Monday, March 28, 2011

Sze Tsung Leong, Cities @Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted/matted based on size, and hung in the main gallery space and back alcove. All of the works are chromogenic color prints, made between 2006 and 2010. The prints come in two sizes: 48x59 (in editions of 5+2AP) and 20x24 (in editions of 10+2AP). The show includes 10 images in the large size and 10 images in the small size. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Sze Tsung Leong's elevated images of some of the world's great cities add a new layer of deceptive conceptual rigor to the familiar genre of the broad expansive city view. At first glance, his images bring us back to the famous 19th century panoramas of San Francisco or Hong Kong harbor taken from nearby mountain tops, where impressive and vast industry were captured as history. But Leong's works go several steps further, placing diverse 21st century cities into a compositional framework that allows for easier side by side comparison, where a city is now simultaneously a very specific individual location and an iterative example of an abstract concept.

All of Leong's cityscapes have been composed using a similar formula, regardless of whether he was in Paris or Quito, Shenzen or Cairo. In every case, the camera has been positioned so that the breadth of the city is seen from above, with close up detail in the foreground of the image, and broader urban pattern and the larger geographical setting in the background, all in one self contained front to back continuum (the top quarter of the image is always undifferentiated sky with a generally flat horizon line). Each image contains a complete range of scales, from recognizable objects and buildings to more uniform geometries and textures of the overall aggregate architecture and site.

Seen in this context, each city has its own eccentricities and visual personality: the red tile roofs of Lisboa, the sand colored apartment blocks of Cairo, the peeling grey density of Havana, the modern glass and steel of Tokyo, the car culture flatness of Houston. Not all would qualify as beautiful exactly, but seen together, they seem like members of the same species, where quirks of geography, history, culture and zoning have created widely different endpoints; each city is like a formal natural selection experiment, where the underlying rules and constraints are generally the same, but the local conditions have forced the individuals to evolve in unexpected directions.

As a result, while I think there are several images in this series that offer the viewer an opportunity to get lost in their nooks an crannies (especially when printed in the large size), in general, I think this body of work will be more intriguing and instructive in book form, where the sequenced comparisons between widely divergent cities can be used highlight similarities and differences. Taken together, the project can almost be seen as the basis for an urban planning textbook, where lessons and variations from medieval to modern can be discovered from picture to picture. Most impressively, with a subtle sleight of hand, Leong has taken a cliche (the bird's eye city view) and remade it into an effective tool for exploring the evolution and ultimate meaning of our contemporary cities. All in, the series is a cerebral and quietly contrarian approach to a hackneyed photographic motif.

Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The large 48x59 prints are available in ratcheting editions, starting at $12000, and moving up through $15000, $22000, and $25000. I'm assuming the smaller 20x24 prints also ratchet upwards, although they were all priced at $6000 on the checklist. Leong's work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

My favorite image in the show was La Paz, 2010; it's on the left in the second installation shot. I liked the dense tactile texture of the city, nestled in the bottom of the valley. I also think this image was the most successful in capturing the impact of the specific local geography on the evolving sprawl of the city.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Artist site (here)
  • Reviews: Conscientious (here), TimeOut New York (here), Time LightBox (here)
Sze Tsung Leong, Cities
April 2nd

Yossi Milo Gallery
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

No comments: