By Carl Blumenthal
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn is the comeback kid: The Dodgers left in 1958. Now the Nets have picked up the ball. We may have lost the Battle of Brooklyn — Walt Whitman called General Washington “resolute in defeat” — but won the Revolutionary War.
In 1933, the Parks Department reconstructed from partial ruins the Old Stone House, where “400 brave Marylanders” pinned down the British during the battle. And if all goes well by 2026, the 250th anniversary of that battle, the EPA will have cleaned up the Gowanus Canal. Then we can properly memorialize the many American soldiers who drowned in the high tides of Gowanus Creek on August 27, 1776.
The dry recitation of the historical facts doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of those times, which is why Proteus Gowanus gallery and the Old Stone House museum have joined forces for several Battle of Brooklyn exhibits, to which more than a dozen, mostly local artists have contributed works.
“Battle Ground” is the third in a yearlong series of projects at Proteus Gowanus on the theme of “Battle.” (“War of Words” and “Secret Wars” were the first two.) “Battle Pass,” at the Old Stone House, is not only the spot where the British on that fateful day turned a potential ambush into a slaughter of the American defenders, it also defines a temporary bottleneck created by the Maryland regiment at the Vechte-Cortelyou Farmhouse (Old Stone House).
Whether the focus is wide (Battle Ground) or narrow (Battle Pass), the exhibits seem to pose the following challenge to artists and audiences alike: How can any single work of art, or retelling of events, such as Whitman’s “The Centenarian’s Story,” explain a conflict that ranged high and low across Kings County? It’s like trying to piece together what happened to all New Yorkers on 9/11 or during Sandy, except more than two centuries have passed since the battle.
Perhaps this is why Sasha Chavchavadze, the founder of Proteus Gowanus and principal curator of the two shows, described the exhibitors approach as “topographical,” with Brooklyn being the canvas on which her crew of artists created. Kim Maier, director of the Old Stone House, added, “The two groups are neighbors with many common interests. [The dual exhibits] will bring awareness of both organizations.”
And it seems like a fair trade: Proteus Gowanus, more “off the beaten path” (at the corner of Nevins and Union streets, on the banks of the canal) gains greater exposure from the Old Stone House’s location and its access to school groups, while the latter museum receives an injection of creative energy to complement its permanent exhibit on the Battle of Brooklyn.
Chavchavadze contributed several of her own pieces, on which words from “The Centenarian’s Story” encircle painted elements of nature, suggestive of the landscape at the time. One such evocative quotation is “Over Hills, Across Lowlands, and the Skirts of the Woods.” “The Centenarian’s Story” is a poetic blow-by-blow of the Battle of Brooklyn told by a veteran of that “resolute defeat” to a young Civil War volunteer in 1861. Apparently, Whitman foresaw that victory in the latter case would follow a similar trajectory as in the first. The upright matchsticks she glues to her tableaux are like so many toy soldiers waiting to have their heads blown off, reflecting the terrible whimsy of war.
Robyn Love is another artist who combines the visual and the verbal. Her wry “Be a Rebel or Just Look Like One” spells out a line from the “The Centenarian’s Story”—“No Women/Looking/On/Nor Sunshine/to/Bask/In,/It/Did Not/Conclude/with/Applause.”—on a dozen black cloth cockades, similar to the emblems American officers wore on their tricorner hats. She performs the same magic with the first line of Whitman’s poem: “Give/Me/Your/Hand/Old/Revolutionary.” By channeling old Walt, Love reaches across time and space because the setting for “The Centenarian’s Story” was the Civil War drill grounds in Washington Park, now home to the Old Stone House.
Eva Melas provided handmade, bone-white porcelain relief sculptures of such common objects as a gunpowder tester, a musket, British helmut insignia and an American cockade. In addition to these life-sized implements of war, she created domestic miniatures — a unicorn, window shutter, door key, a leaf, waves, etc. You can say she’s trying to strip colonial life down to its bare essentials.
Describing his half dozen oil paintings of ships, Lance Rutledge wrote he’s always lived near the water, watching boats come and go. So these are just extensions of his interest in landscape. However, the riggings are so shrouded in mist, they look like ghostly skeletons. They suggest either the fog that prevented the British from noticing the escape of Washington’s troops across the East River to Manhattan after the Battle of Brooklyn, or the 11,500 American prisoners of war who perished during the war on British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay.
Robert Gould uses pinhole and toy cameras for an eye-through-a-keyhole effect, raising once again the challenge of the Battle Pass vs. Battle Ground metaphors. The subjects of his shots range from trees and overgrown roads as old as the Revolution to vistas of places where the Battle of Brooklyn occurred, such as today’s Green-Wood Cemetery. And his “Maryland Willow” commemorates the 400 by listing on weeping willow leaves the names of as many of the dead as he could document. Gould was inspired by Georgia Fraser’s 1909 book on the Old Stone House, which said a willow grew nearby.
Katarina Jerinic used digital technology to reconstruct on a map some of the Battle of Brooklyn’s fortifications. “Topography of Cobble Hill/Ponkiesberg/Corkscrew Fort” represents the line of battlement that at the time reached the top of the flagpole now ensconced on Trader Joe’s roof at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street.
The versatile Eva Melas has an even lighter side than her unglazed porcelain sculptures. She fashioned sailboats from cardboard boxes used for contemporary consumer products, such as cigarette packs, and printed her impressions of the Battle of Brooklyn, in the form of wartime slogans, on coffee cups. This seems like a commentary on our historical consciousness in an age when everything, including facts, is disposable.
Christina Kelley repurposed a cabinet of card catalog files from the Brooklyn Public Library into “Conditions on the Ground” during the battle. The various drawers contain pertinent information in the categories of “wilderness, cultivation, and weather.” For example, a video of undulating wetland grasses, like those that probably grew in the vicinity of Gowanus Creek, is set to the fife-and-drum music of “Good Old Colony Days” by Andrew Vladeck.
Paul Benny and Duke Riley also produced videos. Benny’s “Battle on Bergen Ship” shows a symbolic enactment on Aug.27, 2012 of a naval battle that thankfully never happened. Instead, General Washington requisitioned anything that could float to ferry his remaining troops across the East River to safety in Manhattan on August 29 and 30, 1776. Riley’s “After the Battle of Brooklyn” chronicles his arrest in 2007 for attempting to approach the Brooklyn-docked Queen Mary 2 in his replica “The Turtle,” a primitive submarine used during the Revolutionary War.
Angela Kramer too has a kinetic approach to history. You can learn why grist mills operated in Brooklyn’s tidal waters, as late as the 1930s, grinding wheat into flour. You can also measure the high- and low-tide marks on the Gowanus Canal bulkhead to understand the energy differential required to turn the kernel-crushing wheels.
Finally, Andy Keating gives life -- that means a face and a body -- to death in “Untitled (Death in the Garden).” Or, as his caption reads, “The same way the past influences the present and the present influences the past, death, even when in a cemetery or a battlefield, places it rules, is affected, maybe even scared of life. Death has to come to terms with life, just like life always must come to terms with death.”
For more information about the Battle of Brooklyn and the two shows, on display through June, go to www.proteusgowanus.org or call (718) 427-2200; also try www.oldstonehouse.org or (718) 763-3195.