Brooklyn artist LaKela Brown has installed her hip-hop inspired artwork throughout the hidden hallways and art deco lobbies of Rockefeller Center in New York City this summer. This strange and perfect pairing is presented by Art in Focus in partnership with the non-profit Art Production Fund and on view through September 20th.
In addition to finding smart sculpture in pleasantly unexpected spaces, the exhibition is an invitation to enter and explore the lesser-known corners of Rockefeller Center, that frankly, I never knew I could until this program. Though the general public ALWAYS has permission to enter these lesser-known sections of The Rock, this exhibition provides a happy excuse to push the revolving doors into less-tourist’ed sections with the added confidence to linger.
Groups of tourists will stop to photograph the famous 45-foot tall “Atlas” sculpture (1937) by Lee Lawrie & Rene Chambellan on 5th Avenue, but few know that they can jump into the doors behind it. You should. Right now three vitrines on the north side of that lobby hold the beautiful plaster sculptures of LaKela Brown. The gold wall above them, titled “Light and Movement”,was created in 1978 by Michio Ihara. Meant to represent gold falling leaves, the plaster works respond with their own “falling pieces” (pictured below). In the plaster works, the addition of loose “earrings” at the base seem to echo the spirit of falling leaves in the wall above them.
Born in Detroit and currently working in Brooklyn, LaKela Brown presented an exhibition last spring at the closet-sized 56 Henry Gallery (don’t let the size gallery fool you, it’s an unmissable gallery that needs to be on every contemporary art lover’s radar). Many of those works are on display here, now exposed to thousands of unexpecting (if not mildly confused) tourists in a setting that allows for eye-opening pairings that benefit both generations of art.
Brown’s sculpture, which incorporates forms of bamboo hoops, door-knocker earrings, heavy rope chains, and gold-painted casts of her own teeth, are references to African American culture and her personal love of 90’s hip-hop music. In each, Brown visually dances between the mold-like negative impressions of objects and the positive plaster copies OF those same things, all arranged in a bed of white plaster that recalls ancient Egyptian & Greco-Roman reliefs. It’s a strange mash-up of culture and time made even more intriguing by the juxtaposition with (perhaps) the greatest Art Deco monument in the world.
The rest of Brown’s artworks throughout Rockefeller Center are not the physical sculptures themselves, but enlarged photographs OF her sculptures that occupy hallway display cases. My favorite examples reside in the lobby of 10 Rockefeller Plaza (below) – a few steps from the open plaza where the Today Show films poster-wielding fans every morning. Two works by LaKela are featured below the dazzling 1946 mural by Dean Cornwell titled “The History of Transportation“. It features stylized illustrations of vehicles throughout history with a few goddesses thrown in for good measure (one can’t help but envision those female figures donning the hopped gold earrings). The art ALSO pairs with the architecture itself, with the gold hoops in LaKela’s work echoing the round railings and spiral staircase in the middle of the room. YES you can descend those stairs to find shops and coffee shops below ground level.
And if you DO wander into the lower concourse – which is also accessible by simply walking down to the famous ice rink an into any door – more art and visual pairings await.
PERHAPS I’m stretching it here, but I couldn’t help but notice a REAL jewelry display window at the Swarovski Crystal store (they produce the crystal star for the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree) near a massive hallway of LaKela’s work. It’s one of dozens of visual connections made by exploring these hallways. Great art in odd spaces, particularly if it’s new, unexpected and temporary, enhances the perception and comparison to EVERYTHING in between.
If you have kids and live in New York, LaKela Brown HERSELF will be at Rockefeller Center IN PERSON on August 21st from 3:00-5:00 for a free afternoon of art making for children. It’s part of an ongoing free public program called “Art Sundae” created by Art Production Fund and Fort Gansevoort “designed to build confidence in children through art making”. My younger self is envious of this amazing opportunity to create kid-versions of her sculpture with the provided materials while receiving guidance/inspiration from the artist herself in this surreal setting. Show up on 8/21 at 3pm on the Concourse Level (below ground) across from Starbucks – Reservations are not required.
WHAT: LaKela Brown at Rockefeller Center
WHEN: July 25 – September 20, 2019
WHERE: Various locations throughout Rockefeller Center, New York
Here’s the map to make sure you’ve hit them all: Street Level and Concourse Level)
Exterior Images of Rockefeller Center photographed by the author David Behringer.