My childhood was fairly devoid of cities. My township was full of rolling hills and farms, but if you drove north or south along the river there were many large steel mills and factories that I always found fascinating. Watching them from the car window turned them into sprawling compositions of interconnected tubes and shapes, occasionally pierced by flames or smoke billowing towards the sky. At night they glowed, much as a city does.
In high school I spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh, but my experiences there did not prepare me for the New York City of the early 1990s. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was still a burned-out shell of a neighborhood and I was just another college kid looking for cheap rent who had no idea of the history of the place. Amidst the empty lots and vacant buildings, The Rivington School of artists had built towering sculptures on Eldridge, and Gas Station (2B) was surrounded by a fence made entirely out of welded scraps—barrels, motorcycles, rebar, etc. Soon new buildings replaced the sculptures, vacant buildings were repaired, and a whole different set of people began moving into the neighborhood. I wanted to understand the forces behind this change, so my senior year of college I took as many architectural history classes as I could. Soon I realized cities like New York were alive and ever evolving . . . nothing is sacred, anything can go.
I think anyone who did not grow up in the city, but claims they are now a “New Yorker,” has moments where they feel skeptical that they can in all honestly use that title. I am glad that I can pull out my rust belt past in order to understand other parts of American culture, and help describe the condition of the city to those who may have not spent much time in one.
There is a lot of planning, yes, but I do believe the work is a spontaneous response to a place/space and its manifestation in the now, i.e. the time period in which I was asked to work with it. In terms of installation, whenever the work turns a corner or slips onto the floor, I’m never able to 100 percent plan it out ahead of time.
When I begin a collage work, I visit the space first to get a feel for its scale and sensibility, and take pictures and measurements. I often then spend several days visiting the surrounding neighborhood shooting pictures. In terms of my [flo#7] project, I also spent weeks searching through my negatives and digital photos digging out images that related to the project, then scanned/processed them, and created a blog full of research material.
Once I have enough material to work with, I pull out images that interest me, and begin cutting out shapes in Photoshop. I compose the collages in Photoshop on top of an image of the actual space. What is great about this method is that I can resize the components of the collage as I’m creating. . . . I’m only bound to the dimensions of the space itself. While composing, I keep in mind the credo “form follows function.” Once I am satisfied with my computer sketch, I measure each component, and resize each one separately. These separate parts are then printed and cut out in real life, then stuck one by one onto the walls of the gallery. Creating the collage in real time gives me the freedom to move things while installing.
As a neighborhood changes, I like to see the soul not ripped from it, the way Robert Moses cleared the “slums” to build the projects. Also, things like the glut of non-descript, out-of-scale, shoddily constructed condos being built along places like 4th Avenue in Brooklyn are not worth much in the long run. If there is a way to keep a balance in a neighborhood in a Jane Jacobs kind of way, mix used spaces, rich and poor living together, new and old architecture, different kinds of businesses, that’s the key. I feel like my little slice of the Lower East Side has attained this to a certain degree, but it’s taken a lot of community board meetings to change zoning to keep it this way.
I quite enjoy a few of the Chicago School buildings here in New York. I make a conscious effort to walk past Louis Sullivan’s Bayard-Conduit Building whenever I can. I find the capitals of the columns on the ground floor really inspiring, and most of the facade. Daniel Burnham’s Wanamaker Building on Astor Place has always been a favorite as well. Something about it to me is just so perfectly proportioned, so square, so balanced, somewhat regal. I remember thinking that even when it was disheveled and run down in the ‘90s. When you look out of the windows on the 2nd floor of Kmart you can almost imagine a time when the Astors and Vanderbilts ruled Lafayette Street.
Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street is a welcome addition in some ways to the downtown skyline, but ultimately it’s uninspiring. Its shape is so safe and boxy, and goes into that “pretty/shiny” category, without giving us much ingenuity. I find myself thinking, “New York needs this,” in terms of new architecture that stands out, but ultimately there is much going on here on a large scale that feels very 21st Century forward-thinking. It’s mostly smaller “quality of life”-type projects that seem to steal the show.
I’ve been sporadically documenting Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and have been working on a few projects about the area. It’s almost unimaginable, the amount of enormous condo buildings that have been or are being built there. The density and height of the Financial District is endlessly fascinating to me; at every corner there are curiosities from every decade all smashed together. Also, Midtown in the 30s and 40s, the part that feels like Gotham.
I do think that I’d need to spend a considerable amount of time in a specific city/neighborhood to feel that I could create something that speaks intelligently about the area. My work offers an interpretation or visual translation of the navigation of a space, offering a view that a new visitor or longtime resident can look at and take away a more informed vision of the surrounding area. I can’t do this without first feeling as if I have absorbed a semblance of understanding of how a place came to be.