Art

In Harlem, a New Triennial Parses the Historical, Political, and Social Context of “Uptown”

The inaugural show at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery spotlights 25 artists living or practicing north of 99th Street.

Uptown, installation view at the Wallach Art Gallery (all photos courtesy of the Wallach gallery and by Eddie José Bartolomei, unless noted)

The newly reopened Wallach Art Gallery’s Uptown — a survey of work by 25 artists living or practicing north of 99th Street — lives inside the brand new Lenfest Center for the Arts, an eight-story, 60,000-square-foot building that houses performance and gallery spaces as well as a 150-seat theater. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery has been around since 1986, but you might not know that, given that it has been sequestered inside some stodgy wood-paneled rooms on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall on Columbia University’s Morningside campus. Whereas its previous incarnation felt like a gallery intended to cultivate a conversation around visual art, primarily among Columbia’s faculty, visiting fellows, and students, now the gallery is quite literally outward-facing (looking out onto 125th Street). If you visit the new gallery in the daytime, you’ll see the work enveloped in natural light streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Uptown is multifaceted — it seeks to restore some of the sheen to the term “uptown” in reference to Harlem, which almost a century ago was a mecca for literary, visual, and performing arts; announce the presence of a prominent institutional agent in the district’s art ecology; and, perhaps most crucially, serve a kind of ambassadorial function for the university.

Uptown, installation view

According to Straus News, the Lenfest Center is one of two buildings (the other being the Jerome L. Greene Science Center) that were unveiled in March, marking the completion of the initial stage in a development process to create the Manhattanville campus, one that is expected to span several decades and cost an estimated $6.3 billion. Getting this expansion under way was contentious, partly because it involved the acquisition of property via eminent domain in order to create essentially the university’s own self-contained village. The Manhattanville campus, a 17-acre site along Broadway just north of 125th Street, will consist of a complex that will eventually hold 6.8 million square feet of university facilities connected by an underground network for loading, energy, and utility services. With all of this set to arrive soon, residents voiced concerns about the creeping effects of gentrification and being priced out of their homes. To mitigate resistance, Columbia reportedly signed a “community benefits agreement” detailing their promised investment in a range of goods for the community, including more than $24 million given to local groups (out of a total $150 million over the coming decades) to fund more than 100 nonprofits and legal aid for tenants.

Miguel Luciano, “Run-a-Bout” (2017), restored and customized 1969 Schwinn Runabout bicycle, chrome-plated machete; and “Puerto Rican Flag in Red, Black, and Green” (2017), nylon fabric

Seeing Uptown in this historical, political, and sociological context, I can’t help but regard the new triennial as a way to make the case to the local community that it doesn’t intend to colonize the area but instead seeks to hold hands with community members. It was a wise decision by the gallery’s director, Deborah Cullen Morales, to inaugurate the gallery’s new home with a show celebrating local uptown artists, especially given the changes that have lately occurred in Harlem. In the last few years, several commercial galleries have moved here, and I find the relationship of some to the community questionable. One could regard the coming of the Lenfest Center as a mothership following its scouts.

Uptown, installation view

However, the Wallach is actively partnering with neighboring institutions to present special programs and related exhibitions intended to engage audiences beyond the Columbia campus. Among the collaborators are Hunter East Harlem Gallery of Hunter College, El Museo del Barrio, Harlem School of the Arts, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and Elizabeth Dee Gallery.

Sanford Biggers, “Witness” (2016), sequins, canvas, fabric, tar, polystyrene, aquaresin

All that said, the work in the show is well curated. It seems to be grouped into formal families, and there is enough variety of media to keep the eyes and intellect moving. I also deeply appreciate the range of artists: from Elaine Reichek, who in 1972 began doing sewing work that refracted the formalist concerns of the aesthetic associated with color-field artists through a feminist spying glass, to Sanford Biggers, who was born only two years before Reichek started making art and is now an assistant professor at Columbia. There is a great range of sensibilities here, too, along with a variety of ages, genders, and ethnicities, but the show never feels like it’s ticking boxes.

The pieces that most moved me were by Reichek and Biggers. The latter’s “Witness” (2016) is a diminutive sculpture fashioned to seem like it casts a set of shadow figures, rendered on a nearby wall in a mix of black reflective materials. The figures and their gleaming afros loom large in the room, and the piece made me think of an astral projection brought into being under the specific alchemical circumstances of some ritual intended to call forth ancestors. The work is both futuristic and ancient, and it’s comforting, too, as if a group of forbears are waiting and watching from some hidden vantage.

Uptown, installation view
Elaine Reichek, “Harlem Arcadia: Two Block Radius” (2015–16) 14 units: pigment inkjet printing and machine embroidery on linen with trapunto; one unit: hand-embroidered yarn on burlap (photo by the author)
Elaine Reicheck, “Harlem Arcadia: Two Block Radius” (2015–16) (detail) (photo by the author)

Reichek’s “Harlem Arcadia: Two Block Radius” (2015–16) is wonderful because the work seems to be plainly figurative — mostly architectural ornamentation — but on inspection one can see the detail of the machine-made embroidery on the linen she uses as her canvas. The ornamentation is neoclassical — images of urns and decorative garlands — so not surprising (if you look up at the buildings in Harlem), but she uses thread to devise shadows, highlights, and form, and when you get close to the work, you see how intricate it is.

I also found myself appreciating work I wouldn’t normally care for. For example, Alicia Grullón‘s “Storytelling” (2017), a video piece that comes out of the time the artist spent with the residents of Jackie Robinson Senior Center at the Grant Houses on Broadway and 125th Street. The video consists of her foregrounded re-enactments of selected moments within the lives of the people she spoke to, while in the background, a mix of images constantly shift to give historical context to the story she is telling. There is something in Grullón’s concern for these otherwise invisible lives that is genuine and touching. There is a different but similar care given to the souped-up bicycle that is Miguel Luciano‘s “Run-a-Bout” (2017), a customized Schwinn with a ridiculously high seat that has a machete hanging from it and a chamber orchestra of horns on the front. The bike tells me that someone had the will to put several hours of studied effort into making a simple thing glorious, and that is indicative of the line between craft and art.

Alicia Grullon, “Storytelling” (2017), video with sound, 35 min (photo courtesy the artist)

Lastly, I was glad to see “Double Jointed” (2017), the work of David Shrobe, whose assemblages I discovered a few months ago to be visually, allusively, and materially complicated and layered. He uses remnants not only of buildings and reclaimed objects, but also of historical iconography (like the wigs worn by European gentry) that suggest their continued relevance as a status symbol.

In all, Uptown is worth visiting because it gives a glimpse of the Harlem that is coming — one with contemporary, upmarket buildings, large-scale institutions and developments, and eminent exhibitions — inside and alongside the Harlem that persists: a place that is oriented toward handmade craft, celebratory of ancestral ties, and personal. I do wonder how these two orders will manage to coexist.

David Shrobe, “Double Jointed” (2017), oil, graphite, wood, tiles, fabric, and mixed media

Uptown continues at the Wallach Art Gallery in the Lenfest Center for the Arts (615 West 129th Street, Harlem) through August 20.

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