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The Dionisio González exhibition at Galerie Richard, his fifth in New York with this Paris-based venue, is a collection of digitally modified photos resembling design proposals that are likely to confuse any viewer trying to comprehend the artist’s opinions regarding urban design. What is unquestionably a visually appealing exhibition is beset with discordant sensibilities.
One viewpoint is introduced in a piece called “Jornalista Roberto Marinho III” (2004), involving an engaging solution to housing in the developing world. Essentially a photograph of a Brazilian slum (its identity suggested by media mogul Marinho’s name in the title), the image has been altered to include an architecturally sound yet culturally faithful remake of one of the ramshackle dwellings that make up the remaining streetscape. The idea of replacing the tin signs and found plywood with structurally sound materials and building techniques, while maintaining consistency with the native plan of the neighborhood, reminded me of designer Bruce Mau’s essay on third-world property law and how a respect for the wisdom of indigenous neighborhood growth could enhance the underappreciated order of such communities.
But that admirable notion, or anything like it, is lost in the artist’s more recent work. “Dialectical Landscape 2” (2017) offers a vision of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue that includes glass-enclosed concrete pathways stretching across the tops of high-rise buildings, forming what appears from its ground-level perspective to be an alternate street system at penthouse level. Whether this is a parody of the wealthy’s discomfort with ordinary sidewalks or a sincere attempt to fulfill their wishes is not an easy question to answer.
More disconcerting is “Dialectical Landscape 1” (2017), a giant garden extending across Midtown Manhattan and apparently all of Central Park, built on a platform forty stories up and spread the width of an entire crosstown street. Could I be the only one imagining its massive footings, or concerned with how the structure would transform the space below into to a no-man’s-land, like the way Brooklyn’s Meeker Avenue was transformed by the BQE? This particular idea is disturbingly similar to Robert Moses’s Broome Street Expressway, the project that drove Jane Jacobs in the 1960s to organize opposition and ultimately to write a classic book on the subject.
The inconsistencies pile up. An appealing piece, “Dialectical Landscape 4” (2017), which envisions sensibly placed light-rail lines exiting the Ed Koch Bridge, is countermanded by “Lady Gaga’s Belvedere” (2017), a proposal to dump a private dwelling for a celebrity singer in a Central Park lake. With his attitude toward urban development growing increasingly incomprehensible, I sought and confirmed with the gallery staff the fact that González’s visions are indeed meant as fantasies and not straightforward proposals, though I was also told, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner, that the artist would not resist offers to finance his designs. I take that to mean that González is not a serious designer but does not mind being mistaken for one. Hence, my reading his designs at face value should be what he expects.
In strictly graphic terms, the work is impeccable. Particularly remarkable are the black-and-white prints of invented structures imposed on Manhattan sites. The scale, shadows, and points of contact with existing structures are each handled with confidence and flare. Too bad so much of it is squandered on flippant ideas.
I understand that the exhibition takes place in an art gallery and not at a community board meeting, and I can see there are no engineering plans accompanying the photo renderings. But if these are not serious proposals, what are they? The idea of architectural schemes that are not meant for execution is in and of itself a sound idea. Art that relies on a dense architectural context is not the problem. Will Insley did fascinating work in imaginary architecture decades ago, but he had the sense to create hypothetical sites for it. Claus Oldenburg once proposed a war monument that would block all pedestrian and auto traffic at the corner of Broadway and Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, an impossibility that made for a profound critique on war monuments in general.
But all I was able to gather from Gonzalez’s work was one interesting idea, a few awkward jokes and several dialectical mashups—and first-rate digital rendering.
Dionisio González: Dialectical Landscape / Thinking Central Park continues at Galerie Richard (121 Orchard St) through Aug 27, 2017.