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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.....

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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 African diaspora.

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 concerns.

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 and 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 trauma.

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 tabletops.

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 now.

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 Johns.

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 outstanding.

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.

Jamaica Center
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 reading.

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 of 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 art world.

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.

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