The rural Catskill mountain village of Fleischmanns an unlikely a place to find a world-class contemporary art installation.
In the nineteenth century, the village was a flourishing, prosperous Catskill vacation spot for the New York well-to-do, resplendent with Victorian mansions and lodging houses, attracting both Jewish and non-Jewish summer residents. By the mid-twentieth century, the town had languished, and many properties had fallen into disrepair. Over time, Fleischmanns became a summer retreat for a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who juxtapose oddly with deer hunters, RV owners, motorcycle enthusiasts, and other locals. “Eclectic” is an understatement. If Fleischmanns were on a deli menu it would be an Everything Bagel.
To the delight of this visitor, the town is working very hard to revitalize itself. There are now two little cafes, and a wine bar is opening soon. And there is a stunning contemporary art gallery located in the old police Station. 1053 Main Street that has been open for just about a year, showing very exciting contemporary art.
The current exhibition MOTEL, by sculptor and puppeteer Dan Hurlin, is a full-gallery installation project with some ancillary objects. It is so magical and odd that before I look at it critically, I have to first attempt to describe it.
In the center of the gallery, set on an angle to the walls, is a large open boxlike object with viewing platforms along the two long sides of the rectangle. When you peer down into the open space you see that it’s a complete and exact ½ scale replica of a cheap generic hotel room- the sort once found all over America along highways and in small towns. And it’s perfect. Every single detail from the circa 1970’s TV set to the small roller bag set carefully on a luggage rack. And of course there is a Bible on the bed.
It’s a twin room. One of the beds is perfectly made up; the other has a rumpled bedspread as if someone had a tumultuous night on top of the bed. The ugly lamp is turned on. The first impulse is to admire the craftsmanship that is took to produce this small room. And then you start to notice the details…and the woman.
She sits in a well-worn upholstered armchair, gaze turned sideways and down. She is sad or pensive or both. She’s wearing a modest, blue dress and looks like perhaps a Mormon or Mennonite (my projection). Long silky brown hair is pulled back into a ponytail and her hands hang limply on the arms of the chair. She is one of the puppet figures that has made Dan Hurlin one of the most famous and accomplished of contemporary puppeteers.
But she is still. There is no movement in this performance but there is sound. And as you ponder the mystery of this woman– who is she, why is she here, why is there a crumpled letter on the dresser as well as a stamped and addressed envelope? Why is there an envelope of cash on the side table next to her–you begin to hear the soundtrack that plays out of a cheesy vintage radio by the bed.
The sound track is subtle and extraordinary. Crickets, dogs barking, trucks rumbling by. It all sounds as if it is happening at that moment. I kept glancing at the door of the gallery, looking for the dog. But it all serves as backdrop for the droning sound of Richard M. Nixon testifying in front of a Grand Jury about Watergate. The sound of his voice, from so long ago is a bit of a shock. It sets the tableaux in time and adds to the deepening mystery and allure of this artwork. It should be noted that Hurlin shares generous credit with the sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, as well as the extensive fabrication team.
The gallery sitter told me that the tapes of Nixon are alternated with those from the Jan. 6 2022 Congressional hearings. I can’t speak to how these would inevitably change the tone of the piece; I was there on a “Nixon” day.
The entire experience is mesmerizing and tantalizing. You are watching a scene from a film noir or a vintage mystery tale. All the elements of the story are laid out and it is up to you the viewer to create the narrative. There is something deeply moving about the experience of watching this woman from above as you listen to the soundtrack of her moment.
Hurlin is obviously aware of the magnetic, sometimes voyeuristic power of this installation. There is a large book on the gallery desk where people have written extensive, almost short story length comments about their interpretation of the work.
The exhibition includes several small gouache paintings of close-up details of a motel room as well as a perfect facsimile of a motel welcome folder including postcards and tiny pens. The paintings are quiet and appropriately contemplative of the generic details of motel rooms. But I found myself drawn back again and again to the mystery of Motel and wondering…what happens next.
All photos by the author.
1053 Main Street Gallery has an ambitious program of live events that accompany this exhibit, including an artist talk and showing of Puppet, a 2010 documentary about puppetry that highlights Hurlin’s groundbreaking work. Please check the gallery website for details
MOTEL – runs through September 18. Artist talk and film screening on August 27. For details here.
Melissa Stern lives in NYC and The Hudson Valley. She studied Anthropology and Art History at Wesleyan Univ. Her mixed material sculpture and drawings are in a number of corporate and museum collections including The International Center For Collage, News Corp. Inc. JP Morgan Chase, The Arkansas Art Center, The Racine Art Museum, The Museum of Art and Design and The Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis. Her multi-media project The Talking Cure has been touring the United States since 2012, showing at The Akron Museum of Art, Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston), The Weisman Museum, Real Art Ways (Hartford) and The Kranzberg Art Center (St. Louis), and at The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.MA. She has written about art and culture for The New York Press and CityArts for eight years and is a contributing writer to Hyperallergic and artcritical. Melissa has joined Art Spiel as co-editor and contributing writer.