Q&A: Patrick Gookin Talks LA Cellphone Street Photography

In engineering, a “surface street” refers to any ground level street that is not a freeway. The distinction can be lost on most of us, but the term is standard Los Angeles parlance—a place known for its gridlock traffic. Photographer Patrick Gookin has taken inspiration from these barren streets for his latest book, Surface Relations, which he’ll be exhibiting this weekend at Sunday Takeout.

Gookin offers up eerie portraits of side streets and city wanderers, shot on his phone. The images stand at odds with the Starbucks sheen of typical LA scenes, revealing a segregated city full of contradictions. They are reminiscent of his earlier work LA By Car (2014), in which he hired actors to portray lonely passers by, but nothing in Surface Relations is staged. Instead, the photos began as source material for LA By Car, until they began to take on a life of their own.

The Voice spoke to Gookin about isolation, technology, and why anyone in New York should care about LA.

How did you get acquainted with these spaces? They are not your typical studies of Los Angeles.

When I moved back to LA from Tokyo in 2010 I was living between Koreatown and Lincoln Park, working full-time by the beach and commuting more than an hour each way. Avoiding the worst of LA’s freeway traffic, I opted to take surface streets, introducing me to these wide stretches of seemingly empty spaces—populated by lonesome pedestrians and warehouses adorned with for lease signs.

Surface Relations seems to find its root in the term surface street, and also plays on the surface interactions that take place when you explore a city by car. How do you think photographing these moments plays with that dynamic?

True. Photographing these moments runs counter to the very nature of these fleeting, surface level interactions; it asks the viewer to look deeper than what’s reasonably possible from the car; to consider the anonymity of the bodies moving by.

The main ingredients of this book, a city, a car and a camera phone, are all associated with youth culture, but I notice most of your subjects are often older. Was there any purposeful distancing from the idea of young people celebrating in LA?

That’s an interesting question. Some of the pictures do allude to the changing face of LA over the past decade in various ways—in part due to the influx of young people moving here in masses. I’m interested in LA’s youth from at least that angle, and didn’t avoid photographing younger people entirely, but perhaps during the editing phase those pictures felt too one the nose, or possibly alluded to a vision of LA that was too optimistic for me to feel comfortable with.

Phones are increasingly being used to document moments and ideas, but there seems to be a divide in the art world. Could you speak to that? What are the difficulties of shooting by phone?

I think its a risky game in general—to partially define photographic work by the camera that its made with. There’s certainly a fear that the reading of the work might not get past that, and specifically when that camera is a phone that it might be viewed as a gimmick or a novelty.

It seems like most people reserve their phone photos for the web only. Why do you think that is? What made you decide to compile your photos in a book?

I would have to think that’s mainly because people have little use for printed pictures anymore. This type of documentation on the phone is still a very new phenomena where a pictures’ primary function is unambiguous communication of a simple idea—to share information more rapidly and vividly than was ever possible before. Naturally this sharing of information happens on the web. In using the phone I was making a conscious decision to work within the vernacular of popular communication and status-quo image making, though I was curious how these low-resolution images would hold up—visually in their transition to the printed page, but also ideologically in their placement within an art-photographic construct, outside of their more native placement in an Instagram feed. The book allows the pictures to evolve a portrait of Los Angeles—one that takes shape through cumulative relationships between the photos.

How do you feel these low-res images hold up? It seems like the viewer is being forced to reconsider not only these surface level interactions, but the phone’s camera itself, and the way they use it.

I think they work well for my purposes. There’s a very nice contrast between the lo-fi digital image with the thin, uncoated paper that we used. In terms of the objective qualities of the pictures themselves (sharpness, contrast, highlights, etc) some held up better than others. Pictures from some of the newer phones could likely be mistaken for those from a “real” camera, but older images, or ones that were made in less than ideal situations were more easily exploited for their faults and inconsistencies.

The idea of experiencing LA as a kind of ghost-city by car is really interesting. Do you think that idea would translate to New York? Manhattan certainly doesn’t have the car culture of LA, but some outer-boroughs might.

I’m not sure that it would. There’s something about the Western light coupled with the contrast of LA’s gridlocked streets with its barren sidewalks and wide open spaces that make it uniquely un-NY, and lend it that ghost-city atmosphere, palpable almost especially in the middle of the day. Bruce Davidson’s subway pictures are how I would imagine a NY translation to feel. His approach was rooted in experiencing the city’s transit system and public spaces as the average New Yorker does, and he photographed people who were part of that system—right there going through the motions with him.

What’s it like showing these very LA-centric photos in New York? Why did you decide to host a launch party here?

I hope that it doesn’t hurt that there’s a renewed interest in portrayals of Los Angeles within the art-photo world. Seemingly everyone has migrated out there for some amount of time in the past few years to make their LA work. NY is still the epicenter of American photography and publishing; it only made sense to bring the book into the world through that channel—to see it viewed by folks with a detachment that couldn’t possibly exist in showing this work in LA.

Who do you think these photos will resonate with the most?

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time walking in Los Angeles. Hopefully, it will also resonate with people who are interested in the existential baggage that accompanies the contemporary urban experience and the continuing saga that is the effects of technology on our day-to-day existence and relationships with one another.


How The Whitney Houston Biennial Help To Push Feminist Art Forward


In New York’s abundance of art fairs and gallery shows, male artists have always tended to outnumber female artists. One show this Spring, however, sought to change this gender imbalance: The Whitney Houston Biennial. The exhibition, which was founded two years by curator and painter Chritsine “C.” Finley, has since doubled in the size of the space and the number of artists included. This year’s show features over 160 female-identified artists.

“For the first version, I imagined that if I was tapped as the curator of the Whitney, I would show three floors of women artists,” says Finley. “When I told this to my friend, the artist Eddy Segal, she immediately made a joke and said, ‘The Whitney Houston Biennial!’ We laughed like crazy but I also realized that I had to do it. We created such a wonderful platform for highlighting female artists, I knew we needed to keep going. I am already arranging for 2019!”

By this year, when Finley staged the show at a building on West Broadway, the original concept had evolved. Every inch of available wall and floor space was covered in art within the gallery space. From the salon-style hung paintings, drawings and photographs to the various video pieces and small installations, the show created a sense of organized chaos. It features a mix of painting, drawing, screen printing, video and found object works that require more than just a walk through. While it appears to be light-hearted, the exhibit (produced with the help of as a vital deconstruction of the contemporary art world. Amidst the sea of art fairs, including the current Whitney Biennial (which gave Finely’s version its name), the show had a lot to offer.

The range of works touched on topics including body image, race, intersectional feminism and more. In addition to the works themselves, each artist was also asked to include the name and description of a woman pioneer who inspired them.

“So on the wall text next to each piece we have Joan of Arc, Beyonce, Sappho, Patricia McCormick, who’s a female matador, and many more,” said Finley. “Their stories are included in the exhibition which is a new element for this show.”

"Midnight Work" by Chanel Matsui Govreau
“Midnight Work” by Chanel Matsui Govreau

One video, entitled “Midnight Work” features the work of artist Chanel Matsunami Govreau. Also known as Queen Gidrea, Govreau is a performer, photographer and mixed media artist explores issues of gender, race, and identity within her work.

“Midnight Work” is an edited version of a dance class the artist took on Waacking. This style of dance, developed during the 1970s in LGBTQ club spaces, emphasizes making hand and arm gestures to the beat of the music. The video itself is focused on the women who participated in that particular class, with close up shots of their faces, exaggerated looks and hand gestures.

Govreau’s experience as a self-identified queer woman exploring these charged socio-political spaces within the context of this performance and others, is a complicated meta deconstruction. As a kind of intersectional feminist gesture within the video itself, this is taken a step further in the person that Govreau chose as her pioneer, noted feminist and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Crenshaw has also been credited with the development of intersectional feminism.

Seat of Heritage" by Francena Ottley
Seat of Heritage” by Francena Ottley

“This is for You,” a video piece by Francena Ottley, also takes on issues of race and identity, and features the artist doing various friends hair in an apartment setting. The video is accompanied by a sculpture entitled, “Seat of Heritage,” a children’s sized chair covered in braided hair. The works seemed to be referencing the larger complicated history of African American  hair and the representations of it but it is the artist’s investigation of these topics that give it more meaning.

The DIY feeling of the Biennial is reminiscent of the Armory’s “Spring Break Show” but seems to be angling to do something more. There is scrappiness and hard edge  that produces a larger sense of urgency. Perhaps it is in the overwhelming volume of work, the setup of the show, or the larger political climate we are currently in, but the Biennial underscores many of the voices, works and artists that often go unrecognized and this show is helping to give them vital recognition.

By creating a larger sense of community which does speak directly back to feminism in general and also third wave feminism specifically, Finley has curated a show in which women’s issues are at the forefront. Seeing the works of Justin Vivian Bond alongside those of emerging art students is encouraging to say the least; however, there is still a lot of work to be done. As Finley noted, plans are already underway for the 2019 biennial and it will be exciting to see what the next phase in this this exhibition will bring.



Digging Deep Into New York City’s Rich Tattoo History

The latest exhibit on view at the New York Historical Society, “Tattooed New York” chronicles over three hundred years of tattoo history ranging from Native American tattooing practices from three centuries ago, to the professional tattooed ladies who graced the stages of freak shows at the turn of the century, all the way through the ban on tattooing in 1961 to now. From punk rockers to hipsters and everything in between, this show has something for everyone.

Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961
Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961

The scope of the exhibition is significant and takes up an entire gallery space of the Historical Society’s first floor. The marble columns sit in stark contrast to many of the images of inked men and women who helped further a practice that was often looked down upon.

“Tattooed New York” has a comprehensive amount of artifacts, memorabilia, photographs and objects that help to illustrate the way that New York made its mark on American tattoo history. This exhibit is demystifying larger misrepresentations surrounding the practice. From the origins of Native American tattooing practices of the Iroquois to the other nations in the Northeast centuries ago, through the introduction of European tattooing, New York’s tattoo history is nothing but complex.

Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society said,”We are proud to present ‘Tattooed New York’ and offer our visitors an immersive look into the little-known history of modern tattooing.”

The exhibit considers each historical period of New York’s tattoo development in thoughtful detail interweaving interesting facts. For example, “Indigenous people of North America pricked or scratched the skin with sharpened bones, branches, or needles, then rubbed soot or crushed minerals into the wound as pigment.” The process resulted in beautiful ornate tattoo designs that were adorned on the bodies of those who got tattooed.

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas, 1710
Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas,

The tattoo of the past also had significant iconography. They were often the literal mark of an accomplishment and the same symbols that were permanently inked on their bodies could also be found on “carved on their wooden clubs, which recorded victories and exploits in battles.”

Another fascinating element the exhibit explores is the link to maritime culture and tattooing.

It was Captain James Cook who sailed to the South Pacific in the 1700s who first introduced the Tahitian word tautau to England. However it is the three centuries long association with tattoos and sailors that remained intact.

Prior to identification cards and photography, tattooing served as a reliable form of documentation. Tattoos as a form of ID was a frequent trick used by sailors and soldiers throughout the 1700s and beyond. During the Civil War for example, NYC tattooer Martin Hildebrandt tattooed thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers in an effort to help identify them! Hildebrandt is also the first person to set up a permanent place of business dedicated to tattooing in the 1850s in the Lower East Side. But this is not what you would think of in terms of a tattoo shop today. Martin is also known to have tattooed Nora Hildebrandt, the first professional tattooed lady, however the nature of their relationship has historically remained unclear.

New York City’s ties to tattoo history are strong. As New York Historical Society curator Cristian Petru Panaite put it, “New York City is considered the birthplace of modern tattooing. There are a number of inventions or firsts in this craft and art form that took place in New York.”

Petru Panaite continued, “The visual tattoo vocabulary was also enriched with new designs being imagined and drawn by tattooers like Lew Alberts and Bill Jones.These designs were further refined, exchanged, traded – even stolen – ending up in tattoo shops all around the country. The New York tattoo artists were also business-savvy, and New York can definitely take credit for the growth of the tattoo supply business which very much opened the industry.”

Mildred Hull was the first woman to open a tattoo shop in the Bowery. Hull who was a powerhouse in her own right, enjoyed long and prolific career. Women such as Hull, Nora Hildebrandt and others played a vital role in the larger narrative of American tattoo history, however their stories have been often overlooked. While American tattoo history has often been viewed as a hyper-masculine space it is people like Hull, Hildebrandt and others who have helped add depth to this history.

Nora Hildebrandt, ca. 1880
Nora Hildebrandt, ca. 1880

By telling the story of NYC’s tattoo history, the New York Historical Society is helping to bridge the gap between contemporary tattoo culture and it’s past. . The subculture of tattooing in NYC specifically has seen many trends over the years. In 1961, a tattooing ban was put in place by the Health Department of NYC that last over forty years. Since the ban was lifted on tattooing in 1997, this city has come to be synonymous with tattooing.

From the illegal parlors that operating along the Bowery during the 1970s such as Mike Bakaty’s famous shop Fineline, (which is still operating in the East Village today by his son Mehai, and is known as the oldest tattoo shop in the city), to the new celebrity studded shops dotting the East and West Villages, not much as changed.

When it comes to tattoo institutional memory, the exhibit also enlisted the help of several famed NYC tattooers. Tattooed New York also featured various objects that were loaned to the show on behalf of the tattooers. Brad Fink who is co-owner of the famed shop Daredevil lent some of their own artifacts to the exhibit. Daredevil which is a fully operating tattoo shop also features a a small museum of tattoo history within their space.

Co-owner of Daredevil, Michelle Myles who has also incredibly knowledgeable about American tattoo culture as well, said “Cristian Panaite [the curator contacted us and came in to see the collection at Daredevil. Brad [Fink, co-owner of Daredevil] ended up loaning them several items including the Edison pen, a Charlie Wagner tattoo machine, a sailors hand poke kit, the Ace Harlan painting of Millie Hull and Charlie Wagner, the sideshow banner and several sheets of flash.”

Myles added, “I think it’s incredible to see the history of New York City tattooing represented in New York’s oldest museum. It’s important for people to know the role the city played in fostering this art form. New York City is the birthplace of Modern American tattooing.”

Stephanie Tamez who is also a well known tattooer and co-owner of the Brooklyn tattoo shop Saved also was contacted by the exhibit’s curator to help lend her hand to the show in a slightly different way. Tamez has several of her finished tattoos on display as photographs in the exhibit and also within a video that accompanies the show.

Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976, by John Wyatt
Thom de Vita and client in his studio at 326 E 4th Street, 1976, by John Wyatt

Tamez said, “There’s a back-piece of mine that is an Egyptian/ Tibetan phoenix on my client Rebecca (photographed by Gigi Stoll), there’s a piece of flash painting of a Phoenix that I did for Mike Rubendall’s & Neversleep Publishing’s new book “Tattooing’s Guide to Symbolism.”

“I’m also featured in the Ina Saltz video that shows some of my earlier work on typography. Recently I had been introduced to Bo Gehrig, who found me last year and asked me to participate in his video portrait project. So, after that I suggested him as an interesting participant to the show, which I’m happy to say that Cristian followed through with,” Tamez added.

While this show at NYHS is significant and is helping to solidify the vitalness of American tattoo history and those who have carved out this space out. Another exhibit that is also taking on this subject matter in a larger context is the Tattoo exhibit at the Fields Museum in Chicago. Tattoo looks at the larger sociocultural topic of tattoos from a more global perspective. A version of this show was first on display in 2015 as well in France then eventually made its way to North America. Tattooed New York like the show in Chicago is helping to educate the public on a topic that is not often looked at in this way. This show should not be missed and it is finally giving American tattoo culture the context it deserves.

Tattooed New York is on view until April 30, 2017 at the New York Historical Society.




Joan Mellon Flies High at Carter Burden Gallery

The painter Joan Mellon recently told me that, for her, painting was a conversation with her materials and surfaces. Indeed, her abstractions can evoke the sense of a searching, back-and-forth discussion — not to mention the occasional heated argument.
In Flyin’ High (2015), that exchange appears to have included agreements, reconsiderations, digressions, and, finally, altered points of view (one of the many ways that painting bests politics). The scale — two and a half feet square — speaks to the reach of hands gesturing in lively debate. It seems the angled pale-peach bars in the foreground intended to flatly divide the image into three planes, but background rectangles of green, orange, gray, and yellow — roiled by solvents dragged through the paint — disagreed. Another small bar of peach sings out from the adulterated orange patch, engendering a sense of the volume of a tenuous cube. This on-the-fly framework, implied beyond the canvas’s borders, warps the barely contained color fields into a gorgeous bedevilment of color and contrast.

Mellon (born in Brooklyn, in 1944) embodies a native New Yorker’s feistiness. Local History (2015) is roughly an arm-span wide and head-to-gut high, the reach of wary boxers feinting punches. Runnels of aqua dash across a burgundy field but are abruptly staggered by mashed-in brushstrokes, the drips a reminder of implacable gravity always trying to flatten us. There is a hard-won, luminous animation to these sagging striations — they are down, but definitely not out.

Many “isms” have reigned during Mellon’s lifetime: minimal and conceptual, as well as art of the land and the performance space, and the new’s and neo’s of figuration, expressionism, and pop. But, steadfast over the decades, she has let passionate form and color do her talking, no explanations necessary.

Reflections: Joan Mellon
Carter Burden Gallery
548 West 28th Street, 212-564-8405
Through March 23


Stained Glass, Rotting Bologna, And Rebellion At The Whitney’s First Downtown Biennial

The 78th Whitney Biennial opens this Friday, as the museum once again attempts to distill the State of Contemporary Art In America Right Now into a single exhibition. It’s a thankless task, to be sure, and if the past is any guide, it will be met by art world insiders with equal parts praise, feigned indifference, and sneering.

No matter! For the rest of us the Biennial offers a great opportunity to view a ton of art (and in terms of gallery square-footage, this is the biggest Biennial ever) by people less well-known than you’d usually find at a big museum show. And it’s the first Biennial at the Whitney’s newish downtown home, adding another level of interest and excitement to the proceedings. As Director Adam Weinberg said, the Whitney’s signature exhibition is “the greatest test” so far of the building’s design.

There are 63 artists in the Whitney Biennial this time around, and while individual results may vary, some of my personal favorites would include:

• Jon Kessler’s pair of as-usual crazy performative sculptures, “Exodus” (in which wooden figures spin around in flight from unstated terrors), and “Evolution” (in which post-apocalypse mannequins get acclimated to their water-logged world). Both pieces use iPhone cameras and flat screens to excellent effect.

• Larry Bell’s marching, laminated-glass boxes on the fifth floor terrace, which proceed from darkest red to nearly-sheer pink, and play with the sun in unpredictable ways.

• Aliza Nisenbaum’s brightly-colored set of paintings that portray the immigrant experience in low-key domestic settings. Nisenbaum uses live models in the creation of her work, a process she considers “an ethical one in which the two parties come to trust and know each other well.”

• Ajay Kurian’s “Childremass,” which hangs along the entire height of the museum’s open, interior staircase and features a nightmarish gang of kids who clearly mean you harm (or are here to save you?).

• Samara Golden’s “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes”, which uses mirrors, eccentric details, and the museum’s windows looking out onto West Street and the Hudson River to create an infinite (and grim) high-rise building that I found impossible to completely figure out.

• Pope L’s “Claim (Whitney Version),” a giant cube covered inside and out with meticulously-spaced slices of rotting bologna, each one of which is embedded with a bleary, photocopied portrait.

Oh and Jordon Wolfson’s virtual reality piece “Real violence” is fucking horrifying. You have been warned.

The Whitney Biennial will be on display from March 17 through June 11.



Explore Food and the Immigrant Experience, Just in Time for Chinese New Year

In his poem “Model Minority,” Jason Koo relates an episode in which a young child kicks his luggage at Penn Station, calls him a “fucking Chinese,” and then stops, “thinking that was insult enough.” Koo, a Korean American, reflects on the incident ironically: “After something like this, my default comfort food is Chinese,” he reveals — “not ‘good’ or ‘real’ Chinese, but fucking Chinese.” Koo’s indisputably American heritage then floats to the surface as he describes familiar dishes like General Tso’s chicken and lo mein, “flaplocked” in warm takeout containers and typically consumed in “two volumes: Vol. 1 for dinner, Vol. 2 microwaved for lunch the next day.”

It is not by accident that, for Koo and many other Americans, a carton of Chinese takeout can be a reliable source of solace. The earliest inventors of American Chinese cuisine fought anti-immigrant hostility by cooking for a Caucasian public (a topic covered in depth in the recent Chow Chop Suey, by food writer and historian Anne Mendelson). As Koo’s descriptions attest, the contributions of these early immigrants have deeply influenced the American palate. Since the nineteenth century, individuals across the country have cooked variations on Chinese food to claim their place as innovators of American culture. A current exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America explores how this tradition continues to evolve, perhaps now more rapidly than ever.

Neatly divided into two galleries, “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” tells the personal histories of more than thirty chefs, restaurateurs, and home cooks. The main gallery hosts a “dinner party” à la Judy Chicago, at which thirty-three place settings are spread across a large banquet table, each with a brief biography of a featured individual and a custom ceramic sculpture expressive of his or her cooking style. To decipher these colorful talismans, visitors are directed to a set of larger ceramics at the center of the table, which are presented on lazy Susans and sculpted to evoke foods, cultural artifacts, and topographic features representative of the main culinary regions of China. A teeming wave of red orbs, coated in crackling glaze, signifies the cresting heat of peppercorns and chiles native to Sichuan cuisine; a cone of porcelain pays homage to Yunnan’s clay steaming pots and mountainous terrain; new and old Shanghai are recalled in a doughy, hand-formed mass, dimpled like soup dumplings and drizzled in gold to capture the sheen of old wealth and modern skyscrapers alike. All part of a specially commissioned series by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang, the ceramics coalesce into a spectacular landscape, beckoning visitors to investigate the geographic and gastronomic characteristics embodied in each design.

Projected onto the walls of this same gallery is a multi-channel video playing clips from interviews with the dinner guests, selected to represent a range of generations, regions, and personal and professional occupations. English is the predominant language, though subtitles are included to reach both English- and Chinese-speaking audiences. Museumgoers are invited to sit at the table, survey its spread, and watch or listen to the chefs, cookbook authors, and restaurant professionals recall the highs and the lows — or the sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy moments — of lives sustained, in many ways, by food. Moving from commercial dining rooms to private homes, the video suggests a long, intimate conversation shared among an extended family. The discrete layering of the installation tempers its seeming overabundance, allowing visitors to enter the multimedia artwork at any point and engage with it on many levels.

“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” notably builds on the 2004 MOCA exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet?” The earlier show traced the evolution of the American Chinese restaurant from nineteenth-century West Coast eateries to glamorous nightclubs to the sprawling network of takeout spots conjured in Koo’s poem, using a collection of menus, postcards, food products, and other ephemera to illustrate the changing conditions and representations of an ethnic minority. A decade later, MOCA curator and director of exhibitions Herb Tam sensed that the relationship between Chinese food and identity was ripe for reconsideration. “A lot of interesting chefs have been playing around with the cuisine,” he remarked, referring to figures like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese and Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods, whose restaurants highlight the diversity and adaptability — or the modernity, one could say — of Chinese cuisine. Chef Eddie Huang of the East Village snack shop Baohaus has been a prominent figure in this movement, rising to celebrity status with a charismatic irreverence that has translated into bestselling books, television shows, and web series. The new outlook has inevitably attracted a lot of “surface-level conversation” about Chinese food, observed Tam. “We were after a deeper approach, a slower conversation.”

And that’s an apt metaphor for the current exhibition, which developed out of three years of research and planning. “A major part of the mission at MOCA is conducting oral histories,” said the museum’s assistant curator, Andrew Rebatta. Rebatta, Tam, and fellow co-curators Audra Ang and Kian Lam Kho saw the show as an opportunity to solicit the participation of a broad range of individuals, from legendary ambassadors of Chinese cooking like Martin Yan and Cecilia Chiang to more recent immigrants like home cooks Jeff Gao and Biying Ni. According to Kho, one group has been particularly influential in generating new interest in the cuisine: Chinese Americans raised and educated in the U.S., who, with English as their dominant (if not only) language, have turned to food to rediscover their roots. As these chefs have started to claim their Chinese identities, restaurant diners have become more receptive to regional or diversified styles of Chinese food. China’s recent rise to global prominence plays no small part in both developments.

Representing this new wave of Chinese-American chefs, Jonathan Wu, like others in the show, earned his stripes in the kitchens of American and European fine-dining restaurants before fully dedicating himself to exploring his Chinese heritage. “When I decided to focus on Chinese food, it felt completely right,” said Wu, who opened Fung Tu in Manhattan with restaurateur Wilson Tang in 2013. “I could explore and express my familial and cultural heritage. That, I believe, gives soul to the cooking.” For Wu, the pursuit of soulful cooking has meant embracing the fluidity of American cuisine: Ho fun lasagna and China-quiles, an interpretation of Mexican chilaquiles featuring Chinese steamed egg, currently grace the menu at Fung Tu, mirroring the heterogeneity of a country built by immigrants.

For Grace Young, a native of San Francisco, food was instrumental in strengthening fragile family bonds. “This was the way that I could reach my parents,” Young said, referring to the process of writing her first cookbook. The desire to document one home-cooked Chinese New Year’s dinner — replete with symbolic Cantonese dishes like auspicious, doubloon-shaped clams stir-fried in black bean sauce and whole poached chickens (signifying the wholeness of life on Earth) — inspired Young to research Chinese cooking techniques and eventually to author three award-winning books, two of which showcase the Guangdong-province recipes judiciously preserved in her parents’ kitchen. Young’s personal journey speaks a truth central to many communities forged out of diaspora: In the absence of a shared language — be it dialect or any communication that rests on generations of tradition — food has often been the first thing to fill the void. Where words fail, a bowl of congee or a whiff of five-spice powder can sometimes be the only thing that bridges the oceanic psychic disconnect between family members, summoning a primal, irreducible love.

Hardship is never far from the surface in the stories told in “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy.” Historical conflicts, deportation threats, assimilation struggles, and discrimination are alluded to casually, matter-of-factly, as if in knowing acceptance of the cost of progress. The second component of the exhibition, however, underscores that there is much to be proud of. Across the hall from the dinner party sits a small gallery of personal objects, one from each of the dinner guests: Prized cleavers, chef’s whites, patinated woks, and other items marking career milestones or honoring family roots are carefully displayed, shrouded in reverential silence. The atmosphere in this annex is closer to that of a more traditional museum, and yet the objects here vibrate with the stories related in the other room. In the transition from one space to the other, there is an uncanny sense that one is witnessing history in the making.

In celebration of Chinese New Year, Fung Tu will be serving special dinner menus on January 27, 28, and 30. The menus can be viewed online at

‘Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy’
The Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street
Through September 10





City Opera’s ‘Candide’ Is A Charming, Raucous Return To Form

Several years after New York City’s Opera’s departure from Lincoln Center with bankruptcy looming in the near future, the company is back onstage. It kicks off 2017 with a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, one of the most beloved scores in its repertory, directed by Broadway superstar Hal Prince. It’s both a strong and safe choice for the company’s first full season under new leadership: a crowd-pleaser of a show and a gemstone from the company’s history, in a new production by City Opera stalwart Prince, one of the leading lights of the New York theater. After its past few years, “strong and safe” is precisely what City Opera needs most, at least for now.

The lively new production is set on a vaudeville stage that brims with color, and Prince has assembled an all-star cast of Broadway actors, along with a few more traditional operatic singers of the caliber one expects from Lincoln Center. Despite vocally uneven results, the show radiates a high level of quality that recalls the now bygone Broadway of Prince’s past, before all the Disney and jukebox musicals moved in.

Adapted from Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide follows its titular youth who, exiled from his home in German Westphalia, traverses the globe seeking his long-lost love Cunegonde. Throughout their travels, the two take comfort in the specious optimism of their childhood tutor, Dr. Pangloss — Voltaire’s caricature of the German baroque philosopher Leibniz — who taught them, against all evidence to the contrary, that they inhabit “The Best of All Possible Worlds.”

As the title character, Jay Armstrong Johnson (known for his recurring role on the ABC series Quantico) grows into his role vocally over the course of the evening. His tenor is clear and light, with a tight and tremulous vibrato, but it struggles through some of the more demanding, expansive passages in Bernstein’s score. Still, he plays the part with brightness, sincerity, and good comic timing.

He manages to hold his own throughout the show against City Opera newcomer Meghan Picerno, in the role of Cunegonde. Picerno sets the audience ablaze with her Act One showstopper, “Glitter and Be Gay,” one of the most challenging and delightful coloratura arias in the canon. The song was written to showcase an extraordinary young voice — powerful, agile, wide-ranging — and beyond all doubt, Picerno’s got it.

Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman leads the company energetically in the demanding dual role of Voltaire and Pangloss; he’s joined by musical theater luminaries Chip Zien, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Jessica Tyler Wright in a handful of smaller parts. The Tony-Award-winning actress Linda Lavin is a more convincing comic actor than singer in the unforgettable supporting role of an Old Lady with one buttock. Rounding out the principal cast is Keith Phares, who wields a muscular, resonant baritone in the role of Cunegonde’s pretty and supercilious brother, Maxmilian.

Somewhere between operetta and musical comedy, Candide’s history mirrors its protagonist’s picaresque journey: It flopped at its Broadway premiere in 1956, but underwent numerous revivals and rewrites over the 1970s and ‘80s, leading to an “opera house version” that debuted at City Opera under Prince’s direction in 1982 to great acclaim.

Under the baton of Prince’s son, the conductor Charles Prince, the City Opera Orchestra interprets Leonard Bernstein’s score with richness, verve, and only a few missteps. (The Act One overture felt uniformly rushed and frantic.) The chorus soared to superb heights, particularly in finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” in which the characters abandon the traps of Panglossian optimism and dedicate themselves to the same project that City Opera faces in its new chapter: Building a new life through hard work.

Candide runs through January 15 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.


Village Voice Art Critic R.C. Baker Wins Warhol Foundation Grant

For more than 20 years, R.C. Baker has covered the city’s art scene for The Village Voice with fearlessness and affinity for the craft. “Love of art — and hatred of ignorance and nihilism — is why I get up in the morning,” he explains. On Wednesday, Baker was one of 20 writers awarded with a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Arts Writers Grant Program.

Funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and administered by Creative Capital, the grant program awards between $15,000 and $50,000 to writers in four categories: articles, blogs, books, and short-form writing. Among other requirements, grants are awarded to writers who produce work “that is neither afraid to take a stand nor content to deliver authoritative pronouncements, but serves rather to pose questions and generate new possibilities for thinking about, seeing, and making art.”

Baker, who began his career at the Voice in 1987 as a proofreader, won for his short-form writing, including this piece from March of 2016, in which he weaves together art history, memoir, and his collaboration with artist Christian Jankowski.

An excerpt:

…it is always heartening to hop on the subway, stroll to the Met, and gaze at an incredibly delicate Greek vase, forever fragile but still with us after 2,500 years. And around the world, serendipity often plays a role, as when a farmer plowing his fields or weekenders exploring a cave stumble upon long-forgotten artifacts. We are plain lucky to know something of our kin from more than 30,000 years ago through their ivory carvings and paintings on cavern walls; some, such as the negative handprints created by blowing pigment around outstretched fingers, reveal astounding conceptual leaps. “I was here,” they communicate over the millennia, a gesture acknowledging the hope that there will always be future generations to discover what we have left behind.

Writers interested in applying for the Arts Writers Grant Program can go here.

You can read more of Baker’s work here. We at the Village Voice could not be more proud.


Daniel Kitson’s ‘Mouse’ Is a Sticky, Entertaining Trap

In Daniel Kitson’s newest one-man show, Mouse: The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought, a fictitious rodent becomes the bait that draws two men into dialogue with each other, and the audience into Kitson’s intricately woven narrative universe. Kitson is a British “narrative theater” artist, solo performer, and stand-up comedian, and here plays William, a writer whose current project follows a strange encounter between an unnamed woman and the mouse caught in her household trap, whom she befriends and ultimately sets free. Kitson also plays the disembodied voice of Billy, a stranger who calls William’s landline, starting up speakerphone conversation that lasts until dawn.

Over the course of the night, a set of similarities emerge between the two men that grows increasingly uncanny. Their pasts mirror each other closely, and in unusual ways — both had flats above a chicken restaurant at one point, for example — but they now lead very different lives. They share a sense of creeping isolation, William in his day-to-day work as a writer and Billy in his busy life as a husband and parent. Each finding something of himself in the other, the two come to reflect on the choices large and small that amount to a life. Despite the characters’ mutual loneliness, the atmosphere of the play stays buoyant throughout. Kitson occasionally steps out of character to chat playfully with the audience and detail William’s backstory, adding yet another braided layer to an already complex script.

There are plot developments here that an intuitive reader is likely to guess, but though the script takes some predictable turns, Kitson’s performance is consistently delightful (if not always surprising). The general setup recalls the famous conceit behind Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which a 69-year-old man contemplates his life by listening and talking back to a taped recording of his voice from thirty years earlier. But the mood of Kitson’s script is lighter, closer to his roots in stand-up comedy than the sort of brooding melancholy Beckett made famous, with some especially sharp jokes cracked about parenthood, marriage, and conventional gender roles.

Only occasionally does this set of deftly interlaced shaggy-dog stories start to feel a bit too shaggy. Some more compression would help streamline things at the outset, to avoid the feeling of an overly drawn-out conclusion, but Mouse still manages to capture the audience’s imagination in a sticky, sweet, entertaining trap of a play.

Mouse: The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought

Written and performed by Daniel Kitson
St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn
Through November 27


Flirtatious Pink, Not Revolutionary Red, Is Xu Zhen’s Color

Certain characteristics of contemporary Chinese art have clung to the popular imagination more than others. Some might picture the political pop of Wang Guangyi, in which propaganda-style posters feature images like a comrade reading Mao’s Little Red Book in front of a Gucci sign. Others might imagine the cynical realism of Yue Minjun, his ironic self-portraits documenting frozen laughs and pained squints. These pieces are as recognizable as they are digestible, but as China’s capitalist Communism has matured and mutated, a crop of new works has begun supplanting these familiar images.

Take Xu Zhen’s kaleidoscopic oeuvre. The main room of his self-titled show at James Cohan contains three paintings from his “Under Heaven” series. There’s no revolutionary red here, only flirtatious pink. The canvasses have been covered by luxurious blobs of paint applied with icing nozzles, the countless twirls forming a cloyingly sweet surface. A vase titled Vault-of-Heaven is displayed in the corner; the delicate peach-blossom pattern on the porcelain is offset by a brutal bend in its neck. In Focus, an analog camera is pinned to the wall by a lance that’s seemingly been stabbed through its lens. There are no Party slogans here, but perhaps the capricious hold of the Communist regime becomes visible in the dangling lance? The “frosting” on the paintings look like they’d melt off on a hot summer day; can one read the fragility of the country’s economy in these supine blobs?


Xu Zhen was born in 1977, and came of age at a time when China was transitioning from an era marked by politics to one defined by economics. Zhen emerged in the Chinese art world in the Nineties, when money started flooding the country as if it were the Wild West, and his work has addressed this shift. For ShanghArt Supermarket (2014), for example, he re-created a Chinese convenience store in which empty packages of toothpaste and cereal could be bought at store price. His preoccupations bring to mind those of another Chinese artist, Cao Fei, born a year after Zhen; her recent solo show at MoMA PS1 included a work — RMB City — built entirely within Second Life and named after the Chinese currency.

For Zhen, money isn’t merely a token; he plays with the idea that, in contemporary China, economic structures have replaced political symbols, or even the figure of the artist. In 2009, the artist dissolved his personal identity, replacing it with the “MadeIn Company,” an “art creation company” outfitted with two dozen workers for whom Zhen became the CEO. Since then, his works have been credited to MadeIn. In 2013, the company launched “Xu Zhen” as a brand, as if to say that the artist is not the author, but a profitable product. Zhen doesn’t need political imagery in his works. Instead, it’s the structures by which these works are made that become charged; the fact that the “Under Heaven” series was produced by MadeIn assistants is more symbolic than the swirls themselves.


Zhen’s (or rather, MadeIn’s) latest work hangs in the back room, a Gothic sculpture constructed from leather-and-rubber objects that allude to bondage. The title of the work, Corporate-(Erected), invites associations with both the corporeal and corporate worlds. It’s as though the body of the sculpture, wrapped with whips and belts tied by MadeIn employees, has been incorporated. The show’s most interesting work, though, hangs across the room. Rainbow (1998) stems from the early days of Zhen’s career: In the four-minute-long video, which premiered at the 2001 Venice Biennale, we see a naked back being whipped repeatedly. The instigator here has been cut out, with only his or her output visible: Though we hear the whip crack, we don’t see the whip itself. It’s the only work in the show that’s still credited to Zhen, and the only piece that contains a human figure. The work was made on the cusp of China’s economic boom, and seems to offer a peek into an earlier world. We might not see the whip, but what remains visible is the skin turning brighter and brighter red, almost as if out of embarrassment.

Xu Zhen
James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th Street
Through October 8