Lite by Tschabalala Self shows a figure standing in the middle of the canvas holding a can of lite beer while another figure is shown partially, exiting the painting on the right.

While I love the formal aspects of all the works in Self’s exhibition – the use of paint, fabric, printmaking, sewing as a means of drawing – it is the character of this male figure that draws me in. After 35 years in New York City, 27 of them in Brooklyn, this is a person I feel I know.

“Deli” in this context does not mean delicatessen, but bodega, or in Boston it would be the corner store. There were several in my Brooklyn neighborhood, really in all residential neighborhoods, and there is always a group of mostly men who stand outside all day, every day, drinking and smoking. The stores themselves were often fronts for gambling and had few items to sell other than beer, cigarettes, toilet paper, and milk.

In the painting the man’s pocket is turned inside out, an indication of his impoverished state; he is as stuck in his life as the chewing gum on the lower left sidewalk. The leg to me indicates life passing him by.

I came to know one of the men at my local deli by name – Raffi – but I had a chin-up nodding, “hey” relationship with them all.

A year or so after I left (was forced out of) Brooklyn, I ran into Raffi in Manhattan at around 7 AM. He was drunk. I offered him money, but he just walked away. I never saw him again.

Gregg Handorff joined the ICA as a Visitor Assistant in 2018.  He makes art in a variety of media whenever he can.

Friday Art Notes are personal reflections on works of art shown or in the permanent collection of the ICA, written by ICA staff, volunteers, and supporters. Read more