If you know how to read it, the built environment is filled with poetry. Everything we see in an urban landscape was designed by an artist: an architect, or a civil engineer, or a landscaper. The laws of good taste, not to mention those of physics, demand that the designer adhere to regular patterns. Bricks, girders, columns and fenestrations tend to be presented to the viewer logically and in a steady visual rhythm.
This helps explain why buildings and civic structures look better with age. Subject a bridge or a factory to the ravages of time; as long as it is still standing, it’s reassuring. It suggests to us that our ideas can take a beating, and that misfortune won’t stop the music. The Precisionist paintings of industrial developments by artists like Charles Sheeler are celebrations of human ingenuity, and strong arguments that, through geometry and planning, we can impose our will on the wilderness and stalemate the forces of decay.
Allan Gorman isn’t a precisionist — not exactly, anyway. His right angles and crisp lines are enlivened by his imagination and enthusiasm. No Garden State artist captures the specifics of urban architecture with more comprehension or passion. A typical Gorman painting takes us to the underside of a train trestle or a tenement corner and gets us lost in a tangle of iron and shadow. Gorman loves light on latticework. Daylight is often visible between the metal bars of guardrails and the diagonal supports of elevated rail lines.
“Searching for Drama,” a piston-pumping show of paintings at the BrassWorks Gallery in Montclair, chases sunbeams all over the metropolis. In 35 pieces — some as large as a bus window and some as tidy as a page of a road atlas — this tour guide shows you rivets, rickety ladders and rust stains, curved chrome and panels of glass, radio transmitters and swaths of concrete. As it so often does on crisp autumn days, the sun makes everything sing.
Unless it’s nighttime. Some of Gorman’s most impressive paintings capture city scenes after the sun has gone down. In the oil painting “After Hours. Cleaning the Windows in Chelsea,” fierce electric light pours from a tall rectangle sandwiched between two dark columns of brick. Though the night erases the architectural details of the building he’s depicting, its interior is brilliantly exposed. A janitor in a stairwell, tucked into a narrow space, attends to his evening duties. No pop star could bathe in a brighter spotlight.
In “Towers on a Menacing Sky,” power lines, tense and inviolable, stretch to the corners of the frames. Though the clouds are ragged and wine-red, Gorman underscores the soft, yielding quality of the summer evening by painting in oil on linen. His pharaonic telecommunication towers aren’t threatened by the elements in the slightest. On the contrary: they seem complicit in conjuring the storm.
But usually, Gorman’s world is a vivid one. Sunshine creates shadows and reflections, and the painter loves capturing both. Gorman’s light squeezes through apertures, tight corners and fissures in steel.
In “Stairwell Stripes,” an oil painting on a panel, an exterior rail comprised of parallel slats of metal throws a crooked furrow of shadows on a flight of concrete steps. “Vertical/Horizontal/Diagonal,” crisp as a surveyor’s photograph, is a nest of industrial banisters, each black slat absorbing illumination, shading its neighbors, making angled spaces for the light to pass through. Even more virtuosic is “Shadows at 271,” in which a red brick apartment building quivers in the penumbra of its own rickety fire escape. The shadows of the wrought iron fall on the windows below, and give the painter an opportunity to capture the gentle distortions of sunlight on cloudy domestic glass.
If you’ve ever lived in an old city building, you’ll know exactly what he’s depicting. If you’ve ever loved a building like that, you might want to thank the artist for picking up on details that elude other chroniclers.
His images of public spaces are just as accurate, similarly comprehensive, and busy with the same delight. “Stillwell Stairwell” takes us into the subway, where sunlight slips through plate glass windows to illuminate the flat, friendly, colorful and letter-adorned circles identifying different train lines. We don’t see the top of “The Tallest Train Station in NYC,” but the thicket of cream-white support pillars have plenty of gravitas on their own. “Rusty Girders on a Sunny Afternoon,” rendered on linen in oil sticks, dispenses with absolute precision and pushes toward a romantic realization of the beauty and persistence of train infrastructure.
Even at his most impressionistic, Gorman brings out the city not as a place of mystery, but as a comprehensible entity, fully legible to anybody who cares to look. And for those who don’t or won’t notice? … well, these buildings aren’t going anywhere. They’re patient. They’ll wait you out.
Twenty minutes west by foot, something not dissimilar awaits. Lisa Lackey, one of the most audacious illusionists operating in the Garden State, assembles paper, cloth, precision stitching and occasional found objects into pieces that resemble screen prints. The title of “It’s Not Paint!,” her show at the Hillside Gallery, calls attention to the artist’s materials and her casual defiance of expectation. Part of the delight of encountering Lackey’s work is marveling at how deftly she has transformed random scraps and ratty threads into balanced, witty, weird, beautiful pictures.
Like Gorman, she is drawn to the built environment and intrigued by architecture. She’s compelled to represent highways, storefronts, apartments, park benches, faceless warehouses, traffic cones and other familiar elements of the urban landscape. Her taste for the quotidian is more pronounced than Gorman’s is — she’s more likely to show us a sink filled with dishes or an overstuffed grocery store aisle than the side of a skyscraper — but her feel for narrative drama is every bit as sharp. She shares many of his visual obsessions, too, including fascination with the dynamics of occluded sunlight and the rhythms of shadow, and an eagerness to strut her stuff by incorporating reflections into her pieces.
But Lackey’s reflections often suggest remoteness and estrangement, and her shadows are far ghostlier than Gorman’s are. In “Where Are You?,” a clever amalgam of paper and fabric, splintered sunlight scours the front of a dresser in an empty room. The shadow of a human torso falls on the wall next to a high-backed wooden chair and an empty pair of shoes. The placement of the light suggests that somebody is peering into the house from the outside, searching for signs of human presence.
Other pieces strongly imply that the observer is Lackey herself. “Wish You Were Here,” feels, as many of the artworks in “It’s Not Paint!” do, like a deeply personal expression of pandemic-era solitude. The silhouette of a behatted figure falls across the kind of double-slatted bench often found on a boardwalk. With the sun behind her, the woman clings to a guardrail. She’s looking outward, hoping for the arrival of something, shoulders set against the inevitable arrival of disappointment.
Here, and elsewhere, Lackey explores the storytelling possibilities of shadow. A deftly thrown shadow, she recognizes, orients the viewer: it can put an imaginary sun behind you, or directly overhead, or right on the horizon, filling the frame with eerie light. A shadow implies that the world you’re inhabiting extends beyond the borders of the piece: Lackey’s imaginary sun situates her imaginary characters in an undefined space, and allows the onlooker to step into a fabricated world.
In “Snow on the Tracks,” a group of walkers approaches a fence on a chilly day. We don’t see them, but we see their shadows, cast at a late afternoon angle, pouring out over the ground like an ink spill.
And sometimes — especially in her recent pieces — she wants to show off her considerable chops.
In “It’s Complicated,” she sews together images of patio furniture and then stitches the shadows of every dowel and every thin filament of wrought iron on to a surface that mimics the evenness of tile. It is, simultaneously, an amazing performance of embroidery and astrophysics.
“Reflections” catches Lackey (this time, we know it’s her) in the window of a diner. She has sewn an astonishing amount of detail into the scene, including representations of the drop ceiling, the menu, the filament lightbulbs, the eatery logo and the model of the car across the street, mirrored in the glass.
“The World Is Upside Down” isn’t quite as sensational, but it’s even more impressive: a hotel, wavering in reflection in a swimming pool and then inverted by the artist for maximum disorientation and giggly delight.
Neither BrassWorks nor Hillside Square Gallery are well known outside of the area; heck, I’d be surprised if most of the people who live in Montclair have ever visited. But they’re both intriguing spaces to see exhibitions. Lackey and Gorman have hung their pieces on the well-lit walls of architecturally compelling buildings. That suits the mood of both shows. Best yet, both of these outstanding shows are free and viewable during normal business hours. If you’re a Montclairian or just a Montclairian for the day), these twin celebrations of sunlight, shadow and urban happenstance make a perfect combination.
Allan Gorman’s “Searching for Drama” will be at BrassWorks Gallery in Montclair through Dec. 15; visit bravitas.com/galleries-events/brassworks-gallery.
Lisa Lackey’s “It’s Not Paint!” will be at Hillside Square Gallery in Montclair through Dec. 15. Visit bravitas.com/galleries-events/hillside-square-gallery.
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