BK and the Point Brazil Lesson
Ever since Burger King reinvented their fries a few years ago, I’ve become a loyalist. (For the record, I’m also Coke, Nike, and mint chocolate chip.) Even so, I almost never go there. Luckily, I’m able to opt out of eating at fast food chains so they have become mere symbols and reminders of my suburban upbringing. I regard them with equal parts disgust and nostalgia. Disgust because the McDonald’s in San Mateo’s Hillsdale Mall was the site of some violent juvenile delinquency, where the cold mechanisms of teenage power were laid bare. Fights broke out, fights were negotiated for later, loud mouths ruled. Nostalgia because it was also exactly where I wanted to go eat a lot of the time, and so did everyone else.
These last few years eating out in New York has become a stressful bloodsport (or had it always been this way?), built around the promise of adventure, experience, and authenticity. Did you go to that pizza spot in Brooklyn run by an old Italian guy? It’s in the middle of nowhere and you need to get there at 4pm or be ready to wait an hour for a plain slice, but it’s SOOO worth it! What about the dingy food court in Flushing with the hand pulled noodles? Nobody speaks English. You HAVE to go! The urbane diner wants artisanal character, immigrant charm, and chefs that are brooding intellectuals able to conjure taste portals to another time and place. They want a story with their meal.
Where does this leave fast food mainstays who have been doing it their way for decades? Quick, Cheap, Consistent. They have begun to adapt to the foodie landscape by offering salads, experimenting with new burger hybrids, emphasizing customer service, and redesigning their interiors. This last development is interesting to me, ripe with possibility. With a little imagination and a lot of insurance, they could become a space for contemporary art that suits the community they’re in.
If you go into the Burger King in Flushing, Queens, you’ll see groups of older Asians hanging out on weekday afternoons, all day, treating it as their de facto community center. A nearby McDonald’s was the the site of a contentious territorial beef last year when a group of Korean seniors regularly occupied choice tables for hours having only ordered coffee and possibly some fries.
These patrons, and the diverse families, grinders and transients that pass through for an affordable meal, certainly aren’t looking for top notch art or history exhibitions, so how would you begin to curate something specifically for them and in line with the aesthetics and real life functions of this type of gathering space.
Curating an exhibition at Burger King comes with built-in limitations. Color schemes are predetermined by the brand identity of the franchise, signage and promotional displays must be given central visual placements, and your audience is focused on where the ketchup, napkins and straws are, not on anything hanging on the walls. Beyond that, would customers even give art the attention it demands, much less notice it? Would anyone care? Probably not, but for once, art doesn’t matter (that much) because here at Burger King, the art would be in complete service of the dining experience. Art should be background, decoration.
So why bother curating a show at the local BK if we’re only talking about interior design? First of all, to enact an important curatorial lesson I gleaned from frequenting Point Brazil, a Brazilian buffet in Astoria, Queens: if you own a Brazilian restaurant, hang pictures of Brazil. In other words, keep it simple. Know who you are and who you’re curating for. Secondly, there aren’t enough opportunities to stumble across contemporary art in Flushing. Challenging new art shouldn’t only be shown where it’s “convenient” (for whom?), because every community needs great art. Short of a new gallery scene opening up where Crossing Art has been carrying the torch for years, maybe BK can be the neighborhood’s new alternative space. Lastly, for the money. You didn’t think I’d do this pro-bono, did you?
Any exhibition at Burger King must consider the three A’s: Ambience, Appetite, Abstraction. I would start with a selection of Cezanne still lives depicting baskets of fruits and jugs of wine. These blocky compositions presaged Cubism, and modernism’s preoccupation with the ‘how’ of artmaking and by extension, perception, in addition to being touchstones for many contemporary painters. Then, I would include some paintings I saw recently by Lucy Kim. They are made with a touristic craft sensibility – I use this term descriptively, not judgmentally. Her painting/assemblages usually contain subliminally hidden images within relief compositions of noses, lips, ears, birds, and shirts and sportcoats. They are about intimacy, I think.
I’d hang Lucy’s paintings near ones of nighttime darkness by Byron Kim, some of the illest paintings of non-light I’ve seen. I’d include a couple of Edward Hopper paintings – a lonely house on a Maine seashore. Back in New York City, his oil painting of a woman staring into a cup of coffee inside a cafe. Then I’d have to give space to Ann Craven’s painted repetitions of birds and the moon seen through tree branches.
Yuh-Shioh Wong, out in California, has been making some really dope abstract paintings (colorful and jarring, improvised and restrained at the same time) and they would look great in this context. Here is a sampling of their titles: Somewhere in Iceland, i will send you under the road, castle camouflaged by the rose. Staying out in Cali, I’d include some of Ansel Adam’s lusciously printed photographs of Half Dome in Yosemite – I’d try to get permission to have them printed tiny, like 5 x 3 inches.
Finally, I’m thinking of two monumental pieces to anchor the show. First, a painting created during China’s Cultural Revolution titled The New Songs of Ah Xi, 1972. It depicts eight young women cheerfully working the rice fields, rolling hills stretching infinitely behind them until its horizon meets a sparkling, cloud-accented blue sky. These were the anointed heros of Mao’s revolution: young peasants toiling together on the earth, singing brightly as they harvest from a furtile soil.
This would go well with a stock photograph of a middle class family gathered at the dinner table printed on canvas as large as The New Songs of Ah Xi (53 x 84 inches). This family could be White, Black or Hispanic – it doesn’t matter – but they must look happy, at least as happy as those in New Songs. It should be a family of four with pre-teen kids, looking over a bountiful spread in a suburban dining room. The husband and wife should be dressed as if they had just gotten off work from their respective office jobs. The kids: happy to be home with loving parents, eager to devour a home-cooked meal.