The New York art scene is famous for its alternative, underground character. But the city is also home to various initiatives aimed at making art accessible – as an entertainment form and as an activity – to a wider proportion of the public. I met up with two New York artists changing the role of art through such projects to discuss their respective projects’ structures, experiences of participation, and the social significance of their art within the gritty realities of New York life.
Collage artist Sally Gil meets me in a small Brooklyn coffee shop, a warm escape from the slapping December snow outside. Huddled at a corner table, we chat about her contribution to the subway art project, MTA Arts & Design, overseen by the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA). It involved the commissioning and installation of mosaics by various artists on subway station platforms – a more official answer to earlier subway artists such as Keith Haring, conveying equally important social messages. In a climate of rapid gentrification, Sally’s work is a timely celebration of the city as a melting pot of immigrant communities, in a form universally accessible to users of its famous subway.
She explains that the space-like vibe is intentional – but as an external observer, I didn’t recognise the work as also deeply homely for local viewers, I say. Sally nods. ‘Yeah. It’s for them.
Installed at the N-Line station Avenue U in Brooklyn’s Gravesend area (assigned Sally by the project), the work – named ‘Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky’ – depicts various cultural signifiers specific to the neighbourhood, against a part-black, part-blue backdrop evocative of outer space. I went to see the artwork before our meeting, and whilst struck by its vibrance, I failed to see beyond this space-cartoon aesthetic. But when I show Sally the photo of the work, she points out its very Earth-based references representing the various local communities, including a Chinese custard cookie, an indigenous wigwam, an Islamic centre, a Mexican dahlia, and the station itself. ‘So if you’re somewhere and you see these symbols, you think: wait, what did I just see?’ Going through these objects with Sally changes my perspective. She explains that the space-like vibe is intentional – but as an external observer, I didn’t recognise the work as also deeply homely for local viewers, I say. Sally nods. ‘Yeah. It’s for them.
‘I love the idea that you can recognise yourself in art… you walk by things a million times not really seeing them, and then suddenly you see yourself.’ Sally explains the spatial symbolism underlying the inversion of her pieces on each platform: ‘When you’re going to work, the sky is blue, it’s daytime… and when you’re coming home it’s the night sky.’ Some of the objects are placed between Earth and sky: ‘We’re perched between day and night, living our lives, but there’s so much more outside, that’s what the paintings are about. Life is so much bigger than your daily life.’
Subway art is much more financially accessible than art in galleries or museums, I remark. Sally agrees: ‘You can make art for a museum and a tiny proportion of the population will actually see it. But on the subway, anyone can see it.’
And is that how art should be? ‘Yeah, keeping people company. I wanted to give people something to look at while waiting.’
The artwork was created by a Mexican company which Sally chose, sticking closely to her clearly envisioned design. ‘I was much more involved than most people…I was very particular about colour, sheen, tile size. I went to Mexico for three days, then conferred via WhatsApp. They sent images; I made alterations. My time there made for an essential working rapport.’
Did she have a sketch? ‘I made original artworks for each niche, which they used to make the mosaics – they’re total experts. We were back and forth on the computer. I could see it as it went along.’ Sally shows me pictures of the tiles being put together. ‘It was made in a giant glass factory. Then they shipped it in a truck, and installed it with an aluminium backing, bolted to a fiberglass shell fronting the cement walls.’
Sally assures me that most of the company’s workers had worked there for years and seemed happy, which I find refreshing given the often extreme exploitation of workers in poorer countries by outsourcing companies. Do the companies get any credit? ‘Yeah. The plaque on the platform says the company name [as fabricator]. But it’s the artists’ idea…it’s really a collaboration.’
How did she feel seeing the final product? ‘Really happy. The first time I saw it [in Mexico] I cried…I was very moved. It was what I’d hoped for and more.’
I ask about the project’s application process. ‘You apply, and the finalists make proposals…then they choose five or six people. You make three boards showing your ideas, in the form they require…you get paid for it; it’s a very long process. I went out to the neighbourhood about five times taking pictures in winter.’ Sally shows me photographs of her collages featuring similar objects to the mosaics, including the custard cookie and some drawers from a Chinese apothecary store.
with activist art…you’re often preaching to the choir. [Whereas] I’m acting locally. If I’m gonna help the world, I want to help people in my local realm.
She has riskier experience with public art: painting a mural on the construction wall near her studio, which she felt was ‘calling to be painted. The police came and told me to stop a couple times. I’d say “okay” and carry on after they left. And that was there for years…I did it slowly. There was a halfway house of people in the neighbourhood [that may have been drunk] and would come and talk to me.’
Does Sally consider her art a form of activism? ‘New York [has always had] activist artists. I met one artist helping the environment by hiring people to put art on trees, so the tree is an artwork and you can’t chop it down, which I really liked. But with activist art…you’re often preaching to the choir. [Whereas] I’m acting locally. If I’m gonna help the world, I want to help people in my local realm.’ And those people may not hold progressive views, but art might give them a new perspective, I say. Sally agrees: ‘Yes. It might make them curious, think, maybe just brighten their day.’
Find out more about Sally and her work on her website. (currently incomplete)
More information about MTA Arts & Design can be found on the MTA website.
Featured image: Ananya Wilson Bhattacharya
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