Writing of Manhattan at the end of the 20th century, the architect Rem Koolhaas described a new kind of monument, one “available for meaning as a billboard is for advertisement:”
It is a solipsism celebrating only the fact of its disproportionate existence, the shamelessness of its own process of creation. This monument of the twentieth century is the ‘Automonument,’ and its purest manifestation is the Skyscraper.
To Koolhass, the skyscraper was empty, acquiring symbolic value only by virtue of its sheer size. “Automonuments,” a new photography exhibition by New York-based Israeli artist Niv Rozenberg at Simon/Neuman² Gallery (540 Driggs, Williamsburg, Brooklyn), shows otherwise. If anything, Rozenberg’s seven digital prints of high-rise buildings throughout New York and Tel Aviv derive their power not from the monumental size of their subjects, but from the subtle minutiae glimpsed in their façades.
Rozenberg’s photographs definitely reward close viewing. From a distance, the digital prints resemble geometric abstractions, and a reference in the show’s curatorial statement alludes to Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942). Although there is something of Mondrian’s abstract compositions and aerial city grids in Rozenberg’s colorful squares, the comparison ends there. In contrast to the flat primary colors of Mondrian’s most famous compositions, Rozenberg’s photographs are the pale blues, tarnished silvers, sun-bleached teals, and dirtied creams of urban grit. Whereas Mondrian freehanded some of his shapes, Rozenberg’s are all perfectly uniform. And unlike in Mondrian’s aerial city grids, where we look down as if from a plane, Rozenberg instead asks us to look up at skyscrapers from an impossible perspective achieved only through digital manipulation. As Rozenberg notes in his artist statement, the work “does not document reality but reconstructs it, creating a view that cannot be seen.”
Perhaps most importantly, the works never achieve true Mondrian abstraction but are instead broken up by visual elements – patio chairs draped with towels, silhouetted water towers, the tops of trees – easily situated within an urban framework. Many of these elements intrude at the bottom of the composition, loud and obvious if still strikingly poetic. In others, the intrusions are much more subtle: cracked-open windows disrupt a sea of blue tiles. Where the light hits just right, the windows lose their flat opacity to reveal the dim outlines of cubicles and computer monitors faintly illuminated by hanging fluorescents. Much more than abstractions, Rozenberg’s photographs are about tiny, disconcerting details that rattle the otherwise uniform building façades: a chair turned askance, blinds that don’t close all the way, an elderly couple staring from their balcony in bathing suits.
The rectangular dimensions (14” x 21” or 30” x 45”) and reflective plexi casings make the photographs feel like small, personal windows. For the most part, we seem to be outsiders looking in. Opaque, mysterious buildings only reveal their secrets when the light hits just right, when a window is left open by mistake or figures wander out onto their balconies. There is the sensation of spying through double-sided glass at subjects blissfully unaware that they are being watched. However, others are much more ambiguous in situating the viewer. Are we inside the building looking out onto water mills, building tops, bare tree branches? Or are their silhouettes simply reflected on the building’s facade steel-white facade?
It is impossible to look at the photographs without seeing one’s own image, large and distorted, reflected in the plexi-glass, and without asking, When we look at these monuments, do they look back?
Simon/Neuman² Gallery is a new, six-month gallery project for contemporary art photography, featuring the work of emerging artists as well as established artists from around the world. Its fourth exhibition “Automonuments,” a solo exhibition by New York based Israeli artist Niv Rozenberg, will continue through August 9, 2014. Follow the gallery on Instagram (@simonneuman2gallery) or Twitter (@SN2Gallery).