On a rainy Saturday afternoon, leaving a socially distanced meet up in a park with a friend, I found myself walking down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. From under my umbrella I saw a flash of color along the road. A bit larger than lifesize, a person’s outstretched neck, looking away, caught my eye. There was an almost languorous feel to their body, offset by a muscular arm, a bright punch of candy color on their shirt, the sense of late afternoon sun lit the image from within. Interrupting my dreary, strange day was a photograph, titled West New York, by Arielle Bob-Willis. This wasn’t in a gallery or a museum. It wasn’t in a virtual viewing space or a Zoom room. Rather, it was right there out on the street, part of the citywide exhibition Art on the Grid.
Earlier this spring, Public Art Fund, an independent non-profit arts organization, asked fifty emerging artists to create works in response to the pandemic and the social justice movement that burst forth into the country’s streets this spring. The works in the exhibition speak to the pressing, interconnected issues of systemic racism, instability, isolation, uncertainty, and the revitalizing power of communication, connection, and renewal. In inviting the artists to reflect on these times, the exhibition created a series of spaces and instances for New Yorkers to engage with and encounter art within their daily lives.
The return to a daily life that seemed reminiscent of what came before the pandemic has been a slow progression in New York. This depended on your position. Could you work from home? Were you an essential worker? Had you been laid off? Even for those still commuting, the daily routine was different: masked up, quieter. Much was said about essential services in the early days of lockdown, none seemingly more essential to the city than transit.
According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority subway ridership plunged to unheard of lows, down 60% from usual levels. Yet, bus ridership was slightly less affected. Perhaps because it offered a seeming sense of security—above ground, open windows, quick stops, New Yorkers flocked to bus routes. Throughout the summer, city residents encountered the artworks of Art on the Grid splashed across 500 JC Decaux bus shelters and over 1700 LinkNYC kiosks. The exhibition is now viewable on Public Art Fund’s website through a rich combination of maps, images, statements, and videos. As we move deeper into fall and second, if not third, waves of rising infection levels, it has never been more important to look at the ways in which artists and institutions have been navigating our new normal.
Towards the end of the summer, museums and galleries began to make tentative steps to reopen. Capacity was scaled back to 25 percent, online reservation systems were set up, specific hours were blocked off for members or those in risk groups, and temperature checks were enforced. The experience of viewing art seemed to offer two options, more screen time via virtual viewing rooms or an act of careful planning, scheduled, masked up, distanced, a regiment for safety. This was in stark contrast to how I came across the images of the Art on the Grid project, while moving through the city, in the open, spontaneously.
When I encountered a bus shelter featuring one of the works I was often overjoyed, as if I was taking part in a sprawling scavenger hunt; a burst of color or a significant message around the least expected corners. I found myself deeply affected by the happenstance quality of discovering these pieces. At times I consulted the map, at others I just went for a walk. The images that resonated most with me were those of people, more often than not couples, pairs, touching. Touch, so often taken for granted, now feels so deeply luxurious and so vital. The intimacy of the forms of closeness pictured felt both far away and near enough to set off the most intense nostalgia.
In Stephen Obisanya’s black and white photograph, AGAPE, a couple sit together, against each other, the casualness of their posture arresting in its intimacy. The image speaks to the importance of the bond between bodies. In speaking with Obisanya, he told me about the making of the image and how he was “fortunate to have stumbled upon this wonderful couple, Andy and Karina, whose quiet and tender summer moment in a park—the place which had quickly become a sanctuary and escape for many New Yorkers during the height of the lockdown—succinctly captured the times and spoke volumes that I couldn’t possibly place into words. No matter the crisis at hand, it was as clear then as it is now that empathy and meditations on interdependence signaled the way forward.” This mention of empathy and interdependence stays with me. These photographs that lived within the city over the summer served as sentinels marking the spaces where we bump up against each other.
A bus stop in Downtown Brooklyn displayed one of the most moving pairings of images that I have seen in recent memory. In D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ photograph, Undetectable, a masked couple kiss, their arms wrapped around each other, a visible puff of smoke drawing the eye. Across from it, framing the seats for passengers waiting to board the next bus, was Elizabeth Bick’s image B. Hawk Snipes and their Mother Mary Snipes, in which the subjects, in near embrace, face each other. B. Hawk Snipes’ raised hand holds a hair pick, their mother’s face slightly upturned towards them.
Bick has photographed B. Hawk and their mother for the past two years, stating that “I realized that I had not seen an image on a bus of a trans person with their mother, and I find B. Hawk and their mothers relationship to be a beautiful, trusting, and positive one. I thought by placing an image in public like this it will reinforce the positivity of their relationship and allow for another narrative to unfold.” These images of relationships, as well as of the experience of relating, are deep in their generosity, magnetic in their displays of care. Bick described in making the image, “I imagined the thoughts and emotions circulating internally of everyday New Yorkers who would be waiting for the bus when seeing this image. I wanted to counter this visual tone with something tender and warm, and use this opportunity to represent the unrepresented in our visual culture.”
As I continued to seek the artworks out on my trips around town, I began to weave the experience of looking at art more deeply into my daily life. On an early July morning, after a frazzled week of calling around to city government offices, navigating closures and Covid precautions, I went to see Andre D. Wagner’s black and white photograph, Old School, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn NY. In the photograph a basketball spins on the tip of a man’s finger, the mask he wears over his mouth doesn’t distract from the warmth of his eyes. Something about Wagner’s photograph tunnels directly into a sense of carefree summer, the flare of the sun beckons the viewer in. When I saw it I found my mood lifted, transported to another summer, one that felt possible, even easy to slip back into.
A paradise on a hill seems to radiate from Elliot Jerome Brown Jr.’s photograph Sound of the Rain. I longed for escape from the city this summer, just some form of short reprieve, a view, a horizon, something different than my present surroundings. When I saw the photograph on the street it was as if it beckoned to follow, to step into the image’s landscape. Oto Gillen’s photograph, Path, July 22, 2019, has a similar effect at first: a lush, green tunnel to somewhere unknown. Yet the longer I looked at it the longer I felt myself drifting between fantasy and unease. The image walks a line, asking for trust from the viewer. In Gillen’s statement, he speaks of the uncertainty inherent to the image but the draw to follow it no matter where it might lead, playing nicely off of the bus shelter as a point of departure in and of itself.
Art on the Grid offers a snapshot of the city amidst this historic point in time, a city that is alive no matter the circumstance, a place whose heart is worn on its sleeve. In viewing the myriad works, which encompass not only photographs but also collage, painting, infographics and beyond, I was reminded of the quiet power of art to stop us in our tracks, to give us the opportunity to experience something new, however fleeting, to co-exist within our day to day.
As Stephen Obisanya so thoughtfully told me, “There is such a beauty and power that public exhibitions hold, especially during times like these. There are conversations and internal dialogues that are prompted and stirred up in people as they navigate their daily commute… Considering the times, my state of mind when I made the photograph, and the genuine connection and exchange between myself and the couple, it’s possibly the most honest and transparent I’ve ever been with my work.”
Editor’s note: You can discover the inspirational and thought-provoking works that formed the exhibition Art on the Grid for yourself in an online version of the exhibition here.