Traffic Moves Roadside Art

By Beth Young, Southampton Press  April 17, 2008

When Shinnecock Hills-based artist Hope Sandrow first decided to stage this performance art piece during the morning rush hour on Montauk Highway, she hoped that the occupants of cars mired in traffic would join in as they had earlier performances.

But last Thursday morning, just one day after the county opened a second eastbound lane on County Road 39, those drivers were hurtling past Ms. Sandrow’s scene of pastoral splendor juxtaposed with the legions of commuters.By the edge of the highway, just feet away from the roaring cesspool tankers, pickup trucks and contractor vans, artist Margaret Kelly set up her easel at a quarter after six in the morning and began painting.

It was a morning thick with mist and the sun had just risen, but the only way to know for sure that dawn had broken was the cock-a-doodle-doing of Ms. Sandrow’s rooster, Shinnecock, and his five sons up on the hill behind the scene. Nestled amongst the candy bar wrappers and discarded energy drink bottles along the slim stretch of grass on the curb, Ms. Sandrow and Tom Edmonds had laid out a picnic blanket covered with bowls of grapes, California strawberries, muffins and wine glasses filled with Pellegrino sparkling water. Mr. Edmonds was half debonair 19th century bookworm in wire rim glasses and a buttoned vest, and half New York art tough, with a worn black leather jacket covering his period costume. He assumed a relaxed pose. Ms. Sandrow, dressed in a peach bodysuit with knee length black boots, an olive drab camera vest and her digital SLR camera’s zoom lens weighing her down, lay prostrate on the blanket.

It wasn’t exactly the scene of early French impressionist painter Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (“The Luncheon on the grass”) but it was close enough for some drivers whizzing by to pick up the visual reference.

“Yes, I’m wearing a body suit,” said Ms. Sandrow with a smirk, referencing the nude in the original painting. She gestured to her camera.“We’re flipping the gaze from men looking at women to women looking at men,” she said. “This represents all the issues we’re facing in the community. Development, cars, class and economic issues. People are angry being in cars. They have no place to vent their frustration.”

Ms. Sandrow first developed the idea for the performance piece “In Plein Air” for her alternate art site calls “On The Road,” when her rooster began wandering to the edge of the road to crow at the stopped traffic last fall. Frustrated drivers would roll down their windows and crow back. “I like the idea of people feeling powerful,” said Ms. Sandrow, who placed a sign lettered on a section of stockade fence that read “How Do You Do Cocka-doodle-do?” next to the road not long after she began joining Shinnecock to crow back at the cars last fall.

Ms. Sandrow said that, by interacting with the drivers in the three-hour backup of rush hour, she was referencing the 1976 Sidney Lumet film “Network,” in which Peter Finch plays an aging anchorman who, frustrated by the rise of infotainment in lieu of news on network TV, yells, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more” out his window before launching a TV show that takes on the network directly. Ms. Sandrow’s goal was more modest. “I hope they’ll think of how art relates to life,” said Ms. Sandrow. “You don’t know who sees you on the road, but when you see people later, it’s a beginning point for an interesting conversation.”

Ms. Sandrow is also referencing Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” in the series of streetside performances she’s planning for the rest of the season, bringing to mind a time “when riding in a car was a romantic adventure.” On New Year’s Day, internationally known Fluxus artist Geoff Hendricks did a headstand on the side of the road throughout the morning, and he’s among a growing group of art appreciators who’ve joined Ms. Sandrow’s circle. Mr. Edmonds, who by day is the director of the Southampton Historical Museum, first met Ms. Sandrow when she began a crusade last year to preserve the historic Gissa Bu estate across Montauk Highway from her property.

“I love fun. I’m here to support Hope,” he said, as he lounged on the blanket eating strawberries and watching the cars go by. “She’s a visionary artist in Southampton. I’ll just sit here. It’s her job to come up with the philosophy.”

Ms. Kelly, who’d already prepared an underpainting of the scene, was working an outline of the seated picnickers into her painting. She plans to return at dawn every Thursday morning until the painting is finished, in hopes of catching the sunrise light. An hour later, the group of artists by the road had still not had a chance to interact with any drivers. “This is the best traffic has been in five years,” said Ms. Sandrow, shrugging her shoulders. “I’ve seen accidents, cars overheating. I have pictures of the steam coming out.” Friday morning, Ms. Sandrow went out to the road and noted the same lack of traffic.

“This is fantastic,” she said in an email that afternoon. “We can look forward to the return of pastoral scenes such as featured ‘en plein air,’ which will be a focus of future ‘On the Road’ projects.”

Tom Edmonds and Hope Sandrow in En Plein Air, a re-enactment of Edouard Manet's painting Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe

conceived by Sandrow. Performed Thursday’s 6-8 AM April - August 2008   Sandrow’s open air studio, Shinnecock Hills

Artist Hope Sandrow staged a performance referencing Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” with Tom

Edmonds, Margaret Kelly and Ulf Skogsbergh on Thursday, April 10, during rush hour on Montauk Highway in

Shinnecock Hills. DANA SHAW

This re-enactment of Edouard Manet's painting "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe" references a more pastoral landscape once painted by William Merritt Chase.