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In Loren Munk’s painting “An Attempted Documentation of Williamsburg, 1981-2008” (2008-2011), now on view at Freight + Volume in Chelsea, I recognized a slice of my own history in a place I had known well. After a lifetime of looking at paintings, this experience was oddly new to me.
The closest I can come to it is the experience of staring at one of my own old paintings, seeing where I was when I made it and understanding where I’ve been since. But with Munk’s painting, it was different: here was another painter showing me where I had been in his painting. He had taken the time to pay careful attention to the lay of the land at a moment that, for me, just happened to be formative. I arrived in New York in 2001 and by 2003 I was shuttling around Williamsburg galleries writing two reviews a month for The Brooklyn Rail on what I saw there. Around that time I set up my first studio in Brooklyn, where I’ve been ever since. The people and places I encountered during that period now constitute my extended family, occupying a part of my consciousness that is larger than I can say. As I thought about it, I realized that, for a select audience of participants in the Williamsburg art scene between 1981 and 2008, an experience similar to mine was possible with Munk’s painting, but for others, not.
The painting itself is colorful and loosely geometric, containing elements of what I know as tree theory, a mathematical form with applications in graphing. Its formal qualities are all put entirely in the service of organizing the names and locations of galleries, nonprofits and artists’ studios active in Williamsburg from 1981 to 2008. At the painting’s center is a street map of Williamsburg, hand painted in black and white. This is framed by large swaths of red, blue, yellow and green, which color code the rest of the canvas by art world institutions and private studios. Packed to capacity, each entity is represented by its hand-lettered name and address. These in turn are enclosed in bubbles with arrows directed back to the central map, fixing the location of each.
Does this sound chaotic? Well it looks chaotic. And, having been there, it felt that way too. A kind of organized chaos, though. Like New York. Abject Pop at *sixtyseven, Jack the Pelican’s edgy ugliness, N3 Project’s abstraction, Priska Juschka’s cavernous space and Roebling’s Hall’s tastefully political exhibitions were vibrantly and variously new. They were important parts of Williamsburg’s gallery scene when I first encountered them, but they’re all gone now, from Williamsburg anyway. Sideshow, Front Room and Pierogi are still there. I remember when Deitch Projects moved over to Brooklyn. Felt like an infringement then. First of many. Just to name a few.
I don’t know where to start with the artists’ studios. There aren’t many I don’t recognize. Some are just names to me, some are major influences. All are parts of history. Some are monuments; others are ghosts. Together they are, to me, like a spiritual home, a place where I know I finally belong, situated not exactly in time and space but in a distinct psychic mode linked to memory.
My nickname for Loren Munk is “the archivist.” He would be the person I’d turn to with any question pertaining to Brooklyn’s recent and not-so-recent history. I’m sure there are others who have paid close attention, but no one else I know of has made paying attention so central to an artistic practice. When I think about it from that angle, the painting starts to seem Buddhist. Paying attention is what’s important. We may not know the why of things. But we can at least start to grasp the what. This is a letter. That is a small blob of blue paint. This is a green rectangle.
We are generally unable to disentangle our personal biases from our experience at large. There is no objective viewpoint we can take on anything, painting included, that could ever be separated from who we are, each of us. Any theory of what painting is, or of what experience is for that matter, is bound to founder on the problematic observer effect. We shall never definitively know why we feel what we feel when we look at a painting because so many of the things we sense there could very well be things we are already experiencing, but which the painting provides the pretext for recognizing. All we know is that we feel it.
My dual experience of “Williamsburg, 1981–2008” as personalized historical document and as painting brings me to this conclusion: I definitively know nothing. But I experience a great deal, and to communicate, as best I can, the precise nature of my experience is the most I can offer. There is tenderness in bearing witness. There is purpose. If, in your experience, I can find something of my own, then we have corroborated each other’s story. We have shared in an image, the mutual image of our own stories. If a painting is to take on a life in our collective consciousness, I think it must be in this gradual, organic way, one viewer at a time.
“An Attempted Documentation of Williamsburg, 1981-2008” is a record of a particular time and place. It is equally its own time and place, an image born of the psyche. Painting can be a tool for psyche’s unraveling, a means by which one can explore and reckon with what is taking place in one’s own soul.
What makes “An Attempted Documentation of Williamsburg, 1981-2008” special to me is the way Munk makes use of painting’s nature to highlight the importance of being present to what is taking place in one’s surroundings. That his painting involves such a big crowd suggests that the experience of presence unique to Williamsburg at that time is fundamentally communal. For me, the fact that my personal timeline intersects Munk’s particular presence makes for a liminal encounter between personal history and painting’s metaphysical essence.
“An Attempted Documentation of Williamsburg, 1981-2008” reminds me that a painting can be both entirely of this world and entirely something other. It is not simply a sum of its parts. An image born of psyche will be a door or portal. It will have a dual, ambiguous nature, existing in its totality neither as what it appears to be nor as what it evokes.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
Loren Munk’s “An Attempted Documentation of Williamsburg, 1981-2008” (2008-2011) is on view at Freight + Volume (530 W. 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) as part of the group exhibition The Decline and Fall of the Art World, Part I: The One-Percenters, which also features work by Alex Gingrow, Karen Finley, Michael Scoggins, William Powhida and Jade Townsend. The exhibition continues through August 17.