The WhiteBox art space, a Chelsea childbirth turned into one of the LES original cultural establishments, is tucked away—sandwiched between two other galleries—on Broome Street between Chrystie and Bowery in what is ostensibly Chinatown. Inside, the space resembles what you might expect from its name; WhiteBox is literally a large, white-walled, high-ceilinged rectangle. Its walls adorned with the art and installations of the current exhibition, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” curated by Lara Pan.
Yes. You know this word from your childhood most likely, thanks to Mary Poppins, and from countless jejune contests on who could spell it, or say it fastest or backwards or what have you. Well, it turns out that all of this was just spoon-feeding patriarchy right down your little American throats the whole time. The first thing the curator of the exhibition would like you to know is that when you actually examine the meanings of the roots of this word, this is what you get: “Super: above, Cali: beauty, Fragilistic: delicate, Expiali: to atone for, and Docious: educable.” More specifically, the word as a whole means “to atone for educability through delicate beauty,” which, in/case it remains unclear, codifies how a woman is meant to present herself in a patriarchal society.
And so the exhibition at WhiteBox is titled thusly; its aim is to open up a discussion about the reconstruction of feminism in the 21st century, to empower the voices of women and their allies, to explore the boundaries of social constructs and tear down such barriers that envelop women worldwide. The works in the exhibition reflect this, of course, and are created by artists of various gender and cultural identifications, running the gamut of mediums as well: photography, sculpture, painting, installation, digital media and a rectangular layer of Biblical salt on the floor acting as a mirror image of a ceiling display video screen reflecting the rise and fall of a ‘subversive female’ Ikarus, a dual ceiling-floor loop projection, a playpen for young Ana Mendieta to continuously and magically disappear and resurface.
Juan Puntes is the founder, art director and at times curator of WhiteBox. I had the pleasure to sit down with him recently to chat about his life, attitude, WhiteBox at large and the prescience of the art scene amidst a seemingly cataclysmic state of socio-economic, political and distraught international affairs. Mr. Puntes’ rivers run deep, which is to say that he is sharp, charming, waxes philosophic, makes excellent coffee and frankly, has a great many interesting things to say about the whole scene in general.
CV: How did you get involved in the New York art scene?
JP: Originally, as a young artist in the multilayered, community-inspired East Village-SoHo art scene of the 1980s. In 1973, at the age of twenty, I landed in NYC from Spain exactly at the tail end of the Vietnam War, paradoxically as a draft evader from Franco’s (U.S.-supported) army. While being a painter and sculptor, I was greatly interested in conceptual and multimedia art, punk-noise music, performance, as well as in the social aspects that art at the time expressively utilized, rendered and filtered. I feel my real life experiences as a young immigrant-turned-citizen allied to my time working in factories upstate, being a social worker, a DJ, before attending the Boston Museum art school, allowed me to really see firsthand American society’s nuts and bolts. Those factors may have served as a construct or essence in WBX’s multifaceted programming layout—the inclusion of far-ranging mediums and voices and highly international programming WhiteBox has become known for—since its inception as a non-profit, alternative art space back in Chelsea eighteen years ago. A decade later, WBX, sensing the decline of nurturing art conversations in the streets of Chelsea, relocated to a fresher, more decidedly community bound environment in the Lower East Side to continue its socially inclined and avant-garde trajectory.
CV: What is the major focus of WhiteBox?
JP: The focus is to remain a constant, flexible experimental artistic and cultural forum open to public scrutiny, always free of charge, and fostering artistic discussion both in the local community and abroad. The range of interests and subjects in our projects can range from the aesthetically eloquent to beauty in the political. From the technological to the operatic to sound experimentation, always welcoming literary presentations and public talks on timely subjects, and now and again, responding to the times in an activist manner as need be.
WhiteBox is perhaps best described as a platform for contemporary art seen through the lens of historical and social influences. We strive to give artists, both established and new, domestic and international, exposure and space for experimentation and invention. We host discussion panels, performance art, screenings and readings, literally every type of unmitigated artistic endeavor you can imagine, WBX supports.
CV: Can you elaborate on the idea of art, particularly of WhiteBox, being a space for activism?
JP: You can say WBX becomes, on occasion, an ‘activist space’ but only when my colleagues and I choose to activate it, mostly as a reaction to a very strong and timely social or political theme. In this sense, art can be viewed indeed, as a tool, a lens, and as a weapon. On election night WBX organized a performance night showcasing Martha Rosler VJ the electoral returns via multi TV channel projections. Open to the public, people could come watch, surrounded by political art. The whole thing obviously didn’t turn out how most folk expected and I think the results, Hillary’s loss, in retrospect, surreptitiously was followed by “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” [WhiteBox’s current exhibition]. There is undoubtedly a poignancy to an exhibition empowering women under the context of the almost-first female president having lost. That being said, I think a lot of the pieces in this current exhibition stand up as examples of women ‘breaking the mold’ or redefining their own space. For example: the video by Tania Bruguera giving a speech to announce live, her bid for President of Cuba in 2018, upon Raul Castro’s announced abdication.
CV: Interesting. In the current state of political affairs do you think art becomes more significant? Does its purpose shift?
JP: I think that the world has not changed that much, really. You can look at examples of historical art, such as Goya and Daumier, and their mordant imagery is just as applicable in today’s socio-political environment as it was then. There will always be something going on in the world for art to shine a light on or use as subject, commentary or cannon fodder.
CV: What is coming up next here at WhiteBox?
JP: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” ends on January 21, running right through the presidential inaugural date. On January 18th there will be a reception where you get to meet the curator with the screening of the documentary about Carolee Schneemann, Breaking the Frame by Mariella Nitoslawska. The next show, “Corporation and Fister,” is a timely exhibition, the premises tailor-made for the corporate-bound governance we anticipate during Trump’s presidency.
Corporation is a series of 50 original mixed media interactive works that features Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen as the subject of an immersive and familiar game exhibit where players draw cards and take pieces from her. Corporation
expresses the Chairman’s daunting task of balancing economic equilibrium and all of its inherent implications in the pursuit of economic freedom for corporations and consumers in a hilariously expressed, highly provocative parody of the cost of living confined within a traditional and familiar board game.
Artist(s): Agnès Thurnauer, Alice Austen, Betty Tompkins, Bolo, Brigid Berlin, Carla Gannis, Dana Hoey, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Eleanor Antin, Hans Breder, Genesis P-Orridge, Maria de Los Angeles, Marina Markovic, Meghan Boody, Qinza Najm, Robert Farber, Rose Hartman, Ruben Natal-San Miguel, Sarah Singh, Tania Bruguera, Tim Okamura
Catch “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” at WhiteBox now through January 21st
at 329 Broome Street between Chrystie and Bowery.
Photographs provided by WhiteBox