floor (and with very little in the way of signs to point you in that direction) are shoved into the hallways and lobby spaces outside of one of the theaters. It makes for an underwhelming presentation that at first made my heart sink slightly. Yet I soon realized that the Abrons is like a Monet painting, but in reverse: from far away it’s fuzzy, but up close things become more interesting and dynamic. Moving through the makeshift galleries, I found myself engaged with several works that I initially thought I might pass right by.
Chelsea Knight’s piece “Frame” (2011), placed in the far corner of the winding second floor, involves an unassuming installation of the wood skeleton of a house built by construction workers in the small space. A video on the far wall plays a vignette of the men assembling the structure while reciting passages from feminist theory texts. Shots of the men drilling and hammering are interspersed with quotes such as, “I’ve decided to wear my ovaries on my sleeve” (by black feminist poet, Ntozake Shange) and “the labor of women is reproduction” (by Professor of English and Women’s Studies, Susan Stanford Friedman). Snippets of Freudian psychoanalysis and penis envy are also thrown into the mix. The juxtaposition of construction workers and poems about ovaries may be a bit forced, but it works.
In “Frame” metaphorical walls are broken down, while literal ones are built up. Even as these men assume a feminine voice and breach the gender divide, they continue to erect a barrier, a house, which traditionally cages women in. This tension gives the piece more weight than what meets the eye.
Next door to “Frame” is a group exhibition of six artists titled Image Wars, which “addresses the representation of conflict in visual culture in an age of global crisis.” The works reflect on a series of issues past and present from the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s infamous visit to Columbia University in 2007.
Pieces like Carlos Noronha Felo’s Afghani rug depicting military motifs and Rinat Kotler’s video of kids in Tel Aviv reenacting an imagined terrorist attack are heavy, but literal, which comes with the territory, and is often times necessary, for art with a specific political message. I was more drawn to Mary Temple’s “Currency” (2007– ), a series of daily drawings she did inspired by a press photograph of a world leader and its caption. The figures and texts float on a white background that severs such highly political events from any tangible context. The result is a disorienting effect where words and images become the same and news sound bites are revealed for what they often are-empty and superfluous.
While the exhibits at the Abrons do not sparkle from afar, they are worth a second look. As opposed to the white gallery cube where political works sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of commercial and glossy shows, at the Abrons art is paired down, yet poignant. Laced with an important social and historical legacy that is still relevant to the neighborhood today, the center is a distinctive space that deserves more attention.
The Abrons Arts Center is located at 466 Grand Street (Pitt Street) and is open Tuesday – Friday from 10 am – 10 pm, Saturday from 9 am – 10 pm and Sunday from 11 am – 6 pm. Chelsea Knight: Frame and Image Wars are both on view until September 3rd.