Joshua Lutz's Meadowlands; 'Art of the Royal Court' at the Met; 'Frick's Vermeers Reunited'

The 50 large-format photographs in this fascinating volume about New Jersey's Meadowlands have no captions or explanations beyond an introduction by nature writer Robert Sullivan (if authoring the tome Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants counts as writing about nature). Sullivan's observation that "the Meadowlands is a morbid place, no matter how sunny things get" sets the tone for this visual essay that began 10 years ago, ostensibly as a search for Jimmy Hoffa's remains. What Lutz discovered instead, amid the 32 square miles of haphazardly developed swamp, were such trenchant images as a jet taking off from Newark airport—a blurred streak between fall-tinted willow leaves and a shiny cell-phone tower. Nature constantly jousts with man-made structures in these photos of concrete and steel geometries assailed by scrubby trees and rust. Although the Teamster boss is nowhere to be found, plenty of lost souls are captured by Lutz's lens. A priest traipses through waist-high weeds, though whether he's in search of the body in the mud of another photograph or is some vague perp himself pretty much depends on your mood. A pink neon sign for the Delayed Cares Motel might be a chapter heading for this photographic novel; the parking lot is mostly empty, but other shots—of a sullen blonde ignoring the man in the bed beside her, or of a pregnant girl staring at a gas station from her motel-room door—imply that cares can be put off for only so long. And then there's a young woman with stout R. Crumb legs and a miniskirt leaning into the driver's-side window of a black Audi; the action happens in the middle distance, as if caught on an FBI surveillance tape, on a stretch of road running through rubble-clotted landfill. All grays and browns, it's as if the ground itself has developed mesothelioma. While the deadpan vistas of past-their-prime liquor stores and YMCAs recall Stephen Shore's road trips and the fraught liaisons suggest Jeff Wall's staged dramas, Lutz also simply allows the Garden State's enervated weirdness to star as itself. A summer throng mills about Giants Stadium, but the stage is cropped out in favor of lighting rigs and speaker towers—whether the act is Springsteen or Bon Jovi, there seems little doubt the Sopranos are skimming a piece of the gate.

'Art of the Royal Court'

Fabricated from pietre dure (an Italian term for carving stone), the works here straddle a fault line between kitsch and eloquent artistry. A small sphinx, somewhat battered from its roughly 4,000-year existence, offers a pharaoh's distinctive, stern visage, his crouched lion's body radiating an energy that belies the solid rock it's carved from. Compare this sublime piece of royal propaganda to a relief portrait of Cosimo II de' Medici, inlaid with gold and precious stones, which feels like something from the Home Shopping Network, Baroque Division. Other artists deeply appreciated the innate, abstract quality of their natural materials, such as the Florentine craftsmen who framed unadorned slabs of veined marble as fantastical landscapes. While a 1797 still-life fabricated from Egyptian nephrite astonishes with accurate shading and vibrant color, it feels labored compared to a competent oil painting of the same subject hanging nearby. The best works here let the intrinsic color and texture of various stones shine through, rather than force them into clumsy verisimilitude. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710. Through September 21.

Swamp things: Motel, from Meadowlands
Joshua Lutz, published by powerHouse Books

Swamp things: Motel, from Meadowlands

'Frick's Vermeers Reunited'

A girl in a white bonnet flashes an apple-cheeked smile at the red-coated officer regaling her with tales of adventure. Part of the drama, as always with Vermeer (1632–1675), is the naturalistic light suffusing every surface as it carves out quietly dazzling compositions. The diamond pattern of lead-paned windows is repeated in the girl's chair, keynoting a geometric web of objects that impart vibrant life to domestic mundanity. Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1657) and Girl Interrupted at Her Music (1658-59) flank the larger Mistress and Maid (1666-67). Newly hung next to each other, these three canvases represent a substantial portion of the 35 or so works attributed to the painter, who left his surviving wife and 11 children in dire debt because of his losses as an art dealer. Many critics have come around to the view that Vermeer used a camera obscura to help define his imagery; perhaps that explains the almost crystalline focus of the pearls zigzagging through the mistress's hair, a high-spirited detail that complements a crimson ribbon bisecting her lap, the slash of hot color giving credence to one interpretation that the maid is delivering a love letter. Regardless, the knot of ermine trim, ruffled yellow sleeves, and bare arms creates a tension that transforms these simple scenes into tableaux of Shakespearean complexity. The Frick Collection, 1 E 70th, 212-288-0700. Through November 2.

 
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