The Legacy of Larry Levan, the Soul of Paradise Garage

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Larry Levan

Legendary producer/ DJ Larry Levan’s birthday is today, so I thought I would pay tribute to the musical master by giving you a sneak peek  of a project I’m launching on TONDI soon.  This piece is best read by listening to Levan’s music and this 1979 live recorded set at the Paradise Garage is about as good as it gets. Happy Birthday Larry!  

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ParadiseGarage

To get inside you first had to either be a member or know one.  It sounds exclusive but it is anything but that.  This kind of membership didn’t depend on how you looked, what you wore or which celebrities you knew, it was different here.  Members could bring in 6 people at a time and bouncers were far more relaxed about letting you inside if you had a good story to tell and a great vibe.  This was no Studio 54.  Here it wasn’t about tastemakers, influencers or followers; this was an oasis that provided guests with an escape from the world beyond its doors.  Inside these walls lived a pulsing organism whose energy was fueled by music that took control of everyone who entered.  You felt it moments before you step inside–walking up the infamous ramp, the rhythms of deep bass settling deep into your chest and the flutter of excitement growing stronger as the music becomes louder with each step.  Finally a shining neon light beckons you inside, while the music levitates you onto the dance floor where euphoric Garage dancers welcome you with smiles and sweat.

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Paradise Garage Logo. Image credit:  Soundlr

The music, the people and the sound of the Paradise Garage created a perfect storm on New York’s King Street lasting a decade;  while many clubs have since tried to imitate the vibe or duplicate the success, few have succeeded.  An architect can build a building, but a designer gives it its soul, and Larry Levan was the soul of Paradise Garage. As the preeminent DJ reigning supreme over the turntables and the masses at the Garage, Levan’s devotion to creating a sonic experience became the soundtrack for unforgettable evenings.  Just as Levan was the soul, Garage members were the spirit that kept this venue going strong between 1977 and 1987.

Many paths crossed at the Garage, gay/straight, black/latino/white, people finding themselves or losing someone else, it was a collective of open-minded indivuduals.

Some infamous artists called the Garage home and they all shared the same memory of it being safe and spiritually fulfilling yet equally outrageous and uproarious.

“You’d go to bed around ten at night, get up at four in the morning, go to the Garage, and leave at noon, refreshed to the soul…They called it the Church because a great Saturday night would end up on Sunday.”  ~Grace Jones

“I don’t know if you know how important the “Paradise Garage” is, at least for me and the tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there.  I discovered the Garage by divine ‘accident'” ~ Keith Haring

“The Garage was my church; it was where I healed my hurt”  ~ Danny Tenaglia

“It didn’t necessarily have to reference outside beacons or whatever outside tastemakers might deem to be important.  The Garage crowd was into what was going on at the Garage.”  ~ Francois Kevorkian

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Photo by Bill Bernstein

As disco faded along with the 70’s, the Garage ushered in a new era of house music loyal to disco’s roots by using music to create togetherness from otherness.  Good DJs use their music to tell a story that connects them to their audience.   What separates a good DJ from an exceptional one is their genuine appreciation and respect for the music and an ability to create aural alchemy that fills tracks with new meaning and energy. The 1979 recording of one of Levan’s Garage sets includes a section of “Dreaming a Dream” by Crown Heights Affair (about 22 minutes in) that is acoustically pitched and imbued with such force that by the time the horns kick in you have completely lost yourself in the track.

The beauty of the Paradise Garage was that the music and innovative sound system were merely the vessels to create unforgettable experiences-Larry Levan was the guide, transforming music into a euphoric high for listeners.  The crowd, eager to leave the realities of life behind them, briefly found paradise at the Garage. Sadly, reality has a way of catching up with everyone, even in paradise.  The closure of the Garage in 1987 and Levan’s death in 1992 left musical and communal holes in people’s souls. While underground clubs in the 70’s and 80’s were a dime a dozen, the Paradise Garage created a winning formula that many continue to chase to this day.  Today, aging socialites name drop Studio 54 in a desperate attempt for attention and exclusivity, but when people talk about the Garage, they make you feel like you were actually there. That is inclusion.

Feature in Arts.Black: The Provocation of Agency and Ambiguity

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Gerard Gaskin, Backstage at the Evisu Ball, Manhattan, 2010 c/o MoAD

Last month, one of my reviews on MoAD’s latest exhibitions was featured on Arts.Black.  Please click on the link below to learn more about The Grace Jones Project and Dandy Lion.

 

The Provocation of Agency and Ambiguity

I truly appreciate the efforts of Taylor and Jessica to amplify the voices of black arts writers. Check out their latest post that features a letter to filmmaker Marlon Riggs.

About Arts.Black 

Arts. Black is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue – a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee and Jessica Lynne.

 

Bullets to Hashtags

In the absence of words there are just images. Here are some of the more thought provoking photographs that have helped me think about, process and grieve the tragedies of this week.

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Image Credit: Laini Madhubuti Bad News Women via Instagram
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Image Credit: Artist Dread Scott via Instagram 
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Image Credit: Yagazie Emezi, Nikisha Brunson via Instagram
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Image: @KahlilTheIllah via Twitter

 

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Image: Chuck D via Twitter

 

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Image Credit: Antwaun Sargent via Twitter
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Image of @urbanbushbabes by Modern Women @gottesss via Instagram 

Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile.

“There is no contradiction between supporting law enforcement…and also saying there are problems, biases to be rooted out.” ~ President Obama

Fred Martins Transforms Cultural Symbols into Historical Icons

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Photo Credit: Design Indaba

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”- Marcus Garvey

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Photo Credit: Design Indaba

Fred Martins, a Nigerian visual artist based in the Ukraine has recently completed a new series of images called “Orange, Black and Freedom”.  His work combines vibrant graphic design with photography through his use of digitally created hair picks that are transformed into African and African American leaders. In each image the individual teeth of the comb are aligned to outline the subject’s profile while a semi transparent black and while image of the leader is overlaid onto the pick.  I loved all 5 images in the series which include Fela Kuti, Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela. For more on the artist and the series see below.

http://www.designindaba.com/articles/creative-work/afro-comb-used-nigerian-artist-celebrate-african-consciousness

 

 

The Art of Serendipity: James Van Der Zee & Derek Fordjour

I love little moments of artistic serendipity.  I come across them often and they are the fuel behind this site.  Today, while looking at the work of photographer James Van Der Zee, I came across this picture:

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The New York Renaissance, aka The Rens.  Photo: James Van Der Zee

It immediately reminded me of a painting by Derek Fordjour that I fell in love with a few months ago.

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Derek Fordjour, Formation, 2015. Photo c/o Papillion

The Van Der Zee photo, circa 1925, was of The New York Renaissance,  the first all black and black-owned professional Basketball team founded by Robert “Bob” Douglas in 1923.  The team was named after the Renaissance Casino ballroom/casino in Harlem where they played weekly games. “The Rens” were also the first black basketball team to tour the U.S. to play against white teams. With a record of success throughout the 20’s and 30’s, The Rens recorded their first win against the original world champion Celtics in 1925 and during their tenure they won over 2,500 games.

I love both of these works of art.  When I first saw the Derek Fordjour show at Papillion Art in February, I was immediately drawn to it. The sheer size of Formation (60 x 40) pulls you into its 3D cubed pattern on the bottom half of the painting.  At the time I assumed the subjects were soccer players and I couldn’t figure out why three of them were concealed behind a curtain.  Were they on display?  The expressions on the players faces are ambiguous; are they simply numbers on a jersey, here for our entertainment, as the discarded numbers on the 3D floor suggest?

The Rens played basketball for black and white audiences, and in Harlem the games were often the precursor to an evening of dancing and partying in the ballrooms. The jovial environment in Harlem was rarely found during the team’s road travel.  Jim Crow laws forced the players to play under uncomfortable conditions in hostile environments.  Hotel rooms were impossible to come by, and race riots erupted during at least 5 of their games.  The hostility also extended to the governing body of basketball.  The American Basketball League refused to accept the Rens into the league in 1925. In a surprising form of solidarity, the original Celtics refused the join the league as well and as a result the Celtics and the Rens enjoyed a friendly rivalry that strengthened both teams.  As the son of one of the original members of the Celtics recalls:

“I was raised hearing that the Celtics were the greatest team of all time,” said Richard Lapchick. “My dad’s friends would say that and all our neighbors would say that. But he would correct them and say, ‘The Rens were every bit as good as we were in the beginning and were better than us in the end.'”

I think it’s important to view Van Der Zee and Fordjour’s works in tandem.  Through photography, Van Der Zee captured the history and stories of a time nearly forgotten.  Derek Fordjour’s work draws from sports, board games and circus/carnival motifs to explore ideas of vulnerability. Perhaps that is why Fordjour chose to obscure three members of the team in his painting.  The Rens are one of the greatest Basketball teams in history, yet their story is barely recognized in the athletic canon.  If these stories aren’t shared or given new life, the curtain slowly closes on their legacy.

I went back through my posts on when I first wrote about Van Der Zee-February 4, 2016.  I saw Fordjour’s Formation at Papillion on February 6th.  At the time I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was so drawn to the painting.  It is perfectly clear to me now.

Sources:

Basketball in 1920’s Harlem, Digital Harlem Blog

Bob Douglas, The Father of Black Basketball, African American Registry

Derek Fordjour, Artist’s Statement

The Santa Monica Museum of Art Heads East

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Last spring, in a strategic move that I related to on a very personal level, the Santa Monica Museum of Art decided to pull up stakes on its Bergamot Station location to re-evaluate its mission in a self-reflective, revitalization effort called SMMoA Unbound.

Today the museum announced that it would be relocating from Santa Monica in favor of the ever-growing Arts District Downtown.  The museum will have more square footage, a refined community based mission and a new name: the ICA-LA (Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).  The museum has never held a permanent collection which enabled them to take risks and amplify early stage artists who were not regularly shown in larger institutions.

During their 17 year tenure in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station, the SMMoA boasts an impressive curatorial resume:

They were one of the first museums to host first solo museum exhibitions for “Urs Fischer, Joyce Pensato, Alvaro Siza, Elias Sime, Al Taylor, and Mickalene Thomas; and the first solo museum exhibitions on the West Coast for such artists as VALIE EXPORT, Andrew Lord, William Pope.L, and Henry Taylor. Other distinguished exhibitions include: Freestyle (2001), a survey of work by 28 emerging African American artists curated by Thelma Golden; The Book Show: Raymond Pettibon (2001), curated by Roberto Ohrt; Cavepainting: Laura Owens, Chris Ofili, Peter Doig (2002), curated by the artists; George Herms: Hot Set (2005), curated by Walter Hopps; Michael Asher (2008); and Brian Weil, 1979–95: Being in the World, SMMoA’s current, critically-acclaimed exhibition curated by Stamatina Gregory.”

In total, SMMoA showed the work of 1,600 artists, of which 40% were artists of color and 46% women.*

Each May the museum held its legendary INCOGNITO benefit which gave aspiring collectors an opportunity to put their artistic instincts to work by anonymously choosing art created by over 300 artists.  Hidden amongst the works all priced at $300.00 each were blue chip contributions from John Baldesari, Bettye Saar, Mark Bradford and Ed Ruscha.  Their impressive programming and fundraising efforts cemented SMMoA’s reputation as an “Artists Museum”.  This transformation and the move downtown suggests a symbolic referendum on the current state of the westside’s art community as much as it is a gamble on DTLA’s.  The Arts District location will certainly place the new museum in closer proximity to the artists who live and work on the outskirts of downtown in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. The move also points to a missed opportunity for Bergamot Station, and the Barker Hangar in particular, which has in recent years been at the epicenter of contemporary art fairs in Los Angeles. The future of art fairs in Los Angeles will is likely to shift east as larger galleries, artists, institutions and young, emerging collectors have firmly planted their stakes downtown.

*2015 Unbound Press Release

 

 

SFMOMA in 3: Part 3

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Robert Arneson’s California Painter looking at Njideka Akunyili Crosby & Lynett Yiadom-Boakye paintings

Recognizing that 3 posts about SFMOMA may have been overkill, I would be remiss if I didn’t share some observations on the functional space and the technology in addition to a couple of warnings that may save you from some awkward museum moments.

Everything about the new building orchestrates visitors to the Fisher collection, which I felt was unnecessary since so much of the collection was distributed throughout the museum.  Nevertheless, the Red elevator bank is prominently situated next to the ticket area and leads specifically to Fisher collections on Floors 5 & 6.  This wouldn’t have been much of an issue except for the fact that I nearly missed visiting the 7th Floor Campaign For Art collection because it can only be reached by a separate Silver elevator bank or a fairly obscured stair case.

Despite numerous technological innovations launched by SFMOMA, the self directed guide hardware was a non-starter for me. The device is too clunky for a mobile dependent city like San Francisco.  As a whole, museums need to find a way to integrate mobile applications far better than they are now.

SFMOMA Lobby

I was really disappointed in how the Botta lobby was treated like a neglected afterthought.  While the new open staircase provides better views of the Oculus and second floor lobby, it appears disjointed and doesn’t harmonize with the existing space.  With the exception of the Museum Store, the abandoned coat check area and former Schwab Room (undergoing renovations for a new restaurant), looks like sad cast aways that have seen much better days.  This was particularly sad to me for sentimental reasons.  I hope they find a better way to activate this space for public use.  At a minimum they could bring back the original Lewitt wall drawings that flanked the original entrance 10+ years ago.

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When art has a warning sign on it, TRUST IT.  The strobe lights in Takeshi Murata’s “Melter 3-D” made me dizzy, but that’s probably because I tried to film it.  I also tapped into some latent vertigo I never knew I had walking across the Oculus bridge, but that didn’t stop me from crossing it multiple times, because it is beautiful.  I loved seeing pictures of it glowing in purple gels for the preview gala last Friday night.

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Autumn Circle, Richard Long

Someone will accidentally kick rocks out of alignment in the Autumn Circle installation on the 5th floor.  I saw someone do it and so help me it was awkward for all involved–of course I laughed which made it worse.  I can hardly blame them though, there’s enough art here to make anyone disoriented.  Luckily there are plenty of “palate cleansers” and spaces to give visitors a seat, some fresh air and opportunities direct their gaze to city views from the large windows that circle the museum.

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Sleeping Woman, Charles Ray

So now that SFMOMA has officially put San Francisco’s art scene on the map be sure to experience so many of the area’s culturally rich institutions nearby.  The area remains my favorite block in the entire city.