Saturday, May 16, 2009

Art feature: Exhibit at Trump golf club targets homelessness

Your Work Is My Play, by Ryan Toth.
(Photo by Durga Garcia)

By Marya Summers

For a few hours in April, a hobo shack constructed of wooden pallets overlooked the pristine vistas of the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach.

As the sun set over rolling greens and tropical waterfalls and well-heeled Trump guests filled themselves with some of finest foods top chefs had to offer, Ten Dollar Mansion stood as a testament to the poverty that the landscaping was designed to block out.

Mansion, however, made it on the Trump property by virtue of its lofty status: art installation. Its creator, Sue Stevens, was one of seven artists who displayed their work during the Tempt Your Senses fundraiser for Vita Nova, a West Palm Beach-based nonprofit organization that helps young adults make the transition from foster care to independence. The event offered culinary competitions, wine pairings, music and art to those who forked over $125 for the cause.

But the artists were less interested in tempting the senses than engaging in social criticism.

“Sometimes you have to put things up in people’s faces to help them understand,” said Stevens, whose family has a history of championing the less fortunate. Her godfather, Joe Ranieri, lived in a dumpster for 30 days in 1983 to raise money to open The Lord’s Place.

The West Palm Beach shelter has helped the homeless for more than 25 years. Mansion, Stevens said, “is a comment on the ongoing displacement of people who are homeless and the need for low-cost and no-cost housing in Palm Beach County.”

Art as social commentary wasn’t Vita Nova’s vision for the event, even though the organization helps its young adults precisely because they are at risk for homelessness. Instead, the subversive art was invited onto Trump property when the nonprofit asked the Armory Art Center for work by artists under 30.

The request landed in the lap of faculty member Ryan Toth, a 29-year-old painter and rogue taxidermist who assembles the bones of animals in reimagined forms and fantastic displays. He teamed up with fellow artist Carolyn Sickles, the Norton Museum of Art’s 26-year-old assistant curator of education, as his co-conspirator and co-curator.

Since provocation is the realm of both youth and art – and doubly so when they go in tandem – the duo agreed to take on the one-night charity event only if the Armory would exhibit a larger show with a longer run, one that would include documentation of the evening, which they dubbed A Trump in the Dark. Rather than give Vita Nova a standard version of what they were looking for, the artists decided to use the opportunity to juxtapose art against artifice.

“They thought they were getting 100 works on easels and they got something else,” Sickles said.

My Move, by Nicole Seisler.
(Photo by Durga Garcia)

It’s not surprising, because Sickles never works in two dimensions, and recently she’s taken her work in a social direction – the previously pristine, white fibers in her work have become “dirtied up” in dye baths as she explores themes of contamination. And Toth has developed a bit of a bad-boy reputation, especially after his recent, “romantic” installation of copulating sheep skeletons at Hotel Biba during Showtel, the one-night installation exhibition held April 25.

Along with their own work, Toth and Sickles displayed the work of artists whose work either used non-traditional “lowbrow” materials or provided social commentary.

A nod to the towering Palm Beach County jail, which stands at the golf course’s northeast edge but is completely hidden from view, The Weight, made of cast iron and steel chains, “spoke of a class of people who have never had to worry about their freedoms being taken away,” sculptor Jesse Walp, an Armory artist-in-residence, said.

Boston-based kinetic artist Dennis Svoronos amputated the head from a white-wire reindeer Christmas decoration rigged with blinking, white twinkle light for his piece, Bargain Hunter. The trophy head leaned against the archway of the Trump clubhouse, and the body lay in the flowerbed in a pool of blood-red lights.

Speaking to the state of homelessness, My Move by Nicole Seisler was one way for the other Boston artist in the show to be present in more than just spirit. Beneath the archway, several cardboard boxes served to display a life-sized figure made of recycled cardboard; the body, which was cast from the artist’s own, lay in several pieces, hands raised in a defensive posture.

“I hope that my work afforded attendees of the Trump event a moment to contemplate their own physical presence and our ephemeral nature,” Seisler mused.

The seven-piece exhibit, however edgy, didn’t receive much contemplation that night. The artists’ work was trumped by the grand consumption of the event and the luxuriousness of the space.

“We knew it would get lost in the place,” Toth said, citing the “huge bronze lions” that adorn Trump International as the sort of aesthetic that guests would be more likely to recognize as art than his own: Your Work Is My Play, a large bird skeleton on a perch surrounded by colorful “ball pit” balls. “We knew (our work) would just be dismissed.”

Guests mistook the cardboard boxes that supported Seisler’s work as empty cartons from the cooking stations and used them as places to set their drinks down. Armory artist-in-residence Bethany Krull had her ceramic beetle moved off to the side several times by Trump staff from where it was positioned at the event entrance on a pillow of Astroturf. The artists felt they were similarly sidelined when they were given instructions not to speak to any of the guests while they were installing their work.

“They treated us like groundskeepers,” Sickles said, noting that when they returned once the event began then “we were guests, so they treated us totally differently.”

Ultimately, however, curators Toth and Sickles were pleased. They’d gotten what they were after: slick, shelter magazine-style photographs that document their coup and make their art look monumental against the Trump backdrop.

These 24-inch-by-36-inch images will be displayed at the Armory beginning Friday, when the same artists will install more of their work for a larger exhibition.

Marya Summers is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

The opening reception for A Trump in the Dark will be held Friday, May 22, from 6-9 pm at the Armory Art Center, West Palm Beach. In the spirit of the event, Dum Dum lollipops, beef jerky and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer will be served as refreshments. Music will be provided by the lo-fi, anti-consumerism rap group Zombies! Organize!! The show runs concurrently with The Bridging Principle, a show of work by masters of fine arts students at Florida Atlantic University, through June 5.

Bargain Hunter, by Dennis Svoronos.
(Photo by Durga Garcia)


Carolyn said...

Live musical performance provided by the Honeycomb... Zombies! Organize!!, 7pm at the Armory Art Center

After-Party @ Propaganda in Lake Worth from 9pm-2am

Terry said...


I loved Marya Summers piece on the incongruity of the social justice performance art night at the Trump event. Beautiful how she painted the contrast between artists as ignored groundskeepers and later as guests - up a class notch!

PLEASE have her do a follow-up article on the show and on the art when it moves to the documented performance piece at the Armory! Fascinating!