"New York Stories"
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Molly Beth Brenner, Fri., June 11, 2004
"New York Stories"
Studio 2 Gallery, through June 26
New York, that gritty, teeming anthill of humanity, has been celebrated in virtually every artistic medium imaginable since its rise to metropolis status. It seems to attract photographers in especially high numbers; perhaps this is because one is a forced voyeur in a city of such extreme population. A kaleidoscope of human scenes, strange juxtapositions of discarded objects, and unnaturally beautiful interactions between light, concrete, and metal are likely to appear to a photographer's eye in a constantly changing slide show. And perhaps the city's abrasive texture is most naturally depicted in the grainy, stark realism photography can provide.
At Studio 2 Gallery, photographers Hannah Neal and Martha Grenon, as well as painter Jill Alo, are following in this reverent artistic tradition: The exhibit "New York Stories" centers on their visions of the city that never sleeps. It's hard to create novel images of such a popular subject, and "novel" is not how I would describe this show. Nor is the exhibit especially consistent in its quality. However, some curious juxtapositions have been captured on the gallery's walls which express the crazy-quilt spirit of this most epic of cities.
The photographs of Hannah Neal stand out in this respect. Her images are utterly recognizable as New York scenes, and although this precludes any real innovation, it's part of what works about her pieces: Sometimes in retelling an old story, we capture the essence of the new. Her Times Square pieces capture the telltale neon hodgepodge, but in so doing seem to uncover narratives dominating our modern collective subconscious. One shot captures a huge headline, "Cheney Says," perched over a movie billboard screaming "Murder by Numbers." Another draws together the neon logo for Virgin, the famous image of the innocent Les Miz waif, and "Broadway's Nostalgia Restaurant," hinting at our yearning for a simpler, purer past that never really existed. Her other photographs, although predictable in their subjects (the Flatiron building, subway scenes), remain quietly intimate and well-composed.
Martha Grenon's view of the city is steeped in a patina of age, dust, and grit. Her eye seems drawn to abandoned collections of objects, the detritus of the city's constant motion. Her China Window has us peering through a dust-fogged, broken store window at an old Chinese teapot and a spilled box of mysterious Chinese packets. Wet Cardboard, Mott Street centers on a puddle in a stack of crushed cardboard boxes, corners rounded and shapes softened by rain. The age-stained look of these discovered still lifes and the constellation of possible stories behind them lend them a seductive air of mystery. Although some of her other work is less evocative, her tone remains detached and anonymous yet curious.
While Grenon's and Neal's photographs seem to be in conversation, Jill Alo's three wildly bright paintings are speaking an entirely different language and seem out of place in the show. Although they take on the post-9/11 city as their topic, their showy style and surreal mood don't make for good company with their quiet, mostly black-and-white neighbors. Their messages seem simultaneously unclear and overly direct. In another setting, these pieces may pack greater power, but paired with these photographs, they are mostly confusing and distracting. A few more New York photographs would have served the show better; while they may not have been innovative, if Grenon's and Neal's work is any indication, they would have been high-quality and reminiscent of the magic of this great American city.