Exploring money and hardship

"US Dollar Kites" and "Mao Dragon Kites," both by artist Erika Harrsch, hang above an exhibit hall for No Longer Empty's "How Much Do I Owe You?". Photo by Whitney Browne
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With a fresh perspective on creating and presenting art, No Longer Empty’s new Long Island City exhibit offers an escape from the ordinary.

Local and international, socially conscious artists from 15 countries have come together to make a statement about the exchange of money, economic hardship and debt. Their 26 works are currently featured in a progressive exhibition inspired by space and location — “How Much Do I Owe You?” — that runs through March 13.

Apropos to its location, the nonprofit arts organization No Longer Empty’s current art installation showcases large-scale abstract creations, aesthetically displayed in the clock tower section of LIC’s former Bank of Manhattan building. The site at 29-27 41st Ave. (Queens Plaza North, just across from the Dutch Kills Green) has been unoccupied since the mid-1980s.

What makes these exhibits different from all others is the concept of using unconventional, vacant and easily accessible public spaces throughout the city to enrich art-deprived communities with site-specific, contemporary artwork. Everything from sound installations and participatory projects to large-scale sculptures are featured in dynamic urban spaces.

Manon Slome, the curator of “How Much Do I Owe You?” and a former curator at the Guggenheim Museum, described the Dec. 12 launch event as “a tremendous success, with over 1,200 visitors. We have averaged around 70 a day. School groups have been coming, and what is really great is that lots of high school students are coming into the exhibition after school.”

The changing nature of Long Island City seems to fit perfectly into NLE’s creative undertaking, demonstrating how the power of art can further revitalize an area. And wherever its “hub” travels, local businesses have benefited from the increased flow of residents and new visitors to its exhibition attractions — seemingly, a win-win situation for all involved.

No Longer Empty has a clever way of connecting to local communities and engaging the public via its cultural/e­ducational programming. Vis-à-vis today’s art world status quo, their innovative thinking presents a compelling alternative to museums and art galleries.

Teaming up with NLE, Slome brings together emerging and established artists seeking to expand their practice through site-commissioned work. “I have curated 12 of the 14 exhibitions that NLE has done over three years,” she says.

Slome says the nonprofit started “as a response to the economic collapse that not only left hundreds of vacated spaces throughout the city, as businesses failed, but also revealed the emptiness or hollowness that had been at the heart of the economic bubble to begin with.

“The current exhibition, ‘How Much Do I Owe you?’ offers us the opportunity to look into the notion of debt in financial terms, but also in the broader sense of social debt, and what is our obligation to each other in the myriad roles we all assume,” she explained.

Several local artists are excited about sharing their creative messages with visitors.

Among them is Colleen Ford, 30, who lives and works in her Brooklyn studio. Her piece, titled “Saving For Our Futures,” was chosen for the exhibit by Slome and the NLE team after they paid a visit to her studio several months ago.

“‘How Much Do I Owe You?’ is a show that aims to engage the surrounding community by revealing the grasp that monetary culture has on all of us,” said Ford. “My work reflects the theme of the show quite well, actually. If there was ever a show that my work was meant to be in, this would be it.”

Ford’s creation consists of 10 hand-blown glass piggy banks, filled with lost lottery tickets she had played. “Most of my work tends to be expressed through sculpture. However, I work in whatever medium I think is most appropriate for the concept of the work itself,” she said, adding, “Most of what I work on revolves around ideas of aspiration, the American Dream and failure.

“My piece plays on the emotions we tie to the symbol of saving (the glass piggy bank), and also the emotions we tie to the fantasy of winning and luck (the lost lottery tickets). Saving lost lottery tickets adds a tinge of humor to the pathetic aspiration of holding on to the idea of ‘winning it big,’” she said.

Serving as director of public programs at Socrates Sculpture Park, LIC-based artist, Shaun Leonardo, 33, says he and his family came here as immigrants.

He believes the exhibit shows how artists can instigate capital, cultural and social exchange, and says his piece — an 11-by-11-foot abstract mural titled, “Self-Portrait (Charon)” — is based on a mythological afterlife scenario depicting one central figure, Charon, “crossing over.”

Leonardo related the immigrant experience in Queens to the ancient Greek legend, in which gold coins were placed over the eyes of the dead to allow passage into the afterlife; those who couldn’t pay would remain stranded in limbo for over 100 years.

“It’s the idea that you have to pay your way, even after a lifetime of difficulty and economic hardship,” he said.

NLE’s next exhibition will probably be on Staten Island. Then they will have been in all five boroughs.


“How Much Do I Owe You?”

The Clock Tower

29-27 41 Ave., L.I.C.


Thurs-Mon through Mar. 13, 2013

Hours: 1-7 p.m.

Updated 5:17 pm, January 29, 2013
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