Volume 19 Issue 48 | April 13 - 19, 2007

Downtown Express photo by James Vlahos

Multi-media artist Grimanesa Amorós beside “Terrarium,” the installation she created in the lobby of the Tribeca building where she lives and works.

Tiny bubbles make this Tribeca lobby very happy

By Nicole Davis

At 54 North Moore St., five minutes —the time it takes for the renovated warehouse’s cage-like elevator to descend to the ground floor — felt like an eternity when the lobby was lit by only a few florescent bulbs.

“I would always apologize to friends,” said resident artist Grimanesa Amorós, who felt bad that visitors to her studio would have to wait beneath such harsh, cold light. “I hate florescent light,” she says.

So, apparently, did the management company, because in winter of last year, AIM Holding LLC asked Amorós to propose an alternative. What she came up with is a mesmerizing light show that emanates from clear acrylic balls mounted to the lobby’s walls, like soap bubbles suspended in mid-pop. Amorós named the permanent installation “Terrarium” because the bubbles, enclosed behind the lobby’s glass door, reference the glass enclosure used to display flora and fauna indoors.

The bubbles themselves are like mini-dioramas of life as well — in particular the life of 54 North Moore. Since it was built in 1889, the landmarked building has housed a grocer, a fabric dye firm, Bayer Drugs, a chemical company, and a furniture factory. Scenes from the building’s former lives, like a furniture sign, were printed on archive-quality paper and stuffed inside many of the spheres. Some bubbles portray the (recent) present, too, like the one containing a picture of a Korean worker at the nearby Jin deli, and another of a former doorman at the Issey Miyake store on the corner. And all of the bubbles glow with colored lights that cycle through different hues, from white to magenta to blue to sea green, lavender into violet then yellow, each shade flickering, pulsing and throbbing with varying intensity.

Since “Terririum” was installed in February, the once excruciating elevator wait has become something to look forward to.

“I don’t do decorative pieces,” Amorós explains upstairs in her 2,000-square-foot studio, where the scent of heady incense hits you as you enter her loft. A small grove of indoor plants soak in light by the windows, and strange, colorful candies from her native Peru are displayed on a coffee table. “I always make the distinction to people that I’m not a designer, I’m an artist. To me [an artwork] has to have a conceptual base, a reason why I’m doing that project,” Amorós says as she slinks into one of her two black leather Corbusier chairs. Aside from the intimate reception area, the space has a utilitarian feel. Pages of computer renderings are taped to the far wall in orderly rows under titles like “Remolina,” “Reflexion Obscura,” or “Terraforms.” Each documents the progress of projects that Amorós is working on or has completed with the help of her three assistants. A central desk houses dozens of notebooks, filled with complete histories of all her artworks from concept to finish.

“What I hear is that I’m a little anal,” she admits. “And I know I’m very organized but I do it very naturally.” For Amorós, keeping her studio organized frees up space for creativity. “It’s not that I’m uptight,” she insists. Far from it. Within minutes of meeting Amorós, who wears sneakers and no makeup and is enthusiastic well beyond proportion to her petite frame, it is easy to forget that she is actually unfamiliar, so quickly does she open up.

Amorós is largely self-taught. Though she had private art tutors in Lima, Peru, she took her father’s advice and majored in psychology in college. It was only when she moved to New York in 1984 that she pursued art fully. Her arrival here, wrote critic Mark Bartelik, coincided with “the sprouting of Neo-Expressionism and the emergence of ‘fun art’ in the galleries of New York’s East Village,” where Amorós embraced “the new aesthetic with her figurative paintings of sexually-charged bodies floating in an amorphous space.”

She received a scholarship at the Art Students League to study painting and printmaking — a much different trajectory from artists today, who often continue straight from college to earn their Master’s of Fine Arts, or Ph.D. “Assistants want to work with me and I say ‘no, you cannot be working with me! I don’t even have a B.F.A!’ So times have changed. My time was not even a time of computers.” And yet much of her art now would not be possible without them.

She describes her transition from one medium to many as visceral. After painting for 20 years, since the age of 11, Amorós suddenly found that “the colors would make me nauseous.” She was literally and physically burnt out. “Painting didn’t excite me anymore,” she says. “I felt I needed to get to people in a different way. I didn’t yet know how, but I needed a different type of engagement” than the one she knew inside and out. “I knew how to start [a painting] and I knew my technique and I knew where to get my paints. I knew everything.”

So, in 1994, she set out for the unknown. Forever drawn to Africa, a geographical and cultural cousin to her native South America, she got a National Endowment for the Arts grant to visit Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where she explored African art’s affinity to the pre-Colombian art of her ancestors.

“I love, love African art — it’s so powerful. You could see something that has been made so many years ago, and yet it’s fresh. That to me is amazing. To be able to captivate [a person] after all these years, and that the piece has that strength and force — that’s what I was captivated by in African art.”

Inspired by the tools, art, even toys made by hand in the villages she visited, she began to move into the sculptural realm upon her return, both in her work and her own body. Curious how she would change during pregnancy — in effect, becoming a kind of sculpture herself —Amorós became open to having a child with her husband. The experience had a profound impact on her, and her fascination with spheres today can be traced to those nine months in which her body grew round with her daughter. She points to the plaster casts of her former, pregnant self, which she used in two early installations.

“A lot of people use triangles or pyramids, like Judy Chicago,” she said, referring to Chicago’s triangular-shaped table in “The Dinner Party,” now permanently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. “But the sphere is much more interesting to me… it gives somehow a [sense of] continuity, a beginning and not an ending — a circle — and life is a circle, so it has a lot of implications.”

Lately, spheres have been appearing more frequently in Amorós’s work, which today involves some combination of sculpture, lighting, video, music, even performance. For a Bulgarian art festival last summer, viewers were invited to write their dreams on balloons as a video depicting the emotional state of an abused child played in the background. Many of the balloons would pop, like dreams that vanish because of factors beyond our control, or self-imposed limitations. And in an upcoming site-specific work for Jamaica Flux this September, she will project a video on the exterior of the North Fork bank at 161-01 Jamaica Avenue which depicts the faces of immigrants in the Queens community, each one like a drop of water in a huge, diverse sea.

“You cannot please everybody,” Amorós says of her work, “and that’s great, because otherwise it would be very boring if everybody liked it. But I think if you make them feel or think something — even if they don’t like it — at least you are making them think. To me, that is an amazing thing that an artist can do.”

“Remolino,” or “Whirlpool,” will be a bit of a homecoming for Amorós, since Jamaica, Queens was one of the first places she lived before ultimately settling in Tribeca. “I love the neighborhood,” she says of her home now. “Before I moved here I did research on all of Manhattan to see which neighborhood I would like [the most]. And Downtown here at that time — it was the late ’80s —was a place I really, really liked. It seemed very isolated, there was a lot of space, it still was in the city, and it was next to the water.”

“We knew Amorós loved the area,” said Orin Finkle, of AIM Holding, which was one of the reasons they asked her to create “Terrarium.” Another public, permanent installation of hers in Harlem titled “Frente Feros” also swayed the management company.

“When they approached me to do the work, I said to myself, ‘what a great opportunity to do something to honor the neighborhood, and honor the building, [which] has gone through so much transformation.’ And [since] it’s inside, people that live here are going to be discovering other places or details of the building, and anybody that doesn’t know much about Tribeca, or this building — [even] they leave knowing something about it.”

The artist’s intent appears to be working. According to the superintendent, Elias Hernandez, at least six or seven people stop by each day to observe the glowing orbs inside 54 N. Moore, and the pictures “in there that date back to the 1800s.”

“It’s brought the lobby to life,” he says.

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