Long Island City serves up art and some local charm

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If you haven’t been to Long Island City (LIC), the mix of highrises and empty warehouses may appear less than welcoming. However, a few hours in the Queens neighborhood can quickly change the mind. Having only visited a handful of times, I find more to keep me on the other side of the Queensboro Bridge each trip I take. Saturday’s stop for a performance at SculptureCenter led me back to one of the best converted art spaces in New York—a trolley repair shop renovated by Maya Lin. SculptureCenter — with upstairs galleries and a dungeon-like basement exhibition space — continues the tradition of featuring ground-breaking contemporary sculpture.

Yve Laris Cohen, performing in his installation in the basement of the Sculpture Center

I’m squeezed into a basement back corridor the size of a rowhouse grocer’s alley to view Yve Laris Cohen’s site-specific performance. In a doorway viewing portal between two puffy-coated ladies with thick Queens accents—”I can’t see a thing. Can you? Oh wait, I think it’s starting! Shhhh. Sorry, I think it’s starting” — I see Cohen perform his janitorial ballet and infuse the space with the trauma of his spinning motions that fail to avoid the rough stone walls along the corridor.

Takashi Horisaki work installed in one of the Center’s basement alcoves

At the end of his dance-concealed-as-labor, as he leans against the sweat-streaked wall, Cohen confesses the history of his installation through heaving breaths. Just as the narrow walls shape his movements, his installation has shaped the space, he says. Many artists effectively transform the basement’s dark caves into installation space or project their video work inside its tiny tunnels. The archway constraints limit the number of viewers who can enter a space at one time, providing the best vantage points for video of any gallery I’ve ever visited.

I’d stumbled into SculptureCenter last summer looking for directions to nearby Five Pointz, a factory overrun by aerosol artists from all over the world. Partially visible from the G train but best appreciated on the ground, make sure to take in the “graffiti Mecca” and support its cause the next time you’re in Queens. Uncertain if developers will destroy Five Pointz to provide more luxury condos for the encroaching Midtown crowd, artists nevertheless continue to update its tags and murals. This weekend I noticed a freshly completed Whitney Houston memorial, still wet on the concrete.

Darren Bader’s piece “cat made from crab meat” – Photo by Diana Jih

Sunday’s visit to MOMA’s contemporary satellite, PS1 provided art both irreverent and moving, like Darren Bader’s solo exhibition Images, which includes living or edible sculptures. The first two rooms feature abandoned animals he offers for adoption. The “cat who used to date Don Henley” (one of the whimsical titles given the cat pieces by the artist) is gone and will in a couple of weeks be replaced with another feline for visitors, who will experience its adorable sculptural tactility and purrs.

Darren Bader, “iguana and croissant” – Photo by Diana Jih

Next door, Bader’s “very old cat” or “iguana and croissant” await viewers under heat lamps, which keep both the lizard toasty and the croissant from going stale.

Darren Bader, “Chicken Burrito, Beef Burrito” – Photo by Diana Jih

Bob Dylan on loop lures you into a room that seems curiously bare until you look over your shoulder to read on the wall card “chicken burrito beef burrito” and see the pair stacked by the far window. If you still haven’t fallen for Bader’s clever wit, care for some sculptural salad? The veggies on view in another room get chopped into a meal for viewers to consume along with the art twice a week. In his artist’s statement, Bader explicitly tells you he doesn’t “want to sound so didactic” as he struggles to present art which he loves and to “find a home for it.” He’s an effortless showman, whose lack of agenda allows his ideas and genuine style to delight all audiences.

Surasi Kusolwong, “Golden Ghost” – Photo by Diana Jih

After running around PS1’s halls and getting tangled up searching for gold necklaces in “Golden Ghost (The Future Belongs to Ghosts),” a colorful pit of yarn designed by Surasi Kusolwong, I crossed the street to Court Square Diner, where I had dined once before. Its Kermit green décor and a mirrored-wall cityscape, including the local icon Silvercup Studios, line the leather booth I plop into. My favorite waitress, who insists her name is “Waitress,” serves up my warm brownie sundae with a side of syrupy nuts that she spackles on top. Her scratchy voice and don’t-give-a-damn-demeanor melt away as she stuffs a handful of red and gold wrapped bon bons and soft mints into my hands for the two-hour bus ride home.

Perfectly warmed brownie sundae – Photo by Diana Jih

Though Long Island City is a long way from Philly there are points of comparison. Between snarky “Waitress” and the fresh, unpretentious art found in alternative spaces, wudder never tasted so much like buttah.

Tags

court square diner, darren bader, long island city, maya lin, moma, ps1, sculpturecenter, surasi kusolwong, the sculpture center, yve laris cohen

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