Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Our City Dreams - Movie Review

Some arthouse films get a lot of airtime when it comes to advertising. I have never heard of this one, but thanks to Netflix, it popped up on my list of suggested titles. And thankfully so. Our City Dreams is a documentary-style glimpse into the lives of five women artists who came from elsewhere, even across oceans, to pursue art careers in New York City (Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero). It is a monumental four-year undertaking by Chiara Clemente, herself a transplant living in NYC, and daughter of known painter and art royalty, Francesco Clemente.

Each of the women artists featured in this film is at a different point in her career, working in different disciplines. The film also delves into feminist undertones, and each of the subjects has a different feeling about what it means to be a woman artist. For one, this means everything, for another, it's almost irrelevant.

Swoon, 2006                                                               Swoon, 2004


The movie is a journey of sorts, profiling each artist from youngest to oldest. So, it begins with Swoon, who happens to be one of my favorites. She is a street artist from Florida, who came to New York to attend Pratt Institute in 1997 (as did I in 1995). It was fascinating to see who she is and the process of how she creates her paste-up surprises all over the city. The film traces her career from the streets of the outer boroughs to the prestigious recognition and purchase of several prints by MOMA. I sensed that while she is enjoying the fruits of popularity and success, she prefers the years of struggle and above all, the anonymity. I see her work all the time in my section of Brooklyn. They are ephemeral in nature; eventually destroyed by time, the elements, and other street artists. This cycle only means that there will be more pieces to which I can look forward. Here are more of my photos of her work that has appeared throughout my neighborhood over the years.

2005                                                                         2002

(similar style by Gaia) 2008                                                                   2009

Ghada Amer, who was the original impetus for the film, came to New York by way of Cairo. She wanted to be somewhere where she could blend in and be anonymous, but we join her in her travels back to her native country where her identity is hardly a secret. Ghada's work consists of large, elaborate canvases featuring the colorful embroidered overlapping outlines of women from the pages of porn magazines. She then coverts the embroidered unsupported fabric into large paintings by introducing paint and clear medium allowing the dye from the thread to bleed into a watercolor effect. Some of her pieces are so large, that her working process engages other women in the tradition of a sewing circle.

We also accompany sculptor, Kiki Smith, through a large mid-career retrospective of her work. She hasn't seen some of the work for decades, but still finds it relevant. Her sculptures focus primarily on the female body and biological life processes. She often incorporates social and political issues into her work. As the daughter of sculptor, Tony Smith, she has an instant connection to the documentarian.

Marina Abramovic is a performance artist from Serbia. Her philosophy about physical location in New York, is that "you have to be in places where it's difficult, where you can say something". One of her earlier performances from 1975, entitled, "Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful" made me laugh out loud. The ten second clip shows a woman fitfully brushing her hair and repeating the title as a mantra depicting the pressures and perceptions of living as a female artist. I found it funny probably because it mirrors my own anxieties about my identity as a female artist.

The film ends with eighty-year old Nancy Spero who is now deceased. She was a feminist and activist, an artist, wife, and mother. The other artists in this film had different attitudes towards these roles, but she seemingly had it all. She has lived and worked with her artist husband (painter, Leon Golub) in Chicago and Europe, but eventually found themselves coming to New York. Her work was greatly influenced by the turbulent times and imagery of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. At the end of her vignette, she beams about her recent invitation to participate in the upcoming Venice Biennale. Here are a couple of my photos of her work entitled, "Maypole/Take No Prisoners" at the Venice Biennale in 2007.


This film is a collective "portrait of the artist".  While it touches on the geography of New York, it is more of an initmate look into the processes and inner-workings of these particular women. At the same time, it begs the question whether the artist is feeding upon the city or if the city is feeding upon the artist. I can totally relate.

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