Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Afternoon in Williamsburg: Stephen Mallon's "Next Stop Atlantic" at the Front Room Gallery

On a bright blue, somewhat chilly afternoon we walked down Metropolitan Avenue over to the Front Room Gallery on Roebling Street to catch the last day of Next Stop Atlantic, the exhibition by the brilliant photographer Stephen Mallon that we'd heard a lot of good things about.

The photographs of the process of turning discarded New York City subway cars into artificial reefs, in order to create a refuge for thefish and crustaceans which would colonize the structures, were absolutely stunning.

Mallon, a Clinton Hill resident, got a lot of wonderful notices for his striking "Brace for Impact: The Salvage of Flight 1549," a series of photographs documenting the salvaging of the US Airway flight that, amazingly, airline captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger had managed to safely emergency-land in the Hudson River in on January 15, 2009.

We don't have the vocabulary or expertise to comment intelligently on these hauntingly surreal photos -- at the fabulous School of Visual Arts, we do teach classes of photography majors, but we teach them Shakespeare, Dante, Voltaire, Kafka and Beckett -- but this review by Benjamin Sutton of the exhibit at The L Magazine we clipped out last month drew us here to see it before it closed:

The industrial photographer followed the MTA's involvement in a project to build artificial reefs along the East Coast, committing stripped subway cars to the sea floor to provide shelter for marine life. That process, documented in the exhibition's 15 medium- to large-format color photographs, opens with the decontaminated cars stacked on a dock like shipping containers, gathering snow in bleak winter sunlight.

Lifted onto barges, the iconic cars are a puzzling sight, suddenly slowed from their clanging subterranean velocity to a few swaying naughts per hour. In Mallon's crisply focused photographs, the awkward barges piled high with the tinny shells look downright biblical, the last surviving members of some extinct species of slithering underground monster crowded aboard a madman's ark.

There's an incredibly gentle rhythm to Mallon's series, too, with stage in the journey following at a plodding, measured speed befitting the huge forms in play. The pace only quickens at the end, when a massive forklift tips and knocks cars into the ocean. In "Virginia Placement" (2008), an 18-ton car flies off the barge; shot suspended in mid-air, the clunky hull has all the grace of a Hummer limousine rattling along Meatpacking District cobblestones.

Nonetheless, the momentary impression of weightlessness, the anticipation of impact evoke Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris" (1932), the inevitable splash tantalizingly withheld. A few feet away, Mallon unleashes the full force of impact in "Bellagio" (2010), with a nearly symmetrical wall of water sent shooting up as a car belly-flops into the ocean. As the reefs-to-be slip beneath the surface, shots of cars half-filled with water are the series' strangest.

In "Settling" (2008) a car sits oddly upright at the top of the frame, with water like sluggish Bedford stop commuters pouring into its wide open doorways. En route to their very last stops, these elaborately (and expensively) manufactured objects double as time capsules, tokens from a culture trying fitfully to repair environmental damage it's done in even the most bizarre and oddly poetic ways

Yes, it's really poetic, almost dreamlike and definitely filled with a weird majesty: after all, these are the subways that we get crammed into in rush hour, and here they are, stripped and decontaminated (from us!) and becoming part of nature. You can see Stephen Mallon's photographs in their glory on his website.

We're grateful to him and to the Front Street Gallery for this show and glad we got to experience it before it closed.

No comments: