Editor’s note: We asked two Hyperallergic contributors to visit No Longer Empty’s This Side of Paradise exhibition in the Bronx. The other post is here.
The curious history of a former retirement home for wealthy elderly people fallen on hard times and the contemporary Bronx community now surrounding that home provide rich material for the 32 artists in No Longer Empty’s current exhibit, This Side of Paradise. Sharing its name with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, which follows the trials of a man seeking and losing love, wealth and status, This Side of Paradise inhabits the Andrew Freedman Home on the Grand Concourse, a stately structure sitting behind a fence and broad lawn.
Andrew Freedman, a successful businessman who at various points owned the New York Giants and directed the IRT (the first New York City subway company) and the Wright Company (the Wright Brothers’ aviation company), died of a stroke in 1915 and bequeathed much of his $7 million estate to the establishment of a retirement home. But this would be no dreary establishment for shuffling invalids. Instead, it would provide shelter for those who had once been rich and suffered reversals in life, giving them the lush lifestyle they had enjoyed in their luckier years. Freedman himself had almost lost his millions in the Panic of 1907 and felt sympathy toward the impoverished elite.
Opened in 1924, the Andrew Freedman Home admitted residents from a pool of applicants; those accepted received both free lodging in rooms as fancy as those on Park Avenue and servants. Unsurprisingly, the money from Freedman’s will didn’t last forever: in the 1960s, costs outweighed the endowment and residents began paying rent in the 1970s. The home closed the following decade, although it continued to be used off and on as a paid retirement home, day care and event space, and is now partly being renovated into a bed and breakfast. Currently the artists in This Side of Paradise have resurrected some of its glamour and memories of its former residents.
No Longer Empty has a strong history of exploring the pasts of vacant spaces through intelligent, site-specific installations, including The Sixth Borough on Governors Island, which played off the dislocation of the former military base within the greater city, and Never Can Say Goodbye at the closed Tower Records store on Broadway, which contrasted new media with the community formed around physical music sales at the store. This Side of Paradise has artists working even more directly with the Freedman Home’s history, often incorporating possessions left behind by the residents. (A building staff member told me that there is a whole floor filled with these abandoned objects from people who passed away while living there.) Sylvia Plachy actually photographed residents there for a 1980 Village Voice story, and she re-creates one of the apartments she remembers in her transporting installation in Room 246, “A SITTING ROOM: REMEMBERING A WEEK IN JANUARY.” Plachy uses furnishings discovered in the Freedman Home, as well as the haunting photographs, both in frames and incorporated into the setting, as with a photo printed on a window curtain.
On the first floor are two rooms with group exhibits, and on the second are apartments where individual artists have sole reign over a space. The upper floor is the most interesting, with several artists making some astounding transformations of the rooms; these alone make the trip up to the Bronx worth it. How & Nosm‘s “Reflections” reworks the lost decadence of the Freedman Home and the illusions that encompassed its residents into an installation of futuristic spiked walls, a disorienting contrast to the peeling paint and fading elegance of the hallway outside. Just doors away, Cheryl Pope’s “THEN AND THERE” plays on that visual of peeling paint in an installation of gold leaf flaking from a ceiling and mixing with the plaster from the wall. It’s the most literal, yet also the most elegant, interpretation of the “paradise lost” tone of the exhibit.
There are a few collaborative organizations from the Bronx that have artists represented in the show, including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Bronx Documentary Center and Lehman College Art Gallery. These groups bring in the present identity of the borough while guarding the exhibition’s spirit. Adam Parker Smith‘s “I Lost All My Money in the Great Depression and All I Got Was This Room,” presented by Wave Hill, works especially well with the rest of This Side of Paradise; in the piece, an elaborate pattern on the walls of a room turns out to be constructed from dollar-store items and cheap food, with plastic beads draped between marshmallow Peeps as delicately as a silver necklace supporting a diamond. More whimsical than the unsettling red room installation by How & Nosm, it still engages craftily with the illusions of wealth.
Down on the first floor, the group rooms feature a few works whose ideas are better than their presentation in the galleries. Among these is Esperanza Mayobre‘s “Tierra a la vista,” a video installation displayed on televisions on the floor, making it difficult to notice or watch her mesmerizing performance. For the piece, Mayobre swept the streets from the Statue of Liberty to the United Nations with a broom flying a self-proclaimed “flag of the immigrants,” in order to declare the State of Immigrants in honor of Rodrigo de Triana the First, who was the first to spot America from Christopher Columbus’s ship. Alejandra Prieto‘s “To Handle” sculpture had what appeared to be leather gloves beneath a glass case, but on reading the label text, it was revealed that they were made from coal. The fact that an imitation luxury good was created from such a temporary and coarse material was easy to miss with their placement among huge installation pieces.
No Longer Empty’s exhibits are at their best when artists bring life back to forgotten or abandoned spaces with immersive installations, and this was definitely true in This Side of Paradise, where subtle art is overshadowed. The most impressive work on the first floor also commands the most space: Linda Cunningham‘s “Paradise Lost/Regained? Utopia to Survival,” which comprises 20 feet of ragged sheet rock lodged with old windows, photographs of the Freedman Home and even some ephemera salvaged from the building. It’s as if a giant accordion book on the home’s history has gaped open in the refurbished ballroom, and I think it would have been even more powerful if the piece were crowded into one of the still raw rooms on the second floor.
With the variety of art — including vibrant murals from graffiti artists Sofia Maldonado and Daze and Crash, site-specific installations like Gian Maria Tosatti‘s shattered glass floor and a harrowing room full of tossed debris that has an experimental video by the late Tim Hetherington projected amid the wreckage — This Side of Paradise can feel chaotic. Yet it captures perfectly the imagined feeling of walking through a home full of eccentric residents, a surprising story behind each door. With a full calendar of public programming aimed at engaging the local and arts communities, No Longer Empty is tapping into the vibrancy that continues in the Bronx neighborhood and attempting to fill the void left by the Freedman Home, even if its identity has changed.
This Side of Paradise continues at the Andrew Freeman Home (1125 Grand Concourse, the Bronx) through June 5.