From the Bronx: This Side of ParadiseMay 3, 2012
While some works in This Side of Paradise lack the conceptual rigor of others, the complete exhibition constitutes a compelling hybrid of site-specific art programming and community engagement. Its success lies in its nature as an experiment in inclusion. Presented by No Longer Empty, This Side of Paradise displays artwork by more than twenty-six artists and collectives. The show is set in and curated in response to the Andrew Freedman Home, a former retirement home that aimed to protect once-wealthy seniors from the “degradations of poverty.”1 Founded in the 1920s, the residence operated into the 1980s and then fell into disrepair until its current renovation by a local citizens’ council.
The show features two primary exhibition areas. Downstairs, a group exhibition occupies two impressive ballrooms. Upstairs, sprawling installations housed in decrepit suites give the impression of a ruin porn art hotel. In the former, Mel Chin’s S.O.S. Reloaded: Bronx 2012 (Message to the President—Straight off the Streets) (2012) is the timeliest project. This past spring, a video crew filmed local residents conveying their gratitude, admiration, suggestions, and appeals to President Obama. The subjects look intently into the camera while their words scroll across the screen. It’s moving and difficult to pull away from.
Nicky Enright’s and Bruce Richards’s works are poetic and evocative. In Enright’s installation, The Ravages (2012), the Freedman Home’s ancient typewriters and piano conceal a speaker that plays an instrumental piece with a fragmented Latin refrain. The piano-and-typewriter composition, which was written and performed by the artist, is somber and beautiful. Richards’s Formal Couples (1994) are a series of exquisitely detailed paintings on paper. The series combines bow ties and buttons with jeweled necklaces over dark backgrounds. Framed behind glass, the paintings function as black mirrors; the viewers’ images are reflected amid precious-looking adornments.
Adam Parker Smith’s I Lost All My Money in the Great Depression and All I Got Was This Room (2012) and Federico Uribe’s Persian Carpet (2012) are two works that invite comparison. Both feature large, patterned arrangements of cheap, everyday objects. In Smith’s work, candy, donuts, fake flowers, and other colorful junk are glued to walls in a Victorian ogee (onion-shaped) wallpaper motif. I found it elegantly composed, humorous, and exuberant. In Persian Carpet, Uribe amasses what could be the contents of a discount store: bobby pins, bicycle chains, clothes hangers, and other cheap products are arranged on a black plinth. Here, the materials seem convenient and tacky. Uribe’s wall text claims that the artist selected objects that the former residents would have used. But since the home “provided all the accoutrements of genteel living” including “white glove dinner service every night,” the contemporary objects—especially rakes, pliers, and tape measures—seem disjunctive.2
Other wall texts also exaggerate the site-responsiveness of the works on view or excessively buttress them, finding substance where viewers may find none. Due to my personal investment in positive psychology, I had high hopes for Matthew Chamorro and Daniel Paluska’s The Happy Post Project (2012). The wall text reveals grand ambitions: “The Happy Post Project is a social movement…[S]preading happiness is a powerful platform for social change.” Yet the project evinces little progress towards these goals. The installation comprises a messy room covered in sticky notes that bear pat responses—“Be happy” and “I love you”—to the pat prompt, “What makes you happy?” A Do Not Touch sign prohibits visitor participation. Children’s furniture, happy-face balloons, and a play ramp are also haphazardly arranged in the space. Through their selection of forms and materials, the artists present a simplistic and clichéd vision of happiness, in contrast to positive psychology’s complexity, urgency, research, and application. They also conflate art with expression and interaction with engagement. Chamorro and Paluska’s project has one fatal flaw: they never explain how the project increases happiness, the underlying assumption being that discussing emotions is tantamount to generating them.
A few installations focus on the inequity of the Freedman Home. Art Jones’s Paradise Lounge (2012) is a video collage featuring interviews with clients of the neighboring social service agency, contrasting the outside community with the former residents. Unfortunately the audio quality is so bad that there’s little appeal to listening. Justen Ladda’s Like Money, Like Water (2012) is a glow-in-the-dark anamorphic painted installation. Though Ladda’s installation is well executed, it does not rise above caricature. Standing in the right place, viewers will see the image of two skeletons pissing glittery dollar signs.
In this context, photographer Sylvia Plachy’s Sitting Room: Remembering a Week in January (2012) is notably sympathetic and humanizing. She recreates a resident’s room as she remembers it from a photo shoot she conducted for the Village Voice in 1980. Those black-and-white portraits are on view, and they bring their subjects closer to our time. Though the residents did not want for a catered lifestyle, they lacked strong social bonds with one another, as Vivian Gornick revealed in the accompanying Voice feature, also on view.
By opening the Freedman Home to such a diverse range of artists and members of the public, No Longer Empty transforms a once-exclusive establishment into a community asset. Hence, artworks and installations that object to the home’s past inequalities can feel a bit redundant. The opportunity to work site-responsively has produced both inventive and hamstrung results. In some ways, This Side of Paradise is a borough-wide convening of art, so misalignments between my sensibilities and the show can be expected. Countless Bronx community organizations are represented by way of collaborations with artists or mini exhibitions within the overarching show. Ostensible imperfections might be benign side effects of the project’s inclusivity. This situation can be seen as a dialectic wherein artistic excellence is considered inversely proportional to community inclusion. But an alternative view is to recalibrate the criteria for evaluation to the project’s intentions, which disperse curatorial authority and include manifold artistic voices.
This Side of Paradise is on view at 1125 Grand Concourse, in the Bronx, through June 5, 2012.