There is a disconnect between the description of Francesco Simeti’s show, Swell, and the experience of seeing his work. The show opened at Open Source Gallery (306 17th Street near 6th Avenue) on April 27 and will be on view through Sunday, May 27.
The press release describes the exhibit as exploring the “human impact on the environment,” specifically, the highly polluted waters of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.
But, Simeti’s work is far more lighthearted than I expected. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it to be so beautiful.
Flat white panels covered with elaborate and colorful pictures stand upright and parallel in the middle of the room. Delicate silhouettes depict exotic flora and fauna interlaced with black and white photographs of canal workers from the early 20th century.
Two little boys wearing caps smile at the camera, their arms entwined. Fish jump from stylized waves while seahorses, birds and chambered nautili lurk below. A few of the panels move back and forth on mechanized plywood tracks, reminiscent of Baroque Italian opera houses.
You can hear the slight whir of the motors that power them. My favorite: a sperm whale that leaps out of the water on an endless loop.
On opening night, the doors stood wide open on 17th Street while people milled around clutching glasses of wine. After awhile, someone whistled loudly and asked us all to step across the street.
Ostensibly for a group photograph, our remove put the immense piece into a new perspective making the gallery appear even more like a proscenium. Like children watching a magic show, we were all silent before it for a few minutes before drifting back across to refill our glasses.
Going to art shows, I am often thrust into a battle of head and heart. My head struggles to like a work of art while my heart says no or, worse, nothing at all. Here, my emotional response was pure glee, but I couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t getting it. Wasn’t I supposed to be mourning our lost environment? If I hadn’t read the description of the piece, I don’t believe I would have thought about it at all.
And, perhaps that’s the point. Like standing back and looking at something from afar, having the artist’s or gallery’s statement gives the viewer a new perspective on the work. The workmen in the photos, the flowers, the images of Coney Island rides, the octopus, the little boys and Gowanus clean-up workers all seem part of a delightful whole.
Rather than making us feel bad about the loss of natural beauty, Simeti celebrates our connection to each other and to the environment–both in mucking-it-up and fixing it. The theatrical artifice reflects how delicate that connection is.
Open Source Gallery will feature ‘Swell’ by Francesco Simeti through Sunday, May 27. Visit OSG’s website for more details.