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Issue 239

Alix Vernet Uncovers a Vanishing New York

At Helena Anrather, New York, the artist’s sculptures, photographs and video work document the surviving architecture of a less gentrified Lower Manhattan

BY Will Fenstermaker in Exhibition Reviews | 08 AUG 23

The Bowery is a mélange of Manhattans. A romanesque revival YMCA building, commissioned by business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II for his railroad workers in 1884, became home to John Giorno, William S. Burroughs and a dozen other writers and artists. A few blocks south, a beaux arts triumphal arch marks the bridge between Chinatown and Brooklyn. The Bowery Mission nearly abuts the New Museum, while foundational institutions – the Theatre, the Ballroom, the Poetry Club – are scattered pell-mell among bum-chic boutiques like Supreme and John Varvatos. All along the avenue, stylish yet banal condos and rooftop lounges encroach on the one-time skid row – a Disneyland of grit.

Metal mold of architectural details around window, and then the titular phrase
Alix Vernet, ERECTED ALSO AS A SHADOW SHE WOULD CURSE, 2023, glazed stoneware, exterior window pediment and frieze St. Marks Pl, Unit 18 and letters from Astoria Park War Memorial and Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial, A from ISLAND, B from BY, C from CITY, D from ISLAND, E from ERECTED, G from LONG, H from HONOR, L from PEOPLE, S from SERVED, T from THE, V from SERVED, W from WAR, 218 × 86 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Helena Anrather, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

Through the second-storey window of Helena Anrather gallery, Alix Vernet’s exhibition ‘Street Casts’ looms over this bricolage. Vernet’s art draws on the city’s rich architectural vocabulary, as in a series of stoneware sculptures cast from mouldings that have survived the urban renewal, which the artist recombines as friezes. Three works reproduce lintels from decorated tenements – mass housing that immigrant architects personalized with ornamentation, granting the working-class buildings a sense of dignity, resiliency and charm – on Saint Marks Place. The artist befriended the buildings’ tenants before mounting their fire escapes to capture the embellishment in latex. Beneath each lintel is a brief poem that doubles as a title: ‘ERECTED / ALSO / AS A / SHADOW / SHE / WOULD / CURSE’, for instance, or ‘BEGIN HERE / CLOSE / TO HOME / SO CLOSE / THEY / CANNOT / BE SEEN’ (all works 2023). Written in letters cast from memorials around the city, the poems read as eulogies for a New York that more proudly wore its history. Glazed in an opaque quicksilver, the sculptures gleam dully like distorting mirrors, as if haunted by a melancholy nostalgia.

A black and white silver gelatin print diptych: on the left, materials used to make casts against a window; on the right, dripping plater from a tarp
Alix Vernet, Diptych, 2 pm, St. Marks Pl, 2023, 2023, silver gelatin fiber print, 45 × 69 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Helena Anrather, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

Vernet’s work hinges on engagement with the area’s material history and access to its residents. The text is displayed backwards, as if read from the other side of the wall, and the artist carefully records the sources of each frieze – the aforementioned works reference the facade of 18 Saint Marks Place, while their type was drawn from the Astoria Park War Memorial and Eleanor Roosevelt Monument. Her process is documented in several silver-gelatin prints: Diptych, 2 pm, St. Marks Pl, 2023 captures the trim dripping in polymer, for instance, while Portal, 5 pm, St. Marks Pl, 2023 shows the view from the window of the apartments across the way.

A large installation with impressed letters spelling out 'CROWDS' backward, over and over in a grid
Alix Vernet, CROWDS, After N.H Pritchard “crowds” from EECCHHOOEESS, 1971, 2023, glazed stoneware, letters from facade of Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza, C from MAGIC, D from WORD, O from KNOWLEDGE, R from ENSHRINED, S from ACCESS, W from WINGED, 3.7 × 3.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Helena Anrather, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

Her preoccupation with found objects situates her among Lower Manhattan’s mischief of magpie-like artists, such as Yuji Agematsu, Masao Gozu and Robert Rauschenberg. Crowds references a 1971 poem by N.H. Pritchard, a member of Umbra (the avant-garde collective of Black poets on the Lower East Side) who made formal experiments in typography. Her sculpture repeats the word ‘CROWDS’ 20 times in letters cast from the facade of the Brooklyn Public Library, evoking the infinite potential of a city in flux – characters coming together, drifting apart, reassembling in a fluid choreography.

A large tarp printed with a New York City facade, draped form ceiling and on floor, with a photograph nestled in
Alix Vernet, ‘Street Casts’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Helena Anrather, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

A city is an evolving proposition. Its future relies on which parts of its past we preserve in the built environment. In the video installation Drag, Vernet appropriates a tarp used to shield a construction site on Crosby Street. Emblazoned with a stark, corporate architectural rendering, it presents one idea of the future – an in-between image. A cutaway shot reveals several caryatids upholding the cornice of a neoclassical building. Back on the ground, Vernet drags the tarp – now covered with graffiti – out of the subway and onto the street through the mud and the rain. Passersby stop to gawk at the spectacle. It’s a quiet triumph: amid the city’s sterile gentrification, she’s not afraid to get dirty.

Alix Vernet, ‘Street Casts’, is on view at Helena Anrather, New York, until 11 August. 

Main image: Alix Vernet, ‘Street Casts’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Helena Anrather, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

Will Fenstermaker is a writer and art critic in New York.