Friday, May 6, 2011


by Drew Martin

One of the most serendipitous spaces in New York for art is 29 Downing Street. It's the residence and studio of husband and wife John Bennett and Karen Lee Grant. John is a sculptor and painter. Karen is a photographer. Downing Street has a number of interesting homes but John and Karen's place is the most accessible; the ground floor has been converted into studio and gallery space.

It is not uncommon to walk by and see John at work on his art or something on display, in fact, I expect it. I love how John and Karen so easily offer their talents and space to passersby. It is a reminder of why Greenwich Village has been such a magnet to artists for decades.

Even when no one is milling about and the house is closed up, it is still a place that is hard not to notice and feel engaged with. When renovating/reconstructing the space, John added a lot of personal elements, such as a lintel with triangle patterns and faces (pictured above) as well as other sculpted details.

Last night I went to their opening BOLI, which will be on display until the end of May.

A boli (pl. boliw), is a ritualistic object from Bamana, Mali (an original boli, pictured right). It is a power object whose function is to accumulate and control life force. The boliw are created from animal bones, plant fibers, honey, and metal, which are packed around an armature. They are covered with layers of mud, clay, dung, porridge and sacrificial blood.

John reinterprets the boli, using wire and concrete to define its form. The shaman's task is replaced with an artist's creativity, which at a certain level is one in the same.

Some of John's boliw look like the mortar part of a Mexican mortar and pestle. Karen has used these objects as the solid, grounded element in still life photography. She fills their cavities with various organic elements and photographs them.

The pictures are quite dark, but that gives them a certain softness and a mystery, like seeing wild animals just before sunrise, before they slip away from sight.

The contents of the boli really make each picture unique. There is one with tubers and avocados; the avocados are so ripe you can sense how soft they are and yet in the photographs, they can also be read as solid as the black-bronze surfaces of Rodin's sculptures.

In another boli Karen has placed tubers, pears and very old figs. They all lean to the right of the picture, which gives it a nice sense of movement, especially compared to the one with avocados, which stays put.

On the back of the boli, the movement of the objects creates a look of raised bristles on the back of a boar or some other alarmed animal. Karen's photographs do not simply treat the boliw as empty containers and they are not merely complementing her husband's art; they complete them.

The strongest part of the show is this combination because while the traditional boli is layered and contained, the boli here is revealing and offering.

We need to look at these as opened boliw, exposing their organs, their sustenance and perhaps their offspring. As with the process of how they are created, the power they hold as ritual or art shares something sacred.

John Bennett, Sculpture Painting
Karen Lee Grant, Photography

May 5 to May 31
11am to 7pm Th Fr Sa Su
4pm to 7pm Mo Tu We

or by appointment: 212 242 1703

29 Downing Street 10014
at Bedford Street