“Not in my Backyard” at Public Swim (Photo: Etienne Frossard)

Most new businesses experience traditional first year challenges such as developing their brand, facilitating sales and dealing with competition. In the case of Public Swim, a New York City gallery that opened in January, they faced an extraordinary circumstance: their second-ever show, which was slated to run March 13th – April 19th, is now on view indefinitely. 

Frozen in time due to shutdowns, the three person exhibition Not in My Backyard takes on new meaning in the current landscape. In the context of Chinatown’s near-abandoned streets and shuttered storefronts, and at a time when people all over the globe are confined to their homes, the idea to disconcertingly play with the idyllic construct of the residential backyard seems uncannily fitting. 

What: Not in My Backyard; Maureen O’Leary, Sarah Hughes, Meryl Bennett

Where: Public Swim, 105 Henry Street, Chinatown NYC

When: Original dates: March 13 – April 19, 2020; now on view indefinitely

Using natural and constructed materials, featured artists Meryl Bennett, Sarah Hughes and Maureen O’Leary investigate themes of the ordinary and the strange through painting, sculpture and ceramics. Perhaps a prescient nod to social distancing, an aberrant gathering of serpentine creatures, anthropomorphic fruit and empty lawn chairs are spaced throughout the gallery transforming it into a dystopian backyard of sorts. Underscoring this theme are 14 paintings by Maureen O’Leary—some of which “continue” onto the gallery walls—that depict starkly isolated images of homes and uninhabited barbecues. 

The show’s initial concept was a response to the idea of people using the controlled space of a backyard to practice primal activities like campfires and gardening. “We wanted people to confront the subjectivity of normalcy and strangeness, as well as our attempts to tame what ultimately is untamable,” co-curator Madeleine Mermall told Fine Art Globe. 

Central to the show’s inception and curatorial theme are the darkly nostalgic compositions by O’Leary. Below are excerpts from an interview with O’Leary during the pandemic about her impressions of the show. 

FINE ART GLOBE: How did your involvement with the NIMBY show come about?

MAUREEN O’LEARY: Madeleine Mermall responded to my work on Instagram and I began to follow her curatorial projects. I went to the opening of her 2019 exhibition “SPF 32,” which had an incredible roster of figurative artists responding to summer. The setting was a defunct Bushwick brewery with light and air cutting in through crude door and window openings. The opening was a madhouse of energy and celebration, and the colorful works a vibrant contrast to the industrial walls. 

Catherine, Madeleine and I did a studio visit last fall and our conversation was a tumble of energy. We talked about the concept of the ‘outskirts’ and the delicate dynamic between a city and its surroundings. We also discussed how the outer reaches of a city, the suburbs, might feel so alien at first but on closer look reveal mischief and mystery. We realized we had a shared love of films by Hal Hartley who set dramas of mystique in bedroom communities on Long Island, and I remembered a little essay I had once read by Lissy Trullie called “The Mysterious Unknown” about how her definition of the romantic was the great unknown world of cut grass and asphalt driveways outside of cities. It was Catherine who had the idea that the installation would become site specific and that my large painting of a pruned lemon tree in a Los Angeles backyard would continue onto the wall and that AstroTurf would cover the floor.

Looking to the exhibition theme, what is your experience with suburbia, backyards and typified BBQs and how did this true or imagined reality influence your work?

I spent most of my life in urban environments, Washington, DC., Baltimore, New Haven, Paris, all of which I absolutely love. But for a variety of reasons, I now split my time between New York City and my studio on Long Island. My studio is pleasantly in nowheresville, just a working class suburban neighborhood on Long Island. The new surroundings were totally foreign to me when I arrived and I was indisposed to embrace them. I painted from observation and without even being aware that it was happening, I started to look around and to take down what I saw. It was a subconscious process. I feel that I can’t hate anything for too long, there is always something interesting to be discovered.

So, to your question, the inspiration was a ‘true reality’. It was what I saw. I think of my experience as one of an explorer. If you love to look, despite an innate resistance, when put down anywhere you will look, and you will see, and, to your surprise, you may find things you didn’t expect to love. One thing that struck me quickly was that everyone was quite serious about their own piece of dirt. And I think this means we all have shared primitive urges that we can’t shake no matter how civilized we all pretend to be. At times we all seem to burst with yearnings to chop, hammer, and burn things, to stare at the sky when we take out the trash, and to be tempted to sleep outside. Everyone’s house began to appear to me as the controlled setting for primitive urges. I found that to be extremely endearing and got right in the act.

Another yard scenario from ‘Not in my Backyard’ at Public Swim. (Photo: Etienne Frossard)

Your oil paintings evoke a sense of ‘uncanny nostalgia’, a term that Public Swim’s co-founder Catherine Fenton-Bernath coined. How well do you find this term to be fitting of your work? What particular strands from your practice lend themselves to their underpinnings?

I think there are many ways to enter into my work and I really like that description by Catherine. Her words seem to describe an unsettling yearning that she sees in my paintings. I like that because a painting should not answer all your questions right away, it should let you return to it when you are in different moods and leave room for you to revisit it over years.

When I decide to paint something it is because I feel something about it. Central to my practice is looking at light on form, on trees, on the wall of a house; I find it absolutely irresistible. Such tendencies, of course, have a long history in art, and I am particularly interested in light on forms that are neither grand nor decrepit. The houses in the paintings in Not in My Backyard appealed to me as motifs because they are completely unremarkable. When I work, I feel I am recording them. I am an empiricist putting down the facts of their existence, not with precision, but through my own hand and the personal and expressive marks it makes. It is often later that I notice something in the composition, an odd window, a scary tree, the absence of people, that says more than I ever consciously intended. I also tend to push the color (although nothing wows me more in painting than an amazing neutral). I never paint something to mock it.

I found co-founder Madeleine Mermall’s statement in the press release about backyards being a metaphor for boundaries particularly prescient given our current state of affairs and how our threshold for space has changed. In regards to the coronavirus, our once blurred boundaries are now forced and have hard edges. As a painter, can you relate to these conceits and if so, do you find them to be freeing or restrictive?

The forced separation because of coronavirus is so painful and unnatural, and Madeleine’s remarks were clairvoyant because the show opened on March 13, and the mother of all boundaries fell immediately after with the closure of New York City.

The boundaries of backyards, no matter how hard we try to enforce them, are always breaching – fences fall, dogs get out, barbeque smoke invades, and weeds spread. Metaphorically to me this means that the boundaries cannot persist, and that, if left alone, they would naturally disappear. I think this speaks metaphorically to how hard it is for all of us to resist personal closeness. Because one spends so much solitary time as a painter, I have always embraced and been comfortable with isolation, thus that part of the pandemic does not touch me as cruelly as it might, say, children who want desperately to play with their friends. However, the joy of sharing work matters immensely and that is battered in the current environment. So, I would say that the hard edges of the boundaries feel unnatural and are ultimately quite restrictive and sad.

The concept of NIMBY has been around for quite some time. What were your perspectives on it before the exhibition and how have they changed since?

NIMBY is a loaded term, wanting the bad, or perceived bad, to be anywhere but near you. I am very much against envisioning one’s home or neighborhood as a fortress of perfection. I feel that difference is important and stimulating to be around and that we have to tackle societal problems together.

However, as to the use of the phrase as a title for the show, I feel that through curation we can turn upside down the meanings of phrases and look at them from different sides. That’s really the only way we keep meaning fresh and questions coming. The show teeters on an edge between the dark and the playful. The fruit with faces by Sarah Hughes arranged as if in a roadside stand, the sculpted creatures of Meryl Bennett poised on AstroTurf, and the unfolded lawn chairs make the gallery into the site-specific backyard of the show’s title. But what kind of backyard is this? It is not a pristine and rigid space. Thus, for me the curators have posed the question isn’t it the case that our own backyards, those spaces we might wish to wall off, are filled with flaws and quirkiness anyway? And doesn’t this beg the question what exactly would we keep out? I think they show that we can’t keep out strangeness even when we try.

The subject and setting of the NIMBY exhibition maintains a biblical bent in the sense that it evokes a Garden of Eden of sorts with serpents, flora and fruit. As an all-woman show, I can’t help but wonder if this version of paradise has become a fitting allegory for our current pandemic. What is your take on this?

That is a very interesting observation and one that had not previously crossed my mind. Would the show be before or after the ‘Fall of Man’? I think a bit of both. The show is frozen, like a garden in Pompeii after the catastrophic volcano. Perhaps this would have been the garden of a sly Eve who embraced her fall from grace, having had enough of the perfect, and being quite comfortable herself with mystery, humor and a bit of darkness as she smoked cigarettes on the lawn chairs of this yard created by the curators. She might have fully embraced being cast into a neighborhood of moody houses and wild pets.

Speaking of this being an all-woman show, I think one of the strengths of Catherine and Madeleine’s curation is that the placement of works is heavily interwoven, yet, remarkably, everything has room to breathe. No artist is stepping on the other’s toes and I wonder if being an all-woman show helps make this harmony come about. It is almost three solo shows woven into one without feeling crowded; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Art by nature is plastic. That said, your work is part of an exhibition that has taken on radical new meaning due to a global crisis. Has this this shift caused you to view your works–and perhaps the other works in the NIMBY exhibition–differently? 

The COVID-19 crisis has caused me to view the NIMBY exhibition differently in that the exhibition is trapped, visible only to passersby in the window, and frozen in time. That’s almost painful, like a living thing you want to set free. It was meant to be experienced with the joy of open doors and neighborhood traffic but circumstances out of our control forced it to transform into a butterfly in a bell jar.

I think artists will have to respond in all kinds of inventive ways to this crisis, which will likely be with us for a while. There is a duality emerging whereby, on one hand, people are necessarily spending more time in their personal spaces and will want the art they love there with them, and, on the other hand, people will have to be dispersed to see new art, perhaps even to be outside, so the social element of exhibitions will be much diminished. I find myself thinking about ideas to show paintings in temporary exhibitions outside (weather permitting). I did a show in Italy in 2018 and the walls of the building were so ancient and beautiful that my response was to put the paintings on freestanding scaffolding. This had the side effect of exposing the front and back of the work such that it introduced a celebration of process. I may explore more of that kind of exhibition and other ways to put painting out in the open, even if just for a short while.