NOBUTAKA AOZAKISmiley Bag Portrait, 2011, participatory performance. Courtesy and copyright the artist. Photo by Xiaotian Yang.

NOBUTAKA AOZAKISmiley Bag Portrait (detail), 2011, participatory performance. Courtesy and copyright the artist. Photo by Xiaotian Yang.

Crossing Brooklyn

Brooklyn Museum

“Crossing Brooklyn,” currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum until early January 2015, comprises a curious mixture of over 100 works by 35 Brooklyn-based artists. While the exhibition does not have a tight, binding theme, there is a general focus on artworks that are—according to curators Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley—“engaged with the world.”

For Smiling Bag Portrait (2011– ), Nobutaka Aozaki draws sidewalk portraits of willing participants using a plastic bag printed with a yellow smiley face as a template and a black sharpie as his sole sketching tool. Though the process is interactive, the artist has the only say on how his models are portrayed in the final work. For the exhibition, a drawing station has been installed at the museum, where visitors are invited to sit for a free portrait by Aozaki during scheduled time slots. For Aozaki, who is a Japanese national, the use of the smiley-faced plastic bag often associated with Asian take-out restaurants in the United States—as well as his adoptive role as a sidewalk caricature artist, who are also predominantly Asian—is an interesting take on the Asian-American community. Based on a video installed adjacent to the portrait station, many of his past sitters look quite pleased with their portraits, perhaps amazed by Aozaki’s ability to depict their uniqueness despite having just a generic smiley face to work off of as a base.

A much more compelling piece by Aozaki is From Here to There (Brooklyn Museum) (2014), a compilation of scraps of paper with notes and drawings written by passersby, whom Aozaki had asked to give directions to the Brooklyn Museum. As part of the project, Aozaki asked multiple people to illustrate their directions, which he then assembled together to create a large map of the area around the museum. Memory, rumors and personal experiences of various people creep into this work, prompted by the artist simply asking for directions. There is something poignant and benevolent about these scraps—it is an exercise in recollection, for the drawer of the maps, and also trust, as the one asking for directions is dependent on the knowledge and memory of a total stranger.

YUJI AGEMATSUTable Work, 07-01-12 . . . 07-31-14, 2012–14, mixed media (street-collected objects, detritus, etc. pinned to Fome-Cor, installed on wooden table). Courtesy the artist and Real Fine Arts.

The artist collective Tatlo also uses public participation in The Department of Accumulated Thoughts (2013– ), where the group’s three members diligently collect data and information about a city’s residents, almost as though they were government workers on a municipal assignment. The performative installation is comprised of a portable cubicle made of translucent corrugated sheets, paper surveys and plastic furniture, all of which the artists bring out to the streets to use for their data collecting. Tatlo organized a Brooklyn edition of the project for “Crossing Brooklyn,” which displays documentation and archival material of the work. Yet the most significant aspect of the piece—the intervention and disruption in the flow of urban space and time, through the act of conversing and questioning—seemed to be missing in the museum’s installation. Documenting such projects is challenging; and Tatlo’s work seems neither to be about the performance nor about the result of its surveys—a sort of unresolved in-between.

Yuji Agematsu’s Table Work, 07-01-12…07-31-14 (2012–14) is a beautiful collection of grotesque, useless and sometimes unrecognizable waste materials, such as dust tangled with hair, dried gum, a piece of drenched cigarette, and so on. These are pinned delicately to sheets of white foam board, which are installed on a wooden table—handled with the kind of care that these bits of debris do not seem to deserve. The display makes one want to revoke his or her opinion about such cast-off materials, and realize how even these non-objects contain individual stories about urban life.

YOKO INOUENós, 2011–12, fabric chains, ceramics, photographs, 35mm slides, projectors. Courtesy the artist.

Yoko Inoue’s Nos (2011–12) are chains made of fabric pieces from the clothes of local people in the Brazilian state of Bahia, which she obtained in exchange for ice cream. The chains refer back to Japanese peasant women in the 1960s, who chained themselves to trees and fences to protest the construction of the Tokyo-Narita airport near their local villages. The individual links and chains of Nos are meticulously crafted, though the manner in which they are installed in the exhibition do not seem to follow an apparent logic. While the historical context of the piece is moving, it is hard to think of these chains as being linked to the notion of protest. Though the slide projection accompanying the installation, which shows images from the Japanese protest, may help bridge that gap, the two parts feel unrelated to one another.

Setting out to curate a group exhibition based on a single locale is a difficult, if not impossible, task from the get-go. So perhaps presenting Brooklyn-based artists as a social and outward-facing community felt like a broad but good starting point for this overdue survey of the borough’s art scene by its own local institution. While the curation and execution is at times problematic, “Crossing Brooklyn” is not lacking in individual works and artists that warrant attention. If viewed simply as a means to introduce to artists working in Brooklyn, the exhibition serves as a useful survey.

“Crossing Brooklyn” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, until January 4, 2015.