Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Down on the Island with Podgorny, Savorini and Bernstein

Robert Boyd

Zachary Zeke Podgorny installation

The first time I came down to the Galveston Artists Residency, they were showing work by their first three residents, Nick Barbee, Kelly Sears and Nsenga Knight. It was cool, but I didn't feel like there was any particular connection to Galveston in the art I saw. Not that there is anything wrong with that--the artists aren't there to do art about Galveston. They're just there to have the space and time to do art--artists are given an apartment, a studio and a stipend for a year, with total freedom to do whatever work they want to do. So it was a pleasant surprise this time to go down to see Galveston was reflected in a variety of ways in the work on display in the second residents' exhibit.

For example, Zachary Zeke Podgorny's work made me think of corrosion--the work of sand and wind and salt on natural and man-made things. The sculptural installation above recalls the prow of a partially submerged ship, like the Selma, the concrete ship that sits in half-sunk in Galveston Bay and is visible from the Bolivar ferry. The white and orange substance on the floor recall salt and rust. The driftwood superstructure and colored fabric remind me of the beach. In this one piece, Podgorny has crammed together multiple visual signifiers that suggest "Galveston."

part of the sculptural installation

Zachary Zeke Podgorny

The paintings Podgorny showed feel consistent with his earlier pre-GAR work--unusual mixtures of materials (for instance, the honey-comb board used in the piece above) and intense colors. They don't say "Galveston" the way the sculpture does. Still, they had a feeling of brightly colored debris, like flotsam washed up on shore.

Banana peel installation in Davide Savorani's studio

Part of Davide Savorani's practice while at the GAR has been to eat bananas, pin the peels to his wall, and let the peels dry up. They end up drying into various shapes that look like an alphabet. But if they are spelling out a message in an alien alphabet, what happens to the meaning of the message when the wind blows.

This gif is taken from Savorani's blog, the Can't Get-Away Club. He writes about Galveston quite a lot there, as well as posting photos and videos taken around the island. For instance, in a very reflective post, "Places in a  Coma," Savorani  writes about a group of partially finished (but apparently abandoned) cottages that he and his assistant Michelangelo Miccolis came across in Galveston.
I’ve used the word “ghost” a few times, when in fact I’m quite a skeptic myself. The fact that I’m currently living in what is considered one of the most haunted cities in the US is another interesting note, since a creepy house that looks like the Norman Bates‘ mansion or a ruined building don’t make me think of ghosts, and over here there are a lot those. I don’t believe that whoever has been killed there is still wandering around, rather it is the story being told that appears to me as the ghost itself. It resonates from its walls to the storytellers to the newspapers and books and back again to the overpriced ghost tours leading guillible tourists to the sites. They look around the rooms, staring at those walls, those doors and windows, envisioning the atrocities. I could say the same about the house where that famous painter lived, now turned into a museum.
Everyplace is haunted. Places have histories, not just Stonehenge and the Twin Towers but also the ones where you live. Some of them will survive us and will undergo many other tenants. Others are protected and closed to the public like the Lascaux Caves, others survive through books or just word-of-mouth. [Davide Savorani, "Places in a Coma," the Can't Get-Away Club]
So what do bananas have to do with all of this? I'm not sure really, but Savorani integrates his banana obsession with his locale through a series of videos and photos of Miccolis wearing a banana costume and wandering around Galveston--mostly in abandoned or somewhat desolate areas of the island.

the banana costume and photo-collages of banana peels

There is a good interview with Savorani on Glasstire. It was picked up by Swamplot, which likes to cover anything in the Houston area with a specific sense of place (it is ostensibly a real estate blog, but really so much more). Swamplot's resident troll "commonsense" made a typically nasty comment, calling Savorani an "underachiever." But in an unintended way, he's right. The idea of being in a small coastal tourist town where the living is easy can fill you with inertia and procrastination. There's a reason "Margaritaville" is such a popular song--it speaks the truth about a certain coastal lifestyle. Savorani addresses this in his art and writing--for example, writing about half-built cottages that sit uncompleted for years. It's Galveston.

me wearing Josh Bernstein's mask

Savorani isn't the only resident using costumes. Josh Bernstein had this elaborate two-headed mask, which I tried on. When I saw it, of course my first thought was that it was some two-headed mythological monster or god, perhaps from a native American culture. But Bernstein explained that the two faces were the two companions of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who was shipwrecked on Galveston in 1528. De Vaca called it the "island of doom," and a lot of Bernstein's work depicts a kind of haunted, demonic place. When I first saw it, I conflated his visions of Galveston with Lovecraftian images. I don't know if that is really accurate, but there is an element of horror that surfaces frequently in his work.

A monstrous conquistador made partly out of an old football helmet

Josh Bernstein collage

That feeling of horror was present in much of the work he showed in Galveston. But it is Cabeza de Vaca's story that continues to obsess him. As Savorani said, places are haunted by their history. Galveston is haunted by Cabeza de Vaca, by Jean Lafitte, by Salvatore Maceo, by the Karankawas and the 6,000 folks who were killed by the 1900 hurricane. Galveston is constantly decaying but never dies. A kind of inertia keeps it going, along with occasional bursts of activity, such as the establishment of the GAR. This exhibit was a beautiful statement about Galveston--and the fact that it wasn't necessarily designed to be "about" Galveston makes it feel truer and more heartfelt.


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