4:07 pm Jul. 25, 20122
Nykia, 22, took a rather circuitous route to 165th street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
“I was in Parkchester. I took the 6. I transferred to the 4. I walked to my old block—that’s where I grew up, right over there,” Nykia said, pointing behind her. “And then I came over here. My sister [lives] right next to the rehab. Then I ran into an old friend, and then I ran into a guy [who said] I can possibly work in his shop because I just got my cosmetology license. Everything was unexpected. Then I was like, 'Oh, I like your shirt’ to this lady, and the lady was like ‘Stop, wait, I got something else you’re going to like—go inside.”
The lady persuaded Nykia to make her next stop at the Bronx Museum of Art, which was having an open house celebration for its summer season on Friday.
The Bronx Museum, still a diminutive cousin to the Metropolitan or Brooklyn Museums of Art, and very much connected to its South Bronx neighborhood in spirit and attitude, has always focused on exhibitions that celebrate the grittier side of urban living. In 1979, Devastation/Resurrection: The South Bronx, documented the neighborhood's fall and purported rebirth. Two decades later, Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s, showed that although that rebirth was still a work in progress, the Bronx was and had always been anything but an artistic and cultural wasteland.
In the Bronx Museum’s marquee exhibition for this season, Urban Archives: The Ritual of Chaos, the urban landscape is once again reimagined. Guest curator Monica Espinel organized the show around the arrestingly grisly images of Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides, but included works from photojournalist Robin Graubard, and artists Rick Liss, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Sophie Calle, among others. For 50 years, Metinides snapped images of Mexico City, documenting its violent rages and senseless losses, and these photos have lost none of their ability to jolt the viewer. He took his first photograph of a dead body at the age of twelve. In 1960, then in his mid-twenties, Metinides shot a photo of a boy floating face down in the water, a man swimming out toward him, and the reflection of onlookers bunched together like upturned trees on the water’s surface. In another, from 1979, a dead woman, dressed glamorously, lies draped over a fallen lamppost, a trickle of blood across her nose and down her cheek. A paramedic moves to cover her with his jacket, and in the background a dented car angled the wrong way on the street suggests a recent accident. In these, the morbidity of the scenes is so artfully rendered that Metinides’s photographs seem almost staged.
Other work in the show presents other artists similarly using the city itself as source material. Sophie Calle's work, consisting of photographs and corresponding diary entries, was originally conceived in 1980 for the South Bronx art gallery Fashion Moda, which once exhibited artists including Jenny Holzer, Lisa Kahane, and Keith Haring. At the time, Calle asked local residents to take her to sentimental places in the Bronx, which she then documented by taking photos and writing down the stories.
“The night before the opening she installed the piece, [and] everything was fine,” Espinel said, “When she returned the next day to the opening the walls and the ceiling [had been] tagged. She decided to keep them on the work because she found that this unknown collaborator had given some strength to her work.”
The Bronx was a favorite destination for Gordon Matta-Clark in the 1970s since his work was so invested in the very literal elements urban decay. Matta-Clark would venture to the Bronx, handheld saw in tow, and cut holes in the crumbling, dilapidated, condemned buildings he found. Bronx Floor: Double Doors (1973), is a diptych—one photo was taken from above a gaping L-shaped hole and the other from below, revealing the architectural bones of the building: the crumbling plaster, antique wood slats, broken cornices.
Outside the main exhibition space another event was taking place. The Museum’s atrium was staged as an experimental graffiti studio as part of Style Wars, the debut exhibition organized by Bronx Lab, a new museum initiative.
Style Wars features work from the museum's vast permanent collection of graffiti art by the likes of Rigoberto Torres, Tim Rollins, KOS, Keith Haring, La Pandilla, Lady K-Fever, and museum visitors were invited to create their own tags or graffiti-inspired drawings at tables spread with paper, black books, and crayons. Families gathered around the drawing tables, a D.J. played old-school hip-hop , and Bronx-based artists Glendolyn Medina and John Ahearn were circulating. A group of foreign students from Hunter College stopped through on a field trip. Artists’ friends, museum director Holly Block, Nykia from Parkchester and dozens more were in attendance.
“The Bronx is the birthplace of graffiti art and hip-hop culture. It has spun a lot of creativity,” said Hank, 55, a licensed New York City tour guide. He grew up in the Bronx but has barely come back since leaving for Manhattan. This exhibition gave him the rare opportunity to cross the threshold again.
“One time I had this idea of photographing the extremes of the Bronx and doing an exhibit. I should have done that in the '70s and '80s when the Bronx was burning, so to speak. When I was growing up, I wasn’t a graffiti artist but I had friends who were graffiti artists. They used to tell me how they used to sneak on the train yards in the middle of night with their bag of spray cans.”
Over his right shoulder hung a sculpture of a graffiti artist leaning out into the room, wearing a gas mask and hugging an array of aerosol cans to his chest.
“It started out as a total counterculture thing and now it’s in a Museum,” Hank continued, “People like tourists, like modern-day tourists are so disappointed that there is no graffiti on the subways. I tell them New York has gotten a bit more sanitized.”
The museum's shows had many visitors talking about the mystique of the city when it was dirtier and more dangerous.
“I remember visiting the city in ’85,” J.J., a Bronx resident for the past eight years, said. “Basically there was just the Upper East Side and it was a little island where the police were doing their job and things were under control, and then the rest was just chaos, it was just chaos. The city’s back [now]—the entire city.”
The ongoing part that the Bronx plays in that narrative continues. Up near 165th and Grand Concourse, one-bedroom apartments go for $900 a month. The neighborhood's Art Deco buildings are getting facelifts. A dilapidated mansion down the road from the museum that was turned into a retirement home has now been converted into an art space.
Despite its changes, Nykia doesn’t find her urban landscape all that sanitized.
“Everyone is dying at early ages from such nonsense," she said. "People ask me if I get upset, like in church, and I’m like 'I’m 22 years old and I’m happy because I’m 22.' I have friends, people who I know who have died like, car accidents, gun shots, drugs, all different things. So I’m happy.”
'Urban Archives: The Rituals of Choas' and 'Bronx Lab: Style Wars' are on view at the Bronx Museum of Art through January 6, 2013
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