Having been hammered by Hurricane Irene in 2011 we, in the Hudson Valley, were more than a little apprehensive about Super Storm Sandy last year. Our great relief when Sandy turned out to be a storm in a teacup for us, was matched only by our consternation at the damage wrecked on coastal areas of New York City, New Jersey, and Staten Island. Among those hit hard were artists who lost their studios, expensive tools and materials, and, worst of all, years of work. In the Manhattan art district of Chelsea, basement and first floor galleries suffered devastating damage and destruction of artwork. Some upper floor galleries had storage in the shared basements of their buildings and so didn’t escape loss. As few galleries had flood insurance the burden of those losses fell, in many cases, to the artists.
Now, on the one-year anniversary of the storm, three entities, The Dedalus Foundation, The Brooklyn Rail, and Industry City Associates, have joined forces to sponsor an enormous fund-raising art exhibition: “Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1,” to commemorate the resilience of those artists and gallerists who survived the worst days and emerged on the other side having rebuilt studios, galleries and, where possible, salvaged and restored artworks. Funds raised from the sale of work in the exhibition will provide further aid to those still struggling with costs incurred as a result of the storm.
The multi-floor exhibition, which opened on October 20, features the work of over 300 artists and was curated by Brooklyn Rail publisher, artist, and all-round Renaissance man, Phong Bui, at the request of the Dedalus Foundation. It is located in what is an enormous pop-up gallery at 220 36th Street in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn. The Dedalus Foundation was founded in 1981 by the artist Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) to foster public understanding of modern art and modernism through various initiatives including programs in arts education, research, and exhibitions. The Brooklyn Rail is a New York City-based publication and a 501©(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is “to provide an independent forum for arts, culture, and politics throughout New York City, and beyond.” It also curates art exhibitions. Industry City, who donated the space for the exhibition, has been involved with Hurricane Sandy relief since the storm. At the time, Industry City Associates donated 18,000 square feet of space to volunteer conservators who worked on the recovery of hundreds of damaged artworks.
The three hundred artists span the spectrum of those who have arrived (some well settled in), those who are en route, and those who are still searching for the route. Not all the artists are victims of the hurricane — Phong Bui didn’t want the event to consist only of those who suffered loss as he felt that might be too somber. Among the participants in the show who were affected by Sandy are Mark di Suvero, Sherin Neshat, Dustin Yellin, Rona Pondick, Bruce High Quality Foundation, Diana Cooper, and Lisa Yuskavage.
About half the exhibitors weren’t affected but wanted to participate as a show of solidarity; they include Chuck Close, Lynda Benglis, Shoja Azari, Alex Katz, Ellen Phelan, Superflex, and Richard Serra. Some of them came from further afield than New York City to offer their support. Two such are Sterrett Smith and Maya Strauss who hail from the Hudson Valley.
Phong Bui and Rail Editions (the book-publishing arm of The Brooklyn Rail) were also victims of the flood. Bui lost ninety percent of his artwork, and Rail Editions lost forty percent of its archives. So working on this show must have been cathartic for him and, as he wrote in a letter to readers in The Brooklyn Rail, “Like Woodstock [Festival], it will be … a rallying point around values that so many of us, both in and outside New York, believe in and hold very dear.” The spirit of democracy was present in the selection of participants; some volunteered and others were invited. Those who were invited, in turn, were encouraged to invite others, ideally people who were affected by the storm.
One artist I spoke with, Linda Serrone Rolon, was recommended by Dr. Jack Flam, president of the Dedalus Foundation and Distinguished Professor of Art History at Brooklyn College, where Serrone Rolon was his student. For her part, she invited her friend and fellow painter, Joanna Karatzas. In this case it was Serrone Rolon who was the storm victim. She lives and works in Sheepshead Bay and, to her horror, on that fateful day last year she discovered that her studio, which was in the basement of her home, was under nine feet of water, as was most of her artwork. Just one month earlier Serrone Rolon, with the support of her husband Lance, had made the decision to give up her day job in order to commit more time to her art. Now, in the aftermath of the storm, and in addition to the heartbreak of seeing years of artwork ruined, they found themselves facing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs to their home.
But Serrone Rolon, as it turned out, was one of the luckier ones or, perhaps, resourceful ones. She quickly discovered the Cultural Recovery Center and Anna Studebaker who, she said, was unbelievably generous with her time and the Center’s resources and expertise. She also mentioned, with gratitude, the Brooklyn Arts Council, the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), and the CUE Art Foundation who supported seminars on restoration and artwork conservation. All of this, combined with a grant from NYFA, meant that a good deal of the artist’s work was salvaged. Aid from FEMA’s Rapid Repair Program has also helped the family with “smart” repairs to their home.
As you can imagine, this exhibition is an enormous boost to artists like Serrone Rolon. In addition to the recognition of what she and others like her have gone through, there is the bonus of exhibiting in the same space as art world giants like Chuck Close, Kiki Smith et al.
Among the huge numbers of artworks to enjoy, some highlights for me were the works of Nicola López, Dustin Yellin, Diana Cooper, Shoja Azari, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), and the always wonderful Shirin Neshat.
BHQF is a Brooklyn-based collective, formed in 2004, made up of a number of rotating and anonymous members, also known as the Bruces. Their raison d’être is to undermine the cult of the Art Star. BHQF operates through a variety of art forms: painting, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, that comment on art, culture and social history. In 2009, the collective opened a tuition-free unaccredited University in lower Manhattan inspired by the theories of Joseph Beuys, and the direct democracy of A.S. Neil’s Summerhill school in the UK (the latter is also the model for the American Sudbury schools). The University was formed as an alternative to establishment art schools with their dependence on the art market, and their increasing demands for academic degrees with the attendant crushing debts, which too often prevent those graduates from pursuing careers as artists. Ohio University, among others, is now offering a PhD in Art Practice — ¡Hola! a slippery slope to even more debt and less art.
BHQF has two works on the first floor in this exhibition, the positioning of which — in relation to each other — makes for one unambiguous statement. One piece, entitled Stay With Me, Baby, is accompanied by the Lorraine Ellison song Stay With Me, and consists of two huge inflatable “scab” rats (like those used by striking unions) facing each other and, alternately, inflating and deflating. Set between these two is the second artwork, Pizzatopia: a giant pizza pie topped with ersatz tomato sauce, cheese and a city that resembles New York. The greatest concentration of the tallest, shiniest buildings is on one slice of the pie while the remaining slices are home to smaller, grey structures. In the slice next to this Up Town section, the small buildings are sinking into the cheese. I think that slice may be ripe for redevelopment. By the way, the collective is named after a fictional sculptor, “Bruce High Quality”, who supposedly perished in the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Also on the first floor is a fascinating and aptly titled two-sided triptych, After the Flood, by Dustin Yellin.
This artwork is a complex collage created in multiple layers of glass, yet creating a seamless and incredibly complex world. One side depicts the titular flood. The other side is a completely different scene and is, presumably, after the flood, although it could also be under the flood. The piece weighs an astonishing 24,000 lbs.
On the sixth floor is Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward’s arresting piece, We the People, made from multi-colored shoe laces threaded through drywall. Ward’s art comments on the ambiguity of language through wordplay often related to issues of citizenship, immigration, cultural consumerism, and poverty, juxtaposed with technology and found objects.
Also on the sixth floor is a mesmerizing short film entitled The King of Black by Iranian film maker Shoja Azari. The film, which is based on the 12th-century epic poem Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties) by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, blends live actors with the sumptuous paintings of Persian miniatures. The quality of this work from Azari and that his fellow Iranian film-maker, Shirin Neshat, is stunning.
Shirin Neshat’s video Passage can be found on on the 3rd floor. Passage is about the rituals and customs of a Muslim funeral ceremony, and is a collaboration between the artist and music composer Philip Glass. As so often with Neshat’s work, the film shows men and women separated and defined by their roles in Orthodox Muslim society. Set in a desert, kneeling women in black burkas seem to work as one organism as they hand dig a grave for the body that is being brought by a procession of men. Also by Neshat is a photographic print, 52 x 39 ¼”, from her 1996 series Speechless which features a young woman in hijab. But instead of a face-veil, her skin is covered in text.
On the third floor you will also find two terrific black-on-black works by Will Ryman. They are made from casts of AK-47 bullets wonderfully organized into a design that weaves and flows in the confines of the 5’ x 5’ boards on which they are constructed. A wonderful kind of gun control. Also look for Diana Cooper’s witty, giant outlets with a cage and traffic cones entitled, “Safety Last.” Cooper suffered a devastating loss of artwork when her lower Manhattan art storage area flooded. Everything she made from 1983 to 2007 that wasn’t with a gallery, in a collection, or at her home, was destroyed. Furthermore, work done by Cooper’s late father, also an artist, was also destroyed.
If you can get to see this show, do also pay attention to the emerging artists. Some, like Maya Strauss and Gabriel Rizzotti are not that long out of college and others, like J. Morrison, are pushing the envelope in their own unique way. Morrison’s contribution of screen-printed tissues asks you to choose from two options, that “Nowhere is better than this place,” or “Somewhere is better than this place.” These are questions that many of those who live in coastal areas and who lost homes, studios, artwork, or just power, must have pondered and, perhaps, continue to ponder as these once-in-a-hundred-year tempests become a biannual threat. Touch wood!
There will be activities happening every weekend of the eight-week exhibition. These include symposia led by artists and conservators to discuss ways artworks can be taken care of before and after disasters. The Dedalus Foundation commissioned 20 poets to write about Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters,and readings of these poems will be among the events people can expect. There will also be music and dance performances. For further information, scroll down for links to the exhibition website.
Featured Image: Nicola López, Shadowland 1, 2009. Ink, watercolor, gouache, graphite, molding paste on paper. 18” x18.” Photo courtesy of the artist
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Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.