by Helen A. Harrison
A walk down Riverhead’s Main Street is a journey along small town arteries everywhere: an eclectic mix of architectural periods and styles, and a lot of empty storefronts. Remember Woolworth’s? Gone. McCabe’s? Closed. Swezey’s? Vacant — well, not quite. For the past few months, the former Swezey’s display windows have been occupied by an installation by Andrea Cote, a multimedia artist who lives in nearby Flanders. Her ambitious project, “Eyes On Main Street,” aims, in her words, “to promote an awareness of the rich and varied spaces and stories of Riverhead’s citizens.” This appealed to me not only because my column is called “Eye On Art,” but also because I have a longstanding interest in public art and how it addresses and responds to its audience. In Andrea’s project, there is no separation between them, since the audience is the art.
The eyes in question are those of some 100 local residents, natives and newcomers alike, whom Andrea photographed during the spring and summer, beginning in May at the annual Community Mosaic Street Painting Festival, an outdoor participatory art event that’s also a huge block party. It’s all part of the downtown revitalization effort, which is using educational and cultural attractions like the East End Arts Council, Atlantis Marine World, the Long Island Exhibition Center and the Peconic River Walk, as well as the gorgeously renovated Suffolk Theater, vintage 1933, to bring people back to Main Street for reasons other than retail. As they stroll past what was Swezey’s department store, they encounter an array of translucent gauze masks on which photographs of eyes have been printed. Another window features photographs of people wearing the masks, covering their own eyes with someone else’s. The artist herself sports several of them in deadpan self-portraits, posed in front of the locale associated with each subject. In this way, she and the others who wear the masks metaphorically view Riverhead through the eyes of people who are intimately connected to the town, from recent arrivals like Glynis Berry, who opened the art sites gallery on West Main Street in 2007, to Anthony Meras, the third-generation proprietor of Star Confectionery, in business at 4 East Main Street since 1911.
But this is not simply a static installation documenting a series of photo shoots. Andrea’s self-portraits also include QR codes that allow viewers with scanners on their smart phones or tablets to access video interviews with the eyes’ owners. You can watch, among others, EEAC director Pat Snyder talking about her organization’s wide range of arts programming; Bob Spiotto, former Suffolk Theater executive director, doing a star turn on stage; performance artist Judy Sky, whose grandfather owned the Vail-Levitt Music Hall, channeling Judy Garland and recalling the history of the venue, which opened in 1881 on Peconic Avenue, just off Main Street; and Rob DiGiovanni, director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Rescue and Preservation, showing how to give a medical exam to a reluctant seal. And if you’d prefer not to spend time looking at videos when you could be enjoying all the cool attractions that Main Street has to offer, you can watch at home by visiting eyesonmainstreetriverhead.com.
There’s a bittersweet undertone to “Eyes On Main Street.” While many of the interviewees are upbeat and optimistic about the town’s future, there’s no rah-rah Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Naturally you expect nostalgia from those who remember the town’s heyday, when the whole high school football team piled into the luncheonette after a game, and you could get a strip of photos for a quarter in the booth at the back of Woolworth’s. But in spite of its emotional nuances and engaging personalities, the picture feels incomplete. Where are the lawyers and judges and court personnel who dominate the Suffolk County seat’s professional class and work only a few steps from Main Street? Where are the people of color? The Riverhead of this project is less a mosaic than a jigsaw puzzle with some crucial pieces missing.