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The Wild, Anti-Authoritarian Art of Peter Saul – The New York Times

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Politically, 2020 has been, so far, a gonzo variety show of executive howlers and hissy fits; prayer breakfasts and Iowa pratfalls; split “victories” and revenge firings. The weirdness overload has almost seemed staged to distract from other American realities: migrant detention centers, corporate land grabs, climate catastrophe and the cruelties of poverty and racism. All of which makes the arrival at the New Museum of “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment,” a critically acidic dirty bomb of a show, well-timed.

The 61 works in this exhibition, installed on the museum’s third and fourth floors, span the career of an American painter whose art has, for more than half a century, both diagnosed national maladies and been shaped by them. The result is work that’s virtuosically bizarre in style (Tiepolo meets Mad magazine) and ecumenically offensive in content. Whatever your ethnic, sexual or political persuasion, there is something here to give you ethical pause, to bring out an inner censor you didn’t know was there.

Born in San Francisco in 1934, Mr. Saul had, by his own account, a materially privileged but punishing childhood, first as the offspring of hyper-censorious parents, then as a student at a boarding school where physical beatings were not considered abuse. In both environments, making art offered an area of psychological safety and freedom, a place from which he could look out at the world, including, later, the art world, with a critical combination of fear, fascination and scorn.

After studying painting in college he moved to Europe for several years. There he began as an abstract painter but soon, influenced by Surrealism, began to introduce images from the comic books and magazine ads that had been his primary visual resources as a kid. Some of the earliest paintings in the New Museum show include figures of Mickey Mouse and Superman; others refer to the American consumerism he’d left behind. “Ice Box Number 1” (1960) is a still life interior of an open refrigerator crammed with slabs of meats, brand-name canned goods and detached penises.

Credit…Peter Saul/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

That year, in Paris, he met the New York dealer Allan Frumkin, who gave him his first American solo two years later (“Ice Box Number 1” was in it) and represented him until 1997. And by the time Mr. Saul returned from Europe to California in 1964, he was clear on what he wanted, and didn’t want, from art.

He didn’t want the pretensions — the ego, the angst — left over from Abstract Expressionism. And he didn’t want the social trappings associated with a mainstream career. (He has referred to himself as being “fairly communistic” at the time.) What he did want was to be able to paint what he pleased and to have his work noticed. And one way to get people looking was to take subjects from a source they cared about: the news.

Back home, he found that anger over the Vietnam War, which he shared, had reached high boil. And the paintings he made in response to it — seven are in one gallery on the third floor — are among the most powerful antiwar works of that era. He had, by then, traded in rough-and-ready brushwork and modulated colors for graphic crispness and a high-keyed palette. His once-loose compositions had become airtight linear tangles. Tubular figures twist and stretch in a cartoon version of Mannerist serpentinata. The formal elegance momentarily stops you, holds your eye. A beat later, content starts to come through.

It’s strong stuff. The monumental 1967 painting “Saigon” is a phantasmagoria of erotic violence so complex you almost can’t, at first, decipher it. A label painted in faux-Chinese characters clues you in: “White boys torturing and raping the people of Saigon.” Indeed that’s exactly what the scene portrays, a nightmare that is American policy in action.

In the 1970 painting “Pinkville,” the last of the Vietnam series, violence is the subject again, but the actions are clearer. The picture was done a year after the story of the slaughter at My Lai — Pinkville was a military nickname for the village — was made public. Mr. Saul reduces the American troops to a single giant multilimbed G.I. who shoots three bound nude women while sexually assaulting a fourth.

Much of the impact of both pictures lies in the fact that the women depicted, with their bright yellow skin and slanted eyes, conform to Western stereotypes of Asians. The setting they’re in may be self-consciously critical. (Mr. Saul said in a 1967 interview that he intended his Vietnam paintings to be seen as “treasonable.”) But the figures remain racial and misogynistic caricatures. The artist is playing a risky role here, that of double agent. He’s giving us his own condemnatory view of the war, but also the view of Americans who saw it through the filter of racism and supported it.

He uses the same strategy, less securely, in two paintings of the American political activist and professor Angela Davis. Both date from the early 1970s, when Ms. Davis, having been convicted of conspiracy to murder in the Marin County Civic Center case — where four people died, including a judge — spent more than a year in prison. (In 1972 she was acquitted of the charges and released.) In both pictures — one is titled “The Crucifixion of Angela Davis” — she is shown as a victim: nude, prone, helpless under assault. The idea of injustice is conveyed, but in a sexualized image that, with its overtones of sadism, reads uncomfortably in the #MeToo present.

Time and history change art. Identity politics of the past several decades have changed the ways “racial” images are received. In particular, the question of who owns identity — who has a right to depict whom, and how — has sharpened in the past few years. Mr. Saul’s Angela Davis need to be revisited in this light, as does his mural-size 1979 “Subway I,” with its image of mixed-race mayhem. In that case, at least, stereotyping is an equal opportunities affair. Everybody takes a hit.

The show’s second half, on the museum’s 4th floor, is an exuberant free-for-all: 30 paintings hung in two rows, salon-style, in one big room. They range in date from 1973 (“Custer’s Last Stand #1”) to 2017 (“Donald Trump in Florida”). There are remakes of historical classics like Emmanuel Leutze’s 1851 “Washington Crosses the Delaware,” and several presidential portraits, all of Republican sitters.

If Ronald Reagan is clearly the POTUS Mr. Saul most loves to hate, his image of a smiley George W. Bush tormenting an Abu Ghraib inmate is the most effective takedown. Three separate likenesses of Donald Trump are bland, soft, but perhaps understandably so. Mr. Trump may be all but unsendupable.

And the show — organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s artistic director, and Gary Carrion-Murayari — has a few self-portraits. (I wish there were more; they’re so good.) In one from 1987 Mr. Saul, looking like an addled Baby Yoda, has undergone a craniotomy which has left his brain exposed, letting us see its contents. These include, half-embedded in goopy tissue, a crushed beer can and a giant lighted cigarette. The can carries a label reading “Esteem.” A label tied to a gnarly hand clutching the cigarette reads “Abuse.”

The self-portraits, many of them a lot freakier than this one, hint at what so many young artists over the decades have loved about Mr. Saul: his pictorial inventiveness; his persistence (at 85, he’s still hard at work); and his anti-authoritarian chutzpah. Through a long career he has used offensiveness as a form of resistance — political, personal — and just by doing so given everyone permission to do the same.

You won’t hear him acknowledge that though. More and more, in interviews in recent years, he has taken to insisting that all he’s ever really been interested in was opportunistically grabbing attention by being outrageous. Saying this may be his way of slipping out of the categorizing grip of art history, preventing it from getting a handle on him. Anyway, I don’t believe him. His art is the work of a brilliant showman who is also a canny ethicist, one who knows about the damage power can do and who, tossing incendiary matter around as he goes, refuses to let it have its way. That’s the artist his admirers should pay very close attention to, especially today.


Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment

Through May 31 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan; 212-219-1222, newmuseum.org.

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20 Art Exhibitions to View in N.Y.C. This Weekend – The New York Times

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Our guide to new art shows and some that will be closing soon.

‘SHAHIDUL ALAM: TRUTH TO POWER’ at the Rubin Museum (through May 4). This Bangladeshi photographer has used his camera for 35 years as a tool to advance social justice. Over time, he has pushed against the natural constraints of a medium that registers what is seen, so that he might illuminate what is suppressed or has vanished. But how does a photographer portray people who have disappeared with hardly a trace? Alam addresses that question creatively in works in this show. Since 2011, he has been pursuing the case of Kalpana Chakma, a young activist who disappeared in 1996. Because few photographs or possessions of Chakma survive, Alam conducted what he calls a “photo-forensic study,” making color pictures of traces, real or imagined. His images are not conventional representations of suffering and resistance. He is trying to break through the clichés that deaden our eyes in a photo-saturated world. (Arthur Lubow)
212-620-5000, rubinmuseum.org

‘ARTE DEL MAR: ARTISTIC EXCHANGE IN THE CARIBBEAN’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Jan. 10, 2021). The Met has never before presented an exhibition of art from the West Indies, and it concentrates here on the ritual objects — thrones, vessels and mysterious bird-shaped stones — of the Taíno people, who inhabited the islands now called Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Turks and Caicos. On these islands, and on the Caribbean-facing coasts of Central America, styles mingled and migrated, and art had both religious and diplomatic functions; one extravagant gold pendant here, in the shape of a bird with splayed wings and zigzagging necklaces, traveled from Panama all the way to the Antilles. As the Met begins renovations of its Rockefeller Wing, the Caribbean offers its curators a priceless model of how to think about world cultures: never “pure” but in constant motion and constant contact, diffracted across time and oceans. (Jason Farago)
212-535-7710, metmuseum.org

‘ARTS OF CHINA’ and ‘ARTS OF JAPAN’ at the Brooklyn Museum (ongoing). Redesigning an American museum’s Asian wing is no mean feat. But these exhibitions, reopened after a six-year renovation, successfully integrate stunning pieces by contemporary Chinese and Japanese artists into the institution’s century-old collection of antiquities, drawing 5,000 years of art into a single thrilling conversation. Look out for the 14th-century wine jar decorated with whimsical paintings of a whitefish, a mackerel, a freshwater perch and a carp — four fish whose Chinese names are homophones for a phrase meaning “honest and incorruptible.” (Will Heinrich)
718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.com

‘AUSCHWITZ. NOT LONG AGO. NOT FAR AWAY’ at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (through Aug. 30). Killing as a communal business, made widely lucrative by the Third Reich, permeates this traveling exhibition about the largest German death camp, Auschwitz, whose yawning gatehouse, with its converging rail tracks, has become emblematic of the Holocaust. Well timed, during a worldwide surge of anti-Semitism, the harrowing installation strives, successfully, for fresh relevance. The exhibition illuminates the topography of evil, the deliberate designing of a hell on earth by fanatical racists and compliant architects and provisioners, while also highlighting the strenuous struggle for survival in a place where, as Primo Levi learned, “there is no why.” (Ralph Blumenthal)
646-437-4202, mjhnyc.org

‘AGNES DENES: ABSOLUTES AND INTERMEDIATES’ at the Shed (through March 22). We’ll be lucky this art season if we get another exhibition as tautly beautiful as this long-overdue Denes retrospective. Now 88, the artist is best known for her 1982 “Wheatfield: A Confrontation,” for which she sowed and harvested two acres of wheat on Hudson River landfill within sight of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. Her later ecology-minded work has included creating a hilltop forest of 11,000 trees planted by 11,000 volunteers in Finland (each tree is deeded to the planter), though many of her projects exist only in the form of the exquisite drawings that make up much of this show. (Holland Cotter)
646-455-3494, theshed.org

‘ENVISIONING 2001: STANLEY KUBRICK’S SPACE ODYSSEY’ at the Museum of the Moving Image (through July 19). This exhibition brings together original correspondence, sketches, storyboards, props, video clips and much more to illustrate how Kubrick, the film’s director, and Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction author who collaborated with him on the screenplay, set about bringing the future to the screen. The museum will show the digital version of “2001” every week and a 70-millimeter print every month for the duration of the exhibition’s run, and several sidebar movie series will complement the showcase. It makes a great achievement in filmmaking look less like a cinematic U.F.O. and more like, well, an achievement — the product of ingenuity, talent and tenacity. It illuminates the artistry of a moviemaker whose genius has often seemed inseparable from the mystique surrounding it. (Ben Kenigsberg)
718-777-6888, movingimage.us

‘THE GREAT HALL COMMISSION: KENT MONKMAN, MISTIKOSIWAK (WOODEN BOAT PEOPLE)’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through April 9). The second in a series of contemporary works sponsored by the Met consists of two monumental new paintings by the Canadian artist Kent Monkman, installed inside the museum’s main entrance. Each measuring almost 11 by 22 feet, the pictures are narratives inspired by a Euro-American tradition of history painting but entirely present-tense and polemical in theme. Monkman, 54, a Canadian artist of mixed Cree and Irish heritage, makes the colonial violence done to North America’s first peoples his central subject but, crucially, flips the cliché of Native American victimhood on its head. In these paintings, Indigenous peoples are immigrant-welcoming rescuers, led by the heroic figure of Monkman’s alter ego, the gender-fluid tribal leader Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, avatar of the global future that will see humankind moving beyond the wars of identity — racial, sexual, political — in which it is now fatefully immersed. (Cotter)
212-535-7710, metmuseum.org

INAUGURAL EXHIBITIONS at the International Center of Photography (through May 18). The good news first: New York’s center of the camera arts has found a spacious new home in Essex Crossing, off Delancey Street, that will bring ICP’s museum and school under one roof after years apart. The museum’s initial shows here vary from informative (historical photos of the Lower East Side, by the likes of Jacob Riis, Weegee and Lisette Model) to premature (the 24-year-old fashion photographer Tyler Mitchell) to pandering (portraits of hip-hop stars, no more scientific than a Madame Tussauds display). Social media and surveillance have made photography into a pervasive condition, and more important than ever; it’s time for ICP to treat the medium as such. (Farago)
212-857-9700, icp.org

‘IN PURSUIT OF FASHION: THE SANDY SCHREIER COLLECTION’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 17). Featuring 80 pieces of clothing and accessories, this exhibition is, more than anything else, the reflection of one woman’s love affair with fashion. Schreier’s collection, and the part of it on view at the Met, contains all the major names, but what defines it more than anything else is her own appreciation for pretty things. Hidden away between the Balenciagas and the Chanels, the Diors and the Adrians, are treasures by little-known or even unknown designers that are a delight to discover. Three origin-unknown flapper dresses from the 1920s, beaded to within an inch of their glittering seams, matched only in their lavish surprise by three elaborately printed velvets of the same era — two capes and a column — by Maria Monaci Gallenga, so plush you can practically stroke the weft with your eyes. It is these less famous names whose impact lingers, in part because they are so unexpected. (Vanessa Friedman)
212-535-7710, metmuseum.org

[Read about the events that our other critics have chosen for the week ahead.]

‘DOROTHEA LANGE: WORDS & PICTURES’ at the Museum of Modern Art (through May 9). As this revelatory, heartening exhibition shows, Lange was an artist who made remarkable pictures throughout a career that spanned more than four decades. The photos she took in 1942 of interned Japanese-Americans (which the government suppressed until 1964) display state-administered cruelty with stone-cold clarity: One dignified man in a three-piece suit and overcoat is wearing a tag, like a steer, while disembodied white hands on either side examine and prod him. Her prescient photographs of environmental degradation portray the human cost of building a dam that flooded the Berryessa Valley near Napa. Her empathetic portraits of African-American field hands shine a light on a system of peonage that predated and outlasted the 1930s. One happy consequence of our dismal political moment is a rediscovery of Lange. Perhaps now younger photographers will be inspired to pick up her banner. The need is all too apparent. (Lubow)
212-708-9400, moma.org

‘JEAN-JACQUES LEQUEU: VISIONARY ARCHITECT’ at the Morgan Library & Museum (through May 10). This bewitching, even steamy exhibition showcases one of the strangest and most compelling figures from the years around the French Revolution: a professionally unsuccessful architect who spent his nights drawing fantastic monuments and pleasure palaces. In the 1790s Lequeu imagined spherical temples to reason and equality that would celebrate the new republic (the National Convention rejected them all), and that Enlightenment ethos also extended to gripping self-portraits and pictures of lovers, done with quite a bit of anatomical accuracy. In these painstaking sheets, capricious or perverse, steeped in powder blue and misty rose, Lequeu proved that architecture can be an erotic art, in which buildings get confused for bodies and vice versa. (Farago)
212-658-0008, themorgan.org

‘THE ORCHID SHOW: JEFF LEATHAM’S KALEIDOSCOPE’ at the New York Botanical Garden (through April 19). February in the city is a notoriously depressing time. When it’s not frigid and dark, it’s wet and dim. But at this annual flower showcase in the Bronx, springtime seems within reach. Leatham, this year’s guest designer and the artistic director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, has created mirrored sculptures to multiply the thousands of orchids he’s assembled with the help of the curator Marc Hachadourian. Amplified by the exhibition’s dramatic lighting and other embellishments, the flowers’ diverse shapes and colors are transformed into complex patterns. On select evenings throughout the show’s run, those designs will provide a suitably extravagant backdrop for performances by Princess Lockerooo and Harold O’Neal. (Peter Libbey)
718-817-8700, nybg.org

‘SAHEL: ART AND EMPIRES ON THE SHORES OF THE SAHARA’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 10). Sahel derives from the Arabic word for shore or coast. It was the name once given by traders crossing the oceanic Sahara to the welcoming grasslands that marked the desert’s southern rim, terrain that is now Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. To early travelers, art from the region must have looked like a rich but bewildering hybrid. It still does, which may be one reason it stands, in the West, somewhat outside an accepted “African” canon. This fabulous exhibition goes for the richness. One look tells you that variety within variety, difference talking to difference, is the story here. New ideas spring up from local soil and arrive from afar. Ethnicities and ideologies collide and embrace. Cultural influences get swapped, dropped and recouped in a multitrack sequencing that is the very definition of history. (Cotter)
212-535-7710, metmuseum.org

‘ZILIA SÁNCHEZ: SOY ISLA (I AM AN ISLAND)’ at El Museo del Barrio (through March 22). Sánchez, who will turn 94 this summer and is still at work, has spent some 50 years making abstract yet sensual sculptural paintings, approximately 40 of which are gathered here to lead the viewer through her career. While modern art has a firmly established tradition of objects that simultaneously hang on the wall and jut into space, Sánchez does something different. “Lunar con Tatuaje” (“Moon With Tattoo”), one of her most elaborate pieces, features two semicircular canvases with raised half-moons in the middle. Frenzied groups of lines arc between various points, accompanied by arrows and an occasional eye or hand. The picture isn’t legible, but it calls forth a kind of cosmic knowledge. Such is the duality and lesson of Sánchez’s art: It’s grounded in the material world but points toward something metaphysical. (Jillian Steinhauer)
212-831-7272, elmuseo.org

‘T. REX: THE ULTIMATE PREDATOR’ at the American Museum of Natural History (through Aug. 9). Everyone’s favorite 18,000-pound prehistoric killer gets the star treatment in this eye-opening exhibition, which presents the latest scientific research on T. rex and also introduces many other tyrannosaurs, some discovered only in this century in China and Mongolia. T. rex evolved mainly during the Cretaceous period to have keen eyes, spindly arms and massive conical teeth, which packed a punch that has never been matched by any other creature; the dinosaur could even swallow whole bones, as affirmed here by a kid-friendly display of fossilized excrement. The show mixes 66-million-year-old teeth with the latest 3-D prints of dino bones, and also presents new models of T. rex as a baby, a juvenile and a full-grown annihilator. Turns out this most savage beast was covered with — believe it! — a soft coat of beige or white feathers. (Farago)
212-769-5100, amnh.org

‘WORLDS BEYOND EARTH’ at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium (ongoing). This new space show is a bit like being thrown out of your own orbit. Surrounded by brilliant colors, the viewer glides through space in all directions, unbound by conventional rules of orientation or vantage point. Dizzying spirals delineate the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. At one point, museumgoers are taken along a journey from the perspective of a comet. In illustrating the far reaches of our solar system, the show draws on data from seven sets of space missions from NASA, Europe and Japan, including the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 and still-active ones like Voyager. With a sense of movement and scale that only a visual presentation could convey, “Worlds Beyond Earth” makes an unforced point about the dangers of climate change. Another celestial body might have an “alien sea” that “contains more liquid water than all the oceans on Earth,” as its narrator, Lupita Nyong’o, states. But Earth itself, she adds later, is the only place with the right size, the right location and the right ingredients — an easy balance to upset. (Kenigsberg)
212-769-5100, amnh.org

NOAH DAVIS at David Zwirner (through Feb. 22). The 27 canvases in this exhilarating show — the largest yet for this ambitious figurative painter who died in 2015 at the age of 32 — showcase a more than promising talent. Davis accomplished one of the most moving, effective fusions of paint handling, narrative and symbolism in recent American art. Ostensibly traditional but actually unbelievably subtle and rich, the paintings make everything count, from the gestures and expressions of their subjects to tiny touches of color. Davis’s goal was to show African-Americans in “normal scenarios.” He did this, and more, creating images that speak to the human condition. (Roberta Smith)
212-727-2070, davidzwirner.com

‘MAKING MARVELS: SCIENCE & SPLENDOR AT THE COURTS OF EUROPE’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through March 1). This exhibition brings together nearly 170 elaborately crafted objects, many never seen in the United States: the mesmerizing 41-carat “Dresden Green,” an ornate silver table decorated with sea nymphs, a clock with Copernicus depicted in gilded brass. Some, like a chariot carrying the wine god Bacchus, are spectacularly inventive — Bacchus can raise a toast, roll his eyes and even stick out his tongue. Some, like a charming rhinoceros, a collage created from tortoiseshell, pearls and shells, are merely lovely. The show could have been simply a display of ornamental wealth for the one percent of long ago, an abundance of gold and silver that was meant to be shown off in any way possible. But “Making Marvels” is about more than that. (James Barron)
212-535-7710, metmuseum.org

‘NICOLAS MOUFFAREGE: RECOGNIZE MY SIGN’ at the Queens Museum (through Feb. 23). More exceptional than this artist’s background was his art form: embroidery. As a gay man who openly embraced his sexual identity, Moufarrege happily took up needlepoint after discovering its potential, he said, when repairing an old pair of jeans. Moufarrege was in the vanguard in a sadder way, too. Among a close-knit group of East Village artists he was one of the first to succumb to the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. This rewarding retrospective reveals Moufarrege’s impressive range, progressing from the small tapestries he made with a lap loom as a young man in Beirut to the scroll-like horizontal panels of his final years in New York, which combine Spider-Man, Santa Claus, and figures from Japanese prints and Picasso paintings. (Lubow)
718-592-9700, queensmuseum.org

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With Final Gracie Mansion Show, First Lady Aims to Secure Arts Legacy – The New York Times

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With two years left in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, it will be some time before the city’s first family has to pack up and head back to their three-story rowhouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

But Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s wife, is keenly aware of the time remaining — “696 days,” she said in a recent interview — and of the legacy she wants to leave, at least as far as art and culture are concerned.

A big part of that effort has been the exhibitions she has spearheaded at Gracie Mansion, the fourth and last of which opens on Feb. 24: “Catalyst: Art and Social Justice.” Like her other shows in the mayoral residence on East End Avenue, this one emphasizes equity and inclusion, the general priorities of the mayor and first lady.

“When we came here and were surrounded by all these portraits; it wasn’t long before I said, ‘Where are we?’” Ms. McCray said over strong ginger tea in the mansion’s formal dining room. “‘How do we fit in here? Where are the people we know? Where are the people of our city and what do we need to do to really be the people’s house?’”

“Catalyst” looks at transformational New York moments from 1965 to the present, including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and AIDS activism.

“We can’t do everything,” Ms. McCray said. “But I think we’ve done our best to incorporate as much as we can so that people get to see the variety of the activism in our city.”

The nearly 80 works in the exhibition include Martine Fougeron’s portraits of trade workers in the South Bronx (from auto-parts makers to cake-bakers), Diana Davies’s photographs of LGBTQ+ activism and Tania Bruguera’s project on undocumented immigrants.

Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times
Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

The more than 50 artists in the show — including Nari Ward, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson — have strong connections to the city. “I want to make sure we have artists from every borough,” Ms. McCray said. “We want this to be as inclusive an exhibit as possible.”

That emphasis initially caused concern that the administration would neglect or shortchange larger institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center in favor of smaller ones outside Manhattan.

The city, for example, has given bigger funding increases to smaller cultural organizations than to larger institutions to try to level the playing field.

But Ms. McCray said there is more than enough to go around. “We have not put any institution in jeopardy,” she said. “This is a wealthy city and there is no reason why we need to concentrate on anyone. There are no losers here.”

Indeed, the pie has increased overall by more than 35 percent, to about $212 million for fiscal year 2020, up from about $156 million for 2014.

“Despite record funding for culture these last few years, there hasn’t been the sense that the arts are a real passion for the mayor, so it’s a net positive that Chirlane seems to care about these issues,” said Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, chairman of the City Council committee overseeing cultural affairs. “She’s an influential behind-the-scenes player when it comes to fighting for the arts.”

Small arts organizations said there is still progress to be made. “There is a lack of attention and equitable funding to not-for-profit arts and cultural organizations of color,” said Marta Moreno Vega, founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.

Ms. McCray has taken her share of heat in the cultural sphere. Some blame her for the abrupt departure last fall of Tom Finkelpearl, the former cultural affairs commissioner. He resigned amid battles over the city’s rethinking of public monuments to honor more women and people of color, an effort led largely by Ms. McCray’s She Built NYC commission.

“Tom and I got along great,” was all she would say, adding, “From everything I know, it was a mutually agreed upon departure.”

Mr. Finkelpearl said he had a “warm relationship” with Ms. McCray, “who is a strong advocate for arts and culture.”

While the actor Chazz Palminteri called Ms. McCray a “racist” after the city decided not to devote one of its first statues to Mother Cabrini, a patron saint of immigrants, Ms. McCray said “It has nothing to do with her not being worthy.”

That discussion became conflated with her efforts to honor “people who were underrepresented, who had no recognition whatsoever,” she said.

Given the strong feelings around the issues, however, Ms. McCray acknowledged that the public process could use improvement. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who often clashes with the mayor, said the state would commission a Mother Cabrini statue.)

“We need a more coordinated process for statues,” Ms. McCray said. “I’ve been working on that.”

Both the first lady and the mayor have also been criticized for not attending as many cultural events as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did. While Ms. McCray has attended the occasional gala — namely at the Studio Museum of Harlem and Carnegie Hall — she said, “that has not been the top priority on my list — to be seen at things.”

“I’m not that kind of person — I don’t like getting all dressed up,” she added. “I work really hard, so at the end of the day I like to just sit with my husband and watch TV.”

Ms. McCray has faced questions over her stewardship of ThriveNYC, a nearly $1 billion plan that addresses mental illness in the city. The initiative, now in its fifth year, includes dozens of programs across numerous agencies; critics, including some City Council members, have questioned its performance and its spending.

At the same time, Ms. McCray said she is proud of what they have accomplished with CreateNYC, the city’s cultural plan — which linked city funding to diversity requirements — and the Gracie Mansion exhibitions, which helped draw 40,000 visitors to the residence last year, up from 25,000 in 2016.

Jessica Bell Brown, an art historian who curated “Catalyst,” said Ms. McCray “has shown interest in art as a bridge for thinking about social justice — the way in which artists can offer a window into the most important issues of our time.” Ms. Brown also was curator of the first lady’s show, “She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York,” which focused on female and women-identified creators.

Ms. McCray said she was particularly moved by the appreciation of the artists in “She Persists,” some of whom have had “little or no recognition.”

Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, said Ms. McCray’s installations have attracted new audiences and “created the opportunity for a broad range of artists, artistic practices and different visions to be on view.”

Having grown up playing piano, dancing, singing in the school chorus and writing poetry, Ms. McCray — who also oversees the city’s mental health initiative — said she keenly appreciates the value of culture. “I don’t think I’d be alive today if it weren’t for art,” she said. “Everyone needs a healthy way to channel their emotions.”

“Having art,” she added, “makes it possible to live without other things.”

Looking ahead, Ms. McCray has acknowledged that she may consider seeking public office. “It could be something in Albany, it could be Brooklyn, local, citywide,” she told The New York Times in 2018.

One thing her experience in Gracie Mansion has given Ms. McCray is the desire to live with more art when she returns to Brooklyn and to expand beyond paintings “by Dante and Chiara de Blasio” (their now-grown children).

“I can’t afford a Mickalene Thomas; I can’t afford Faith Ringgold,” she continued, “but I’ll do what I can.”

Preceding “She Persists” was the 2015 exhibition “Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York,” which featured 18th-century art, and “New York 1942,” in 2017, which concentrated on Fiorello La Guardia, the first mayor to live at Gracie Mansion.

While the shows are temporary, Ms. McCray said she hopes she has opened a discussion about what art and which artists belong in the mayoral residence. “Whoever lives here next, I challenge them to do more and do better,” she said.

“Our gift — or our legacy,” she added, “is that we showed what is possible.”


Catalyst: Art and Social Justice

Public tours begin Feb. 24 through Aug. 25. Gracie Mansion, East 88th Street and East End Avenue, Manhattan; To reserve an individual or school group tour of Gracie Mansion: 212-676-3060, nyc.gov/gracie tours.

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'Stretched' art show returns to Gabriola Island's Arts and Heritage Centre – Nanaimo News Bulletin

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A broad variety of work on narrow canvases will be on display at the Gabriola Arts and Heritage Centre this weekend as the space welcomes the Stretched art show.

The biennial exhibition kicks off with a wine and cheese reception on Feb. 21 and organizer Gwen Spinks, who has a vertical and horizontal piece in the show, predicts it will be a “zoo” out there.

“Every year we have had a lineup,” she said. “Last year in the first five minutes we sold 10 pieces.”

This year’s show features more than 70 works on six-by-36-inch canvases by 57 adult and 10 youth artists. Aside from “your typical watercolours, oils and acrylics,” Spinks said the show features pieces by artists working with media including glass, fabric and sculpture.

Spinks said she welcomes art by young artists because it’s important to cultivate the next generation. She said “they have to start somewhere” and the Stretched show gives them a chance to take their work seriously.

One of those young artists is Emily Moore, who is showing work along with her grandmother, Maxx Duncalfe. The 12-year-old Nanaimo resident is taking part in her third show, having sold her painting last year. She said it’s “really cool” to see her work hanging in the gallery.

Moore used a paint pouring technique to create her submission for this year, Galaxy Dragon. She said it was challenging working with the long canvas.

“I had to change my idea multiple times,” she said.

“I love what they’ve come up with. They’re amazing,” Spinks said of this year’s youth artists. “Some of the work, you wouldn’t know it was from a kid. They’re just amazing young artists and are keen and so excited. It’s wonderful.”

While she has her regular participants, Spinks said she aims to bring in new people every year. She said some of her artists are professionals and others are hobbyists who are either uninterested or don’t know how to sell their work.

“I have artists that I have to kind of coax along to get them in and to do it because they don’t believe in themselves and they’re some of the best artists,” Spinks said. “I want that cross-section of mediums and of types of artists as far as personality and drive and is it their livelihood or is it just something that they do?”

Spinks said when someone who doesn’t think of themselves as an artist sells one of their pieces, “it changes their world” and the way they see themselves.

“People will tell me, ‘Oh, well, I’m not a real artist’ and it’s like, what constitutes a real artist?” she asked. “If it’s something that you are moved to do, do it. And you’re real because you’re doing it. And so for me it’s about encouraging everybody.”

WHAT’S ON … Stretched – the Art Show comes to the Gabriola Arts and Heritage Centre, 476 South Rd., on Friday, Feb. 21 from 7 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 23 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.



arts@nanaimobulletin.com

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