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TINABETH PIÑA: Welcome to Study with the Best,
the magazine show that’s all about CUNY. I’m Tinabeth Piña.
Today’s show highlights the visual arts.
From the subway platforms of New York City to the
deserts of rural Mexico, from the Brazilian favelas in
Queens to a pop-up art shop in Manhattan, we’re looking at
art across the CUNY spectrum.
First up, the Brazilian slums known as favelas have a harsh
reputation but that perception is changing with the help
of Brazilian artists and Queens College.
JOHN COLLINS: What’s behind me is Projeto Morrinho,
the Morrinho Project, which has been called a social
sculpture, in other words a sculpture whose borders between
art and everyday life are not clear. It’s something put
together by a group of artists in the Pereira da Silva
neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. As children, they were living
in their neighborhood at a moment of intense conflict
between drug traffickers and police, and this was an
escape, a way that they could stay safe and enjoy themselves.
What they developed was a role-playing game.
It’s a virtual reality. They used Lego avatars to depict
different archetypes of Rio citizens. People soon began
to notice what they were doing. They appeared on a variety
of Brazilian TV shows, a National Geographic.
They themselves have travelled to Berlin, to London,
to New York, to East Timor. This is their first installation
in the United States, and it’s one that we really prize,
I would say, most of all, in relation to the engagement
between CUNY students and these young people from Rio.
MARY PENA: I was basically part of the whole creation process.
I started painting bricks from the very beginning,
and then assembling them and arranging them.
I didn’t know much about the favelas. I had seen them
depicted in films like City of God. I knew that they are
a social phenomenon in Brazil. From working with the artists,
I just learned that much has changed in their community.
They were like evaluating and interpreting what was
going on in their surroundings through the active play,
as they called it. MOHSHIN CHOWDHURY: Before I was
talking to you about the film City of God, which was my
only impression beforehand of favelas. According to that
film, it’s all violence. These kids who grew up were the
same kids who came here to work with us. I got to work
here on the favelas. I got to build them, I got to paint
them, and I got to know the people who I worked with.
They have kind of a cynical way of looking at things.
They can’t trust the police there, obviously there’s
that but, you know, there’s a kind of
innocence behind it as well. PETER HIMMELMAN: I helped with
the project in many different ways, from the initial stages
of the actual painting of the Brazilian bricks to mixing
the concrete. It’s changed my awareness of favelas. Getting to
meet the people who actually came from favelas, you got to
see what they’re actually like, and they’re actually
just regular people. JOHN COLLINS: Favelas are often
seen as sort of these dangerous or exotic zones
that are outside of the city, and the best sociological
work indicates that in fact they’re essential parts of
the city that are tied in to labor markets and consumption,
and all sorts of politics throughout Rio, and I think that
what they’re doing with this is enacting that message.
MARY PENA: It’s very inspiring that an environment that
we might perceive as being a very violent space,
an impoverished space, that something so creative and
smart and dynamic can come about.
JOHN COLLINS: It recognizes that favelas are places of inequality
and violence and even drug-dealing. It presents a
much more complex picture of the community.
People who live in a neighborhood where there’s
discrimination or poverty are not constantly simply
reacting to that discrimination and poverty.
It’s not like you can explain everything they do through
that but people around the world look for joy, and it’s
not simply an antidote to pain. Oftentimes this is seen
as outside of art, or naïve art, and I think that they
very much reject that designation, that this is
art that is about the core of what it is to be from Rio.
TINABETH PIÑA: Susan Crile is a renowned artist whose work
hangs in the world’s most prestigious museums.
We went to her Manhattan studio to hear more about
her latest work, which she describes as moving between
the folds of beauty and horror.
SUSAN CRILE: My work has been a kind of interweaving over
the years where I pick up a theme, it may disappear for
a while, and then it picks up again in another incarnation
from another angulation. In 1991 when the Gulf War
happened, I had a real break and a shift in my work,
and that’s when the work turned sort of overtly political,
and from that point on until now, I’ve worked in a
bifurcated way. I’m always working on something that has
more to do with the beauty side, whether it’s the fading,
disappearing colors of the walls of Rome, or whether
it’s the sort of ancient, worn tiles and patterns of some of
the great cathedrals in Italy. That sort of gives me a
sense of beauty and that other side while I’m working on 9/11,
the burning oil fields, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib.
There is something to unacceptable that we would
torture people, you know, given all of our rhetoric about
human rights and so forth. The internet really played into
this so much, and I felt that I couldn’t disassociate myself
from those photographs. This man was in
Egypt who was taken off an airplane. It was a
mistaken identity. He was standing on his tiptoes
in that. He would have drowned if he had let go, and that was
testimony that I had read. He finally did get released.
The doctors, psychologists were involved, and complicity
involved in creating the circumstances of what happened
in these black boxes. They figured out what were
the phobias that these men had. These were actually
the size of the black box, and that’s exactly how they fit
into it. I’ve tried to show the distress and the discomfort
of what it must be like to be in a container like that for
hours and hours, and possibly days on end. The metaphor for
me was when I found basically the white line, the chalk line
with all of its associations at a crime scene that’s drawn
on the pavement or whatever, or when there’s an
accident where the body was. I also thought about Pompeii
where what was left after those terrible fires were these voids
of where the human beings had been, and what they then did
was to pour plaster into these voids to recreate the figures
— that sense of the void and of that fragility of what that
line is. The skin is a protection, it’s a major
protection, obviously, for the body, and when someone
is tortured, what happens I believe is that protective layer
is gone. It becomes porous. It becomes no longer there. I
do think that beauty has been an entry point into some of this
more horrific work because if all you see is the horror,
you just automatically turn off. I think that if you can enter
it and then begin to feel and experience the horror, I think
it’s a stronger experience. I need that balance. The
eventual thing that I want to do is to finish the third part,
as I see it, of the trilogy — the first being Abu Ghraib,
the second being Guantanamo, and the third I would like to
investigate the American prison system because I think
they’re all interconnected. They’re all interconnected
with torture, abuse, with rationalization of things
that are simply unacceptable like how can you say that 10,
20, 30 years of solitary confinement is not torture?
I would hope that one is able to connect in with one’s own
experience about what it is to be in pain, what it is to
inflict pain, and to maybe think about it and
feel it in some way. TINABETH PIÑA: LaGuardia
Community College has a new photo exhibit on display
that’s off the beaten path. Rodolfo J. Caballero’s Between
Heaven and Earth captures the harsh reality of the desert
in Northern Mexico as well as the uncommon
occupations of its people. RODOLFO J. CABALLERO: It’s
very emotional for me to see the photographs over here.
When I came here for the very first time and I saw all the
galleries at the Soho and Greenwich Village, the museums,
and I say to myself, “One day you have to show your work
here,” so now I am doing it. You have to be very careful
with these photographs because they are in color, and color can
be tricky. When I use these strong colors, it is because I’m
Mexican and that’s the way I see it, but my photographs
are kind of sad for me because things for all these people
should be better than they are. As far as I can
see, we are not connected to Mother Earth, so to
speak, and because of that, we are not connected to Heaven,
so we are living in the space between. When I think
about it, I say to myself, “What are we doing to survive in
this space?” I can see a lot of struggle in order to
make a living over here. I was driving a
truck with some friends, and in the middle of nowhere,
all of a sudden we saw this cavern, and inside of the
cavern I found this beautiful lady. She made all these basket
in order to get some money for her and for her baby.
It’s a lot of order inside, a lot of beauty, a lot of color,
with the most humble element. This photograph is
from an area of Durango, Durango state, and the name
of the place is Dinamita, like a dynamite, because there
used to be a factory for DuPont but they left, DuPont left, so
it’s now a kind of ghost town, a beautiful place, and I used
to go very often because I found this place very quiet,
very strange. I really liked to be here in the desert. Then
one day all of a sudden from nowhere, this guy appears,
and then he said, “I work here in this quarry getting the
stones to sell it and get some money,” but what really
attracts me was this guy is the same color as the stone.
These guys, they are very, very young, and nevertheless
they are working on their own business, and the business is a
very complex one because they fly balloons. I don’t know how
to fly a balloon but they know. I feel a lot of love from
Mexico because I spent all of my life in Mexico,
seeing the color of the food. Sometimes I feel I miss the
foods, sometimes I miss some friends, some relatives,
and I really miss the color. I really miss the color.
TINABETH PIÑA: A recent exhibition here at the
James Gallery focuses on a realist painter who lived
to be 112 years old. STEPHANIE HACKETT: Theresa
Bernstein was an American artist who lived from 1890 to
2002. We actually believe that she exhibited in every
decade of the 20th century. She paints Gloucester,
Massachusetts, which is where she had a summer home.
She paints daily scenes in New York City including the
elevated trains, people on the street, Suffragette
parades. Theresa Bernstein, I think because of her interest
in scenes of daily life, has been aligned with
the Ashcan School of artists. The Ashcan School wanted to
paint everyday kind of gritty reality, so Theresa Bernstein
would go out on to the street and sketch things, and then
she’d go back into her studio and paint them. With the
vibrancy of color and the types of color she’s used, and the
emotionality to her paintings, I think she can be aligned with
the German expressionists. This is Theresa Bernstein’s
painting Lost from 1920. This one in particular is
extremely autobiographical, directly related to Theresa
Bernstein’s emotions about having lost a daughter. This
is one of the paintings that is very expressionistic in the use
of color and in the brush strokes. She’s trying to show
her emotion through the painting. The window, there
is actually a baby carriage, a woman holding a baby in
front of a house, and then the angel of death here. Then there
is also a small angel here in the vase, and then there is
a vase holding three peaches, which I think you could argue
represents, William Meyerowitz, her husband, the baby, and
Theresa Bernstein, but also the peaches
appear in another painting as representative of the different
stages of life — of youth, maturity, and adulthood. By
looking at an artist like Theresa Bernstein, who made
a very definite choice to stay a realist artist, we can
learn a lot more than we already know. There is so much
art history of the United States, particularly in
the 19th and early 20th century, that we haven’t studied
and that needs to be studied, and by studying Theresa
Bernstein’s life and her career, I think that that
broadens our understanding of our culture.
TINABETH PIÑA: Commuters in the city might not know it but
there is a wide variety of art created by CUNY artists
as part of the MTA’s Arts for Transit Program.
AMY CHENG: I’ve been doing public art commission for about
ten years now. Even though I had never worked with
laminated glass before — they told me it was a laminated
glass project — because it was this fabrication technique,
I could basically make the design as complex as I
wanted to. So then I just thought, well, why don’t I
make it as bright and cheerful and startling as possible.
The panels were installed in the summer of 2012.
I have four laminated glass windscreens. When it was first
installed, people would actually just kind of stop in their
tracks, and a lot of people would look, and some would
photograph, and that was actually — it was just nice to
see that it gave them something. The title of piece is called
Rediscovery. I’m talking about the fact that the world is
magical, and that at one point we discovered this but we
kind of periodically have to rediscover it. My work is very
intricate and ornamented, and I use a lot of pattern
and repetition, and I use a lot of layering. It is in this way
that I get kind of a sense of complexity even though all
the individual elements are very simple. All of the
patterns are basically based on nature. There are a lot of
circles. There are a lot of spirals. There are a lot of
bubbles, dots. I think that the work also just references
a lot of things. It references flowers. It references pearls.
It references fabric. If you look at the station, it’s just a
very functional station. It’s not unattractive but there’s
nothing particularly attractive about it. A little lifting
your day visually is a good thing.
ROBERT HICKMAN: It’s one of the largest subway commissions
in the system. It was a $300,000 commission.
You know, it was originally pitched as a gateway to the
Upper West Side. This is 14 years ago. The Upper West Side
has changed quite a bit in that time. Back in the ’70s, ’80,
Verdi Square was known as Needle Park. Junkies would hang
out there, and they would leave their works, and before we
built that station, it was a rat-infested, not such a nice
place, but I saw that location, Verdi Square, as a departure
point. There were talking about how to bring light down into
the tracks below, how to bring light down into the station.
I said, “You have to use light,” and because I had done so
much studying in how the light would work, I could show them
exactly what it would do. I did my research. I studied the
Crystal Palace, which that design is based on.
I researched Giuseppe Verdi. I researched Rigoletto,
one of his operas. I thought that mosaic, an Italian
tradition, combined with Verdi and his musical scores,
and this notion of Crystal Palace, the train shed —
how can we combine all these together? The whole project
took five years from start to finish. It was so much
pressure. It took a year just to place all the pieces.
The paving around that station matches the pattern that I
created, the quatrefoil pattern that I created in my mosaic.
That artwork, that design, it’s not just the skylight that
I made but it’s the whole Verdi Square. I did the engineering,
and to know that millions of people are walking underneath
my glass, and that it’s safe in addition to beautiful,
it’s a great feeling. For artists, it’s an honor to be a
permanent part of the fabric of New York, to have a piece
that will survive you. It will last much longer than me.
JULES ALLEN: All my life, I grew up watching boxing with my
family on Friday nights in San Francisco. All my father’s
friends would come over on Friday nights, and they would
watch Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, and these guys would
all talk and bet on every round, and talk a lot of trash.
This place is really alive. The magic of it is still here.
MALE 1: What’s your name? JULES ALLEN: Jules Allen.
Iran Barkley: I’m Iran Barkley. JULES ALLEN: No, no, no. Oh, I
saw you fight a lot, man. JULES ALLEN: Yeah, my name is
Jules Allen. I’m a photographer, and I teach at Queensborough
College in New York. I’m interesting in social
aspects, life and living. I like the way people move
in the gym. You have to pay attention and be alert. I like
all the movement of the bags, the rhythm, and I like
the sound of it, you know? It’s beautiful to watch, man.
It’s beautiful to watch. The photographs that I make
are about African-American culture in effect, I mean, being
responsible and mature. I mean, I hate photographs
of black people sitting around being dependent, victimized,
criminalized. I can’t stand that type of imagery. You aren’t
going to shut it down but you can counter it. This is a book
that was shot in Gleason’s Gym between 1983 and
1986 when Gleasons on 30th. The book was published in 2011.
You can’t just walk in here with a camera and start
photographing. You have to be part of the community.
My trainer, Bobby McQuillan, he said, “What do you do?”
And I said, “I photograph,” and he said, “whatever you
do, if you train with me, you’ll be better at it.”
The crazy part is he was right. He improved my focus.
His name is Rodney Watts. I boxed Rodney for three rounds,
and the only reason that I’m here today is Rodney
had mercy on my soul. This is a gentleman, Rocky,
we argued for two years, and I used to mess with him all
the time and tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about.
He raised up his pant leg, and there was a pistol in his ankle,
and I said, “Are you crazy?” We laughed about it but he
carried it everywhere he went. So this is great to see that
this has been able to sustain itself, you know what I mean?
In trying times and troubled times, that this gym is still
holding up and that boxing is embraced this way.
TINABETH PIÑA: Thanks for watching Study with the Best.
For all things CUNY, log onto our website at cuny.tv
or you can Facebook and tweet us. See you next time. Bye.
SUSAN CRILE: I spent I’d say almost ten days in the burning
oil fields so I took about a thousand photographs.
I hadn’t been able to read what I was looking at,
it didn’t make sense, and when I got there I understood
because it was like Mad Max is meeting, you know,
Alice in Wonderland. I mean, everything — the scale,
the dimension of it.