The room is totally black. The voice of a woman is heard over loudspeakers placed in front, at the sides, and behind the audience. The voice is choreographed so that at times it remains for longer periods at one loudspeaker, while at other times it travels from loudspeaker to loudspeaker as if the voice were coming from a person walking around a room, stopping, going back to look at something seen or spoken of before, moving past something to something else, etc. The voice moves in the spontaneous, casual and somewhat erratic manner of a handheld camera when sighting objects for the "first" time, as if never having "seen" them before.
Brenda was teaching me proofreading so I could get some money fast. I didn't know her very well – just a couple of opening parties at Gracie's – so she hardly remembered me when I showed up at her studio on the Bowery, out-of-breath from the seven flight climb up to her loft. I offered to give her free dance classes in exchange for the proofreading help but she seemed uncomfortable with that even though she said she wanted to lose weight from "here" (her stomach) and from "here" (her) (thighs). She said, "When I was in college, the parents of my friends told them, you owe me. My mother told me, You don't owe me anything. What I've given you, you'll owe your children. That will be my payment." Looking at me Brenda said, "So what I would like you to do with the proofreading is to teach someone else what I've taught you; that would be my payment."
I thought about that. That premise. Of passing on what you've received. In Brenda's case, with her art work at least, it is more like holding on than passing on. She works with cement which she mixes with acrylic paints or with powdered glitz. She wedges this colored cement onto things like dresser drawers, vanity mirrors, TV sets, bricks, lamps, chairs – almost anything that was her or someone else's discard – and then to these discards she affixes more discards – marbles (lots of marbles) those big clear ones enclosing half-moons that look like colored bananas and those smaller (older) opaque ones, and other stuff like lipsticks, mascara brushes, starfish, paper dolls, plastic fruit, aspirin tins, crockery, sea glass, shells, table utensils, scraps of material, coke bottles, beads, paste jewels – stuff, from her life and other people's lives, her debris and their debris.
Before she moved to the Bowery, she used to live in a Boston suburb, in a kind of artist's housing complex and people used to bring her things, leave them in paper sacks and shopping bags and boxes outside her door. Sometimes married friends would leave her broken crystal or broken dishes. But there was a pattern to these items – they always seemed to herald a divorce or separation – as Brenda put it – a "split." Like they hoped she would put the broken stuff together for them, repair it for posterity, give it meaning in a new setting; as if, in some way, her hands could heal and preserve it.
When I first saw Brenda with her boy's close-cropped grey hair and matter-of-fact body, I thought she was kind of butch. But I don't think so anymore. She has three kids and an ex-husband and her eyes are soft and so's her voice.But, that's not it – it's really the stuff she collects and what she embeds it in Her works are like cement wombs in different disguises, containers and surfaces with the bright shiny treasures of childhood forever affixed in the hardened cement mud.
But then not everything is held fast. Some items can be removed, opened, pulled out, like bottles and bottle tops and lipstick tubes – they have places and slots – a place where the object belongs but can be temporarily removed. I guess I don't like most of her work because it's brittle, the cement repels, doesn't invite touch. The items barnacled in it are lures, the way fish hooks are camouflaged by lures.
She showed me a work she calls her "Suburban Window." It has eight little panes, each with its own small projecting ledge. A place to put (odds) and (ends), she says. She says everyone has one in suburbia but Brenda's window is permanently cemented with these odds and ends, with bobby pins and bric-a-brac, scraps of notes and children's drawings, and lots of clear little bottles filled with vodka and gin.
Since her move to the Bowery, Brenda collects stuff right off the street. She has boxes of broken glass, green as emeralds and autumnal as amber – shards of broken "Night Trains" and "Thunderbirds" and "Christian Brothers" and crushed tins of beer and soft drink containers. She passes the derelicts on the street or slumped against her front door, she bypasses them to collect their objects, she rescues their objects, their artifacts, for her art. Her studio has become a kind of Salvation Army: a soup kitchen for the crushed cans, a rescue mission for the broken glass.
The only non-encrusted object in her loft, the only truly clear space, is her cat "Thomas," all white, with sea-green eyes. Thomas' favorite napping and hanging-out spot is under one of Brenda's art chairs. You see, Thomas likes it there because one of the four legs of the chair is permanently set on a ceramic frog, while sprouting from the feet of the other three legs is plastic sea grass.The bottom rung of the chair is cemented with terracotta pots holding plastic geraniums and beneath the base of the seat, plastic moss grows wild. For Thomas, and for me, it is a touch of the country, "art" country, artificial and full of memories, in this top floor fire trap in the heart of the Bowery.