The act of seeing is complicated, especially when it comes to the challenges of art. On a recent wander through the Lower East Side, I found myself in three galleries currently hosting solo exhibitions that require a closer look to reveal the details hidden from the first glance.
Thomas Allen’s Beautiful Evidence at Foley Gallery, a recent Lower East Side gallery transplant from Chelsea, is deceptively simple with its wholesome people collaged against old books. Yet a more prolonged exposure reveals playful correlations between the characters and the pages, where a girl jump ropes into an illustration of the sky framed with text and an ice skater dances the orbits of the diagram below her feet. The Michigan-born artist was inspired by thinking on how his eight-year-old daughter would interpret the theories and facts of science.
Allen spent hours flipping through old books for “Beautiful Evidence,” then photographing the extracted people and sliced pages, flattening them into forced perspectives. While it would be fascinating to see some of the altered books in person, the photographs still keep the illusion of three dimensions. In the windows of Foley are some fragments of his process that hint at the intense work that went on behind the retro-future studies.
Over at Munch Gallery is Canadian artist Matt Bahen’s The Weight of Light, which, like Allen’s work, reveals its dimensions after a more thorough look. Here a surface that appears to be flat is in fact rippling. Photographs don’t capture what it is like to look at one of Bahen’s oil paintings, where up close their forms disintegrate into a blur of heavy lines of paint. All of the pieces in The Weight of Light are dated to 2012, and they seem to be made furiously, yet the storms of brushwork, when viewed from a distance, are quiet. The abandoned buildings and wintry forests in the large-scale works are populated only with stray dogs.
In some of the works the dogs lope almost unseen behind trees; others fight in battles that seem to echo in the silence of the paintings. At Foley, Allen’s photographs bring some whimsy to the immenseness of the universe, but here the depiction of vastness is much more ominous, leaving the viewer to question how these places came to be empty, and whether the dog sitting with open eyes beneath shattered church windows would wag its tail or bite.
The turmoil is far from quiet in Valerie Hegarty’s Figure, Flowers, Fruit at Nicelle Beauchene, where nature erupts grotesquely. There are only four pieces in the exhibition, but each commands a wall with its own chaos, the most extreme being “Flower Frenzy,” which has a demure still life totally obliterated by a visceral growth of flowers. The added drips and disintegrations to the gallery wall reminded me of the never-ending years of rain in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that cause everything to be drowned in mud and overtaken by the flourishing plants.
Much of the draw of Hegarty’s work is in its initial shock, yet rather than just a bunch of plastic plants manically pasted to an unremarkable painting, there is a thoughtfulness in the mayhem. In her last exhibition at the Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in 2010, Cosmic Collisions, Hegarty took replicas of famous paintings and crumbled them as if they were entering a black hole, and this natural mutilation in “Figures, Flowers, Fruit” is also conscious of what it is destroying, giving exaggerated life to the still lifes, which were painted to convey vitality through tranquility.
In different ways, all three exhibitions are worth spending time with, to let your eyes pull your mind beyond that first impression into the intricacies of the art, where details and perspectives that might otherwise have been overlooked suddenly emerge into consciousness.
Thomas Allen: “Beautiful Evidence” is at Foley Gallery (97 Allen Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 14.
Matt Bahen: “The Weight of Light” is at Munch Gallery (245 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 20.
Valerie Hegarty: “Figures, Flowers, Fruit” is at Nicelle Beauchene (21 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 20.