Xaviera Simmons, Shervone Neckles, Katie Holten, and William Corwin: Roots/Anchors
August 21 through December 31, 2021
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, November 2021
Snug Harbor, a former retirement home for aging sailors in Staten Island, is now given to contemporary art shows in The Newhouse Contemporary Art Center in the midst of its extensive grounds. “Roots/Anchors,” now open there, includes four artists: Xaviera Simmons, Shervone Neckles, Katie Holten, and William Corwin. Each of them has made work that reflects the site of the exhibition, at the same time introducing elements that function as personal readings of its history. The legacy of Snug Harbor has to do with water, as indicated by the cast plaster/sand and iron boats of Corwin, and the extensive grounds and their plant life are suggested by Holten in her small drawings of wild flowers. Neckles and Simmons address social themes. Neckles’ “Spirit of Ancestors” installation draws its imagery from the indigenous Lenape people who lived on Staten Island and the African slaves brought to the island, as well as the community of formerly enslaved people, known as Sandy Ground. Simmons is the creator of four videos on monitors in file in the large hallway of the exhibition; the images are of a rugged road and landscape, of an animation in which boulders drop from the top of the screen and build a pile; of close-ups of the body; and of three women dancers in black leotards. They obliquely reference the unspoken subtext of same-sex love among the retired sailors, and sensuality, surely an issue of importance in a home filled with single men.
Corwin’s boats (all made in 2021) are tabletop, rough-cast versions of water vehicles that do not resemble the ships the seamen sailed on. Instead, they look slightly like coracles from medieval times. Corwin holds a strong archeological interest; much of his work might be read as objects found in funeral sites from the past. In this case, the boats take as their starting point the lives of the sailors who lived and interacted in the spaces taken over by the gallery. Their roughness of facture, in iron and plaster and sand, intimates a time when the sea was seen as immense, ungovernable, mostly threatening. While, on some level, they look archaic, inevitably, given the time in which they have been made or seen, we cannot interpret them as historical alone. The ladders in the boats, as coarse as the boats themselves, come from earlier works done by Corwin. Perhaps they suggest a way onto land from dangerous tides.
Holten’s alphabet series describes the letters of the alphabet through small, beautifully precise drawings of wild flowers specifically growing in the New York region. For example, the letter ”I” is presented as a vertica rising straight up--at the bottom we find a closely described root, which leads to thin leaves. The flower itself is a beautiful purple with a rounded crown and petals hanging gracefully toward the ground. “J” is approximated by a bulbous root from which three green stems rise; on the left, two stems end in green leaves, while on the right, we see the flower curling downward, its underside colored in alternating stripes of purple and white. The detail of these works is remarkable, and well may suggest a time when such flowers existed in abundance on Staten Island. They feel a bit elegiac, given how urbanized Staten Island has become.
The Bush Woman Collar (2016-21) by Neckles is a relief sculpture of a woman hung on a gallery wall based on the tradition of carnival costumes from Grenada (the artist’s birthplace). Her head is colored red, with red branches rising from its top. Her arms and legs consist of networks of branches that widen as they move away from the torso. The collar consists of light-colored linear embroidery on a black garment, open at the neck. It is a piece of culture in a sculpture mostly realized with natural materials. The work refers to the act of staking a claim in one’s location, regardless of what social status has been forced upon one. In one of the works entitled Domiciliation Unsettle (2021), we see the naked body of a woman/deity, her hair tied straightly back. She holds an ornately built home, a reference to the legacy of home ownership as empowerment for formerly enslaved peoples in Grenada. In the lower right, we come across a canoe, on which a figure stands--the lower half is human, while the top half is a series of branches. Neckles pays homage to a people unjustly misplaced by the ongoing expansion of colonizers.
As I have described, the four themes in the four videos made by Simmons each treat a different subject. Two might be said to connect with the sensuous: the close-ups of the human body and the three women dancers interacting with each other. The other two videos concern the landscape: a nondescript grounds of low grass with a dirt road and an animated video of rocks piling up on one another. The first video, of the landscape, has the sound of a car driving, while the last video of the dancers includes the sound of exhaled breath. One senses that the landscape works might be memorials to a time when Staten Island was less populated. The connections from one monitor’s presentation to the next are distant, but the imagery conveys an abstracted concern for themes that have to do with Snug Harbor’s completely male population and its rural beginnings. The installation itself, the single row of several monitors, neatly dispenses Simmons’ visual information.
All in all, the show sharply conveys themes associated with place, even if it is done at a distance. The question is, How do we pay homage to a place whose function has been utterly changed? If it is true that most of the artworks take place in distant relation to the particularities of the site, we must find a way of joining the art to the halls and rooms of Snug Harbor. Art is individual; institutions are not. So it is very interesting to see how these works relate to a former institution. They do so by implication, by the means of metaphor. While Hoten’s flowers can be seen as genuinely tied to the grounds, the other artists, Corwin, Neckles, and Simmons, proceed either from a sense of history at a remove from the present or through abstract visuals that touch lightly on Snug Harbor. But little matters about the way these gifted artists proceed; their work celebrates the background and nature of a place now given to art. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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