CONEY ISLAND: MYTH AND MEMORY


Paintings and Works on Paper by Eric March
New Haven Lawn Club, July 4 – September 3, 2017

I first visited Coney Island in July of 2001 right after I moved to New York City from the Midwest. Up until that point I didn’t really know Coney Island was a real place-I knew it only from a barbershop quartet of “My Coney Island Baby” that I heard in high school. But needless to say, I was smitten from the start. The amazing mix of people, the crazy carnival atmosphere, the beach, the surf, the city, the music has been a source of inspiration ever since. I did my first painting of Coney Island the following summer in 2002 and I have painted or drawn there for almost every summer thereafter. In 2007 I heard of a redevelopment proposal initiated by the city that seemed to invite developers to bulldoze the amusement area and put up condos in its place. I felt it was my duty to strike back and help preserve “The People’s Playground” to keep this magical place accessible to all New Yorkers and to keep the inspiration alive not only for me but for the next generation as well. I became very involved in a political group that worked to raise public awareness of the rezoning fight and the machinations of the developers who were already snapping up amusement lots and historic buildings and reducing them to rubble and empty lots to force the desired rezoning. Needless to say, Coney Island became a year-round preoccupation as I met and learned about the long-time carnies, store owners, and ride operators that were being kicked out or silenced by the redevelopment. I got more and more interested in the history of Coney Island as well, tracing back the land use of the island to Fred Trump’s destruction of Steeplechase Park in 1966 to the heyday of the “Nickel Empire” in the 20’s and 30’s to the Dreamland fire of 1911 to the native Canarsie and the first European settlers. Indeed Coney Island became a subject of my dreams as well, often appearing as a Mad Max version of itself-desolate and empty or filled with fantastically surreal rides.

Over the years my artwork and relationship to painting Coney Island has changed as I have developed and changed as an artist and individual. For many years Coney Island was part of a larger project of painting cityscapes of New York-revealing unexpected beauty in overlooked places and connecting with the communities I lived in though plein air painting. My work became more and more studio-based in 2012-13 as I developed larger cityscapes inside from my outdoor studies. As time went on I became less interested in recording the “truth” of an observed location and more an more interested in the landscape of the mind. Coney Island has played a pivotal role in that transition as I began to use the beach as a stage to explore figurative and narrative compositions that related both to my personal history, the history of Coney Island, and stories from mythology. It has also started to become a symbol of sorts for America itself with common themes of class struggles, the cultural melting pot, fast food, capitalism, leisure and entertainment, racial unity and racial divisions, and the meeting of human development with the natural world.

In the end, the rezoning bill we were fighting got passed but we kind of won anyway-Coney Island got a brand new park (albeit operated by an outside amusement conglomerate instead of the small time operators that gave it such a unique character historically), those condos have yet to be built, and summer still finds Coney Island as a beach crowded with people from all over the city and all over the world. After moving to New Haven in 2014 I’m not the Coney regular I once was-but I do make a point to visit at least once every summer with my wife and our two young Coney Island “babies”.

– Eric March, New Haven, CT  2017