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The Studio Collective Our River

The Studio Collective Our River
Our River
A group exhibition by the Studio Collective
November 21, 2014 - January 15, 2015
Hastings-on-Hudson Village Hall Gallery
7 Maple Ave, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

Perspective and Transformation in the art of the Studio Collective

The participants in Our River are members of the Studio Collective, a group of politically and socially engaged artists who live in Hastings-on-Hudson. Isabella Bannerman, Diane Brawarsky, Pepe Coronado, Barbara King, Gina Randazzo, and Ed Young share more than an address, however. This exhibition of artwork by the Studio Collective was inspired by their profound, mutual concern for the current and future condition of the former Anaconda Wire and Cable factory, which sits on the shore of the Hudson River. Declared a Superfund site in July of 1989, the Anaconda factory had once been Hastings’ biggest employer[s], providing union jobs for many families in the area. 

During World War II, the United States military was its most eager customer, and the factory produced massive quantities of copper wiring for the Navy. For decades, however, and in willful disregard of the 1899 Federal Refuse Act, the factory regularly dumped its highly toxic industrial waste from copper wire production into the Hudson River. Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, were the most harmful of these contaminants. Manufactured domestically after 1929 and used to insulate copper wires, PCBs and other poisonous by-products were released into waters adjacent to the Anaconda, and accumulated in the surrounding area. The company was investigated and indicted for violating the law in September of 1971, while the extent of environmental damage was evident when the Anaconda building was declared a Class 2 “Superfund” site almost 18 years later. 

Since then, environmentalists have continued their attempts to clean the site and Building 52, the remaining structure from the Anaconda factory. Residents from Hastings-on-Hudson have sought ways to address the contamination, and the community has faced a struggle over the years between removing all remnants of the Anaconda, and reconciling that the factory and its legacy will always be a part of their history. The artists in the Studio Collective have each responded to the ongoing struggle to resolve the situation. With this exhibition, Bannerman, Brawarsky, Coronado, King, Randazzo, and Young present artworks that incorporate, reflect upon, and examine the many historical, political, environmental, and social issues surrounding the Anaconda.

Pepe Coronado’s print Presencia is at once specific and general, abstract and documentary. At the top of the picture is a three-part panorama of the Hudson River. Like an altarpiece that depicts the same subjects at multiple points in time, Coronado’s panorama skews and extends our perspective so that we see more than is possible in the real world. In the left panel, we register our location in relation to the distant, dark water tower: here, we look down the river to the south, with Hastings on the left shoreline. The right panel provides the opposite, north-facing point of view, and the central panel depicts the landscape immediately across the river. Altogether, the panorama offers us large-scale Nature, as with Hudson River School landscape painting. 

The lower half of his work—a series of overlapping, right angle triangles—transformed the most familiar detail of the Anaconda, one that is echoed by many of the other artists. This is the sawtooth roof, which consists of triangular, windowed sheds. Although this unique design makes a strong visual impact, the sawtooth roof was a highly functional nineteenth century architectural innovation designed for large industrial buildings like the Anaconda. Sloped glass windows face to the north and act as the primary light source for the building; prior to widespread electrification, a series of these peaked sheds on a roof offered an ideal means of lighting an entire floor. They enable natural, indirect sunlight to flood the space; the less intense northern light adds little additional heat to the room, and current “green” architecture uses this same innovation to limit building electrical usage and costs. The Anaconda’s iconic sawtooth roof is a reminder that innovative and creative problem solving can dramatically transform entire industries, landscapes and lives.

In Isabella Bannerman’s work Hastings Riverfront Timeline, the artist provides us with an alternate means of perceiving Building 52 and its surroundings. This depiction of the waterfront and shoreline is part of Bannerman’s engagement with graphic arts, and with the evolving history of land use and development in Hastings-on-Hudson. Bannerman’s selection and transformation of these maps gives the viewer a means to locate specific places geographically and at different points in time. From the perspective of the present day, it is easy to see the hazards of PCBs and industrial pollution. But the maps enable us to envision a place and time when the National Conduit Cable factory represented possibility, opportunity, wealth and productivity in the early twentieth century. 

The theme of transformation continues with Barbara King’s piece, “Waterfront Decisions,” which unites images from various perspectives and types of media. Bright green photographic images of cellular organisms float along the bottom of the work. Texts add another dimension to the work, from the hopeful (“New Bacteria Found for Destroying PCB’s”) to the scientific (“Dehalococcoides,” the bacteria’s code-like name) to the expressive hand-drawn markings that deface different areas on the black-and-white photograph of the entire Anaconda site. With the careful arrangement of pieces, King seems to suggest that multiple perspectives are necessary to view the entire situation, and to imagine a solution to the environmental catastrophe created by the Anaconda. 

Offering yet another perspective, Gina Randazzo’s starkly beautiful black and white photograph Building 52 depicts a broad view of the Hudson River. The Palisades loom in the far background, and their shape and size echo the sawtooth roof. The water tower juts up from behind those dark eaves, like an alien pod waiting for launch. In the foreground, two tall, inky black trees assert themselves over the scenery, train tracks just barely visible beneath the brush. Randazzo’s photograph reveals a chilling future in this gray winter setting that seems abandoned by humans. 

In dialogue with Randazzo’s photograph is the abstract, multimedia work Hudson River: Winter by Diane Brawarsky. Here, the color palette—of sepia, chestnut, and fallow browns, silvery grays, and blue-ish, bruised whites—perfectly encapsulates a Hudson winter landscape. At the bottom of the piece, the river is represented by two rows of rectangles arranged along the horizontal plane; brushstrokes coat the surface like tracks over snow and ice. An array of dark brown rectangles cascade from upper left to middle right as the topmost mountain peaks of the Palisades across the Hudson. Rectangles with rough edges, made of corrugated cardboard pieces, create the bare winter tree line, with the brightest gray-white clouds, snow and sky appearing along the top row. In depicting this river view as seen from the hills in Hastings, and in constructing the Hudson landscape in winter, Brawarsky’s abstract forms and recontextualized materials reconfirm the idea of transformation—in art, in nature, and in Hastings.

Ed Young’s collage and relief piece Sunrise on #52 shows a similar play with material. His work is a minimalist composition that perfectly captures the play of sunlight on the Anaconda rooftop. Young employs humble, unconventional materials to create his piece. Its spare lines suggest the enormous ridged spine of a river-dwelling monster, a dragon in mid-flight, or a dinosaur. His artistic process of reclaiming and reusing cardboard cast-offs shows how a shift in perspective can inspire new ideas to address old problems. As perhaps the most radical appropriation and assemblage of media in this exhibition, Young’s piece imagines a fantastical place created with a lens of possibility. 

Altogether, the Studio Collective offers a dynamic model of contemplation and response. The works in this exhibition offer us an alternate means to comprehend the site as a whole, from the microcosmic cellular structures of toxic PCBs, to the industrial architecture of this former factory, to the contaminated beauty of the surrounding Hudson landscape. Reflecting on the same subject, using a multitude of images and perspectives, the artists transform diverse media and materials. Their artworks show that creativity, imagination, and optimism are valuable, constructive tools that enable us to reconsider the past, present and future of the Anaconda, the environment, and Hastings-on-Hudson.

Essay by Juliana Kreinik
Julie holds a BA in art history from Wellesley College, and an MA and PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is Director of Research at the Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York. Her current research includes a comprehensive study of video artist Peter Campus’ oeuvre in preparation for his Catalogue Raisonné. Julie was previously a contributing editor and a contributing author for the Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, and she has taught undergraduate and graduate level history of photography courses at Pratt Institute, Pace University, and SUNY, New Paltz.