On ViewQueens Museum
Queens Lindo y Querido
April 23–September 10, 2023
Effecting self-determination through representation lies at the heart of Aliza Nisenbaum’s work. At the opening of Aliza Nisenbaum: Queens Lindo y Querido, Nisenbaum led visitors on a tour of the installation, occasionally pausing to pass the microphone to women who posed for the artist and who are part of a Spanish-speaking, immigrant community in Queens. At Nisenbaum’s encouragement and sometimes with the assistance of a translator, they described the significance of being made visible in the arena of an art museum—a space where, historically, the daily lives of America’s immigrant communities have been marginalized. The subtitle of the present exhibition, Queens, Lindo y Querido, was adopted from a popular, traditional Mexican song, “Mexico, Lindo y Querido,” a tribute to the country that poetically expresses a longing for home, and takes on special meaning for displaced nationals.
Aliza Nisenbaum: Queens Lindo y Querido, which concludes the artist’s two-year residency at the Queens Museum, occupies two ground-floor galleries with multiple points of entry, no doors, and vast overhead skylights, all of which contribute to a feeling of openness and accessibility that is consonant with the humanistic philosophy underscoring her practice. During her residency, Nisenbaum, who was born and raised in Mexico, conducted bilingual painting workshops for the organizers of La Jornada and Queens Museum Cultural Food Pantry, a partnership established during the COVID-19 pandemic to distribute food to the Queens community. This initiative continued Nisenbaum’s engagement in social activism: she once led a feminist art history course as a means of teaching English to Spanish-speaking women in Corona, Queens, as part of artist and activist Tania Bruguera’s “Immigrant Movement International,” a multi-year project organized to support and engage members of the multinational neighborhood.
The first gallery features a 17-foot oil on canvas titled The Ones Who Make It Run, made in preparation for a mosaic commission to be unveiled in 2024 in Terminal C at LaGuardia Airport, that emphasizes the humanity of essential Delta and Port Authority employees. Other paintings in this gallery mainly include portraits of women, single and in pairs, in candid poses that reflect Nisenbaum’s ability to establish relationships with her subjects based on trust and mutual respect. Her subjects are often accompanied by cherished personal and cultural objects that reinforce distinct identities. The double portrait Pedacito de Sol (Vero y Marissa) (2022), for example, contains a string of festive Mexican papel picado flags and a photo reproduction of Frida Kahlo. In Carmen’s Profile (2022), the sitter wears an embroidered huipil blouse. La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times (2016), which was shown in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, conveys the transnational identity of a father and daughter casually reading the Sunday paper in front of a wall of decorative Mexican tiles. Nisenbaum’s deep engagement with her subjects, which includes involving them in decisions concerning how they are portrayed, prevents such tropes from slipping into folk stereotypes.
Nisenbaum has openly acknowledged the influence of Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The empathy and social activism underscoring her portraiture have also attracted references to Alice Neel. These feel like facile comparisons, however; Nisenbaum’s emphasis on individualized identities and personal environments aligns her with other radical, less visible precedents. I am reminded of the feminist portraiture of Sylvia Sleigh, for example, and especially Sleigh’s A.I.R. Group Portrait (1977-78), which depicts members of the artist-run, cooperative gallery A.I.R., founded in Soho in 1972 as an exhibition space for women. Furthermore, the depiction, in so-called “fine art” (manifested by Nisenbaum’s skill in oil painting as well as the institutional setting in which it is displayed) of daily lives adorned by emblems of Mexican popular culture, recalls the ideological foundations of Chicano art, which reappropriates cultural symbols as a means of empowerment and asserts the lived environment as a legitimate artistic motif.
The second gallery of the exhibition features recent paintings of Queens Museum staff. Andra (2022) depicts a Museum’s facilities assistant who was in attendance at the exhibition’s opening. He is framed by posters of Black American icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Jackson 5 and he wears a stylish ensemble that, Nisenbaum explained at the opening, is characteristic of him. Gianina “Gia” (2022) depicts the Museum’s community organizer surrounded by notes and cut hand tracings, presumably produced by participants of past projects. A sumptuous, two-panel painting measuring nearly 8-by-13 feet offers a birds-eye view of organizers distributing colorful, ripe produce in La Jornada and Queens Museum Cultural Food Pantry. In a last gesture that summarizes Nisenbaum’s mediums—art and community—another large painting titled El Taller, Queens Museum (2023) records a session from her painting workshops. Nearby, in a dedicated space in the gallery, the students’ actual paintings are hung salon-style or displayed on easels.
In sharing with her subjects ownership of the artistic process, Nisenbaum perpetuates agency in concrete ways, long after their likenesses are hung on the wall. Examples include involving them in the choice of whether to include certain personal or professional artifacts, accommodating their artwork alongside her own in the exhibition space, and maintaining personal connections beyond the studio. Through such gestures, Nisenbaum reinforces the value of relationship-building and awareness surrounding the politics of representation, in achieving real social progress.