Long Island City, a new Williamsburg?

February 13th, 2011 § 0 comments

Several years ago when I was first planning my move to the city after grad school, I asked my new york based professors for neighborhoods to consider moving to. Going through my old notebooks recently I was amused to find the short list I had written down on recommendation from the critic Gregory Volk: Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, Williamsburg, Greenpoint. Surprisingly, at the time he stressed Queens over Brooklyn as the up and coming area for artists, a place where rents were still affordable and spaces in general were, and still are, larger. Essentially he touted Queens as the place where the young and unestablished could, or should, congregate. While Queens is still a long way from becoming as trendy or as populated as Williamsburg, it does seem like an art scene is slowing gathering force there, beginning first in Long Island City as galleries cluster around MoMA PS1.

Having lived in Woodside for a year I know that while the gentrification of Queens is still a long way off, a lot about Long Island City reminds me of Williamsburg. It’s location for one, so close to Manhattan, and there seems to be enough in LIC now to draw people out (on occasion) from the city. I am still baffled as to why neighborhoods in Brooklyn such as Bushwick or Gowanus are somehow seen as better, or more desirable, than like neighborhoods in Queens—it’s dismissal as a borough remains, to my mind, one of New York’s greatest mysteries—but this kind of disinterest has tended to work out well for artists. Talking with an acquaintance a few weeks ago, he mentioned that there was “nothing in Queens,” which is of course absurd, but it is perhaps accurate to say that there isn’t much there to draw people to Queens unless they live there. Long Island City is working hard to change this, as the city parks department is renovating the waterfront, and restaurants, bars, and cafes now litter the sidewalks. Amidst these slow changes, I sense a vibrant energy forming there behind warehouse-like buildings and rundown facades.

While a few average New Yorkers still don’t know about PS1, it’s a refreshingly alternative space in which to view art. Similar to the Dia: Beacon which was an old cannery, PS1 was once a public school (abandoned due to low enrollment) that was converted in the 1970s in an effort by founder Alanna Heiss to turn abandoned buildings into artist’s studios and exhibition spaces. Established as a new venue in which to show artwork, it is still, despite its affiliation with MoMA, a place where you can always see something unexpected, even if it’s often something you really don’t like. The singer James Murphy said in an interview last year, if you hear a song once and like it that means you’ve heard something just like it before. I think this principle can be applied to art as well, as we often like best what feels familiar. New work, really new work, is not always likeable the first time around. The artwork being shown at PS1 is edgy and experimental, and best of all, youthful—they actually show young artists. Because of the museums massive amount of space, the exhibitions mounted there are always overwhelming, just as the space itself is disorienting: a maze of corridors and classrooms that all look alike. I was drawn out to the most recent opening on an arctic Sunday during the last weekend of January, as a few of the surrounding galleries were also hosting openings. It seemed like a good opportunity to explore the larger art scene surrounding PS1.

While there are other shows currently on display, the PS1 opening was for Laurel Nakadate, a Yale educated, 35-year-old, New York based artist. Attending the opening in a black mini skirt with a smile on her face, Nakadate’s show is called Only the Lonely, and consists of over 365 large format photographs, and too many videos to count scattered throughout different rooms of the exhibition, some projected like films and some playing in a loop on TV screens. It’s a show that took me back to grad school, as the work looked adolescent, using themes typical of female art students—making too much of one’s own “sexuality” in an artificial effort to “connect” with others—and it drove home the critique I myself heard so often in school: edit. Only the Lonely is sadly a narcissistic display of bad photography and nonexistent editing, and leaves viewers feeling a little like the museum simply wanted to fill the empty space. At 35, does a ten year retrospective make sense? Nakadate is a prolific artist who certainly would have been better served by showing the best, rather than all, of her artwork. At the very least, it seems that there has to be a way to better present mediocre artwork. I appreciate the youth of the artist, but wish PS1 had found a more original voice to promote with such a large exhibition: it’s scheduled to show through August.

Wandering the familiar streets between the elevated 7 and the G train, I discovered what might well be my favorite new space in the cavernous SculptureCenter. Another alternative building like PS1, SculptureCenter is a huge warehouse complete with skylights, scaffolding, exposed brick, and a basement. It is the kind of space I imagine all large scale sculptors would like to exhibit in, allowing for so much more freedom in size than most of the over-crowded and cramped galleries in Manhattan. More interesting, the center actually uses their buildings basement, again much like Dia:Beacon, for works of sculpture, video, and photography. While this space does not feel ideal, it grabs your attention in a way that white gallery walls never do, their intention being to become invisible, and here the dank smell and dim lighting become a part of the exhibition. The SculptureCenter’s opening, on this particular night, was for the monumental cedar sculptures of Ursula von Rydingsvard. Powerful works of tremendous labor, her sculptures are provocative though simplistic, tormented while still soothing.

Growing up in postwar Germany, Rydingsvard and her family were Polish refugees forced to move from camp to camp until they settled in the United States in the 1950s. Rydingsvard has been living and working in Brooklyn for the past 30 years. She is a soft-spoken, but obviously powerful woman, working with a material that for decades seems to both defy and satisfy her. She calls the cedar she sculpts “neutral like a piece of paper,” but it’s hard to imagine a more unwieldy material or scale than the monumental works she painstaking pieces together. Rydingsvard maintains, however, that in order for the work to be interesting there has to be “combat” within it, adding humorously that “anger has been a tremendous mobilizing force for me.” She thinks of her surfaces, embellished by varying shades of powdered graphite, as landscapes, emotional or otherwise. Her artworks somberly thoughtful tone reminded me of a recent show of Anselm Kiefer’s work at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, where his sculptures seemed to have a life and history beyond themselves. Even Rydingsvard’s three-dimensional “drawings,” hanging on the wall and looming above us, seem to invade into our personal space, giving her work an ever-present physical presence.

Comparing Nakadate and Rydingsvard, you could not imagine two more different women and artists. I want to side with youth, but its age and clarity I admire.

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