Critic's Notebook: For New Art, Just Take the 7 Train
November 12, 2004
By Holland Cotter
... One of the best matches
of art to context is Liselot van
der Heijden's "America." Its main component is a video of
President Bush's 2004 State of the Union ddress, in which, the artist says in
a statement, the words "poverty," "Palestine" and "environment" were
not mentioned, but
" America'' was used 61 times. Accordingly, she has edited
the speech to consist entirely of that one word, and
installed the video in a shop called Nubian Heritage, among
tapes of speeches by Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.....
As an antidote to the incredible shrinking cosmopolitanism
of American politics, how about a day trip to Queens, the
most multicultural hundred square miles on the planet?
I'm not talking here about multiculturalism as a theory, or a
We-Are-the-World marketing hook.
I'm talking about a real-world No.
7 train ride to Flushing shoulder to
shoulder with people from China and Chile, Iraq and
Bolivia, India and Ireland, Greece and Senegal. About
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and
Rastafarians hunting for bargains in Jamaica Center. About
men and women, men and men, women and women going home in
the evening to apartments in Jackson Heights to watch news
of war on television. I'm talking about life, which is
multilingual, multitasking, polychromatic, enfolding. The
fundamentals are that we are born and we die. Beyond that, variety
rules. Which brings us to Queens, where America is living a big,
various version of itself.
The borough's art institutions are correspondingly ample in
outlook, though one of them, the Museum of Modern Art, a short-term
resident, recently moved back to Manhattan. Actually, the Modern
is still in Queens in the form of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center,
an affiliated institution. (Its
chief curator, Klaus Biesenbach, has a joint appointment at
both and will be in charge of a second edition of the
collaborative "Greater New York" show in 2005.) And the
fact is, even the humblest of the borough's several
exhibition spaces is more broadly internationalist in
spirit than the Modern has ever been.
One of these spaces is also a visitor. The Museum for
African Art moved from SoHo to Long Island City in 2002
while awaiting new quarters on upper Fifth Avenue in
Manhattan. But at this point, ground-breaking has yet to
take place, so the museum will be in Queens for a while.
There it continues to be the indispensable thing it has
always been: the only museum in the city, and one of the
few in the country, dedicated to the art of Africa and the
It is also one of the few that regularly shows contemporary
African work, as it is doing in "Personal Affects: Power
and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art," a two-part
exhibition, half of which is in Queens, the other half at
the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.
This is the museum's second South African survey in five
years. The earlier one, "Liberated Voices," demonstrated
how new art in that country was branching out from the
activist political model of the apartheid era. The present
show develops this idea further by proposing a
post-identity" art in which issues of class, race and
gender are subsumed under other personal or abstract
For the occasion, the museum commissioned new pieces from
the 17 artists, some specifically for the cathedral. The
resulting installation there is more than just effective.
It's the strongest group show of new art anywhere in the
city so far this season, with at least some work unlike
anything else seen locally.
This is true of a sculptural tableau of animal-human
hybrids by Jane Alexander, an extraordinary artist in an
infrequent New York appearance, and of Claudette
Schreuders's wooden sculpture of a young woman who is at
once the Virgin Mary and the African figure goddess called
Mami Wata. Though we see a ton of video art in New York,
Minnette Vari has come up with something original in "The Calling," a
short, dark piece in which she plays a
gargoyle-angel watching over Johannesburg and Manhattan
from on high.
And although gender-bending performance is sort of
yesterday's news here, I encourage you to spend time with a
video of a performance by Steven Cohen. Wearing makeup,
seven-inch heels, a Star of David and a tinkling glass
chandelier, he appears in a scene of urban destruction,
with government workers tearing down a Johannesburg shack
settlement around him. As he teeters and poses in balletic
slow motion, the people left homeless alternately jeer and
cheer him on. There's more to the tory, but the piece
draws a weirdly shaky line between realness and artifice,
privilege and poverty, whiteness and blackness, and makes
for uncomfortable viewing at the cathedral. The experience
is softened in Queens at the Museum for African Art itself,
where the video plays in a zany sitting room that Mr. Cohen
designed full of hunting trophies, "tribal" sculptures
AIDS awareness posters.
Other artists - Mustafa Maluka, Samson Mudzunga - gain
focus in their works displayed in Queens. An elaborate drum
made by Mr. Mudzubga is all but lost in St. John's
vastness, but it comes to life at the museum, where there
is a video of him performing with it. And heroic portrait
paintings by Mr. Maluka at the museum are more effective
than his piece in Manhattan, which honors the hip-hop
performer Mr. Devious with a version of the kind of street
memorial we've grown inured to in this city.
In short, the two halves of the show - rganized by David
Brodie, Churchill Madikida, Sophie Perryer and Liese van
der Watt, all from South Africa, with Laurie Ann Farrell, a
curator at the Museum for African Art - make forceful
complements. And their mood, alternately somber and biting,
is a reminder that what the AIDS epidemic was in New York a
decade ago, it is in South Africa now: a grinding daily
Directly or indirectly, that trauma seems to suffuse much
of the art here, from apocalyptic altarpieces by Wim Botha
and Johannes Phokela to images of damaged bodies by Doreen Southwood,
Thando Mama, Clive van den Berg and Diane Victor
to the fires, cleansing or consuming, that burn in Berni
Searle's photographs and scorch Sandile Zulu's painting.
Even a conceptual project by Robin Rhode, in which he
proposed new lives for pieces of furniture abandoned on New
York streets, seems to fit the picture. As the art
historian Steven Nelson suggests in a catalog essay, given
the facts of life in South Africa today, issues of race, gender and
class remain impossible for art to completely
transcend or ignore, and artists clearly know that.
P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center
P.S. 1's two major fall
shows are also about identity, but defined through
self-portraiture. "Manny Farber: About Face" is a 40-year
retrospective of paintings by a California-based artist
better known as a film critic. In New York in the 1960's,
Mr. Farber, who is now 86, collaborated with his wife,
Patricia Patterson, on large-scale abstract paintings. But
after a move to California to teach in 1970, he started
doing highly detailed still lifes of objects arranged on
These large pictures are dense with autobiographical
information: images of movie-house candy bars; postcards;
toy figures; handwritten notes-to-self; flowers picked from
a San Diego garden. The arrangement of elements is
intriguing. Mr. Farber has a shrewd eye for placement - for
blocking a scene, you might say - and the paintings come
across as cinematic mini-dramas, with major and minor
characters, crowd scenes and panoramic landscapes.
In the still lifes, Mr. Farber favored longer views early
on, then zoomed in to close-ups more recently. If his Wayne
Thiebaud-style realism doesn't break new ground, it
enriches existing still-life soil. And the diaristic data
alone is a goldmine for cultural historians to come.
The work of Katharina Sieverding, an artist based in
Germany and now at mid-career, also has direct links to
film, though superficially it could hardly be a greater
contrast to Mr. Farber's. For one thing, it is photography.
And while Ms. Sieverding's primary subject is her own face,
her pictures, colossal in scale and serial in format, are
not self-portraits in the way Mr. Farber's
character-revealing still lifes are.
Ms. Sieverding studied with Joseph Beuys, but she also
seems to have paid attention to filmmaking American artists
like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. Smith may have inspired
her penchant for florid makeup and sometimes-garish B-film
color. She tinted all the prints in one 1969 series a deep
scarlet, and for another painted her face gold, evoking
associations with Tutankhamen and James Bond. Warhol was,
of course, a serial portrait pioneer; maybe from him she
took the idea of using photo-booth pictures in early work.
And both American artists were interested in scrambling
gender roles, as she does by photographically overlaying
her features with that of her partner, Klaus Mettig.
Whatever the influences, Ms. Sieverding has made something
distinctive: a form of gigantic self-portraiture as
insistent as a political poster and as alluring as a film
advertisement. She understood well the aggressive mechanics
of glamour in the media age. So did Beuys (in this they are
alike), whose much photographed soulful face made him
famous. The difference is that Ms. Sieverding played round
with icon-making, shook it up and undercut its potential
power through manipulation; that is, in essence, a
political act. Whether you take it as such, or see her art
as an exercise in self-celebrity or as a sustained act of physiognomic
theater, it looks smashing as organized by
Alanna Heiss, director of P.S. 1, along with Daniel Marzona
and Amy Smith-Stewart.
P.S. 1 itself serves as a flagship for several enterprising
smaller local institutions. The Sculpture Center is just up
the street, with a solo by Rita McBride. Dorsky Gallery, a
valuable showcase for curators, is nearby. Its current
offering, organized by Chandra Cerrito, surveys
contemporary process art. And slightly farther afield, the
Fisher Landau Center for Art serves substantial helpings
from the contemporary collection of Emily Fisher Landau. As
organized by the center's director, William Katz, the work
is spread over three floors, with one devoted entirely to
Ed Ruscha. This is a clean, bright, quiet place to look at
art, and free to boot.
Queensborough Community College Art Gallery
The same is
true of the Queensborough Community College Art Gallery in
Bayside. It's housed in what was once the clubhouse of the
Oakland Golf and Country Club, and the ungalow-style
building preserves a genteel-rustic all-America flavor on a City
University campus with a sizable immigrant student body.
The gallery, under the direction of Faustino Quintanilla,
recently reopened after a two-year overhaul. It's being
promoted as a CUNY showplace, and justly so: it looks
spiffy, and its opening show, "An American Odyssey:
1945-1980 [Debating Modernism]," is an ambitious one.
Organized by a guest curator, Stephen Foster, in
cooperation with the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, its
stated goal is to rethink canonical accounts - "historical
stereotypes" is the phrase Mr. Foster uses - of American
modernism. He suggests that at any given point, many kinds
of art are in formation, and there is nothing intrinsically
right" about which is chosen for promotion. Such decisions
are largely a product of critical and commercial power
politics. And indeed, art history now deemed authoritative
would probably puzzle people who actually lived it.
To illustrate these points, Mr. Foster mixes gold-standard
figures like Jackson Pollock with contemporaries, like
Bradley Walker Tomlin, who once shone bright but lost their
luster. He highlights movements like Photo Realism, which
has long been viewed as conservative, but was seen by its
initial practitioners as a radical way out of the modernist
business-as-usual. As it happens, it is enjoying a revival
Most important for a lot of visitors, he has spiced
everything up with some under-known artists (Tom Blackwell,
Frank Gallo, Carole Feuerman) and with oddball items: a
teensy Lee Bontecou sculpture, a slice of bread by Jasper
Is the result cohesive? No, but it's stimulating and fun.
No matter how up on postwar art you are, you'll find wild
cards here. And any show that gives equal time to a
near-black Ad Reinhardt abstraction from around 1965 and
Mel Ramos's "Miss Liberty - Frontier Heroine" from 1962
definitely has official history on the run, a worthy goal.
Queens Museum of Art
Daunting distances are one downside
of this capacious borough. A visit to the Queens Museum of
Art, for example, is an excursion, but one worth making for
historical reasons alone. The Corona Park building dates
from the 1939 World's Fair, and early sessions of the
United Nations General Assembly met here. So
internationalism has long been on the Queens agenda.
It still is at the museum itself, where the second "Queens
International" exhibition recently opened. The 40 artists
chosen are all current Queens residents; nearly one-third
were born outside the United States. In line with current
curatorial trends, overt displays of ethnicity are
downplayed in the show, which is fine. But a certain
blandness - also a trend in art at the moment - prevails.
Paintings, of which there are a fair number, are all
well-schooled and ingenious, but almost none are
An exception is John J. O'Connor, whose striking
coat-of-many-colors abstraction is also a manic tabulation
of comparative statistics, from occurrences of war to
fluctuations in the artist's weight. And there is work by
the Japanese-American Hideo Date, now 97 and a citizen of
Queens for more than half a century. His two soft-grained
figurative paintings from the 1930's and 40's emanate from
a distant stylistic world, and one that looks attractive
right now. Mr. Date is a legend; his presence made the show
for me, as I bet it did for Hitomi Iwasaki, associate
curator at the museum, who organized the exhibition.
Other good things include a photo essay on Astoria's Arab
population by Aissa Deebi, and a mural-size map by Agustin
Chung charting the global spread of the show's artists. I
liked the fractured architectural sculptures by Isidro
Blasco, who also makes a good impression in the 2004
Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition at Socrates Sculpture
Park in Astoria. And Christopher Miner's "Gulf Shores," a
home video piece in which he verbally eviscerates his
family, was more memorable than I might have wished, and
did hold my attention.
So did more than a few things inside and outside the
Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, another trip in
another direction. Where the Queens Museum brings you to a
bucolic parkland setting, the Jamaica Center plunges you
into the middle of a major shopping strip that is, among
other things, a headquarters for hip-hop finery.
"Jamaica Flux: Workspaces and Windows," the show I'd come
for, takes full advantage of this location, and is, in
fact, embedded in it. Studies for all the projects are on
view at the Jamaica Center, but most of the work is
installed throughout the neighborhood. (The gallery has a
map, which you'll need.) A local branch of North Fork Bank,
for example, yields sculptures by Kambui Olujimi and
Roberto Visani on themes of wealth and illusions.
A smart street poster by Hank Willis Thomas connects
corporate marketing and slavery in the image of a young
African-American man with a Nike logo branded on his head.
Another poster, by Olu Oguibe, adapts slick,
macho-intensive advertising riffs to push libraries and
The collective called Center for Urban Pedagogy picks up on
Mr. Oguibe's guardedly utopian thread by planting models
for urban architecture among footwear displays in Sneaker
Mart Plus, while Larry Krone taps the promotional potential
of "abject art" at a clothing store called Cookies, where
he has hung three cross-gendered parochial school uniforms
sewn with the words "This Is Me."
One of the best matches of art to context is Liselot van
der Heijden's "America." Its main component is a video
President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address, in which,
the artist says in a statement, the words "poverty,"
Palestine" and "environment" were not mentioned, but
America'' was used 61 times. Accordingly, she has edited
the speech to consist entirely of that one word, and
installed the video in a shop called Nubian Heritage, among
tapes of speeches by Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.
Overall, the exhibition - organized by Christopher Ho, Omar
Lopez-Chahoud, Melvin Marshall, Edwin Ramoran, Sara Reisman and Heng-Gil
Han, director of the Jamaica Center – raises prickly questions
about the intersection of art and commerce, art and gentrification
and art used as advertising, and it is presented in this case by
a grass-roots institution trying hard to raise its profile in a Manhattan-centric
Yet by taking art out of the gallery and into the world,
this show and others like it forge a link between art and
life that is, however compromised and tentative, crucial.
Such a merger confuses ideas of what's art and what isn't,
as well as what "quality" and "value" mean. And
at a time
when all kinds of categories, from "art" to "American," are
being closely policed, I say the more confusion the better.