NYTimes: Agitprop Tactics, Spoofs and Semantics in the Bronx
January 4, 2007
By Martha Schwendener
A favorite sport in today’s bloated art world is to lament the surfeit of commercial galleries, biennials and art fairs, which have replaced the “genuine” art experience provided by nonprofit organizations. But as Matthew Higgs, director of White Columns, the city’s oldest alternative art space, recently pointed out in Artforum, the nonprofit scene in New York is thriving.
Mr. Higgs’s examples — Artists Space, the Kitchen, Printed Matter — fall mostly within Chelsea and Lower Manhattan. To his list you might add the Longwood Arts Project in the Bronx. Founded in 1981 by the Bronx Council on the Arts, the project has welcomed residents including Ernesto Pujol, Pepón Osorio and Tim Rollins & Kids of Survival (K.O.S.). Longwood also maintains, perhaps more than any other alternative art space in the city, a tangible relationship with its surroundings.
“South Bronx Contemporary: Longwood Arts Project’s 25th Anniversary” at the project’s gallery space consists of three installations put together by former Longwood directors: Fred Wilson, Betti-Sue Hertz and Eddie Torres.
Playful spirit: “Prayer Booth” by Dylan Mortimer, from an installation at Longwood Art Gallery. CreditBronx Council on the Arts
Longwood’s position as an art world entity and part of the South Bronx cultural landscape is immediately apparent in Ms. Hertz’s installation, “Street Disturbance.” Excerpts from William Pope.L’s “Black Factory” project include a vitrine of objects like a James Brown doll and a melted hair pick labeled as if it were crime-scene evidence and a video in which Mr. Pope.L enlisted masked participants to approach people at a fair in Maine and ask them about race.
Included in this section are the Surveillance Camera Players, who use similar agitprop tactics in their videos, posing masked in front of surveillance cameras holding signs reading “1984” or “Big Brother.” Etcétera, an Argentine collective, videotapes its performances, which look like soccer rallies but involve pointing out the homes of suspected torturers during the “Dirty War,” the deadly civil conflict that took place in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
“Iconoclasm,” organized by Mr. Torres, takes a lighter approach, simply celebrating the Bronx’s cultural diversity. Dylan Mortimer’s “Prayer Booth,” a copy of an aluminum phone booth outfitted with a pull-down knee rest, and his “Portable Kneeler” with red and yellow construction-site graphics, are similarly playful — paying homage to, and spoofing, the religious art of this heavily Hispanic and Roman Catholic borough.
A wall hung salon-style with paintings, drawings and photographs continues Mr. Torres’s Bronx-centric view of art and culture. Some of the lopsided portraits found here look frankly amateurish, like the paintings found in thrift stores. But there are also Olga Kitt’s canny rendering of “Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ as a Graffiti” and her Picasso redux, “Demoiselles Da Bronx.” A video of the drag queen Princess Xtravaganza performing and Sally DeJesus’ remake of the board game Monopoly with South Bronx streets add to this roundup of local-inflected art.
Nativity figures from the collection of Fred Wilson, a former director of the Longwood Arts Project. CreditBronx Council on the Arts
The tightest installation in the show, “Black Now,” is the work of Longwood’s first director, Mr. Wilson. An artist known for his critiques of institutions and of accepted versions of history, he treats “Black Now” as a curatorial outing and an unannounced exhibition of items from his own collection. Interspersed among works by Kara Walker, Kalup Linzy and Rashawn Griffin are vitrines filled with objects — everything from black ceramic panthers and dark-skinned Nativity figures to black light bulbs, Black perfume by Kenneth Cole and black pasta (squid-ink pasta).
Walls are lined with T-shirts for bands like Black Flag and Black Maria, and a grid of wall-mounted DVD boxes features titles like “Black Hawk Down,” “Black Orpheus,” “Black Beauty” and “Men in Black.”
Mr. Wilson’s own contribution pretty much steals the show in this installation, although Carl Pope’s letterpress posters, filled with proclamations like “Black makes me feel thin” and “Black is Beauty, Pride, Power. Black is Me!,” reveal a similar semantic intelligence.
Longwood’s mission, to nurture unknown talent, especially “underrepresented groups such as people of color and women,” can feel at times like revisiting the early ’90s, when identity politics were as much a genre of contemporary art as portraiture or landscape painting were in the 19th century. Today, when the trend is toward emerging artists from around the globe, Longwood feels even more anchored in its neighborhood.
Correction: January 9, 2007
An art review on Thursday about the exhibition “South Bronx Contemporary: Longwood Arts Project’s 25th Anniversary,” at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, omitted a curator. The wall of art hung salon-style was organized by Edwin Ramoran under the title “Everyday Is Like Sunday”; it is not part of “Iconoclasm,” organized by Eddie Torres and hanging in the same room.
A picture caption with the review misstated the given name of a former director of the Longwood Arts Project who is also one of the curators of the show. As noted in the review, he is Fred Wilson, not Frank.
“South Bronx Contemporary: Longwood Arts Project’s 25th Anniversary” continues through March 10 at Longwood Art Gallery, Hostos Community College, 450 Grand Concourse, at 149th Street, Mott Haven, the Bronx; (718) 518-6728 or longwoodcyber.org.