Over the weekend my timing was seriously off. I went to go see one exhibit that wouldn’t be opening for another two weeks, and then ended up at a second one almost two hours before the vernissage. Which actually, come to think of it, wasn’t half bad. For the most part, when alone, I hate, abhor, detest and really really dislike vernissages (aka art exhibit openings) and on Sunday, I was alone.
They are so bad, because a) because there are so many people, it’s always difficult, if not impossible to see the art. B) While there are exceptions, conversations with strangers about the art in front of you (that you haven’t really been able to see) can be awkward and difficult. C) Cheap wine is cheap wine. The gallery by offering it means well, but… D) Because I’m a sucker for most free stuff I end up drinking too much of it, which is never a good thing. E) Which leads to eating too much of the snack food, which is also not a good thing. F)
Occasionally, Fairly often, some well meaning gallery owner will recognize me and try to buttonhole me, either earnestly trying to explain the art to me or very nicely, ask me my opinion about the art. And then G) Don’t even get me started about taking pictures.
But in this case it was perfect. As I was early, there was no one else there to block the art. As I was early the staff of the gallery were scurrying around opening bottles of wine, making party platters, etc and did not have that much time to buttonhole me. As I was early and the bottles of wine weren’t open, I didn’t drink the wine. Overall, if I can get my act organized I might just try to do it again.
But enough of the preamble. If I had been organized and shown up a week after the vernissage, this is how I would have started this article: Pink Espace is one of my favorite galleries in the entire city for a variety of reasons. In no particular order, Pat Pink is a really nice person. Pink Espace is run kind of like Zeke’s Gallery was run (although Ms. Pink started running galleries way before Zeke’s opened and will be running galleries for a long long time after. Most of the art she exhibits is really good. And in the past when I would show up, I would bring a six-pack and she would join me in a beer as I looked and we discussed whatever she was exhibiting at the time. This time it was an exhibit by Alain James Martin (not this guy) called The future belongs to crowds. He snagged (or borrowed, depending on your perspective) the title from the last line of the prologue in Don DeLillo‘s book Mao II. He also snagged (or borrowed, depending on your perspective) the content of the show from two photographs taken by Weegee in 1940. In a nutshell, he made 13 different drawings of the photographs. Each one a variation on a theme, changing either the inks, the type of instrument or focusing in on a different part of the photographs (or quite possibly, and I did not have the patience to check, possibly combining parts from both photographs into a new drawing).
Don DeLillo snagged (or borrowed, depending on your perspective) the title of his novel from an Andy Warhol painting. Given all this snagging (or borrowing) it’s a good thing that you can’t copyright a title… but I digress. However, I kind of like all this circular motion of art borrowing (or snagging) from other art. Not quite appropriation, but… And given that Mao II has a similar circularity, among other things it begins and ends with a wedding, it all seems rather appropriate. Contrary to Mr. DeLillo, I am quite fond of Weegee. I found out about him at about the same time Mr. DeLillo was writing Mao II. John Zorn had this band called Naked City that released an eponymous record which used a photograph by Weegee as its cover. As the internet wasn’t quite the thing that it is today, when I discovered that Mr. Martin was using a Weegee photograph as his source material, I exclaimed to Ms. Pink, “I didn’t know that Weegee took pictures of people who were still alive!”
The photographs themselves are called Crowd at Coney Island, July 22, 1940. In doing research, I couldn’t quite figure out if the photograph had been published anywhere during Weegee’s lifetime, but it is in the collections of both the International Center of Photography and MOMA. It’s also fairly small, especially in comparison to what Mr. Martin has done, pretty much 11″ x 14″. Whereas Mr. Martin’s largest drawing is 70″ x 38″. Also while doing research, it was a Sunday, both Alex Trebek and George Clinton were born (but neither in New York City, nor Coney Island) and Duke Ellington recorded four songs at RCA-Victor’s Studio 2. But none of that is here nor there with regards to the drawings by Mr. Martin. I just mention them in passing to give you a sense of what was up then.
Before I get too carried away with myself, I probably should try and explain to you what I saw. As I said, Mr. Martin basically copied the photograph 13 times. But the exhibit itself is much more than that. Whereas making a copy of a photograph using photographic means and methods was purely a chemical process and is now an electronic one. Making a copy of a photograph by drawing it yourself is very human. There are obviously going to be differences between the copy and the original. As well as differences between the copies themselves. Add to that, that Mr. Martin himself deliberately made changes in how he drew (changing frame colors, changing ink colors, changing pen types – fountain pen, crow quill tip – using a variety of tones with each color of ink, changing techniques – crosshatch, ink wash – as well as using different types of paper) along with choosing different parts of the photograph to copy and things can get dizzyingly confusing. However if you take a step back, it is way easier to view each of the drawings as something unique, which they are, things immediately become much simpler.
Crowds behave differently than individuals, there is a whole branch of psychology dealing with that. But it’s not worth getting into here. Seeing all 13 of the drawings together is an inherently different experience than looking at just one of the drawings. Each of the people in the original photographs taken 72 years-ago is an individual, but collectively they come together into something different. Mr. Martin by copying the original photographs probably has done more than anyone else has in regards to these specific pictures to break them down to their individual portraits. At some point, when I don’t have anything better to do, I’m going to have to go back to Pink Espace and plot out the drawings on a copy of the photographs to see for myself if he missed any spots. Ultimately though each drawing needs to be viewed individually. While the future may belong to crowds, the only way to understand that is by deciding that you agree, or disagree individually. There ain’t no crowd in the world that can make you change your own mind. If you prefer, and I kind of roll this way, they can be viewed as variations on a theme. Kind of making it obvious that they are unique and individual while at the same time accepting that they are linked.
In the press release Mr. Martin states that he was struck by the fact that “the scene is empty of mass-market merchandise and branding in all their forms.” I would respectfully disagree with him. While it is obvious that there are no logos in the way we are accustomed to seeing them today. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that due to the size of the original he wasn’t able to see the Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottles, the packs of Pall Mall, Chesterfield and Camel cigarettes, the Rheingold and Schaffer beer cans, the Levis’s jeans and the Converse sneakers. All of which would have been mass-marketed and branded. As well, since Weegee did not take a picture of the parking lots at Coney Island there are no Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford or Cadillac logos to be seen, and since he didn’t take the picture on the boardwalk, there is no Nathan’s logo to be seen either. In choosing to use these specific photographs as his original source material he prevented himself from being able to see the mass marketing and branding. But it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there.
I‘d also be extremely skeptical of the quote from Weegee that he uses in the press release
And this is Coney Island on a quiet Sunday afternoon … a crowd of over a million is usual and attracts no attention (I wonder who counts them) … it only costs a nickel to get there from any part of the city, and undressing is permitted on the beach. … Some come to bathe, but others come to watch the girls. A good spot being the boardwalk. … Of the families, some manage to get through the day without losing their children … but the city is prepared and at the Lost Child Shelter the crying kids are kept cooped up behind a barrier of chicken wire ’til their parents call for them … also in this shelter are kept the peddlers who are arrested for peddling on the beach … seeing their merchandise melt, the peddlers give their ice cream to the kids.- source
In 1940, the population of New York City was about 7.5 million. There is no way that 13% of NYC went to Coney Island, absolutely no way. In 1947 attendance for the whole year was five million. Also Weegee died in 1968 and the book where the quote is taken was published in 1975.
Then finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention A country as big as a house, a series of watercolors done by Mr. Martin in the back room at Pink Espace of images from real estate listings. I think they’re all about 3″ x 5″ (maybe 4″ x 6″) in size and exquisite in nature. Initially done in 2008, it gives great insight into Mr. Martin’s ideas about making art and upon seeing all 50 of them it immediately makes perfect sense why he chose to copy Crowd at Coney Island, July 22, 1940.
This is running long now, and I probably should try and wrap things up. So while I’m not entirely convinced that the future belongs to crowds, I am 100% convinced that Mr. Martin’s The future belongs to crowds is an amazing series of drawings that really needs to be seen in person to be completely understood. The very nature of the task of copying such a small photograph so large is a feat to behold. Then once you start looking at what he has created, you can begin to appreciate both the exquisite nature of the drawings along with teh theoretical and historical nature behind it.
The future belongs to crowds by Alain James Martin at Pink Espace, 1399 Saint Jacques, Thursday to Sunday 13h to 17h.