One of the primary formal issues - if not the primary formal issue - in art over the past century has been the relationship between figuration and abstraction. Beginning in France in the latter part of the nineteenth century, representations of the everyday world began to take on an increasingly abstract hue. The point was less to obscure the world than to present a more intimate, and even scientific, depiction of it - non-representation
as a heightened mode of representation. In the middle half of the twentieth century, abstraction came to dominate individual works of art and an entire medium such as painting; but for the most part, the goal in the visual arts has usually been to find a balance - however tense, or tenuous - between representation and non-representation.
On first glance, Ben Polsky's paintings would appear to strive for a complex reconciliation of these two elements. But the images contained within this formal execution point to something more. If the battle between figuration and abstraction dominated the last century, then the struggle over contexts may dominate the next. Just as unified fields of perspective and perception were shattered in French painting at the end of the nineteenth century, so, too, was the idea of a single shared context for experiencing, producing, or understanding cultural objects demolished by the end of the twentieth.
In other words, Paris and Aix-en-Provence and Arles with their grand traditions must now account for the economically blighted edges of Newark, New Jersey where Polsky digitally photographs the ruins of factories and other industrial sites and then transfers these images to large canvases by utilizing a painstaking process of carbon transfer and drawing. Digital photographs create an immediate sense of the now (and if you don't like that now as reproduced on the camera's tiny screen, you can erase it or shoot the moment all over again with no waste of film). On the other hand, the carbon transfer process - which establishes a basic outline of the photographed image, but leaves all of the small details to be filled in - demands a careful and extended temporal recreation of that which appears to have been abandoned by time and history.
Take, for instance, Zipper Factory (2000-01). From a distance, the painting looks to be a blend of concrete images and more abstract patches that rest within a large off-white and somewhat grubby canvas. Upon closer perusal, standing structures such as walls and pillars come into focus while the abstract sections turn out to be rubble, twisted steel, and broken pieces of wood. But if you get real close, this mess at the center of the painting becomes its own organic abstraction, and the detail an impressive display of artistic technique. The component parts of the work compliment each other perfectly: the emptiness of the canvas and the large image embedded within it, the standing structures and their accompanying decay, and the figurative and abstract elements that shift according to the viewer's position in relationship to the canvas.
At the same time, these paintings are blueprints of ruin and neglect, and not simply formal exercises. Ink Plant (2001) conveys this blueprint feel. A multi-structure complex with piles of debris scattered around it, the factory has managed to continue standing, though it's beyond any possible renovation. This elegiac tone pervades all of Polsky's work. Nevertheless, the starkness of the images, the detail that goes into them, and the neutral background of the canvas aren't meant to evoke a nostalgic mood, or instigate a gloomy emotional response. Instead, they seek to precisely document a particular set of material conditions. The context may be one of loss, but it's a specific figure that's been lost, not the loss of figuration, or the loss of history in an aestheticized world of formal effects.
It's also the loss within a specific location - Newark, a city that's synonymous in the American psyche with car thefts, riots, and inner-city decay. Similar to many cities in the United States, Newark has undergone recent attempts at revitalizing the downtown area - a new performing arts center, a basketball stadium, a renovated Art Deco skyscraper. In fact, Polsky and his partner, the artist Holli Schorno, were featured in a New York Times article in the spring of 2000 that described a wave of younger artists who've moved to Newark and had restaurants and bars spring up in their wake. But as Polsky's work makes clear, it takes more than a little extra disposable income to rebuild a sense of location.
The scale of his paintings, and the choice of subject matter, are indications of how hard it can be to keep up with history in the postmodern era. His work enacts interesting formal dilemmas, while refusing to make these dilemmas his art's sole preoccupation. As blueprints, his paintings don't provide any step-by-step solutions. They do, however, gesture toward a need for careful attention to the way in which architecture structures - and dismantles - the social and economic worlds in which people live. His paintings are a patient art of rebuilding while also representing a world falling apart at more than just the edges. In this rebuilding, they point to the future, despite their concern with things past.
Printed in the catalog SITEUNSEEN