Coming Full Ellipse: Brightleaf to Painted Leaves by Allen Smith

Eighteen years ago, the age of 18 didn’t seem distant. Just a year older than that, I was spending a summer as a volunteer at Terry Sanford’s North Carolina Senate Campaign Headquarters.

While Sanford was busy visiting every county in the state, I was preoccupied with putting stamps on envelope after envelope. This was before the days of self-sticking stamps. There was a little stamp-moistening contraption I could have used, but I found that licking the stamps was faster. Memories of that summer still are accompanied by a gluey taste in my mouth.

When I wasn’t tasting stamps, I often was dawdling over long lunches at Val’s Upstairs, a restaurant on the second floor of a building across Main Street from Brightleaf. The building seemed haunted by patrons from another era, some perhaps having moved upstairs from the bygone Ivy Room Restaurant, one of the first Bull City eateries to integrate.

Val’s jukebox was stocked with oldies but goodies, and you could spend all the time in the world lingering there over lunch. It was the kind of place where the wait staff would just deposit a pitcher of iced tea on your table and leave you alone for as long as you pleased. I sat there looking out the window daydreaming for many an hour over many a bean burrito.

Just across the street from Val’s on the second floor of Brightleaf Square was another favorite lunchtime haunt: the now-defunct Judge Gallery. Often empty at lunch hour, I would wander through, admiring surreal paintings of airplanes by Henryk Fantazos, and a few pieces by Georgio De Chirico. I would make it abundantly clear to the employees working there I barely had enough funds available for burritos, much less any of the paintings hanging in the gallery. Even though I clearly was just there to look, the staff patiently escorted me around the room, helping me get a better idea of what I was observing. Maybe it was just the gluey taste in my mouth that put me in a mood for getting attached, but there and then I got stuck on the idea of a life that would afford me more opportunities to go gallery hopping.

It was ages ago that Val closed her restaurant, so I don’t have her pitchers of iced tea and jukebox to blame for not acting on this idea sooner than last week. But 18 years later, I finally got to spend an afternoon of gallery hopping in New York City, accompanied by Mary Temple, an old friend who I met through a buddy from college, and my partner Andrew.

Mary and her husband moved to New York City from Arizona 10 years ago, which was about the same time I moved from Durham to Washington, D.C. Mary has quietly gained a foothold in several Manhattan galleries recently. When I let her know Andrew and I were coming up for a visit in July, she invited us to see her work at several Manhattan galleries. Visiting New York galleries with an up-and-coming artist sounded about as likely a thing for me to get to do as boarding one of Fantazos’ aircrafts.

We met at Salsa y Salsa, a breezy little Mexican restaurant conveniently located near Penn Station on Seventh Ave. between 21st and 22nd where I had, what else, a burrito. After lunch, we wandered further west in Chelsea, dropping by the new Zieher Smith Gallery (531 25th Street), where Mary recently had a solo show. Feeling uncertain about the proper volume of my voice for galleries, I kept quiet and daydreamed about what it must feel like to have a public space devoted entirely to your work. This was a poor strategy for observing others’ art, and we were back outside before the concept of taking in others’ work fully registered with me.

I don’t know what Martha Stewart’s take on bean burritos would be, but we did pass her enterprise’s headquarters in a renovated Chelsea warehouse, reminiscent of the Fowler Building on the American Tobacco campus, on our way to the next gallery, Mixed Greens (601 W. 26th Street, 11th Floor). Displaying artists’ work throughout the gallery and office, the Mixed Greens gallery soon will have a solo show of Mary’s work. At the entrance of the office, an installation of a long rack of ties ranging from dull to bright colors made us linger. The artist, Jean Shin, once placed ties on a fence around a vacant parking lot in New Haven, Conn.

Other Shin works of interest include photographs of found art, including colorful tangles of yarn Shin found during extensive tours of Asia. Cloth is a recurring theme in Shin’s work, as are other odds and ends and tidbits of daily life that typically are castaways. Twin towers of pants cuffs split apart were particularly evocative set on a shelf before the window-filled office’s view of New York’s skyline. Shin is making her presence known in the city at several sites, including a solo show scheduled next year at the Museum of Modern Art.

Other works of interest included Coke O’Neal’s blurry photographic recreations of such pop icons as Marlon Brando. The images somehow manage to highlight the shadows around the stars as much as their bruised looking faces. A projection installation designed by Julianne Swartz featured an ellipse, through which a pinwheel and upside down photo of a tapestry of Leona Helmsley could be seen.

Much of Mary’s work features ellipses. Eventually, she will have a series encompassing 1,000,000 ellipses drawn in varying bright shades of pink, orange and pale brown. The bright orbits evoke her onetime job as a cake decorater, and also suggest disintegrating orders. In addition to the ellipses, Mixed Greens includes one of her pieces from a newer series of wall drawings that simulate shadows cast on household walls by indoor houseplants.

Next up was a group show, OnLine, at Feigen Contemporary (535 W. 20th Street). In addition to several pieces in the million ellipses series and another flora-intensive wall painting, we lingered by Karen Davie’s white folds of paper draping off the wall, sagging like udders with the backs of the paper bright as egg yolks, peeking through several open zippers. And I was taken by the diamonds, heats, clubs and spades burned into paper by Charles Spurrier.

For those gallery hopping in Chelsea, a visit to DIA:Chelsea (48 W. 22nd Street) can be rewarding. This center for contemporary art recently was in the news earlier this year for the establishment of a sister institution north of New York City in Beacon, N.Y., (DIA:Beacon, 3 Beekman Street), which is approximately an hour and a half north of the city. But we didn’t stop by since DIA:Chelsea is closed until autumn.

Instead, we decided to venture beyond Chelsea and visit the Nohra Haime Gallery on 57th St. (41 E. 57th Street, (212) 888-3550), where numerous other galleries are located. At the entrance, three mobiles made up of photographs of human eyes descended from the ceiling in a collage by Heather Cox. After observing several more pieces in the ellipses series, we entered a room filled with Louise Nevelson sculptures, including one highly evocative of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.”

The time had nearly come for that gallery to close, and I’d just about reached the point of sensory overload, so high culture disintegrated into low. We splashed out into a bout of shopping at Daffy’s, the “discount store for millionaires” and, apparently, us.

A week later, with a pitcher of iced tea on our sunroom table in suburban D.C., I found myself staring out the window at the trees’ show of greenery and was pleasantly stuck in several overlapping daydreams...

© Allen Smith 2003

Originally from Durham, North Carolina, Allen Smith is the editor of the Americans With Disabilities Act Compliance Guide. He has had poems published in numerous literary journals, including Chicago’s Off the Rocks, Crucible and Maryland Poetry Review, and has published an essay in the Urban Hiker.  He also bought one of Mary Temple's drawings during his visit.

Related Links: