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No Longer Empty's If You Build It: art with community built-in

Broadway Housing Coalition artist's mural, third flood, If You Build It
Broadway Housing Coalition artist's mural, third flood, If You Build It
Audra Lambert

No Longer Empty exhibition If You Build It

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A good crowd on opening night can make it hard to literally get your foot in the door, but also generally serves as a vote of confidence for a new exhibit.

In the case of No Longer Empty's opening night of art exhibition If You Build It, make that overwhelming confidence.

The outpouring of support was evident in the line out the door on opening night of If You Build It, a site-specific group art exhibit located at the Sugar Hill building in West Harlem. Celebrating their fifth year of programming, No Longer Empty partnered with community agencies to display the artworks on view across the third and ninth floors of the Sugar Hill Building, a new affordable housing development located at 155th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue in West Harlem, New York City. Artists and spectators alike flooded the building, peeking into future apartments-turned-gallery space for a glimpse of the multi-level exhibition's offerings. 22 artists are on view as part of the show including Radcliffe Bailey, Carlos Mare, Dread Scott and Hank Willis Thomas, representing a wide range of cultural backgrounds and artistic practices. Works were specifically created for the site and related to the idea of building both in a literal sense (architecture, design) and figurative sense (society and the local community.) Themes relating to the Sugar Hill neighborhood, specifically, also played a part in shaping the artwork on view.

The selection of participating artists and works on view were wide-ranging but managed to comfortably complement and intersect throughout the space. While electricity blackouts on the third floor dimmed the experience (while also encouraging an interactive element among spectators!), the ninth floor was a harmonious symphony of mostly large-scale art that communicated cultural history and encouraged spectators to question many widely held beliefs on architecture and communities. A frequent recurrence was the dissembling of a whole into its component parts, and how those parts then fit into the general structure. This concept revealed itself in works by Dread Scott, Radcliffe Bailey, Scherezade Garcia, and Aziz + Cucher. Works by all of these artists showed singular members either as part of or separated from the community as a whole, allowing the viewer to live a singular, fragmented experience often quite different from their own personal life experience. Dread's piece Stop consisted of videos depicting young black males speaking about their experiences being stopped for questioning by authorities, showed how members of disparate communities (one group from the US, one from the UK) found themselves experiencing similar situations. Aziz + Cucher's digital animations in Time of the Empress (Trio) confront the individual vs. whole concept from a solidly architectural standpoint, allowing a tripartite of buildings being constructed and deconstructed to mark the passage of time in a civilization as it rises and declines. Another architectural construction, Jamison, Brendan & Mark Revels' ground floor miniature scale city of sugar cubes, Sugar Metropolis, offers viewers the chance to explore ideas of future cities: how they are constructed and how they have evolved from our present-day edifices. Perhaps the most evocative work in the exhibition, Radcliffe Bailey's half-room installation work Windward Coast depicts a man's head rising from a sea of broken piano keys piled haphazardly together, perhaps in reference to slaves shipwrecked during the Middle Passage on their way to the new world. Sugar Hill's presence as a center focal point during the Harlem Renaissance is touched on in many works, such as Bailey's Pensive sculpture of African-American leader W.E.B. du Bois, as well as the idea of immigration in general, such as in Scherezade Garcia's inflated rubber tire tubes spray painted in gold pays homage to lives of immigrants as they arrive at their new destination, symbolized by airport logos attached to the tubes themselves.

If You Build It aspires to build on a stable of emerging and established artists' work as it coalesces ideas around community building and structure. It succeeds on every level (literally and figuratively) as an exhibit capturing the human condition while aptly representing the physical need to build and construct, both our own individual identities and those spaces in which our communities physically evolve and materialize.

The show is on view through August 10, 2014, open to visitors Thursdays and Fridays from 3 pm-7pm and Saturdays and Sundays 1 pm- 6 pm. On view Wednesdays by appointment and closed July 4-6 for the holidays.