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Two prominent signs hang in the street-facing window of Hunter East Harlem Gallery: “REALTORS = VULTURES,” in white-stenciled letters on a black background, and, below, “Open/ MASSAGE,” in neon green, red, and blue. The signs come from the Treasures in the Trash Collection, a remarkable congeries of over 40,000 discarded objects salvaged by retired sanitation worker Nelson Molina and arranged in a New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) garage. The understated humor of the MASSAGE sign tempers the blunt political message of the REALTORS sign above. It is a fitting contrast in an exhibition inspired by artist Fred Wilson’s satirical yet serious institutional critiques. Co-curated by Molina and artist Alicia Grullón, What is Here is Open: Selections from the Treasures in the Trash Collection is also a fitting exhibition for Hunter East Harlem Gallery, which is located near Molina’s former DSNY route and has a mission to engage its local community.
The exhibition’s conceit — pairing selections from Molina’s Collection with works by five contemporary, mostly local artists — highlights the somewhat arbitrary value some cultural objects accrue, but not others, often along racial lines. The coffee table display of Dominique Duroseau’s self-portrait color photographs (from “being as, femininity as, black as…,” 2018-ongoing), amid antique black-and-white photographs of white women, signals this theme through contrasts in the photographs’ colors and ages. Tomie Arai’s “Beyond the Streets” (2019) — a sleek, silkscreen on plywood bird’s-eye street map of New York City’s Chinatown — contemplates how a compartmentalized racial logic can manifest at the level of urban neighborhoods. Shellyne Rodriguez’s two contributions are in keeping with the vintage mood and demotic sensibility of Molina’s Collection: her three watercolor portraits, based on family photographs taken in the South Bronx, have the folksy eclecticism of the show’s abundant amateur portraiture; and her oil-on-canvas reproduction of an album cover by New York Latin soul musician Joe Bataan (Mestizo, 2013) has a charming campiness.
What is Here is Open: Selections from the Treasures in the Trash Collection continues at Hunter East Harlem Gallery (2180 Third Ave, New York) until September 14.