Encountering the City

Gary Simmons, Plaza Inferno Grid, 2008. Full credit below.

Exhibition explores the urban experience in contemporary art

Posted by Liam Otten August 15, 2014

Flames twist high over the building and into the night sky.

With its fluid brushstrokes and precise fracturing of space, Gary Simmons' Plaza Inferno Grid (2008) teases not only the rigors of modernist geometry and gestural abstraction but also the sublimations of popular culture. The painting draws inspiration from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), a futuristic thriller shot amidst Los Angeles' Century City complex—and a thinly veiled metaphor for race relations in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots.

This fall, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis will present Plaza Inferno Grid as part of Encountering the City: The Urban Experience in Contemporary Art. Encompassing a wide range of media—painting, sculpture, photography, and video—the exhibition explores how artists respond to and grapple with our rapidly changing urban landscape.

Many of the works examine the relationship between art, architecture, design and social experience. Franz Ackermann's Untitled (yet) (2008–09) explores themes of travel and transport in a globalized world, while Jakob Kolding's How to Build a Universe that Falls Apart Two Days Later (2014) investigates the gap between the planning and use of architectural spaces. Isa Genzken's Bill II (2001) and Little Crazy Column (2002) suggest the soaring facades of modern skyscrapers even as their modest materials and seemingly haphazard construction question assumptions about what constitutes "good design."

Other projects focus on the material fabric of particular built environments and how the aesthetics of a city are informed by its cultural, commercial, and political configurations. Andreas Gursky's Beijing (2010) presents a subtly impossible vision of the spectacular, but now little-used, Bird's Nest stadium, constructed for the 2008 Olympics. Günther Förg's Uffizio Postale, Roma (1982–85)—which depicts a monumental post office built in the 1930s by Italy's fascist regime—both examines and dismantles the relationship between architecture, ideology, and power.

Catherine Opie's photographs of St. Louis, which depict vacant parking lots and the banks of the Mississippi River, explore both the failures and promise of the American urban dream. In Wall Sprawl #6 (Between Enterprise and Henderson) (2011), Andrea Zittel creates an endlessly repeating wallpaper pattern from satellite photography of the Las Vegas suburbs meeting wide-open desert.

Still other works shift attention away from the experience of actual places to more amorphous notions of mental or psychological space. In his portraits of passengers on the London Tube, Wolfgang Tillmans captures the speed and disruption of modern travel but also intimate moments of rest and contemplation. Sarah Morris, in her film Los Angeles (2004), investigates both the surface of the city—its architecture and geography—and the psychology of inhabitants during a weeklong run-up to the Academy Awards.

Encountering the City: The Urban Experience in Contemporary Art is curated by Meredith Malone, associate curator at the Kemper Art Museum. An opening reception will take place from 7-9p Friday, September 12. The exhibition will remain on view through January 4, 2015.

Image credit

Gary Simmons, Plaza Inferno Grid, 2008. Oil and pigment on six pieces of gessoed paper, 102 x 67 1/2 x 2". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 2012.