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An open-armed welcome

The Brooklyn Museum is celebrating its lively local arts scene in a huge show of works by area residents. It's a hospitable exercise in inclusiveness.

June 04, 2004|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Open houses are designed to be inclusive. That's the point, whether you're talking about an informal domestic gathering or a real estate sales tool: Come in. Make yourself comfortable. Make yourself at home.

At the Brooklyn Museum, "Open House: Working in Brooklyn" is an exercise in inclusiveness, a grand gesture by the museum toward its home community. Organized to mark the recent addition of a dramatic new glass and steel entrance pavilion to the museum's stately Beaux Arts facade, the exhibition, like the architectural improvements, acts as a renewal of vows, a promise of rededication to the museum's nearest and dearest, the 2.5 million residents of Brooklyn.

A lively gallery scene has percolated in the borough over the last decade, particularly in Williamsburg, and artists have swarmed there, exiled by Manhattan's high rents but also attracted to the tighter-knit, familial feel of Brooklyn's neighborhoods. The Brooklyn Museum started showcasing area artists back in the 1930s and picked up the thread in the resurgent '80s with an exhibition series called "Working in Brooklyn." The current show takes that thread and runs with it, weaving it into a massive crazy quilt broad enough to wrap the neighborhood in. "Open House" sprawls through special exhibition galleries on three floors of the museum and seeps out into the permanent collection displays of all five. There are a few pieces outside as well. The show, which runs through Aug. 15, features 200 artists and more than 300 works, all made since 2000.

"Open House" encompasses the usual range of media -- sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, video, installation -- but also makes a point of being intergenerational and multiethnic. Although all of its artists work in Brooklyn, they hail originally not just from the U.S. but also from Vietnam, Turkey, South Africa, South Korea, Nigeria, China, Jamaica, Taiwan, Germany, Haiti, England, Cuba, Kenya and other places. "Think globally, act locally" has moved off the bumper sticker and onto the museum walls.

Because of its scale and scope, its sheer inclusiveness, to experience "Open House" is at once an adventure and an ordeal. It's also something of a scavenger hunt because works tucked into the permanent collection galleries don't announce themselves with much fanfare, which is exactly what makes several of them worth seeking out. Rob Fischer's industrial-looking glass coffin of ash and charred wood sits in the center of a small gallery of Egyptian funerary sculpture. With its obvious references to death, decay and preservation, the piece fits naturally in its setting but adds a jolt of contemporary symbolism.

Set among Rodin bronzes of heroes and nymphs, a grave monument by Patricia Cronin, also in bronze, inserts a touch of elegant subversion. "Memorial to a Marriage" shows the artist and her female life partner nude, partially draped, in loving embrace. The sculpture gives vivid, compelling form to a union considered legally untenable. Rarely do tenderness and political agenda converge so well in a work of art.

Not all of the "embedded" art is so successful. A flock of stretched thong underwear (E.V. Day's "G-Force Over Brooklyn") suspended over another grouping of Rodin sculptures looks puerile at best. But keeping in mind that the "Open House" show is about community, integrating contemporary works into the permanent collection displays makes a gracious and valid claim for these Brooklyn artists belonging not just to their own community but to a larger history as well.

Charlotta Kotik, curator and chairwoman of the museum's department of contemporary art, teamed with assistant curator Tumelo Mosaka to open wide the door to their house. No one could leave this show without meeting someone new through the art. But that's not to say the show is spiked with marvelous discoveries. It's not. The work that rises above the rest and lingers longest in the mind tends to be by artists who have already broken out of Brooklyn, artists who have shown fairly widely. A handful appeared in this year's Whitney Biennial.

Doug and Mike Starn's large, collaged photograph of a moth is the show's most mesmerizing icon. Printed in tones of cream and charcoal gray on paper that seems as fragile as the subject's wings, the image nods reverently to 19th century photographic practices and delivers a richly metaphoric self-portrait of photographers as not just drawn to light but captive to it.

Leonardo Drew is represented by a stirring installation that calls to mind a museum's basement more than its exhibition areas. He has cast discarded common objects (a bicycle, a vacuum cleaner) in white paper, isolated them like relics in worn display cases, then stacked the cases. They look as if they're being stored for research purposes in some coming phase of our material history.

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