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Stepping into Ferndale's Lemberg Gallery these days means taking part in an intimate, wordless conversation on the state of America's urban soul. There, a small but powerful show, Contemporary Urban Landscape (bumped up in the gallery's schedule to coincide with Cranbrook Art Museum and MOCAD's collaborative Shrinking Cities exhibition), brings together scintillating works by seven veteran realist painters and one relative newcomer. It reminds us, as we confront the frustrations of metro sprawl, that urban density is where and how we live.
Obviously, the challenge at Lemberg was how to organize a show that overflows with memorable painterly statements, since the range of ideas about urban space contained in the gallery's compact quarters is pretty astounding. For instance, in the corner opposite the entryway hangs a debate between two propositions in search of a conclusion: New York painter Yvonne Jacquette's imposing, dramatically lit "Above Times Square" faces off with Cranbrook graduate Trygve Faste's diminutive, sly "Biosphere, Competing Systems." Jacquette infuses her compositions with an otherworldly "night-light" that only metropolitan cave dwellers have ever seen, the cumulative effect of thousands of neon signs and streetlights. A wistful love of the city permeates her work, and jousts with Faste's unabashed cynicism about human technology, which he renders by means of chillingly blue, cloudless skies, sterile bio-enclosures, and the barest traces of organic survival in our collective zeal for "progress." Ultimately, the contrast poses a question: Is urbanism the seductive future of things or a devolving endgame?
On the same wall, Ben Aronson's large painting, "Under the El," offers a downtown view of Chicago's elevated transit system. Gazing into the ebony-green shadow in the image's bottom third is like plunging into a pool of urban memory, a corner of the Loop through which untold multitudes of Chicagoans have passed in scenarios of passion, ennui and despair. As a graphic gesture, this portion of Aronson's painting has the impact of a Franz Kline abstraction, although a yellow automobile is about to enter its cool expanse as if arriving at an oasis. It's a signal that the works in this show are part of a venerable American tradition that includes such visionaries of the urban scene as Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and even Fairfield Porter, realists whose compositions express an acute awareness of underlying geometries and forms, and who never forget about the paint in painting.
Another poet of the visual, New York painter David Kapp transforms the colors of the city's backgrounds, so that Fifth Avenue turns a powder blue in the glare of the sun, and the esplanade at Shea Stadium jumps with contrasting light blues, beiges, yellows and oranges. His bracing compositions, positioned from high above his subjects, have a relentless, luminous compassion for those crowds of city-dwellers hurrying on their various ways, while the play of light and shadow in his gorgeous painting Fifth Avenue South suggests some incomprehensibly dramatic influence on the unraveling of human affairs.
One of the great joys in Contemporary Urban Landscape is the inclusion of four oil-on-linen works by the late Rudy Burckhardt, the renowned photographer-filmmaker-painter whose collaborations with such New York School poets as Edwin Denby, John Ashbery and Ron Padgett were a sign of his commitment to a poetics of the city. Burckhardt's tenderly muted paintings manage to avoid the trivial, despite the everydayness of their subject matter; and although his photographs always focus on the people of the city, his paintings at Lemberg contrast anonymous facades of buildings with tiny human figures dwarfed by architectural immensity, thus recalling ancient Chinese landscapes, where the mountains are buildings and the solitary pilgrims are pedestrians.
Detroiter James Stephens weighs in with four vibrant, enigmatic works, visited by the surrealist sensibilities of de Chirico and Magritte in a tour of the haunted, postindustrial tundra of the Motor City. "White Lilly" is a virtual rendering in paint of Allen Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra," in which a flower somehow survives in a garbage dump. And "Marry Me," with its glowing palette and vacant pathos, delivers another tragicomic blow to the solar plexus.
George Nick's discoveries of classical motifs in old American urban architecture, and Stuart Shils' lovely studies of fleeting light and shadows round out a show that engages with both the "Ugly Beauty" of city life (to borrow a title from Thelonious Monk) and its endless conundrums.
Contemporary Urban Landscape is at Lemberg Gallery, 23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, through March 10. Call 248-591-6623 or visit lemberggallery.com for more information.
George Tysh teaches literature and writing at the Roeper School. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.