Oy, the Brooklyn Museum, that large white creature of Eastern Parkway, how it wants to belong and be loved! It’s nothing if not willing to change. It changed its name twice between 1997 and 2004. Ten years ago it spent millions of dollars to literally open itself up to the surrounding neighborhood, replacing its entrance with a glass pavilion in hopes that if people could see inside, they’d actually enter.
The ones who enter are treated to intense cobalt, purple and yellow walls, and overly explanatory labels. Yet, despite the popular First Saturdays — events that feature music, films, and occasionally, cupcakes — the second-largest museum in New York City continues to have a tepid relationship with the people of Brooklyn. On a recent afternoon, its enormous lobby was nearly empty, with more guards than visitors. Huge blue wall signs announced things one could choose to do here: SHOP (next to the gift shop), EAT (near the entrance to the cafe) and, between them, ART. What can the Brooklyn Museum do to get Brooklyn to care, short of turning its admissions desk into an open bar? Showing living Brooklyn artists seems like a step in the right direction.
“Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” whose title weirdly evokes a certain housewares chain, is a survey of 35 Brooklyn artists and collectives. It’s an earnest and awkward show. It illuminates the limited way in which this museum — or perhaps, any museum — is able to engage with the contemporary world outside its walls. The show is large — it takes up most of the museum’s fifth floor. Yet its 35 participants comprise a tiny fraction of Brooklyn’s thousands-strong artist community. The wall copy explains the curators’ selection process: “Rather than attempt the impossible task of describing all the artistic trends that take place in the borough, the exhibition focuses on a single impulse: artistic practices that are expansive and engage with the world.”
But what artist doesn’t engage with the world? Walking though the show, you begin to realize that the kind of engagement the curators have in mind is of a quickly graspable, public, theatrical variety. “The Commons” by Paul Ramirez Jonas, a life-sized, riderless cork horse on a cork pedestal, dominates the circular atrium. Modeled on an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the sculpture doubles as a three-dimensional bulletin board. The artist has provided pushpins, and the visitors are invited to contribute to “The Commons” by attaching something to it. The wall label calls the sculpture “a place of exchange,” and explains that “by removing the imperial rider and inviting public participation, the artist seems to be suggesting a more democratic model for the distribution of power.”
“The Commons” is beautiful and, festooned with people’s contributions, fun to look at. But how effective is it as a conduit of democratic exchange? Entombed on the fifth floor of the Beaux Arts behemoth, it becomes a platform that engages a select group — museum visitors. Additionally, these visitors are made to check their larger bags downstairs, leaving them at the foot of “The Commons” with nothing but the detritus they have in their pockets and purses and are willing to part with. Not that people don’t give it a good try. Among grocery lists and tampons, condoms and candy wrappers, old receipts and expired MetroCards, there was a plastic dinosaur, a thong, several love notes, a ballet slipper, a lipstick impression of a woman’s cleft lip, an ultrasound picture of a fetus, and a paper plate on which was written, “Catering to the public.” “The Commons” sure is doing that, but how does the analog conversation it facilitates ultimately compare, intellectually and in terms of community building and democratic practice, to the lamest of Internet comment threads? The answer seems to be, “not very well.”
“The Commons” is surrounded by objects that have done their engaging with the world elsewhere, such as Miguel Luciano’s “Pimp My Piragua.” Created “to honor the innovation and spirit of Latino street vendors,” “Pimp My Piragua” is a gorgeous orange and chrome lowrider-style tricycle. It has a cooler in the front for vending Puerto Rican shaved ice. Built-in screens in the sides of the cooler play a video of the artist pedaling this beauty down a Brooklyn street, dispensing ice. Here, the spectacular vehicle’s capacious built-in speakers are silent, its rainbow of syrup bottles unused. It’s beautiful in the way a monument is beautiful.
Another work by Luciano, “Amani Kites,” is a group of large paper kites with tails made of African textiles soaring under the atrium’s skylight. Photographs of children pretending to fly are printed on the kites. “Trites,” a visitor mutters, punning the saccharine work. The kites are part of a community project Luciano did with kids in Kenya. The project was undoubtedly exciting to the participants — imagine being a kid and flying a functioning kite printed with your own likeness — but its artifacts are as boring as elementary school murals.
The winning, if cloyingly cute “Smiley Bag Portrait” by Nobutaka Aozaki has a similar problem. It’s a record of a street performance in which Aozaki used a Sharpie to turn smiley face grocery bags into portraits. A video shows the artist and his models having ridiculous amounts of fun, but displayed here, Aozaki’s set-up — a couple of folding chairs and a jerry-rigged display of bags — looks wan and abandoned. Exuberance doesn’t take well to embalming.
Aozaki’s other collaborative piece works much better — “From Here to There” is a map of Brooklyn, roughly assembled by connecting small maps drawn by passersby all over the borough (imagine the map you might draw as you explain directions to the subway to an out-of-town friend.) These fragments vary in scale, and their connection is often tenuous and approximate. Yet it is unmistakably Brooklyn. Sprawling and intimate at the same time, “From Here to There” needs the museum wall in a way in which much of the other work in the show does not. It’s the closest thing to drawing in this show, and it’s my favorite piece here.
Across the room is my least favorite piece: a blunt piece of propaganda by the group BFAMFAPhD, which explains, in a series of glass text panels and a video, that art degrees are expensive and for rich people, and that you don’t need one to be an artist. The group’s statements, such as “We can honor cultural workers who do not have art degrees” compete with each other for the Most Platitudinous Platitude award. It appears as though the inclusion of this work allowed the curators to check off an “institutional critique” box on their agenda. But if this is the best they can do, they would be better off using the wall to hang some paintings, which are conspicuously lacking in this survey. Only two artists shown here are painters: Cynthia Diagnault and Lisa Sigal. Diagnault’s “I love you more than one more day” is a grid of small oil paintings of the sky that she created every day for a year — a kind of a sky diary. Displayed in its own room, it is spectacular and immersive, but individual paintings are clearly not her focus — Diagnault’s marks have an indifferent, rote quality. Sigal’s Tyvek prints of cityscapes overlaid with colored window screens use the visual vocabulary of painting, but only one of her works, a small oil called “Shooter’s Island,” is technically a painting. Sigal created the piece while aboard a boat designed and built by a fellow artist, Marie Lorenz. Lorenz’s video installation, “Archipelago,” consists of footage of the artist traveling the New York City waterways in her boat. The cameras, mounted to the boat and to the Lorenz’s body using a long selfie stick, capture the artist’s progress through her environment from an unusual vantage point that emphasizes the precariousness and tentativeness of her journey. In “This Brooklynite,” Lorenz’s videos evoke memories of Hurricane Sandy. The objects included in the installation, a projection tower festooned with storm debris Lorenz found along the shoreline and benches elegantly fashioned of driftwood, seemed like a fussy afterthought, detracting from the impact of the footage.
Video work prevails in “Crossing Brooklyn.” Duke Riley’s “Trading with the Enemy” is badass. Riley trained a dozen homing pigeons to smuggle cigars between Havana and Key West (naming them after famous smugglers), and trained another dozen to fly along with them, with cameras strapped to their chests (these were named after famous filmmakers who got in trouble with the law.) Half of his pigeons returned, bringing back pigeon-chest-view footage of Havana, Key West, and the water in between. The best parts show a beak hovering in the upper half of the screen, over the swooping horizon. The videos’ companion piece is “Pigeon Loft” — a gorgeous coop built of reclaimed wood, and populated by several chicken-sized, happy-looking, distinctly un-Brooklyn pigeons. It’s unclear if these are the same pigeons who made the journey, or just similar ones. Is
“Trading with the Enemy” about surveillance? Migration? Illegal economy? Were these pigeons uncomfortable with the cigar holders and cameras strapped to them? (Probably.) Does this work exploit pigeons? (Possibly.) “Trading with the Enemy” certainly engages with the world, and is a crowd-pleaser. I watched more than one museum visitor strike up a conversation with the pigeons inside the coop.
Nearby, another crowd pleaser: the videos and photos of Nina Katchadourian, the artist whose “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style” — selfies mimicking 15th-century Flemish portraiture in which Katchadourian wore “Flemish” headdresses and collars fashioned from toilet seat covers in airplane bathrooms — went viral some time ago. Katchadourian’s pieces in “Crossing Brooklyn” continue the “Seat Assignment” series — they are created during flights, using only the materials available. “In a Room Full of Strangers” is a three-screen video installation in which Katchadourian, wearing comically deconstructed clothes and paper products, lip-syncs to the Bee-Gees in a plane lavatory. It’s hilarious and brilliant, an excellent representation of what happens to the human mind when stuck on an airplane, which easily extends into a parable for contemporary alienation. Katchadourian’s still-life photos of things on her tray table are as unsettling as they’re playful. Two wafers, propped on their ends, turn into a helicopter-view of the Twin Towers, and a magazine illustration of a car speeding along a highway turns into a startling scene of a rock slide with the help of some pretzel crumbs.
McKendree Key’s videos, “395 Classon Avenue to 109 Clifton Place” and “176 Clifton Place to Lafayette Gardens” are unsettling in an entirely different way. From their plain titles to their low-tech filming technique, in which a minutes-long continuous take is achieved by passing a camera on a pulley between buildings, these works are so understated that they are easy to pass by. Yet they are disturbing and thought-provoking. In “395 Classon Avenue to 109 Clifton Place,” the camera glides on a rope between two apartments in Clinton Hill. In the first apartment, it passes through a child’s room, with its homey, familiar IKEA-esque décor: a blue wall, a striped rug, a wooden dollhouse. Precarious and halting, it glides out the window, crosses the street and enters another apartment — this one empty and under renovation. Knowing the neighborhood, it is impossible not to read this as a gentrification metaphor — not just the spaces portrayed, but the jolting, careful, yet relentless progress of the camera. Is it okay to move in here? Is it okay to keep moving?
The empty apartment, in this context, is eerie. Were there children living here also, before the house was sold to the renovator? Did they benefit from the sale, or had their parents been renters and are now homeless? The wall label is unusually restrained. The video, it says, “gives us an intimate and unexpected view of the neighborhood.” Intimate, sure. But for anyone who lived in Brooklyn through the gentrification of Clinton Hill, it’s not unexpected. The label is especially tight-lipped on the subject of the second, longer video, “176 Clifton Place to Lafayette Gardens”: “She uses string to connect two sites: a luxury condominium, and a city housing project.”
The shot begins at a construction site, passes through Key’s own house and backyard, and continues through a driveway and across the street to the corner of the Lafayette Gardens housing project. In both videos, the camera work is done by a group of young white people. When the shot reaches Lafayette Gardens, the white woman holding the camera hops a low chain-link fence and carries the camera near to the entrance of the building. A middle-aged black woman comes out of the building, carrying a bag of dry cleaning. As soon as I see her, I’m hoping that what happens next will indeed defy my expectations. I want the camera to enter an apartment in Lafayette Gardens. I want the neighbors to meet, the two different Brooklyns to finally come together. But the woman with the dry cleaning walks toward the camera, then wanders away, and the camera woman doesn’t engage with her. The shoot ends without making a connection. I think of a good title for both these videos: “Gentrification, a Self-Portrait.” But is Key’s work intended as a critique?
I seek evidence of critique in Key’s other work set in the neighborhood: “The Den Transaction.” It’s a series of photos, objects and texts documenting the visitors who’d stayed in Key’s backyard guesthouse. Key’s friends seem cool. They’re white. They barter their stays for things like construction help, or an “all inclusive weekend in the Thousands Island Region.” The installation is replete with textures and luscious objects: a snake skin, a taxidermied raccoon. It shows people celebrating life in a place that profoundly changed in the last 20 years. Rich people edged out poor people, white people moved into a black neighborhood, and artists were instrumental in that process. If “The Den Transaction” speaks to any of this, Kee has a remarkably light touch. When an artist makes a work about a place, is she obligated to acknowledge its politics and its recent history? Is it fair to ask?
Other work in the show provokes questions, as well: Why is Drew Hamilton’s “Street Corner Project,” a quarter-scale diorama of a bodega and a taco cart, so empty yet brightly lit, as though the shoppers and the taco vendor perished in some zombie apocalypse? Why do Brendan Fernandes’s neon reinterpretations of African masks flicker questions in Morse code, and should I not be annoyed by the fact that there is no way I can know what they’re asking?
Aside from Aisha Cousins’s frankly celebratory “Obama Skirt Project,” the most political work in the show is Steffani Jemison’s video “Personal.” It’s a take on the theme of pursuit shot in East New York, and its protagonists only sometimes walk forward, but mostly backward. A football game is played in reverse. A heavyset man paces in front of an unfinished mural of Obama and Mandela, reacting in a hesitant way to a group of women who pass by, and then retrace their steps in reverse.
So much work in “Crossing Brooklyn” deals with memory through obsessive, diaristic accumulation of found objects that it emerges as the show’s overwhelming theme. Mary Mattingly makes and photographs large sculptural bundles of her possessions. In “Meadowlands Picaresque,” Bryan Zanisnik creates an assemblage of personal objects that evoke his New Jersey childhood. Much of it is stuff from his parents’ basement: childhood drawings, baseball cards, shower caps, polaroids, medicine bottles, and a giant Styrofoam Challah loaf. (The label promises that twice during the run of the show, Zanisnik and his parents will perform a living tableau among the ephemera.)
Leaving the exhibit I come across two works by Heather Hart, which seem to conceptually parallel Jonas’s “The Commons.” In “Trading Post XII,” a wooden pedestal “modeled on historical trading posts where Native Americans and settlers met to barter and exchange,” Hart invites the viewer to take something, leaving something of greater or equal value in exchange. The offering atop a post — a tin of Altoids and a pencil — doesn’t inspire confidence in the October 25 artist-led barter event advertised at the bottom of the label. Nearby, “The Oracle of Epicure: Tooth for Tooth” — an installation consisting of an antique desk with some index cards and a gold-leafed plastic Aunt Jemima box — asks the viewer to write down a recipe and exchange it for one in the box. I’m way too hungry to do this.
As I walk out of the museum’s glass door, heading for the Halal truck outside, I wonder, in a hungry and grumpy manner, if trying and failing to mimic the “democracy” of Brooklyn FreeCycle or Allrecipes.com is the best way for artists to “engage with the world.” Or maybe the artists who engage with the world in more complex or more radical ways don’t belong in a museum, where things have to be, to a certain extent, inoffensive. But as I get some kebab into me, I think of Heather Hart’s work some more. I consider the confrontational overtones of her titles: things much bloodier than trading went down between the settlers and the Native Americans. And what’s with that little gold Aunt Jemima box, and calling a recipe-swapping station “Tooth for Tooth?” I’m no longer sure that these pieces are merely about coexisting and swapping stuff in a friendly manner. As uneven as this show is, it is very Brooklyn. Even the things that remain unsaid are very Brooklyn unsaid things.
The thoughts that were in my head as I biked home are perhaps crazy and should remain unsaid too: The Brooklyn Museum needs more Brooklyn art. More art that doesn’t look like art. More art that makes people angry. More art that is extraordinary, quiet, complex. More painting, and more drawing. It should run juried shows and open calls. It should hang Brooklyn artists’ work salon-style on its numerous empty walls, right over EAT, SHOP, ART.
Anya Ulinich is the author of “Petropolis” and “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.” She lives in Brooklyn.
Anya Ulinich is the Forward’s Contributing Art Critic.