By Leah S. Abrams
If you are an art enthusiast or a casual fan of the visual arts of any kind, this is the time to be in NYC. This is unlikely what you’d think in the midst of a pandemic that has been unbearably destructive to the arts and cultural organizations around the world, not just here in the home of Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Right now, at the city’s New Museum in the Bowery, there is a 4-floor exhibit accomplishing exactly what some of us insist art can do – it illustrates with an immediacy our individual and collective stories, impacting the viewer on a visceral level that opens the door wide for taking in different perspectives.
The exhibit – “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” was originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor who, in 2018, offered: “The crystallization of black grief in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance represents the fulcrum of this exhibition. The exhibition is devoted to examining modes of representation in different media where artists have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief. With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, the last two years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.”
Much praise and gratitude should go to artist Glenn Ligon and curators Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, and Mark Nash for bringing Enwezor’s vision to fruition after his 2019 passing and the show’s COVID-related postponement that prevented its intended opening prior to the 2020 election. The notion of mourning as action rather than a state of being is empowering as the idea of freedom as a verb rather than a noun expressed in another artistic medium via a Daniel Kahn lyric. Every work featured in “Grief and Grievance” suggests movement over stasis, processing over stewing.
Without taking the reader on a tour of the nearly forty contemporary artists included, there is one piece in particular that exemplified for me what visual artists can uniquely express. Imagine, if you will, that I share with you a statistic – I tell you that, in 2018, 14,719 individuals were shot and killed in the U.S. How can you possibly conceive of such a number? How can you connect with it, feel what it means rather than trying to intellectually process it?
Now, imagine instead that you come upon a narrow flight of stairs and draped down above them, from a ceiling you cannot see, are dark blue banners with countless white stars in neat rows, military like precision in their placement, reminiscent of the U.S. flag. They are striking and you can’t get them out of your head as you move from room to room, floor to floor, taking in Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin set to classical music as you read along on massive canvasses, photographs illustrating lives of families in America’s stripped industrial cities that are not the families you typically see in such stories, installations that gob smack you at first sight, until you come to the top floor, turn a final corner, and find yourself at the top of that staircase.
You stop now to read that you’re looking at Hank Willis Thomas’ Title 14 719, commemorating the number of individuals shot and killed in the U.S. in 2018; that the most likely way for a young African-American to die is by gun violence; that the artist remembers joking with his cousin, at age 21, that being that age and Black, they’d “made it” before losing that cousin to gun violence just a couple of years later; that this artist is just a few years younger than you.
And then you descend those stairs, staring upward, taking in how you, who likes to count everything, couldn’t fathom counting all those little stars, so many you can’t even seem them all, realizing now just how high up they stretch, how you feel as though you’re in a funeral procession.
That means something a statistic will never convey, that, frankly, as someone whose primary artistic proclivities are in the theatre and written word, cannot be accomplished there either. It is only the visual arts and music, all ingeniously on display at The New Museum, that can accomplish the immediacy of the situation facing us.
Over in Chelsea, you don’t want to miss actor and visual artist Tricia Paoluccio’s pressed flower exhibit, featuring a centerpiece canvas that is a Steinway piano, at the HIGH LINE NINE, currently hosting artists who would, in pre-pandemic days, have been unlikely to show there. Tricia found herself, like everyone in our theatrical and film/TV industry, facing an uncertain future last year as projects were cancelling for months on end – a whole season of work disappearing.
With a husband also in the theatre, they quickly left to stay with family in Northern California where Tricia dove into what had been a lifelong passion of flower pressing. The result is the collection, “I’ll Meet You There” (inspired by a Rumi poem), on display through month’s end.
Ms. Paoluccio is donating 9% from gallery sales to the COVID 19 Emergency Relief Fund and 1% to the CA Native Plant Society, offering yet one more example of how artists contribute directly back into the health of our communities and the larger world around us.
While you’re in that neck of the woods, brave the kinda scary building at 547 West 27th Street to see Susan Grabel’s “Homeless in the Land of Plenty – Redux” at the Ceres Gallery. The striking sculptures of our homeless neighbors were originally displayed in 1989, but not knowing that when I wandered in, I’d assumed they were newer work. These pieces don’t tell the story you expect – Ms. Grabel said she was confronted with the burgeoning population of homeless people on the city’s streets while commuting in the 1980’s and set about creating a series aimed at bringing these folks’ plight to attention, focusing on their humanity.
She is quoted: “We usually ignore homeless people; we pass them by as if they were invisible. They represent the failures of our society and we don’t want to face them.” The craftsmanship, artistry, and humanity on display here are extraordinary. You’ve got ‘til the end of the month and Ms. Grabel is scheduled to be there on the 27th, 3 – 5pm.
Finally, while you’re on the 2nd floor of 547 West 27th, I leave you with an offering of pure visual delight, free of any of the societal commentary I’ve focused on or COVID associations: end your day at Blue Mountain Gallery for Kim Van Do’s “Light and Air of Summer.” If you have been to the Catskills or Northern California, you will be immediately whisked back there in what I can best describe as akin to a VR experience through painting. And if, like me, you’re a bit of a geek for old tools and untraditional canvases, the scenic saws will delight you.
The truth is, I’ve given you the tiniest sampling of all that is out there to soak in and now’s the time. Do you know how crowded art museum and even galleries can get? How many germs go flying about? Go now while double masks are all the rage, crowds are limited, and there is an embrace of so many artists whose work is not always given the prominence I’m sure you’ll agree is deserved.