Shipyards and fishing poles, dirt-caked tires, wet grass and rocks. A soggy peripheral city, quietly breathing. This often-neglected side of the city is what Queens-based artist Accra Shepp showcases in the exhibit “The Islands of New York” at the Queens Museum.
Shepp has been documenting the city’s coastlines since 2008, “these zones,” as the exhibit program puts it, “where underbrush meets concrete and water,” where the city’s geography is shifting, where bright billboards scream over pavement and dry grass.
His images, most of which are long-landscape panorama, are composed of several color film negative sheets stitched together horizontally. Often, two adjacent frames will be slightly misaligned, so that structures bend or tilt, bodies are split and lines are snapped.
The effect is subtly disorienting, making the viewer’s eye hungry for detail as it scans the scenes that, were they seen in daily life from a subway window or across a parking lot, would probably go ignored. Shepp’s expert control of lines, repeating parallel or curving contours, further pulls the viewer into his images.
The Islands of New York is situated above and around the Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model of the five boroughs built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair, on long-term view at the museum. By placing the Shepp exhibit beside the city panorama, the museum presents two defamiliarized views of New York City; separate and simultaneous, different but related.
The Islands of New York and the city panorama attempt to decentralize Manhattan and redraw New York’s perceived boundaries. In the panorama, as in a scale map, Manhattan is a skinny dense mass; Queens and Brooklyn dominate the space. Similarly, in Shepp’s work, Manhattan, if pictured at all, is foggy, distant, peeking out from the background.
Still, the museum crowd tends to congregate towards the west of the city panorama, looking for the famous and familiar landmarks: the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building. Behind them, Shepp’s “Newtown Creek, Looking Towards Brooklyn” sits in contrast, at once impressive and unglamorous, unfamiliar but definitely New York City.