Toward the end of Our City Dreams, Nancy Spero, one of the five female artists profiled in Chiara Clemente’s airy and intimate documentary, remembers trying to cover up the violent and sexualized images she was working on as her children ran around her studio. It’s a detail that captures the simultaneity of her need for raw expression and familial balance, a subject recently visited in Who Does She Think She Is? Unlike Pamela Tanner Boll’s film, however, Clemente’s portrait of women in art works with fewer restrictions: Its subjects have all chosen New York as their personal atelier, yet their wildly varying ages, backgrounds, desires, and ambitions keep this mosaic from being reduced to a pamphlet. Swoon, the youngest of the artistes, translates her feelings for urban life into life-sized “street people” cutouts placed both in galleries and against the city’s buildings. For Cairo-born Guada Amer, art is a medium for rebellion against the most repressive aspects of her multicultural background, and the sexuality present in her hand-embroidered canvases subverts both Western and Muslim ideals of femininity. German sculptor Kiki Smith gets ready for a retrospective that will include decades of contemplation—via clay, paper, glass, and ice—of the human form, while Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović shows no signs of letting her 60th birthday slow down her confrontational and highly physical productions (which encompass marathon theater pieces and self-flagellating sessions) about global political unrest. Finally, octogenarian painter-activist Spero looks back at her turbulent artistic emergence during the Vietnam War years, and ahead at her latest installations about sexual identity. Candid and unpretentious, Clemente’s film posits personal experience as the main thrust of creativity, envisioning a city kept artistically alive by people willing to offer not just aesthetic objects, but pieces of their lives.
The plethora of well-aged archival footage sprinkled throughout the film is certainly vibrant, but the present-day footage, while clear, is prone to unattractiveness, with skin tones a little on the orange side and Nancy Spero's artwork attracting some digital noise. The audio track is undemanding but strong enough, with some pleasant surrounds traveling nicely across the entire soundstage whenever director Chiara Clemente's camera takes to the streets.
A terribly brief making-of featurette allows Clemente to quickly explain how she came to the artists she profiled. Rounding things out: Remembering Stephen Sprouse (it's described as a short film, but its more a collage of notable talking heads), biographies of Clemente and the five artists featured in her film, a PDF timeline, a theatrical trailer, and trailers for other titles from First Run Features.
A lovely ode to women, sexuality, creativity, and New York City.