Exhibition Proposal for Burger King

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?

Exhibition Abstract

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.


Flat Tire

We were back in the East Village where the night started. In Maharlika, the stylish Philippino restaurant, numbly recounting how it all went down. Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Dogg World from 1994 spilled threats in that sluggish, Long Beach way. Dangerous and casual. It felt like a California decision to drive 3 hours (“If we can do it in two and a half hours or less, let’s go,” Joe suggested) to a casino in Connecticut – it felt circa 1994 too. Eric B. and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique was next. I wondered aloud if they had a DJ, wanting to send some approving eye contact his or her way. “It’s Pandora,” Nancy informed me. Shit is almost too easy nowadays I thought, taking a swig of my San Miguel in silent tribute to a harder time.

I was just joking around the day before. It was the end of the workday and concentration was elusive…But wait. I’ve told this story ten times and still haven’t found the hook. In each re-telling, I started obsessing over petty details because the symmetry was so uncanny. But it bogged down the story’s pacing and killed its comedic effect.

For instance, I like thinking about how Sandrine decided to skip a screening of 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (the 1979 documentary about Bronx street gangs) in order to ride up to Mohegan Sun with us, but we all wound up in a gas station in the Bronx hours later anyway trying to change a flat tire. The gas station was tucked in an industrial zone just off the highway that seemed to be untouched by aggressive ‘quality of life’ policies and re-zoning that have transformed many dilapidated neighborhoods in the last two decades. She got to see the ‘for real’ side of the Bronx depicted in that film after all. A lot happened that night, but the story is really that nothing happened. A net zero effect. It took everything we had to go nowhere. Had we in fact been gambling all along?


Hip Hop Ceramics

A few weeks ago I was in Long Island City early for a meeting and wandered into a Slovakian general store to browse around, suspecting that it might stock ceramics from that part of the world. It was a store like many stores that serve specific cultural communities in the city –  products looked unbought and abandoned, displays that made the whole place look like business was beside the point. Past all the preserved foods and exotic snack chips, were indeed a few shelves of pottery: generic mugs and plain flowery vases mostly. And behind a stack of white plates, I noticed a rough textured piece that looked like a Chinese tea cup had been carelessly plopped onto a long, unglazed cone of a stem. The outside was the color of the most unaesthetic dirt – a yellowish brown that couldn’t have been arrived at intentionally.  The inside of the cup was a dark pea green, glazed haphazardly. Hard to imagine drinking out of this, but that only added to its strangeness.

The store’s caretaker was stocking shelves when I walked in and he wandered over to see if I needed help. When I asked about it, he offered that it was a kind of wine glass for a special Slovakian liquor made of fermented honey. Convinced and charmed, I bought it, brought it home and arranged it on a bookshelf where other ceramics are kept. Among them, a tiny ivory colored bowl made by a former intern of mine, a jade green vase I bought at the local Korean supermarket, a coal black Japanese cup and saucer I picked up at the flea market at the Tenri Cultural Center here in Flushing.

In moments like that in Long Island City, I’m returned to my unexplainable infatuation with ceramics.

I remember seeing some centuries old plates and vases from what’s now Iraq at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco a few years ago. They were decked out in blues you could only find in fleeting flashes on an ocean’s surface. This blue was nothing but its own color; ultimately transparent and fresh as tomorrow morning. The marks divining its surface were aggressive (I’m not saying violent) compared to the austere Tang Dynasty stuff I had just marveled at in another room. In the next, from another century, the Japanese surface on some of their vessels: cracked and irregular like volcanic earth in some, mirror smooth in others, delivering their own kinds of complexions that were also nothing like the names we have to describe them. “Brown” just wasn’t enough.

In my kitchen cabinet is one of my favorite possessions: a plate with gently sloped sides that I bought in a pan-middle eastern restaurant in Amsterdam. It’s decorated with a briskly outlined fish in the center and multi-colored dots, dabs and strokes all around it. It’s body is built from a thickly formed ceramic and I’m convinced eating out of it makes stuff like my oxtail stew taste at least 10% better. A pair of coffee cups copped in a Berlin flea market that are just the right size, freckled with blue Pollack-y drips – its cultural origins unknown. All I know is that my coffee’s on point from out of that, caffeine rationed to exactly the right amount.

I was at Smack Mellon, an alternative art space in DUMBO, Brooklyn a few weeks back to see an exhibition by Yoko Inoue. In this vast space, Inoue had created her intimately scaled version of a Japanese night market populated by ceramic figures, vessels and masks that were mutant hybrids sampling from global consumer culture. Things were clearly marked for sale, rightfully – ceramics imply the functionality and normalcy of exchange even when, as in Yoko’s case, they’re aesthetic and conceptual vessels. In her work, Japanese-ness bleeds out, from the hand-crafted care we associate with the production of ceramics to the evoked make-shift spaces where deals are done. At dinner, when ceramics fulfill their most obvious task to make life a little bit better, to make daily rituals a little bit finer, is when we’re returned to our most unintelligible selves and when we become psychically connected to the ancients, who must’ve also derived great pleasure from wining and dining on classic material.


T-Shirt Weather

The California-lization of New York’s weather is evidence that the forces of globalization – the process by which any locale in the world becomes like a quaint Bay Area suburb – are manipulating the environment, flattening it. This shift in the world’s weather patterns might ultimately mess heavily with New York’s sensitive arrangement of culture and intellectual life. New York’s crack-era rap music from the 90s seems mired in an eternal winter, but would it be more like the drawl-ly rhythms of California gangsta rap (made for driving sinisterly in sunny weather) if New Yorkers expected 70 degree weather everyday? Would rap even exist if New York was encased in the air-conditioned geodesic dome imagined by Buckminster Fuller?

Another question: Could the homogenizing force of climate change greatly alter the patterns of another institution of contemporary life: tourism – which depends on a delicate balance of societal stability and exotic difference? I once saw a ritualistic rain dance by Native Americans in a touristic section of Berlin, a city whose bleak winter weather offered an appropriate backdrop to its modern history and lends gravitas to its contemporary art scene. This tableaux on a crowded Berlin street could be read as a kind of environmental, cultural confusion where the truths of dislocated and local racial histories were distorted by the demands and desires of tourism. The significant crowd that had amassed to watch this dance lost themselves for a minute and Berlin became nowhere. Its history disappeared.

For the 2008 Olympics, China was able to shut down rain (for the opening ceremony) and conjure it (to freshen Beijing’s polluted air) at will, but could they impose a “real” winter on New York next year? China’s motivation: it would symbolically solidify their monopoly over this century.

T-shirts have a way of aging quickly, especially those made specifically for the tourist industry. My parents buy me one of these whenever they go on vacation, marking the cities and landmarks they’ve visited. But one stands out: a yellow shirt with a blue, quickly-rendered ink brush graphic of a simplified globe. “The world is my home” is scrawled above it. Unlike the other t-shirts they’ve bought me, I have no idea where they got this one. And its point is clear: it doesn’t matter. Could’ve been anywhere.


Press Releases

I’ve been collecting press releases from art spaces for the past six years, taking them home or to the office after an afternoon of seeing shows in Chelsea, the Lower Eastside, Bushwick or wherever. I dutifully 3-hole punch each one of them and stick them into a binder in case I need to refer back to the name of an artist, or to remind me of a noteworthy show. Many of these press releases are crumpled or folded, dingy with pocket lint.

In spite of its flimsy, cheap substrate (usually photocopied onto letter size paper), the press release is durable and easily produced by galleries that operate at a high speed, churning out month-long shows in an art world calendar that’s absolutely packed with them. First and foremost, these texts aim to catch the attention of art critics and their editors. And because of that, the language skews towards a kind of pop academicism. Much of this writing style, derisively referred to as “artspeak,” has been thoroughly debased by the very critics they hope to attract as being meaningless and unnecessarily opaque. The writing is formulaic, and worse, amateur art theory they argue. In many of these releases, artists “problematize” or “interrogate” subjects.

But looking back on texts from 5 years ago, there’s a certain charm to the whole ritual of writing and producing press releases, especially in the almost outdated formality in announcing that, for instance, “Greene Naftali is pleased to present an exhibition of “Yellow Movies” by Tony Conrad, a legendary New York underground filmmaker, composer, and artist.” I saw this show in January 2007 and reading this text now makes me think of the profound rebelliousness of Conrad’s gesture to, as he states in the release: “dismantle the authoritarian boundaries of film culture…”

Press releases get emailed out to critics and editors in advance of a show’s opening, but most galleries also make them available for free in a self-serve stack at the front desk. And though this writing can easily be found on gallery websites with full color photos, I still like having these papers around without images, just naked words on a page trying to describe, elaborate, elucidate, convince and sometimes hide the intentions of artists.

For a show by Douglas Boatwright in 2006, the defunct Silo gallery states in its press release: “Although seemingly elusive and tangential, Boatwright’s work is focused in its concentration on sensuous light and aesthetic pleasure. One work could serve as both introduction and summary, a multi-layered projection onto the gallery’s curved wall consisting of the text: ‘I know this to be true.’ But the authoritative-sounding statement literally wobbles. The words reach the wall through a stencil that acts as an intermediate screen and hangs by threads in front of the light source, a projection of found footage and home movies.”

This is language anticipating the experience of art and trailing in the wake of that experience. But 5 years later, I can at least read this old document and faintly remember having seen this work, wondering what it was about.


Stray Cats

Last week on Canal Street I saw a Chinese woman get arrested for selling knock-off designer handbags. Looking on vacantly with wide-eyed shock and fright, she was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police cruiser. This woman, clearly a new immigrant from China, is part of a large, complex knock-off luxury goods system in the Chinatown/Soho area that caters primarily to American and European tourists.

The next day, business continued unimpeded as if the arrest ever happened; that woman lost and potentially forgotten in the system. Further north on Grand Street, I frequently pass Spanish and French tourists carrying multiple bags from the myriad retail chains on Broadway back to their hotel rooms. Tourism and shopping are close cousins, contemporary activities basic to middle class life across the world.

The art world has awkwardly tried to tailgate on this actuality, chasing around tourist money with art fairs and biennals in every corner of the world. Dealers, artists, curators, critics and collectors flock to Miami this time every year hoping that living it up next to the beach might propel art sales and provide a career boost. Museums also feel compelled to lure tourist audiences with exhibitions that sometimes feel like decorative installations in shopping malls or amusement parks. Check out the latest from the Guggenheim and New Museum.

Museums are like stray cats after thanksgiving, tearing apart any trash bag at night to find the leftover carcass of a bland-tasting bird. If a little mouse runs by, they’ll forget about the ravaged turkey and try to chase that down instead.


Driving in New York

It’s a cliche that driving in New York City requires patience. After more than seven years of having a car here, I’ve learned that what’s more important is actually having a stern conviction to your core principals of the road. For instance, if you believe that you should always go north on 1st Avenue instead of 3rd Avenue to get to the Queensborough / 59th Street Bridge because past experience has proven a high probability of congestion around 42nd and 57th Streets, then always stick to that strategy. Here are other codes for cruising the grid:

When going crosstown east to west in the morning, use 34th Street. When going west to east, use 23rd Street. When going crosstown on either, always know which avenues are going uptown and downtown and avoid turn lanes ahead of time. For instance, traffic on 7th Avenue is one-way downtown. Therefore, when going east on 23rd, always be in the left lane when approaching 7th Avenue to avoid all the cars waiting for pedestrians as they try to turn right onto 7th. If driving to Flushing, Queens from Brooklyn or Manhattan, always take the Brooklyn / Queens Expressway (BQE) to the Grand Central Parkway (GCP) and avoid the Long Island Expressway (LIE). Never go uptown on 8th Avenue or downtown on 9th Avenue if you’re passing Port Authority (41st Street). These are just a few of my basic tenets.

There is an internal logic to the city that can’t be tricked and the principals of the road can usually be banked on, except during the late spring to summer when street fairs close off blocks upon blocks to motorized traffic causing ripple-effect jams far away. The next time you’re on the outer roadway of the Queensborough bridge, beating the congested traffic on the inner roadway, glance to your right and you’ll see why you can only trick the system with the wisdom.