Art Behind the Pleated Facade

The Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum of the Arts

Two architecture students from Poland were telling the woman at the front desk that they almost didn’t get to see The Bronx Museum of the Arts during their New York visit — the museum was not listed in any of their guidebooks. They discovered the museum on the internet, and standing in the lobby, they were stunned at the architecture. It’s good they did not miss it because there is a lot to see here.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum of the Arts

The Bronx Museum’s exterior is striking. And inside, four exhibitions are currently on view. I too was shocked. Really, I had expected a converted apartment building or a greying nondescript building, a bit of a rag tag structure.

Intersection of the Grand Concourse and 161st Street
Intersection of the Grand Concourse and 161st Street

Approaching the museum from the Grand Concourse builds momentum. The Grand Concourse itself feels grand. I felt that the minute I turned off of 161st Street. Walking along towards the Bronx Museum doesn’t feel unlike being on Park Avenue walking toward, say, the Asia Society. I think the Grand Concourse may be wider than Park Avenue (the GC is an eight lane thoroughfare) and the apartment buildings are lower so it appears more open with more sunlight.

Approaching The Bronx Museum of the Arts
Approaching The Bronx Museum of the Arts

The exterior of the Bronx Museum is pleated like an accordion. From top to bottom. Blocks away, it gleams white but it is silver, made of brushed matte steel.

The Bronx Museum windows
The Bronx Museum windows

In the depths of the pleats are glass windows, narrow ones, that too, run from sidewalk to rooftop. The museum was designed by a Miami based architecture firm, Arquitectonica and opened in 2006. The museum used to be housed in the corner building, a former synagogue, and before that, it was in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse down the street.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts 2nd floor space
The Bronx Museum of the Arts 2nd floor space

The second level is available for special events and public gatherings. The terrace has three human scale sculptures by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres. The work is inspired by actual Bronx residents. The leaves and branches of a very large and very old apple tree rise over the terrace checkerboard wall.

Sculptures on Terrace of the Bronx Museum
Sculptures on Terrace of the Bronx Museum

The third level is home to the museum’s education department, classrooms and media lab. The museum, I learned, is still expanding. The rest of the permanent collection is in storage awaiting proper exhibition space. The museum will expand further back, one block over to include additional galleries and a Children’s Art Garden. They will, however, build around the apple tree. (See the finished Bronx Museum Project: Arquitectonica –> Projects–> Cultural / Institutional –> Bronx Museum of the Arts)

Ok now for the art. Three of the four shows close on Monday, August 4th. Only How Soon is Now is open until August 18th. So get there soon. A word of caution, the museum notes that the work exhibited in the front gallery may be unsuitable for younger viewers due to its subject matter and visual imagery.

The lobby is a spacious two story gallery space. You step in and the viewing begins. Activism is Never Over, a fabulous wall mural painted by Lady Pink, the best known female graffiti writer, Doña, Muck and Toofly. The mural honors the women on the front lines of women’s history. Respect is given to an incredible range of woman from Yuri Kochiyama to Uta Hagen to Shirley Chisholm to Martina Navratilova, amidst lotus flowers and even a painting of Gloria Steinem with a Playboy bunny over her shoulder.

The mural is part of the exhibition Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art and Community featuring women artists from the 1970s who challenged the art world’s leading venues by exposing the near absence of art by women. These artists formed coalitions and collectives, fostered inclusiveness, creating databases of women artists and presented their work in woman infused spaces. I totally remember the The Guerilla Girls posters, the woman’s head hidden within the gorilla mask while holding a peeled banana. A lot of artist’s names were new to me and a few were new to me in their roles as activists: Faith Ringgold and her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace. Judy Chicago. Ah yes, The Dinner Party. Probably my first exposure to “feminist art”. I remember my high school humanities class trip into downtown Chicago to see her “V-a_g-i_n-a Plates”. The anatomical likeness completely eluded me, I think I remarked, “They’re very colorful.” Only years later did I realize, “Oh. That’s why I needed the permission slip from my parents.”

A counterpart to the Making It Together exhibit is Highlights of the Permanent Collection: Women Artists featuring photographs by artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Ana Mendieta and Adrian Piper. This exhibition felt too small to me. I was happy to see these artists right here in the Bronx, but hopefully the museum has more of their pieces packed away in their collection.

The Bronx Museum’s Teen Council curated a small exhibition of photographs by Jamel Shabazz who captured much of the hip hop scene, as well as everyday life and people on New York City streets in the 1970s and 80s. They also interviewed him for the museum’s DVD series of artists interviews. You can sit at one of the iMacs and watch the entire interview.

The featured exhibition How Soon Is Now? is the work of 36 emerging artists selected from a pool of 600 applicants to the museum’s Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program. There is a lot of work here and a lot of different media. I was surprised at the number of works requiring headsets. I do not pretend to understand everything that I see when looking at contemporary art. I have to feel something and to respond to some human element in a work and even better if it makes me laugh. I hate leaving a gallery or museum feeling the weight of the world from what I’ve seen.

That given, one of the most memorable pieces is Living Room from artist Jeanne Verdoux who uses line drawings and shadow. Tacked to the wall is a folded sheet of white ruled paper, maybe ledger paper, that becomes both screen and stage for an animated line drawing of a woman, in her bra and panties, who rises from a chair and turns on a lamp. It’s an absolutely quotidian task, but I could not stop watching it. The only audio is the sound of the lamp clicking on. The projector and dvd player are set up on a black folding chair a few of feet from the wall. It is all very clever and very simple.

Another piece of note is Michelle Frick‘s Avian Intensive Care Unit. A big pile of clear tubes, sacs, pouches, glass vials, the outer wrappings and packaging from various medical equipment, is surrounded by small white birds hooked up to IVs through their beaks. Or are they IVs morphing into birds? The accompanying sound of chirping birds and a thumping heartbeat fills the space. It is both a fragile and disgusting display.

I appreciated the seating accompanying those works with video. That way I could sit through the entire piece Still from Sing Along by artist Ra di Martino. A man and woman sit facing each other while listening to Percy Sledge belt out When a Man Loves a Woman. The two do not know each other. They say nothing the entire length of the song, but their facial expression and body movements do. It’s nearly impossible not to sing along to that song.

I remember the colors of Cosme Herrera‘s Frost, a painting on wood with images of trees routed into the surface, figures in various interactions with the trees: dragging trunks or tearing the bark.

Brendan Carroll‘s piece Black Coffee–No Sugar is a series of 98 Polaroids of Jersey City, with a typewritten anecdote, in italics, across the bottom of each photo. The photos evoke a small, rural deserted town of yesteryear and the anecdotes appear random in no sequential order and not from the same voice. But looking at all the photos made me want to hold on to my Polaroid One Step even longer and ferret out a few packs of film–before there are none left.

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