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Street Artist Sara Erenthal Takes Her ‘Raw, Primal’ Self-Portraits Indoors

Sara Erenthal (Photo: Meryl Meisler)

The Storefront Project is currently covered in upcycled canvases. Sara Erenthal, one of the city’s most notable and prolific street artists, has moved her works to Orchard Street. 

If you take long, aimless walks around Brooklyn like I do, you’ve likely come across Erenthal’s work at some point. She draws those graphically simple female faces, recognizable for their triangular cheeks, oversized eyes, and little red mouths. The faces are all hers, she says—but she calls them “subconscious” self-portraits, depictions of herself that have been stylized away from strict identifiability. “It’s not a very literal representation, but a representation of emotion,” she told me. “My voice.” 

This isn’t the only style she works in, but it’s what she has become known for. She’s also known for repurposing found objects into canvases, “upcycling” them. Her portraits often materialize on discarded things, the mattresses, refrigerators, and wood panels that dot the city’s gutters—and they can vanish as quickly as they appear, whenever intrigued passersby feel moved to take them home. “I’m making art accessible, giving people a chance to pick up an original piece,” she said, of the benefits of this practice. “And I’m cleaning up street corners!”

Because her style is abstracted, almost cartoon-like, the portraits can feel quite universal. Many women, the artist reports, have expressed that they connect with her self-depictions, and it’s not hard to see why that would be. Erenthal frequently pairs her faces with small, sincere quips, messages like “Perfectly Flawed,” which she once wrote on a hairline-cracked mirror. Or “Lift Me Up,” which appeared on a prone, hingeless door. The themes she’s most interested in include “displacement, survival, and liberation,” which she explores all over New York through feminine figuration. There’s something wide-reaching about this practice, like she’s conducting an investigation into female power and pain, writ large. 

But with Backstory, the solo exhibition she and curator Nina Blumberg opened at the Storefront Project last week, Erenthal is sharing very personal experiences. The exhibition consists of self-portraits in the recognizable style, largely on repurposed surfaces like thrift-store paintings, art prints, and old photographs (they’re for sale at gallery prices, but still maintain many of the qualities of her free public art). They work together to tell viewers about Erenthal, a self-taught artist who was raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. She left home at the age of 17 to avoid an arranged marriage, to live a secular life, and to chase her creative impulses. Echoes of the religious part of her past recur in the exhibition: a self-portrait laid over an old photograph of an Orthodox person, for example, is called “You Can Take the Girl out of the Village.” 

Other lived experiences and eras appear, too, with equal clarity. Erenthal explores intense romance in pieces like “I’m Infatuated,” in which a self-portrait is laid over a blooming white flower. And her journey toward discovering her artistic style appears in “I Didn’t Want to Draw Apples,” a piece in which portraiture literally trumps still life. The exhibition’s title takes on multiple meanings, with all of this historical digging in mind: the upcycled canvases each have a backstory, because they were once something else, but Erenthal’s personal backstory is on display, too. Each image becomes a chapter in a larger autobiographical narrative.

Still, even with all this intimate excavation, there’s something inclusive or relatable about each of the faces in Backstory. As with the street portraits, there’s enough interpretive malleability in their features to allow for broad identification. “It’s just a very raw, primal, human expression,” Erenthal mused, when I asked why she thought her own repeated visage spoke to so many people. “There’s no definition of race or nationality…it’s feminine, of course, but it could be anyone.” In this way, her somewhat generalized iconography can speak very deeply to individualized experiences. Her own, of course, particularly in Backstory. But also—in this gallery, or in passing on a street corner—almost anyone’s. 

“Backstory” is on display through August 18 at Lower East Side gallery The Storefront Project. The gallery is open to the public from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.

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Gregory Dillon’s Nostalgic Synth Pop Evokes Adolescence, Carnivals, and Love in the ‘80s

(Photo: @patrickdonovanstudios)

Gregory Dillon has the very specific ability to correctly V-step in crowded Bushwick backrooms. That’s because his mother once taught ’80s cardio step in New Hampshire, and he attended her classes in his formative years. At his show at Gold Sounds last Friday, he held the room: he has a rich, controlled baritone, and a radiating joy. The kind that pairs well with revitalized synth-pop, quirky time-capsule video projections (teased hair and silvery nylon two-pieces?), and nerdy, bygone dance moves. More →

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Coffee, Books, and Art Find a Nook Near the Navy Yard

(Photo: Amanda Feinman)

Head Hi is not an establishment you’re likely to stumble randomly upon on your lunch break. Unless you are one of the (ever-growing) numbers of people who work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and you take your lunch break wandering its periphery. This hybrid coffee shop/bookstore/art gallery sits on a warehouse-y side street, nestled between Flushing Avenue and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It’s not in the Navy Yard proper, and it’s also not really in residential Fort Greene, which establishes itself just a couple blocks over. Head Hi, which opened in December of last year, is a small addition to a liminal space, a tenant between neighborhoods. And it’s at least a 15 minute walk from any subway station. More →

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Cool Down at Your Local Arthouse Cinema With These Splashy Retrospectives

(From Here to Eternity still via Film Forum)

A lot of us may be hoping to spend the middle of summer in theater A/C, but are absolutely too spooked to sit through Midsommar. The hottest months are typically a lull between awards posturing. Aside from Ari Aster’s Swedish pagan nightmare-scape, plus that wildly high-concept Beatles-based comedy I haven’t yet gotten around to seeing, there’s mostly superhero reboots and high-budget misfires on the marquees right now. But with their retrospectives and lovingly-curated series, the lower Manhattan and Brooklyn arthouse theaters have us covered. More →

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Photos From the Massive Anti-Pride Rally, the Queer Liberation March

(Photos: Amanda Feinman)

Twenty blocks north of the World Pride parade kick-off yesterday, thousands in Bryant Park were singing. Sing Out, Louise! passed out pink-and-black “hymnals”—protest lyrics, set to recognizable Americana (“Somewhere over the rainbow, love trumps hate/Black lives matter to all, and Muslims can immigrate”). When those in attendance came to outnumber the print-outs, latecomers snapped photos of their neighbors’ copies, and followed along on their phones. More →

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‘Drag Race’ Star Aja Dares Fans to Keep Up With New Hip-Hop Album

(Photo: AJ Jordan)

Aja, mostly, doesn’t care what you think. The rap artist, whose pronouns are “they/them,” came to prominence as a drag queen, through two stints on reality TV (RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9, and Drag Race: All Stars season 3). The two industries they straddle don’t often overlap: one world is dominated, traditionally, by masculinity, and the other by femininity, each with weirdly impermeable borders. But about not conforming to industry standards—or to fan expectations—they’re brash and unapologetic.  More →

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Folk Fest Turns Governors Island Porches Into Stages

On Sunday, the Nolan Park area of Governor’s Island was absolutely packed with picnic blankets, happy toddlers, and mandolins. The 21 historic, sun-yellow houses that circle Nolan’s perimeter were once home to military officers, back when the island was in use by the Coast Guard; now that it’s open to the public, there are cultural and art exhibits set up in many of them. And every year during the Porch Stomp folk festival, their sprawling, white-columned, 19th-century porches transform into stages.

Theo Boguszewski, who alongside Nick Horner is one of the festival’s co-producers, noted that Noland Park is the perfect location for an all-acoustic day of programming. “There’s not a lot of electricity, and [the houses] are all close together,” she said—everything can be kept near, communal, on the grass, and no one need compete loudly with anyone else.

It’s also not trivial that the houses face each other in a circle; in fact, it’s become part of the fabric of the festival. “We don’t post exact locations of the artists until the day of. We want to encourage people to just walk around the periphery,” Boguszewski said. The Porch Stomp vibe is too laid-back for tiered staging; it’s highly democratic in this way. If you take a few minutes and stroll from house to house, you’ll get a sampling of everything on offer.

This year, those offerings included scene staples like Sheriff Bob, and up-and-comers like The Racket River Girls and Glaser Drive. “The goal is to make music a shared, participatory thing,” Boguszewski said. “Not just a couple of really good musicians, but all the people with a banjo sitting in their trunk.”

She and Horner accepted almost everyone who applied to play in the lineup this year, as part of this egalitarian mission statement. Last year, there were around 120 performers in Porch Stomp’s lineup; this year, the number was closer to 200. As a result of the overwhelming response, they ended up needing to expand out past Noland’s porches for the first time. They set up pseudo-stages in nearby spots, including at the Manhattan and Brooklyn ferry landings (these caught some of the best foot traffic, by the way: packs of people entering the island stopped here, first). The resulting feel was that of an integrated folk bubble. A car-free, acoustic oasis in the East River.

Growth has meant other changes this year, too: Porch Stomp was sponsored for the first time, not just run on donations. And being “as inclusive as possible” also meant expanding the genre limits a bit. “Folk” has traditionally, for Porch Stomp, meant bluegrass and Americana sounds. But on Sunday, they devoted a stage to Irish folk tunes, and another to trad jazz—these genres have overlapping histories, and spiritual kinships, with American folk, but were integrated into the Porch Stomp lineup for the first time. There were workshops offered to audience members in harmonica, bluegrass harmony singing, and flatfooting, a form of Appalachian clog dancing not far removed from Irish step. And in the middle of the day, Bethlehem and Sad Patrick brought their unique blend of guitar, soulful vocals, and body percussion to one of the house exteriors. Their genre hybridization felt indicative of the festival’s larger growth this year, and also happened to put the “stomp” in Porch Stomp.  

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HBO’s Wigstock Doc Remembers a Time ‘When Drag Was Punk Rock’

Kevin Aviance performing at Wigstock 2018. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“A lot of people don’t study their history,” bemoans New York drag pioneer Flotilla Debarge in Wig, the new documentary from Chris Moukarbel premiering tonight on HBO. The film charts the birth, ebb, and recent renaissance of the annual Wigstock drag festival, which had its heyday in New York in the 1980s and ’90s. By the time the festival disappeared in 2001—the final official Wigstock took place in early September of that year, just before the landscape and spirit of the city changed irrevocably—its attendees numbered in the thousands. It had become a scene staple. Wig is a colorful love letter to its subject matter, a suggestion that much of our contemporary drag moment remains indebted to the trailblazers of Wigstock. But in 2019, Moukarbel seems to argue, too few of us know about it. More →

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In a Bushwick Basement, an Inclusive Art Gallery That’s Literally Homegrown

(Photos: Amanda Feinman)

Just blocks from the Knickerbocker / Myrtle M stop, El Sótano Art Space occupies the bottom floor of a residential building. Not much goes on on its quiet street; a small market draws groups of neighbors to the corner, but that’s about it. The gallery’s storefront, to the extent that there is one, is a label on a buzzer. To get down the stairs and into its exhibition space, you have to ring number 1. More →

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Drag-Scene Photographer Mike Sullivan Makes Wild, Wearable Sculptures

The word “ethereal” comes up, more than once, in my conversations about Mike Sullivan’s design work and photography. I’m not surprised—it’s an appropriate descriptor. There’s a delicate fleetingness to everything he does, most literally because many of his masks and headpieces are made of natural materials. He gathers armfuls of flowers, feathers, and shrubs, and makes them into halos. Which means parts of his works, or sometimes even whole pieces, have limited lifespans. They literally die. More →