-- A Cyberspace Review Of The Arts

Volume 17.4
June 17, 2009

Robert Sievert
Editorial Associates:
Eva Sievert


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click on picture for press release

A State Fair In Queens

Socrates Sculpture Park Goes To The Country

by Gordon Fitch

Note: each image below is linked to a larger version which can be viewed by clicking on the small one.

Queens is reputed to have something like 157 different ethnic groups, each with its own language and culture. Perhaps almost as remote from the common experience of most of the locals in Astoria and Long Island City as the marches of Uzbekistan (except for our Uzbek contingent) this summer's Current Exhibition, "State Fair", was themed on the eponymous public events of America's rural areas. Artists were invited to connect the historic state fair of traditional rural America with the polymorphous 21st-century physical reality of urban Queens, within sight of the tallest of Manhattan's tall, glittering towers, and indeed in the literal glitzy shadow of advancing gentrification.

The curator of this exhibition did not intend a crowded, noisy state fair atmosphere, so the results, while popular enough, were somewhat less frantic than the Platonic form of the state fair, but fit in very well with the park's neighborly, congenial atmosphere. The resultant works were diverse and surprising: above, you see one of them, a "barn" devised by Bernard Williams. But there is more, much, much more.

Risa Puno: "The Big Apple Showdown" (detail)

Contemporary art, at least the contemporary art which is acknowledged and supported by the institutions in my vicinity, continues to be strongly weighted towards Conceptualism, although (as I shall relate) I did see some looks backward (or forward) to the more austere formalities of now so-unmodern Modernism. I will begin, however, with the first thing I came across: rolling umbrellas attempting to escape from Risa Puno's "The Big Apple Showdown", which constitutes a kind of interactive game or contest in the form of an obstacle course, but based on urban rather than rural obstacles, the errant umbrella being one of several reminiscent of midtown Manhattan on a rainy day. Other objects which had to be dodged or passed through included subway doors, a pathway leading to a stop sight, and a brownstone stoop without the brownstone. I seized the umbrella and attempted to return it to what seemed to be its home, and thus got to meet the artist personally, who was getting the others under control.

Risa Puno: "The Big Apple Showdown" (detail)

As a long-time traverser of Manhattans oft umbrella-laden canyons, I thought the whole business of flying umbrellas was pretty realistic, but I don't think it was supposed to work that way. Unfortunately I was not present to see actual contestants contesting, but in any case the trials of the poor commuter are a little bit too close to home for my unalloyed delectation. I believe many of the visitors were less cranky than I, however.

Some of the artist's other works can be seen on which comes at you with an interesting, very short musical composition of the electronic sort, so turn your sound on if you visit.

Jeanine Oleson: "Retribution"

Near the The Big Apple Showdown was a smaller work named "Retribution", by Jeanine Oleson. This is a sort of mini-corral painted gold; inside it are a number of flowering herbs. The work by itself is pretty but it requires the knowledge that it represents the myth of the unicorn to achieve a conceptual dimension. Or, as the program says, "This structure is a monument to the unicorn and the maiden able to tame it; there by highlighting the power of the female. The installation will also function as a garden of herbs known for their restorative properties, which visitors are invited to harvest for their own use." The idea of the corral, though, might have another meaning for the unicorn.

Margarita Cabrera: "Arbol de la Vida -- John Deere"

Heading west from the corral, I encountered another corral, this one encircling a tractor painted pink tending toward lavendar, and covered with small sculptures of flowers and birds. The tractor is the real thing; the sculpture is built around the body of a regular tractor. There is quite a span of connections here. The Tree of Life is one of the most persistent symbols in mythology, popping up not only in Mesoamerica, including pre-Columbian Mexico, but in Norse mythology (Yggdrasil) and the Kabbalah as well. At the same time, it has become an occasion of folk art and the related kitsch. This particular work does not make strong claims on these connections; it's rather delicate, and we're told that the artist intended mostly to remind us of the contribution of Mexicans to our agriculture, and perhaps their reduction as well. (But one thinks of the conversos heading to Mexico to avoid the Spanish Inquisition -- were there Kabbalists among them?) For more views of this artist's work see

Dana Sherwood & The Black Forrest Fancies:
"The Ladies Society of Alchemical Agriculture"

Heading yet further west, and continuing in the Hermetic tradition, I came to "The Ladies' Society of Alchemical Agriculture" by Dana Sherwood and the Black Forrest Fancies. As you can see from the picture, it's a combination of a wagon and a shed, and within it are numerous small mysterious objects including some that are interactive -- they move when an exterior handle is turned. I cannot outdo the State Fair's program in describing the interior: "On display inside the wagon are a number of living terrariums, full of natural and cultural materials collected from around the Americas that have been selected on the basis of their purported desirability.

Dana Sherwood & The Black Forrest Fancies:
"The Ladies Society of Alchemical Agriculture"

These materials include local epicurean delights, urban detritus and the distinct self-contained ecosystems that propagate around these. Also on view are a series of clockwork automata of biological anomalies and artificial confections in varying stages of mutation and putrefaction."

I could not help but be reminded by this structure and its contents of Joseph Cornell's boxes, made only a few miles away in Queens, which with me is high praise indeed, but the artists claimed no direct kinship with the 20th-century master. Yet perhaps the World Spirit wafted over from Utopia Parkway....

William Stone: "Remote Arm Wrestle"

Not far away from the alchemical wagon was William Stone's arm-wrestling machine, a sort of "visual pun" which allows two participants to arm-wrestle one another without having to touch or see each other. Should an opposite particpant be unavailable, the arms are weighted with an easily-defeated weight hidden below. It occurred to me that the artist might also have gratified victorious solo narcissists, and perhaps doubled the pun, had he affixed mirrors to the screen which blocks the views of the wrestlers.

Jennifer Cecere: "Mom"'

Spookily up in a tree just behind the arm-wrestling machine, and coming suddenly out of hiding as one walks toward it, was an enormous doily, the work of Jennifer Cecere, who made it of acrylic and rip-stop nylon. It is about 20 feet across along is major axis, and moves about impressively as the wind goes through the trees. Originally, the artist said, she had had the idea of throwing over the entrance gate of the park, but I think the trees were a better choice. It is hard to convey the impression of the work without making a movie. This, one might say, is some mother. The artist also envisions similar works strung between office buildings, which would relate in quite a different way to their environment.

Emily Feinstein: "The Ride"

Passing northward, one encounters Emily Feinstein's "The Ride", a set of non-functional cars for a non-existent amusement park ride, often a major feature of state fairs. By themselves (I came by more than once) they do seem sadly nostalgic, but once the park was populated by its usual staff of small children and dogs, the nostalgia was ignored and the cars climbed on and "ridden" with happy abandon. One never knows what uses the future will make of the past!

Charles Gute: "More Matter In General"

Next to this is Charles Gute's "More Matter In General". To understand this work, you need to know that state fairs in some regions offer such delicacies as deep-fried pickles, deep-fried plums, deep-fried Mars Bars -- deep-fried anything, in fact, on a stick. One can, then, easily extend the concept of deep-frying things on a stick to a tree or a building. As one contemplates this sign, one sees the Flag, the East River, Roosevelt Island.... enough said.

Bernard Williams: "Socrates Ply-Teck Barn"

The most imposing work of the collection was at the north end of the park: this was Bernard Williams "Socrates Ply-Teck Barn". Ply-Teck is a kind of plywood: someone gave a lot of it to Socrates Sculpture Park, and the artist was unleashed upon it. The building, for that is what it is, is 16 feet high and 32 feet long. It is painted black. Although it is made of wood, spaces have been left between the components which give the structure as a whole a translucent, airy quality. Large apertures allow viewers to walk inside and through the sculpture. For me, the overall shape was more reminiscent of a ship than a barn. The surfaces were inscribed with designs alluding to quilts, hex signs, highway signs, and cultural institutions related to rural life, like Yazoo (among other things, the name of a record company famous for Delta blues).

Bernard Williams: "Socrates Ply-Teck Barn"

In looking at this work, I could not help but be reminded of Louise Nevelson's large works, often similarly imposing and made of wood painted black in components actual derived from the detritus of broken furniture or reminiscent of it. (Think of "Sky Cathedral" or "Mrs. N.'s Palace".) I don't know if the artist would care to draw this connection; the park's program doesn't mention Nevelson. It is interesting, though, to see Modernism creeping back, even if it's standing quietly in the shadows.

(I probably missed a few participants here; some of the work is performance art for which I didn't happen to be present, and some may have been away visiting. Should the artists contact me to complain, I'll append mention.)

Overall, Socrates presented a considerable artistic experience of very contemporary material, sometimes playful, sometimes serious work among the relaxed atmosphere and casual acceptance with which the neighborhood treats the park and the park treats the neighborhood. May it be ever so.

The show is on now and will continue until September.
Some useful links:
  Socrates Scupture Park State Fair
  Exhibition Press Release and Checklist (PDF)

Back to the Front

German Art at Blue Mountain Gallery

Lousie Guerin at Blue Mountain Gallery

Nicolas Carone at Washburn Gallery

Diana Manister: Visual Poetry

A New Format

Artezine 16

Artezine 15

Artezine 14

Artezine 13



June 17, 2009