New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 23 June 20 to July 3, 2012

Images of Ghosts
Meryl Meisler
Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80’s
John Roberts
Miranda Senator by Meryl Meisler. Source: merylmeisler.com/
Meryl Meisler, "Miranda Senator" 1982

On June 13th, 1977, a series of lightning strikes led to a massive power outage that would span all five boroughs of New York City. The first recorded strike occurred at 8:37pm at ConEdison's Buchanan South substation in Cortland, New York. It was not until almost an hour later, after many subsequent strikes and overloaded circuits within ConEdison's network, that the largest generator in New York City, Ravenswood 3, failed. By 9:37pm, the whole of New York City fell silent. This silence, however, would not last long.

Over the next 24 hours a series of riots broke out in the lower-income neighborhoods of New York – mostly in the southern neighborhoods of the Bronx, and northern and central neighborhoods in Brooklyn. One of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city was Bushwick, Brooklyn. Overnight, the flourishing Broadway shopping strip that ran the divide between Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant was turned into a smoldering war zone.

Meryl Meisler's “Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80's” records these shattered landscapes. An art teacher in Bushwick from 1981 until 1994, she photographed her crumbling surroundings while walking to and from work. Her images convey the devastation and neglect of the place she inhabited, but also hint at the restlessness of the people amid its ruins and their unwillingness to appear sad in her photos.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking work in the show comes from Vanessa Martir, who first came across an image of herself as a child in Meisler's previous work, “Here I Am: Bushwick In the 1980's.” The current show presents an image of a seven-year-old Vanessa with her back to the camera, surrounded by friends and family – including her mother, who sits on a garbage can, still swollen from a cancer surgery. Recounting the experience, she points out that the man leaning out the first floor window, staring straight into the camera, molested her as a child. As we look into his eyes, Vanessa writes that she 'somehow learned to make beauty of the distortion.'

A distortion I had a hard time “making beauty of", however, was the inclusion of Patricia O'Brien's work: manipulated punch lines from Martir's powerful prose looped aimlessly around rough cutouts from Meisler's profound images. The result was confusing and felt very much like an afterthought. The longer I stood in front of it, the less able I was to justify its existence here.

Faux Wall by Meryl Meisler. Source: merylmeisler.com/
Meryl Meisler, "Faux Wall" 1982

From here, we thankfully are led back into Meisler's rich, if imperfect, renderings of a foreign world – a world viewers are lead into only as far as Martir’s testimony wills them. Here the collaboration between these two artists works best: Meisler gives us an image of a building whose windows have been covered with charred plywood, its base marked with a boxed “X,” and Martir recalls the “X” not just as a marker for demolition, but as a perfectly placed strike zone when boys wanted to practice their pitch. Newly found abandoned cars piled in stacks, still smoldering from beneath their hoods, became dragons to slay on long summer afternoons. Children can do anything.

I wandered into the Bushwick night after the show, watching hipsters and lost-looking photo enthusiasts from Manhattan trying to navigate the many events of Bushwick Open Studios; peering into the newly opened, dimly lit wine bars and posh eateries of the neighborhood's recent history, I noticed an “X” upon the boarded up and abandoned building I stood before on Starr St. at the edge of Maria Hernandez Park.

Suddenly I felt that I had spent my evening in The Living Gallery studying images of ghosts. The work of Meryl Meisler and Vanessa Martir was no longer a photo exhibition, but a love letter to people and places that no longer exist; an acknowledgment of a history written out in the stoic facades and barred windows of Knickerbocker Avenue, its secrets etched into concrete.

Meryl Meisler
Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80’s


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