Opacity was a recurring theme in many artworks on view at Arts in Bushwick during the open studio weekend on Saturday, September 18, and Sunday, September 19.
Every artwork seemed to be in dialogue with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the moment. No diplomat can foresee how wars in Ukraine and Armenia will de-escalate. No doctor fully understands COVID’s longterm effects. No psychologist fully comprehends the PTSD and survivors’ guilt many people have experienced since the pandemic began claiming lives worldwide. No economist can predict inflation and recession. No journalist can stop fake news. This list could go on. In this context, opacity and distortion in art take on new relevance.
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In photographer Savannah Spirit‘s nude self-portraits, Venetian blinds cast patterns across her body. Her body is half shadowed, half illuminated, with her face cut out of the frame. As the artist explained, “I started this work when I was 41. I wanted women to see themselves in these images, and to see their body as beautiful.” Beyond the allure of the striped photographs’ film noir aesthetics, these works probe how clearly or opaquely women’s bodies are perceived and cherished, by themselves and others, as they age.
In her East Williamsburg studio, Christina Sucgang exhibited brightly colored paintings in which chaotic brushstrokes obscure her fluorescent renditions of Old Master paintings. For example, in “Virtue and Vice” (2022), only the heads from Veronese’s original composition peek through. She illustrates how old metaphors for right and wrong, inherited from bygone times, are no longer viable in 2022. It is ironic that this painting of Hercules choosing between two women — personifying Virtue and Vice — eventually came into the hands the union-busting Henry Clay Frick, whose history is checkered at best. Do such Hercules stories actually inspire powerful men to live with integrity? At this point, there is a need for new stories and symbols.
In his Bushwick loft space, the photographer Timothy Murray presents numerous photos from a series documenting 10 years of Brooklyn nightlife. As the artist explained, “I don’t do flash — these cameras finally got so good at low light that I was able to capture candid moments and real emotions.” He takes advantage of these technological advances to capture lights in ways earlier cameras could not. For example, in “About to Kiss Backlit” (2013), a couple goes in for the kiss against the bright glare of a DIY gelled light at an after-hours pop-up party at a Brooklyn bar that the cops soon shut down. The meaning of this ephemeral moment is ambiguous. The blinding light dramatizes the silhouetted figures, drawing us into the hot anticipation, hesitation, and erotically charged uncertainty.
The project space at the back of the Amos Eno gallery featured unorthodox photos Aaron Wilder captured with a vintage 1980s toy camera. Wilder created an entire series of work, entitled Where Is Home, that played with this low-cost camera’s visual anomalies and ruptures, such as distorting straight lines. The pictures record places that hold significance in the artist’s memory, yet he is keenly aware of how memory can distort the past. For instance, the elegant grid of a ropes course at the Castles N’ Coasters theme park in Phoenix, Arizona, appeared wavy and irregular when he developed the film. It’s a fascinating body of work that reflects on the phenomena of distortion in both form and memory.
At his Bushwick studio, multidisciplinary artist Paul Vinet featured a series of self-portraits captured with another broken camera. Its damaged lens resulted in large, swirling distortions that the artist positioned over his face. In many of the images, Vinet wore women’s clothing and a wig. As the artist explained, “For me it was just fun. You don’t have to be a drag queen to talk about identity.” These images respond to Carl Jung’s proposal that men explore their anima, their often repressed feminine side. Jung observed that many men deny certain parts of themselves that they perceive as effeminate. For his healing journey, the artist engages with these parts of the self that can feel hidden and murky. Vinet’s broken camera photos eloquently allegorize this mysterious phase of the individuation process.
Painter Justin Brooks exhibited works in his Bushwick studio that ponder the risks of modern technology, with stylistic allusions to Dutch Old Master painting. In an unfinished 2022 self-portrait in the studio, the painter obscures his vision with a visor from the Resident Evil video game. This portrait indicts technology’s ability to entice us to shut down, and thus miss out on the difficult but rewarding process of self-examination. Does our relationship with technology facilitate or sabotage honest self-reflection?
On a sidewalk in Bushwick, artist Chris of Hur displayed multimedia prints and garments used in digital self-portraits. In one striking set of four images on a clipboard, layers of color obscure the artist’s face. As the artist explained, “I like to call myself an accumulationist — I embrace anything I consider good or useful.” In this work, Chris of Hur reflects on how sometimes we remain beholden to fixed idea about who we are. The work begs the question, are we allowing these uncertain times to add to our psyches, layering something new over our old selves?
In his Bushwick studio space, Daniel Matallana exhibited portraits of Natalia Wowczko submerged in a pond nestled in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. The water obscures our view of Wowczko in an untitled work as she floats just under the surface. This 2020 collaboration explored underwater submersion as a metaphor for feeling trapped amid the pandemic’s uncertainty; as the artist explained, “I wanted to tell a story about being trapped, and then becoming free.” Of course, the figure can choose to come up for air at any point. On the visual level, Wowczko’s body is barely visible through the water. What can be learned from floating in place instead of swimming toward a destination? What can be gleaned from embracing the opacity of being underwater, with all its fear and sublimity?
Photographer Katharina Poblotzki displayed portraits of her friends from unorthodox perspectives and vantage points in her Bushwick studio. The most arresting image was of the artist herself submerged in the Atlantic Ocean just off Cape Cod. This self-portrait was taken in bright daylight to emphasize the ocean’s shimmering surface and the water’s ripples. As she explained, “It has the softness but also the brutality of the currents — you are totally at its mercy — you have to be careful.” For Poblotzki, the ocean is a paradox. On one hand, she experiences the water therapeutically, inspired by recent research about stress relief that occurs on the cellular level when we are entirely submerged. On the other hand, she is cognizant of the risk of drowning. Her work becomes an image of healing as a contact sport, facing the fear to unlock the healing benefits of submersion. Poblotzki’s relationship with water suggests a novel strategy to actively cope with recent uncertainty.
At her home studio in Bushwick, painter Sarah Fuhrman displays intricate, ambiguous landscapes. The meaning of several landmarks and buildings in these surreal landscapes is unclear but they project a wry, charming humor — in one, the video game character Sonic the Hedgehog smirks in a corner. The caption “Bible Games” alludes to an obscure 1990s CD-rom video game based on Biblical stories. Instead of asking viewers to piece together her references, Fuhrman presents a pleasingly abstruse landscape. It is a rare feat when an image can make its own uncertainty funny.
As I wandered through East Williamsburg and Bushwick, it was energizing to encounter so many artistic interpretations on how to more gracefully bear the profound uncertainty and opacity of this moment.
Arts in Bushwick took place September 16-19.