Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Once Upon A Time On The Shores Of The Gowanus: Frank Shifreen And "The Monument Redefined " Show


Frank Shifreen
Frank Shifreen's "Nomad": Inside Shifreen's Gowanus Studio
artist: Roberta Williams

artist: Scott Pfaffman
The Public Place, site of the Monument Redefined Show Back in the 80's

Imagine an open air gallery, a sculpture garden where artists can show monumental works of art. Imagine such a thing on the polluted Smith Street and 5th Street Public Site. You are laughing, I know. But long ago, artist/sculptor Frank Shifreen did just that. For just a moment in the Gowanus' history, he transformed the giant lot into the biggest open air art gallery in New York City.

There has been so much talk of late about the future of the Gowanus Canal. The area is ready to become just another high rise, high prized condo neighborhood if our politicians and developers have their way. And with that, we are loosing one more New York City enclave where artists thrived and created. How rich and fertile artistically the shores of the Gowanus were as far back as the early 1980's became clear to me when I received an email from artist Frank Shifreen. Frank used to live near the Gowanus Canal at 3rd and 3rd, in his words "in the greatest (I thought ) loft in the city."

Using this great space, Shifreen started opening his doors and exhibited his works as well as those of fellow artists. By around 1979, these art happenings allowed the creative community to come together and to thrive in the unlikely area around the Gowanus. The shows were such a success that he decided to set his sights on an even bigger space. The heavily polluted "Public Space " site on Smith and Fifth Street was just big enough for what he had in mind. Securing grants from the Brooklyn Council On the Arts, with help from Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation and the Carroll Gardens Association, Shifreen curated the "Monumental Redefined" Show. He asked 150 artists to contribute works, gave each a lot of 20 by 20 foot and turned the 5 acre abandoned lot into the coolest art space. His purpose was to encourage artists to push the limits of public art, to communicate socially and to engage the public. "The ideas I was trying to discuss, art in the community, political art: "messages", not didactic" Shifreen wrote to me in an email.

It must have been quite an event. Hundreds of people came to this remote area of the Gowanus Canal to see the "Monument Redefined Show". It was hailed as the event of the season. For many months, the works of art could be seen from the F train as it came out of the ground at the Carroll Street Station en route to Park Slope. Shifreen wrote that some of the art work was still there until the 1990's.
In addition, Buddy Scotto and James Albano of the Gowanus Community Development Corporation helped sponsor an architectural competition called 'The Gowanus Redefined," one of the only grassroots contests of its kind.

Now, 25 years later, Frank Shifreen is writing his doctoral dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University. He regrets that the show has faded into history, without trace. He wrote: "What I meant was that it is lost in history . If it had been a museum show or in the time of the web it would be logged in and remembered - but since it was before then, it is getting lost in the mists of time...Not only the shows but my own work as an artist seemed to be fading and I felt what I tried to do was important. as an artist and curator."

I agree. It was and is important. Mr. Shifreen seems to be quite a visionary. His work both as an artist and as a curator should be remembered and honored. It is a pity that the weeds on the Public Place site have grown over not only the toxic chemicals that are buried below but over the collective memory of the show. There is no trace of the site's former past as an open air gallery except some pictures and a few articles in the press.

Fascinating history, which needs to be retold, especially since a new chapter for the area of the Gowanus is about to begin. What will be missed more than anything once the lackluster condo buildings replace the open space and the manufacturing buildings on the shores of the canal are the voices and the creativity of all the artists who once lived and worked there. This neighborhood will be far less interesting without them.

Excerpt from the New York Times:

Gallery View; Drawing A Bead On Public Monuments
By GRACE GLUECK , October 3, 1982

The left bank of the Gowanus Canal, an unlovely piece of real estate in South Brooklyn, seems hardly the most propitious site for an outdoor art show. Yet there, at Smith and Fifth Streets, on a five-acre former dump rife with weeds, trash middens and expired auto bodies, blooms the Gowanus Memorial Art Yard. A city-owned facility preempted for the moment by sculptors, it - along with two other indoor locations - serves as a setting for ''The Monument Redefined,'' a vastly ambitious show with more than 150 participants, whose stated aim is to encourage new interpretations of the public monument. 

The show boasts a wild variety of styles and approaches - mostly the work of ''emerging'' artists - in painting, sculpture, installation, performance and video art. And the word ''monument'' is anything but closely construed. Some works mine to the hilt the Yard's potential, such as Joseph Chirchirillo's ''Grizzly Bear Arch II,'' a curving gateway structure assembled of indigenous debris, or Roberta Williams's ''Monument to the American Dream: The Nuclear Family's Last Vacation,'' which uses an old car body to depict a traveling family stopped dead in its tracks by an atomic event. 

Then there are far more formal pieces: Jack Ox's striking ''Bach Cantata No. 80'' (shown at 33 Flatbush Avenue, an indoor site), a large fiberglass pyramid whose sides bear a ''fractured'' image of a monumental building arranged in an architectonic relationship to Bach's music, and Michael Warren Powell's ''Tupid,'' an ingeniously ordered tower of street junk (seen at 111 Willoughby Street, another indoor site) that seems to give a nod to Tatlin's ''Monument to the 3rd International.'' And there are highly specific monument proposals, some serious, such as Boaz Vaadia's ''Monument for Peace -Egypt-Israel,'' a granite-and-limestone obelisk 96 feet high to be set up in the Suez Canal area; and some funny, to wit, ''Monument to Milk and the Family,'' by Dennis Joyce, in the form of a maquette that sets a giant cow atop a platform. The platform is supported by a pompous Ionic column that rests on the backs of two other cows. There's a tiny milk gift shop in the monument's base. (The two are shown at 33 Flatbush Avenue.) 

Frank Shifreen and Scott Siken, the two young sculptors who assembled the show, take the view that public art today has lost its ''content,'' its ''social responsiblity to communicate,'' as they put it. Although recent Federal funding - now cut back, to be sure - has encouraged new and even adventurous approaches to public art, Mr. Siken holds that young artists still have little interest in the monument's possibility: ''They feel unencouraged to extend its boundaries. They see that too many monuments have been imposed without regard to public feeling. But the monument can have a personal presence and also express a community's collective needs.'' He points as evidence to a contemporary Ivory Coast guardian figure in the show whose fertility emblems symbolized life to an entire African community. (Mr. Siken himself has contributed to the show a monument to Terry Fox, the late Canadian athlete who ran one-legged across Canada to raise money for cancer research. ''Gowanee,'' a Mohawk word meaning ''sleeper,'' is the title for Mr. Shifreen's work, a low wall of cement blocks contoured to suggest a recumbent body and the Gowanus Canal.) 

The two men had exhibited in a short-lived Brooklyn exhibition last year, ''Monumental Art,'' organized by Mr. Shifreen and two other artists, Michael Keane and George Moore. That show, they now say, made them realize their concern was not with size but with scope. ''A monument has really nothing to do with size,'' observes Mr. Siken. ''We got the idea of presenting the monument as the visual connection between artists, society and Government. We thought our show should ask the question, what can or should a contemporary monument be?'' 

The two began to organize ''The Monument Redefined'' six months ago, between stints at taxi-driving, construction work and other bread-earning jobs. They got a grant of $1,900 from the Decentralization Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, administered locally by the Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association (BACA), and enlisted the support of two neighborhood groups, the Carroll Gardens Association and the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation. For the last few years, the two groups, with the aid of Federal money, have been actively working to upgrade their neighborhood of tidy row houses and abandoned factories, and to clean up the murky Gowanus, a once-active industrial waterway consigned to smelly stagnation by the decline of barge traffic. Everyone knows by now that artists are good for the neighborhood (so good, in fact, that SoHo outpaced them), and so the show has been welcomed with open arms by the community, which agreed to sponsor an architectural competition with a $1,000 prize to the best proposal for revitalizing the Gowanus Canal section.

To read more about Frank Shifreen, click here , here and here

To read the latest on the proposed development of the Gowanus canal, click here and here


Lisanne said...

Thanks for writing this Katia...it's easy to forget that this area was once loaded with artists,much like soho, tribeca, the east village & williamsburg once was. Although there are still artists here, there is a temporary feeling where everyone has to think about where they are going to move to if they don't own...it's a shame that the beautiful light and big sky aound the Gowanus is going to be blighted with lux developements that will change the character and pace of life of the area.

Anonymous said...

It's great to see that the "Monument Redefined" is getting some air. At the time we  thought that public art would be an essential component of what many of us believed was an ongoing revolution in the arts. That said we now face the realities of our new cultural landscape with few if any of those expectations. And please don't forget Julis Valiunus' "Lizard Mound", it might be the most inmportant work of art produced during that too brief flowering of the public art movement.  Scott Pfaffman