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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Visions of the City

Art Review

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  When photography's advent eclipsed pen and ink as a means of reproduction, the city—representations of which dotted the landscape of art history for centuries—became a symbol of modernity, most famously with Atget's photographs of fin-de-sicleParis.

  In Gingrass Gallery's “Urban Perspectives”show, a group ofartists use the city, its essence and architecture, as a point of departure for myriad ways of interpreting the natural habitat of industry and contemporary Western culture. The harsh angularity of the modern city attests to a human mastery of engineering; of man's struggle to impose civilized geometry upon nature's organic sinuosity.

  In no body of work is this interplay more apparent than Neil Rongstad's infrared landscapes, a series of high-contrast black and white photographs dominated by Milwaukee's downtown landmarks. Rongstad's lens lingers over the romantic intersection of roiling horizons and jutting structures of concrete and steel or brick and mortar. His most dynamic composition, Milwaukee River Stretch, is shot at alow angle, a perspective which exaggerates the buildings' height and the viewer's diminutive place beneath them.

  While photographer David Bader and painter Scott Hefti crop two-dimensional space from the same urban landscape as Rongstad, it is in their depictions of architectural details that manmade angularity issublimely abstracted. Bader's photograph of Memorial Hall in Racine captures an upward glance between two smooth columns, an arrangement of rectangles superimposed on a hovering sky. Hefti's drawing, Water Street Corner, employs the simple geometry of a sphere and a few bricks to craft an image with exquisite, sensitive line weight.

  Though much of the two-dimensional work takes a documentary approach, draftsman Michael McKee abandons a palette of faithful reproduction, rendering his Citylights series with an expressive assault of staccato strokes like a flurry of electric confetti. Saturated with color, McKee's work manages to capture the velocity and frenzied pace of metropolitan life.

  Jeffrey Kenney's work is the nexus at which subtractive and additive modes of artmaking meet.Kenney's process, a synthesis of both two and three-dimensions, includes sculpture both found and fabricated in combination with photography. While the perspective of his fellow image-makers is outward looking, marveling at the technical triumph of tall buildings, Kenney's work is more insular. He creates dioramas, microcosms which reflect but do not pictorially replicate life outside his studio.

  Though Kenney's work is whimsical, using clever visual language to find humor in the human scourges of weather and war, there is an underlying subtext of paranoia for modernity, for the city which Kenney eschews in favor of his miniatures. In Hive and Swarm, an angry flock of aircraft stands in for a swarm of wasps, a plume of smoke is visible on the horizon. In Tethered House, a foreboding cloud cover seems intent on defying gravity, pulling up a Christo-wrapped home whose occupants took the HHS duct tape and plastic sheeting advice to heart.

  Though each urban perspective is distinct, the artists find common ground: None chose to depict the denizens of these spaces; the human element is supplanted by its brick and mortar progeny. Between Kenney'swarplanesand Rongstad's empty city, one wonders in the face of modernity whether the human legacy will be monoliths of industry or the humor at its folly.

  “Urban Perspectives” is on display through June 28 at Katie Gingrass Gallery, 241 North Broadway.