Rushing to catch the Lee Krasner retrospective before its closing on Jan. 7, 2001, Brooklyn Spice visited the Brooklyn Museum of Art on a recent Friday. We were delighted to have the great museum practically to ourselves, especially considering the mobs of tourists that routinely throng Manhattan institutions like the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum.
Ed Harris' movie Pollock adds a curious mass-culture dimension to the Krasner retrospective, the first since her death in 1984. The show proves that while not as aggressively innovative as her husband, Krasner easily holds her own against the Abstract Expressionist boys club. Beginning with early works heavily influenced by European modernism, the exhibition traces her progress from the allover fields from the '50s to more reductive -- and seductive -- works from the '60s and '70s. Some of the later work looks surprisingly fresh, and resonates well with that of contemporary women painters like Laura Owens and Monique Prieto.
Having taken in the museum's more serious offerings, be sure to take a look at "Robots and Space Toys: The Robert Lesser Collection," which features more than 250 toy robots, including a wide selection from post-war Japan. Lesser, a New York playwright who has compiled a couple of books on pulp cover art, is a consummate collector with a good eye for quirky objects.
There is something oddly wistful about seeing the past's conception of the future (i.e. our present), even if it is only in children's playthings. The figurines have a peculiarly aggressive optimism, surely the result of that era's confidence in technology mixing with the undercurrent nervousness of the cold war.
Purists may argue that these toys are not art, but the myriad of clunky variations from the '50s -- miniaturization was a concept that hadn't entered science fiction -- oddly echo relics from the museum's terrific collections of ancient and tribal arts. The show runs through Feb. 1, 2001.
As for the Brooklyn Museum's controversial nod towards street culture, "Hip Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes & Rage," if you haven't seen it by now, you've missed your chance. Among the things we especially liked were the period neighborhood photos by Jamel Shabazz and the handful of graffiti works by pioneers such as Lady Pink that gave a glimpse of the gritty glamour of the early '80s.
Kudos to museum director Arthur Lehman for his populist programming. He wants more than 50 percent of museum visitors to be people of color -- and all the reviewers do is complain about the show's light approach to a controversial topic.
Graffiti lives on outside the museum, needless to say. For an update on that style, we trucked on over to Williamsburg to see the work of the graffiti collective Barnstormers at Spanish dealer Hilario Nuño's Fish Tank Gallery. The international artists' group has taken good advantage of what is one of the neighborhood's most impressive-looking spaces, saturating its giant walls with intricate murals that combine 80s-style graffiti with references to Japanimation and other hip iconography.
Barnstormers was originally formed to open artistic dialogues with communities of the rural South, which it did by decorating barns with inner-city imagery -- an odd idea, to be sure, but one that must have been interesting to all involved. The back of the gallery features a video seeking help for a family who lost one of those decorated barns due to a fire. The show has been extended through Feb. 15, 2001.
Two blocks away at Eyewash, a gallery run by Annie Herron out of a former tenement apartment, is a show by painter Mark Masyga of odd abstract paintings plus some groups of photographs of construction sites. The oils seem to be abstracted from the photos, but according to the artist it's the other way around -- he has been doing this kind of work for years and only started taking the photographs in 1999 because of their formal similarities.
The paintings have an effect reminiscent of collage, with different swatches -- some flat, some featuring jewel-like tiny details -- looking as if stuck on top of a spatially ambiguous field. At first glance the paintings seem tranquil, all sober browns and mustards and muted blues and creams, but on longer reflection the unbalanced compositions and the odd spatial jumps show a quiet daring. The works, which the gallery happily reports are selling well, go for $600 for the smaller pieces (about 18 by 18 in.) to $1,000 for the larger ones (32 by 24 in.). The show has been extended through Jan. 14, 2001.
In a similar vein, Jane Fine's paintings and works on paper at Pierogi are abstractions dotted with small details that hold the larger, freer areas together. The artist describes her process with something of a comic touch: "at one moment I am mimicking an anxious Pollock; in the next I feel as if I'm carefully knitting a sweater."
Fine's canvasses have a fleshy sense of landscape and something of the lumpy cartoonishness of Philip Guston, but lack buoyancy and feel overworked -- perhaps they're a bit too tightly knit. (But don't listen to us -- according to the gallery, collectors are loving the paintings at $6,500 a pop.). The works on paper, on the other hand, have a lightness and grace that makes them decorative in the best sense of the word, thanks to the doodly playfulness of the permanent marker.
Well worth the long walk to Williamsburg's South side, Roebling Hall continues its offbeat selections with Elizabeth Campbell's House (A Standardized Affectation for Telepresence) and Guy Richard Smit's The Ballad of Bad Orpheus. Campbell's piece, a large rectangular structure that contains two furnished rooms, has a particularly stunning effect. Viewers walk into one room, and note the homey touches, from a framed Purple Rain L.P. to one of Campbell's own drawings, the celebrated Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances charts in which she projects all the possible ramifications of everyday decisions. Then, visitors turn to the second space, and… POW! It's the same room, down to the very last detail. The sensation is uncanny.
On the other hand, it's hard to know what to call Smit's The Ballad of Bad Orpheus video. This low-budget, 23-minute rock opera features the artist's charmingly egotistical alter ego Maxi Geil leading a cast of sailors and loose women in a tragic tale of cuckoldry, drinking and violence. Bad Orpheus transcends its campiness in a way reminiscent of the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an obvious influence.
As for prices, Campbell's house sculpture is $30,000; her drawings range from $800 to $2,500. Smit's DVD, an edition of five, is $5,000 and his watercolor movie posters are $2,200. The show is up through Jan. 15.
"Lee Krasner" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway (718) 638-5000. Oct. 6, 2000-Jan. 7, 2001.
"Robots and Space Toys: The Robert Lesser Collection" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Nov. 4, 2000-Jan. 28, 2001.
Mark Masyga at Eyewash, 143 North 7th St., (718) 782-7853. Nov. 11, 2000-Jan. 14, 2001.
Barnstormers at Fish Tank Gallery, 93 North 6th St., (718) 387-4320. Dec. 18, 2000-Jan. 14, 2001.
Jane Fine at Pierogi, 177 North 9th St., (718) 599-1666. Nov. 17-Dec. 18, 2000.
Elizabeth Campbell and Guy Richard Smit at Roebling Hall, 390 Wythe Ave., (718) 599-5352. Dec. 9, 2000-Jan. 15, 2001.