“London, the greatest city the world has ever known,” a British speaker intones over images of Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. “Then war — total war — came to London. The target was everything and everybody. But as they set about the job of clearing up the wreckage, the people of London began to see their city with new eyes.” Produced by Britain’s Ministry of Information in 1946, The Proud City — A Plan for London features images of crowded living conditions amid the city’s bombed-out housing stock. As the catalog accompanying British artist David Hepher’s exhibition points out, the short propaganda film heralded the confluence of weary victory, socialist optimism, and modernist functionality that brought concrete tower blocks to London’s ravaged neighborhoods in the decades after World War II.
In the 1970s, Hepher (born 1935) began making paintings of the vertiginous exteriors of these apartment buildings, at first delineating support columns, balcony railings, and other frameworks with an architectural precision enlivened by offbeat hues marking the windows. Over time, Hepher started interrupting his tidy geometries with squalls of graffiti and sooty rivulets representing rainwater runoff — not for nothing was London known as “The Big Smoke,” since coal had been fueling its factories and choking its skies for centuries. In a painting such as the ten-foot-high Gordon House, East Face (2013), Hepher has applied a thin coat of concrete to the canvas, the rough striations confronting the viewer like an actual, solid wall. Twenty floors of the structure are depicted as if viewed from a distance, but the tower is ungrounded, floating in a stony limbo. This vision becomes even more surreal with the addition of clashing squiggles of spray paint scaled to the sweep of an arm, a shift that combines landscape illusion with human physicality.
In the nine-by-ten-foot Untitled MFC (2013), garish graffiti at times follows the crenellations of balconies and setbacks, while in other places it lies lividly on the picture plane. Occasionally the drippy swoops appear behind window frames, as if invading the living spaces of tenants; the atmosphere reflected in other panes is as gray as cement. Opaque cartoon doves, refugees from some lost Sixties peace mural, lie flat on the surface, enclosed by uneven outlines. Hepher once told an interviewer, “There is an exuberance in graffiti art as well as frustration,” and indeed, these might be the dwellings of the cut-rate villains and put-upon proles of Martin Amis’s novel London Fields, wherein one character lifts his “rippled face to the tower block, which burned in the low sun as if at every moment all its glass were being hammered out of the clear sky.” In a side gallery, a weathered wooden birdhouse, lightly bombed with pink and blue spray paint, resides on the floor before a massive diptych slathered with concrete and pigment, a stubborn homeowner holding out against the march of an imperfect and implacable progress.
Hepher’s visions straddle various artistic movements, including the school of British figuration exemplified by Francis Bacon’s screaming popes, with their drizzled and scraped-over faces. The Brits were swimming against the tides of pure abstraction, minimalism, conceptualism, and other trends of the late twentieth century, keeping the observed world at the heart of their work even as they racked it into compelling new forms. And Hepher stays close to home for inspiration, painting structures within the same few blocks, reminiscent of how Robert Rauschenberg would construct the “combine” paintings that electrified the art world in the late 1950s. “If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction,” the American virtuoso once told an interviewer. “But that was it. The works had to look at least as interesting as anything that was going on outside the window.”
Hepher is interested in not only what is inside or outside but the very windows themselves. Beyond the emphatic painting over fascinating surfaces, the power of these juxtapositions of image, abstraction, and proportion arises from his ability to discern individual human yearning amid warehoused lives.
‘David Hepher: Concrete Elegy’
529 West 20th Street
Through December 10
Pat Place has discovered art galleries under the feet of New Yorkers and Los Angelenos. Everyone has seen those brusquely sprayed rectangles, circles, and arrows on streets and sidewalks, fluorescent harbingers of unyielding pavement morphing into a Con Ed trench or of crisscross scaffolding sprouting from a sidewalk seemingly overnight.
Shooting with her iPhone, Place (born 1953) calls out affinities among these survey markings. In one of the more than two dozen diptychs on display, a straight line created when acid-green paint was sprayed over a tautly stretched string is paired with an “X” scratched into a magenta blob, an orb over a horizon reminiscent of an Adolph Gottlieb composition. And it’s not only surveyors who unintentionally channel abstract expressionism — hurried painters become anonymous members of the New York School when their swaying, dripping buckets dash off serendipitous Pollocks all over town.
These cropped abstractions — rife with raw color, dynamic shapes, and occasional wisps of trash — deliver a punch much bigger than their roughly eight-by-six-inch dimensions. Some capture multiple layers of paint as crazed as the surface of an old-master canvas; in others, hard-edged geometries abut rich blurs, everything patinated by traffic, both foot and motorized.
Place comes by her insightful appreciation of urban detritus honestly, having been a founding member of the Seventies no-wave band the Contortions before her long tenure as guitarist for the Bush Tetras, of “Too Many Creeps” fame. The exuberant dissonance and agitated beats of that rough ‘n’ ready downtown era get a fresh read here: Sure, crime rates were crazy high, but rents were super low, and inspiration was everywhere.
You just had to know how to see it.
‘Pat Place: Street Markings 2011–2016’
33B Orchard Street
Through December 11