Why did New York City become one of the centers of the world banking system? It started with shipping. Before Wall Street there was South Street, and this is where the ‘rise’ of New York City began. New York Harbor is, actually, the deepest harbor in the western hemisphere and it was easier to bring in huge cargos to South Street than it was to bring them to the other places along the coast. Indeed, you could bring the biggest ships in the world right up to land at NY Harbor (this was a huge advantage over other coastal cities).
Guys like John Jacob Astor (America’s first millionaire) used the harbor so effectively that they made a financial killing through world shipping trade. Soon these shipping magnates began developing banks where they could loan out their huge surplus earnings and then realized it was far easier to make money through banking than shipping. Astor built one of the first banks on Wall Street and other erstwhile traders soon followed. So shipping lead to banking and banking took root and took off as New York bankers began loaning to the world. Despite the huge harbor, the shipping scene became moribund. One lifestyle was lost and another was begun.
So you can think of New York City as being pre and post Wall Street. Indeed, before the banks on Wall Street there was a leisurely pace in lower Manhattan and the area was filled with small houses and rustic looking neighborhoods. The cemetery and grounds at Trinity Church sprawled through the neighborhood (Trinity was forced, over the years, to relinquish the land to businesses) and Trinity remains, to me, the chief symbol of New York as it was before it became a banking center.
Yet, as David McQueen reveals in his amazing show at Kim Foster Gallery, there are still 40 light houses to be found in New York Harbor. This attests to the importance of shipping in NY history and also is a testament to the fact that even though we have adapted to a city of bankers, the ocean still remains as a possible source of discovery and challenge. The light houses harken back to a pre-corporate world where ingenuity and physical challenges existed side by side. These light houses, I am assuming, are no longer being used, but stand as a reminder of how New York City ‘evolved’ and how shipping and not capital once dominated the lives of New Yorkers. With the loss of shipping we lost a type of work-ethic, sense of adventure, desire for discovery and daring and a sense of romance that the few ships remaining, which you can see as relics at South Street Seaport, do not adequately convey.
Interestingly, however, because the light houses have lost their practical functions, McQueen experiments with them, and other nautical objects, in more fanciful and imaginative ways, often imputing fantastical purposes and functions to them. Indeed, it’s almost as if he has created his own allegory involving the loss and search for love through the objects in this show. For instance, two light houses stand facing each other and we are challenged to view them as if they are disgruntled and puzzled lovers at the moment just before a formal breakup. A sextant and graph and other do-dads used for navigating are used to measure the increasing amount of time one might like to spend savoring meaningful aspects of a relationship. The astrolabe becomes a device used to find one’s love again while engaged in a pursuit of self-discovery. A station pointer meant to triangulate a fixed position based on three observable points is to be used to discern emotional and inner states. An object similar to a telescope is present with 31 markers which help a person document levels of desire over the course of a month.
In one room McQueen also has an installation display of 7 rotating lights which are positioned based on his research of where the 7 lighthouses represented by these pieces functioned in relation to each other. This installation is titled “Searching Still” and could represent the ever-present and somewhat desperate search for emotional engagement with another or others. There is also a separate piece, in the room with the installation, of a lighthouse beaming its light out onto a painting of the sea. One just sees violent, tossing waves illuminated.
One of my favorite pieces is “Breaching Pod” which shows the hull of ships emerging from a flat piece of wood. This is almost like a fairy tale image of a piece of wood protesting against its flat and mundane appearance and trying, instead, to morph into something more romantic. Basically this is a floor that wants to be a ship. “Balikbayan Boat” seems to be based on McQueen’s Filipino heritage and represents a type of cargo ship that never used any type of mechanism to tie down the cargo. The skill of the sailors themselves kept the cargo within the ship as it moved across the sea and the function of the journey – to bring home gifts to family and friends – provided the extra focus and effort needed to complete a perilous task. The boat deliberately looks overburdened and as McQueen mentions in his notes for the show the boat is “extended beyond any notion of practicality”.
David McQueen graduated with an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University – the premier grad program for sculpture in the USA – and is clearly a rising star in the field of sculpture. His pieces are whimsical, imaginative, fanciful and often interactive. Coming from a family of jewelers, he also shows he learned that craft well as we see intricately detailed work in regard to the metals he uses in his sculptures. He combines the skills of a perfectionist with a need to engage the viewer thoughtfully and meaningfully through his highly creative work.