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Two Urban Perspectives – Allison Syvertsen and Benjamin Gallman at Cerulean Arts


You’d be forgiven for thinking, as I did, when first entering Cerulean Arts and letting my eyes slide from Allison Syvertsen’s “Forsythia” to Benjamin Gallman’s “Untitled 5” (both on the immediate left), that both pieces were paintings, and both were by the same artist.

Ben Gallman, "Untitled 5." Archival digital photograph. 7.5'' x 1.'5".
Ben Gallman, “Untitled 5.” Archival digital photograph. 7.5” x 1.’5″.

It’s not an accident, thanks to the exhibition’s deft mise-en-scene and the fact that Syvertsen and Gallman are married, that these two pieces ended up next to each other. “Untitled 5” is a shot of a wall hastily painted gray, with patches of irregularity highlighted by the camera flash. “Forsythia” is a view of a sun-dappled, pastel-hued house, with a similiar patchwork quality on the walls.

These two are much more alike than any other works by the two artists in the show; the rest of the works of “Urban Perspectives” are cohesive but not in the same way as “Forsythia” and “Untitled 5.” That said, the show draws out the same kind of intense painterly qualities in the two artists’ perspectives of the city.

Allison Syvertsen, "Pink Bleak House." Gouache on panel, 10" x 8".
Allison Syvertsen, “Pink Bleak House.” Gouache on panel, 10″ x 8″.

Neither Syvertsen nor Gallman intend for their works to be seen as meticulous records of Philadelphia. In each piece, they capture juxtaposed forms and views that could be anywhere, with the absence of people and experiments with color and form contributing to the universal urban element. “Pink Bleak House” may have been that before Syvertsen’s illuminating ministrations — it’s clearly been scrubbed up with a decent eye. The vagaries of time and blight are given a light touch. Although the pink house has seen better days, Syvertsen has beautified it with streaks of color and vivacity.

Allison Syvertsen, "Wonderland." Oil on panel, 16" x 20".
Allison Syvertsen, “Wonderland.” Oil on panel, 16″ x 20″.

In many of Syvertsen’s paintings, tones from whatever surrounding plant life is adjacent have a way of turning up in the buildings themselves (“Pink Bleak House” uses this to rather pleasing effect), blurring the line between man-made and organic, shadow and solidity, even litter and ornamentation.

Allison Syvertsen, "Playground I (Island." Gouache on panel, 14" x 16".
Allison Syvertsen, “Playground I (Island.” Gouache on panel, 14″ x 16″

The artist’s three playground paintings are essential to her desire to find possibilities in color and form in lieu of capturing a location’s identity. “Playground I (Island)” finds her using abstract spots of color, as she does in “Pink Bleak House,” to make the viewer consider whether or not they’re looking at a puddle, a shadow, a patch of weeds, or, perhaps, nothing at all.

Ben Gallman, "Untitled." Archival digital photograph, 7'5" x 11'5".
Ben Gallman, “Untitled 3.” Archival digital photograph, 7.5″ x 11.5″.

Gallman could benefit from the kind of cohesive overview that guided Syvertsen; the photographs on display are an uneven representation. While some pieces do a fantastic job of conveying the difficulty of stalling fleeting moments (in Gallman’s case, the abandoned Kensington he traverses in the wee hours of the night), others are static and listless. Rushed photos of desolate places are not interesting in and of themselves, but there are strengths to which Gallman plays.

The artist’s third untitled work (above) is one such standout for its ability to merge light with an indefinite darkness. A diadem of refracted light droplets pours over the roof of a gritty-looking building. Its accidental luminosity brings to mind Google Street Views’ well-documented capturing of startling moments. This photo is by far the most successful at bringing out the cerebral landscape Gallman is aiming for.

Altogether, the show is a good vehicle for Syvertsen and Gallman. The two are enamored of Philadelphia’s unique landscapes and “Urban Perspectives” shows the couple’s efforts to see universal attributes in the city’s hidden faces. Urban Perspectives, at Cerulean Arts, to Feb. 16. 1355 Ridge Ave. Philadelphia 19123