In some ways it makes sense that Valeri Larko, a committed plein air painter, would have an exhibition, Bronx Focus: Paintings by Valeri Larko, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts that essentially chronicles the changing landscape of the borough. The museum’s exhibition program makes a point of reflecting the borough’s varied and changing communities. Larko’s paintings do that. The show contains landscapes completed on location in the Bronx between 2005 and 2015 — 10 years Larko spent on site gathering knowledge of the borough.
But the exhibition could have been accomplished through some other medium. Larko’s style is not particularly fascinating to me. Her landscapes feel inert. There is a tension between the natural scenes of waterways and man-made structures, but that is not made visually palpable. The potential advantage of using a quite antiquated plein-air practice, is to capture and manipulate natural light through direct observance of color notes in the landscape. Used well, a painter can make the landscape come alive for the viewer. For example, Rackstraw Downes, a painter Larko mentioned to me in conversation about her own practice, makes paintings that are ardent arguments for the everyday becoming spectacular when seen from the right angle and at the right moment. However, her compositions tend towards being middle-of-the-road and sharp contrasts are rare. As a friend with whom I saw the show a second time said to me: “Larko needs to pick up her black and use it.”
The painter does shine in her depiction of graffiti and the buildings that serve as its canvas. She gets the wild and raucous energy of it, the way each tag or throw up is overlapped or obscured by other images, like loud voices all talking together at once. Larko conveys its visual insistence and its heavily stylized vocabulary, More, she does wonderfully painterly things like scumbling the paint used to depict certain buildings thus making the textures glaringly uneven, exposing the underpainting and rendering the top layer almost too glossy. Her technique accurately mirrors the effect of municipal buildings that are marred with successive layers of paint that have been applied over the years without anyone bothering to clean or remove the previous coats. Larko makes the stains and rot and decrepitude feel like something significant has failed.
Ultimately the entire exhibition feels melancholic, which might have to do with Larko being too caught up in a spirit of elegy. She depicts several abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses in these painterly testaments: “Horse Rides, Bronx” (2012) depicts the stables that used to exist on Pelham Parkway South, that were closed in 2014. The painting, “Bronx Golf Center,” (2013) eulogizes a place that once contained a mini-golf course, driving range, and batting cage, which closed in 2010. Piers, scrap yards, shipping centers, stores, and gas stations, are shown slowly falling into oblivion. Still, if you look carefully, you see signs of new urban dwellings coming in to replace old structures, such as the townhouses visible in the background in “Castle Hill Road, Salt Marsh, Bronx” (2014). The work exhibited doesn’t want to acknowledge that neighborhoods go through cycles of birth, maturation, death, and also rebirth.
Larko related to me that each painting can take three months to complete and during that time she learns a good deal about the neighborhood she is studying. So her use of a recherché and wistful practice does edify her, but a photographic essay might have done the job of documenting area changes in more insightful and feeling ways. The fundamental question of “why use on-site painting as a documentary tool” is never quite answered. The exhibition is like a painstakingly rendered, at times interesting, at times monotonous handwritten note saying goodbye.
Bronx Focus: Paintings by Valeri Larko continues at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse, Grand Concourse, the Bronx) until June 26.