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The sheer scope of "Open House: Working in Brooklyn" demands a mentally and physically exhausting - but spiritually exhilarating - trek across two floors of the museum (and a scavenger hunt of sorts throughout the rest of the institution) to see nearly 300 works of art by 198 Brooklyn artists.

"Open House" is as controversial, and at times, as confrontational, as "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," which, by the way, curator Charlotta Kotik also helmed. For evidence of my theory, examine the heap of mixed materials installed outside, against the backside of the museum, by Jesse Bercowetz and Matt Bua (one of the many scattered, satellite installations); or the arrangement of clipped fingernails by Maria Elena Gonzalez; or John Klima’s children’s-size helicopter featuring a video game with Osama Bin Laden in its crosshairs; or an enormous installation of hair and glue by Wenda Gu running down a stairwell.

All of the artworks were created after 2000, so the exhibit could easily have been named "Brooklyn NOW!" But the art isn’t just timely; many are timeless in their appeal and made the cut after careful consideration by Kotik.

Today, the Brooklyn Museum estimates that there are 5,000 artists and 50 galleries in this borough. From this large pool, Kotik culled just a few hundred works by established artists such as painter Danny Simmons and sculptor Louise Bourgeois as well as many emerging artists.

While this commitment to the borough’s creative community may seem unprecedented, the museum has supported local artists throughout its history. The museum inaugurated the "Working in Brooklyn" series in 1985, and in the 1930s, the museum actually had a Gallery for Living Artists. "Open House," however, is the largest and most ambitious showcase of Brooklyn artists yet.

It would be impossible to look at this show and make generalizations about what Brooklyn’s contemporary artists have in common aesthetically. If anything, the sheer volume of artwork only serves to demonstrate the diversity of perspectives. In "Open House" there are natives of Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and even Jersey City.

Remember me

But for this viewer, it was often the contributions exploring African-American heritage and identity that had a visceral impact.

Williamsburg artist Lorenzo Pace offers an intimate look into his own family’s history with his multimedia work, "Jalani and the Lock Family History Tree" (2004), which tells the story of his inheritance of a padlock that once chained his enslaved great great grandfather. Against a backdrop of electric orange, Pace has painted a family tree and mounted photos of his family, and the lock itself, in gilt frames.

His illustrated book about how this troubling piece of metal came to his family is displayed within a child’s reach. The base of the artwork is a white picket fence - a symbol of the American dream that was not to be for the men and women brought here in chains - behind which are strewn artificial flowers and toys. The colors and the book are meant to lure youngsters, Pace told GO Brooklyn, so that this chapter of America’s history will not be forgotten.

His installation also displays a model of the granite sculpture he designed for "Triumph of the Human Spirit (1992-2000)," a monument installed at the African Burial Ground, in Lower Manhattan.

Kambui Olujimi’s "Something Like a Phenemonon" (2002) also brings past and present together in his black-on-white digital collage. In the lower left of the composition, a familiar, small figure leaps to put a basketball through a hoop. In stark contrast, a silhouetted noose hangs down in the upper right corner.

Olujimi’s work is a reminder that lynchings are not events from America’s distant past, even if those events seem inconceivable today when black athletes have achieved superstardom and riches. The tiny athlete in this picture suggests that Olujimi believes this is just the beginning of African-American recognition in this country.

Dr. Tracey Rico’s quilts, "Mammy’s Cakewalk" (2002) and "Bamboozled" (2002) stitch together articles of clothing, fabric swatches and photographs. Like quilts embellished with symbols that were used as maps to enable refugees on the Underground Railroad to find the next safehouse, these textiles convey somber, complex examples of racism and oppression with their illustrations. Rico’s blankets are the stuff of nightmares.

Revealing vulnerability

There were many works that hinted of the fragile, delicate nature of young life. Bryan Crockett’s "Pride" (2001), which appears to be two naked mole rats reaching towards each other, is masterfully carved from pink, cultured marble. "Pride" demonstrates so much expertly executed realism that these sweet creatures, although made of marble, appear to have vulnerable, thin, translucent skin.

Katy Grannan’s intimate photograph, "Angie and Betty, Shoeneck Creek, Nazareth, Pennsylvania" (2003), shows a wet, semi-nude woman standing on a riverbed, clutching her soggy clothes and staring into the distance. Her muscular dog looks up at her expectantly, perhaps wondering, as we do, if she’s a modern-day Venus coming out of the water, or a cold, uncomfortable woman in need of a towel and a cup of tea?

Melanie Baker’s enormous portrait "George" (2002) creates an aged visage of a certain leader of the free world from collaged newspaper and charcoal. From the bridge of his nose on down, Baker’s moody, looming technical achievement depicts deep lines in his face underscoring a determined intensity. The inevitable erosion of time and age on the face of this man could easily be the mask of grim determination any of us take on when boarding a subway in a new world filled with unpredictable dangers.

And that is just a brief introduction to our neighbors whose work is on display in "Open House." It is such an ambitious exhibition, in fact, that I’ll be returning to visit this "House" many more times before it closes in August.


"Open House: Working in Brooklyn," opens April 17 and continues through Aug. 15 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights. The full-color catalogue for the exhibit (Brooklyn Museum Press, 2004), featuring artists’ biographies, is available at the museum gift shop. Museum admission is free on April 17, from 11 am to 11 pm, and on April 18, from 11 am to 6 pm. For more information about the "Open!" weekend of festivities, visit the museum’s Web site at or call (718) 638-5000.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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