EAF15 Artist Profile: Kenseth Armstead

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Kenseth Armstead’s EAF15 project, Master Work: Astoria Houses, Building 24, exists to challenge viewer perspectives and visually bridge the gap between the neighborhood’s public housing and luxury condominiums.

There are 23 buildings in the Astoria houses complex built in 1951. Twenty-two of them are six to seven-story residential buildings along the Astoria waterfront intended to provide families and individuals with an affordable housing option. According to NYC Housing Authority’s website, there are currently approximately 3,135 residents in the Astoria housing complex.

The title Master Work: Astoria Houses, Building 24 comes, in part, from Armstead’s research and past work on the African-American experience during the American Revolution. His research led to a series of work called Farther Land begun in 2014. The series explores the perspective of African-Americans during the Revolution using metal, tar, and feathers to reflect on the historically ironic position of slave as “freedom fighter.” In these works, Armstead draws on the multiple meanings of “master,” often used in reference to the founding fathers not only as “master craftsmen” but also as slave-holding “masters” and, no less poignantly, the role an architect can play as utopian “master,” engineering our public spaces.

“I wanted to make something that would tie together the community and the park,” Armstead says, “because anyone within a stone’s throw of the park uses it.” He has been visiting Socrates since the early ‘90s and witnessed the many developments that have taken place along the western Queens waterfront firsthand.

Standing in the park recently, he became curious about the few local buildings that can be seen from inside it. Most prominently there are the newly constructed East River Tower and The Astoria Houses. Only one of the two is described, via its public website, as a “contemporary sculpture.” Reviewing the websites of local businesses and cultural centers there are no references to Astoria Houses as a neighborhood feature. This omission felt odd to him. Master Work is a two-fifths scale version of one of the Astoria Houses towers, offered as a “contemporary sculpture” to the community and as an entry point to new ideas about public housing and the complexity of the lives of the individuals who live in it.

Armstead is a Queens native, but his perspective on public housing was altered when he lived in public housing in Washington DC, after his parent’s divorced. “We needed a place to stay,” he says of the time. “My mom, like many single mothers statistically, had much less income after the divorce and needed an affordable solution.” She had two sons at the time. After living in public housing for almost two years they moved on. “But that’s not the case for everyone,” Armstead says. Master Work questions the way we would perceive him if he and his family had stayed. The sculpture questions the value we place on people based on geography, ethnicity, and perceived status symbols. It asks, in the 21st century, is there a place for public housing as a neighborhood highlight? These issues aren’t answered or resolved by Armstead’s work. “I can’t make a sculpture that will engage all the people who live in the Astoria Houses,” Armstead says, “but I can make a lens through which people could view it differently.”

During the EAF exhibition, Armstead will be giving “Artists on Art” talks on the legacy of Frederic Church and the Hudson River School painters at Olana NY State Historic Site during its critically acclaimed Rivers Crossings exhibition.

Earlier this month, he gave an “Artist Response/Performance” at the Newark Museum through a collaboration with Gallery Aferro’s residency program.

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Socrates is open 365 days a year from 10am to sunset.