Having lived in a variety of urban areas over the years, I've thought a bit about the evolution of city spaces and the ways in which built environments affect the culture. Sometimes the starkest places provide enough visual allure to imprint our consciousness and inform our community identity.
There's stark intrigue in the pictures by Rachel Herrick and Sarah Powers on display at Mahler Fine Art this month. Their show takes shape around those overlooked corners of community and urban life: abandoned industrial buildings, back alleys and old storefronts, as well as such underexamined features as the rear facades of buildings and other architectural edges and infrastructure. What unifies the show, however, is the artists' laborious, methodical techniques.
Rachel Herrick's images are nighttime views—several are culled from the Fuquay-Varina area—and she paints derelict locations, as well as recognizable landmarks such as the hamburger joint RJ's Place. She begins by converting photographs she's taken into monotones and mirror reversed. The image is then split up, printed out in 8-by-10-inch portions, slathered in acrylic medium and laid directly on her panel surfaces. After letting the panels sit for 48 hours, she peels off the original photographic paper, leaving transferred image and line work behind. What remains is a ready framework upon which Herrick can apply markings, washes, tints of color and more acrylic medium texture. As if all that didn't lend a sumptuous enough surface, she also underlays various materials such as bed sheets or burlap to bestow a mysterious layered nimbus to the work. The lush combination of layered, nocturnal views and richly worked surfaces transfixes the eye.
Sarah Powers works within a brighter color scheme of light grays, pastel yellows and frosty whites, a palette that makes her work appear positively sunny in contrast to Herrick's after-hours scenes. Her paintings are often pierced by an occasional streetscape element like a utility pole or a traffic sign, power lines or a construction crane or two inscribed in energetically but sparely drawn lines. Utilizing a minimalist-inflected editorial sense, Powers composes spare meditative rectangles that evoke building facades and cityscape elements. I found the sprouting of poles and cranes to provide welcome visual relief—the work would suffer without them.
Her markings are bolstered by blocks of flat color, rendered in paint, graph paper or even affixed X-ray film. There's also a few wondrously little collage doodads here and there that entertain the eye—a teeny-tiny human figure affixed to one corner, various numbers or a lone jigsaw puzzle piece hanging out where two colors meet.
Her spare canvases are uniformly well composed, and their visual strength hinges on the ambiguity Powers strikes between representational artifact and her rigorously pared collage technique. Like Herrick, she also utilizes a layered aesthetic by incorporating grid patterns and a boldly wrinkled fabric underneath her painted surface that seems extra plush, like cloth material that begs to be touched.
Though both Herrick and Powers take inspiration from remote urban landscapes, it is to the artists' credit that the work never feels desolate. The show has a fugacious feel, as if the artists took an especially observant walk around town, stopping to take notes along the way. In stark contrast to the roving viewpoints, their deliberate mixed-media techniques bestow a lyrical, tactile propinquity to their work. The artists' work holds together in this exhibit through technical dexterity, even as their color palettes and value ranges could hardly be further apart. This is not a bad thing. It reminds me of urban realities and how the corners of a town—even those as close as within a single city block—maintain their distance from each other.