Rose Marcus’s recent overlapping exhibitions of color photographs speak to the city’s telling and accumulated uncertainties as well as its pleasures. The first series of medium-sized photographs at KnowMoreGames, with their reflective perspectives, its glints and glimmers and facets, has as its subject the porous city and the shifting relationships between interior and exterior spaces, between public and private. Marcus points to the ambiguous hallucinatory city, the city of glass, reflective of a variety of texts.
By contrast, Marcus’s exhibition of large scale photographs at Eli Ping/Frances Perkins of people hanging out at an art opening refers to soma, the social body and the disassociated urban self.
For Marcus there is no grand narrative of Metropolis possible. The city resists easy definition and the artist work veers away from providing totalizing coherencies. Instead, Marcus photographs the city and aspects of living within it as a means towards inquiry. Her art raises questions about mixed and conflicting frames of mind or states of mind engendered by the urban experience. At KnowMoreGames in Brooklyn, the artist, trained as a sculptor, favors interjecting multiple, simultaneous and contrary views of the city’s built environment, its infrastructure and architecture. Marcus’s other exhibition at Eli Ping/Frances Perkins gallery in the Lower East Side consists of four monumental photographs. Each image isolates and tightly frames partial views of people congregating in an empty white space. The works’ imagery of both exhibitions were generated in or outside the KnowMoreGames locale.
The artist sees the city as a poetic object. In describing it through her camera lens’s observant eye Marcus is part-fabulist, part-allegoricist, part-ethnographer. Like anyone (everyone?) who loves and hates the city at the same time, Marcus’s photographs effectively register her often equivocal if not conflicted states of mind on the city and urban experience. Oscillating between being enchanted by the city’s glittering allure and sense of promise and being disillusioned by the city’s intractability and the difficulties it presents in terms of survival Marcus’s current exhibitions find their flaneur beginnings in 2008, the year of the financial collapse. At that point Marcus began a project that lasted several years. She made it a routine of photographing emptied storefronts, originally intended as a practical way for her of keeping mental track of rental opportunities for a possible artist studio or a potential start-up gallery space.
The exhibition mounted earlier in the year at KnowMoreGames in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens area consisted of nine color images of Manhattan and its environs. The unique inkjet prints on paper, all similarly silver framed and glazed 36 x 24“ photographs exhibited at KMG were: Empire (sculpture), Empire (poster), Empire (truck), Empire (horses) One World Trade (trucks), One World Trade (ladder), One World Trade (soft walk), One World Trade (man), One World Trade (sculpture). Rose Marcus’s photographic impulse gives breath and breadth to two key philosophical ruminations: the shifting and elusive relationship between perceived appearances and essences and on the relationship between the transitory and the monumental. For Marcus the post-modern city is pathetic and glorious, constantly changing itself, masquerading in a shift of multiple contiguous and discontinuous identities. Her photographs traffics in pitting the abject with the monumentally heroic. Empire (poster), for example somehow fuses the abandoned derelict mattress formerly found and photographed in front of KnowMoreGames and inserts it in the glorious sexy night scene of a glittering city skyscape. In One World Trade (ladder) one of the façades of the Freedom Tower with several of its missing windows is conflated with the interior of the modest KMG gallery room with a ladder dominating the scene, the gallery room’s window opens up to a grungy vista of the Cross – Bronx Expressway overpass and its environs.
Marcus touches on Manhattan as the city on the hill, yet one in which its vision of itself in its press photos and the role that it is often cast in the Hollywood mold as that global locale of sleek sexuality, glamour and power is, in its close-up, battered, decayed, tired, tarnishing and frail. The artist presents the city through a dizzying exchange of glances and glimpses modulated through its urban glass reflections. The city’s architecture and streets are sharded and layered in her KnowMoreGames exhibition. What is notable is the gauzily romantic sheen that seems to romanticize the city through a visual perfume of distanciation. Sustained viewing however gives way to the suggestion of the city awash in air-polluted dinginess and faded glory. The eye sees multiple and simultaneous faces of the city, with the artist kaleidoscopically pointing to signifiers of class struggle and divisions from within. Marcus’s photographs taken as a whole serve as visual barometers attesting to shifting pressure conditions in the city built up by forces of those that wield power in relation to those who have little or no ostensible economic or legal power at all. Marcus has a nuanced documentarian’s approach. She reveals, through small, incremental details, the story of imperfection, of the gritty, broken, congested, desperate, tired city --- the face of the city that its inhabitants know intimately. And she also points to the public-relations face of the city--- the buffed-to-a-high-sheen city, sleek with power, ready for the Krieg lights of fashion shoots and cinema crews, colonizing the city’s streets and avenues, and penthouses armed with their validated and timed permits from the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. Marcus’s crisply illuminated, sublimely etherealized cityscape-from-on-high of Empire (sculpture) --- taken from the Empire State Building’s Observation Deck --- is pivotal to the play of inversions and fleeting moments of recognition that permeates Marcus’s intentionalities in her show at KnowMore Games.
Marcus’s other pivotal image is One World Trade (sculpture), sans reflections, of the Freedom Tower’s base. The perfection of the architecture (or its promise or claims of perfection) is here violated. The shining, seamless continuity of the Tower’s reflective surface-skin is interrupted, comically enough, by four boarded-up plywood windows.
Marcus photographs One World Trade (sculpture) crisply and cleanly with no atmospheric effects. Imagine, she seems to be saying, in a matter-of-fact way: one of the most expensive, brand new, real-estate developments in the world bears fenestration scars. In this image Marcus starts deploying her rhetorical high-low tactics. She knows that plywood-replacing glass is the widely acknowledged signifier of social pathologies such as disenfranchisement, underwater mortgages leading to foreclosure and urban decay. Marcus’s veiled, washed-out look as a whole comes alive by having that look choreographed with Empire (sculpture) and One World Trade (sculpture) serving as crisp visual foils. While conjuring up the city as the site of fluidity and intoxication Rose Marcus also suggests the city’s effect of intensifying life.
Marcus, as Walter Benjamin in Passagenswerk (The Arcades Project) sees the drift of flotsam and jetsam of human activity, the debris of everyday life in the city as an exemplification of will, dreaming, achievement, and survival. For Benjamin the artist comes from that space in which actions, movements, reactions, impulses, styles, commodities and fashions in the city are considered dream-work suited for psychical interpretation. The city is like a mystic writing pad of cultural memory, an exemplar of immediate collective consciousness. The city’s capitalist culture represents a kind of collective dream work upon the human and non-human material. Marcus’s vision of the city bears the Benjamin imprint as it bears testimony to her fascination with dichotomies, metonymy and memory. For Marcus fragments imply totalities, emptiness suggests fullness, evacuated space recalls former congestion, and small stories invoke large ones. Benjamin expresses this allegorical impulse forthrightly in his doctoral thesis The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “An appreciation of the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory.”
Marcus emphasizes congestion, proximity, and density as a way of making her images seem consonant with our actual and interior experiences of city life. Through her photography, she allegorizes the city’s architecture, its spaces, street life, inhabitants and daily routines. Marcus captures views of the city that the human eye cannot perceive, and while this is somewhat normative for all photographs, for Marcus, the crafting of worlds within worlds is part of the dominating aesthetic strategy that she executes with ingenious simplicity (as only someone, perhaps, with a sculpture background as Marcus has, can do…). The Know More Games gallery locale was the incubation site used to generate the photographic imagery that eventually was selected to be presented as a solo show at Know More Games. The photographs that are presently exhibited at Eli Ping/Frances Perkins were also shot on location at KnowMoreGames as well. That locale, the artist remarks, was used: “ …as a stage for my own process, of my recognition of the passage of time…time is compressed but I use an analog way of dragging it out…”
The artist uses no overlays, and doesn’t Photoshop her work. Marcus takes three black and white photographs (that of the Empire State Building Observation deck view, that of the Freedom Tower taken at its base from street level, and that of the interior of the KnowMoreGames gallery space taken from outside of the gallery looking inward through the main window) and has them framed and covered with glass. While physically moving, slanting, positioning and re-positioning these three photographs with their reflective surfaces strategically so as to mirror and duplicate themselves and their environments inside and outside the gallery’s walls Marcus is photographing what she sees. With the photographs’ ricocheting imagery being recorded Marcus creates a multiplier effect, generating ever-expanding, ever thickening palimpsest imagery that resonates with spectral forms-within-forms effects. Reality and un-reality coincide, while repeating, compressing and enlarging views of the city, suggestive of a hallucinatory, dream-like state, unleashes a torrent of correspondences, projections and memories, voluntary or otherwise, in the mind of the viewer. This fanciful visual glossolalia depicts an ephemeral, mythical city of smoke and fog, a city without clear beginnings and endpoints. Italo Calvino inferred such a dream city of marvels when he wrote of the archetypal global City of the future in Invisible Cities: “…The catalog of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. In the last pages of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end…without shape.”
Ping/Frances Perkins gallery Rose Marcus presents us with the city of wraiths, the city of vestiges, apparitional flaneurs, congregating. As she did at KnowMoreGames Marcus sees the postmodern metropolis as a site of wonderment and mystery. It is also the phantasmagoric site of mythic domination as well as the locus of capitalist exploitation, injustice and the diminution of human experience. She depicts the city as the site responsive to and organized as the response to human social activity. Most importantly she assumes, as Walter Benjamin did, a fascination with the peripheral and the unsensational as the locus of deep reflection if not significance. Such an analysis of the urban setting compels Marcus to enunciate photography as porous text leaving traces and tracks behind as evidentiary material pertains to the mental and physical being of the postmodern city dweller. Marcus’s affinities with Benjamin’s micro-sociological and anthro-philosophical ruminative dissecting of corpus urbanus, as expressed in his unfinished Arcades Project (Passagenwerk) of 1927-40 becomes again evident. Marcus’s imagery at Eli Ping/Frances Perkins has as its touchstone Benjamin’s writings of the city-dweller as flaneur (by way of Charles Baudelaire, George Simmel and Edgar Alan Poe) attesting to that individual as an anonymous stroller taking the city within himself through a succession of transient impressions. The artist personifies Metropolis by looking at its inhabitants within a certain context and milieu and presenting them through the feel of public advertisements. The feeling here at the gallery is that the works pertain to the emblematic, the vestigial and the transitory in equal measure. Her four large-scale unique inkjet prints on adhesive vinyl based on her photographing crowds at her own opening at the KMG gallery in Brooklyn, occurring two weeks prior to her show in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The artworks on view at Eli Ping/Frances Perkins are: Lost the Boat (80 x 52 ½”), Observation deck (80x52 ½”), Burghers (79 ½ x 52 ¾”) and We are on it working ground up (79 ½ x 52 ½”). By tightly framing her interior shots of white floors and walls where stock-still people congregate and hold space in a muffled environment Marcus gives her suite of stills a cinematic feel that is enigmatically powerful. These photographs, all unique prints, are large and their colors while muted have a lush quality that belies the starkness emphasized by the silhouetting that takes place. Their sculptural presence of the subjects portrayed is emphasized by Marcus’s decision to have these inkjet prints on adhesive vinyl pressed tightly and directly against the clean high walls, as one would an advertisement. Each unique print colonizes is its own entire, individual wall. There are no side-by-sides. In Marcus’s photographs everything above the waist is excluded, the lower parts of the bodies remain, for the most part no skin showing. In these vast pictures identification is suggested by stance and body position only, by the stark white space surrounding and framing the darkly cut-outs of the winter clothing, pants legs and shod feet. Immanence is embodied in such forms, compositions and coloration, as is the liminal. In Observation Deck (2014), an 80” x 521/2” there is a rare moment of transient vulnerability, even tenderness: here we see an open coat and a billowy open tousled white shirt emerges from pants top, a ocean of fresh whiteness emerging out of a line-up of swaddling a man’s torso, hints of suspender. At top right a rosy, dangling, delicate man’s hand is singled out against the flat dark background of bodies pressed against each other. In this photograph a spectral, furtive, haunting, quality pervades. There is also an Old World sensation that lingers around Marcus’s images, Gangs of New York feel. Perhaps this might be because of the sienna-type coloration, starkness, an elemental quality pervades, as does a certain wan delicateness wedded to a sensation akin to evacuated stillness. Fragility and contingency is suggested in We are on it working ground up (2014), an 80”x 52 1/2 “ vertical work. The overall pinkish/violet hue of the image has a visual resonance that makes the work jumps off the wall. The ink-jet edges forming the contours of the girl’s legs emerging from a skirt and coat are tremulous and diffuse. It is as if the walls of the body container are giving way, unable to contain the affective, somatic and psychic energies produced by the system. A rough-hewn, Lower East Side, Jacob Riis – like tenor accrues, lingers within these images. Emma Lazarus and the early reformist movements are the ghosts in this pictorial machine.
Lost the boat (2014) an 80” x 52 1/2” has an apocalyptic radiance to it that could not help but remind me of fireballs and 9/11. Lost the boat is an incinerating version of Burghers (2014), the image of congregating visitors snapped by Marcus on street level shooting from outdoors into KnowMoreGames gallery window. Behind her, somewhere on Huntington Avenue, there is a fire. Marcus catches that conflagration in the window’s reflections and the whole interior scene is ablaze. By turning her camera just a few degrees too the left or right that same fire is only hinted at in two small slurry-like golden spaces in Burghers, located between the legs, below the hem of the man’s winter coat and to the right of the right leg just above the knee. These passages erupt from the pictorial surface like gashes in space; they look like printing errors or technological glitches.
The exhibition at Eli Ping/Frances Perkins is as deeply engaging in its own terms on formal and conceptual levels as the works presented KnowMoreGames. The visual sumptuousness, sensual strength and pictorial acuteness of Rose Marcus’s aesthetic are undeniable. She makes art that produces unforgettable experiences for her audience I think because she connects with her subject matter so strongly and empathically. For her, it is clear, art making is a means toward speculative inquiry that induces melancholic rumination. Marcus is a major talent. She doesn’t shy away from tackling big themes in conceptually nimble and evocative ways. It will be fascinating to see how her complex vision unfolds in the future. - Dominique Nahas
Mr. Nahas teaches critical studies at Pratt Institute and is a critique faculty member of the New York Studio Residency Program. A member, and former board member, of AICA-USA (Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art), Nahas has curated many museum and gallery shows and has written extensively on the visual arts in print and online culture and art magazines.