The New York Times

October 25, 2012
The New York Times, The Opinion Pages

Potato Island


Uli Seit for The New York Times
A visitor viewed the”Heat and Tension Series” by Jean-Louis Gonterre at the Islip Art Museum.


Let’s away to Long Island, under a blue-bowl sky filled with whipped-potato clouds, to Irish Lane in East Islip, up the steps of a gently decaying mansion beside a lake, through a paint-flaked portico and into the Islip Art Museum. What greets our eyes there? Potatoes.

Potato sculptures, potato prints, potato faces. Potatoes piled on the floor. Monochrome potato portraits, Avedon-style. Framed slabs of charred potato, studies in black and gray. A sultry Marilyn Monroe filling out a potato sack. Potatoes pouring from a fireplace. A bearded man in a video saying “potato” over and over and over again.

Long Island’s image is cars, Billy Joel, lofty hair, nasal accents, beaches, ducks. This exhibition enshrines an earthier icon. In one room is a model of a Levittown house, red and white, exquisitely detailed down to the brass door knocker. Made of silicone, it droops wearily over a wheelbarrow. Under it lies a field of golden potato boulders, the starchy foundation of an iconic subdivision.

The piece, by Brian Tolle, who designed the Irish Hunger Memorial in Lower Manhattan, is not entirely fanciful. He named it for the fungus that blighted Ireland’s potato crop in the 1840s and did the same on Long Island in the next century. The potato farmers moved away, and developers like William Levitt moved in. Thus was the great American suburb built: on a bed of forgotten potatoes.

Forgotten but not gone. On Long Island, the potato endures. After going from New World to Old, it circled back, stayed and was renewed. The newest Long Islanders are people of the old, old potato lands — Salvadorans, Peruvians, Bolivians, Ecuadoreans, Mexicans. Up the road from the museum, a supermarket bursts with tuberous exuberance: red, white and sweet potatoes. Also yucca, batata and yautia.

Heading that way, I see two men laying a walkway, with baked-potato-sized bricks. I introduce myself. Luis, from El Salvador, hands me his card: Emerald Isle Paving.