A Group Show Captures the City as Neither Dystopic nor Utopic
Now at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, the urban environment is explored as a site where great political struggles, social movements, and architectural transformations take place. This latest group exhibition, titled “Metropolis: Paintings of the Contemporary Landscape,” synthesizes divergent attitudes toward contemporary urban existence. Curated by writer and art critic David Ebony, artists featured in the show range from the social sculpture-focused collective Bruce High Quality Foundation to hyperrealist painters like Richard Estes and Ralph Fleck.
Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Hooverville (2012) shows a skyscraper-dense section of downtown Manhattan as filtered through chalky shades of pale green and black. If not for the presence of two figures, perched impossibly at the edge of the Hudson River, the city scene may be convincing in terms of scale. In the background, one can make out the faint tracings of the World Trade Center, which takes on an especially poignant meaning when viewed in relation to the group’s biographical narrative. Bruce High Quality Foundation represents the legacy of a fictional artist, Bruce High Quality, who supposedly died on September 11. The Brooklyn-based artist group, whose public programs and mixed-media pieces connect “the interstices of machination, education, reform, and premonition,” points to 9/11 as a point of seminal cultural shift.
Other artists capture the city as a bastion of architectural innovation and achievement—but with nuance. In Richard Estes’s quite literally titled Staten Island Ferry with a Distant View of Manhattan and New Jersey (2011), a romantic view of New York is presented: all glittering city lights and sinuous water ripples. While with View from the W Train Crossing the Manhattan Bridge (2003), Estes lets in more grit: the outlook from under the bridge is marred with scrawling streaks of white paint to represent the aggressive scratches etched into the subway car’s windows.
Enoc Perez paints iconic buildings with vibrant colors and a unique process that combines color printing with painting. As is the case with Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo (2009), Perez separates a photograph into layers, makes preparatory drawings, and applies oil paint—combining each layer selectively to the canvas. Within the frame, cement blocks fit together like cells, creating a vertiginous structure with empty circular windows. Blue and charcoal-colored lines drizzle down the building’s edges: the physical evidence of air pollution. Perez is sharply aware of these details in the way that a figure painter might be attuned to the particular tonality of flesh. In this way, Perez treats architecture as an aspect of city life that is real and breathing—not just something meant for glorification or celebration.
Whether from an aerial or ground level perspective, or from an imagined or real point of view, the artists in this exhibition grapple with the meanings of contemporary urban space with incredible acuity and historical sensitivity. As Ebony distilled it: “‘Metropolis’ is not intended to convey a post-9/11 dystopian vision, nor do the works here suggest a hierarchical social study of the urban landscape...instead, the exhibition offers a fresh discourse on urban existence considered from a rather cool, contemplative distance.”
“Metropolis: Paintings of the Contemporary Urban Landscape” is on view at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York, NY, Apr. 29 - Jun. 6, 2015.