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UnHomeless NYC

The Brooklyn RailJoseph Masheck, March 29, 2024

How many times have we rushed past the small non-commercial Hudson Guild Gallery, in a public housing project in Chelsea, on our way to some big-bucks exhibition? It now has a show on the theme of homelessness and housing, with works by well-known conceptual as well as unknown artists. If that sounds like something very good for somebody else to see, I have found it more critically stimulating than one might suppose.

The Hudson Guild itself (nothing to do with glitzoid Hudson Yards) is something like a 129-year old free-form settlement house, where normally amateur art is pursued as a social-service activity. Then again, this isn’t just another neighborhood, art-wise. Here, under Director of Arts Jim Furlong, the curators Maureen Connor, Jason Leggett, Tommy Mintz, Robert Robinson, and Midori Yamamora filled the modest space with works by Willie Baronet, Michael Corris, Elena Grachev, Martha Rosler, Hope Sandrow, Vicky Virgin, Sachigusa Yasuda, plus the collaboratives Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and CoHabitation Strategies.

This is by no means the first art exhibition to highlight homelessness, even apart from a more strictly architectural-design emphasis—in general, another ball of wax. Some such shows have had more or less the same seemingly non-institutional title. Intrinsic to this one was Martha Rosler’s largely photographic, but also constructed, mixed-media exhibit Timeline for Unhomeless NYC at Hudson Guild, dated 1989–present, including the ongoing history of her If You Lived Here…, an installation with an activist history of its own, shown in the USA and in many cities abroad. The title If You Lived Here… alludes to privileged US suburban living: billboards along highways or railroads saying, “If you lived here you would be home now,” but here applied ironically to those living on the street. Before, Rosler emphasized the problem (in historical extension of the slum photography of Thomas Annan and Jacob Riis); now there seems more of a thrust to solve it.

Large-looming as well as central to the overall concept here is We Are All Homeless (2022), attributed to Willie Baronet as, so to speak, its authorly collector-in-charge. It displays many inscriptional drawings made by homeless panhandlers on rectangular sides of corrugated boxes. The most frequent word, by far, is “help,” and the next is “hungry.” Individual subtleties have personally formal as well as expressively general interest—including the impulse, as emotionally constrained by the situation, to force a joke. If this weren’t an art gallery it might almost be cruel to be so detached, but I was drawn to a vertical piece using lowercase “l’s” in a stack of three words, as on a button: 

HElP
HElP
 ME.

The “I’s” are so arbitrary, since even people who confuse capitals and lower case write “L”—a wayward usage that might even satirize the current foolish design cliché of dotting upper-case “I’s.” It would be nice to know the name of the actual artist. (Baronet paid each artist, but perhaps with little time at a red light.) 

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