Monday, September 13, 2010

Valentine-Varian House / Lehman College Art Gallery

3/13/10, Saturday

Valentine-Varian House ……………………… 1 hr
Lehman College Art Gallery …………………. 45 min

Valentine-Varian House ………………….…… $5 each
Lehman College Art Gallery …….……………. Free

PAULINE HERE: On Saturday March 13, the New York region experienced a terrible storm. Considered the worst in 30 years, a powerful Nor’easter tore through the area with wind gusts up to 60 mph and over 5 inches of rain.  Half a million people lost power, roads and homes flooded, and 6 people were killed by falling trees.  In the middle of the storm, Paul and I went to the Bronx to see museums.

The idea to go out in the storm was mine, and I’ll admit it was a bad one.  In my defense, I have to say that I was mislead by the wussy attitude of New Yorkers toward rain.  I’m from Seattle (where it rains, a lot).  This was my first spring in New York, and I had been repeatedly astonished by people canceling or changing plans due to rain.  If there is even the slightest chance of precipitation, New Yorkers bail on everything and stay home.  I’m still mystified.  What tragedy do they think will befall them if they venture out in the rain?  Do they melt?  Needless to say, no Seattle-ite would ever stay home due to rain; if you did, you’d be a shut-in September through June.  So when I heard it would rain today and was advised that we shouldn’t leave the house, I rolled my eyes and muttered snarky comments under my breath about New York pansies afraid to get wet.  (To be fair, Paul says similar things about Seattle-ites and snow.)  I didn’t check the weather report to see if perhaps this was an exceptional amount of rain.

Surprisingly, museum-hopping in a storm was a fun experience.  Sure one museum was closed due to power outages, but the museums that were open were NOT crowded.  In some places we had the full attention of chatty bored docents who admired our dedication (Valentine-Varian House).  At other museums we were the only customers, left alone to explore the echoing halls however we wanted (Maritime Industry Museum).  Paul has volunteered give me a break from writing and do the museum blogging today, and he’ll tell you all about it.

PAUL HERE: So when Pauline and I started out doing this project, we were committed to seeing all of the different boroughs of NYC.  The one that caused us the most trepidation was the most northern borough, The Bronx.  Most people only think of two things when it comes to The Bronx- Yankee Stadium and crime.  The crime-ridden reputation is so strong that one of our friends who is from the Bronx is often asked if he’s ever been shot, and how he survives.

While crime and the Yankees can still be part of the Bronx experience, they are both located in south Bronx.  Today we largely visited the north end, which is surprisingly wealthy and very, very nice.  However, the day we went into the Bronx was not so nice.  This particular Saturday had cold, gale-force winds, driving torrential rains, downed trees and broken umbrellas in abundance.  I questioned our reasons for gallivanting around in a torrential storm, but Pauline was made of sterner stuff.   She offered to drive, I agreed, and off we went.

Our first stop was the Valentine-Varian House, built in 1758 by blacksmith Isaac Valentine.  It’s the borough's second oldest house and oldest remaining farmhouse.  The house remained in the Varian family (which included Isaac Varian, New York's 63rd Mayor) until 1905.  Currently, it houses a few period furnishings, the Bronx Historical Society, and a small exhibit on Edgar Allen Poe, whose house is just down the road.  The house is small, and not in its original place.  We’ve noticed that house moving is a pretty common phenomena with historical houses- a new development wants the land, so the house gets pushed off.  Moving the Valentine-Varian took 2 days and is detailed in a series of pictures.  The stone house was ribbed with steel bands, pulled across the street by an enormous 48-wheel dolly, turned ninety degrees to rest in the street, then a nearby park was enlarged to include the site.

The house also holds a small but interesting presentation on the history of the Bronx.  The docent was extremely informative and told us great stories about when the Bronx was a bustling, wealthy city/borough. He also told us about the decline of the borough and its slow recovery.  There was also a nice discussion on Edgar Allen Poe, but we got sidetracked talking about the addictive qualities of sugar with the docent and two other guests taking refuge from the storm, so we did not examine it in depth.  Pauline and I both thought that this was a really good start to the day.  It took a little longer than we thought, primarily because I am really chatty, but it gave us a perspective on the Bronx we did not have, making it seem far less dangerous.

Our next stop was a short drive to the Lehman College Art Gallery.  Founded in 1931, Lehman College is one of the constituent colleges of the City University of New York and is named after Herbert Lehman, a former New York governor and United States senator.  It has a very well regarded art gallery, known for publicizing artists who are on the edge of being big.  We walked into the art gallery during an alumni event, and the place was set up for a nice reception.  Even after notifying them that we were not alumni, we were invited on a tour and offered all the coffee and dumplings we could eat.  They even asked us to pose in the group picture, so we’re probably featured in the alumni magazine. 

The tour focused on the exhibition: Nature, Once Removed: The (Un) Natural World in Contemporary Drawing. It was a mix of student and professional artists each representing natural scenes using “pop” and “post-pop” sensibilities. The art was very modern, used a lot of mixed media, and offered a really different approach to nature as compared to traditional representation.  I think I liked this more than Pauline.  It succeeded, at least partially, to distort and shift perspectives on nature.  Like most modern art, it seemed that it either made a strong impression, or none at all.

The second gallery had a exhibition called State of the Dao: Chinese Contemporary Art. This was another modern-contemporary exhibit focusing on the way Chinese culture has evolved over the years.  It featured Chinese artists exclusively, using media ranging from a short video to busts carved from phonebooks (see image at left).   It, like the previous exhibit, was hit or miss.  I personally think that this would have been better if we knew more about Asian art in general. As I have learned more about where these artist’s traditions came from (by going to a bunch of Asian museums since then), I’ve come to appreciate the works a little more.

All in all, the friendly open-ness of the people we met today in the Bronx belied the rough reputation of this borough.  The Valentine-Varian House is a small museum, but its exhibits on Bronx history and chatty, knowledgeable staff provided a great introduction to the Bronx.  The Lehman College exhibits were strong examples of what is good in contemporary art, and were diverse, thought provoking and generally well done.  While we are not alumni of Lehman College, the alumni association welcomed us as one of their own and they put on a nice show, despite the horrible weather. 

Images in this post, from the top:  Upright Shepherd Walker, by Nicholas Di Genova, 2006; 2 images of the New York City area after the March 13 storm; exterior of the Valentine-Varian House, taken on a nicer day than the day we visited; interior of the Valentine-Varian House; Untitled, by Daniel Johnston, 1998; Common Buzzard, by Jackie Hoving; Old Testament Prophet, by Long-Bin Chen, 2009; Watermelon, by Yang Jinsong.

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