On ViewNewhouse Center For Contemporary Art
August 21 – December 31, 2021
The Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor Cultural Center is part of a vast, venerable, and somewhat unruly complex on the northeast shore of Staten Island. Melissa West, the director of the Newhouse, zoomed in on the site’s history to curate Roots/Anchors, an engrossing, multi-layered exhibition currently on view there. Discovering the 1898 essay “When the Sails are Furled,” by a youthful Theodore Dreiser, Will Corwin gave it to the three other artists in the show—Katie Holten, Shervone Neckles, and Xaviera Simmons—to read as the prompt and backstory for the project. In it, Dreiser, the great American realist, describes Snug Harbor when it was a retirement home for sailors, founded by Robert Richard Randall, whose family fortune derived from maritime ventures. He characterized the sailors who lived there as “vain of their service upon the great waters of the world,” and not always happily retired, despite the comfortable refuge they had been given, yearning for their former life, chafing at old age.
The Newhouse Center, housed in one of the grand Greek Revival buildings at Snug Harbor with its resplendent interior spruced up, is again exhibiting contemporary art under the able direction of Melissa West and deserves more visitors—the exhilarating crossing via ferry might be considered part of the deal. Corwin’s title refers to both roamers and their obverse, homers: anchors that signal the end of a voyage, at least temporarily, and roots that indicate settling, transforming the stranger, the immigrant into the native and the land into home. It seems more pertinent than ever that the show is presided over by the ghosts of retired sailors, as well as by wanderers of all stripes and conditions. Loosely associative, it makes you think of so many things, from the pragmatic to the poetic, from history to the present, from social justice to mercy, from bitterness to beauty, the gyre of its messages wide-ranging.
Neckles, an interdisciplinary artist whose ancestry is Afro-Grenadian and was born in the United States, centers her art on her Caribbean heritage and its rituals and materials. Her themes are those of enslavement, diaspora, and the transitions that occur when cultures collide, implying the voyages that conveyed her ancestors and their customs to this part of the world, but not directly picturing them. Instead, Neckles depicts roots and root systems symbolizing connection and growth, her figurations that of burgeoning pods and silhouettes of fertile women, her visual vocabulary both regional and personalized. Terciopelo: Bush Woman Collar (2016–21), a magisterial garment that is installed on one wall, with splayed roots or branches as its limbs, flanked by a carnivalesque Jab Jab helmet and a conch shell, is a knockout, radiating uncanny power. All of her works here are from two series: “Terciopelo” and “Domiciliation,” and bedecked in the styles of the Caribbean: richly colored, fringed, beaded, embroidered, gilded. Velvet is the luxurious support, the word terciopelo means velvet in Spanish but, double-intended, it is also the name of a venomous viper that is native to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, an image of metamorphosis, evil, and knowledge.
Simmons, another interdisciplinary artist, installed four sleek white monitors in sequence down the Center’s main hall. Called Always the Witness (2021), the videos on the screens shift from an arid landscape, to the body as a kind of landscape, to an abstract animation, to dancers; the narratives oblique, non-didactic. It includes a wall text—she often deploys a verbal component—that refers to the sailors who once lived here, taking a cue from Dreiser and his notion that, while Snug Harbor provided for the old sailors’ bodily comforts, it did not satisfy the longings of their hearts and souls. Her text partially states: “THE SAILOR’S SENSUAL, SEXUAL, AND POLITICAL DESIRES OBSERVED BY THOSE WHO LONG FOR THESE AND EVEN MORE ‘FREEDOMS.’” It introduces desire, movement, and freedom into the conversation and addresses the disparateness, slackness, and tightening of the cumulative untidiness and enigmas of real experience, the political tumbling into the intimate.
Holten, born in Ireland, is a pioneering, dedicated artist of environmental issues. For Snug Harbor, in a room splashed by sunlight the day I was there, she installed a transcription of Dreiser’s text in an alphabet she created from charming, delicately drawn images of wildflowers native to New York City—the first letter of each plant’s name representing a letter of the alphabet—her complete alphabet also on view. The room was draped in two bedsheets and a trio of pillowcases imprinted in a black-and-white floral alphabet, like bedclothes hung to air, and aptly titled Love Letters (Wildflowers) (2021). A takeaway was a limited edition of seed packets, the first letter of the four species of flowers it contained spelled “LOVE,” the artist requesting that they be planted to preserve the city’s indigenous blooms. It felt beguilingly lighthearted, even as it underscores the perilous state of our planet, which artists like Holten have repeatedly, urgently warned us we must address.
Corwin’s installation includes several of his primitively constructed boats of various sizes, some with ladders; a few archaic-looking bowls; and a pair of ship wheels. Made from plaster, sand, or iron, he has casually placed his sculptures on tables, atop blocks on the tables, directly on the floor, and mounted the wheels to the wall. Corwin, who has archeological and archetypal inclinations, conjures the vessels and equipage of early travelers. If, looking at them, you think of Viking ships, so does he, one sculpture referring to The Dig (2021), the recent film about the fabled excavation at Sutton Hoo in England begun in 1938. The presentation suggests a matter-of-fact academic display that is much more compelling for its starkness, the bulky grace of the objects’ presence so forceful no further enhancement is needed. In the context of the overall show, we might think about Dreiser’s seafarers and others who have braved the unknown on trips of discovery. From there, questions about the depredations that inevitably accompanied such explorations arise, as well as colonialism, the appropriation of settled lands, and the current anguish of migrants who have been displaced by global conflict and ecosystem failures. Summarizing the show might be Corwin’s roughly cast helm of iron, gripped by truncated hands. The wheel, arguably our greatest invention, is a succinct image of postlapsarian human progress. We’ve come a long way, it seems to say. Or have we?