Is bull-fighting akin to a golden idol? Would our understanding of the “Peanuts” cartoon change if Snoopy were Native American? What would it have meant to be a black gentleman in the 1800s?
These are just some of the questions that may be evoked by the exhibit “Distinct Ethnic Magical Tales,” which opened June 12 at 40 Owls, a temporary galley on the west side of Manhattan. The exhibit features the work of Jersey City resident Isaac Fortoul, Jersey City native and resident Nyugen Smith, and Hector Ruiz and is the culmination of seven months of video teasers posted to YouTube and the galley’s website.
Curated by Fortoul’s brother and business partner Gabriel Fortoul, also a Jersey City resident, “Distinct Ethnic Magical Tales,” is, he said, “three solo exhibitions. Yet the theme is something that ties the three artists together. They each have their own unique installations and artwork. But there is a common uniting thread, which is that theme. The concept of the videos was, we wanted to give people a taste of what each artist is like, what their art is about.”
Web browsers have been tracking the artists through regular “webisodes.”
The gallery, simply called 40 Owls, is divided into four rooms with two rooms dedicated to work by Ruiz and Isaac Fortoul. Two additional rooms are dedicated to Smith’s work, with one room set aside for a large-scale mixed-media piece in which Smith asks, “Who owns the land?” Much of the exhibit deals with the history of colonialism and its impact on Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos and their cultures.
Drawing from the past
As was somewhat evident from the webisodes that were posted online in the weeks and months leading up to the gallery opening, Fortoul, Smith, and Ruiz each has his own distinct aesthetic. Yet, their styles seem as if they grew from the same artistic seed.
Isaac Fotoul is a painter and illustrator who has in the past done installations in Hudson County, but who emphasized his painted works in this exhibit.
Ruiz also has a background as a painter, but is currently working as a sculptor. The exhibit features Ruiz’s golden sculpted bull that’s stuck with several swords. (Interestingly, the bull remains standing, and does not appear to feel the impact of the piercing weapons.) Another striking piece from Ruiz is a large ebony likeness of the popular Snoopy character – adorned with a full, sculpted Native American headdress.
Smith paints as well, but said he is now creating art pieces using found objects.
“Currently [in my work] I’m dealing with how colonialism has affected Africans and the West Indies – psychologically, culturally, architecturally,” said Smith, who holds a degree in fine art from Seton Hall University and who teaches art at St. Peters Prep.
Smith said he met the Fortouls several years ago when he managed the now-closed Lex Leonard Gallery in Jersey City.
“With this exhibit, ‘Distinct Ethnic Magical Tales,’ you’re getting three different stories,” said curator Gabriel Fortoul. “Each artist is heavily influenced by their background, their culture. Through their work each artist is bringing to life their inspiration from their cultures and their youths and how they grew up. They are using their cultures and their art to [comment on] daily issues that they’re seeing, whether they be social issues, or political issues, or what have you.”
Isaac Fortoul is a Union City native but is of Colombian descent. Ruiz was born in Texas to Mexican-American parents. Ruiz, who currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona, also has some American Indian heritage as well, which explains the heavy references to indigenous culture in his work. Smith, who is of Haitian and Trinidadian decent, was born in Jersey City, but spent the first several years of his life living in Trinidad.
“What you’re getting is the story of us, of each of us as artists and how our backgrounds influence and inform the artistic choices that we make in terms of the colors that we use, the subject matter that we choose to focus on, and what objects we use in our work,” said Smith, who noted that the legacy of African oral history and storytelling are particularly evident in his work.
At a special opening held on June 9, Smith did a performance art piece that added another layer of meaning to his exhibited work in the gallery.
The ‘magic’ in the message
None of this is to say that they exhibit is full of weighty social issues, according to curator Gabriel Fortoul. At least some of the work featured in the exhibit, he said, also draws from the magic the artists see in everyday life. (Again, Ruiz’s Snoopy sculpture comes to mind.)
“When you’re a child, everything is magical because you haven’t been influenced yet by the media and the culture,” he said. “So, if you grew up in a city, you sometimes see a flower growing between a crack in the pavement, and to a child, that can be magical.”
The gallery 40 Owls will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from noon to 6 p.m., through July 6. The gallery is located at 150 11th Ave., between 21st and 22nd streets, in New York City. As is standard with art gallery shows, there is no fee to see the exhibited work and the pieces on display are available for purchase. For more information, visit, www40owls.com.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.