As has been all too visible in the tossed wreckage of homes and devastation of whole neighborhoods from the recent storm, floods ravage what they consume into fragments, pulling away some things and leaving the rest in disorder ready for decay. Although Phong Bui’s current exhibition at Show Room, Work According to the Rail, Part I (After the Flood), was planned before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, it features 25 collage paintings mostly created after a flood in the artist and Brooklyn Rail publisher’s studio this past August that destroyed roughly 20 percent of his work. Unfortunately, Bui was also hit hard by Sandy just a day after the opening at Show Room, telling Hyperallergic that his Greenpoint studio was “decimated” by flooding that rose from the Newtown Creek. In a message on the Brooklyn Rail site, Bui stated that “Sandy’s assault destroyed the bulk of my work from the last 25 years, as well as most of the Rail’s selected archives,” but that “New Yorkers weathered 9/11, and I myself survived the war and labor camp in Vietnam. I believe we will all rise above this time with a greater purpose in life and art.”
Despite the loss that preceded it, the tone of the exhibition at Show Room is one of exuberance, with an engaging playfulness with materials and techniques. The collage paintings are described in the exhibition text as part of Bui’s development of the Brooklyn Rail into art in its own right, specifically as “social sculpture” relying on “an organic process that resists political or aesthetic dogma.” The Rail‘s name appears stenciled on some of the pieces and art history references abound in titles like “For Richard Serra” and “Homage to Whistler,” as well as scattered images like a detail of the Pergamon frieze. But the real presence is Bui himself, although with his intense involvement with the Rail perhaps him and the arts publication are inseparable in the art.
To say that the materials in the collage are eclectic is an understatement. Drawings of things like viking ships and tiny houses that could have been done by a child are juxtaposed beneath gouache and watercolor with envelopes, handprints, maps, newspapers from France, and pages and images from art and natural history. Bui used both his right and left hands to create the collage paintings, and there is a balance in their chaos and form. Because he is so busy as an artist and publisher, not to mention his curation and teaching work, time is also an invisible, dominant force in the work (although a clock does make an appearance above a swarm of insistently pointing fingers in one instance). All of the art was done in bits of regimented downtime with larger studio sessions, all with an eye to the clock. Thus with no time to lose the concentration is palpable, although this comes out more as a steady energy in the art, and experimentation is celebrated in the different surface washes and layering of paper material.
More recent projects of Bui’s have involved large-scale, transformative site-specific installations that created their own sense of dynamic space. Here it much more like an intimate glimpse into a life and studio with papers and memories piled up from the Rail and his years of working in the New York art world, as well as his personal inspirations (he cites Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the Little Prince, as one, and self-taught artist James Castle as another). In the slightly cavernous main gallery of Show Room, the exhibition at first appears quiet, with the washed out colors of the work surrounded by a huge blanket of white wall. Yet each one is so intricate that the extra space allows the visitor to have a moment alone with every work to explore its lively details.
Whether or not it was intended, it’s hard to look at the art and not to think of how after a flood memories are tossed together like this, the childhood relics scattered in the same mess of debris with the belongings of that person the child may have become. Yet you could just as easily interpret the works as someone pulling from all points in their life and memory to play with time and the meaning of images. The destruction to Bui’s studio was catastrophic, and it’s harrowing to think of how much of his work must have been lost, but the vibrant, determined drive apparent in After the Flood is optimistic. As people continue to recover memories and rebuild their lives across New York and the surrounding area hit by the storm, that spirit is sparking encouragement in the face of so much loss.
Phong Bui’s Work According to the Rail, Part I (After the Flood) at Show Room gallery (170 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) has been extended and will close on December 16.