There are two separate exhibitions installed in neighboring houses on Governors Island, both built in the 19th century for the families of military officers charged with the defense of New York Harbor. The work the artists chose to exhibit here, however, demonstrate a benign indifference to the intimate history embedded in the stairs, parlors, and bedrooms of their temporary exhibition spaces. Buffered from their routine military past by more than a half century of disuse, the structures themselves held little interest for most of the artists. Instead, the harbor itself, its natural features and function as witness to immigrant narratives, provided the inspiration.
Aside from their general similarities, the exhibitions reflect very different curatorial styles. Early Encounters, organized by Savona Bailey-McClain of the West Harlem Art Fund, is designed to prevail over the dilapidated condition of the walls and ceilings. Contending with peeling paint and broken plaster, the artists manage a surprisingly effective contemplative atmosphere. With each participant assigned to a room, the work transcends the house’s frayed condition with quiet aplomb.
Taking a different approach, the artists in Island Universe were encouraged by curator and participant Irina Danilova of Project 59 to bring a gleeful spontaneity to their show, partly through collaborations, as half the participants are pairings of artists. With more than double the roster of Early Encounters, yet confined to similar spatial limitations, they used every room and nook, every physical anomaly, every bit of surrounding detritus to make it their own. What the show lacks in formality is offset with buoyancy and wit.
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