New York CityMontrose And Manhattan Avenues
May 1st – Unkonwn
A large, squat boulder occupies what would otherwise be a parking spot at the corner of Montrose and Manhattan Avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Flanked by yellow caution tape and four orange construction barriers, the placement of this massive stone was clearly meant to be temporary. And yet, like many aspects of daily life under COVID-19, this rock is now stranded in an unfamiliar predicament with an uncertain future. The nearby construction that unearthed it has just resumed after a long pause. With the workers back on the job, the threat of removal builds with each passing day. Despite, or perhaps because of its transitory nature, the artists Pam Lins and Halsey Rodman began gluing small artworks to this boulder in early May. News of the project spread quickly through Instagram, and the list of collaborators continues to grow through invitation and spontaneous contributions. THE ROCK, as they named the project, is a playful gesture that responds to a serious need. This humble pedestal gives space to a public expression of grief, hope, and resilience, in a city that has experienced many layers of loss. This fluid monument belongs to a generation of self-organized public memorials in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
As you approach THE ROCK, it takes some time to make sense of the scene. Nearly a dozen interventions were on display when I first visited in early June. Most of the pieces are ceramic, but small paintings and collages appear as well. There are no labels or didactics, so you just have to explore for yourself. After a lap around the boulder, I began to study a curious situation: five tiny bar stools in a semi-circle around a tip jar with roses in it. The spunky little chairs have round seats the size of bottle caps, and their blue-green glaze stands out against the stone. The tip jar appears massive by contrast, even though it’s only as big as a coffee cup. This sculpture comes off as a quirky but earnest memorial to all the service industry workers who lost their jobs when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered bars and restaurants to close. The red flowers crammed into the cup cannot make up for lost income, but they express a sincere gratitude and respect.
Viewing THE ROCK means standing on the sidewalk while a steady stream of people passes through the intersection. New York City’s diversity and de-facto segregation are plainly visible on this corner. The setting makes it easy to establish connections between the sculptures on the large stone and the issues of racism and inequality unfolding nationally. Near to the tip jar is another idiosyncratic tribute to the generalized pathos of this moment. Ceramic letters awkwardly spell out “CRY AMERICX” on the surface of the boulder. After mouthing the unfamiliar ending a few times, the consequences of this simple alteration hit me hard. With just two words, this work implies a solidarity of shared grief while simultaneously refusing to ignore the violent divisions that define this country. The unifying activity of the verb “CRY” forms a paradoxical tension with the emphatically plural “AMERICX.” Replacing the “A” in America with an “X” invokes both the gender-neutral construction “Latinx” and the radical thought of Malcom X. One altered letter calls out patriarchy and white supremacy and binds them to the name of this nation. I began to contemplate this phrase as a response to the lofty “E Pluribus Unum.” The nearby presence of three quarters glued to boulder strengthens this connection. Two of these coins are painted red, and the other black. The defaced currency carries the Latin phrase whose case for unity feels woefully insufficient, especially now. And yet it is characteristically American to offer aspirational language as the solution to a crisis that is rooted in the physical and economic domination of Black bodies. “CRY AMERICX” points to a way forward, albeit a difficult one. If white people are willing to confront the fact that white supremacy is an organizing principle of our society, not a historical attitude, then we might be able to begin the process of healing. This notion is hopeful but not naive. The subtitle of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” ends with the line, “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” A candid conversation about reparations would surely involve tears, and these tears would help bridge the gap between language and bodies. On the other side of THE ROCK from “CRY AMERICX” are several small ceramic sculptures by Pam Lins of crying eyes.
In addition to making space for heavy issues, THE ROCK has a solid sense of humor. About a foot below the crying eyes is a much sillier scene: a pair of eyeballs by Saki Sato glued just above a large crack in the boulder form a cartoonish, grumpy face. Rodman informed me that “CRY AMERICX” is the artist Trisha Baga’s rearrangement of the letters of another person’s sculpture that read “JIMMY CARTER.” The word “MOON”, a work by Rodman, appears in stylish white letters like a satirical brand name on this lumpy boulder. Lins created a “weed garden” by planting and watering a tuft of grass amidst the rocky soil that clings to one side of the stone. This dance between playful forms and weighty subjects reminds me how cleverly art can redirect our attention. Another text-based work by Matthew Schrader spells out, “SPACE IS THE PLACE” in thick clay letters. The droopy forms are hard to read, but a satisfying rhyme rewards the effort. The riddle-like phrase is amusing in this context but carries another coded meaning for those who know or care to find out: Space Is the Place (1974) is the title of an influential Afro-futurist film in which Sun Ra uses music (and a spaceship) to transport Black people to a planet of their own so that they can live free from the oppressive presence of white people. Schrader’s work adds to the alluring mixture of humor and radicality that give this project its traction.
THE ROCK also rejects the conventional understanding of value as it pertains to an artwork. The commercial art world is built on the conception that artworks are private property, things that can be purchased and owned. Individualism is at the core of this system. In other words, it matters greatly who produced it, and who bought it. THE ROCK, on the other hand, is a collective gesture. Gluing works to a large rock on a street corner firmly asserts that their value is social, and they belong in public. Attempting to remove a piece from this rock would likely destroy it. This physical bond stands in for the connection between individual artists and the communities and histories that support and inform their work. Furthermore, nearly all the ceramics come from a collaborative project organized by Lins during a residency at Greenwich House. The pieces installed at THE ROCK are those left over from a fundraiser for progressive causes. The works were sold anonymously, with sculptures by famous artists sitting alongside those made by children. Although this backstory isn’t legible to those casually passing by, the punkish spirit of THE ROCK comes through immediately.
In late June, a bust of the acclaimed science fiction writer Octavia Butler appeared on THE ROCK. She sports glasses and a cool smile, her poodle faithfully at her side. This development occurred shortly following her birthday and not long after Juneteenth. Butler’s arrival also came on the heels of several racist and colonialist monuments being toppled or beheaded by groups of citizens. State-sanctioned monuments are an attempt to use the language of sculpture to perpetuate the value system of those in power. In this sense, they are more concerned with controlling the future than the past they commemorate. Using durable materials like bronze and marble represents an attempt to lend these physical qualities to the ideas that these statues embody. In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, there is a makeshift memorial made from the broken glass and ashes of a burned-out NYPD van. The sparkly dust spells out BLACK LIVES MATTER. The fragility of these materials exists in relation to the truth of their message. With the public’s attention focused on corrupt institutions, a central question being debated is whether to reform or replace them. Efforts like THE ROCK remind us that we don’t need to wait on the sidelines.