Friday, October 13, 2006

Footprints or fragments, gallery show evokes a piece of Prospect Heights

So a couple of hundred people--Brooklynites, artists, friends of artists, all of the above--wandered down to the Grand Space gallery last night for the opening of Footprints: Portrait of a Brooklyn Neighborhood. (The gallery is at 778 Bergen at Grand, just east of Washington Ave.)

Brooklyn artists were asked to explore the neighborhood that would be the site of the proposed Atlantic Yards project, and the results were varied: portrait and documentary photography, abstract and representational painting, creative and crude symbols. Yes, there was a portrait of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein, but equally striking were photographs of residents of rent-stabilized buildings, like the Santiago family (right), in a portrait by Nura Qureshi.

Qureshi comments, "These images document residents of 810/812 Pacific Street who are directly threatened by the “Atlantic Yards” redevelopment project. By narrowing my focus to this corner of the Footprint I hoped to obtain an intimate view of these families, some of whom have been here for generations, and to create their lasting portraits."

(ACORN's Bertha Lewis would say, well, don't disregard all the people who might be helped by the affordable units planned. But an artistic portrayal of the project would also have to convey that the distinction between Phase 1 and Phase 2; the latter would contain most of the affordable units and is not guaranteed.)

Unfortunately, some of the documentation available on the web site had not made it to the gallery walls for the opening, so anyone visiting would get a mostly impressionistic experience. But Youme Landowne doesn't need to explain much about those "People's Democratic Republic of Brooklyn" passports. Landowne states, "With this work I hope you will smile as you (re)claim your relationship to home and community."

"You read in the news the political and legal aspects" of the project, co-organizer Daniel Sagarin told me. "Our project is about the human element." Indeed, it's hard to fit Sagarin's portrait of longtime resident Joe Pastore with, say, the Errol Louis invective like "antidevelopment yuppies."

The blocks are transitional, but they are fragments of the Brooklyn fabric. Michael Reilly produces a harmonious vision--low-rise buildings to scale, a bit of a reimaging rather than a documentary portrait. The artists, though, can give voice. “A lot of the residents inside the footprint, when they moved or property was bought they had to sign contract that they wouldn’t talk about situation,” co-organizer Belle Benfield told the Courier-Life chain. “To me, that kind of inspired me. There’s been a void of dialogue.”

Sagarin said in that article, "“It seems clear to me after taking a really close look at some of the work of our artists, that the neighborhood does need development. It’s just sad to me that in order to get a Gehry building so much has to be given up.” Jennifer McCharren's photo of the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard, with Pacific Street buildings behind it, shows an active railyard, which, however a barrier between neighborhoods, has been deemed necessary until this project, with no effort to request proposals to redevelop it.

Katherine Gressell's fragmented view of Flatbush Avenue from behind a car windshield is subtle but powerful--on a number of levels. It's a common experience to which anyone can relate, but it also evokes the renderings by project architect Frank Gehry and the critical graphic analysis from the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods.

Aisha Cousins, who describes herself as a "closet comedienne," doesn't get points for subtlety in portraying the project footprint as a Pac-Man-like devourer of modest houses that don't exactly look like the neighborhood. (I didn't see this piece at the gallery, but she has a larger work with similar imagery.) However, her repurposing of the footprint reminds us of the arbitrariness of the outline. Why exactly is there a missing "tooth" between Pacific and Dean streets and Sixth and Carlton avenues? Well, partly because it would have been very expensive to buy out the owners of condos in the converted Newswalk building. And why doesn't the tooth take up the whole block? Well, because 100 feet is needed for parking and staging.

And what of the Underberg building, preserved in memory by Melissa Cacioppo? Was it a dangerous, decaying structure that deserved its fate to be razed, even though the state denied an inspection by an independent engineer? Was it worth preserving and rebuilding? Would more democratically-arrived at redevelopment plans involve the Underberg? And how long will its replacement, now a patch of dirt, remain as such?

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