Upstairs at the International Studio & Curatorial Program, on the third floor, there’s a map tacked to a wall with a series of flags stuck on it. The flags document the different countries from which the ISCP has drawn its artist and curator residents, and while it’s easy to notice gaps — large swaths of Africa and South America, for instance — it’s also refreshing to note how many flags there are, and how widespread. With 58 countries and counting, it’s clear that the ISCP is committed to finding art in the far-flung corners of the world; the process just takes time.
Up on that third floor, down and across the hall from the map, is also where I saw some of the best artwork when I visited the program’s biannual open studios last Thursday night; the studios of four of my favorite artists from the night clustered around it like a hub.
The first one I wandered into was Njideka Akunyili’s, attracted by a glimpse through the doorway of gorgeous pattern and color. The Nigerian-born Akunyili makes large (at least a few feet in either direction) figurative paintings of domestic scenes on paper. But she uses a handful of media and processes in any given work, including acrylic, collage, charcoal, colored pencil, and most importantly, xerox transfer, through which she creates patterns made up of smaller figurative images of black contemporary life. Sometimes the patterns are used on clothing or bedding; other times they become a person’s skin, creating an illusionistic play between foreground and background that not only renders all parts of the painting equally important, but also seems like a sharp reminder of the underrecognized power of the decorative. The figures in Akunyili’s paintings are constantly surrounded by or slipping into these collages and patterns, hovering between their selves shaped by the world around them and the ones of their own making.
Directly across the way, Puerto Rican artist Gamaliel Rodriguez was exhibiting very different pictures, although both artists use the real world as jumping-off point for figurative fancy. Rodriguez had on display black-and-white landscapes, many of them aerial views, made in acrylic and Sharpie. The overall effect of the works is more gray than black-and-white, and they have a haziness to them, which seems to combine the textural ethereality of classical landscapes and the fuzziness of surveillance photos. But probably the most amazing aspect of Rodriguez’s pictures is that they’re not referential — they look like the nondescript places we know or have seen, but they aren’t. These types of images have wormed their way into our imaginations, and we’ve even found ways to make them look beautiful.
The other two standouts residents on the floor were both working largely in video: Bundith Phunsombatlert, from Thailand, and Mircea Nicolae, from Romania. Phunsombatlert had a recent public work at Socrates Sculpture Park, for which he created small rectangular signs listing images and distances for 100 different public sculptures in New York, a riff on the usual crossroad signpost. He had drawings for that project hung up in his studio, but the piece I really enjoyed was another one partially on view, from 2008, titled “Sham Shui Po: Retelling the Stories from the Past.”
The work documents his experience visiting Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po neighborhood and speaking to one resident after another, each one telling him stories and introducing him to the next subject. He compiled them all into an art book/scroll with drawings and text, as well as video interview footage, which sadly wasn’t on view at ISCP. What was on view was another video related to the project: it turns out that two of the men Phunsombatlert interviewed were part of a Beatles cover band called Snow, and he got them to reunite, accompanied by some students, and sing “Yesterday.” The animated video result is completely heartwarming and hilarious in its earnestness.
Nicolae is also drawing on personal stories for his work, although here they’re even moreso because they’re those of his own family. The artist used family snapshots, architectural photos, documentary footage, and more to create the 55-minute “Romanian Kiosk Company” (2010), a film that weaves together the history of his family and their kiosk-building company with the larger political and social history of his home country. An excerpt of the work, which won Special Prize at the Pinchuk Art Centre’s Future Generation Art Prize exhibition in 2010, was playing in his studio (you can also watch it on his website), where it quietly drew me in. The film is incredibly understated, with Nicolae’s mellifluous voice telling an inevitably emotional story quite simply and gently, as if reading from a children’s book.
In addition to these, a few showings downstairs on the second floor (where the majority of studios are located) caught my eye. American artist Kevin Beasley’s sculpture trapped a mess of domestic objects in a monolithic slab of what looked like concrete or tar. Pieces of a stroller and a suitcase are buried alongside Q-tips, clothing, and a coat rack, all of them splayed throughout the black, surfacing here and there in semi-recognizable form. You imagine someone kicking out a cheating spouse and dumping the contents of their life on the street, and then the artist strolling by and casting the whole thing. The work feels alternately familiar and alienating; it’s hard to tell if you want to lie down on it or run away.
Just down the hall was the studio of German artist Tobias Dostal, who turned his room into a canvas for various experiments in film. One of them, at the entrance, was difficult to parse, perhaps because of the light streaming in from the hallway. But the two others were delightful: a short stop-motion projection film and a series of drawings on the ceiling fan transformed by a pulsing strobe light into an animation of hands passing playing cards. Both could be stopped and started with on/off buttons, a wonderfully whimsical, if somewhat gimmicky, touch.
It was also tempting to want to touch Annesofie Sandal (Denmark)’s wooden snake tail next door. Wrapped in thread around the middle and laid out on a tilted bamboo frame, the work is beautifully textured: Sandal has carved little diamond grooves into the wood, and the material slyly defies itself as it curves gracefully at one end and hangs down like a perfect icicle at the other.
Most of the other work downstairs was far less exciting or inspiring than these, but then again, studios are living spaces — works in progress and imperfect documenters of progress. And enough artists there were well on their way.
The International Studio & Curatorial Program Spring Open Studios took place from April 26 to April 28 at ISCP (1040 Metropolitan Avenue, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn).