A flamboyant herd of concrete goats seem to strut their stuff across Socrates Sculpture Park on the waterfront in Long Island City, Queens. Part of the exhibition “Nari Ward: G.O.A.T., again,” each goat has a shaft of rebar shooting up from its back that’s embellished with materials. Some are adorned with dazzling gold leaf or an extravagant pompadour of hairy black palm. The one Mr. Ward calls “the social media goat” sprouts a tangle of electric cords and has a body tinted red, white and blue. Another, tarred and feathered, stands alone.
The goat can be a loaded symbol, according to Mr. Ward, 53, who was born in Jamaica and now lives in Harlem with his wife and two children. He likes to elicit association, memory, history and politics through installations and large-scale sculptures laden with commonplace and often-discarded objects that he collects from the streets. At his studio and home in a former fire station, he described how the goat can be perceived as a sacrificial animal as well as an image of debauchery, as humble or arrogant, an insult or a boast. Musicians and athletes often use G.O.A.T. as an acronym for Greatest of All Time.
After Donald J. Trump won the election, Mr. Ward thought the goat seemed like the suitable form for populating the public park. “Audacity was in the air, with this ego running rampant,” said Mr. Ward, a natural storyteller with an easy sense of humor. He had intended to do something “absurdist and ridiculous” with chickens after being offered the Socrates commission last summer but scrapped that plan in November.
“I didn’t feel playful anymore,” he said, emphasizing that the idea is bigger than the new president. “There was something urgent that I needed to talk about. The title ‘G.O.A.T., again’ is referencing the small-minded concept of history that you’re the Greatest of All Time.”
“What’s universal,” he said, “is the notion of a savior, the notion of a charlatan, the abuse of power and manipulation.”
Splayed across the center of the park is a 40-foot-long hobbyhorse with a colossal faux-stone goat’s head. Titled “Scapegoat,” a term that goes back to the Bible, the sculpture is like a caricature of a political monument or the abandoned plaything of a deity. Mr. Ward imagines the outsize animal as part of a play “where the main character is killed.” Whether “Scapegoat” is meant to be worshiped, ostracized or mourned is left ambiguous. “It’s up the viewer to figure out their role in that,” said Mr. Ward, who likes to keep his imagery open-ended enough to invite multiple readings.
“The goats become the ambassadors for the conversation,” he added.
Indeed, Mr. Ward seems to be courting public opinion in the park with a giant glowing sign that spells “Apollo,” like the Harlem theater. But in Mr. Ward’s version, the first and last letters blink to flip the message to “poll,” a word linked to the 2016 election. “It’s the linchpin of the show,” said Mr. Ward, connecting the theater’s Amateur Night, where the crowd cheers contestants or boos them off the stage, with the protests, rallies and social media eruptions across the American landscape.
“G.O.A.T., again” marks the first time a single artist has taken on the entire five-acre park. The executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park, John Hatfield, felt Mr. Ward was the right artist for the challenge. “It’s a rarity to have an artist immersively occupy an outdoor space with works that can amplify one another,” Mr. Hatfield said. “Nari often combines two aspects masterfully — a darkness that leads you into a critique of the social strata with the joyousness of a toy or celebratory aspect of scale — and then lets people create their own stories.”
For Mr. Ward, who just had a midcareer traveling museum survey open at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, working outside the white cube of the gallery is a return to how he started.
In 1993, during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem after receiving his master of fine arts degree at Brooklyn College, he began collecting abandoned baby strollers from the streets. They were a poignant symbol to him of disrupted lives. Staging his own exhibition in a rented fire station (where he moved in 1999), he clustered 365 strollers and carved out an ellipse-shaped pathway lined with fire hose. The installation suggested both a vulva and a ship’s hull. Titled “Amazing Grace” — a song that permeated the space in a haunting loop — it evoked journeys both painful and transcendent and helped develop Mr. Ward’s approach to assembling found objects rich with past lives and stories.
Cecilia Alemani, who commissioned Mr. Ward’s “Smart Tree” for the High Line last year, called Mr. Ward “a poet of urban transformation.”
“Nari’s able to chronicle the life of the city and the people who live in the cities through the objects that they use and leave behind,” she said. He stopped traffic on the High Line with his sculpture of a car propped on cinder blocks and covered with a patchwork of cut tires that became a giant vase for an apple tree. It was based on a childhood memory of his father buying a broken car that he intended to fix but left sitting so long in his yard in Jamaica that it sprouted a tree.
“There was quite an element of hope,” Ms. Alemani said.
This year Mr. Ward won the $100,000 Vilcek Prize, awarded annually to an immigrant artist who has contributed significantly to American culture. He came from Jamaica at 12 with his family, first to Brooklyn and then Parsippany, N.J. There, his mother worked as a housekeeper for Fred Schwartz — famous locally for his “Fred the Furrier” TV ads in the 1970s — and the family lived with Mr. Schwartz’s mentally handicapped brother-in-law. “It became my job to take care of Howie,” Mr. Ward said. “I felt this weird sense of protection for him. It was my tour of duty.”
The works in Mr. Ward’s museum survey, which opened in 2015 at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and also traveled to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, explore clichés of Caribbean culture, the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of black men on city streets, and ideas of migration, struggle and ascension. Ruth Erickson, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, who coordinated the presentation there, said she “could not have imagined how newly timely Nari’s survey would be in our current political moment.”
“Naturalization Drawing Table” from 2004 shows the procrastinatory doodles Mr. Ward made on an Immigration and Naturalization Service form the first time he set out to become a citizen. “The work I was making was questioning what it means to be an American, in response to post 9/11 fervor and distancing ourselves from other people,” Mr. Ward said. “I thought I needed to get my citizenship if I wanted to critique this country that I love.”
He finally completed the process in 2012 after multiple starts and stops.
His drawing table will be activated on May 4, when visitors to the show can receive an edition set of Mr. Ward’s elaborate doodles in return for filling out the I.N.S. form and having a passport photo taken on-site. The notarized applications will then be hung on the wall of the museum and become a permanent part of the piece.
Participation is also weaved into a billboard-size installation in which thousands of shoelaces spell the first words of the Constitution, “We the People,” originally conceived in 2011 using hand-dyed laces. Mr. Ward was persuaded by the philanthropist Diana DiMenna to make a new version this year as a permanent acquisition for the New-York Historical Society after landing on the idea of collecting used shoelaces from among the 200,000 schoolchildren who visit the society annually. “We wanted people, and especially children, to be able to put themselves literally into the narrative of what it means to be ‘we the people’,” Ms. DiMenna said. On view in the lobby, “We the People” has been integrated into the society’s curriculum on constitutional history and is a pit stop for visiting school groups.
This month a frequent visitor to Socrates Sculpture Park watched Mr. Ward installing “Bipartition Bell,” a bulbous organic shape made of hammered copper dangling from a steel frame and reminiscent of the Liberty Bell. The man called out to Mr. Ward, asking him if it was testicles “you have hanging up there.” The artist pretended not to hear, but then told the man it was an “upside-down heart.” Finally he sheepishly admitted it was indeed modeled on a goat scrotum.
“It’s this massive organ that’s about virility and potentiality,” said Mr. Ward, who will also have a gallery exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in June. While his sculpture seems to promise a resounding gong, viewers who duck their heads inside the bell will find only the tiniest billy goat chime that they can ring. Mr. Ward said he’s playing with the idea of “unfulfilled expectations,” something he feels many Americans are currently experiencing. For black Americans, he said, it has long been “the norm.”
“When what you want to happen doesn’t happen, how do you then deal with the shortcomings?” he asked. “I think artists are good at shedding light on emotional spaces that are buried because they’re painful to revisit.”
Yet he never wants to leave viewers without a silver lining. In Mr. Ward’s goat-land, where testicles can be read as a heart, the little bell inside may be a letdown, or a seed of hope.