A Portrait of New York's Streets and Clouds

/ by JAŠA (Mrevlje-Pollak)

This article is Part One of a three-part series called “New York Trilogy,” about a contemporary artist from Europe living and working in New York.

“Don't you see, we have nothing here!” said Marty, leaning back on a dusty worktable, full of iron pieces and rusty tools. At the time, he was fashioning a bandana in his short hair. Body covered with tattoos he had accumulated during the coast to coast life which most Americans seem to lead. He took a sip from a chilled can of Tecate and looked at Jason.
“Come on Marty, you know it is not true, we still have our dreams,” Jason added, provoking a twist in Marty's body, followed by a stubborn gaze. 
“What dreams? We have nothing in this wasteland!” 

It was the start of the summer of 2014, and my last day in New York, as I was wrapping up a three-month period, which began with a residency program at Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation.

Those words resonated with me for a long time. Both men worked as art handlers and builders at Pioneer Works. Marty, along with Marco, another pleasant discovery in that period, salvaged my New York edition of my Crystal C installation. Marty is an extremely fair and honest painter, which logically doesn't make life easy for him, so he survives on income from hardcore building projects that occupy most of his time. Jason was another wannabe, or is an artist, an amazing art-handler who just recently managed to glide along by running a flourishing second-hand furniture business that made the “rundown style Brooklyn” appeal go worldwide.

“What dreams? We have nothing in this wasteland!”' 

Sooner or later, we all have to deal with some version of a pipe dream that we constructed, inherited or simply became victims of. Western culture is defined by the overpowering consumerist culture of America, in good and bad, between the bad and the good. Sooner or later, you face the reality of the society that so eagerly exported the idea of “everything is possible, if you have the courage.” As a European by heart and education, with roots in a tiny country that
came about in 1991, after the disaster that the meltdown of Yugoslavia created, but still tinted by the “colorful” Disney-like vision of what can and will be, always made me feel apart and within. 
Music, movies, literature, cartoons and, of course, the goods, they all shaped this vision of fame and success, this post-something-modern “wannabe.” The inevitable shock and pain of contrasting reality, out there and within, the ultimate drug “wake up” infusion with which we should all be prescribed, sooner or later. But you can get it out there in the streets and in the clouds of cities like New York. The politics inevitably govern all of this, and of course today, to us, it seems even more than before (which, of course, can be argued with many obvious historical facts). The original of the original, or what came first, my vision or my following.

One place to find this out is New York. And I am not talking about the dried-out “I will make it in a day” concept that has plagued, irreversibly, our generation, too. The weary cynicism and directness in particular fields make the City even more European than Europe is today, the intellectual awareness that makes you feel at home and distant, at the same time. On the other hand, it's the rawness that reminds you of the realities that unavoidably shape this world, the wild and sophisticated beast of survival. The stark contrast of inequality that, shamelessly and unstoppably, continues to dictate the capitalistic reality we all live. For an artist, the reality is not at all different, especially in the mostly market-driven dynamics of the contemporary art scene.
Think of the movies like a Basquiat, or the perfect parody of Untitled. They get the bleakness perfectly, but trust me, compared to realities, they feel like super soft porn.

By now, I need to admit that my love relationship with the city has shifted into more mature stages where, after a blind love ride, you hit a bump or two and, out of the blue, you surprise yourself with a re-flux moment that takes you over. But then again, in which reality, or with which reality, where you somehow decided to strike a serious relationship, and not only that one of a goldfish, this surprising moment of hit-it-hard-Blue-Monday, the fall after the summer, the aching moment after a magical night, doesn't happen?

By default, a mission to seek out the art scene that once was, or that you would like to find traces of, is a mission doomed to fail. But, from my experience, it is still worth trying. Because this city, with its history, can tell you so many stories, from so many angles and moments, and it usually happens in places you least expected it to. Not by chance, through the portrait and landscape, for decades presented among the most complex formats to deal with, as an artist.

The world is a funny place, and still one needs to travel and live within it, to truly understand the nature of man. I am not saying that one cannot have the fullest version of their story contained within two blocks. As they say in New York, every street has its mayor. But you can at least imagine the difference. Speaking about mayors, the part of Brooklyn where I stayed most, in the last years, Arion Place in Bushwick, right next to Broadway and Myrtle, there's a character called Flaco. The first time he introduced himself to me in a local bar, Skytown, he called himself the “mayor of Broadway and Myrtle.” Saying that, he is probably not the only mayor in that area, but still, his statement stands. It is really good to know a character like him. These old-school personas remind me of the truth of survival, and the reality that constantly hugs or slaps you.
OG is another name that comes by. Original Gangster, implying a person that has been around the block for a while. Honestly, the multi-ethnical reality is the one that brings colors and tunes
to everyday life in New York. Not us, we who pursue daily some distant reality, through contemporary connectivity. It is the contact with your local butcher, the one who came to NY from Palermo 70 years ago, a fleeting smile from a young face in the local shop, the Latino beats and comments in your corner deli, the infinite handshakes and high fives with local OGs, that make your own swag (the way you walk the streets) improve daily. It is true, even if you are violet, upside down, dressed as a parrot, no one will really pay much attention to you, in a city that has seen it all. It's how you are, and much of this you can share with others and are ready to take in at the same time. It's about charm. How you manage to find the balance within this, or fail to do so, is entirely up to you.

Most of the artists I know have day jobs. Those who don't are frequently pompous, or simply the usual walking commercials of themselves, that I find it hard to stick around. And it is a paradox of the modern life we are leading. Either one chooses the comfort of smaller realities, but juggles with fewer opportunities for chances to further develop your options. Or one chooses harsher economic realities of big western cities that might offer more significant opportunities. If LA has an “I am an actor” in every bar, New York has an "I am an Artist" around every corner. As it is liberating, it is frustrating. Not necessary to you, but it is hard to cope with the facts that run our realities.

Every generation threatens to overcome the ideals of the previous one, and we had the chance after the economic meltdown of 2008, a wave that came from America and completely castrated the vulnerable idea of European Union. I will never forget when I walked from the Italian part of Gorizia to the Slovenian one, on the night of celebrations.

The tight border we all knew as kids growing up in Yugoslavia fell on that night, and it felt as if we could really embrace other concepts than those that bring us to inevitable disasters. 2008 was the first time I came to NY, to Williamsburg to be precise, before it became Williamsburg, to an upcoming movement that was soon after named after the indie music scene, or for the negative agenda that seems to have, for its hipsters. For me, that period, when I saw concerts of bands that in two years changed the entire musical scene, signaled a start of a new sensibility. An authentic feel of care and need for the other. A breakthrough of a generation that spent the 90s in dark clubs, listening to angry music and fearing the end of an era, the end of a millennium. It was out there, it was in the air, it was in the melodies, and I felt simply encouraged to pursue my vision, and go on.
It was also the time of the Bush administration, which fueled a world-spread resistance, factual, and on ideological grounds, for where I stand. Two facts that pushed people to look beyond their own benefits and success. New economic reality drove many to join forces and share dreams and realities.

It felt like it could truly be the end of extreme individualism, seeking out any kind of options without moral and ethical standards and values, and exclusively, only for your own good, wealth, and comfort. When it came to Europe, things started to look bad. The thing that you realize is that what you saw as an option for a larger community, to not repeat the mistakes made,
somebody else saw as a perfect cover-up, to further push his or her differently-motivated agendas.

When Obama was elected, the whole world felt relieved, and it was the second time I came back to NY. The difference on the streets was palpable, as the racially-driven tensions seemed about to become yesterday's rusty memory. It felt as if this political shift was what everyone should but follow.

But then again, it was exactly the time when, in other parts of America, people started storing guns and ammo, a reality that, eight years after, brought us the Trump era. The big backlash of oily greed, golden tits, and ego-driven “make it on your own and for your own people, while you burn everybody else." Somehow it seems that, as we think we are doing something better or even good, as a consequence, as a byproduct, we store equal or even exceeding amounts of venom, a stockpile of complete and utter destructiveness.

Somehow, notions that bind us into communities that, for a fleeting moment, felt almost normal deteriorate overnight. Fuel for poets and artists, all the wrongdoings of man. But is it really so hard to cherish beauty, goodness or simply persist within values as a complex achievement of and for us, here and now? Or the notion of “good enough” cradles us again and again into reachable comfort. This tragic story of a drunk, constantly falling off the wagon, while truly trying to do good. A city is a crisp reflection of the human soul, of where we are, and what you can and are doing within its flexing tissue. 

It is never done. 

That is the only truth I learned.

JAŠA (Mrevlje-Pollak)

is a Slovenian artist who lives and works in Ljubljana, Venice and New York.