BROOKLYN MUSEUM REBORN?
April 19, 2004 by John Perreault
A Pavilion Grows in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Museum has a new look. Images of the just-inaugurated “entry pavilion” look best when shot inside, aimed at the glass ceiling or outside from high above to include the plaza. Unfortunately, when you actually see the Polshek Partnership redo of both entryway and front yard upon emerging from the subway or just at street level, the pavilion looks like a flimsy glass tent with no relationship to the looming hulk of a building it inadequately fronts. The plaza, aside from the distant spurts of a fountain, is glare on glare.
Although the intention to make the entrance more welcoming is not all bad, I fear that looking like a ferry terminal in Scandinavia is not quite right. That glassed-in aquarium effect! Those tilted masts!
True enough, the old entrance, consisting of stingy doors leading to the stygian lobby, was off-putting. We will now enter through the best party room in Brooklyn, but at the expense of grandeur.
I would have rebuilt the original, vertiginous staircase removed by the WPA in the ’30s,but as a decorative feature. I would have encased the entire 1897 McKim, Mead & White Beaux-Arts pile, not just the front door, in glass.
In the meantime, I’d use the spin that entering the pavilion is to embark on a journey through art. Because it is one of the world’s great museums and has always seemed more people-friendly than the teeming Metropolitan, we have always loved the Brooklyn Museum of Art — oops! I mean the Brooklyn Museum.
Having changed the name to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1988, they are now back to plain old Brooklyn Museum. There’s a new logo, too. It’s a negative B inside various, bright blue, seal-like bursts, petals, splashes — “seal” as in seal of approval; not aquatic animal. This, the press release says, is all part of “strategic changes to name, logo and graphic identity.”
Is museum name-change a fad? Well, at least dropping “of Art” is not as drastic as the American Craft Museum changing its name to the Museum of the Arts and Design. We might, however, want to consider other changes. The American Museum of Natural History could be the Nature and Culture Museum. We could call the Bronx Zoo, Animals-R-Us.
I once lived in Brooklyn. I once worked in Brooklyn. I know that sometimes to get from point A to point B in Brooklyn you first must come into Manhattan. Nevertheless, if Brooklyn were still a separate municipality, it would now be the fourth most populated city in the U.S. Eat your heart out San Francisco, Houston and Detroit. Such a city, rich in legend and in diversity, deserves some amenities, right? The Brooklyn Museum already has the second largest art collection in the country. Eat your art out, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston.
City of Artists
To celebrate its new look, the Brooklyn Museum is now offering “Open House: Working in Brooklyn,” a surprising survey of 300 works by 200 artists (through August 15). Although the new-and-improved Whitney Biennial has already cheered everybody up, “Open House” will make you giddy. There are a few names we already know, guaranteeing weight: Nayland Blake (disconcerting wall pieces made with glass beads, buttons, feathers, and sequins), Louise Bourgeois (two tapestry and aluminum heads), Leonardo Drew (a beautiful wall of cases containing cast-paper objects), Glenn Ligon (a Warholian silkscreen painting of Malcolm X), Vik Muniz (a photo of a chocolate-syrup drawing of Cassius Clay), Roxy Paine (a startling mushroom wallpiece) and Fred Tomaselli (splendiferous collages).
I always expect good work by these artists, but the real surprise is the high level of art by the artists one does not know, may have missed in any of the hundreds and hundreds of Manhattan and Williamsburg galleries, or who may never have shown before. The BM’s contemporary curator, the well-respected Charlotta Kotik, and assistant curator Tumelo Mosaka did a lot of legwork. Thousands of artists now live and work in Brooklyn; Manhattan is just too expensive. Given the multiethnic population of Brooklyn, the curators made an effort to be inclusive. The purview is not only intergenerational, as in the Whitney Biennial, but also multicultural. As a curator, I always hated the idea of including little snapshots of artists next to or on wall labels, but in this case it works. Particularly for African Americans, the surname does not say it all. Which of the artists on my list of artists already known to me is African American?
In ARTOPIA, anyone can be whatever he or she has the talent to be, regardless of “race,” ethnicity, gender or sex. In ARTOPIA, anyone can dream. In the meantime, this goal may need a little help. Both young and old need to see that the people they look like can be artists too.
Is this obvious? I wish it were.
Then there is also the author problem. A painting of Cassius Clay or Aunt Jemima by a black artist has a different meaning when it is by someone whose ancestors came from Scotland. Although the excellent survey of the exuberant fashion designs by the late Patrick Kelly are not part of “Open House,” they also illustrate my point. The “gollywog” image he used as his logo and sometimes as a fabric pattern would be understood as racist if we did not know the designer was African American. We see a photo of him at the entrance. He also collected so-called derogatory black memorabilia, some of which is part of the exhibition. The gollywog becomes ironic.
Heidi Cody’s Exxon Mobil is a giant, revolving vacuum-formed abstraction of the Exxon and Mobil logos: on one side a big O, on the other a partial view of those double-Xs. It has the two-for-the-price-of-one directness of Pop because it can say two or more things at once. We cannot help but bring to it our loathing for giant oil companies and what they represent: oil spills and high-prices at the pump. But we also see their logos as bright designs on the dismal roadside.
At first I thought the outsider-art, prison-art guy who makes tiny “paintings” out of salvaged sock yarn had gone abstract. No, two two-inch square (one is actually 2 x 2 3/4) are actually oil on wood. That James Sheehan gets them to work as paintings is astounding.
Found Object Prize: Matthew Northridge’s assemblage of pencils, pens and other desktop things glued and push-pinned to the wall to make a kind of head-on missile.
Three “cultured marble” sculptures by Bryan Crockett, called Pride, Greed, and Gluttony are infant rats, I think. In any case, they are perfectly realized, bigger than life (in cases, thank goodness), hairless, with eyes still unopened and creepy.
Painted bottle caps by Eung Ho Park called Eyes (or “I’m Looking for You”) do more than solve the age-old bottle cap problem: they tease the eyes. We have seen bottle-cap baskets, bottle-cap men, and bottle-cap door mats, but never a bottle-cap painting before.
David Baskin gives a new meaning to the phrase “think pink.” Made out of cast urethane, rubber and wood, is a man’s outfit, all pink, displayed on a platform: pink overcoat, pink shirt, pink tie, pink pants, pink belt, pink hat and pink pipe. Later, when you have had time to think about it, you might wonder if the artist is feminizing the male getup or making the color pink masculine
Centipede, a fanciful, mixed-media depiction of said insect, by Wangechi Mutu holds a curved wall with grace and menace.
A big C-print by Anthony Goicolea (b. 1971) called Poolpushers, shows the preternaturally youthful artist in a natatorium with multiple versions of himself. The thumbnail snapshot next to the wall label lets me identify the artist’s obsessive subject. Also worth sitting through is a video Classroom in which a student (looks like Goicolea again) pulls out his hair while studying.
Maria Elena Gonzalez’s two small electric transmitter-towers surprise and somehow delight. One is 55 inches high and made of lampworked glass, the other is flat on its back and made of fingernail parings.
Elana Herzog has her way with a tattered chenille bedspread, by stapling it over and over again to the wall so that the staples almost overwhelm the cheesy, adorable fabric. It works!
Accumulations seem to rule: Ward Shelley’s Vendor is a vendor’s cart plus video plus… (Is the artist lurking somewhere behind that opening into the wall?) … And Yoko Inoue’s Transmigration of the Sold, made up of thousands of found and cast objects is exhilarating in its multiplicity. Given the amount of junk that artists now use, one would think that all Thrift Shops would be bare and the world, outside of art, would be extremely clean and tidy…Jean Shin’s Chance City is also a winner. She’s used $17,119 worth of discarded lottery tickets to make a city, a gigantic house of cards.
Karlos Carcamo’s Reach II is a surprising floor-to-ceiling sculpture made out of sport jerseys (it’s that male clothing thing again.)
Please note: most of the artworks are in the Rubin, Special Exhibitions, and Seaver Galleries on the third, fourth and fifth floors, but there are also some works embedded in the regular collection galleries. Joe Amrhein’s Arc is in the decorative arts galleries. Lettering on Mylar makes a free-hanging arch: ADOLESCENT, FLASH-IN-THE-PAN-STUFF, OSCILLATING AMBIGUITY, etc. Terry Adkin’s Muffled Drums is a totem made of bass snare drums piled up to the very high ceiling, one of them covered with mother-of-pearl-buttons (in the newly redone Hall of the Americas). David Shapiro’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a pipeline lettered with words from that much-loved novel, snaking down a stairwell.
Also, don’t forget to see Alexis Rochman’s Manifest Destiny on the second floor, although technically it is not part of “Open House,” but a separate commission. It depicts Brooklyn seen from Manhattan in the year 5004, when the water level has risen enough to obscure all but the upper parts of crumbling towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. Strange fish lurk in the murky East River. Part Museum of Natural History diorama, part sci-fi illustration, part Bierstadt-gone-berserk, Rochman’s 24-foot-wide painting is much better in person than the picture that ran in The Times, showing it incomplete (but unlabeled as such). Much, much better.
The “Open House” exhibition at the new Brooklyn Museum is a breath of fresh air. There may be a dearth of expensive, technology-heavy media installations, but there is no dearth of creativity. Would it be too troublesome to the Museum staff if I suggested that “Open House: Working in Brooklyn” be a Triennial? Brooklyn used to be known in the 19th century as the city of churches; now it is the city of artists.