“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
— Pablo Picasso
In a moment when we are all relying on digital images and virtual connections, the need to experience art in a tangible way feels incredibly essential for many of us. At the same time, it is vitally important to remain socially distanced. For art museums, which often exist within small spaces, finding ways to safely reopen has required “outside the box” thinking. In response to this challenge, we at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center are excited to safely “open” the exhibition ID: Formations of the Self, which can be experienced exclusively through the gallery windows on Park Place, West Broadway, and Barclay Street.
The show features eight artists who explore various aspects of identity, including their personal, political, and social histories, through a broad range of artistic media and approaches. Images and extended information about the work and the artists—LaKela Brown, Rachelle Dang, Jesse Harrod, Athena LaTocha, Emily Velez Nelms, Christie Neptune, Anna Plesset, and Joan Semmel—can be accessed through the SFAC website.
|Join curator Lisa Panzera and the CETLS Campus Culture group for a virtual tour of this exhibit on Thursday, November 19 at 1:00 pm.|
Bringing ID: Formations of the Self to fruition has been challenging on many levels. The idea of presenting a show centered on how different artists perceive and transform the social, cultural, and personal experiences that shape their identity has been kicking around in my head for quite a long time. In what seems like a lifetime ago, I regularly engaged in studio, artist residency, and gallery visits, which is how this exhibition began to take shape. The show was scheduled to open in May 2020. That didn’t happen, as everything came to a stop at our gallery, BMCC, and New York City in general, due to COVID-19. We postponed the show in the hopes that we could open in September 2020. Given the continued need to work remotely, we began to rethink the show and how to modify the installation so that it could be experienced without having to enter the gallery. I worked with the artists, several of whom had to create entirely new installations, to reconfigure how their works could be presented. I can’t say enough about how collaborative, generous and understanding they have been at every step in helping us to reimagine the show.
One of the most difficult issues for me as a curator was to re-envision how people would be seeing the work. After several years working at the Fiterman Art Center, I have a sense of how works will look hanging on certain walls or placed in proximity to one another inside the gallery. But to reformulate that based on how works would look from the outside was brand new. The task was even more complicated, since we were all working remotely. I was able to go inside the gallery for one day to take photos and measurements (such as window height to the window sill, the spaces between the open panels in the North Gallery, the window to the far wall, etc). Then, through conversations with the artists and a lot of literally “inside-out” thinking, I developed a plan. Installation was a different kind of challenge. For each work of art, we had to hang or place it, run outside and see how it looked, then run back inside and make adjustments. Seeing the works of art from outside the gallery, through the windows, was a very different experience and there were a lot of quirky things to take into account. For example, Christie Neptune’s photographs are placed very high on the walls, much higher than we would normally hang photographs, and it looks a bit strange from inside the gallery. But when you see those works from outside they are roughly at eye level, because the sidewalk is about three feet higher than the floor of the gallery!
Thematically the show begins with the core idea of “self,” but the works on view grapple with many complex issues that radiate out from the idea of the self and what informs it. Topics that these artists engage include the body, sexuality, aging, and gender; James Baldwin, race, and ethnicity; power, history, and the construction of narratives; and botany and nature. By gathering together these eight artists and their expansive embrace of different mediums, as well as philosophical and artistic considerations, we hope to encourage conversations that might not otherwise take place.
In the South Gallery, Joan Semmel’s work seemed an ideal place around which to center the show, given her position as a groundbreaking feminist artist, who first embraced self-portraiture in the 1970s and who continues to create work that unapologetically focuses on her now aging female body.
LaKela Brown created four gorgeous new plaster reliefs for this exhibition that celebrate African American culture, style, and aspiration. The gold highlights of the cast jewelry and personal adornments resonate with the golden yellow hues of Athena LaTocha’s work on the wall next to them.
Athena LaTocha created a monumental, site-specific work that is informed by the landscape and her place within it – conveying the immensity of, as well as the tension between, the natural and the human-made worlds. Untold stories by Indigenous peoples also inform the subtext of her work.
Rachelle Dang created the work situated nearby on the floor, an intricate sculptural installation that interweaves the history of Hawaii and its intersection with the colonialist history of botany (and its relationship to slavery) and Dang’s own personal history.
In the gallery facing Park Place, Anna Plesset has created an installation that mimics a section of her studio wall on which we see a painting that she has painstakingly recreated from an 1848 original by little known artist Sarah Cole. Plesset combines her refined painting technique with a conceptual approach that examines overlooked histories.
Christie Neptune’s installation project Unpacking Sameness is on the far wall opposite Plesset. Through photography, performance, video and sculpture, Neptune examines issues of race and challenges histories of supremacy and oppression.
Emily Velez Nelms created two large vinyl panels that occupy window bays that also look out onto Park Place. Each pictures a close-up view—one of oddly manicured fingernails, the other a peculiar tattoo—that explores aspects of beauty, race, class, and the history of Florida.
For the windows facing West Broadway, Jesse Harrod created a trio of large, hanging, neon-colored sculptures. Using macramé (generally associated with women’s craftwork of the 1970s) Harrod questions definitions of “high art” versus “low art,” and engages issues of queer identity and feminism.
The exhibition will be in place through January 15. We hope that you will visit the gallery and enjoy a safe, outdoor, socially-distanced experience of these thought-provoking works of art. You can also join me and CETLS Campus Culture committee on November 19 at 1:00 PM for a virtual tour of the exhibition and a conversation.
Fascinating to read about the issues faced in curating and installing challenging artwork for socially distanced street viewing! Beautiful show!