Gallery review: Emma Wilcox, fighting photographer

The 2006 photograph “Eminent Domain No. 3” is from Emma Wilcox’s protest of the taking of houses by Newark, N.J.
The 2006 photograph “Eminent Domain No. 3” is from Emma Wilcox’s protest of the taking of houses by Newark, N.J.
Posted: April 29, 2012

Informed in 2004 that her house in Newark, N.J., was soon to be demolished, the photographer Emma Wilcox exacted a kind of artistic revenge on the city’s exercises of eminent domain. She began writing enormous, pithy texts in flour and paint on rooftops throughout the city and photographing them from a helicopter. (She knew, unlike many Internet users, that Google Earth does not function in real time.)

Upstairs at the Print Center, where her documentary daytime aerial photographs from the series “Where It Falls” are paired with her mysterious nocturnal street scenes of Newark, from an ongoing series titled “Forensic Landscapes,” Wilcox comes across as an activist and a romantic. In the former, she’s following in the tradition of John Fekner, who spray-painted his anonymous “Warning Signs” in Queens and the South Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s to raise awareness of the boroughs’ decay; in the latter series, she’s a contemporary Brassai, who like the great street-prowling Parisian photographer, seems magnetically drawn to the seedy beauty of her city’s rougher edges.

A dichotomy between the two bodies of work is not immediately apparent, though, and you doubt it even exists for Wilcox — to underscore her series’ relatedness, perhaps, all her gelatin silver prints are 20 by 24 inches and mounted in the same black frames.

On the walls, between groups of photographs, Wilcox has installed portions of texts taken from the original survey text of the City of Newark, such as “Chaines forty Three Links to a Dead Black oak Tree.”

These texts, as paired with her photographs, are reminiscent of the British sculptor Richard Long’s photographs and texts documenting his walks in the wilderness (Wilcox, by contrast, walks the streets of Newark at night to shoot her street scenes).

Downstairs, on the first floor, Wilcox and the Print Center have organized an installation of documents, photographs, and artworks that have influenced Wilcox’s own efforts. Among them are an article by the artist Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” that ran in the December 1967 issue of Artforum; Fekner’s inkjet print from a color slide, Broken Promises/Falsas Promesas, South Bronx, NY, 1980, and Zoning #4 (2007), a quilt patterned after a city zone by Scott Andresen.

There are lots of bits and pieces and tenuous relationships to be absorbed here, and I’m not sure Wilcox’s artistic “lineage” matters this much yet, as interesting as some of her selected ephemera are.

She’s still a young artist — 32. At the same time, Wilcox’s own impassioned art makes me think that more young artists should be given expansive, thought-provoking exhibitions like this one.

Print Center, 1614 Latimer St., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-735-6090 or www.printcenter.org. Through July 28.

Museum in a gallery

Locks Gallery often gives the impression of being a small museum, and the uninitiated would have no reason to think otherwise during the gallery’s current exhibitions of early paintings by Thomas Chimes and Jennifer Bartlett.

Chimes, a Philadelphia artist who died in 2009 and whose career was the subject of a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007, should have been better known during his lifetime, as each posthumous show of his work proves. Not least of them is this beautiful exhibition of symbolic landscape and crucifix paintings made between 1958 and 1962, after a seven-month trip to Europe. It’s not surprising to learn that Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, bought one of Chimes’ landscapes for the museum in 1961 — and one for himself.

Chimes’ landscapes, his first mature body of work, were clearly influenced by the compositions of van Gogh’s wheat-field paintings, but his signature palette of purples, reds, yellows, and blues gives his landscapes the appearance of stained glass. Some of the shapes in his slightly later crucifix paintings recall Matisse’s cutouts, but his compositions of landscapes crowded with crosses seem to have sprung entirely from Chimes’ imagination.

The enamel plate paintings made between 1976 and 1978 that constitute Bartlett’s show are the first gathering of her paintings relating to her addresses in California and New York as well as those of her artist friends living in SoHo at that time. They continue her development of the house motif she initiated in her 1970 dot painting House Piece.

Two of the largest works in this exhibition are, in fact, museum pieces — 2 Priory Walk, made in 1977, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Falcon Avenue, Seaside Walk, Dwight Street, Jarvis Street, Greene Street (1976), borrowed for this occasion from the Whitney Museum of American Art (Bartlett was one of the 10 artists in the Whitney’s seminal “New Image Painting” exhibition of 1978).

Bartlett’s multi-plate “address” paintings show her using a freer hand and a greater variety of marks than in her earlier enamel paintings, even allowing the occasional drip. You can easily imagine them as love letters to friends.

Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 216-629-1000 or www.locksgallery.com. Through May 25.

|
|
|
|
|