Trent’s Top Gallery Picks—November 2010

Alicia Ross’ “Phrenology Study of Miley Cyrus,” 2010. Cross-stitch on canvas in oval.  courtesy of the artist and Black & White Gallery/Project Space.

Charles Koegel’s “Highrise of Homes,” 2009. Pencil and watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Slate Gallery

Slate Gallery, 136 Wythe Ave., through 12/19

This series of fantastical watercolor drawings and semi-abstract paintings brings a fresh sensibility to the issue of architectural reincarnation. As a child in SoHo in the 1980s, Charles Koegel grew up in the midst of intense neighborhood transformation. Now a Brooklynite, he is displeased with how the borough’s skyline has been mutating: low-rise family homes are out, skyscraping glass towers are in. Two of his watercolor drawings seek to alter this trend by stacking siding-clad houses on top of one another—buildings as building blocks—in a satirical mimicry of high-rise living.

Koegel’s paintings on canvas take a more nuanced approach to the life and death of structures. For the piece “In Bloom,” thick layers of oil, acrylic, and spray paint are made to resemble old boards, with cracks revealing other colors (past lives), as well as faded wallpaper and comic strips, beneath the surface. Tufts of grass grow along the creases of the trompe l’oeil boards. The work celebrates the ravaging acts of time and nature, which are constantly laboring to make artificial environs natural again.

Alicia Ross’ “Phrenology Study of Miley Cyrus,” 2010. Cross-stitch on canvas in oval. courtesy of the artist and Black & White Gallery/Project Space.

Black & White Gallery, 483 Driggs Ave., through 11/21

Alicia Ross takes the folksy art form of cross-stitching to a whole new level of kitsch. Absent are fluffy kittens and cozy cottages. Present are the queens of tabloid culture—Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Kate Gosslin, Octomom, et al.—in needlework portraits culled from the Internet and collectively titled “Phrenology Studies.”

Ross’s innovative style is anything but old-fashioned. Her embroidery combines photorealism with threaded lines and pixels to give the headshots an unfinished (or unraveling) bitmap quality. By employing the earnest medium of cross-stitching, the portraits simultaneously counteract the phoniness of celebrity hype and call to mind an obsessive female fan.

Near the rear of the gallery hangs the Holy Grail of tabloid snapshots—Britney Spears’s hairless crotch, which a paparazzo captured as Spears climbed out of a car. Ross has placed a gaudy gold frame around an enlarged digital print of the photo and titled it “The Origin of the World (Britney),” a riff on Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting of the same name. All this pomposity heightens the importance of the image (and Spears’s vagina) to religious proportions, but the piece distracts from the narrative thread of the skillful embroidery works.

Real Fine Arts, 673 Meeker Ave., through 12/19

Antek Walczak’s “Let’s h ar i fo N w Y k,” 2010. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Real Fine Arts

“Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z is the New York City anthem for the 21st century. But Antek Walczak, in his collection of text paintings titled “Empire State of Machine Mind,” perceives the song as a stream of formulaic recurrences. The paintings spell out the song’s chorus in black sans-serif letters on whitewashed canvas and convert the lyrics into a sort of puzzle. Repeating letters, words, and phrases have been removed and replaced by empty bubbles, while arrows indicate where repetitions appear elsewhere.

These simple yet highly original paintings require a few minutes to fully decode if you don’t have the song memorized. Your eyes dart across the canvas as you follow the arrows and try to piece together the lyrics. However, the artist did not conceive the works as mere word games; they symbolize the shortcuts used by data compression schemes. Walczak shows us what communication looks like in the “minds” of our hard drives.

Combo Plate of Consciousness and Activism

composting north brooklyn

By Lisette Johnson

Of the 250 million tons of trash generated by Americans in 2008, only 83 million of it was recycled or composted. Yard trimmings and food scraps—stuff farmers have used to enrich their fields for generations—constituted over 25 percent of municipal solid waste nationwide in the same year. The idea of recycling has become ubiquitous to most New Yorkers; fines are issued for failure to comply and public recycling bins are starting to pop up around the City. And though New Yorkers can count themselves as some of the most Earth-conscious urbanites on the planet (New Yorkers statistically have some of the tiniest carbon footprints in America), most of us do not compost.

The effects of eight million people not composting are compounded by the fact that, according to Kate Zidar, founder of the North Brooklyn Compost Project, New York is the largest waste-exporting state in the country. Before the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island closed in 2001, it was the largest landfill in the world, taking in roughly 13,000 tons of garbage every day. Since then, most of the City’s waste has been shipped to remote landfills as far as Pennsylvania and Virginia. Throwing away food scraps, then, contributes not only to the pollution caused by greenhouse gases emitted by landfills, but also to emissions from the trucks.

Yet for Zidar, composting is about more than saving the planet. Reducing her personal contribution to the garbage system is a primary motivation, but so is the prospect of running a cleaner kitchen. “To me, putting my food scraps in the garbage is gross,” she says, in part because rats and vermin are attracted to it. “My garbage doesn’t stink. I don’t have a concern for pests in the kitchen. The traditional way of handling food waste provides a basic support for the rat and roach population in New York,” she says.

Red Wiggler worms, the magic ingredient in composting. Photo by Lisette Johnson

Zidar founded the North Brooklyn Compost Project in 2004. Every Saturday, from spring until October, Zidar and project volunteers collect organic waste from North Brooklyn residents in a small corner of McCarren Park. There are about ten large rat-proof compost bins, constructed by members. “The overarching goal, the idea of the drop-off bins, is to get people in the habit of not putting their food waste in the garbage,” says Zidar. The project shows people how minimal the work is to participate, and that composting is far from a rotten process. October 30th marked the last day of drop-off operations for 2010, but for Zidar, and compost-conscious Brooklynites, the days of pest-free kitchens aren’t over. The best bet for winter composting, which Zidar demonstrated on the 30th, is vermicomposting, an indoor-friendly composting process carried out in the bellies of red worms.

It’s easy to set up a vermicompost system in a Brooklyn apartment, regardless of how tiny your kitchen is. It’s made for speedy breakdown of organic waste, and for compact living. You’ll first need a ventilated container. The Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESEC) sells tubs especially for the process, which cost $55, including worms. A standard waterproof storage bin will work as well. You’ll need to poke large holes (with screens) at the top, and small holes in the bottom for drainage. “The worms don’t like it when it’s too wet in their house,” says Zidar. She has hers in a milk crate lined with newspaper that soaks up any of the drainage, which is, again, minimal. There’s no need to worry about messing up your kitchen with compost run-off while operating a vermicompost system.

The first step is to add brown matter to the bin. Brown matter is rich in carbon and serves as food for bacteria. For urban composting, newspaper scraps (from newspapers, not glossy magazines) are the most common and simple form of brown matter. Food scraps are considered green matter, which is full of moisture-rich nitrogen. The trick is to add brown mater whenever you add green. If the bin starts to get full, push all the compost to one side, and fill the vacant side with brown matter to start again. Successful composting is all about keeping the carbon and nitrogen ratios relatively even.

The magic ingredient is the worms. They work so quickly that the compost will not need to be harvested (the bin will not need to be emptied) for anywhere from six to nine months. Zidar rather likes the idea of keeping such strange pets, though they never leave her composting system. Composting occurs in the gut tubes of the worms, which manage to pack away half their bodyweight in food every day. The three factors that can negatively affect these strange pets are heat, flooding, and acidity. Worms can be obtained from the LESEC, or harvested (as they were on the 30th) from last year’s compost. They can also be bought at bait shops in or just outside the City. And, of course, they can be found on sidewalks after a heavy autumn rain.

If keeping worms in your kitchen isn’t your thing—even though it’s sanitary and both pest- and pet-resistant—and you want to compost anyway, there are other ways to do it. If you’re in the habit of freezing or keeping food scraps and dropping them off, and want to continue doing so, your best bet is to take them to the Lower East Side Ecology Center drop-off. Founded in 1987, the LESEC runs a community compost drop-off at the Union Square Greenmarket every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday all year long. Aurelia Kaelin, who works the stand, says that every day about ten new people drop off their organic waste. “Maybe five of those new people adopt the habit,” she says.

According to a LESEC survey, in 2009 about 1,000 households were dropping off compost at Union Square, but this year the number spiked to 1,500 households per week. The organization collects roughly four tons of food scraps per week, and though most of the people who drop off live in the Union Square or East Village areas, there are participants from all five boroughs (the second highest number of people are coming from Brooklyn), New Jersey, and Connecticut.

If trekking last night’s dinner to Manhattan doesn’t interest most Brooklynites, there are yet more options. Over 20 organizations and community gardens operate compost drop-offs, in all areas of Brooklyn. Some, like the NBCP, are seasonal, but many are in operation whenever the garden is open. The 6th Avenue and 15th Street Community Garden in Park Slope is one such location, and is currently developing a 24?/?7 drop-off program. The garden will be accepting yard trimmings every weekend in November. To find a program that’s convenient for you, check out the NYC Compost Project (via the “Composting in NYC” tab on, which has links and contact information for programs in every borough. Two in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint vicinity worth checking out are the Bushwick City Farm and Earth Matter Bushwick Composting.

Psychedelic Resonance—The Art of Fred Tomaselli

Screen shot 2010-11-19 at 10.26.13 PM

“Echo, Wow and Flutter,” 2000.Leaves, pills, photocollage, acrylic, resin on wood panel 84 × 120 inches. Copyright the artist Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

by Robert Egert

I first met Fred Tomaselli in the early 1990s, after he moved to Brooklyn from the West Coast and established a studio in Williamsburg. Word was out about his densely crafted paintings with psychotropic drugs embedded in resin. Flash forward to a hot summer evening in 2010, when Tomaselli took time to discuss his work, its influences, and his mid-career survey at the Brooklyn Museum.

I met Tomaselli in his second-floor studio, where the walls were hung with paintings ranging from finished ones completed in the early 1990s to a piece still in-progress. On a work table nearby sat a scale model of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition space, with postage stamp sized repro ductions of his paintings.

Tomaselli has a highly developed style that is unique enough to be immediately recognizable, yet broad enough to accommodate his diverse and fluid interests. His paintings use pills, leaves, and found images encapsulated behind a thick layer of resin, but his references go way beyond the specific materials. A closer look at his work reads like an encyclopedia of scientific, medical, and social topics. Viewed at once, as we have the opportunity to do at the Brooklyn Museum survey, we can see his ability to use his method of making art to synthesize ideas from diverse disciplines and cultures.

Among Tomaselli’s antecedents are the obvious ones, such as Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, (best known for his anthropomorphic still life paintings where a multitude of fruits, vegetables, books or flowers combine to resemble human portraits), or Buddhist devotional images known as thangka, which prefigure the dense but shallow space of Tomaselli’s work. Less obvious are the contemporary influences such as 1960s op-art artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Victor Vasarely, whose shimmering surfaces are always in tension with the three-dimensional, illusionary space they produce. Among his contemporaries, it is not difficult to find examples of shared concerns and common imagery: Damien Hirst’s butterflies, Roxy Paine’s conjoined trees, and Philip Taaffe’s layered cosmologies are some that come to mind.

Buddhist Thangka

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's "Earth" ca. 1570

Tomaselli’s images inhabit a shallow space exploring the tension between real embedded objects and the illusions they project. His approach is highly detailed and encyclo pedic. But despite the visual complexity of the work for which he has become best known—composed primarily since the early 90s—his earlier pieces are quite different. For example, his work from the 1980s is visually simpler by comparison and is rooted in conceptual art and site-specific installation. In fact, some of the pieces from that period might be described as parodies of minimalism—geometric paintings executed with lines of pharmaceutical pills instead of lines of paint; three-dimensional assemblages where meaning is located in the actual objects and not with the illusion they produce. Premeditated and planned, as Tomaselli recounts, “I was executing my work vs. arriving at it.”

Over time his work has come to embrace illusion, as well as risks associated with creating paintings without a plan. This practice puts Tomaselli in the company of traditional painters, and while he still incorporates real objects into the painted surface, the pieces rely more upon emergent illusion and Mnemosyne than on the quick one-liner that can only be understood by the art insider. Tomaselli describes the path to his current work as one where he “started adding landscapes and figures and all sorts of things until, finally, it felt like I could do anything I wanted to do,” and ultimately led to “a kind of free-for-all.”

"Night Music for Raptors," 2010 Photo collage, acrylic and resin on wood panel 84 X 60 inches Copyright the artist Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Two things that make Tomaselli’s work stand apart from many of his contemporaries is how it has grown broader and more inclusive over time (many artists seem to get narrower in their interests as they mature), and its accessibility to people outside the art world.

Any discussion of Tomaselli’s work has to acknowledge his interest in psychedelia and psychedelic imagery. His use of pills, pot leaves, and other psychotropic substances in his paintings was instrumental in clearly telegraphing meaning by using the object to demonstrate intent rather than illustrate or allude to it.

Tomaselli’s scope has expanded beyond pills and pot to embrace other vectors in the life of the mind. And as his interests have expanded, he’s broadened his vocabulary of supporting images and objects to include scientific illustration, nature guides—especially ornithology—anatomical drawing, and other illustrations based on the observation of nature. These interests are apparent in the range of his work, including pieces on display at the Brooklyn Museum. For example, The Big Eye (2009), ex plores spirituality as seen in meditative and devotional images. In Eastern Empidonax Flycatchers (2010), we see a documentation of natural variations. And Echo, Wow, and Flutter (2000) reveal the unexpected result of the visualization of audio phenomena.

To understand how Tomaselli has been able to take his initial interest in drug culture and stoner head tripping and enlarge it to accommodate such diverse domains of knowledge as ornithology, human anatomy, insect morphology, and the graphic representation of sound, it is useful to look beyond his use of collage and resin.

"Mar. 26, 2009," 2010 Gouache on printed watercolor paper 8 1/4 X 10 1/2 inches Copyright the artist Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

In the 1960s Arthur Koestler proposed the concept of the holon to describe something that is simultaneously a whole in itself as well as a part of a larger, more complex entity. According to his theory, any subject—whether it is a specific society, an ecosystem, or natural phenome non—can be understood as a stack of ever more complex holons. Each holon is a temporary island of stasis in a transient and dynamic world. Tomaselli’s paintings would serve well as a demonstration of this theory, not only in terms of order out of complexity, but also in the range of subjects to which it can apply: a thousand butterfly wing variations assemble to form a single, giant wing; a motley collection of human parts assemble to form a single large human body.

Eastern Empidonax Flycatchers, 2010 Collage on paper 9 X 6 inches Copyright the artist Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai

Tomaselli’s process is also intimately connected to the practice of collecting. Although typically categorized as a hobby, the first collectors were naturalists, tagging along on missions to far flung locations and drawing or pre­serving the natural variations found in remote, otherwise inaccessible locations. Integral to collecting are the prin ciples of organization and cataloging. Like the collector’s Cabinet of Curiousities, Tomaselli’s paintings fuse the cataloging of variations, the ordering of multiples, and the display of the results with an effect that transcends the rational ordering of knowledge.

The result makes photographic reproductions of his work deceptively inadequate. The work operates differently depending on your distance from it. This phenomenon, along with the visual effect of resin overlay, makes it essential to experience these pieces in-person. For example, what appears at a distance to be a bird might be composed of hundreds of miniscule bird wings. Besides the obvious psychedelic trope, this effect gets really interesting when the license is extended to allow both the constituents and the results to exist simultaneously, as in Organism (2005), or Blue Geode (2007). In these works, there is the tension between the view from across the room and what is seen at close inspection, resulting in an effect similar to the best stage design: a fusion of illusion and the mechanism used to support it.

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