QUEENS MUSEUM OF ART | AUGUST 11 – NOVEMBER 3, 2002
Looking at Queens International is a bit like taking the 7 train. The elevated line that travels from Times Square all the way to Corona Park where the Queens Museum of Art occupies the former grounds of the 1964 World’s Fair is generally crowded, colorful, and chaotic. Famous for its tracks over the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens, the 7 feels like a completely different transportation system than the sleek new 6 trains that speed up and down the east side of Manhattan from the Met to Battery Park. Similarly, the current exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art eschews the sleek somberness of Chelsea galleries and offers a mirthful hodgepodge of contemporary that reflects the dynamic, cross-cultural environment of the 7 train.
Ever since I read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth two years ago and saw the work of Chris Ofili and Tracey Emin, I regularly wonder why London breeds smart art about ethnicity and culture, while New York’s sense of racial hybrids continues to be rooted in multiculturalism rather than miscegenation. Perhaps it’s because the British Empire maintains a complicated relationship with its former colonies while the American empire is still just conquering subjects who may one day (we hope) rebel and then make art that reflects this future history. The legacy of American slavery and the very American politics of the civil rights movement certainly also plays a part. Regardless of the reasons, art with a post-colonial sensibility (and sense of humor) has finally come to New York this season.
The most interesting and revelatory aspect of Queens International is that, as the best art points out, funny things happen when cultures cross-pollinate. In Dave McKenzie’s video “Babel,” the 25-year-old artist originally from Jamaica exemplifies the comic aspects of living in “the melting pot”: He stands in front of a white background with a microphone in his mouth, breathing heavily and signing frantically to communicate. It is sort of a one-liner, but McKenzie’s energetic gestures and emotional soundtrack without words convey the complexities of communication, made infinitely more complex by humans and the endlessly multiplying means we create to communicate (like video and sound), as well as the possibility of art to communicate despite these barriers.
Dave McKenzie, Self-Portrait Piñata, 2002. Papier-mâché and crepe paper. Dimensions variable. (c).Photo: Marc Bernier. Courtesy the artist and The Studio Museum in Harlem.
This sense of lightheartedness continues in McKenzie’s sculpture entitled “Self Portrait Pinata”: a five-foot-tall black man in gray pants and a blue shirt with glasses made of the thin tissue squares that characterize the favorite Mexican game of smashing elaborately constructed, colorful papier-mâché animals filled with candy. Of course, piñatas have already been imported to American birthday parties to follow the playing of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, just as the artist himself is already American just as much as he is Jamaican. Although by the time you are reading this, McKenzie’s self-portrait has been smashed, part of the entertainment at the exhibition’s opening in September, the sculpture reminds us that there are culturally specific notions of “art,” and one that contemporary gallery culture often forgets is the fun, active engagement of games.
Marietta J. Ganapin’s collages appear to be colorful mandalas, but up close they offer a visual puzzle. Each collage is made up of tiny colored dots, the size of what is subtracted by a hole-punch. Within the circular patterns of the mandalas emerge the palettes and icons of famous works of Modern Art: the hat of Jean Helion’s “The Newspaper Readers” or the tail of Gauguin’s dog in “Still Life with Three Puppies.” Ganapin makes beautiful constructions out of the literal deconstruction of western art (by poking holes) in the visual equivalent of the literary pastiche typified by Zadie Smith.
Leslie Hewitt’s color images from her series “Icons ReFrames, ReFramed Icons” locate the place where cultural images come together, not to merge, but to compliment or contradict each other. Pointing her camera at the top corners of basement offices and butcher shops, Hewitt photographs the images of the iconic figures of Black culture in the twentieth century that are hung like talismans in quotidian spaces; a lacquered wood Bob Marley wall piece hangs next to two black and white photographs of Mohammed Ali in the ring at the top of beige carpeted stairs; while Nelson Mandela and Malcom X appear in a green, red, and black frame nailed next to a car calendar in a butcher shop.
Abstraction and stylized surfaces are other strategies used by the artists on view to transcend rigid cultural boundaries, or more exactly, the assumption that their art must directly address their identities. Augusto Arbizo paints large canvases with shiny, slick acrylic surfaces in quietly deep hues of green, blue, and red that hang next to Jamie Arrendondo’s brightly colored flowers dripping with giant teardrops of water with the hyperrealism of the scenes on air-brushed T-shirts. Eric Hongisto’s “Possibilities, Probabilities, and Potentialities” is a Julie Mehretu-like abstract wall painting of neon-colored bio-morphic forms that goes nicely with the masking-tape exactness of Jen H. Kim’s architectural mural of cubes in the hallway, which is reminiscent of Al Held from the 1970s. Rie Oishi’s installation “…” projects light through giant transparent helium balloons, connected like dangling earrings, creating a barely visible rainbow effect in the skin of the balloons and a softly bubbling video that looks like water on the far wall. The suggestion of a quiet multiplicity exists in many of the works, the diversity of colors and shapes offering another way to view the question of culture.
Despite the overall sense of inclusion that pervades the exhibition, sometimes the curators’ choices are hard to understand. The purpose of the installation on the first floor by the artist collective Flux Factory is elusive. This group of young “artists” living in Queens has been given an entire gallery in which to create a “three month inhabitation,” which seems to consist of each member randomly constructing useless structures in the gallery and participating in arbitrary rituals. Perhaps it is an effort to examine the haphazard creation of communities through rituals, like the daily ribbon cutting ceremony (after which the ribbon is taped back together). But the constant replaying of a video of yesterday’s “activities,” including making videos and compiling books about daily activities, performed by people in orange jumpsuits, seems more like an exercise in senselessness than art practice. There are also Zhang Hongtu’s bizarre landscapes that merge the composition of traditional Chinese landscape painting with the formal styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters. While it is interesting to see how the use of thick impasto paint from Van Gogh’s palette completely changes the space of a Chinese landscape by calling attention to the camera and flattening distances, the paintings feel forced, and both eastern and western traditions come up short.
The show’s curators claim “Ethnicity and identity often may influence style and subject matter, but not always. Reflecting on a broad range of artistic and social concerns, the painting, photography, sculpture, video, and web projects in this exhibition demonstrate how, for an international artistic community, Queens is particularly fertile ground.” Like the artists in the Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2000, the artists in Queens International use the language of contemporary art to move beyond art based on ethnicity, or any other identity categories. But the curatorial statement makes the exhibition seem overly general, and it’s not. Queens is not just “particularly fertile ground”; it is a specific location that has produced a unique mix of cultures and classes, including migrant Americans who must reflect on their non-New York-ness as much as an international drifter. Queens International offers up a variegated array of art, which taken together, meditates on the specific milieu of Queens with its red brick houses, elevated trains, Indian bazaars, Chinese restaurants, and Irish pubs.
How to see and move through this city with so many personalities is the subject of Danwen Xin’s installation “Sleep Walking,” what I imagine walking into a Joseph Cornell shadow box might be like. A montage of blurred black and white photographs of the city are projected on one wall: anonymous people on the subway, empty streets, and buildings shot from extreme, vertical angles. At the center of the room, a glass box the size of a suitcase hangs, suspended from the ceiling at waist height, into which are projected more nostalgic views in black and white that become blue in the glass. The installation evokes the romantic sensation of anonymous movement through the city and its past, in the soft light of memories triggered by old photographs and preserved under glass, that Cornell, the most famous Queens artist, perfected. But the box has become bigger, so as to accommodate the ever-increasing volume of images and memories produced by the multiplying wanderers of New York.