AW Strouse
2 min readMay 4, 2020

Nothing has lightened my COVID exile as much as virtually touring “Not in My Backyard,” an exhibition at Public Swim in New York’s Chinatown.

Under normal circumstances, the down-town art scene often feels, to me, tedious — part of the gentrification that has housebroken New York’s counterculture with NIMBY repression.

But this show is a double pleasure: it is shamelessly wacky, clever, and sinister. And Public Swim has managed to digitally curate virtual documentations that are wildly pleasurable.

Photo credit by Etienne Frossard, courtesy of Public Swim gallery

The exhibition brings together mysterious sculptures by Meryl Bennett, witty ceramics by Sarah Hughes, and seductive paintings by Maureen O’Leary.

For me, the most tactile experience of my entire corona hiatus has been the ocular touch of Meryl Bennett’s epoxy creatures. Looking at snakes, I am immediately thrown into a fight-or-flight panic. But the figures — with their tropical palette and odd-duck hybridity — invite sustained attention, a tension of fear and desire.

Maureen O’Leary’s oil paintings similarly activate, for me, a kind of codependent longing, a hopeless love for the perversity of suburban housing. Lushly rendered, these paintings are cropped to insinuate a quick glimpse from a car drive-by, yet they dwell (with rubber-necked fascination) on suburbia as a site of wonder and alienation, joy and horror.

Sarah Hughes has her finger on the pulse of the milieu — in all of its melancholy and absurdity. Hughes’s cartoony fruits seem to be saying, “Is this really happening?” These ceramics bring a surreal levity to dire circumstances. “Small Lemon” expresses exactly how I feel: just when I thought that New York City couldn’t become more grueling, the universe is playing a mean joke!

The show’s title, “Not in My Backyard,” frames these works as responding to a political-economic landscape that had increasingly pushed out the city’s old weirdness.

Photo credit by Etienne Frossard, courtesy of Public Swim gallery

Often, yuppies from the suburbs have been blamed for the gentrification of New York, but the show ironizes that proposition. “Not in My Backyard” reminds us that the suburbs, too, sometimes have their own wacky edge.

The exhibit’s two co-directors, Madeleine Mermall and Catherine Fenton Bernath, set up a fun, summery installation of deckchairs, milkcrates, astroturf. This is a strategy of comic deflation, which hopefully can help lighten up the whole grim situation. Bennett, Hughes, and O’Leary are bringing back to the downtown scene a raw, upbeat sense of humor — which we desperately needed before and, Lord knows, we sure could use right now.

Check out this virtual exhibit with works, installation views, and a short video of the show.