Queens International 4 at Queens Museum

Originally posted at GalleryCrawl

By: Wilton Yankee

Opening Reception for “Queens International Four” at the Queens Museum. Photo courtesy of Solar24.

If you think you’ve never had a good reason to take the 7 train, think again. According to the 2000 US Census Bureau analysis, Queens is the most diverse county in the nation, with more than 130 languages spoken across the borough. On the short journey from Midtown Manhattan to the Queens Museum, you’ll probably overhear more foreign-languages than anywhere else in NYC, and when you arrive, you’ll witness the art born from that multiculturalism. The way that traditional cultures are represented in an increasingly globalized world is a pressing issue for countries, families, individuals, and artists alike, so there is perhaps no better place to explore this issue than in the most diverse county in the most diverse nation on earth. And that is exactly what the Queens Museum has done with its fourth biennial exhibition of artists from around the world who live and/or work in queens, titled “Queens International 4.”

This year’s curators, Jose Ruiz and Erin Sickler, choose to focus on the ways that Queens artists break from the didacticism of multicultural art, neither clinging to specific traditions nor rejecting them, but creating hybrid works from several traditions, ignoring tradition altogether, or capturing new traditions emerging in the globalized world. “Queens International 4” includes more than 40 artists, and as with any large show, certain pieces catch the eye more than others.

The two-story tall, untitled ink drawing, drawn directly on the wall of the museum by Lisa Iglesias, demands attention with its sheer size and detail. Thousands of seemingly identical cones, pointing in all directions and piled on top of one another, create a semi-circle at the base of the drawing. From this, two braids emerge and reach to the ceiling, with meticulous care given to each strand of hair. The image simultaneously reminds the viewer of that spiritual symbol the Tower of Babel and the bodily stuff that grows from our epidermis. The placard points out that some cultures believe hair is a symbol of immortality because it continues to grow after death. In addition, almost every first nation culture believes that people derive power from their hair. This image brings these ideas together to highlight the powerful symbol of a simple strand of hair, which grows the same in America as it does in Europe, Africa or Asia, like Walt Witman’s proverbial Leaves of Grass.

Sin-Ying Ho’s works blend two distinct cultures in a more illustrative way by depicting figures from popular culture, such as Charlie Brown, Bruce Lee, and Mohammad Ali, on Chinese porcelain. These works at once embrace the cliché of East-meets-West while also transcending it. The bulbous flowing figures seem to refuse to become the practical porcelain shapes of bowls or vases, but are interesting, aesthetic forms in their own right.

Photographs by Oded Hirsch physically capture the disjointed emotional state of a former  soldier living in NYC. Images of the artist standing behind a fortification of sand bags and barbed-wire in his placid apartment or spying with binoculars out of his window while a child sleeps below him, capture the simultaneously comical and heartbreaking state of a soldier displaced from war. A single photo in the middle of these, of a small cactus sitting on a kitchen table with its root ball exposed, specifies the subject as Israeli and expands the theme to all humanity. Recalling the Israeli saying, “We made the desert bloom,” this is the most powerful piece in the series, pointing out how difficult it can be to transplant a culture from one land to another. Will the result always be the paranoia of extinction?

The largest piece in the show, Ryan Humphrey’s Fast Forward, is a series of skate ramps in front of about 20 BMX bikes, which are hung on a two-story wall. In other galleries where I have seen Ryan Humphrey’s work, his installations have felt lifeless because of his use of sports equipment and color in stagnant spaces. But Fast Forward came alive on opening night, when BMX riders spun tricks on the piece. The ethnic diversity of the BMX riders showed that culture need not be rooted in tradition, but can also emerge from the globalization of new pastimes.

Omar Chacon’s paintings breathe new life into the medium of painting, which can often appear passé or just plain boring in the expanding contemporary art world.  Chacon piles the bright colors of Columbian ponchos onto canvases in thick multicolored drips and swirls, which from a distance resemble television static or a barrel of jellybeans. I was wowed by the artists of each of the thousands of masterful drips of which these paintings were comprised.  This fusion creates something that, at first glance, appears like an entirely new form of art.

Equally impressive are the paintings of Jovan Villalba on polished stainless steel. His depictions of an apparently post-human world, where waterfalls wash away roadways, feel like doomsday. They are at once chilling and beautiful, evocative of the impermanence of man and also the destructive potential of nature. The stainless steel makes the intentional brush strokes seem light, as if they may wash away, but also gives more weight and durability to the piece than canvas.

Two pieces about graffiti clearly demonstrate the difference between nuanced and simple thoughts about multiculturalism. The three-dimensional cutouts of graffiti-style shapes, covered in wallpaper by Domenick Di Pietrantonio reflect on the commodification of gorilla and counter-culture art, which in turn reflects on the appropriation of all authentic art. In contrast, the photo realistic paintings of Daina Higgins is appropriation of authentic art. Her images of scenes from counter-cultures, including a graffiti artist in the act of spray-painting, do not expand or augment the discussion around gorilla art, but attempt to commodify it – to turn it into a form you can hang on your wall – the exact idea Pietrantonio’s piece riles against.

Other pieces I found simplistic in scope and execution include phrases such as “Art is often difficult to read,” on white walls in nearly transparent paint, the figure of a Buddha carved in ice and kept in a store-bought cooler, and the steps of a dance piece painted on the floor, in which one partner was led to dance a Latin American step and the other an European. Hanging a picture of Jesus Christ next to Buddha is not a nuanced view of multiculturalism, neither is relying on the stock figures of Jesus or Buddha. And pointing out that something is hard to define is no excuse to avoid expanding the definition.

Despite the weaker works, I found that most pieces in the show did expand the definitions of culture, tradition, multiculturalism, and art. “Queens International 4” is an overall success that profoundly reflects on an international issue in the context of a borough. As “Sensation” made the Brooklyn Museum a must-visit for every art-lover in New York, “Queens International” should do the same for the Queens Museum. The depth and breadth of work on display proves that the borough’s artists are as diverse as its residents.

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