On ViewJason McCoy Gallery
June 8 – July 3
The virus lockdown serves as a pretext for Jason McCoy Gallery’s pairing of two very different artists, photographer Marcin Muchalski from Poland and painter David Rhodes from Britain, in Letter from New York, an online exhibition focused on their recent experiences in the city. They respond in complementary ways: Muchalski goes out, a contemporary flâneur, photographing empty streets and architecture, while Rhodes works in his apartment, making abstract paintings in black acrylics on raw canvas. Both deal in cold, impersonal geometry—Rhodes ruling off sharply defined lines with masking tape and Muchalski using lenses and digital processing to document architectural monuments denuded of public participation. Linked under the stress of present conditions in this densely packed digital exhibition, they share a concern for close, attentive perception.
The pairing of the works in the online gallery—Muchalski with 23 photographs and Rhodes with six paintings and four works on paper—brings out a common luminosity, like a recollection of lived experience, as the refined tones of Muchalski’s black-and-white photos coax echoes of tonality from Rhodes’s closely spaced bands of black. And the juxtaposition of abstraction and photography obliges consideration of the contingency in their methods—the photographs born of the inherently provisional conditions of street photography, and the paintings from Rhodes’s self-imposed process of improvisation: without preliminary drawings, he uses tape to mask off diagonal sections of canvas and progressively narrows the left-over spaces, reacting to changing circumstances like a dancer doing contact improvisation, grounding the provisional in a method that incorporates uncertainty.
While Muchalski makes use of changeable skies to inflect fixed architectural forms with shifting lights and shadows, Rhodes remains in the starker realm of pure abstraction. His groups of thicker and thinner lines interweave and converge in sharp points, creating patterns like merging lanes of traffic, architectural moldings, or simply graphic letter forms like W, N, or M. Untitled 21.5.20 (2020) harks back to the black-and-white paintings of Al Held. The strips assert a verticality that’s often counteracted by Rhodes’s near-square formats, which truncate the bands at top and bottom and create a sense of compression. The irregular spacing of wider and narrower bands encourages us to read them in groups, while their implied overlapping appeals to our spatial intuition and engages us in an open-ended search for overall order.
While Rhodes provokes us to interpret these tightly woven compositions in their severely limited space, Muchalski wanders, interpreting the spectacle of an abandoned city and embracing the opportunity to revisit familiar landmarks in unnatural isolation. He shares Eugène Atget’s impulse to preserve historic architecture, appreciative of its immutable presence and uncertain future. In one digital print (200402_08, 2020), the exquisitely rendered Gothic ornaments of St. Patrick’s cathedral, which nestles like a gem among more contemporary buildings, seem vulnerably exposed. Some images seem direct allusions to Rhodes’s paintings, like the cables of the walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge, or the structural supports of Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, but Muchalski’s journalistic approach heightens the drama of urban isolation and anxiety more literally, as in the image of a lone musician performing in Central Park. Exploiting the high resolution and selective focus of his lenses in ways that sometimes seem manipulative, he generates a sense of unease within New York’s sturdy architectural foundation. A dangling telephone receiver emerges from its architectural context in sharp focus, as does the starkly contoured face of a woman checking her cell phone. Muchalski recalls the wit of street photographers like Rudy Burckhardt by centering an isolated pedestrian under the faded marquee of the Joyce Theater, flanked by pictures of dancers, or of Walker Evans in the visual cacophony surrounding a street drawing by Sara Erenthal. He unashamedly courts the urban sublime in 200402_07 (2020), an image that compresses Times Square’s overloaded commercial displays into a centralized composition, framing the looming Times Tower under a dramatic sky.
The verticality of Muchalski’s buildings sometimes echoes that of Rhodes’s compositions, such as in Untitled d 1.5.20 (2020), suggesting foundational visual connections between the perceptual experiences recorded by the camera, rooted in the monocular view of perspective, and those generated by Rhodes’s manipulation of contours. Muchalski’s corner view of the Metropolitan Life Building (200322_01), with its sturdy orthogonals, calls to mind Filippo Brunelleschi’s early perspective studies of Florence; views of the Empire State Building and the tilted modernist façade of 200402_05 (2020) eliminate the ground plane altogether, unmooring us spatially and opening up potential interactions between the perceptual tension of abstract design and the texture of everyday experience recorded by the camera. While there’s charm in the incidental, Instagram-like panorama of Muchalski’s images, a more focused selection of works, separating them from associations with the internet (if that were possible), could develop these interactions further.