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How to Pick a Tomato

The summer group show at The Painting Center.

“Only regional growers may sell at Greenmarket.  Middlemen or brokers are not allowed.  Fruits and vegetables must be freshly harvested and well-cared-for to assure fresh, high, quality produce.  With few exceptions, all items must be grown, raised or produced by the grower.”

Some days, the act of painting seems so, well, useless.  One is muse-less, headachy, hung-over, or distracted. It is then that I find it useful to pretend that I am a farmer. In my fantasy they get up early, quite early in the morning since the cows have to be milked and the growing season is short.  Seeds have to be in the ground by a certain date proscribed by The Farmer’s Almanac, then crops have to be watered, cut, threshed, plucked, picked, baled, harvested and what have you.  The farmer may feel sort of shitty first thing, but after admiring his or her own land and rubbing a bit of it between thumb and forefinger, the shoulders turn happily to the plow.  I do the same—after all, paintings have to be painted, somebody has to do it or it won’t get done, etc.

In Williamsburg, the city meets the country at The Greenmarket, at the top of McCarren Park on Saturday mornings.  There are two fruit stands with peaches, strawberries, cherries, and apples in season, and a bakery stand.  There was a honey stand, but I just found out they won’t be there for the rest of this season because their bees got a disease and died.  There are also three vegetable stands that are all good including my favorite, Balcomb’s Farm.  They don’t have as much variety as the other stands, but what’s there is choice.  The vegetables are sometimes smaller and taste better.  They have wonderful eggs, but they’re all gone by nine o’clock.  In the early summer, they had three kinds of new potatoes: Russian banana fingerlings, Caribes, and Rote erstlings.  They also have collards, herbs, sugar snaps, flowers, and New Zealand spinach. Later in the summer, they’ll have corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, and zucchini. Sometimes I buy more than I can use because the smell of it all is literally intoxicating.

Although a little knowledge can be dangerous to one’s fantasy life, I asked Ben Balcomb a few questions. He grew up on his farm, which is located in Arkville, NY and was a dairy farm owned by his father and uncle.  He makes his living on it, 70% of which comes from traveling to The Greenmarket twice a week and the rest by selling to commercial buyers.  He works 15 to 16 hours a day and travels three and a half hours each way to come to the city.

Then I asked if he felt contented with his life and sure that he was doing the right thing.  He hemmed and hawed, turned red and admitted to having some doubts and anxieties and finally just laughed.  I made a mental note that farmers neither think about this question nor get asked it as often as painters do.  Ben is a great guy—you should try his stuff.

The Greenmarket is the brainchild of Barry Benepe, an urban planner.  He started it twenty-five years ago to provide a place where New Yorkers could buy vegetables directly from the growers, fresh and in season. Many small farms have been saved and organic farming encouraged by this. It may seem strange, but there are almost no stores that buy produce directly from local farmers. Even in August, the tomatoes in the stores will very likely be from Florida or Holland.

An analogy between painting and farming has its limitations, but what the hell, let’s try it anyway. I like The Painting Center because it reminds me of The Greenmarket. It’s not as glossy, climate-controlled, advertised, or sleek as the Great Supermarkets of Art. It seems more local, organically grown, the paintings are usually smaller and the experience is more about taste. A major difference between a painting and a vegetable is that a good painting takes a while to appreciate. On a second and third visit to the group show at the Painting Center in July, certain of the paintings began to grow on me. Unfortunately, I’m absolutely sure that nobody makes 70% of their income by selling there. Can you help us out here, Mr. Benepe?

It was a big show and I didn’t respond to all of the works in it, but isn’t that the point?  It’s a place where one is not told what to think, but left free to wander around and admire the successes, understand some of the failures, and make those judgments on ones own terms.

Roger Boyce shows a vertical rectangle of raw linen with a rounded keyhole shape in olive green lacquer edged with gold and flat pigment rubbed in a minimal way into the linen. I have no idea where this painting came from, but it’s oddly powerful.

Vanessa Lawrence’s “Tree” is small and thickly painted in olives, umbers, and mauves. It performs the trick of being a bit crude and abstract when seen close up and being quite detailed, with a rugged strength, when seen from a distance. 

At first I dismissed Geoffrey Rogers’ “Untitled” as wallpaper, but then I noticed its beautiful, almost powdery surface, and began to be drawn to its serenity. I was also amused by Catherine Heard’s “Vanitas,” a tiny grisaille painting of a skeleton copulation with a woman who gazes at a skull she’s holding in her hand. Gary Nicols’ “Four Small Landscapes” reminded me of Guston—in a good way.

Usually I like to wind up these serious discussions of art with a recipe (maybe in the next column I’ll try to figure out why). At this time of year, that’s totally unnecessary. You only have to go to the Greenmarket, take your time selecting the best tomato you can find, and eat it like an apple. The real thing, right now, while it’s available.


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