They seem like voids, as though a cavity had mysteriously opened to reveal picturesque landscapes dwelling beneath the urban fabric. These minute paintings cohabit the surfaces on various urbanscapes along with anonymous graffiti and random detritus. What can only be called the preciousness of these painstakingly rendered ideal sceneries recall a certain cliché. They might make you think of the idyllic landscapes one is likely to encounter in the gallery of a suburban shopping mall. Yet Ellen Harvey purposely adopts this aesthetic as a form of graffiti in its own right in order to bring into question the values surrounding illicit public artistic forms.
Harvey’s New York Beautification Project is just one of eleven works in the two person show now on view at Dodge Gallery’s The Natural Order of Things, which also features the vibrant work of Jason Middlebrook. The Beautification Project consists of forty photographs, each split horizontally into two views of one of Harvey’s paintings located [somewhere in the city] throughout the city. One view is a close-up that reveals the tactile quality of the paint surface, the other an extended view that partially reveals the greater urban context and makes the painting recede, giving the illusion that the urban space has been punctured and an idyllic reality made manifest. Often times the surrounding graffiti and grime seem as though they’re on the verge of launching an attack on these minute delicate landscapes. The work thus takes on a temporal and almost performative aspect. The kind of preciousness and delicacy that the photographs of these paintings convey can’t help but remind one that the works, created in 2007, are themselves probably long gone.
The Beautification Project is Harvey’s response to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to curtail the presence of Graffiti in New York City. The work is reminiscent of the interventions by groups like the Situationist International whose members presented a challenge to the orthodoxy ruling the use of public space. In the press release Harvey is quoted as saying, “. . . disorderly sites in the city are really some of the only places available for non-professional artists to express themselves in public.” A statement that echoes the sentiments of Henri Lefebvre in his essay Right to the City, in which he says, “Between the sub-systems and the structures consolidated by various means (compulsion, terror, and ideological persuasion), there are holes and chasms. These voids are not there due to chance. They are the places of the possible.” It is the values and devaluations surrounding these sites of possibility that Harvey appears to be foregrounding and bringing into question.
The show also contains Jason Middlebrook’s recent Plank series, which consists of irregular pieces of wood on which patterns have been painted in bright colors. The painted marks either correspond, to varying degrees, to the natural grain of the wood or allow the natural wood to show through. These wooden supports, with their varying natural imperfections and irregularities, are interesting objects in their own right and give what would otherwise be pretty straightforward paintings a sculptural element. At its surface the work presents a binary between the natural wood and the synthetic, brightly colored paint, which provides an easy metaphor for the nature/culture divide. However, if one pays attention to these recycled planks, and how they have been meticulously posed and incorporated into the formal scheme of the synthetic process of artistic creation, one starts to realize that these planks have merely come in as a highly manicured stand-in for nature. Thus the divide between what is in fact considered natural and what is considered synthetic is complicated.
(Images: Ellen Harvey, New York Beautification Project, 1999-2001, photograph Set of forty framed photographs, Dimensions variable; Ellen Harvey, Detail of New York Beautification Project; Jason Middlebrook, Plank #4, 2010, acrylic on wood plank 115 x 16 x 1.5 inches. Courtesy Dodge Gallery.)