Painting the City
Cityscapes at George Billis Gallery
Every age loves images of itself and the buildings that express its aspirations. While cityscape was not an independent format until the 17th century Dutch showcased the satisfactions of civic space, an aerial view of Rome adorned a fresco in the Baths of Trajan. Today, the documentary authority of the camera creates a crisis of confidence among practitioners of the genre.
With their digital Nikons tucked in their pockets, representational painters worry that their craft has lost its old objective functions to the camera. As Rackstraw Downes phrased it: “We have other ways to make records of our buildings.” True, but cityscape — like representational painting itself — is more than mere record. Painters seek what they need in urban landscape no less than in nature. More precisely, they find there what they know and what they long for. While cityscape does record the urban setting, it finds its purpose in response to the scene.
“In the City,” a group exhibition of cityscapes at George Billis Gallery, succeeds in ways it never intended. There is much good painting here; individual works are intelligent and satisfying. Yet the force of the show lies in the cumulative expression of an involuntary fear: that the culture of modernity is inimical to the creation of urban beauty. Viewed as an ensemble, the exhibition is an unwitting confession that New York has evolved without benefit of shared convictions about the relationship of architecture to human well-being. The hubris of the metropolis and its bleakness are depicted with equal vivacity. And the camera, both tool and tyrant, insinuates itself throughout.
In David Leonard’s “Forty Fourth and Hudson” (2006), the cross street to the river is a dim gully between commercial skyscrapers that rise to the top of the picture plane, obliterating the sky. His city is a geometric desert, a checkerboard of blank windows on one side of an urban canyon balanced by the vertical stripes of glass and concrete that mark the floors across the street. Sky is suppressed again in Thomas Connelly’s fine panel “Park” (2005). A single pedestrian is barely visible on a dark street, gloom broken only by receding tail lights and the red neon sign of a parking garage. Here is the city as a barren man-eater, the image built on a projected photograph’s fidelity to the claustrophobic scene.
Stephen Hicks discounts his own talent by kneeling to the pictorial — and rhetorical — devices of Rackstraw Downes. When Montaigne wrote on the unreliability of the senses, he was not referring to principles of engineering. Buildings do have to stand up; laws of gravity still inform the realist endeavor. The implausible bend of that supporting pillar and peripheral building in “16th and 10th Avenue North” (2006) mimics the Coke bottle effect of a spherical lens and diminishes the logic of the motif.
The camera’s influence is strikingly present elsewhere. Andrew Lenaghan, an adept painter of urban vistas, affects aggressive perspectives that hint at a drunkard’s path beneath the urban grid. “View from Ron’s Window, 37th Street” (2006) succumbs to the optical distortions of a viewfinder — though only to the point where these remain expressive elements. There is, after all, a dizzying quality to metropolitan immensity. Chris Semergief suggests it in “Tower’s Watch Tower” (date), which scans the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn side. Appeal to the camera intrudes on the sway of a foreground roof in Nicholas Evans-Cato’s lovely “Carpet” (date). His motifs, immersed in their own solitude, do not need to curtsy to Minolta.
Each of these artists is familiar with Antonio Lopez-Garcia, whose work is the gold standard for cityscape among living painters. His exalted panoramas of Madrid are fabrications of a passionate eye, not a mechanical lens. (This, despite his use of photographs as recording tools.) But Lopez-Garcia addresses his subject; optical games address the art establishment.
Ron Milewicz’s heat-drenched view of Long Island City’s skyline, “Summer Citiwide” (2005), unnerves. Its intense coloration, at the fiery end of the spectrum, suggests conflagration as easily as summer heat. It recalls a passage in “The Guns of August” that describes the day in 1914 that the British landed in France: summer thunder was in the air and the sun set in a blood- red glow. A city or a necropolis in the sun?
It is a relief to see Elizabeth O’Reilly and Sam Farnsworth, both gifted at turning frogs into princes. This is not a matter of prettifying unpromising material—the Gowanus Canal or Lower East Side. It is something more rare and subtle: a transformative generosity toward the motif that allows it to speak on its own behalf.
Kenny Harris’s two panels looking south toward the financial center blur larger, newer structures to emphasize low-rise rooftops with their antiquated watertowers. Fluid textures, soft forms and moody, time-worn tenements recall Raphael Soyer. Roland Kulla ignores the incoherence of the city in favor of close-ups of the ordered steel tracery of the Willis Avenue Bridge. James Oliver’s series of eight gouaches sets accidental pedestrians on their way through streets subordinated to traffic. Derek Buckner’s Manhattan rooftops are framed by a soaring rabbit warren of condo windows. Only Stephen Magzig’s “Sant Ambroeus” (2006), the facade of a West Village gelateria, acknowledges the awnings, doorways and flower boxes that offer oases at street level.
In sum, here is the Big Apple as a machine of material progress, less a place to live than a billet for consumers of urbanism—mass society’s surrogate for urbanity.
“In the City” at George Billis Gallery (511 West 25th Street, 212-645-2621).
This appeared first in The New York Sun, July 20, 2006.
Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey