By Mary Murphy
This show at the Academy is notable for the way its title is embodied in the jostling relationships among the works displayed. Like city residents, they bump into each other in various contexts, defining the urban environment as a place of anonymous intimacy, dynamic energy, and jarring juxtaposition. Four local emerging artists use a variety of means – scale, color, gesture, and context – to state these themes, but each connects them differently toward social ends.
Amy Walsh’s installations initially seem part of a renovation; plastic sheeting attached to wooden studs signals a construction site. Realistic imagery silhouetted by lights strategically placed behind the plastic suggests intention, as do small, rectangular “peepholes” in the facades. These vantage points yield glimpses of miniature domestic and industrial interiors. Our feet remain fixed yet our eyes are constantly deciphering complicated recessional spaces through elaborate lighting effects. While the large exterior facades encourage an ambulatory, sculptural experience, the “peepholes” frame the interiors, suggesting two-dimensional illusionism. The scale shift from macro to micro locates our body as the mean between both extremes, making us more aware of our own physicality and curiosity. Walsh’s interiors become empty stages onto which we project our own narratives. Their tenuousness mirrors our fragility, our perpetual failures and reinventions.
Ben Peterson’s large, colorful paper and ink drawings also posit a micro/macrocosmic vision; but his views coexist on the same plane. These fully realized imaginative worlds contain a wealth of minute detail nearly exceeding our visual capacity. Large, welcome empty expanses surround a central scene, leading outward to white frames that soften the edges where reality and imagination meet.
These are seriously playful drawings, full of wit and gravitas in equal measure. The precision of the microscopic details creates an intensity that somehow feels liberating; freedom and playfulness come from its emphatic limitations. In these fantastic hybrid landscapes nature and culture collide, and nature is uprooted, displaced, and contained. Differences do coexist, uneasily; everything is stretched taut and about to snap. Yet out of this atmosphere of exquisite tension strange alliances are born: luggage creates a building facade; terraces become boats; sundeck chairs sit idly atop spindly scaffolding. Like nervous laughter in the face of tragedy, the climate bespeaks an unsettling dread: the moment of ripeness holds within it the beginnings of decay.
If Peterson’s drawings echo Walsh’s interiors, Arden Bendler Browning’s large flashe and acrylic gouache paintings on Tyvek suggest Peterson’s drawings on speed. Rather than tension and conflict one senses excitement, conveyed through a full repertoire of mark making. No longer spectators, we are now immersed in the city, like Degas’ flaneur. We see parts of things, not their entirety. But unlike Impressionism’s newly mobile urban pedestrians, we are in stasis; it is the city that swirls around us. This is urbanity as a kaleidoscopic abstraction. But this is not a “real” space. The abrupt changes of scale and direction, the deep yet inaccessible space, and the fully chromatic unnatural colors suggest a virtual reality rather than a real cityscape. We are, as in Renaissance perspective, static viewers once again, not because of the “eye of God” but rather the “vision” of the computer, which knows no hierarchy. In this digital language, various spaces exist simultaneously, their disjunctions part of a postmodern conceptual grammar.
We experience Browning’s forms physically in part because of their large scale, and because these paintings have no frame; they bleed out to the surrounding areas and envelop us. Browning leaves part of the surfaces bare; without frames, we connect these white areas to the wall, stabilizing the image and causing it to appear cut out, or shaped. Using Tyvek as a ground lessens the object-ness of the paintings, and increases their illusionism.
Browning’s palette and color usage are not far from Peterson’s; both employ flat, opaque shapes of chromatic intensity and more grayed out transitional areas, but Browning’s color is generally created through transparent layers. This gives her work a hazy affect and helps unify the paintings. The various shades of gray are each made differently and because chromatic grays are highly responsive to surrounding colors, their effect is multiplied. They act as foils for the stronger colors and create a palpable sense of urban smog. Browning’s titles (Up to Speed, Plenty of Eyes) acknowledge the city’s energy, scale, and variety as a source for her imagination.