Visual Arts Review: “Cities Here and There” — Various Visions of Urbanity

By Lisa Reindorf

This exhibit at the Brickbottom Gallery does a good job of capturing the unexpected moments and surprises that we experience in a city.

Cities Here and There, curated by Alexandra Rozenman. Featuring work by Fred Kasha Simon, Mark Favermann, Dan Coughlin, Liliana Marquez, and Adam Leveille. At Brickbottom Artists Association gallery, 1 Fitchburg St., Somerville, through March 24.

A view of one of the rooms in the Brickbottom Gallery show Cities Here and There. Photo: courtesy of Alexandra Rozenman

The exhibit explores cityscapes — their elements, materials, and patterns. Two of the artists make use of the actual urban construction materials and repurpose them for their artworks.

Dan Coughlin, who has an architectural background, uses found materials, such as HVAC ducts, sewage pipes, and wood, and forges totemic architectural sculptures. They have an impact and presence that is both architectural and human-scaled. For example, Pinc Elefant is constructed of powder-coated duct work and stands on two legs: it could be a monument or an abstract form of a human striding. Silver ducts in the piece Cocoon curve a sinuous outline on the wall; it is the same size as a human body. What was so effective about these pieces is how they transform building material into work that is strong and large-scaled, yet relatable because of the hint of the human form.

The artist Liliana Marquez creates detailed and beautifully crafted works that are multidimensional. She also incorporates as much reclaimed and surplus materials as is possible in her designs. Using materials such as floor samples, solid surface counter pieces, laminate, and metal, she fabricates mini-abstract urban environments. City Vibrations is constructed of vertical pieces of wood and features painted waves of color — it references contemporary architecture and underscores the verticality of the city.

Marquez’s piece MHMM is a standout. A five-foot structure on the wall, it is constructed of various sized colored blocks pieced together. The work references Mondrian, yet is totally modern in appearance. It could be interpreted in multiple ways — either as the grid of a city seen from an aerial viewpoint, or the facade of a skyscraper with windows, spandrels, and building panels. City Wave is another Marquez standout; its vertical movement and punctuation conveys the pulsating patterns and energy of the city. These works present a vision of urbanity that is sophisticated, positive, and colorful.

Fred Kasha Simon’s work offers a different take on urban environments. He paints very large city scenes made up of an almost relentless repetition of gridded streets. The geometry of the grid, as well as what it contains, presents endless sources of inspiration, from coffee shops, residences, and schools, to garages, repair shops, parks, and playgrounds. The structures contain extremely detailed vignettes; mechanics are working on a car, vendors are selling fruit. Some of these scenes are charming; they might have made entrancing paintings in and of themselves. The style is reminiscent of illustrated children’s books; viewers are invited to become lost as they wander the streets to see what’s around the next corner.

A view of two works by Liliana Marquez. Photo: courtesy of Alexandra Rozenman

Simon’s work is grand in scale. One can’t help but admire the commitment and tenacity of the artist. Northern City, rendered in colored pencil and oil pastels, is over 14 feet long and five feet high. The pieces might benefit from some editing and differentiation in scale. Resting spaces for the spectator’s eyes would be welcome. Perhaps a larger park, or building expanse, might offer the needed respite. The repetitive squares of the windows, rectangular buildings, and gridded streets offer no escape … but perhaps that is the point?

Now let’s jump from Simon’s panoramic overviews to close-up images. Adam Leveille focuses on particular locations; he paints charming moments of serendipity that one might come upon while walking around the city. While his paintings are stacked with familiar sights — triple-decker houses, street corners, and construction vehicles — Leveille focuses on the beauty that is often overlooked in a bustling city. Inman Square Hardware depicts a store on a street corner in Cambridge, with its wares stacked up outside. The soft late afternoon light gives both locations a specificity and timelessness. Cleaves Street Rockport shows a church beautifully lit with a balanced and calm stillness.

The small scale of these paintings — approximately 9 x 12 inches — is intimate and invites closer examination. Leveille experiments with cropped compositions; he creates a focus on a particular place and time that draws the viewer in. On the other hand, his larger-scale works, such as Gloucester, a scene of cars and buildings lining a wide roadway, do not capture the viewer’s attention as successfully. If they were painted at an even larger scale, then perhaps viewers could feel as if they they could step into the scene.

Though small tabletop elements, the exquisitely crafted works by Mark Favermann reflect the geometry and spatial relations in cities, referencing traditional forms evolving into their contemporary translations. His gorgeous candlesticks, menorahs, door knockers, and door handles are made from metal. Referencing Art Deco design, Medieval Gothic facades, and even animal silhouettes, his work speaks to the civic cacophony of visual expressions and surprises. And they are a joy to look at.

Ostensibly the exhibit was intended to reflect the fact that cities exist in a constant state of change — an endless cycle of demolition and redevelopment. That aspect of the theme, however, did not quite come through in the selection of the artists and works. The pairing of Coughlin’s Yellow Submarine wall sculpture — a witty reference to the Beatles song, the piece is composed of yellow-painted plumbing pipes — with Leveille’s more traditional city view that contains a streak of the same color yellow, inspires viewers to think about how cities are constructed and evolve. More of these creative pairings — relating the works to each other — would have added more depth to the exhibit. As it is, the works of each artist seem somewhat thematically disconnected from the others in the show.

Still, the materials and patterns that compose the city were well examined through the rectilinear work of Marquez and the geometric gridding of Simon. The city is big, and the possibilities for artwork that expresses the urban experience are bigger still. This exhibit does a good job of capturing the unexpected moments and surprises that we experience in a city.

Lisa Reindorf is an architect and artist whose work deals with climate change. She lectures frequently at art and environmental conferences, and is also an arts writer for such publications as Hyperallergic and Miami New Times.

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