New York as a Model

John Haber
in New York City

Vivien Abrams Collens and Ben Boothby

Christina Lihan and Liene Bosquê

Stuck in the city? From the dog days of summer to the dark days of winter, you could do worse than to reacquaint yourself with its architecture.

Vivien Abrams Collens and Ben Boothby encourage just that, in paint, but with an eye to public spaces and the grid. Come fall, Christina Lihan and Liene Bosquê makes their metaphors explicit, in scale models of some of New York's most prominent locations. Both capture the city's awe, but Bosquê with an eye to what tourist showpieces have lost. Ben Boothby's Bialys, Lox & Grapefruit (courtesy of the artist, 2014)All four have a way of asking where public and private spaces begin and end, and all four provoke the viewer to play at once architect and tourist. They also identify less with the amateur than with the visionary.

Approaching architecture

So really, stuck in the city? Vivien Abrams Collens and Ben Boothby do their best to help, even as most remaining art fans are dispersing to sculpture in the parks. For both, that architecture exists largely in their imagination and in paint. Yet it also hangs in two of the city's most noted and touristed locations. For both, too, it tumbles every which way, like the pace of New York in the fall. They could make one stop missing summer, even as its departure took their work with it.

Collens lays claim to real architecture at least twice over. Her paintings hang in the very offices of architects, Gensler, in a Sixth Avenue tower belonging to Rockefeller Center. One has to make reservations in advance to see them, but the firm is gracious and welcoming. It also offers stiff competition. A slide show across from the front desk displays its bulging and spiraling glass towers, from Shanghai to Abu Dhabi, the very emblem of urban luxury after Frank Gehry. Better still is the view out windows on all four sides.

The artist leans to a more human scale. Sculpture of small wood blocks never exceeds a foot tall, while the better part of her work is abstract painting, akin to the formally restrained but visually active geometries of Gary Petersen or Don Voisine. Rhombuses and triangles converge along diagonals, some in bright colors, others in white outlines against more meditative hues. If the sculpture looks like architectural models, and the paintings appear to abstract away from nearby buildings as for Tony Ingrisano, they are both part of "Urban Studies and City Blocks." Like Piet Mondrian, they have one foot in Modernism and the other in urban traffic, even as both have lost much of their energy. They remake Broadway Boogie Woogie after tourists have taken over Broadway and high-profile firms have taken over the dance.

Boothby has not let go of his hyperactive imagination. He also snags a more public location, at the price of a lunchtime public that looks the other way. A few paintings on panel hang in the busy atrium of what is now Citigroup Center—with more a floor above in the office lobby, before one reaches the privileged turnstiles. Like the crowds in both locations, they fly by quickly, in what he calls "Ephemeral Formation." I first stumbled on Boothby the weekend of 2015 Bushwick Open Studios, after I had first sworn to skip the studios and, a few hours later in that northern strip closer to East Williamsburg, after I had sworn to quit, but thankfully I did not. He must have been exhausted by then, too, because he mistook me for swiping a pen. Within the paintings, that glorious drafting tool has given way to architectural visions suiting a time of computer assisted design.

One might not know it from his titles, with their references to Maine landscapes and leftovers. And indeed Mussel Shells and Lemon Dory shows an island of tightly packed evergreens, seemingly floating in a stream—or maybe running aground on rocks and turbulence. Still, titles like Charcoal & Chlorine or Bialys, Lox & Grapefruit may point less to Boothby's subject matter than to swirls and stains on his imagined architecture, as if reflected in its surface. They add translucency to his structure and energy. The scenes could belong to the building they occupy or to sci-fi madness, with the uncanny chill of both. Some thin parallels might stand for venetian blinds, hiding other eyes than yours or his.

On the way to midtown, I peeked into another lobby, where Hans Hoffman had his encounter with urbanism. His murals cover a freestanding elevator bank on Third Avenue, like a modernist cube interrupted by the elevator cabs. They also have an unusually freewheeling design for Hoffman, closer to Frank Stella or Elizabeth Murray and Murray drawings than to the New York School. His façade on West 49th Street, past Ninth Avenue, is a lot duller—and I did not see sketches for both in a summer show at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut. For once in his work, biology is destiny. If he lived today, he might even approach architecture.

A city on the move

New York for Christina Lihan is just like the model city in the Queens Museum, except for one thing: it floats. It moves. That is no small thing. It embodies a city that is always changing and always on the move. It corresponds to the experience of a city that changes with you, on those long walks from neighborhood to neighborhood, maybe some of them in search of art.

It is also easier to reach than the far side of the Hall of Science, zoo, and Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Park, at least for most people. Like the unadorned blocks of the scale model left over (and occasionally updated) from the 1964 World's Fair, though, it is 3D and white. "Constructing Manhattan" fills the Prow Art Space of the Flatiron Building—itself a prominent part of anyone's New York City. Lihan recreates that and other selected buildings with thick white paper and a razor's edge. They hang from translucent fishing line, some in full and some only as façades or in profile, not quite touching the floor. Given the rumblings of the subway beneath, they may literally move.

Lihan's city starts with the tip of Manhattan in the narrowing of the prow, broadening as it moves uptown, much like the real thing. Its white suits the brightness and energy of a city of lights, and it goes well with the mirrored canopy of clouds by Teresita Fernandez in the walkways of Madison Square Park right across the street. So does the compression of streets and neighborhoods. Buildings hang at odd angles to one another, like Cubist planes, rather than following the urban grid. Chinatown spills rapidly into early twentieth-century industry a couple of miles to the north. One can pick out landmarks easily enough, none of them from the outer boroughs, but they do not come with a map.

Art cannot evoke a life in the city often enough, at least for this native New Yorker, and yet it rarely even tries. George Bellows had ice on the Hudson River, John Sloan his black cat on a Greenwich Village roof, but that was another New York a long time ago. Rackstraw Downes attends to every inch of his fisheye perspective, but at a cool distance and devoid of life. Street art insists on a world outside the galleries and a more democratic art form, but only to impose the artist's signature. Christo with The Gates conceived of Central Park and art alike as shared experience, but not the experience that remains after the work is gone. But you will have your own examples and welcome exceptions.

Lihan's city, like that of Maddy Rosenberg in paint, feels more like home, except that it has at heart another perspective, a tourist's. Neighborhoods here do not keep their mundane pleasures and traumas—and only in part because of their compression. You can also readily guess which buildings she has chosen in advance. Her one venture north of midtown is also many a tourist's, the Guggenheim. Even the tenements and fire escapes are a tourist attraction, Chinatown, and the joyful touches here and there beyond architecture are as well, like a break dance beneath Washington Square arch or Pop Art spilling out from the Museum of Modern Art. The title aside, this is not a city perpetually and often annoyingly under construction.

Maybe it is not so akin to the model in Queens after all. That one comprehends every park, every street, every intersection, and every building it could know—and the ramp that extends from one floor to the next encircles them all. (Who knew that Staten Island is so huge?) Still, like that model, Lihan's extends a warm welcome to the city. They may both be more like a show than works of art. But then, who can know any longer where art ends and the city begins?

Souvenirs of New York

New York for Liene Bosquê belongs to a vanished era, but it does not survive only in the history books. It has left its direct impression in latex, cement, and plaster in the artist's hand. It has become the stuff of postcards, maps, models, and fragments. She calls her show "Dismissed Traces," leaving it unclear who has dismissed the city or its traces. Liene Bosque's Castello Plan (William Holman gallery, 2013)Perhaps no one can. Here objects have taken the place of memories, which might not be a bad definition of art.

Existential dilemmas notwithstanding, Bosquê must know that the word souvenir derives from "memory" (in French), and she makes the most of it. Her most recognizable tribute to the city is a model of lower Manhattan in white—like the model of the entire city in Queens, left over from another memory, that World's Fair. Castello Plan takes its name and outlines from a long-ago plan of New Amsterdam by Jacques Cortelyou, who has given his name to a road in the Bronx. One knows it from its shape and from the pattern of streets, barely changed to this day. One thing, however, has changed: Bosquê has replaced every single building with a model of One World Trade Center, cribbed from actual souvenirs.

A symbol of hope, recovery, or (for architecture critics) debate becomes also a mark of uniformity in a sci-fi dystopia. If that sounds like a parable of Manhattan real estate and the financial sector, the model ends at Wall Street. As it happens, the Castello Plan has also given its name to a stylish wine bar, amid the gentrification of Cortelyou Road. And Bosquê, who also appears in "Greater New York 2015," continues her explorations upstate, which like Detroit has not fared nearly so well under the 1 percent. What look like bricks derive from the oldest remaining African American house of worship in Syracuse, in a neighborhood that has suffered abandonment and demolition. She took impressions of Amez Church directly from its walls in latex.

For Bosquê acts of preservation have a way of becoming barriers in themselves, while barriers break apart into memories. Other impressions of the two cities are harder to decipher, in white slabs like shattered headstones. They also take the shape of bricks, set into walls in the shape of a pentagon. They seem unbreachable, but they are only waist high. Is it a coincidence that, like Ground Zero, the Pentagon was a target on 9/11? Is it relevant that the Pentagon, like the real New York City, is still standing?

Of course, the grand-daddy of urban development and crippling uniformity is Robert Moses, who created highways and housing projects with the very best of intentions. His was the last time before Mayor de Blasio that anyone made affordable housing a priority, even if he is remembered more for leveling neighborhoods and creating ghettos. And Bosquê takes inspiration from his greatest critic, Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Cities. The show's most prominent work consists of plate after ceramic plate, stacked or hung on the wall, like the world's largest and cheesiest place setting. Each bears the haunting image of a building off Grand Street, where Moses planned a Lower Manhattan Expressway. Their sepia tones belong to the past, but the expressway never came through, and the buildings survived.

Others were not so lucky. Still more plates lay in pieces by the front window, like the buildings they record—demolished to enable the Cross Bronx Expressway. Plainly Bosquê is an advocate, and her parables, like most, have their good guys and bad guys. Still, the cycle of death and life is more open and ambiguous in her art. Born in Brazil, maybe she knows Modernism and urban planning as both formidable and thrilling, as with Latin American architecture recently at MoMA. At least she knows to cherish the fragments.

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Vivien Abrams Collens ran at 1230 Sixth Avenue though August 28, 2015, Ben Boothby at 601 Lexington Avenue through August 30, and Liene Bosquê at William Holman through November 14. Christina Lihan ran in the Flatiron Building's Prow Art Space through January 12, 2016, organized by Cheryl McGinnis,


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