Let’s begin with the obvious: to attempt a comprehensive exhibition of contemporary art from across Brooklyn would be not only impossible but foolish, a kind of Tower of Babel of artistic practice. And so the Brooklyn Museum’s eagerly awaited Crossing Brooklyn is not a sweeping survey but a tight, thematic show, focused mostly on one specific type of art making manifest throughout the borough. In their introductory essay in the catalogue, curators Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley explain it like so:
From a conventional point of view, these works of art and others like them defied traditional categorization. They were, however, consistent in the ways that they actively engaged with the world outside the studio.
This is both true and not. The first part, that the works in Crossing Brooklyn defy categorization, seems hyperbolic at best — the exhibition contains many identifiable forms, including installation, performance, social practice, conceptual, sculpture, photography, video, painting, and more, and while many of the works combine these into compelling hybrids, very few really push the boundaries of what we know as art. The second part, that the artworks look beyond the studio, is accurate. But whereas the idea of being “actively engaged with the world outside” is quite broad and could signal a wide range of approaches, it’s realized here in a way that’s frustratingly specific and repetitive.
If I had to use one defining feature to describe that approach, I’d say that it’s safe. If that sounds like a criticism, well, it is, but a complicated one, because taken individually, I admire many of these projects. Miguel Luciano’s “Pimp My Piragua” (2009), for which he constructed his own three-wheeled food cart and rode it around Brooklyn, selling shaved ice (piragua), is a delightful tribute to street vendors. Aisha Cousins’s Obama Skirt Project, which prompts the participant (a black woman) to have made and then wear clothing out of an African print fabric with Barack Obama’s face on it, is a compelling way to engage a community and its individual members in subtle contemplation of social conditions. For Trading with the Enemy, Duke Riley ingeniously trained a flock of carrier pigeons to transport Cuban cigars from Havana to Key West; the birds also wore mini cameras, and the resulting shaky videos flip in an instant from literally awesome to boring and back, with hilarity along the way. For 31 Winter Walks, Matthew Jensen walked every day during a residency in New Hampshire, collecting sticks, and then arranging and binding them according to a self-designated color code; the stick bundle photographs exude a mystical beauty.
The world is present in all of these pieces, but not in an active way; it is, rather, a backdrop against which art happens. Ironically, the two strongest instances of the world actually coming to the fore in Crossing Brooklyn are not explicitly social but rather photography projects. Deana Lawson’s pictures of strangers in Brooklyn, Haiti, Jamaica, and Miami possess an uncanny, simultaneous intimacy and difference — they make you want to know everything about their subjects. And Daniel Bejar’s Operation Guest (The Gaddafi Plot), for which he acted out a bizarre Libyan plan to smuggle Muammar Gaddafi’s son out of the country using the alias Daniel Bejar (really!), pits pictures of the artist-as-actor alongside printed-out Google Image search results in a deeply strange blurring of the lines between artifice and reality.
Many of the works in Crossing Brooklyn involve artists heading out into “the world” and enacting some kind of conceptual exercise. At best, like with Bejar, the idea is strange enough and the gesture deep enough to produce something thought-provoking. At worst — e.g. artists who distribute questionnaires to gather people’s thoughts about themselves (Tatlo) or draw people’s portraits on smiley-face plastic bags (Nobutaka Aozaki) — these projects are shallow and boring. Either way, with so many of these earnest exercises in one place, even the better pieces start to drown in a sea of good intentions. (This may also be due to the constraints of having a traditional, object-based exhibition; I’ve been on a fantastic boat ride with Marie Lorenz and more than one excellent walk with Elastic City, but with only video documentation to represent them here, both fall flat.)
What’s more, the curators’ assumption that engagement with the world means only a very narrow, very personal type of social exchange or interaction is a major shortcoming of the show. Why not include Brian Adam Douglas, who makes intensive paper collage scenes that are not only technical marvels but also deeply existential? Or Eva and Franco Mattes, whose “The Others” (2011), a slide show of 10,000 photos stolen from personal computers, is perhaps one of the rawest, most terrifying engagements with the world I’ve ever seen. The Yams Collective’s “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera” is a stunningly effective collage film about the black bodily experience; intended for the 2014 Whitney Biennial but pulled when the group withdrew from the exhibition, it would have made an excellent addition. All of these artists are based in Brooklyn.
A friend of mine with a BFA told me that when he saw Crossing Brooklyn, it made him think of his years in art school, being taught by artists who came up in the 1970s and would assign students conceptual exercises to turn into artworks. What’s on view here may share a form with art from the ’70s, but what it lacks, sorely, is that decade’s audacity, emotion, and politics. As I wrote when I reviewed the Whitney Biennial, all art need not be political, but the trend here is to filter out politics so completely as to forget that we live in a certain time and place — a specific world, not just a general one.
This is not the place to speculate on the likely reasons for this, but one thing that stands out about Crossing Brooklyn is the relative youth of its practitioners — of the 35 artists included, only seven were born before 1970. I can’t help wondering if the age is somehow connected to the apoliticalness. The show’s catalogue, in fact, includes a fascinating conversation between the curators and artists Coco Fusco, Byron Kim, Wangechi Mutu, Thomas Roma, Fred Tomaselli, and Martha Wilson, all but one of whom were born before 1970, none of whom is included in the show. At one point, towards the end, Fusco goes on an incredible, two-page rant. It begins:
I’m looking over the questions and answers and am curious as to why everything seems so politically neutral and emotionally serene, with occasional melancholy and nostalgia for better times in New York for artists. Is that what Brooklyn is? Is that what art life is nowadays? I think back to the more confrontational and openly political encounters between artists and city government and artists and gentrifiers in Manhattan in the seventies and eighties, the struggle to create artists’ loft laws, the battles with developers, the alliances that were formed between some artists, the working poor, and squatters in the Lower East Side, the drug culture that served in many ways to bring artists together with members of various underworlds and extralegal workforces … and then I look at Brooklyn, which has frankly taken development right up the ass with hardly a squirm. Art life is so clean and so yuppy … Forget about marginal neighborhoods serving as long-term incubators for avant-gardes. The gallerists and developers rush to any place that artists live and take over immediately. Lifestyle politics are so dominant … And yet, the living conditions of the majority in the borough have not really improved. … Few artists turn their attention to the sad state of things here.
It’s telling that the one artist in Crossing Brooklyn who does get her hands dirty is also the oldest: Linda Goode Bryant. Bryant, who in the 1970s founded the landmark gallery for artists of color Just Above Midtown, is here represented by another nonprofit she founded: Project Eats, an urban agriculture program that grows and offer fresh food in impoverished neighborhoods at affordable prices. “I think art is an action — a means for changing, very tangibly, the way we live,” Bryant said last month at a Crossing Brooklyn-related panel discussion (that was, full disclosure, hosted by Hyperallergic). On the grounds of the Brooklyn Museum, Bryant and Project Eats have planted an impressive tiered vegetable garden, set up a farm stand every Thursday evening, and installed a bike that visitors can pedal to generate power. In the exhibition galleries, the project is represented only by a piece of wall text and a cryptic video. There’s not much to see inside — they’re too busy being out in the world.
Crossing Brooklyn continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through January 4.