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Big, Bright City Lights

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


A museum's collection is meant to highlight its prominence, and to establish itself in the dialogue of the art world. Although FWMoA is many times not thought of as being particularly established in the art world at-large, Sarah Aubrey, Curator of American Art, is clearly demonstrating the power of its collection and its ability to be relevant without having a billion dollar endowment. Constructed completely out of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's permanent and study collections, "Bright Lights/Big City: Interpretations of the Constructed World" distinctly advocates the strength of our oldest and most prominent visual arts institution. "Bright Lights/Big City" is an exhibition on a particularly assertive mission: to challenge our common ideas of the landscape/cityscape, and the citizen's relationship with the built environment.

By using a versatile collection of media, genre, and eras, "Bright Lights/Big City" creates fresh conversations between artists not normally associated with each other, like Louis Lozowick's and Philip Guston's lithographs, or William Clift and Allan Cohen's photography. While the many formal juxtapositions within and among the works of art provide a dynamic mood, the ever present mood mimicking the electric air of the City sets the exhibitions tone. This constant realization that the thematic nature of the exhibition overrides many of the formal aspects of the individual art works makes "Bright Lights/Big City" a refreshingly literary endeavor, where the viewer can scan through each room, flowing through each verse of artists instead of the more commonly particularized experience. Because of this lyrical flow and the temporally pastiche nature of most City experiences, "Bright Lights/Big City" also carries an odd timeless quality which becomes marked in certain groupings which compare common city experiences taking place over more than a century.

One of the stronger conceptual dialogues working throughout the exhibition is the prevalence of Modernism. Both intentional and latent, the aspects of Modernist thought through architecture and representation make a near majority of the images in "Bright Lights/Big City". Artists like Louis Lozowick and his "Above Big City", represent the more nostalgic, optimistic, and near utopian Modernist idea of the city in the early half of the 20th century, especially when looking through the Russian avant-garde lens. Lozowick left Europe in 1943, taking up residence in New Jersey, and continued his love for the City with a front row seat to the continuing development of Manhattan's skyscrapers. In "Above Big City," Lozowick represent an idealized construction worker at one with machine, building a towering, interconnected cityscape, gleaming with the reflected light of the sun. This image reinforces the union of man and machine, and realization of man's need to construct and live in the city.

Like Lozowick, Philip Guston was well versed in Modernist principles and thought, but being a few decades younger than Lozowick, he has a much different relationship with the way that Modernist principles are played out both in art and in urban design. Philip Guston's "The Street", a 1970 lithograph, depicts a very different city experience. Guston's Modernism takes a great deal from abstract expressionism, and late Modernism's historical coincidence of the anxiety ridden Cold War years. In "The Street", Guston represents the city as an assortment of brick and body parts, with a human force of animation behind the anxious assortment of feet, and the built city in the background as the result. This jumble of objects, including people, demonstrates the underbelly of Modernism, the lessening of the moral importance of man, and the lack of hierarchical structure of the image. Interestingly, Lozowick and Guston's perspectives on the city are a mere thirty years apart from one another.

Also full of modernist imagery is the photographic work of William Clift. "Bright Lights/Big City" includes two of Clift's images, one taken of the rotunda of the St. Louis Courthouse, a pinnacle of neoclassical architecture, and one of the glass box Equitable Building in St. Louis, with the Courthouse reflected near its center. The inclusion of the environment around the Equitable Building through the reflection on its glass skin is the primary focus of the eponymous "Reflection, Old St. Louis Courthouse". Even this title moves away from the more romanticized pre- and early Modernism, moving into the depersonalized, ironic, and wholly detached system of seeing the world.

Finally, Robert Cottingham's "Barrera-Rosa's" displays the way that painting followed most of the arts in its high modernist attempts to blur between media and break the world down into its most basic forms. Cottingham's photo-realistic painting uses a superior usage of color theory, complex composition, and formal precision to construct a new whole vision of the city, this one incredibly real with its redundancies and imperfections detailed precisely, but presented through the artist's hand trained perfectly as though it were a machine, with the sole purpose of representing the photographic process. This reversal of the Modern precepts like self-consciousness, attention drawn to the materials used, and a lack of authority, are made palpable in Cottingham's "Barrera-Rosa's" and other photorealistic pieces in the exhibition. These pieces hide maker, the materials used, and set a precisely defined view, exalting the image over the expression.

Sarah Aubrey, "Bright Lights/ Big City" curator says, "It's all about the ways that we see the world around us. You can't get away from the City or the Country completely." Interestingly, the pieces exhibited play out this simpler dichotomy while simultaneously struggling through the Realist, Modernist, and Post-Modern cycles, giving the viewer myriad ways in which to see and interact with the city and its many inhabitants, both animate and not.

Bright Light/Big City: Interpretations of the Constructed World
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
March 19-May 22, 2011

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