Death and Resurrection in the City: Tim Portlock at Locks Gallery
Tim Portlock: Ash and Gold at Locks Gallery
June 3 to July 16 2016
600 Washington Square South (at South 6th Street)
Philadelphia, PA, 215 629 1000
A day in the life of a dying metropolis: At noon, a building collapses under glaring sunlight. At dusk, an orange glow washes over an overgrown rail viaduct. At dawn, banners flutter in from every direction, carrying a cryptic message to the city’s empty streets. Suddenly, flying shards of material adhere to the sides of a crumbling warehouse, resurrecting it as a luxury loft. Such is the transformation that artist Tim Portlock depicts in his video 11th_St_City_Symphony.mp4 (2013), from the exhibition “Ash and Gold,” at Locks Gallery. It is a transformation one sees in cities throughout the United States, in which whole neighborhoods disintegrate and new development takes root at the blink of an eye.
Bookending Portlock’s video are two bodies of prints that blend photography and computer rendering, one based on blighted scenery from the East Coast, the other on similar landscape in the West. The older prints show a city derived from, but not identical to, Philadelphia. Salon (2011) overlooks a dramatic V-corner, denuded of most of its structures and populated by wild dogs. Abandoned factories loom in the background, and behind them a structure that resembles Philadelphia’s massive city hall clock tower — topped not by the statue of founder William Penn, but a hulking figure that might be a staggering corpse from The Walking Dead.
Anyone who has travelled to Philadelphia by rail will find this desolation familiar. Yet Salon is not one site in particular but a distillation of Philadelphia scenes, and by his own admission, the artist has omitted certain objects and inserted others to capture what he considers to be the city’s essence. Portlock has been deliberate about the alignment of details, putting, for example, the sun’s glowing fireball directly behind the menacing clock tower statue in — much the way Thomas Cole cast dramatic sunlight on figures locked in struggle in his 1836 painting Course of Empire: Destruction.
Although his images depict a cycle of decline and gentrification unique to today’s city, Portlock has stated that they are inspired by the 19th-century American landscape art of painters like Cole. Those Hudson River artists also manipulated the scenes they painted in order to embed in the landscape a deeper vision of the American character. They bathed mountains, rivers, and wild animals in a quasi-religious sunlight, identifying nature with broad themes such as sin, redemption, harmony and conflict.
If Portlock’s Philadelphia scenes are like a painted 19th-century jeremiad, his West Coast prints are more like the thin rants of a modern-day religious television show. Many are based on San Bernardino, California, where the washed out colors of the Mojave Desert create a relentlessly even light. Instead of color cast from the sun, the artist uses the artificial colors of signage and advertising to create visual drama. In Yellow Dancer (2015), for example, he inserts a deflated acid-yellow AirDancer in the foreground. Collapsed over a wire, the figure’s deformity, coupled with its artificially happy hue, embodies a void more profound than that of Philadelphia’s decay.
The AirDancer is the closest thing to a human presence in any of Portlock’s work. The artist has said that he omits the figure in order to avoid the tendency, seen in much realist art, to show people as embodiments of their victimhood rather than depicting them as human beings in full. Instead he draws attention to the forces that create such forlorn scenes. Like the fluttering banners in the video 11th_St_City_Symphony.mp4, the Air Dancers also serve as metaphor for the weightless condition of U.S. cities, in which stone, steel and asphalt float on the worthless paper of land deeds and advertisements. The trail of false promises these documents embody enables a landscape of endless freedom, and also of endless emptiness.