Located at PIER 90 on Manhattan’s Westside, the 10th anniversary of VOLTA NY, the signature solo-focus artist show of the Armory Arts Week, featured a plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking works by artists from 39 nations that collectors and art enthusiasts alike were able to enjoy. Yet, of the 96 Galleries and artist-run spaces presenting this year, perhaps the most poignant, politically-oriented works were found in the show’s thematic Curated Section.
The timeliness of the artworks presented was undeniable, with their subject matter feeling ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Beginning with a video wall at the entrance of Volta, the Curated Section, titled Your Body Is a Battleground, was aptly found at the heart of the show. Its deviser, New York-based writer and independent curator Wendy Vogel, drew inspiration from Barbara Kruger’s photomontage Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. “After the enormous turnout for the recent international Women’s Marches, Kruger’s work reads as a vital precedent for art that protests the erosion of civil rights,” said Vogel. “Though these artists’ works are a generation removed from Kruger’s, they continue her legacy of examining media and representation.”
Taking an intersectional feminist approach, Vogel selected eight artists from across North America and the Caribbean whose works explore, through various corporal representations, the treatment and controversy around Queer Bodies, Black Bodies, Latinx Bodies, and Women’s Bodies. “I was thinking about all the types of bodies that are in danger under the current political circumstances that we are living through”, stated the curator.
This is unsurprising as Vogel conceived the show last November shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. However, in a refreshing twist, not a single image of President Trump was presented —an intentional choice—, because “all of this work has staying power, and it’s political without feeling so tied to one particular moment in time.”
With that said, much of the artwork showcased was created specifically for Volta. With most of her work out of the country, Melissa Vandenberg’s burn drawings, presented by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery, were made just eight weeks before the exhibition. Integrating text into the images created with matches, an outline of America with the phrase “Wish You Were Here” has an intentionally camp sensibility, while the use of matches add greater symbolic meaning, linking the work to Wiccan cleansing rituals and cremation. Vandenberg said:“A lot of the work has to do with mortality and loss, whether it is our innocence as a nation or personal, intimate loss.”
In contrast to these typographic images, Nona Faustine’s striking photography was perhaps the most literally corporeal of the Section. Presented by Baxter St Camera Club of New York, many of the photographs depicted the artist partially or fully nude at historical sites where slaves lived, died, or were buried. In the photograph “Lobbying the Gods for A Miracle,” part of a Triptych from 2016, she embodies an escaping slave from the Lefferts House. Smoking gun in hand, children’s shoes around her waist, she presses her back against a tree in the woods anticipating her captors. The woods where she hides are the same that Americans fought in during the Revolutionary War, reflecting the complex relationship of being black in America. “My work is autobiographical; it’s more about how I feel in relationship to the history as a native New Yorker and as an African American,” said Faustine.
With the Trans Rights Movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the background, Kent Monkman’s work takes on an additional level of intensity; Monkman is of Cree and Irish ancestry and identifies as both queer and two-spirit. His paintings, presented by Peters Projects, re-appropriate the narratives around indigenous people by utilizing the Western European tradition of historical paintings to poke subversive fun at romanticized depictions of Native Americans and colonialism. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s drag alter ego, also made an appearance at Volta in the collage series “Fate is a Cruel Mistress” (2017), in which she transforms into Biblical temptresses. In the portrait Judith you see Miss Chief in a headdress looking out determinedly before she beheads an inebriated Holofernes, depicted as a white colonial man —a clear victory.
The idea of temptresses and fantasy women was also taken on by Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien. Her work #dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) features pixelated depictions of dismembered female limbs floating in space, a commentary on the exoticized representations of Dominican women. The piece alone is intriguing, but its message is strengthened by Siboney, a performance in two parts, displayed on the video wall. In her latter work, Minaya documents the painstaking process of copying a found tropical pattern into a mural (around a month of work). She then lies seductively before the floral wall and pours water over her form before rubbing herself against the mural, effacing and transforming the piece simultaneously. Intercut with words like “Islander,” the performance challenges the viewer’s vision of an idealized land and people.
Through thoughtful analysis and exploration of the human form, Your Body Is a Battleground offered an introduction into several hot-topic issues without sacrificing aesthetics or relying exclusively on shock value. Yet, even though subject matter varies, when combined the artworks revealed a unified front against oppressors.
Other artists included in Your Body Is a Battleground were Zachary Fabri (ROCKELMANN & in collaboration with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art), Deborah Roberts (Art Palace), Sable Elyse Smith (The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts), Carmen Winant (Fortnight Institute), Chelsea Knight and Autumn Knight.
Volta NY 2017 took place at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) from march 1st through March 5th, 2017.
January 12, 2016
A lot of times we Manhattanites forget that right across the river, there is a land called Brooklyn, and it is filled with a hipper population than in our beloved borough. People associate “New York City” with the Empire State Building and Central Park when those main attractions are just in one borough out of the five that make up NYC. Sure, Central Park is a quintessential New York destination to check off the bucket list, but most of the time it’s the overlooked spots that are doing some pretty awesome projects. Brooklyn Bridge Park and the DUMBO area do get an influx of tourists, but everyone holed up in their favorite borough should come out to see these (free!!!) visiting structures scattered parkwide.
The Public Art Fund of the Brooklyn Bridge Park has been decorating the paths and lawns with contemporary, experimental sculptures and projects. This past summer, Danish artist Jeppe Hein installed Please Touch the Art, involving playful sculptures specifically intended for public interaction. The two main components, which will be on view through April 17, 2016, were his Mirror Labyrinth and Modified Social Benches that captured people’s attention. These structures are simplistic, yet changed the landscape of the park as well as the view of Manhattan. BBP continues this visual experience with the Brooklyn developer Two Trees Management Co.’s commission of OY/YO by Deborah Kass.
Located on the newly renovated Main Street Lawn, Deborah Kass’ monumental letters scream OY to Manhattan, and from the Manhattan side, YO shouts right back to Brooklyn. Blunt exclamations are a part of New York daily life, so now the landscape of the city will mimic its residents and tourists. Overlooking the iconic bridges of Brooklyn’s waterfront and visible from either side of the river, this is an apt location for Kass’ audacious appropriation of this urban slang.
OY/YO is the first of its size from Kass, but these phrases were originally two entities of their own. An important thing to know about Deborah Kass is that she explores the confluences of pop culture, art history, and the self. She also mimics and reworks signature styles of iconic male artists of the 20th century; Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock ring any bells?
OY was first created as a painting in 2011, giving tribute to Edward Ruscha’s 1962 painting, OOF. The 2011 painting transformed into prints and sculptures (Kass works with mixed media), and YO was added as a separate painting at a friend’s suggestion. This was all leading up to this concept’s larger-than-life presence in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Why these expressions? In interviews, Kass has provided some insights, but says that the sculpture acts as “an open-ended question that people need to answer for themselves”. Kass has stated that the sculpture is relevant to any diverse setting in America but remarked on how fine a home Brooklyn makes for this piece.
In the 1950s, Jews constituted about a quarter of the city’s population, with a majority of families residing in Brooklyn. Needless to say, the Yiddish phrase “oy (oy vey, oy gevalt, etc.)”, expressing exasperation or incredulity, would be well-known within this community. This sculpture can be viewed as the older residents expressing their irritation or aggravation toward the neighboring borough. ~oy~
“Yo” has become a popular slang interjection thanks to Philadelphia’s Italian-American population in the 1940s, but dates back to the 15th century when it was used in Middle English! Apparently, though, “yo” had a different meaning, deriving from the Old English word for “yes”. If our ancestors could just see us now…
Deborah Kass’ sculpture is made of simple aluminum and paint but makes a grand mark on the Brooklyn scenery with its bold yellow letters. This work is completely reminiscent of Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” sculpture. For the use of such small words, there are multiple impactful interpretations, whatever your take on Kass’ riveting sculpture may be.
My suggestion to get the most out of your viewing pleasure is to take the 6 to the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop so you can walk along the water to see the sites from the Manhattan side, then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and make your way to the Main Street Lawn, so you can see the full effect of Kass’ work. Especially with the weather being as wonderfully warm as it has been, a trip to see this in December is completely plausible! But there’s no need to rush: OY/YO will be on display through August 2016.
Want more of Deborah Kass? Her current exhibition, No Kidding, at the Paul Kasmin Gallery is on view until January 23, 2016, where she incorporates neon lights into her paintings to spell out puns and phrases bearing pop cultural references.
*If you’re saying to yourself, this sounds awfully familiar, and you’ve seen Season 2, Episode 22 of Gilmore Girls, then you’re correct in assuming I’ve taken inspiration for the title of this article from the nonsensical, magical words of Lorelai Gilmore.