New York

View of “Becky Howland,” 2016. 247365. Photo: MacGregor Harp.

View of “Becky Howland,” 2016. 247365. Photo: MacGregor Harp.

Becky Howland


View of “Becky Howland,” 2016. 247365. Photo: MacGregor Harp.

In 1982, in the backyard of the ABC No Rio artists’ space and community center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—an area for which dilapidated would at the time have been a euphemism—Becky Howland built a sculpture called Brainwash that won neighborhood cachet. Finely described by Richard Flood in Artforum as both “endearingly jerry-built and menacingly apocalyptic,” it was up for a couple of years, and people would stop by to see it every now and then: a blunt-spoken, twenty-foot-long, three-dimensional diagram of the ravages of capital, pollution, the fossil-fuel economy, and more, all very approximately taking the form of that most ancient and distinguished public-sculpture type, the fountain. All of the works in Howland’s recent show at 247365 date from the early to mid-1980s, and some closely resemble parts of Brainwash. Since our picture of the Lower East Side art scene of those years has acquired a golden glow, I was glad to be reminded of her fountain in its derelict backyard, and of just how messy things were there then, and more than messy, actually tense and difficult. Howland was a veteran of both the now-famous “Times Square Show”and “The Real Estate Show,” the second of these involving an artists’ takeover of a disused building owned by the city, followed by a lockout, followed by the negotiation that led to the founding of ABC No Rio. Though hardly a career move, this kind of action carries its own sort of distinction.

The 247365 show included several small sculptures on a theme also present in Brainwash, the reshaping of landscape through surface mining. The pleasant-sounding “view from the terrace” of the show’s title had nothing leisurely about it: The terraces were the marks of strip mines, evoked in Howland’s work by low mounds, most of them made of cement and up to a foot or so high, filleted along their sides by the long gashes often seen in the hills around mining communities. In The Coal One, 1983/2016, a hill partly marked in this way has an additional pair of openings cut into its flank to show inside it an uncomfortable mess of coal shards. The show also included a group of sculptures made up of tall networks of thin steel poles: electrical pylons, looking ungainly and odd brought down to room scale, particularly the one small enough to stand on a table, but also looming large over the pedestals—themselves stepped like terraces—on which the smaller works stood.

Brainwash was an outdoor piece, subject to the wear and tear of weather and injected by its surroundings with a sense of ramshackle decay. These works seem more finished than I remember that one being, and their pigments, applied to suggest hillsides, coal seams, and occasional bodies of water, are probably more pristine. Even so, made of rough-surfaced cement, Howland’s little mountains are hardly visually cuddly—their interest has largely to do with the introduction of a certain subject matter to sculpture, though their modeling-kit aspect has its endearments. The show at Moiety, then, curated by James Michael Shaeffer Jr., was all the more surprising: a group of paintings from the 1990s, never before exhibited and quite beautifully executed in a traditional illustrational style, all showing flowers.

In making these works, though, Howland hardly abandoned her politics. The flowers are not manicured specimen blooms but drifters like milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace, forget-me-nots and tansy; in a booklet accompanying the show, Howland writes, “Weeds! Sturdy / Fragile / Ingenious / Defiant / They go where they want; / they grow where they / can. / I like their travel plans / hitch a ride / on a bird, / a boot, / a boat.” (Weeds, a friend likes to say, are just the flowers you didn’t plant.) The Bard Rapist, 1997, sets a face appropriated from a “wanted” poster alongside delicate wild roses; a poem inscribed in Thistle: Light Furs, Fat Horses, 1995, written by the Chinese poet Po Chü-i around the year 810, describes “servants of the ruler” enjoying a banquet at the same time that in another part of the country, where there’s a drought, “people are eating people.” It may have been a relief for Howland to turn from oil, coal, and money to these lovely flowers, but she did not leave herself behind.

David Frankel