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When the artists of Red Hook, the waterfront neighborhood on the western edge of Brooklyn, opened up their studios for the GO Brooklyn weekend, it felt more like they opened Pandora’s box. There was no limit to the creativity on view — every trend, mannerism, style, and strategy imaginable was on display. Still, certain threads emerged from the time I spent exploring. The three themes that I spotted in Red Hook were glass vessels, dot fields, and the Old Testament.
Glass has a unique way of twisting and distorting what we see through it. Two artists in Red Hook played up this effect. Spring Hofeldt took 300 photographs of herself in front of a set of glass bottles until she found just the right distortion angle to paint for her “Untitled (Self-Portrait)” (2010). The self-portrait stood out in her body of work, which often features still-life glass compositions, because it allowed the distortion effect to take center stage.
At first glance, Andrew Coates‘s “Snowglobe” (2004) looks like typical tourist kitsch. After peering through the curved glass from a few different angles to circumvent distortion, the punchline appears. The catch is that alongside the omnipresent I <3 NY logo, there’s also a miniature plastic bag floating around. It’s so New York because it’s so real. It took several attempts to grab a good photo for this post. As Coates and Hofeldt both explained, trying to get a photo when distortion plays such a key role can be a real pain. But that’s also what makes it feel so special.
Although it’s been 126 years since Pointillism hit Paris, an artist can still connect the dots in a new, gnarly way. Henry Chung repurposes strips of computer punch tape, and by configuring the dots creates haunting silhouettes in black and gray. His subjects are anonymous figures he appropriates from old photographs he finds in flea markets. The visual and stylistic distortion is a metaphor for how history, time, and memory cloud the past. Is there ever a clear version of history?
Candice Thompson doles out the dots across several media. Her studio is filled with textiles and clothes in which big dots have been punched out. A work in progress during the GO Weekend involved her adding dots to a set of bingo cards on the wall, a piece called “Untitled” (2012). Gazing at the work from a distance, there was a visual buzz and hum. Putting dots side by side hits an optical sweet spot and gets us to focus on something we might not otherwise — like why we play BINGO when the chances of winning are so slim: the odds are powerfully distorted by wishful thinking. Only one of Thompson’s cards was actually a winner.
The Old Testament
Julia Whitney Barnes‘s studio features this massive, colorful painting of the Tower of Babel, entitled “Torre di Babele” (2012). She was inspired by an old master painting she saw at a museum in Italy by an unattributed artist. A tower reaching all the way up to heaven was never very realistic or plausible, which lends this imagery some irony in the largely naturalistic idiom of the old masters. Barnes’s surreal, fluorescent version is a landscape that one might almost expect the Lorax to pop out of — much more fitting for this ludicrous idea of a tower touching the stars. The message that it can be counter-productive or frankly “Dr. Seuss-level crazy” to reach for unobtainable goals is also there if one doesn’t fancy denial.
Deborah Ugoretz juxtaposes elements from the Renaissance and contemporary life in her paintings and drawings. At first, it can seem unusual to see Moses struggling with the ten commandments next to a car, as in “Moses Repairs the Ten Commandments” (2010). But perhaps the point of this contextual distortion is to ask if cars really bear out the principles at the heart of Judeo-Christian ethics. Unusual pairings like this can lead to fresh takes on old questions.
These distinct works and artists in Red Hook appeared so different at first. Dots, glass, and the Torah don’t share much on the surface. But the word “distortion” popped up again and again. In an era of spin, misinformation, and inconvenient truths hidden by polite fictions, one should always wonder if there is a catch. And contemporary artists are internalizing and re-envisioning this healthy doubt by depicting distortions. Reflecting on these distortions builds up the ability to catch our own stretches of the imagination before we become emperors with no clothes.
GO Brooklyn Open Studio Weekend was September 8 to 9, 2012.