We Built This City

Kevin Beasley,   Untitled (Harlem Matriarch II)  , 2015

Kevin Beasley, Untitled (Harlem Matriarch II), 2015

Greater New York

PS 1, New York, NY


Every so often, I make the decision to see an enormous group show with friends.  These shows tend to be in New York, meaning you wait several weeks or even months to see them, and you spend a lot of time afterwards comparing them to other enormous group shows that you saw at earlier times.  I saw this one in February, during a particularly fitful bout of wanderlust and caged-in winter feelings that resulted in a grand departure from Philly and a taxi ride to Queens.

I want to start my assessment of this show by stressing, first and foremost, that there were some truly incredible works in this show.  I watched a video by Ben Thorp Brown about a factory that makes strange trophies that are given to employees by corporations, featuring a Mr. Rogers style view of the factory machinery that was almost hypnotic.  There was a huge installation called Kiosk that featured strange objects in precarious plastic shelving units, revealing the curated collection of a very strange store in a space with extremely narrow hallways.  There was a pretty consistent impulse here to comment on capitalism, presenting you with several examples of these store-like mashups and corporate juxtapositions, and it was an impulse that seemed to be relevant and place-specific to me.

As I navigated this exhibition, I spent a lot of time trying to decode the logic behind placement of works and the visual relationships that were created between the pieces.  These relationships didn’t always seem to be thematic to me—at times, the connections seemed to be based more on a material relationship, as with the room of large sculptures right across from the Kiosk space.  The struggle to curate an ambitious yet calculated collection of objects and then taking the steps to arrange them in a thoughtful way is emblematic of the enormous group show.  In these conditions, it can be difficult to make a real assessment of this kind of show: how does one decide if a show of this nature is successful or not, and what would the criteria be?

Anytime I feel a little lost inside a show and start to wish for some sort of map or clue, anything at all to grab onto, I tend to turn to the explanatory text that accompanies a show to see how the institution decided to frame it.  There were a lot of clues here that were helpful, including the explanation of the move to include older artists to avoid falling into the obsessive pursuit of youth and newness that enormous group shows tend to celebrate.  I responded pretty well to this idea since it’s a refreshing take on this kind of exhibition format, though the decision to remove the commonality of time from a show could make it a little hard to navigate.  Pieces that have all been made within the past five to ten years all have at least that in common; when you remove that, you are again back to the question of what organizing principles are at play.

If you return to the exhibition text, it will tell you that the ultimate aim here was to combine a sort of nostalgia for an older version of New York with cultural obsession of newness.  And I think that out of everything I experienced through this show, the incredible works and the steps to figure out the puzzle of the arranging, all of which I kind of enjoyed—through all of it, I struggled most with this idea of nostalgia and I still continue to struggle with it.  For me, a non-resident of New York whose “experience” of the New York of the 70s or 80s is accessible only through popular culture or fantasy imagery, the nostalgia idea is off-putting simply because I can’t relate to it.  I don’t really know the place the nostalgia is referring to, if I’m being really honest, and so it’s hard for me to elicit a response to it. 

Is it possible to miss something that you’ve never experienced?  In the end, even with the nostalgia confusion, I find that I am interested in this question.  In a show about making in a huge city like New York, with all of its glamour, mystery, and fantasy, perhaps a nostalgic reference to a place embellished with imagination isn’t totally off base.  And if we were to expect a huge show to present the experience of the New York artist as a balanced and harmonious whole, with clear curatorial goals and clean execution, that would probably end up seeming a little absurd. 

I found myself considering how nostalgia is defined by our culture and subsequently embraced or pushed away, long after I left the halls of PS1.  It was an experience that was probably meant to confuse me in moments, but cities are confusing places.  And making can be confusing too—but in my very biased opinion, it’s probably one of the best kinds of confusion there is.