A Closer Look at the Urban Blur
SCENES of the degradation of inner cities have become disturbingly familiar to viewers of television news programs, but can they be the stuff of fine art? Robert Birmelin answers affirmatively with his paintings, etchings, and drawings. He is an artist who can take the confusion, alienation, and indeed, the squalor of the contemporary city and find a way to make it art.Skip to next paragraph
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I first encountered these works in the Montclair (N.J.) Museum of Art with his series of aquatint etchings, "Harsh Truths." They are harsh and they are art. Birmelin takes the viewer on a hurried walk through a squalid area in New York City, probably in the area around the bus terminal on 41st Street and 8th Avenue and his studio on 14th Street. I say "hurried" because it is not the place for a leisurely stroll taking in the sights. The images are equally familiar as the ones we take away from television
news, remembering them in a fragmentary way but realizing they are striking deep into our consciousness and our conscience.
City walkers will note, with something close to amazement, that the corner-of-the-eye glances, the telling details of hands, of feet, glimpses of faces which are all part of progress through the streets can be recorded with such recognizable accuracy in spite of, or, because of, their blurred, superimposed, and elusive delineation on the paper. The manner of rendering may not be what we expect of painting, but it is indeed the way we see, or, sometimes try to avoid looking in the city. In the background there is the solid, undisturbing presence of taxicabs and buses painted with the realist's exact detail. The urban walker's glance focuses on them for relief from more disturbing sights.
The titles of the individual etchings in the series each tell their own story: "No Agreement"; "Selective Attention"; "The Observers Observed"; "Community of the Moment"; "Handshake From a Stranger." These etchings with aquatint are each 22 in. by 30 in. printed from three or four copper plates. The colors in "Selective Attention," for example, are described by the artist as "Hard ground line drawing in purpleblack, with thalogreen and sienna aquatints." They tell stories of dubious agreements and handsh akes, brief moments of attention and observation, groups forming only to instantly dissolve.
The etching, "Selective Attention" shows Birmelin's eye at its most fugitive. As an avid walker, I recognize the effect of the images as those I would get jaywalking in the middle of a street to take advantage of a break between autos and trucks. As I passed the person shadowed in purpleblack, I saw the raised hand as it caught the light; the man with the mustache was hurrying toward me, and as I could see by his expression that traffic was approaching us, I sped by him in a blur. The normally rendered p edestrians, parked car, and buildings were what I saw before I began my dash.
In both the etching and the painting of "Handshake From a Stranger," the viewer and/or the artist is traveling at a slower speed. The upraised hand demands attention, although the viewer is looking down the street, his eye picking out litter to be skirted and the location of other pedestrians. Without the upraised hand, he might bump into the young woman wearing the bracelet entering his vision on the right. The woman leaving the viewer's field of vision on the left has just about melted out of conscious
sight, although her elbow remains a projection to be avoided.
A genial man who would hardly attract attention on the streets, his manner belying the intensity and acuity of his vision, Robert Birmelin says: "In the midst of a city crowd, one cannot remain solely an observer. Willingly or not, we are enmeshed in its field of energies, participants in its tensions. A half-seen incident happening `over there' causes an urgent clustering that then disperses as suddenly as overheard words, partially comprehended gestures, and guessed-at motives... . " Birmelin himself p articipates in the city's tensions and energies as a commuter from his home in New Jersey to his studio.