“A Door-Shattering Breakthrough at Denny Gallery’s Pop-Up ‘The City & The City'” by Emily Colucci, July 8, 2016
Nothing underscores the fraught tensions of gentrification quite like the deafening sound of a large glass door shattering behind you. Moments after I entered Denny Gallery’s East Broadway pop-up space this Wednesday, the gallery’s door splintered with a bang and a startling crack. Fragmenting into a wall of tiny shards, the broken door trapped the gallerists and me inside. “You’re not art press, right?” jokingly asked Director Robert Dimin. Well, actually…
As the initial shock wore off, Dimin, between calls to his building contractor and the gallery’s main Broome Street space, tried to piece together what happened. Was it the scalding summer heat that weakened the glass–a product of faulty construction and sweltering temperatures? Or was it something more nefarious such as a warning sign from a neighborhood hostile to symbols of gentrification like a gallery?
Dimin recalled catching a fleeting glimpse of someone running away as the door smashed. But, the building contractor passionately insisted the gallery forgo an official police report on the incident.
Ironically, the group exhibition on view at Denny Gallery’s pop-up is The City & The City. The exhibition explores the tenuous relationships and invisible others in, but not limited to, changing urban neighborhoods. On one hand, the exhibition could not compete with the near instantaneous and terrifying jolt of a possibly vandalized storefront. The incident, however, also inadvertently and aggressively brought The City & The City’s meaning into focus.
The theme derives from the exhibition title’s literary namesake–British author China Mieville’s novel. In The City & The City, Mieville constructs two different cities that exist in the same geographical location. The residents believe the cities are completely separate despite this topographical truth. Living side-by-side, the residents of one city must willingly ignore the other town’s citizens–a refusal to understand or even, acknowledge the other. This plot twist becomes, for Denny Gallery, an impetus to highlight art that draws on these divisions whether political, social, art historical or geographic.
More than a convenient theme for a summer group show, The City & The City is also an appropriate allegory for Denny Gallery’s location in the heart of Chinatown. The Lower East Side and Chinatown perhaps more faithfully mirror Mieville’s concept of two cities in one than the exhibition itself. Even as their boundaries become increasingly blurred, the organized chaos of Chinatown seems immensely different from the Lower East Side’s commercial galleries, condos and hyped restaurants.
The gallery’s actual address at 150 East Broadway further illustrates the divisions inherent in these evolving neighborhoods. While galleries are situated a couple blocks east and west of the popup, Denny Gallery’s specific block remains almost entirely filled with Chinese-run storefronts from grocers to the True Buddha Temple Chinatown. Denny Gallery, for better or for worse, stands out as an outlier and to some, an interloper.
Overall, the selected works in The City & The City take a more theoretical look at Mieville’s novel, particularly in comparison to the direct link to the gallery’s physical space. The exhibition features a surprising amount of abstract painting. These works by artists like Trudy Benson and Russell Tyler use layers of thick paint, unexpected materials and art historical references as a metaphor for overlapping narratives. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch to fit these abstractions within the show’s theme. Maybe if Mieville’s novel hadn’t become so prescient on Wednesday, the paintings would have felt more relevant but in this case, they seemed to miss the mark.
However, the most engrossing pieces in The City & The City portray the distance and strained relationships between conflicting cultures. This isolation can be seen in Erin O’Keefe’s photograph City. The photograph depicts an assemblage of brightly colored blocks that each contain an image of a disparate architectural space. These spaces include backyard gardens, stairwells, minuscule apartments and monumental grandiose domes.
An architect as well as a photographer, O’Keefe captures only a handful of people in City. When they do appear, the singular figures turn away from the camera, adding an air of mystery and remoteness. O’Keefe’s photograph aestheticizes the separate lives we lead on top of and beside one another in overcrowded cities like New York. She also references the seemingly paradoxical loneliness that can occur even when surrounded by millions of people.
This nagging alienation within a bustling city is undeniably an essential and relevant observation about city life. And yet, the assumption that these separate worlds never collide seems a bit naïve, particularly in the context of the gallery’s potential vandalism. Changing neighborhoods don’t always garner a muted and respectful response. Sometimes the other comes crashing through your front door.
Exiting the gallery through a window into a rubble-strewn backyard (with the help of the gentleman-like Dimin), I left reminded of artistic duo Ghost of a Dream’s inclusion in the exhibition. Their video Trump Imagines converts Donald Trump’s threatening rhetoric into John Lennon’s iconic anthem Imagine. Using their preferred collage techniques, Ghost of a Dream splices words and phrases from footage of Trump’s campaign and episodes of The Apprentice into a choppy but timely interpretation of the song.
Trump Imagines is not about the urban experience per se, but it still resonated with the sudden destruction in the gallery. The video transforms xenophobic fear of the other and the menace of physical violence into an earnest yearning for peace, love and understanding. Walking through the darkened hallway of the adjoining building to return to East Broadway, I wondered: can’t we all just get along?