“If I could stop the violence in Brownsville, life would be so much better for me and so many other people.”
That quote, attributed to “K. Edwards, 15,” is part of the artwork “My Utopia” by Shervone Neckles, a Brooklyn high school teacher and artist.
“My Utopia” is one of the most moving of nine works on display at the Queens College Art Center through Jan. 13, in a show called “Utopia: In Perpetuum/Forever.”
The show is the product of a fairly complicated concept. As Suzanna Simor, the director of the Queens College Art Center explained, the idea for it began when Simor and curator Tara Mathison wondered how to show visitors “the process of artists becoming artists.”
They decided to commission one artist to create a site-specific work in the Art Center. Then, they would commission other artists to “respond” to that work, since incorporating influences is a major part of how artists create.
The original artist — sculptor Will Corwin — spent three weeks in the center, building what is the exhibition’s strongest piece, a sculpture called “Utopia.” A structure full of precariously placed tiles that seems to crumble before the viewer, the work has an energy that enables it to stand very strongly on its own.
The other eight pieces, however, are all over the map conceptually. In addition to the task of “responding” to Corwin’s work, the artists also had to incorporate Corwin’s chosen theme: utopia.
They spent a month working in the center, Simor said, before their work was opened to the public in December.
The results are idiosyncratic, and often deal only cursorily with the theme of utopia, let alone Corwin’s original work, almost as if the utopia theme were a homework assignment the artists dutifully completed.
Pieces range from a funny short film to drawings inspired by Chinese astrology to an Occupy Wall Street installation.
The Occupy Wall Street piece, by Thomas Mintz, features Mintz’s own photographs as well as images culled from newspapers. Mintz encouraged students viewing the exhibit to participate by drawing or writing their own words on the work, which eventually expanded, occupying an entire wall.
Text, interestingly, plays a large part in the show. Neckles’ work, “My Utopia,” features just the words of students she interviewed, painted in clean lettering directly onto her section of the Art Center’s wall, while poet and novelist Ellis Avery contributed a single haiku. Curator and participating artist Mathison wrote a book chronicling the exhibition, while Ben Gottlieb wrote a single strange story on a long piece of paper pinned to the wall. The text reaches the floor and lies at visitors’ feet.
Many of the pieces are lovely, yet at odds with the exhibition’s stated goal: to show how artists influence each other. In fact, the show seems to demonstrate just the opposite — that an artist will stick resolutely to his or her own vision or style, regardless of outside influence.
Or perhaps the true lesson is that influence is a far deeper, more complex process than simply showing an artist a work, handing him or her a theme, and saying, “Create!”
While none of the eight “responding” artists seem to be responding to Corwin’s work, it would probably take longer than a month for the work to sink in enough to even begin doing so.
Which is not to say that the show is a failure or that the idea behind it isn’t interesting. Simor described how lively the Art Center became when all the artists were there, working side by side, an achievement in and of itself.
The space, a rotunda full of light in the college’s Rosenthal Library, seems ideal for the kind of experimentation Simor and Mathison seek to foster. And the image of artists working in the midst of all those quiet stacks is both incongruous and wonderful. Indeed, artist Sean Cunningham’s piece for the exhibit, a short film, depicts the rotunda itself as utopia.
On Jan. 13, all the works will come down, but 15 more artists will be invited to produce a whole new set of works. All told, some 29 artists will create a new show, inspired and influenced by each other, or at least, nominally so. The experiment begins anew on Feb. 9.
‘Utopia: In Perpetuum/Forever’
When: Through Jan. 13 (reopen after the holidays on Jan. 2). Mon.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Queens College Art Center (Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, Level Six), Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Blvd.