Is this love Is this love
Is this love Is this love — that I’m feeling?
“It hurts me to my heart, to see you like this…” — Sekou Sundiata, Harlem, A Letter Home (excerpt)
For K*, B*, K!, L* (and M*)
(After Miles Greenberg, Louise Bourgeios and Yoko Ono’s show at FAURSCHOU. (I’m using the artists’ first names to indicate the intimate intention of the work to the viewer and in respect.)
Fashionably on time after deciding on a few effort-but-not-trying-too-hard outfits, I zip into a car and slow down in the mid-hour, rush-hour traffic. The driver and I talk electric vehicles, Tesla pre-deep end Musk, and the restrictions, of plug in stations in NYC, if you’re an apartment-dweller like most of the city’s denizens.
This is a beautiful New York day. The air is still got a bit of a bite but doesn’t threaten much, kind of like me, I guess. Before I can even go into the show, there’s a doorman who has his locked hair braided in a bun with shaved sides. My locked braided bun is in the back of my head wrapped in a scarf with just enough to peek through to show how much hair is there. Animal print wrap, animal print blouse, black slacks and slip on shoes.
The guy who’s job it is to open doors is wearing high fashion Valentino kicks that I’d taken to be McQueen. I see him the way I’d see Michael Bramwell years ago, who’s made this point clear, what real workaday performance is.
I don’t go to very many art shows in Williamsburg. I don’t go to many art shows period, but I don’t go to “arty art” shows least frequently of all. The last one I went to before this was of AJ’s (Arthur Jafa’s) almost a year ago in Harlem, Black fab on display and that was just the attendees. This will likely be the parallel universe of that vibe, I figure.
I take a walk around, it’s not too crowded and my name is checked at the door. To the left there’s an open book that I thought was for signing, but I’d get to that later.
I’m in a big space next, huge. Miles’. To the left, people milling. To the right, a plexiglass box. Looks like two sculptures of Black people. Their skin was complementary and almost uniform. Lifelike sculptures. “That is so beautiful,” I said as I got closer. They were both nude except for Spanx bottoms. I noticed their glassy eyes. What’s that mean? Then they began to move. Real life sculptures. One gazed water with their foot. My whole sense shifts with them.
Everything becomes sharp relief, like when I found myself in an after-earthquake tremor in 1993 LA. Here, I noticed how far away everyone else was, in shadow, beyond the pool of the light above the pair holding onto each other. Besides K,* door dutiful outside (and two someones far apart in the shadows inside) at a glance, I didn’t see anybody obviously Black except me and the pair in the box.
The existence of the two pushed everyone to the less-lit depths, even as the room began to crowd. All the eyes looking, looking away. The pair unseeing, in what I later found out were white contact lenses. Being seen but could not look back, stare down. I circled the square as if it was some strange teetotum, or like that moving cube outside of the Astor Place train station, something opposite of playing. I had to go into the next room fleet-footed.
Rowed small things in a bright room along the wall. Coffins in rows along the floor. Coffins with young trees peeking through, small vials of water with Japanese-writing labels that I could not make out. The water was different in each one. Made me think of David Hammons’ work with little bugs, in Tokyo (by my quarter-century recollection). I got to see it before the art review of the work alerted people there about the live element and it was removed. I’m hedging: I think that was what it was back then. What we see in our mind’s eye can be flawed but still real.
The vials in Yoko’s room, the coffins, seemed to do something to Miles’ two Black people under glass. All the rooms were white. Were the pine boxes calling the two holding each other? The roots of the trees had more privacy than the panopticoned living selves being shown, just on the other side. Oh. oh.
The strongest lighting was Louise’s: There, shapes shaped unexpectedly. One bright pink-some other-familial thing haunched. One suspended white sculpture with a few large holes left two shadows as if there was another invisible sculpture naked to the eye yet revealing it’s footprint. A secret. Another giant piece that I associated with my grandmother’s brass hot comb, blackened over the years with her use of vaseline on so many heads. This giant Bourgeios piece, that I overlaid with my 5 year old pulled Easter flip ‘do recall, was pristine.
My heart began to speed. I raced outside. Something twitched it somehow. The aggregation: naked Black bodies being looked upon, labeled vials, coffins, distended forms, unseen specters. I needed air and reassurance. I found out the door person was named K* after I was trying to make sense of this feeling. The way we have to head nod to each other when we are the ones *seeing* each other. Is it me or is the box a block? Is the rock they’re reposing on a block? I needed free air. Oh love. The constraint of those stares. Was it me? Was I trying to hear a whisper? Was I whispering one? Ghost in glassy eyes? Trying too hard to sense something?
A lovely person comes outside and sees me as I talk to K* and he sagely perceives. A professional, even at this temporary job. A lovely person comes out to greet me and she now makes two nice people speaking to me: her and K*. (I’m not so lovely, more internally estranged.) She knows me from an online class and greets me sweetly. A gallery PR person. Her kindness mistakenly encourages me. I rummage words how I feel, how I felt. How much I feel nuded by my heart-on-sleeve revealing exposure, tied to Black people under magnified glass. Outside and in, nerves edged, people in the box being seen in high relief and therefore, so am I in the not-Black setting. Oysters passed around naked us, coffins and things.
Am I trapping someone, some place with this energy? Am I expanding hurt? Am I being just?
The air in Williamsburg is not the Brooklyn air I was raised with, nor the air I breathe in the section that I’ve settled into over the years but the air was freer because I could look around, because I chose where I walked and stood, because, by standing with K*, no one knew who I was for better or worse: artist or the help.
Am I standing up for myself? K=, another Black woman comes out. We had met just last week at a show I performed with another Black artist. She was asking the same questions. She, me and K* around talking. She asked Miles about the work because she felt conflicted, because we felt some of the same things, because. She showed me another work of his at Pace. Black people standing on a pedestal, leaning on each other and facing each other. Eyes whited out, dyed work and an expanded pool that was not enclosed. They were on display but something on her phone about it, piercing the fourth dimension, made the two Black people on that square feel more Black-powered at my distance.
She noted that one of the models/Black people at the show on the other side of the wall of us now, was larger and how the larger Black body coded female has a precedence in the “mammy” trope by White audiences. K= felt a kind of way about it and after we exchanged emails, she split. I never found out what Miles said to her, but was it for me to know? Can a Brooklynite mind her business? I saw a blurry picture of Miles on K!’s phone before she left. A young Black male presenting artist with box braids. Could’ve easily come across as a sharp student of mine.
There’s this other guy talking, outside clearly an art star. He gives off cool vibe, sure, but it’s the way he creates satellites of other people that’s the tell. I know him. I’m talking to K*, another tall Black man but I know this other guy. Did I meet him at AJ’s thing? I’m searching for another Black community out here in the street, outside of the walls.
A woman is walking down the street and pauses, from the neighborhood probably but just happened to walk down that street. She says: “Is that really true? Is there really a Louise Bourgeois show in there?” I said. “Yep. You want to see it? Just say you’re a guest of mine when they sign you at the door (I say my name) and go in.” She says thank you, thank you. I figure: anyone who knows who Bourgeois and happens to walk past this gallery and wants to see her work, should see her work. And who wouldn’t want to see the work of this great artist? That brilliance?
I say: “Hey. I know you.” I’ve introduced myself to strangers since I was a little kid. It became a concern, my random hellos to unknowns in cars waiting for their spouses at the train station. My family meets and says, “No. You have to be careful, Tracie.” This isn’t that Brooklyn of my past either.
I know *this* guy. He knows me. Calls me by name. B*. Seems we met eons ago at a Black proto-organization when we were youngerlings. A brief catch up. He felt a kind of way about the Miles display too but B* was further in the art world cool. He was trying to suss it out. As we’re figuring, another person joins us and asks us what we think. I had noticed her hair cut when I was circling inside, simple but perfectly framing her face before as I re-rounded the hugging two under lights.
She, L*, is grown-elegant and another person of color. We talked and I felt more myself in light of these inquiries, questions. “Would this work in Harlem?” L* asks. The feelers, feelings being put out. Something palpable. We communed. Holding onto each other through our sense of wander, exposure.
As we chatted a young Black man came out, looking art cute minimalist; black slacks and shoes, blazer. White tee-shirt and a groovy kerchief in the back pocket. I liked his look and said so, part of my greeting randomly. He said thanks. Someone outside with a camera was shooting the scene in the front. The flyboy went down the block as if walking on air. K* noticed that he dropped the paisley scarf a bit down the street, called out to its owner to pick it up. He yelled thanks. I joked “You know I would’ve taken that!” I grin-stated. “We’re not by ourselves out here.” was probably my subtext.
“That’s Miles.” L*, my lovely coiffed new-friend said.
Some things are clear in certain moments. Clarity can be calming. One thing I knew is that I was not going to “go in” on this young person, just starting to really imprint his mark, his art. How dare I? I felt the need to protect him too. (Even I realize this is a lot, but still, we are all on the edge.)
I felt ready to go back inside, to make sure of myself. I went back to the box and wanted to say: “You’re not alone. I see you.” I didn’t. I could’ve but then would I be making their work about me? Grandstanding to two? Do they get a choice? Do they deserve the respect of non-interaction like White models might have? I had to ask myself if I would have felt the same way if they weren’t Black subjects/objects. Can they just “be?” But knowing myself, I’d say the same thing because my empathy of Black plights helps me to see it for others, at least I’m trying to.
On the other hand, White subjects tend to be taken as individual, not emblematic. That’s the long-standing superstructure beaming our eyes so it’s not the same, we’re not all interchangeable. And we can all see this. I wanted to protect those two the second time I rotated around them. That’s when I knew, I was feeling something besides objective understanding of art. I wanted for them to have safety.
The Yoko and Louise rooms continue to heighten each other, and Miles’. I feel that thing bubbling up that I couldn’t shake. I make my final turn around and go to the signing book, not knowing what I’ll make of the remarks, what I might say. Turns out it was not a signing book (the name checkers using iPads to confirm me at the outset should’ve been a clue to my Luddite self). The book was a review copy of some of Yoko Ono’s sincere life’s work. So lovely. Someone who has seen it all, and thrives. I’m still in a weird way but appreciative. Both the book and the stranger seeing Bourgeois on my “dime” help me to separate what I realized I’d made one exhibition in my mind. They were connected in my feelings but they were their own people, their own artistry was distinct. As I left the book, I was getting rooted back to my discrete self.
Outside the gallery for the last time today, the temperature had dropped. K* and I exchanged emails when I confirmed the first feelings I’d had stayed with me. He shared some of his art, stories as someone who didn’t want to be two-dimensional anywhere, as he beckoned people in.
Cooling, I started to shiver. K* told me where the train was. As the sun set, it’s as if everyone, everything was in high relief. The ad in the G train station for a weight loss injection, here in the land of self-conscious models and actors, horrified me. The placement encouraging the constant display of subway riders, in each of their home mirrors. Surrounding grey MTA aesthetics, like the literal NYC streets, don’t change much, as Mierle Laderman Ukeles has noted for decades. New Yorkers across the board see the city for what it really is, embrace it, seek to reconcile the grime, the grind, the grand.
I caught the crosstown and the ads for tinder in the car seemed even brighter than their usual Dayglo concepts. A woman offers to help me find my way as I look at the subway map over her shoulder. I’m a Brooklynite I said, I just wanted to count the stops. She points to the LED above where I was sitting and there were the names and countdown numbers in bright green. I smiled that I missed that, just above my head, but more because she wanted to help me. A kind person.
I finally stopped at the one taco truck near my house. They have no truck competition in this area and I figured I’d give it a try. Fellow burrito-expectant New Yorkers looking to see who got their food next, ensuring that by placing my order in Spanish I didn’t secretly jump the line. I love these NYCers out here.
I wait for a torta and a bald Black woman wearing a trench coat is arm in arm with a spritely, elderly woman whom she seems to be caring for. The older woman has pep yet takes the time she likes to enjoy the stroll as she is supported. They pass the street light above the large taco truck, then beyond the edge of the bumper a few yards down. The bald woman made me remember how the Black pair in lucite had arms in synch. How the pool of light almost everyone hid from, amplified the glow of their perfect complexions, illuminating.
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