There’s something poignantly troubling about the current painting exhibition, “Urban Landscape,” at Ferndale’s Lemberg Gallery. Each of the five painters represented, three Detroiters and two New Yorkers, celebrates a different aspect of the constructed, the humanly manufactured space of city life. And in each there’s the meditative presence of the artist exploring some essential element that is a subtext to our existence in the city.
Of course, the fragile nature of the urban community is thrown into high relief by the current threats to the human community from war and terrorist activity. And though it’s not always necessary to look at art through the grid of the newspaper, in this instance it’s something that the artists themselves have encoded in the paintings.
New York artist David Kapp’s work is a veritable hymn to the beautiful chorus of city life. His three amply scaled expressionist paintings at Lemberg capture the topsy-turvy order of the New York streets, but at the same time reveal the open, unprotected vulnerability of that daily commerce. Canal Street West (pictured) is an oblique, tilted aerial view of Canal Street (which Kapp sees from his studio window) almost as if, chillingly, viewed from an aircraft. Kapp’s expressionistic, quick-illustrator style captures a moment, a glimpse, of the city at its best. Pedestrians adroitly and perhaps unwarily rush along, perpendicular to rushing traffic. Great geometric shapes of the shadows of buildings collide with sunlight-bathed streets, enhancing the high frequency of the activity. Kapp’s loose, gestural style captures the fresh, almost animalistic fury of a day in the Big Apple.
In contrast to Kapp’s New Yorker expressionism is the photo realism of Detroiter Robert Gniewek who prowls the night, arousing sensuous and ironic visions as he breathtakingly alerts us to the undercurrent of desire and fantasy that propels the urban landscape. Alianza captures an urban Mexican street corner, with mobile food vendor, ladies awaiting the omnipotent bus and alluring shop interiors seductively beckoning with golden light. One can almost smell the hybrid aromas of corn tortillas, smoldering incense from the local cathedral, bus fumes and the latest eau de toilette from the ladies. And in Mott’s Grill (pictured), a porcelain hamburger stand beckons stragglers of the night into an existential meeting place.
Interestingly, Detroit artist Steve Magsig’s photo realism-like paintings have always celebrated isolated, perhaps even unrealized, moments of urban architectural detail, but the three new pieces seem to have a transcendent quality that pushes these forms into the realm of the embroidered, finessed object. In 54 White and 55 White, two paintings that focus on New York City’s White Street doorways, soft diffused light (as opposed to Magsig’s previously harsh contrasts) plays across the building fronts, emphasizing the graphic interplay of the urban lines and forms. Still haunted by the existential emptiness of the streetscapes (with not a single pedestrian in sight), these new works seem to celebrate the community of hands that have gone into the buildings’ making. They are softer and more forgivingly lyrical than anything we’ve seen from Magsig in the past.
Jane Dickson’s contribution to “Urban Landscape” is four painting-inventions that posit moments of stinging isolation and poetic ennui. Composed with oil stick deftly smeared over toothy linen, canvas and, in one instance, AstroTurf, these cameos of nighttime emptiness feature ambiguous activities (a phone call in an empty hallway, an over-lit check cashing storefront with two children staring out, an illuminated donut stand or, in El Niño Yellow Camper, the open door of the camper reflected in the headlight of a car stopped on the highway). The paintings, with their grainy, almost digital-like surfaces, echo the lonely isolation of their content.
Mel Rosas’ landscapes, while not necessarily urban, conjure a kind of psychic allegory that’s universally accessible. Each of the four small, brightly colored stucco facades in the paintings (typical of Mexican and Latin American towns and villages) has an object painted on it. Beneath the object is the Spanish word for it, as well as an ambiguous number painted on the wall. Rosas’ miniatures echo Mexican retablo (altar piece) or ex-voto (votive offering) paintings, and serve as postmodern self-portraits illuminating his own uncertain relationship with his Hispanic origins. But they’re simply gorgeous and tantalizing moments of contemporary painting.
Each of the works in “Urban Landscape” caresses the human construct that is the city and, in light of our contemporary political landscape, are painful reminders of the fragility and beauty of urban culture.
“Urban Landscape” is at Lemberg Gallery (23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale) through March 8. Call 248-591-6623.Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org