Uptown: It’s a historical legacy stretching back to the Harlem Renaissance; a zone in social and economic flux; and, at the psychic hinge of these forces, a state of mind. It’s also the name of a brand-new triennial initiated and hosted by the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, with a linked exhibition at El Museo del Barrio and related programs across Upper Manhattan. The artists — among them market champions like Julie Mehretu, key elders such as Maren Hassinger and Nari Ward, and many less familiar names — live or work in this territory, defined here as north of 99th Street.
The event’s inception is hardly neutral to the changes in the landscape. The Wallach has just moved from its stately suite deep in Columbia’s main campus to the Lenfest Center for the Arts, one of a thicket of shiny buildings the university is putting up in far west Harlem, between the Manhattanville housing projects and the Riverside Drive viaduct. This complicates the triennial with political stakes: it is not only a celebration of area artists, but the initiative of an institution whose campus extension, including the building that hosts the show, has been criticized as an agent of displacement. But Uptown is also a serious cultural investment, built to recur, with a range of local museums, schools, and galleries as partners; this inaugural edition rises, in the main, to its own challenge.
Architecturally, the centerpiece of the new gallery is a massive window that offers a wide view of the area — an urban mélange, with construction-in-progress in the foreground, and in the distance the rise of Riverside Park. The view pulls the city into the gallery; the air of kinship with the new Whitney Museum — which likewise weaves the visual experience of the cityscape into the museum visit — is no coincidence, as both buildings were designed by the Italian master Renzo Piano.
The vista necessarily engages the work that is placed in its frame. An altered Puerto Rican flag hangs in the window; artist Miguel Luciano has changed its colors to the red, black, and green of Black liberation — the move David Hammons famously applied to the American flag, as seen at the Studio Museum. On the floor, a large piece by Ward turns a liquor store’s vintage neon sign into a bed of artificial flowers, dotted with shoe tips and laces. An eerie installation by Leeza Meksin lines up parallel hanging panels and pouches that mix rugged materials — plastic sheets, netting, electrical wire, latex gloves — with fragile ones, like patterned fabric and what looks like hair. Against the evolving cityscape, these works invoke past and future constructions — of buildings, of identities — in a time of morbid pragmatism and residual defiance.
Uptown was never just one artistic community or set of concerns. The twenty-five artists here are a lively mix of stalwarts and recent arrivals, some with a documentary impulse, others with more oblique methods. John Pinderhughes, a longtime member of the Black photography collective Kamoinge, has for decades made black-and-white photo portraits of Harlem friends and neighbors; ten of these, made between 1982 and this year, connect their subjects — many of them elderly — across time in a shared, dignified style. Above them courses a new sculptural piece by Hassinger, the Black feminist and experimentalist who came to prominence in the late Seventies; she has hand-written “Fight the Power” on dozens of sheets of newsprint, then crumpled and tied them with twine, the text no longer legible, into sheaf-like bundles that run along the top of the wall like a frieze. Five recent works by another elder, Ademola Olugebefola, are abstract studies in vivid color and vaguely topographical, spontaneous shapes.
Among other works, Alicia Grullón’s new video performance stands out. The artist spent time at the senior center in the nearby Grant Houses public housing complex; she enacts stories the residents told her, mixing video of life at the center with archival images relevant to their tales. Also brand-new, a 360-degree video installation by Bayeté Ross Smith allows the viewer to toggle around a situation perfect for the format: a hip-hop circle (or cypher), in which a mixed-gender crew of rappers trade rhymes and encouragements in a Harlem park. An installation by José Morales, the East Harlem painter and printmaker, is particularly effective: In 1977, while teaching art on Rikers Island, he found a trove of Polaroid backs, detritus from police lineup shots of incarcerated youths, who appear, inverted and faded, holding their numbered signs. Morales waited until 2015 to make the work; its ghostly expression of the continuity of mass incarceration and disposability of lives of color is devastating.
The vision of upper-Manhattan art that “Uptown” proposes is loose, engaging, and bodes well for future editions. Still, there is some awkwardness. Confronting the visitor at the gallery’s entrance is a pair of large canvases by Reza Farkondeh that weave, amid a floral motif, the text, in French and in English, of an email that the artist received from a friend in France. “I am fearful of the young women who hide themselves in veils,” the writer says in part. It is not the most welcoming message in Harlem, where the hijab is common among Black and immigrant Muslims. If this work’s placement feels like a faux pas, the more structural concern is how the new Wallach, for all its light-filled openness, still perches on the sixth floor of a institutional complex. One wishes the university had put the gallery at street level; neighborhood access still feels rationed, reluctant.
At El Museo del Barrio, another show, the largest of “Uptown” ’s associated programs, occupies the ground-floor gallery (alongside the extraordinary retrospective of the late Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón; the two exhibitions make for a good pairing). This one, with thirty-two artists, is subtitled “nasty women/bad hombres,” a moniker, drawn from the parlance of last year’s presidential campaign, that focuses the work on gender, race, and the current political predicament. Fake News, one of three mixed-media pieces by Darío Oleaga, is on theme: A collage of old New York Times front pages (for instance, from when the Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972), Instagram printouts, and archival photos and illustrations, it pixelates today’s debates across time and channels of expression. Ritual, a video-based installation by Aya Rodríguez-Izumi, films a friend, actor Lynnese Page, speaking on life concerns large and small as a barber cuts her hair; the camera lovingly captures the methodical process, while Page invokes the protection of the saints for her mother, who is fighting an illness.
A display of six photographic prints by Rubén Natal-San Miguel is also starkly affecting. Made last February during a visit to family in Puerto Rico, they are part of a series that documents the material and psychic effect of the territory’s deep (and underreported, on the mainland) financial crisis. A shuttered hotel, a house’s for-sale sign beneath a votary image of Jesus, a woman behind the bar she has tended for thirty-five years: All are shot in intense light and vivid color — the artist notes the temperatures, in the high eighties — that translate an economic unraveling into a bleak, tropical stillness.
“Uptown” runs all summer at the Wallach, and into the fall at El Museo, with associated events across area institutions including the Harlem School for the Arts, the Schomburg Center, and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling. It is a snapshot taken in an ambiguous time, when the area’s cultural distinctiveness feels under severe threat in some places — for instance, hyper-gentrifying southwest Harlem, down the hill from Columbia — and unbothered in others. Being a recurring event, “Uptown” will offer the chance to take stock of this scene in artistic terms, as well as to recalculate, every three years, the effect of its own implications.
“Uptown” is at the Wallach Art Gallery through August 20; information on the triennial at columbia.edu/cu/wallach. “Uptown: nasty women/bad hombres” is at El Museo del Barrio through November 5; information at elmuseo.org.