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Seeing Mel Chin: All Over the Place, at the Queens Museum, you might fall for the artist’s work for the easy reasons — but you should stay for the harder ones.
Chin is so good at remixing technological apparatuses to demonstrate the received wisdom on which they are based (plus the pitfalls and limitations of those ideas) that a viewer might easily be mesmerized by his supple and elegant facture. I should know. I was long haunted by his 1994 piece “Impotent Victory” which I encountered at the (now famous) Black Male exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and couldn’t understand the piece at first look. I had to ask a friend for help. The piece consists of a modified sneaker: Nike Air Jordans, but what appears to be one shoe through its midpoint, splits off into two heels. My friend explained that the fantasy of inner-city children that engines their purchase of absurdly expensive athletic footwear (nowadays a pair may be priced between $150 and $300) was that they might somehow gain a sense of power and status through association with someone known to be the best basketball player in the world. This delusion — which the piece represents materially and visually — is the hook of any putatively luxury brand, but in the intersection of athletic gear and working-class, urban children who aspire to transcend their circumstances it has a particularly pernicious effect. This sculpture is also included in the All Over the Place retrospective which covers almost 40 years of Chin’s work, and it is illustrative of Chin’s facility with manipulating the levers and pulleys of representation.
Take another piece: “The Geometry of Wrath” (2005), which is a brooding painting of oil and gold leaf on steel in which tendrils of blue and red lines connect what look like clusters of plump green grapes and veined leaves. The network of vines and grape clusters appear to float above a swamp of dark water. But the painting is essentially a map representing Al Qaeda’s communications and financial networks in which the size of the leaves correlate to the size of the Al Qaeda cell or documented financial transaction — all based on a deliberately atypical rereading of the term “virgin” as a reward for those who die fighting a jihad. In a similarly martial vein the pieces that comprise the Cluster series (2006)consist of lovely jewelry featuring large, cut stones is arranged on mannequins to mark the entry and exit sites of bullets based on historical records of those wounded by firearms. Then Chin’s “Cross for the Unforgiven” (2012) throws religious history into the mix, with its group of AK-47 assault rifles cut, welded, and assembled in such a many that forms a kind of Celtic cross. The firearm was developed in the Soviet Union, remains one of the most popular and widely used rifles in history, and thus the piece suggests a similarity to Christianity in terms of its global reach and its use as a weapon of subjugation. In each of these cases the loveliness of the work is at odds with the horrors which underlie the finely aestheticized images and materials.
Chin also shows how his work can take on more subtly abstracted questions. The room-size installation “The Funk and Wag From A to Z” (2012) made from images cut from all 25 volumes of the Funk and Wagnall encyclopedia of 1953 through 1956, deals with the very nature of communal epistemology: how we know what we know.
“Funk and Wag” features a scheme of intuitively and oddly juxtaposed black and white images without text, which seems to owe something to John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing in its expectation of the viewer to grok the relations suggested between and among the iconic pictures. Lacking the guiding hand of text, the installation demonstrably hands over the control for sense making to the viewer. For example, in one vignette, I see a cyborg creature composed of a mish mash of machine parts that has seemingly crawled out from a blueprint to confront a small, commonplace lizard whose body the cyborg mimics. This combination makes me think of the confrontation that is a key anxiety of modernity: the natural creature meeting the machine. Overall, in recombining these images, Chin gestures toward a crucial truth of our time: establishment knowledge is in jeopardy. Key institutions that were once assumed to be neutrally oriented towards general public benefit — museums, the police force, other governmental agencies, have been shown to be bigoted, discriminatory, protective of the already powerful. Information produced by institutions is therefore rightly subject to reconsideration and revision by the critically inclined individual.
But all this, while visually fascinating and intellectually invigorating merely works with the basic strategy of representation — as most visual art does. However his piece “Flint Fit” (2018–ongoing) moves into the realm of material, socio-political action. In the city of Flint, Michigan where the lead poisoning of its water supply has created an enormous public health crisis, Chin began working with activists, residents, and cultural organizations to recombine resources and thus address the crisis. Most of the residents still have to use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. The empty plastic canisters have become a byproduct of the disaster, but Chin has worked with Flint groups to send 90,000 of those bottles to a recycling center in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the plastic is transformed into fabric. The expertise of Tracy Reese, a fashion designer based in New York City, was enlisted to transform this fabric into a line of rainwear and swimwear. To complete the circle the garments were sewn at the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center in Flint, a community organization dedicated to providing education and workplace training to allow participants to be self-sufficient. On the day that I attended the press preview, Mel Chin asserted that he hoped the project could become a self-sustaining income stream and a way for people to have their dignity restored and maintained.
This project for me is proof of life — or rather proof of the capacity of art to effect material change in people’s lives. As critical as the use of symbols is in our culture (and they are; think of iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement, or the images of Flint’s water supply) influencing the lived lives of people is a pivotal act. Such change can make it possible for those who are under the unrelenting duress of making decisions to merely prolong survival, potentially open to the rewards of being able to contemplate ideas beyond themselves. It may be that this kind of social intervention is not rightly to be called “art.” It may be that it’s simply an artistic sensibility that is well suited to mobilizing disparate organizations and resources to compensate for failures of social administration and that what results from such a sensibility is what we tend to call “art.” Where this kind of generous sensibility meets activism in the service of improving the material conditions of the lives of the beleaguered is where Chin’s work takes on its greatest significance.
This melding of activism and aesthetic sensibility though is a sharp, incisive instrument that cuts towards the wielder as well. Laura Raicovich in her last exhibition as the director of the Queens Museum partnered with the cultural organization No Longer Empty to mount this multi-site show. Raicovich has left the museum after three years reportedly due to differences of vision with the museum’s board, but this exhibition is emblematic of her tenure. Raicovich has been outspoken and consistent in her conviction that art must be married to social action to have real consequence. Thus, she closed the galleries of the museum to host a sign-making workshop on the day of the current president’s inauguration, and proposed that the museum be used as a sanctuary space connecting immigrants with social services — none of which is said to have pleased the board. But it is precisely these kinds of political actions and social interventions that give art its teeth, that make it more than a visual escapade, a dilettantish indulgence, transportive emotional experience, or a means of wealth storage. This larger social vision that undergirds Mel Chin’s work and the insightful curation by Raicovich and No Longer Empty are the means by which we gain art that cannot be forgotten.
All Over the Place is representative of art that is convincingly lovely in it intellectual rigor and material sophistication. In its finest moments it also demonstrates what art should and can be.