The artist Huma Bhabha is preparing to ship a selection of her large-scale totemic sculptures across the country for an exhibition, and is eagerly looking forward to her studio being empty again. “When I’m working on a show and on a lot of cork sculptures especially, there’s a lot of dust — and cleaning,” she says, standing in front of a grand staircase that ascends, thanks to a quirky renovation, from the floor of her studio only to end at its ceiling. The cavernous 3,600-square-foot space, a former commercial building in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is currently filled with otherworldly figures, their bodies hewn from ancient-looking cork or wood and adorned with swaths of pastel paint or swipes of nail polish. The works will soon leave for the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, where this month Bhabha will show a selection of new mixed-media sculptures and drawings that explore both ancient and contemporary approaches to depicting the body. During the course of her three-decade career, she has become used to these types of farewells.
Bhabha, 57, grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, where her mother, an amateur painter, encouraged her to see artistic potential in unlikely places. She developed a fascination with cartoons and greeting cards as a child and knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. In 1981, she moved to the United States to attend the Rhode Island School of Design and later completed her Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University. “I was mostly painting, drawing and experimenting with collage and assemblage before grad school,” she says. In 2002, she left for Poughkeepsie because she could no longer afford New York City.
These days — though she has active drawing, print and photography practices — Bhabha is best known for the richly textured sculptures that she has been making since the 1990s from materials including cork, Styrofoam, plastic, wood, metal and paint. Frequently working with a palette of earthy browns, she creates alienlike characters whose craggy bodies, familiar but not quite human, seem marked by psychological pain and violence. In 2018, she gained particular attention for her work “We Come in Peace,” an installation in the Metropolitan Museum’s roof garden that comprised two gargantuan painted and patinated bronze figures, one 15 feet long and kneeling reverently before another, shorter, at almost 14 feet tall. Spare and woven through with found materials, the work suggested an apocalyptic scene and a solemn comment on how human beings encounter — and subjugate — the other.
To create the commission, Bhabha knew she needed a bigger studio and discovered that the large commercial building (now her current space) next door to her house was available. Less fortuitously, the studio wasn’t ready in time, and so she built the towering figures in her home, a former firehouse that she shares with her husband, the multidisciplinary artist Jason Fox, and their two golden Labradors, Speedy and Chico. “I worked in a way where I wasn’t able to see the whole sculpture assembled fully because of the height,” she says of creating the commission. “I worked on two sections at the same time.”
Regardless of size — and many of her works are on a superhuman scale — Bhabha’s sculptures, with their grotesque tenderness, exude an understated intensity that compels equally hushed observation from their viewers. When filled with her works, her studio seems, at times, to vibrate with otherworldly energy. On a crisp January day, sitting in a brown upholstered swivel chair in the middle of her white-walled studio, and surrounded by her visceral cork figures, Bhabha answered T’s artist’s questionnaire.
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
I sleep around seven, eight hours — so I sleep well. I work during the day and also in the evening before dinner. And then, of course, my schedule varies upon deadlines. I’ve just finished this work so I’m taking a little bit of time off.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
When I was around 10, I loved copying greeting cards. I did copies of Bugs Bunny cartoons but I also made paintings on chip board or whatever.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
Every studio was good. I’ve had studios with no windows, but it all depends on what kind of work you get out of it. They were small. But even the studio that was a closed-in porch — it was tiny — there were some breakthroughs that happened for me there. So I think you can make work anywhere.
What’s the first work you ever sold?
I think it was around 1991. I sold a soft sculpture (“Untitled,” 1990) made of corrugated yellow foam, which I had painted red on one side and cut up and stuffed into a clear plastic zipper bag used for comforters. Then I sold another piece in 1993 and then I didn’t sell again until around 2002.
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
I start by building the armature for a sculpture. It’s pretty much coming straight out of my head — no sketches or drawings usually.
How do you know when you’re done?
I listen to my gut.
How many assistants do you have?
Have you assisted other artists before? If so, who?
The Venezuelan-born painter Meyer Vaisman. I worked with him for four or five years while I was studying at Columbia and then after.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I listen to the radio a lot. We have a really good Vassar College station. I’ve come across some really interesting shows. And then I listen to Suicide, reggae, Blondie, whatever, a variety.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
I always said that, even when I wasn’t making any money from it. Even when it takes a long time, when you’re not really showing that much or selling anything at all, that is what you believe in. When I had to fill out a form or something, that’s what I put down as my profession: artist.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
No, I don’t eat in the studio.
Are you bingeing on any shows right now?
I was — it’s called Mar de plástico [Plastic Sea]. It’s a Spanish series.
What’s the weirdest object in your studio?
The front legs of a wolf. I used to work in a taxidermy studio, and that’s where I got them. They’re beautiful big paws. They didn’t want them so they cut them off for the person that had shot the wolf. They were just lying around.
How often do you talk to other artists?
Every day because my husband is an artist.
What’s the last thing that made you cry?
Every time there’s a drone strike that kills civilians, then I know that more people are going to die. It’s like a warning.
What embarrasses you?
Talking about myself.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
These look out onto a pretty busy street, but they’re all covered up. Nobody can look inside. At the studio next door in my home, there is a window that looks out onto the backyard, and I have a sculpture out there.
What are you reading?
I just started reading “The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories” (2019), which someone gave me as a Christmas present.
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
“The Night Watch” (1642) by Rembrandt.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
“Huma Bhabha” is on view from January 25 through March 14, 2020 at David Kordansky Gallery, 5130 W. Edgewood Place, Los Angeles, davidkordanskygallery.com.
Review: ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ Has Its Ups and Ups
Let us survey the many moods of Molly Brown: She is perky, chirpy, spunky, bubbly, cheerful. Even stranded on a raft after the Titanic sinks, she can’t help being, ahem, buoyant.
The resilient heroine of the Meredith Willson musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was always an upbeat go-getter, with an action-packed journey that took her from a hardscrabble Rockies mining town to the Denver upper crust. But the Transport Group revival that just opened at Abrons Arts Center has turned Molly (played by Beth Malone, a Tony nominee for “Fun Home”) into a human exclamation mark. The production is simultaneously busy and lifeless — a feat of sorts, if not a desirable one.
The 1960 show was Willson’s follow-up to “The Music Man,” and lightning did not strike twice: There was a Hollywood adaptation four years later, but the stage steered clear, and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” doesn’t appear to have been revived on Broadway or Off in nearly 60 years.
The choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall and the book writer/lyricist Dick Scanlan must have seen an opportunity to give vintage material a fresh start, so they went back to the drawing board: According to the production notes, “none of the characters in the 2020 version appear in the 1960 version. Both have characters called Molly, but she says and does different things. The two versions share three lines of dialogue.”
Fewer than half the songs are from the original show, including the fine “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” The rest are pulled from Willson’s catalog with a mix of tweaked and entirely new lyrics by Scanlan. (This revisal has been in the works for about 10 years, with productions in Denver and St. Louis.)
The title character is based on the actual Molly Brown (1867-1932), though both Scanlan and his predecessor, Richard Morris, have played fast and loose with the facts. Which is fine, since musicals tend to believe that if the legend becomes fact, it’s best to sing the legend.
The problem is that Scanlan and Marshall give us a one-note dynamo whose needle never leaves a positively aggressive red zone.
Molly, née Tobin, is now a fearless, progressive woman speaking truth to power. The tone is set when, facing an all-male Senate hearing in an introductory scene, she is told, “You have been warned, nevertheless you persist: Settle down.”
That is how the show rolls: with all the subtlety of a Hummer.
And there is plenty more where that came from in this protracted tale of resilient feminist pluck.
Newly arrived in Leadville, Colo., the young Molly wins over the local workers; befriends a pregnant widow, Julia (Whitney Bashor); and ends up marrying J.J. Brown, the manager of a silver mine (David Aron Damane).
“I can be anyone I wanna be, why not be a queen?” Molly muses. She and J.J. don’t achieve royal status, but they do strike it rich. Her folksy, rough-hewed attitude appalls Denver’s ladies who lunch until — you guessed it — she charms them, with an assist from some spiked tea.
And so it goes. Molly becomes a women’s suffrage activist. Molly fights for workers’ rights and helps the needy (“Why shouldn’t one of Denver’s ‘better families’ help Denver’s families do better?,” she says).
Although Malone almost never leaves the stage, she is not given much to work with by either Scanlan or Marshall and compensates with unbridled “I’m auditioning for Peter Pan” enthusiasm.
Eventually Molly learns J.J. had an affair (which took place offstage, lest the audience be subjected to anything vaguely resembling moral ambiguity or dramatic stakes) and decamps to Europe. Neither the decadent old continent nor the Titanic can bring her down, however. Soon she’s back in New York, where she stands up for an indigent immigrant whose entry is blocked by an immigration officer, while a repentant J.J. waits in the wings. You may never have yearned so much for a show’s heroine to calm down, even for a second.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Through March 22 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, transportgroup.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Adèle Haenel: France ‘Missed the Boat’ on #MeToo
PARIS — When Adèle Haenel said late last year that she had been abused as a child by a movie director, she became the first prominent actress in France to speak publicly about abuse in the country’s film industry. By then, the #MeToo movement was already two years old.
Families argued about her story at the dinner table. Colleagues discussed it in workplaces. Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, said Ms. Haenel, 31, deserved “great respect.”
In a recent interview with The New York Times — Ms. Haenel’s first since she aired the accusations in November — the actress urged President Emmanuel Macron’s government to step up its efforts to tackle violence against women.
“The judicial system needs to change to better treat victims of sexual violence,” she said. “On all levels.”
The director Christophe Ruggia, whom Ms. Haenel accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate contact that she said began when she was 12, has denied the accusations through his lawyers. In January, he was charged with sexual assault on a minor under 15, and an inquiry is underway.
Although Ms. Haenel has stayed quiet since airing the accusations, similar stories have followed, including an accusation by the photographer Valentine Monnier that the movie director Roman Polanski raped her in 1975 when she was 18. (Mr. Polanski denies the accusation, although he has previously pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in the United States.)
Other women came forward in the wake of Ms. Haenel’s account, highlighting abuse in the spheres of literature and sports.
A few weeks before the American release of her latest movie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Ms. Haenel sat for an interview in Paris. It was followed by a telephone conversation, and the transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
You shared your story three months ago and haven’t spoken publicly since then. How was your testimony received?
My story was like the last gram in a chemistry experiment that made everything fall out of solution. It resonated because French society had gone through a thought process about #MeToo.
I am part of the film world, but today I want to hear from women from other spheres, in academia, in organizations. The enormous number of handwritten letters, messages, emails — from women, but also from men — who had been moved by my story also made me realize that we lacked media stories on survivors of sexual violence in France.
How would you describe how #MeToo has unfolded in France?
There is a #MeToo paradox in France: It is one of the countries where the movement was the most closely followed on social media, but from a political perspective and in cultural spheres, France has completely missed the boat.
Many artists blurred, or wanted to blur, the distinction between sexual behavior and abuse. The debate was centered on the question of [men’s] “freedom to bother,” and on feminists’ purported puritanism. But sexual abuse is abuse, not libertine behavior.
People are talking about it, though, and #MeToo has left its mark. France is boiling over with questions about it.
How did that help you tell your own story?
It helped me realize that mine was not just personal, but one of many women and children, that we all carry. But I didn’t feel ready to share it when #MeToo emerged. It took me a long time to make the personal journey to look at myself as a victim. I also don’t think I moved any faster than French society.
Some politicians in France criticized you for sharing your story in the media without pressing charges initially. Why did you do that?
We have a justice system that doesn’t make violence against women a priority. Some public figures expressed their surprise, but do they know what it takes, today, for a woman to face the judicial system in France? Does anyone take into account the huge challenges that lay along the path of a female victim of sexual violence?
My case is now being treated in an ideal manner, with trained police and investigators who are attentive and well-meaning. I wish all survivors could have treatment like this.
Some women have complained that their cases didn’t receive the same treatment.
Under French law, rape is a sexual act committed with violence, surprise or under constraint: It is centered on the method used by the abuser, not the absence of consent from the victim. But what if during the assault a victim is in total shock? How do you seek justice?
We also have to believe all the women who speak out: Whenever a woman has less power than a man, one suspects her of wanting revenge. We have nothing to gain from coming forward as a victim, and the consequences on our private life are very negative.
President Emmanuel Macron has called French society “sick with sexism” and has vowed to combat violence against women and promote gender equality. How do you see the government’s actions in this regard?
There isn’t enough funding dedicated to changing the situation, and we have in our current government a representative who has been accused of abuse by different women. Keeping him in position sends out the signal that it isn’t so serious.
The government’s sluggish reaction to the #MeToo phenomenon makes you think that the state tolerates an amount of violence against women. It remains accepted to a certain extent.
Many recent conversations about sexual violence in the film world in France have focused on Roman Polanski, who has been nominated for the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for his latest film “An Officer and a Spy.” You’ve been nominated, too.
Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t that bad.
When “An Officer and a Spy” was released, we heard outcries about censorship. It isn’t censorship — it’s about choosing who one wants to watch. And old rich white men, rest assured: You own all of the communication channels.
No, real censorship in French film is how some people suffer from invisibility. Where are the people of color in film? The directors of color? There are exceptions, like Ladj Ly, whose film has had enormous success, or Mati Diop, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of the film world at all. They remain a minority. For now, most stories take the classic white, male, heterosexual point of view.
But “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” offers a different vision of love and human interactions.
We don’t apply a traditional playbook, which is “falling in love without understanding why.” That usually includes domination and unequal power relations that are often considered like a motor for eroticism.
This film frees itself of that. We offer something that politically, artistically, makes us less submissive. It is a new version of desire, a cross between intellectual, carnal and inventive excitement.
What are you plans now? Are they affected by the impact of your story?
It is too early to say, but it doesn’t really matter if it harms my career. I think I did something good for the world, something that makes me feel upright. I am going to act in a play at the end of the year, but I don’t know yet how it has affected the way people see me.
I walk around Paris on foot — I don’t live in a bubble. Sometimes people thank me for speaking out when they see me in the street. When people thank me, it moves me, since the goal was to help. It makes me proud and joyful.
Diana Serra Cary, Child Star ‘Baby Peggy’ of Silent Films, Dies at 101
She hated it. “Fighting for $3 a day in the world of extras — it was dreadful,” Ms. Cary told The Wall Street Journal in 2012. “And it was also sort of shameful, because the people who were doing the extra work were the former silent stars, many of them that I knew, who were adults, and for them it was a very crushing blow. I thought of it as being a galley slave.”
The family resorted to food coupons from the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The Los Angeles School Board finally insisted that the girl attend classes, and she enrolled at Lawlor Professional School, which had flexible schedules for young actors, enabling her to continue working. Fellow students included Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Later, she went to Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.
After graduating, she eloped in 1938 with her first boyfriend, Gordon Ayres, a movie extra. They were divorced in 1948. She was a switchboard operator and a bookstore clerk, and then managed a gift shop in Santa Barbara. She told no one of her past, and took the name Diana Serra. In 1954, she married Bob Cary, an artist, and took his surname. They had a son, Mark. Her husband died in 2001. Besides her son, she is survived by a granddaughter, Stephanie.
The Carys settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he painted and she became a freelance journalist, writing magazine articles. In 1970, they moved to La Jolla, part of San Diego, and she began a new career as a film historian. Her first book, “The Hollywood Posse” (1975), was a well-received account of stunt riders in film. Her second, “Hollywood’s Children” (1978), recounted the often troubling stories of child actors.
But it was the years of work on her memoir, “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star” (1996), that proved therapeutic and redemptive. She re-examined her life in silent films, her parents’ conduct in frittering away her fortune, the studios’ harsh working conditions and the fates of child stars who, like her, were left impoverished, emotionally scarred and largely forgotten.
In “Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star” (2003), she wrote about her old friend, who sued his mother and stepfather in 1938 for spending his more than $3 million in earnings on furs, diamonds, homes and expensive cars.
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