1.24.18 — Unnatural Disaster

If you think that Penn Station is a disaster area, you should visit a gallery only a couple of blocks away. Something has devastated New York, in photographs by Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber, but without touching its everyday grandeur, at ClampArt through January 27.

Lori Nix's and Kathleen Gerber's Sentinel (ClampArt, 2017)Indeed, they enhance its beauty, making it hauntingly familiar but unlike anything you ever knew—and I have added this to previous reports on photography’s menacing fictions as a longer review and my latest upload. Where the commuter terminal is cramped and overcrowded, their city is open to the skies and devoid of human life. Where the first has harsh artificial light reflecting off dreadful public toilets and dreary flooring, their apparent sunlight lends the plainest of buildings a comforting warmth. And where the first suffers from one delay after another, their empire after a disaster has all the time in the world.

Empire, you ask? That word supplies the show’s title, and it dominates the inscription on an arch much like that in Washington Square or Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, but somewhere else entirely. It is one of many signs that this New York has an alternative history, more like science fiction than the course of actual real-estate empires. The ravaged shell of what could be the Flatiron building lacks access to Madison Square as well. A street sign marks Division Street, but it leads not to Chinatown but to a dead end. Could division be a metaphor for whatever brought this on?

No doubt, but this empire looks to have been reasonably benign, give or take its end. It did not censor the newspapers that litter Manhattan streets. Rather, whatever invasion or insurrection brought on this devastation has blown up a cluster of those plastic dispensers for a free press, leaving their surroundings intact. The papers scattered about announce gloom and doom, but that, too, disrupts history. Did they see this coming, or do they somehow add commentary after the fact. And what fact is that?

Nix and Gerber are not saying, although the gallery mentions art and climate change. The show also opened just as Donald J. Trump prepared to ditch his secretary of state in favor of someone still crazier. The selective devastation may evoke nuclear radiation’s way of destroying lives more than architecture. It must have done so some time ago at that, judging by grass flourishing on a street that has blown apart. It has uncovered a watery infrastructure that no one knew was there, turning the street into the edges of a canal. Where, though, are the bodies?

If the dead have not had time to rot away, do not blame the artists. This is their fiction, in photos of painstaking miniatures in 3D. Other artists have used dioramas to suggest the “Otherworldly,” and so do they. Their sunlight is as artificial as Penn Station, even if its crispness is closer to Rome for Camille Corot than to a brave new world. A few of their models are also on display, including the kind of viewers that stand with coin slots in front of many a tourist attraction. In their photo, the viewers face western vistas with, I shall venture, Native American monuments to the dead.

The show’s subject may well be looking more than politics. Does its vague history trivialize real problems, from Penn Station and real estate to global warming and the threat of war? Does its appeal have its limits for anyone not obsessed with Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, and disaster porn? Again, no doubt, and the gallery has a fondness for photos that make New York incredibly sexy or sex incredibly strange. Still, credit the artists with equal care for their dioramas and their exposures. Then walk another couple of blocks to Hudson Yards and the High Line, and try to decide whether that empire has a future.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.