The Uptown Triennial
WALLACH ART GALLERY AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY | JUNE 2 – AUGUST 20, 2017
The intermittent curatorial interest in location and organizing works according to the places in which they are made, has been most recently explored in New York through exhibitions such as Hilton Als’s curation of Alice Neel at David Zwirner, and currently at the Uptown triennial at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. The use of location as an organizing strategy, in the case of the triennial, gestures to “uptown” as a contemporary situating that is both deliberate and circumstantial. This common spatial orientation points to the varied modes of access to, and experience of, the city.
The density and breadth of the work in Uptown poetically counters the view of the city looking towards midtown Manhattan. The exhibition opens with an exquisite series of works on paper collaboratively made by Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin. These twenty-one compositions entitled Struggling with Words that Count (2014–16) arrange text and images that are meant to be read from left to right, yet take an anti-narrative approach to issues of place, language and capital. For instance, a moody cityscape is encroached on by an orange circle, while the words “barely” and “volunteering” float below.
Collectively and individually, these propositions exceed learned structures of visual and textual legibility and insist on a durational viewing that produces space for alternative techniques of reading. Noticably, many of the artists in the Uptown triennial tease out and challenge learned methods of viewing, and reading as a radical practice emerges as more central to this exhibition than the biography-focused accompanying labels suggest.
Suspended from the ceiling, Leeza Meksin’s Purse Strings and Body Bags (2017) presents a striking sculptural installation that proposes a conversation between the structural and the abject. Describing her work as existing in between states of categorization while containing items such as drop sheets and clothing, this work’s ambiguity disrupts the ideological architecture that frames it. Hung near the window, the neon orange, brown, and white materials engage in a fortuitous conversation with the rapid building development in the surrounding area. Opposite, Shani Peters’s Peace and Restoration (2016) presents her photomontage lightboxes, which combine images of contemporary and historical protest. Alongside these, her text plaques on panel present poetic calls to action such as “rise / set” and “settle / rise / again.” The works suggest the historical reflexivity of these moments as a result of the ongoing strategies of oppression they are resisting. Peters, too, engages with the structure of the gallery, creating a sitting space on the ground with blankets, pillows and plants. This respite from regulated viewing both counterbalances the density of the lightboxes and disrupts the organizational strategies of museum viewing.
In addition to structural critique, artists like Bayeté Ross Smith and José Morales explore optics and the politics of location in relation to documentation. Smith’s Step into the Cypher (2017) is a 360-degree video in which the viewer is placed at the center of a freestyle cypher and can control the orientation of their view from a discrete mouse on the gallery wall. The use of contemporary technology to capture a practice established in the 1980s manipulates our expectations of visual historical access. The work’s interest in optics, insertion, and orientation, are directly referenced both conceptually and in practice. Morales’ thoughtful project Descartados (2015) is based on a series of Polaroid negatives he found on the floors of Rikers Island when he was there teaching art classes. These negatives are from photographs taken of incarcerated youths standing in police line-ups. The double negation of their visibility—firstly by being viewed in color reversal on a discarded object, and more broadly in the rampant incarceration of young men of color—is maintained by Morales, who, in laminating these negative images and pinning them to the wall, locates his transformative gesture in the relocation of material objects. In avoiding affect and over-aestheticization, the artist tinkers with visual and archival legibility just enough to suggest the ways we can reposition information to reveal the defects of the systems that govern us.
The diasporic nature of most of New York’s population invites a reframing of what “location” signifies. In Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” (1985), he begins by describing the vertical undulation created by the buildings in Manhattan, which are momentarily disrupted by vision. The city as an object is fractured by the cognition of it as a space of relations and collisions.1 Though de Certeau is referring to “spacial practices” as ways of destabilizing the systems that organize the city, many of the artists in Uptown respond to the proposition of location by revealing and critiquing those same dominating constructs.
- Michel De Certeau, Walking in the City from “The Practices of Everyday Life.” University of California Press, 1984. P. 91.
Magdalyn Asimakis is a New York and Toronto-based curator, art writer, and PhD candidate at Queen's University.