This photo of a mangled orange by Anderson Correa de Araujo at the Brooklyn Art Cluster sums up much of Gowanus Open Studios this year. It’s hard to feel whole and woke when America is falling apart, and the planet is turning into an oven. Many artists are grappling with this difficulty as they create new work.
Most artists steered clear from direct images of Donald Trump. Instead, they’re making forms that are incomplete, messy, muddy, discombobulated, rough, gritty, and harsh. Their search for a diamond in the rough mirrors the emotional process many of us are experiencing. We are all struggling to find moments of peace and beauty despite the discouraging and disheartening situation of 2018.
Steven Solomon’s mixed media work “Oh Shit World” takes a vintage 1960s sci-fi superhero, Adam Strange, and rips him into pieces. Behind the large letters “Oh Shit World,” spread across the canvas, are smaller Aramaic words from the Kaddish, which is a central prayer in Jewish liturgy. Also interspersed is the quote “My paradise had melted into plain old nothing before my very eyes,” uttered in a moment of realization by Brad Warner, a Sōtō Zen monk and punk rock bass guitarist. “Finding the sacred in the ordinary is important,” Solomon remarked at his studio, hinting at what spirituality can offer as we bear that “oh shit” feeling in our guts.
Susan Homer’s mixed media drawing “Pink and Gray” (2018) of an ovenbird perched on a branch with red drops also channels this gloomy moment. Is it acid rain falling on the bird or is it blood? “I think the ambiguity is intentional,” Homer explained.
Blanca Guerrero was contemplating the hyper-aggression and turmoil in the daily news and how much it’s bringing her down when she painted “Untitled/Volcán” (2018) (volcán is Spanish for volcano). There’s something of the ash, smoke, and fog from an eruption here in the forms. Guerrero’s painting is both messy and tranquil, an inspiring image for serenity amidst the chaos.
Nicole Vlado’s work strikes a similar, contradicting tone. Her plaster casts, some of which also include bronze, were studies for her project “here (I gaze at stars to heal wounds)” (2018), which was a commission for the São Paulo Bienal. The studies stand as works in their own right, exploring cracks and breakages as metaphors. And yet, there is also something so calming about the white.
Derek Brahney‘s sculpture “Neighbor” (2017) sets up a series of fences in the shape of the 48 contiguous states. It’s a chilling depiction of how walled-off our country has become. He originally conceived it as an illustration for an article in the New York Times Magazine about the etymology of borders. It’s even more captivating in three dimensions than as a flattened illustration in the Times.
Chris Weller also explores the fence from a different vantage point in charcoal. Two weaver finches perch on barbed wire in “Rasor Wire” (2016). The artist wasn’t thinking about Trump’s border wall, but rather a heartbreak in her personal life. But it’s been intriguing for her to watch the fence become more politicized as an image since she drew it. She was living uptown in Harlem at the time and was struck by the jarring presence of razor wire next to children playing. “It’s sort of my fuzzy fragile heart at the time of doing the drawing,” Weller said. The image of soft birds on sharp wire is one of bearing the barbs, pricks, thorns, and roughness of life today, and feeling as fluffy and vulnerable as these finches.
Kenneth Wong paints a woman in black texting on her smartphone. It’s a familiar portrait of a person isolating themselves with their device. Wong intentionally left the background blank so that it could read as anywhere or everywhere. “When you leave details out, it opens up possibilities for what it can be,” Wong said. The strained facial expression recalls how so much of our angst happens as we look at our screens. And these little devices are causing big behavioral changes that social scientists are only beginning to understand.
It was encouraging to meander through Gowanus and observe that artists — perhaps like you and me — are struggling with what it means to be a New Yorker in 2018. None of us are alone in this melancholy that can feel so alienating, and clichéd as it sounds, art can help us to name and bear it.
Gowanus Open Studios 2018 took place throughout Gowanus, Brooklyn October 20–21.