- Manal Abu-Shaheen
- Vahap Avşar
- Jesus Benavente and Felipe Castelblanco
- Brian Caverly
- Kerry Downey
- Magali Duzant
- Golnaz Esmaili
- Mohammed Fayaz
- Kate Gilmore
- Jonah Groeneboer
- Bang Geul Han and Minna Pöllänen
- Dave Hardy
- Sylvia Hardy
- Shadi Harouni
- Janks Archive
- Robin Kang
- Kristin Lucas
- Carl Marin
- Eileen Maxson
- Melanie McLain
- Shane Mecklenburger
- Lawrence Mesich
- Freya Powell
- Xiaoshi Vivian Vivian Qin
- Alan Ruiz
- Samita Sinha and Brian Chase
- Barb Smith
- Monika Sziladi
- Alina Tenser
- Trans-Pecos with 8 Ball Community, E.S.P. TV, and Chillin Island
- Mark Tribe
- Sam Vernon
- Max Warsh
- Jennifer Williams
- An Itinerary with Notes
- Exhibition Views
- A Distant Memory Being Recalled (Queens Teens Respond)
- Overhead: A Response to Kerry Downey’s Fishing with Angela
- Sweat, Leaks, Holes: Crossing the Threshold
- PULSE: On Jonah Groeneboer’s The Potential in Waves Colliding
- Interview: Melanie McLain and Alina Tenser
- Personal Space
- Data, the Social Being, and the Social Network
- Responses from Mechanical Turk
- MAPS, DNA, AND SPAM
- Queens Internacional 2016
- Uneven Development: On Beirut and Plein Air
- A Crisis of Context
- Return to Sender
- Interview: Vahap Avşar and Shadi Harouni
- Mining Through History: The Contemporary Practices of Vahap Avşar and Shadi Harouni
- A Conversation with Shadi Harouni's The Lightest of Stones
- Directions to a Gravel Quarry
- Walk This Way
- Interview: Brian Caverly and Barb Smith
- "I drew the one that has the teeth marks..."
- BEAT IT! (Queens Teens respond)
- Lawn Furniture
- In Between Difference, Repetition, and Original Use
- Interview: Dave Hardy and Max Warsh
- Again—and again: on the recent work of Alan Ruiz
- City of Tomorrow
- Noticing This Space
- NO PLACE FOR A MAP
- The History of the World Was with Me That Night
- What You Don't See (Queens Teens Respond)
- Interview: Allison Davis and Sam Vernon
- When You’re Smiling…The Many Faces Behind the Mask
- Interview: Jesus Benavente and Carl Marin
- The Eternal Insult
- Janking Off
- Queens Theatricality
Excerpted from a conversation between curator and writer Allison Davis and Sam Vernon, participating artist in Queens International 2016
Sam Vernon: Louis Armstrong was an incredible person but I had a relationship to him that I think was much like other people—he's an icon. He was a celebrity. He broke racial barriers. I think that his artwork is what really brought me into his personhood, from the surface of him into his world. He was obsessed with his own life. He recorded his voice all the time. Those reels, the boxes that they're kept in, are where the collages are. The collages are on top of the box covers.
Most of the images that are in [this book] you'll see that it's an autobiographical journey. Some of the collages are really strange. There's no connection to him or his network but they're just ads or clips from stories. He was really into this diuretic for a while. He used to collage that into his work. That's his den with all of his collages. This is what really inspired my piece because he would put all of his collages on the walls of his den. He really wanted his collages to surround him. Then his wife forced him to take everything down because she said it was tacky. In a way it was an installation. I don't know if he saw it that way but when I saw the picture I thought of it that way.
Allison Davis: How did you become the discoverer of Louis Armstrong's work yourself? It sounds like you became very interested in him as a person and as an artist outside of his music and his iconography.
I had an idea that got completely interrupted in the process of doing this for the Queens Museum. I had a completely different concept for the wall originally. I recently moved to Flushing and wherever I live I really try to figure out the history of where I'm living. I come to find out that there was this jazz exhibit at Flushing Town Hall. I saw the photo of him in his den and it hit me so hard because I felt like that was me on that ladder doing what I do.
Then I completely jumped into the research and I discovered that all of his collages, for the most part, are kept in an archive at Queens College. Unfortunately, they haven't gotten that much exposure.
Then what happened? You saw it, you're like, "This is amazing. I have to comment on this."
So Queens International is supposed to be about artists living and working in Queens, right? When I discovered this gem and that his house in Corona was turned into a museum and there was all this history that I was unaware of about his work and his life, I decided to just make that the theme of the piece and it completely changed the direction.
When somebody comes and looks at your wall what are they looking at?
They're looking at what I would say is a loose sort of homage. I could never encompass the decades and decades of time it took Louis to make his work but I think the sheer scale of the wall and a similar process of engagement that I saw of him in that picture in his den is supposed to be a conceptual link between how I approach collage and how he approaches it. Which is deeply personal. I'm using images that I've drawn from my life, different photos, notes, just like he was.
What's the picture that you chose?
One of the key ones was this quote that says like, "I cut and I paste, and I go home with my fingers blackened by newsprint is...the blood of the world.” Referencing all these things that have to do with global news and humanness when you're dealing with the sorts of materials that he and I deal with. I have some handwritten notes, and he also did a lot of writing too. It's important to me to have text in there about how I was feeling, what I was going through. More diaristic things. It's very abstract. It's all abstract.
Were there any surprises for you during the process and practice of making this particular work?
Big surprise. I started using color.
Where did that come from?
I felt compelled. Louis was always saying how he wanted all of the work that he did to be about happiness. Did you know that he used to smoke every day? He smoked weed like every day.
I think the reality is that he smoked because he had to deal with so much shit. He was such an amazing master of his work but he had to deal with all the racism and people trying to not pay him enough, not acknowledge his genius. It became clear to me that there was no way that I could do him any justice by creating a black and white installation.
And for me, there was just a point in my life and my practice where I was like, "I cannot do another black and white presentation." There is still black and white in there but the more I learned about Louis and the more I was feeling about where I was in my own life, I could not do a black and white piece.
That's huge. This is like a seminal point in your evolution I feel like. Everything I know of your work is black, white, or gray.
Yeah, it's all been in the gray scale. Absolutely. I was trying to say that black and white was like the way we use language, “like everything is so black and white” In reality, everything is in the middle. Everything is so gray. We usually don't completely understand why things are the way they are. It was a way for me to also see things clearly.
I come from a photography background and using black and white film in the darkroom. There's a lot of overlapping points about thinking that black and white and gray were the only ways that you could really express clarity but at the same time confusion around messaging. If you think about it, a book might have white pages and black letters on top, at any time, and this is what we're conditioned to understand and how we read the world. I was thinking visually that could be an important and easy way to carry a sense our urgency around my images. Black and white, direct, gray, cloudy.
Why do you use art to do that? Why not write a book? Why not print someone an article and say, "Here, you should know more about Louis Armstrong." Why take over a wall at a museum?
It's a scale and time thing. It's the way our bodies relate to an environment and the way I can hold the book and read it in the time that it takes to do that is very different from an engaging 14- by 50-foot wall and being like, "What is this about?" I think art can potentially be an all-encompassing visual experience. I'm trying to use the architecture of the space and the conditioning of the space so that viewers are entering into whatever I've created because it's larger than themselves. You know what I mean?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Is this the biggest space that you've ever used? Can you talk about what it means to have this whole space? I feel like the space almost becomes a medium.
No, the biggest one was in Seattle. That was like a whole building. Yeah, I try to do that obviously. It was suggested actually. One of my mentors who has passed, Robert Reed, love him. He was in America Is Hard to See at the Whitney. He was a great painter. Very much a painter invested in formal concerns. Very different practices, he and I, but he said, "Why don't you go to school for architecture? You'll probably try to do that next."
At the time I was in grad school but I was just like ... For me, it's more about specificity. If I were to do something in this space for example, I would try to sit with it as long as possible to see what could be done to transform the space, undeniably transform the space so that a viewer was drawn in. Compelled to engage. For me, it feels like an invitation. It's an interruption but it's also an invitation to be included into a conversation about the work when you are able to create these specific large things.
What's the best compliment you've ever received?
"Sam, you're fearless."
That's a good one.
That was cool.
You did this before but it was off the record. Can you speak about the book that you selected for the influence portion of the show?
Oh, yeah, yeah. Claudia Rankine's Citizen. It's probably one of the only books that I've read in recent years that is super honest and at the same time poetic about what it means to be a black woman in this country with access to the ivory tower experience and moves about in the world in a pedestrian fashion and still encounters on every level aggression and how she is able to translate that into words and how that aggression manifests in her and how she deals with it. It's so powerful.
What does it all mean?
I used to think that having this sort of black-and-white political agenda about being in the world is...I was very angry. I know it doesn't seem like it because I'm usually smiling and like, "Hey, what's up, guys?" But I was dealing with a lot of pain and anger and all these things and the work is like super…in its own way confrontational. How I'm changing and emerging out of that to say, yes, there is still a level of immediacy and urgency that I want to express but then I want to be more focused on my own joy. I listen and or read Audre Lorde's essay on the power of the erotic every week. It's erotic meaning my deepest feelings and desires and how that translates into joy is a primary point of departure for the work now.
As much joy as I can maintain as possible. That's what it means to me right now. Being in my garden, going to see other gardens, thinking about Alma Thomas and how she thinks about color. Or how she thought about color.
Allison Davis is currently the Associate Artistic Director of the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn. As the daughter of an artist and gallery director, contemporary art has always been a way of life. She has written, produced, and curated across the platforms of exhibition space, television, stage, film, public radio, documentary, commercial broadcast, magazines, and blogs. She holds a BA in Visual and Media Arts from Emerson College and, through a departmental fellowship, an MFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in Dramatic Writing. www.itsallisondavis.com