In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, right across from the stage door of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. My apartment was the parlor floor of a slightly shabby Civil War era brownstone. The adjacent house on one side was a crack den, and the house on the other side was abandoned and trashed, but the location was convenient and the rent reasonable. I spent a lot of time in the unkempt back yard. I never thought of planting a garden or neatening it up to have croquet parties. I liked it just as it was, a place where whatever could grow in the sandy, rocky soil was allowed to grow wild, and where the squirrels and feral cats used the fence tops as elevated pathways.
By 1995 the neighborhood was clearly gentrifying, and I was evicted so the owners of the property could fancy it up for a better class of renters. I had to move on and since then I’ve never again lived in a place with a real back yard. I miss the piles of bricks and the gnarly bush, and the odd things that would just spring up there, like the giant pumpkin vine that appeared rather suddenly one year.
In that era, all of New York City had a lot more of that wild and ragged quality. The city had been beaten down by an era of radical social changes, urban blight and misguided renewal, the flight of the affluent and the crisis of near-bankruptcy. During all that time New York never lost its vitality. In fact it seemed most vital at the deepest depth of its abjection, a place of creative anarchy. Where the wealthy feared to go, eccentric visionaries could play freely. By the time I made it to the city, it had already begun to be tidied up and remodeled for a new generation of sophisticated upwardly mobile professionals, but I treasured the pockets of ruin that still existed, as I still treasure those dwindling few that exist here today. My back yard was my own little piece of vital ruin.
In memory of that time and place, here are some of the still life photographs I made in that yard and that apartment, arrangements of objects that partake of some of that spirit of the wild.
Roundness combined with organic forms and a dash of randomness – this could be a description of our planet itself. It’s also a recipe for these back yard mandalas.
Indoors, when things are allowed to fall where they may rather than being carefully ordered, a little of the wild spirit expresses itself in our things.
Without designing or arranging objects, the artist’s eye selects and frames, notices the beautiful effect of light or the organic relationship of forms, and turns a messy room into a still life composition.
Art grows in this gap between the complex, chaotic, fractal order of nature, and our impulse towards simplicity and archetypal purity.
With that last thought, let’s remember the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot, one of the great minds of our time, who died this week. Mandelbrot found mathematical order in the jagged and swirly and burgeoning forms of nature.