“If new thought can enter the mind, even for a moment, then change has a chance,” writes JT Liss. His photographs search for those figures and visions that allow us to see new ways and think new thoughts.
Ilon Gallery’s show Harlem: Life in Pictures on view in a classic 1890s brownstone, demonstrates how historic images of figures that have become iconic can acquire new resonance when displayed along fresh takes on a neighborhood that has been a cradle of creativity for well over 100 years.
The roster of photographic greats is breath-taking in this show – James van der Zee, Harry Benson, Don Hunstein, Aaron Siskind, Philip Trager, and more. But curator Loni Efron adds in newer, less-known image-makers to highlight the ongoing cultural conversation staged between generations. “The show is about the people and places that have made this such a legendary neighborhood,” says Efron.
Fab 5 Freddie (Mural by Lee Quinones), a 1979 composition by Deborah Feingold embeds a groundbreaking DJ in a playground backdrop that feels like a stage set. The smashing colors of Howard the Duck popping up from his garbage can, holding the lid like a Roman shield against the explosive wild style lettering of “Lee” are cooled in this black and white shot, making the dapper DJ Fab 5 Freddie seem like a jazzman with his topcoat swirling around his legs.
Deborah Feingold’s stunning images of Keith Richards, Madonna, Jim Jarmusch and Tom Waits and a host of others made her Queen of her day in the pages of Rolling Stone. Sampling her work in the context of 60 years of imagery from the cultural cornucopia of Harlem frames her talent as portrait painter, sensitive to details of local settings. Feingold and Len Speier whose street photography is also in the show will be part of a curatorial conversation on Thursday, November 5, from 6 to 8:30 at the gallery at 204 West 123rd St, New York, NY.
A 1963 shot framed askew with Malcolm X seemingly equated with the looming bulk of the Hotel Teresa skyscraper towering behind him comes from Larry Fink, a photographer renowned for his images of boxers, beats and mid-century culture. Harlem can be etched in our minds as a series of famed locales, unforgettable moments, and charismatic figures. Here Malcolm X, Rally for Birmingham speaks on both a street corner and global stage, situating Harlem as a generator of far-reaching influences across culture and politics.
Family Painted Wall, is a recent image by Len Speier that miniaturizes several slouching boys captured practically in the lap of a large woman grabbing a chicken. The mural suggests memories of the Caribbean with pastel stucco wall, a piercing blue sky and thoroughly dried clothes dancing on a clothesline above. Simultaneously bright and dry, it handles sentimental memory with some astringency.
Likewise Sarah Wang, a Bay Area transplanted painter and photographer, seizes the scenography of the street to dramatize the silhouetted outlines of a rapper in Prince Harvey Dancing. By abstracting Prince Harvey’s body into a black shadow thrown on a busy retail window, Wang plays on the possibilities of urban layering, even as she animates the action by foregrounding form. Like Flo Fox’s Cards, 1970s with its players cheerfully engrossed at a sidewalk folding table in front of crumbling bricks, boarded-up windows and dilapidated stoop, human action is painted atop resonant city textures.
Philip Trager’s West 122nd St. vintage shot of the sinuous curves of a stoop are a reminder of the neighborhood’s architectural riches – where stoops are aesthetic symphonies of ornament and wrought iron, as well as gathering places and gaming centers. The swirls of a girl’s 1950s party dress in Don Hunstein’s East Harlem can be read as a cue to Harlem’s beauty, passion, history and energy — all on view in this most satisfying show.
“Harlem: Life in Pictures at Ilon Art Gallery runs through January 8, 2016 at the Ilon Art Gallery, 204 West 123rd St, New Yok, NY.