-- A Cyberspace Review Of The Arts

Volume 21.2
May 21, 2014


Vivian Maier Documentary

See the Vivian Maier Newsletter for the story about the new documentary. Our review of Vivian Maier's work is here.

Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Sugar is a term of endearment, a synonym for money (especially in dubious transactions), a disguise of difficulty or bitterness (sugar-coated pills), a dangerous, addictive drug, according to some people, a slang metaphor for a number of other drugs, several songs, a common household item, the former business of the Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the substance, literal and metaphorical, of a major installation by Kara Walker in a portion of the Domino factory, soon to be leveled for yet more condos, offices, studios, and other glitzy props of the life of the new creative elites.

Sugar, of course, was the original mainspring of slavery in the New World. Before the sudden expansion of Western European power in the 15th and 16th centuries, slavery was dying out. In the New World, first gold was hunted; but then it turned out that there was a material more interesting than gold which could be grown and harvested by slaves. In any case, the gold (and the land) were simply stolen from the Indians, who were then murdered. There wasn't that much gold. King Cotton would come along later.

In between, major powers fought wars to get control of the places where sugar would grow, and to get slaves to do the work. Sugar was a component of what came to be called the 'triangular trade': sugar (and alcohol made from sugar) for guns; guns, most useful for their business, traded to African slavers for slaves, along with some of the alcohol; the slaves imported and made to work, and die, to harvest the cane and make the sugar.

(The United States won at Yorktown, and thus secured its independence, partly because a French fleet, on the way to the West Indies for a really important war, stopped for a few weeks to give their American allies a hand by preventing the besieged British from being resupplied. For the French navy, it was a sideshow. For the United States, along with slavery, it was a cornerstone and an icon. When you look at our sphinx, you are looking at a Founding Mother.)

So that is part of the context of sugar, and of Domino, and of this installation. You probably knew all that already; they teach it in every grade school, do they not?

The artist, Kara Walker, calls her installation in the former Domino sugar factory 'Subtlety'. We will see whether it is subtle.

The formal or physical properties of the installation are impressive. One enters a large industrial space, several stories high and hundreds of feet long, which is nearly empty except for a single lone machine, some platforms, the installation, dominated by the major sculpture, and the dwarfed audience. Scattered about the space are a number of small statues of Black children, the sort of thing one might have had in one's garden, perhaps, in the not-so-distant past, but a bit larger.

Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
The children are laborers; they are holding baskets of jewel-like objects, or carrying casks or other objects. They do their work with a rather sweet expression on their faces. And they are melting, because they are made of sugar. Each one is surrounded by a puddle of sugar, melted by the water it has absorbed from the air. One sees the major figure, the sphinx, from a great distance along what seems to be a long hallway. The size is enhanced by the lighting, which is mostly whatever comes in through the old industrial windows high overhead.

The sphinx itself towers over its viewers, nearly filling the vertical space available to it. While it is clearly based on the sphinxes of old, there are deviations from the traditional Egyptian model. For one thing, instead of the visage of a quasi-royal or divine being, the head is that of a Black servant, and to drive the point home, it is topped by an Aunt Jemima-style kerchief. The face has exaggeratedly African features: very thick lips, and a small, turned-up, button nose. The brows are slightly knitted in seeming anxiety, and the corners of the lips almost tremble between anxiety and ingratiation. One can make no mistake about the caste of the person it depicts. The pose, with the shoulders raised and back, is such that massive breasts are exposed. Both arms are extended forward in a sphinx-like pose; both hands are clenched in fists with the fingers turned down. The left hand shows a curious gesture, with an elongated thumb inserted between the index and middle finger. A great many inconclusive opinions were available as to the significance of this gesture.[1]

Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Viewed from the side, the sphinx is revealed to have the hips sharply canted upward, so that the buttocks are almost as high as the head, and the female genitals are very clearly exposed to view from the back. We are being reminded that the function of the slaves was not only to produce labor but more slaves as well, and maybe a little pleasure for their masters by the way. This was more an American than a West Indian thing; in the West Indies, the slaves were simply worked to death -- new supplies were constantly needed -- whereas in America the slaves multiplied and became an important item of commerce in themselves. Indeed, the commerce was so important that the White people of the Old South chose to fight, kill, suffer, and die, not only to preserve existent slavery, but to win the right to extend it westward and southward, so that they could find a market for their surplus slaves and thus make it possible for their way of life to continue and expand. They failed, but they did manage to endow the country with a peculiar caste system that endured for generations and continues to endure today.

Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
The sculpture is, as a whole, coated with white sugar, although the bulk of its volume is made up of plastic blocks. I have read that between the little boy attendants and the coat of the sphinx, 80 tons of sugar were used, donated by Domino. This is believable; 80 tons of sugar would form a cube about 14 feet along each edge. It is a lot of sugar, although probably pretty minuscule compared to the production of this factory at the height of its powers. As for believing Domino would donate it, see below.

Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
Kara Walker: Subtlety (detail)
The sphinx might be said to have a cartoon style overall, in the sense that a cartoon can be serious as well as humorous. There is little detail, and as noted above; the features, expression, garb, and posture of the figure are at once essential and exaggerated. As a result, the meaning of the form is instantly available to those viewers willing to take it in, and indeed this style makes it a much more serious, more weighted object than if minor details irrelevant to its purpose were included.

The work is certainly popular. On a pleasant Sunday afternoon, at about 4:30 pm, there was a line of about 300 people, and I waited half an hour or so to get in. Nevertheless, because of the huge space in which the installation is placed, there was no crowding. People were able to move around freely, to photograph (this is encouraged), to discuss, to point out, to take selfies with the sphinx as a backdrop, to wander about the antique industrial space, now a sort of unaccountable mammoth of a bygone age.

Above and beyond its formal properties and its crowd appeal, what does it convey? Ironies abound, even for Williamsburg, and perhaps subtleties as well, when we consider the multiplicities and complexities which meet in this installation. They will not attract, or indeed even reach, every observer, but they are there if we choose to witness them.

Consider the opportunity to create such an installation. Domino did not sell the factory because it was unprofitable, but because more profits could be made by taking advantage of the inflated real estate market of New York City and especially Williamsburg. As a result, hundreds or maybe thousands of people were thrown out of work, most of them out of low-wage jobs which would give them little mobility in the local economic order. Many of these people, being Black, Puerto Rican, Dominican, West Indian, or Central American, are descendants of the very people who were enslaved to make sugar and thus build America. (Walker took care to have a sign erected dedicating her installation to the thousands of people who worked at the factory over the years, who made the factory and the business, many of whom are now out of luck, a part of that now fading part of America that worked and made something.)

So Domino and the real estate developers who are going to turn the factory into high-tech, high-priced real estate might be said to have paid to get kicked in the teeth, very metaphorically speaking, by a major artist. Do they care? They probably like it. Art draws people with money and sanctifies what might otherwise be inexcusable. Unlike angry Rockefeller having Rivera's mural destroyed because of Lenin's face [2], they're hip to the public relations and real estate value of liberalism and tolerance. Besides, communism is dead, isn't it? Today's rebels and disrupters are welcome at MoMA, than which there cannot be a more class-bound and elitist institution, even in New York City, and they can bring Lenin along for tea if they can find him.

More generally, the demise of the sugar business in Williamsburg can be taken as a synecdoche for the whole onslaught of gentrification which has been especially aggressive in Brooklyn, and with it, the larger picture of the increasing gap between the rich and everyone else that drives it, the deindustrialization of the country, and all that those developments portend. Melting sugar indeed.

In the ancient world, the sphinxes posed riddles which were fatal for those who failed to answer them correctly. Here is one: 'In my end is my beginning; in my beginning is my end.'


A Collection of photographs from the Installation


The Domino Sugar Factory can be found on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just north of the Williamsburg Bridge. It is open on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays from 12 noon until 6 p.m. The entrance is indicated by prominent signage.


[1] Wikipedia says, 'Fig sign is a gesture made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, or, rarely, the middle and ring fingers, forming the fist so that the thumb partly pokes out. In some areas of the world, the gesture is considered a good luck charm; in others (including Greece, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Turkey among others), it is considered an obscene gesture. The precise origin of the gesture is unknown, but many historians speculate that it refers to female genitalia. In ancient Greece, this gesture was a fertility and good luck charm designed to ward off evil. This usage has survived in Portugal and Brazil, where carved images of hands in this gesture are used in good luck talismans,[10] and in Friuli.' I was not able to find any dictionaries of the gestures of American Negro slaves, but given their predicament, I have no doubt they had a rich gestural vocabulary, and I hope someone recorded it.

[2] See

E A R L I E R     A R T I C L E S


The Draughtsman's Congress

[permanent link to this article]

Announcement and Preview
by Susan Roecker

Read the PDF here....

Exhibition opening
Sunday, November 17th, 2013 from 1:00 to 4:00 pm
368 East 8th Street, NYC (between C & D)
or see

Sara Schneckloth

Sara Schneckloth, 2013 (detail)
Sara Schneckloth, 2013 (detail)

at Soho20 and the
Fowler Arts Collective

In late June and early July of this year, Sara Schneckloth, an artist currently working in South Carolina who should be known better here (and in the world) visited the Fowler Art Collective in Greenpoint to do several days of intense work (ten hours a day, according to the artist) on her characteristic drawing. A few months previously (in March) she had a brief show at Soho20 in Chelsea, sharing the space with some other artists.


Minerva, Model (Elizabeth Hellman), and Artist Demonstrate in Petrosino Square Plaza
Minerva, Model (Elizabeth Hellman), and Artist Demonstrate in Petrosino Square Plaza

The Battle of Petrosino Square

A war of sorts has broken out between two improbable belligerent parties around a little-known pocket park in Lower Manhattan, Petrosino Square. On the one side are some of the immediately local residents of the rather unusual neighborhood that surrounds the park; on the other, the Greenwashing Department of Citibank. The central issue is the Citibike installation in the park's plaza, which has preempted a space intended and used for large public works of art.



Battle of Carnival and Lent (detail)
Battle of Carnival and Lent (detail)

Judith Schaechter: Battle of Carnival and Lent At Claire Oliver Gallery, NYC

This is not a review, but a pointer to the announcement of Judith Schaechter's upcoming show at the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York, where you can see the works we reviewed while they were still at the Eastern State Penitentiary site in Philadelphia. The show will be there from May 23d until June 29, and there is a reception with the artist on May 23d from 6 to 8 p.m. The Claire Oliver Gallery is at 513 West 26th St. in New York.

For more information, see the announcement,; see the Artezine article for an idea of what to expect.


S H E L L    G A M E

Molly Crabapple: Great American Bubble Machine (detail)
Molly Crabapple: Shell Game / Great American Bubble Machine (detail)

'Shell Game': Molly Crabapple At Smart Clothes Gallery

This is not a review, just a pointer to this show and artist, whose most recent works have been noticed in Wired, The New York Times, HuffPo, The Village Voice, and so forth. The public show opening is at 7 p.m. April 14th (this evening as I'm writing this) and is to be an Event. It will be up for only a short time. I strongly recommend it; the artist's combination of a sensuous, indeed luscious graphic style, sharp wit, surrealism, humor, and political consciousness are not to be missed.

See the artist's web site for further information.

The gallery is at 154 Stanton Street (corner of Suffolk Street in the Lower East Side) and the opening is at 7 p.m. April 14.


Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt at MoMA/PS1

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Tender Love Among The Junk (installation)

Entering this exhibition, which occupies one of the larger spaces at MoMA/PS1, was overwhelming. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. The entire space is filled with numerous, mostly shiny artifacts, made of the most diverse materials, mostly things one might obtain from a 99-cent store or a trash pile. Several themes and concerns come together: formal pictorial and plastic values; religious sensibility and aesthetics; Gay and general sexuality; class politics; diverse cultures; the conflicts and cross-pollination between these elements.


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Judith Schaechter

Judith Schaechter: Andromeda
Judith Schaechter: Andromeda

at Eastern State Penitentiary

   by Gordon Fitch

On a chilly day late in November, as the sun was already declining towards the horizon, I found myself within the heavy, gray stone walls of a prison, or rather the ruin of a prison....
Read about it here!

Susan Roecker's Cat(s)

Susan Roecker
Susan Roecker

at Avenue C Gallery

-- read about them here --

Vivian Maier: detail of book cover self-portrait

Like a figure in a dream, Vivian Maier begins to disappear even as we catch sight of her. With one ambiguous gesture she points out our world and shows us things that were always there, but which we had never seen; with another, she declines our questions and steps back into the darkness. We want to call out to her to wait, but the dream silences us, and then she is gone forever. We turn and, scattered all around us, see the objects of her work, an enormous treasure we will spend years, even lifetimes, trying to order and decode. About Maier herself, we can mostly only guess. ... -- more --




April 14, 2014