once upon a time
Courtesy of The Vanderbilt Republic

The treasured moments of privacy, contemplation, and introspection can seem desperately rare in urban culture. The opportunity to quietly reflect during the daytime bustle of the city — ensconced in a neighborhood surging with crowds, construction, and development — may seem all but impossible.

And yet a masterfully simple exhibit which pays homage to an iconic artist’s work allows for an all too rare experience of unfettered reflection within a churning city during these desperately complicated times.

Remember This Time, a site-responsive art installation on view at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (208 West 13th Street, Manhattan) marries a resplendent and potent work by artist Keith Haring with the optical and sensorial usage of camera obscura techniques by Gowanus-based Vanderbilt Republic. The exhibit is free and runs through Friday, September 22.

keith haring
Keith Haring and Once Upon A Time at The Center in 1989. (Courtesy of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center )

Haring’s particular style and form of socially- and politically-charged public art left an indelible stamp on New York City’s visual aesthetic and global pop culture. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.

The current exhibit is rich with multiple layers of history. The first layer of this exhibit is “Once Upon a Time,” an interior installation created by Haring just a year before his death.

While Haring’s well-known murals were most often viewed on city walls and in subway stations, “Once Upon a Time” uses The Center’s second-floor bathroom as his canvas. But this mural was unlike his others in public view. The piece was itself a 1989 site-specific creation, produced as part of “The Center Show” that marked the twentieth anniversary of The Stone Wall Riots, considered to be a flashpoint for the Gay Liberation movement.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
Photo by Donny Levit / New Pulp City

“Ebullient, Graphic, Homoerotic”

While seeing the illustration of a penis in a bathroom may be rather common, Haring took the idea and fashioned it into a graphic masterpiece. David Dunlap referred to the work as a “joyful mural, born in a time of shame and fear” of the AIDS crisis in the Gay and Bisexual communities in the 1980s. “He [Haring] covered every wall surface that was not tiled — and a few of those, too — with an ebullient, graphic, homoerotic, black-and-white, cartoon depiction of sexual activity, sexual organs, sexual fetishism and sexual desire,” described Dunlap in the New York Times.

Today, the space is referred to as The Keith Haring Bathroom, which hosts a variety of programs and is often used as a meeting room.

“It’s the primary focal point for visitors who come here,” said Robb Leigh Davis, Director of Arts and Culture at The Center. Davis believes the installation allows newcomers to engage with The Center and perhaps introduce newer neighbors and visitors to an area which has changed significantly since Haring first created his work. “There’s an entirely different makeup of people who are here now. The neighborhood has drastically changed,” Davis added. “The new population – who may or may not be connected to the village — have a chance to explore the Center when they come see this new work.”

The aptly titled “Remember This Time” speaks of the cultural memory layered within the exhibit.

Enter Camera Obscura

Visual artist George Del Barrio has used the camera obscura technique in other exhibitions throughout New York City. In early 2016, Del Barrio and collaborator Ashton Worthington turned the Gowanus Expressway and the surrounding neighborhood upside-down. Literally. In early 2017, Del Barrio explored The Middle Passage with the technique.

Camera Obscura sample
Illustration of a camera obscura. (Via wikimedia)

“Camera obscura” — as the process is called — is a Latin term meaning “dark room.” Del Barrio has taken Haring’s original creation and has transformed the room to the inside of a camera. The action that is taking place on the streets is then projected as images inside the room. As those very images are viewed by your retina, the optic part of your brain adjusts the visual, making it right-side-up.

The technique Del Barrio employs allows the rich history to blend with the current moment taking place outside of The Center on 13th Street.

“The sociopolitical backdrop of the Haring masterpiece drapes every second of live projection with a sense of revolution, to my eyes at least. Here you have the denizens and tourists of New York made to unwittingly mobilize a truly fearless celebration of love, as ghostly illuminations of the passion and nostalgia encased in Once Upon a Time,” said creator Del Barrio.

And that’s just what happens, sometimes in accidentally eerie ways. During my visit, I noticed a woman passing by the building with a baby stroller. The woman halted for a moment after the baby began to cry. Her figure appeared upside down against a wall while she kneeled down to comfort the child. Shadows of fabric — perhaps from a building across the street — appear to brush over the two figures. Soon after they moved on, a construction vehicle passed by, appearing to slide from left to right within the space of a thin rectangle on the ceiling. The voices of construction workers could be heard. After leaving the building, I noticed what could have been those same workers scaling the building facade across the street from The Center.

“Dawning of Awareness”

“What I like most about the exhibit is the notion of finding a way to bring the outside world into the building, speaking to the fact that the building exists for countless identities,” said Davis.

“Conjoining key historical moments with every object that bypasses the camera obscura’s field of view on 13th Street, it blends the seam between our cultural legacy and contemporary times,” Del Barrio added.

Remember This Time: Jayson P. Smith from The Vanderbilt Republic .

The exhibit functions as a means to span time, space, and the countless visitors who have passed by The Center in its rich and vital history.

“The perfect balance of positive and negative spaces in the Haring mural really help make your first moments in the darkness particularly vulnerable; one truly isn’t sure what’s what, and the body/mind complex is forced to surrender to the time it takes to resolve,” explained Del Barrio. “In many respects, that span of time — from the entry into darkness to the dawning of awareness — is what I do these obscuras for. There’s an actual opportunity to connect with a viewer ready to grapple with fear, and the absence of easy answers.”

The Center
Photo by Donny Levit / New Pulp City

Indeed there are no easy answers. The final section of my experience of the installation did not end in the bathroom. Before departing the darkened room, I stepped in front of a piece of mirror. My reflection was surrounded by the background of Haring’s work, bisected by diagonal pieces of light.

Before departing The Center, I sat down in the outdoor garden. I looked up while listening to the same construction workers I heard when I was inside the obscura. The sky was a deep blue divided into different segments by stringed lights that hung above the garden. I soon turned right on the street and walked by the entrance of the building, very aware that I was part of the exhibit inside.

The Exhibition Rundown: Remember This Time
Where:  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (208 West 13th Street, Manhattan). The Keith Haring Bathroom is on the second floor. Ask at the information desk on the first floor.
When: Open during The Center’s building hours. Mondays-Saturdays, 9am-10pm; Sundays, 9am-9pm. Through Friday, September 22.
Admission: The exhibition is free.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect the closing date change. Originally scheduled to close on Saturday, September 30, the exhibit will now close on Friday, September 22.

2 thoughts on “Exhibition Review: When Keith Haring Met Camera Obscura

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