A window operating in a metaphorical capacity lets me into all sorts of imaginative viewpoints. A window equals a kind of perspective, but can act as an entranceway, or an escape hatch. It constitutes a way to let light in while inhibiting most of what else exists outside of the constructed space from coming inside. In tandem with walls, a window — in the most fundamental aspect of its construction — defines an interior space. But windows are designed to make the sealed-off nature of a room, a building, or any other enclosure feel less enclosed, and in some way, permeable. Viewing Justin Sterling’s exhibition Broken Windows, at the Olympia Project, brings all these thoughts to mind and makes me wonder why windows — given their semantic and allegoric richness — don’t appear more often in the art I see.
The title “Broken Windows” evokes that deeply contentious theory of neighborhood maintenance (or imperious control) first hypothesized by James Q. Wilson, a professor of political science and public administration, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist. Their theory was notoriously applied in New York City by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former NYPD Chief William J. Bratton. It’s a contentious theory (which may have been fundamentally misinterpreted) because some claim that it led to a historic decrease in crime in the 1990s (that is essentially continuing), while others have contended that it undergirds policies such as New York’s “stop and frisk” program, which considered analysis has shown unjustly targeted Black and Latino men. While I think the fundamental idea that small habits of social neglect can lead to larger and more pernicious practices and a more general kind of community malaise, the policy, as enacted by police in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, helped to shape a generation suffused with the anger and fear that comes from knowing that we can arbitrarily subjected to someone else’s power based solely on our appearance. An awareness of this history is clearly important to Sterling and his co-curator Sophie Olympia Riese, who offered some recommended readings in the email invitation they developed for the exhibition.
But the cart of found and manipulated goods that comprise this exhibition isn’t firmly attached to a horse of sociological and political critique. Sterling mixes metaphoric and semantic play, with an intuitive grasp of his materials. For example, in “At an escapist resort on the beach unable to escape” (2018) he employs a trio of found double-paned sash windows, all with grapefruit-size holes in them. One he turns into a beachside vista, with an ocean of blue plastic and a shore of sand and gravel and browned, dried plants. But for the window with an “X” in black duct tape, he does something wickedly smart, using sand, the tape, caulking, and foam insulation (all against that plastic-y backdrop of sky blue) to create an abstract image of failed attempts to protect what’s inside from forces that want to invade.
All these materials — sand, caulking, duct tape, foam insulation — are used to shore up a domicile’s permeable membranes (such as windows), particularly when a storm is on the horizon. (I recall when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012; innumerable windows had those same X’s taped over them like a petition to the angel of death.) But Sterling isn’t attempting to fix them. The holes remain; almost anything can get inside now. They bring to mind the double vulnerability of Black and Latino men, whose bodies are subject to both potential violence inside their communities, and to the violence of autocratic and capricious police shakedowns. There is something almost melancholy and elegiac about these aspects of his work, which strike me as similar to the best of Rodney McMillian’s work, with his presentations of found objects as artifacts of lived lives. But Sterling doesn’t lament the holes he finds in the social and material fabric of his culture, or in its men; he takes the opportunity to fill the broken windows with stories and vistas, fantasies, and warnings.
“The Beginning” (2019) is delightful because he takes the material of glass in another direction, packing in soil and gravel and green plant matter in a manner that brings to mind hydroponic gardens or greenhouses, and yields an Edenic effect. “Two Shots” (2018), on the other hand, is a piece that works on several levels: as an abstract work in which the two spider-webbed holes and lines of black caulking that extend from them are set off by a mottled black blob behind them. Yet they might also be eyes in a face lacking any other features except floating hair. With its carefully placed bullet casings inside the frame, this piece also signifies the violence that is just as real as the community gardens referenced in other works — precisely what the broken windows policing theory attempted to address.
“Invisible Man” (2019) features the same ingredients seen elsewhere in the show: spray paint, caulking, tape, and insulation foam. But the black figure that looms amorphously in the background over the whole view composition feels like the unnamed narrator of the Ralph Ellison novel Invisible Man — so protean he can only ever be partially recognized.
Yet Sterling does make missteps with the clichés embedded in pieces like “Stolen Evidence” (2018); red tape spells out “EVIDENCE” and orange foam suggests a crime scene. Similarly, in “Untitled” (2018) he employs cigarette butts to signify urban life — a device which strikes me as intellectually lazy. He also uses window blinds in too many pieces (five out of 17 window works); the joke in the title of one of these — “Blind Spot” (2019) — really only works the first time. Still, the rest of his windows feel searching in their signification of bodies dragooned into machinery of social order and enforced control. I wonder whether I and the other men of color around me are in some profound way broken. Perhaps we are, and can only patch ourselves back together whatever tools or materials lay close to hand. But Sterling suggests we might also remake ourselves into some kind nurturing ground in which some lovely living thing might grow.
Broken Windows continues at the Olympia Project (87 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through July 12.