February 1, 2011

Cities of Intrigue: urbanas at Tjaden Gallery

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This Monday marked the opening of urbanus, an art exhibition put on by five students in the department of City and Regional Planning. The exhibition, which features works by Javier Alvarado, Rachel Bland, Robert Sipchen, Sasha Truong and Phoebe White, all Class of 2011, is on display through Friday at the Experimental Gallery in Tjaden Hall. The main topic of intrigue is that constant obsession of CRP kids, that statuesque subject of Sibley Hall — the city. What affects does it have on the land it occupies and on the human bodies it contains?  What are the best ways to optimize the city’s public spaces? And will there be slot cars?Yes, to that last one. In what was both the exhibition’s most thought-provoking and most embarrassing moment, the Cornell Daily Sun got its ass handed to it by Jav Alvarado, designer of “Behavioral City” and slot car hustler. “Behavioral City” consists of a two-lane circular track around a Plexiglas house and citizens. Besides forcing the visitor to re-conceive the boundaries between art and play, the piece challenges the limits of the city planner’s control over his or her creation. By operating one of the slot cars, the visitor at once looks out over the entire “city” and feels the frustrations of a single commuter, forever ensnared by the track designed for him by Big Brother Planner. Or maybe that’s all just some art-crit nonsense Jav made up to distract me from the fact that I was being lapped. It wasn’t fair, though I had the speed settings wrong.Rachel Bland’s watercolors, like “Behavioral City,” deal with the view of the city from above. The paintings urge us to consider the fact that our interaction with the city is not just our own, but is increasingly the terrain of hypermedia, with all its despatializing effects. For Bland, that view is mediated by websites like Google Earth, whose flattening effects on city houses are represented by a painting in her series. In Phoebe White’s multimedia works, the earth itself is flattened. Her pieces consist of bird’s-eye wire outlines of a city, a northern Italian commune and a suburb, all set in a clay background that creases under the pressure. The third piece seems to describe the suburb as a place of societal, ahem, flaccidness. Look at it and tell me I’m wrong.The sole video piece in the exhibition is “Loss in Transition” by Sasha Truong. Sasha explains via e-mail, “The concept I was trying to achieve was the sense of loss in cities —particularly younger cities like those in the West coast — because cities are in constant flux: neighborhoods evolve, buildings get built and destroyed, different groups of people come and go, etc.” This impression of incessant change is achieved artfully, through blurred city images and jumbled city noises. One seems to remember walking these streets, the name seems to be on the tip of one’s tongue, but one can’t quite remember when or why. Perhaps, then, the piece is not just a commentary on shift in cities, but also on the limits of our own collective memory. Plus the film is projected right on the wall, which is pretty sweet.While Truong’s film comments on change, an untitled painting by Rob Sipchen serves as a sarcastic ode to city stasis. In the painting, Sipchen, an experienced graffiti artist, depicts a skyscraper from a fawning low angle, seeming to ape the sentiment of turn-of-the-century futurists eager to build structures that would last forever. Of course, Rob’s extracurricular art moves him to play with this very idea of stolidity, as he turns unsuspecting buildings into canvasses.In the center of the exhibition hall, chairs and a footrest are arranged into a piece called “Whyte’s Principals.” The furniture/art references William Whyte, an urban observer who, like the “urbānus” artists, cherished movement as a tenet of planning. Visitors to the exhibition, which is hosting a reception this Thursday from 5:00-7:00 p. m., are encouraged to sit, schmooze and move stuff around. What makes events like this great is that pieces and the artists who designed them give off no airs of hyper-referential irony that too often characterize older, saltier academic types. They just think art should be fun. But if you go, please, dammit, don’t bring your wallet. Javier Alvarado is out for blood.

Original Author: Jake Friedman