A 36-foot-tall human figure scaled the building that houses the Perrotin gallery in New York City’s Lower East Side, peeking into one of the gallery’s windows. The large-scale photograph was a conspicuous introduction for the artist JR’s first New York City solo show.
It also begged the question: How important is environment when taking in JR’s work? His art is powerful in size and scope, but also because of where it typically lives: alongside borders, in favelas, on buildings, on buses or ships that are representative of where his subjects reside. He draws attention to the stories of people and communities that are often hidden from the rest of society by bringing them into public spaces. Often focusing on faces or simply a pair of eyes, these images scream loudly that these forgotten people are here, that they are indeed part of the fabric of where they live.
Giant, the title of the figure on the outside of the Perrotin gallery’s building, brings to mind Kikito, the large-scale photograph of a toddler peering over the border fence; it was installed in Tecate on the Mexican side of the Mexican-American border last fall. Today, Kikitois a visible reminder of the current American administration’s treatment of families trying to enter the United States. But what happens when Kikito is removed from its environment? Does it lose its force?
The exhibition, titled Horizontal, featured approximately 30 new works. Many are reinterpretations of JR’s previous projects, including three photographic versions of Kikito from different angles, mounted on foam core or on glass panels. There were also studies of the eyes from Inside Out, Ramallah-Tel Aviv,2011.
In Eyes on boat, 1855 containers, 2018, JR created a replica of the container ship he used as part of Women are Heroes, originally installed in the favela Moro de Providencia in Rio de Janeiro in 2008. Isolated in a gallery space, these projects, along with new ones like Eye contact #400 trains – model trains with eyes and faces painted on their sides that glide back and forth on 320 rail tracks assembled on a wall, creating images that appear and disappear – were mesmerizing, precisely because the artworks become the focal point, rather than the communities that are their subjects, and in which they were installed.
Horizontal, in other words, didn’t pack the same punch that JR’s work does when it’s “in the field.” The show was more about JR as an artist than the people his art represents. Nevertheless, seeing it in a somewhat muted space invited the viewer to reflect on the extent of his various projects around the world.