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New York State of Mind 

Art Review: 40 Years, 400 Verses: Slices of New York

There's no way to start this piece except with the phrase, "9/11." I say "the phrase," because the symbol "9/11" contains a meaning not inherent in the numbers themselves. Now and forever, these digits carry an unspoken weight of change, disaster and loss. There's no getting around it -- there never will be.

It's the same with "40 Years, 400 Verses: Slices of New York," the joint exhibit of pictures by Burlington photographer Sandy Milens and poetry by Seven Days' art critic Marc Awodey, now on display at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery. With only a few exceptions, neither Milens' shots of New York City nor Awodey's poems about it -- specifically, haiku mounted on plain white paper and interspersed around and between the photographs -- were conceived or composed with 9/11 in mind. But for three years and counting, all creative work focused on the city as a place bears an automatic, conceptual relationship to the terrorist catastrophe; even a collection of exclusively pre-9/11 work will be understood inevitably as "how it used to be."

An example of this is Milens' 1966 "Easter Couple," a beautifully rendered photograph, rich in color and crisp textures. Its subject matter -- a couple returning from church services in their Sunday best -- is sweetly evocative of a relatively harmless moment in urban America. Or so it seems on the surface.

The same is true of "Mews Mother" and "Thanks Frank," also from 1966, in which calm, ease, elegance and order belie the terrors we know will come later -- if not sooner. You never can tell. For all we know, the child depicted in "Mews Mother" is the young Etan Patz, about to be kidnapped on his way to school, and the Easter couple, husband and wife, are the folks across the garden in Rear Window, one of them soon to be murdered, chopped in pieces and smuggled out of town in a suitcase.

Not everyone will recognize Milens' indebtedness here to the aesthetic pattern of Vogue magazine in the 1960s, or, stretching it a bit, Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. But one thing is certain -- this vision of American life has not merely vanished, it's been vaporized.

Milens' sweeping view of the definitive American city over four decades is proper to New York's overwhelming scale and constant evolution. His 21 portraits engage the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks largely by accident, but something happens to his work in the half-dozen pictures made after the event -- they take on a new sorrow. With thoughtful, technical manipulation, Milens does what all New Yorkers do: He looks away. The phrase, the concept, the memory of 9/11 may evoke a Medusa-grief, in that you can't bear to look at it directly. Yet Milens' mounting fascination with reflectivity, transparency and depth in time situate the disaster in a larger truth: New York City, as people actually experience it, has a tremendous, unstoppable mass.

The best pictures in the show are the most recent. "Basketball, Artist's Proof" (2003-2004, in progress) is a jubilant, percussive work that seems to shake off the unlimited degree of control to which computerized photography has inured us. "Chinese Kitchen Interior" and "Chinese Kitchen Exterior" (c. 2002) convey darkness deeper than the night on which they were taken.

The agitation visible in "Girls in Brighton" and "Saks -- Balloon" (also c. 2002) is at once frenzied and delicate, accidental and highly mannered. These are pictures you can almost smell. And one of them, "Girl on Subway," is simply brilliant. Innocent and worldly, tender and indifferent, human and hard -- this is New York in the deepest sense. It needs no title, no date and -- alas -- no haiku to explicate it.

This is not to say that Marc Awodey's poems -- drawn from his larger published collection, NEW YORK: a haibun journey -- aren't strong and provocative things in themselves. Written during an extended trip to the city that never sleeps and showing just the right signs of exhaustion and despair, they are "a poetic voyage into a harrowing artistic and spiritual nether world," as Roy Morrison remarks in his forward to Awodey's book. "What Awodey evokes is the kind of pathos and desperate insight of the Consul in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano."

The haibun form, Morrison explains, is "traditionally a mixture of narrative combined with a concluding haiku." At the Tarrant Gallery, only the haiku are on view, and so the larger context -- what you might call the atmosphere and texture -- of Awodey's NEW YORK is strangely lacking:


drinking six hours now

broken all the haiku rules -

chain smoked ten hours


say it in one breath -

so much can be said that way

and so much more lost


Well, yes. Part of the problem is logistic. Milens' pictures and Awodey's haiku aren't directly related or engaged. Yet, as mounted, they appear to be. The haiku appear to be captions, in fact, but they aren't -- they're completely self-contained, framed in their famous 17 syllables and relating specifically to people and places not depicted on the walls:


nearing the met's steps

feathers frozen breath

ascend -

i think of Cezanne

                    *

distant

gothic masonry

cirrus clouds

drift to frame

the brooklyn bridge


sacred

brooklyn bridge

slung out over east river -

sooty piers eclipsed


your midwife-

Whitman

Brooklyn bridge

now your feet bear me

beyond vermont

                    *

heaven halved by earth

seventeen

meek syllables

briefly wring my neck


As before, I impute no failure to Awodey's work as measured against Milens'. I just think this show could have been better or more sharply thought out in its juxtaposition, and I would recommend Awodey's full book, on sale at the gallery, to the large audience he richly deserves.

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