Monday, March 8, 2010

Sarah & Sloan

In his chapter Modernist Aesthetics and Urban Politics, author Thomas Bender works to illuminate the movement of urban modernism in New York City. In doing so, he distinguishes two forms of art-making that depict 20th Century New York. Rather than dichotomize modernism, these two forms create differing “structures of perception”. The first of these forms he associates with the art promoter Alfred Stiegltiz and his 291 Gallery circle. This body is characterized by a sort of elevation above New York’s bustling streets, to the viewpoint of a spectator and not a participant. The formal qualities of the city are emphasized, found within its geometric angles and grand space. These create a “vital but cool energy”, dead to human activity but alive to captivating forms. History and narrative, from this perspective, are abandoned in pursuit of a romanticized “aesthetic of distance”.
The second structure of perception is associated with painter and photographer John Sloan. Like Steiglitiz, Sloan values the energy and physical qualities of the city. His emphasis, however, is not placed on structural forms but rather “the human activities and connections for which they provide a stage”. Instead of elevating themselves above the city, the Sloan group plants their feet amidst the human experience. Average, working people populate their subject matter, creating a gritty and real vitality. Instead of history being frozen in place, it becomes an unmistakable component of urban life.
There is something of the Sloan aesthetic that resonates with the work of Sarah Doherty. This is not to say that Doherty and her project, Axis Alley, are an emblem of modernism. They do, however, continue with some of the political themes valued by Sloan and his group. For one, Doherty has not located herself within the metropolitan epicenter, as Steiglitiz did in New York’s Midtown. She instead operates in Station North, what can be argued is an “extended” Village of Baltimore. Like Sloan, she lives amongst working-class urban residents. Perhaps the strongest correlation between Doherty and Sloan is found within their emphasis on ground-level human narratives. The inspiration for Axis Alley springs from a knowledge of people’s interaction the alleyway, both past and present. Doherty portrays the vitality of active public life, perhaps with less realism than Sloan and his compatriots. There is, however, one vital difference found between Doherty’s work and that of modernism: where modernist work aggravates the barriers between downtown and periphery, work and home, and inevitably between people, Doherty succeeds in somewhat breaking these barriers to allow for a more unified urban environment.

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