Queens International 2004by Chris Howard
Cui Fei, “Manuscript of Nature V” (2002), installation of tendrils and pins. Courtesy of the artist.
Sandwiched between last summer’s Open House: Working in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Museum and P.S.1’s upcoming Greater New York 2005, the Queens International 2004, the second of a recently inaugurated biennial surveying work by artists living and working in the borough, will have most likely been overlooked by both audiences and critics. While Queens received a much-needed shot in the arm with MoMA Queens encouraging visitors to explore other art centers in Long Island City, the Queens Museum of Art could only watch the action from its distant home in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the second to last stop on the 7 train.
Queens International 2004 was billed as a celebration of diversity—in ethnicity, nationality, background, age, and especially media. The majority of the artists included were born in the 1970s, and some have not even had a solo exhibition in New York. For a few, this is their first major show. The exhibition may lack a roster of trendy, big-name artists, but the dearth of the familiar allows for pleasant surprises and new discoveries.
In the glossy tabloid newspaper style catalogue that replaced the traditional hardcover, the exhibition curator Hitomi Iwasaki explains that the selection of artists was not based on how well issues of cultural diversity and fluidity were addressed, but rather on how the works themselves spoke of “communities in a state of flux.” Only with this loose curatorial focus could such a diverse range of art appropriately reflect the population of Queens itself and cohere as an exhibition.
The aforementioned theme was manifested most poignantly in sound artist Liz Phillips’s “Echo-Location: Queens,” which examines the borough’s reputation as a culinary goldmine. Stainless-steel pots, brass bowls, and shisha pipes acquired from local businesses were set on low pedestals around the perimeter of the room, acting as both readymades and amplifiers. Loudspeakers fitted within these objects played back sounds recorded in area restaurants and food-preparation businesses. In the center of the room floated a fabric sphere onto which two videos of scenes from commercial kitchens and dining rooms were projected. Elsewhere, Paul Branca constructed a telephone booth from which museum visitors could place free domestic and international phone calls to anywhere in the world. As one of a few artists who addressed language, Cui Fei pinned grape tendrils to the wall for her delicate “Manuscript of Nature V”; the dried, segmented vines mimic Chinese calligraphy, whose forms are in turn derived from nature.
A number of artists engaged the museum and the surrounding area, either through their work’s content or site specificity. Ian Pedigo’s “Unknown Horizon,” a wooden fence and gate, greeted visitors to the “Panorama of the City of New York” (a miniature scale model of all five boroughs that is the museum’s biggest draw). The sculpture’s title, written on a sign in 12 languages and posted on the gate, connects ideas about boundaries, immigration, exploration, and opportunity. Rena Leinberger affixed two green and gray-striped wooden awnings in two spaces outside the museum: above a fire hose near a men’s room entrance, and above a window overlooking Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Troy Richards chose an unusual material—hundreds of pieces of Jolly Rancher candy—for his three monumental faux stained-glass mosaics mounted in windows overlooking the park. However, the artist’s decision to appropriate patterns found in Sol LeWitt’s work, rather than create something new and original, is baffling. Impossible to miss is Rosemarie Fiore’s “The Good-Time Mix Machine: Scrambler ® Drawings.” At 60 feet square, this Spirographic painting was created by spraying red, black, blue, and gold paint from a moving amusement park ride. (The artist has made similar works using cars, vacuum cleaners, paintball guns, and explosives.) The work’s arc echoes the nearby Unisphere, the gigantic steel globe created for the 1964 World’s Fair that is a Queens icon.
Two of the most intriguing works in the show involved sewing. Beginning with stained canvases, Nava Lubelski meticulously stitches multicolored thread through splattered drips and blots, creating a beautiful abstract work that contests the randomness of action painting and the utilitarian nature of craft. Similarly, China Marks collages commercially printed fabric—both patterned and figurative—to create bizarre and playful narrative scenes.
Photography in Queens International is less inventive. The ideas behind several documentary projects are interesting as sociology but are not visually compelling. A few exceptions, such as Aissa Deebi’s examination of an Arab café in Astoria or Matt Ducklo’s “Newscaster VII,” a photograph of two talking heads taken just after the airing of a local news broadcast, invite skeptical contemplation of contemporary American life.
While painting is well represented, drawing in mixed media is particularly strong. Polina Porras’s biomorphic landscapes nicely contrast with Haeri Yoo’s jagged figures, messily executed in vaguely anime style. In the same room, Mary Didoardo’s drawings of body parts in motion are vibrant and alive. Elia Gurna’s flat, playing card-like portraits of museum visitors, drawn in the galleries on selected days during the run of the exhibition and completed in the studio, reinforce the curator’s goal of directly involving the local community. The most unusual works, however, are Shin Il Kim’s two video loops, “Sphere” and “Door”: the artist painstakingly pressed a line onto the surface of white paper, which is then filmed frame by frame to create a moving image.
An odd but welcome inclusion in the exhibition are four paintings—hybrids of Eastern tradition and Western modernism—by the 97-year-old Hideo Date, a Japan-born artist who immigrated to the United States in 1923. Though most of the work in the exhibition was created within the last two years, Date’s works dates from 1935 to 1980, and piqued my interest in this neglected modernist painter.
Spaciously and intelligently installed, the Queens International 2004 demonstrates that emerging and established artists need not come from Manhattan or Brooklyn to produce strong work, as well as that museums outside the city’s well-known art centers can mount first-class exhibitions.