How effective can a work of art be when it’s smaller than your hand? Tremendously so, if “Single Fare 3”—the third-annual exhibition of works created exclusively on New York City subway MetroCards—is any indication. The show, at RH Gallery, was up for only nine days in February, but it has had such an active afterlife online (http://www.facebook.com/events/150806478403568/) and brought together so many artists deserving of attention that it still offers plenty to see and think about.
Roughly 1,000 artists, many of them local but some from places as far away as New Zealand and South Korea, responded to an open call by the show’s organizers, Michael Kagan and Jean-Pierre Roy, to put their paintings, drawings, photography, or sculpture on a used MetroCard. The resulting work nearly covered the gallery’s walls, giving visitors to the exhibition a sense of invigorated ease: there were so many places to look that you could relax in one spot for fifteen to twenty minutes just in order to scan everything in sight, before deciding which individual spots to focus on more intensely. The absence of names or labels on the walls ensured that this experience was entirely visual; a viewer could not be influenced by better-known artists’ names or catchy titles, as each piece was merely numbered (visitors could look up numbers in a book at the gallery or online to find the artists’ names). Following are some of the standouts, in no particular order. What is perhaps most surprising and exciting about them is that, in spite of the fact that each one is a mere 2.125 x 3.375 inches, they are not necessarily defined by their smallness—these are fully realized works of art, and carry as much power as you’d expect from something 10 to 20 or more times their size.
Alyssa Monks, who often puts larger-than-life figures on huge canvases of 6 feet or more, submitted a beautifully painterly group of images that followers of her work might recognize for their familiar treatment of the figure, seen in or through varying states of water—a curtain of droplets, a reflection in a steamy mirror, or partially submerged in a bath or pool. As in her larger paintings, Monks’s MetroCards show a real love of her medium. Heavily applied impasto is pushed across and scraped from the surface of the cards, becoming as important to the overall image as color and composition. A thoughtful approach to the MetroCard’s uneven shape is also a key element in these paintings; while many artists covered their cards with a perfect rectangle of paper or canvas, Monks used the single clipped-off corner of the cards to deliberately frame or echo a corresponding angle within her paintings, thereby adding strength to her images, as in the woman’s jawline in this piece. Even the punched hole in the card functions as a smart compositional element for Monks—at top, the punch-hole at right balances the subject’s single visible eye on the left, while also reading as a shape similar to the smaller, rounded water drops around it.
Sam Evensen took an elegant conceptual approach to art history with a series of three mesmerizing paintings, each one featuring full-length figures who seem to float over enlarged details of iconic still-lifes by past Masters. Here, a couple appears to have fallen asleep above Cézanne’s 1895 painting Basket of Apples, which, in comparison to the figures, is painted by Evensen with a noticeably less chromatic palette, so that we see it as though through a dim haze. The image is both peaceful and ever so slightly jarring; the folds of white cloth in the still-life almost read as rumpled sheets in the couple’s bed, but the muted red-and-yellow apples, spilling out of the unseen basket in a disorganized row and larger in size than the figures’ heads, form a powerful compositional diagonal under the opposing diagonal created by the two sleeping bodies. Gorgeously complex, this tiny painting works as a meditation on sleep and dreams (are we seeing what the couple sees behind closed eyes? Is this a dream of the painter’s?), a gently surreal pitting of genre against genre, and a thinking painter’s nod—respectful, but not slavish or derivative—to the abiding influence of artists who have preceded him. One imagines a pleased Cézanne raising one eyebrow and clapping Evensen on the back.
So much good work was on display at this show that it’s hard to limit the discussion to just a few artists, but three others deserve special mention. Debra Goertz’s rhinoceros, a series of gray and black strokes on a bright field of yellowy green, is a small marvel of design. From a distance, the painting is powerfully graphic—an apparently simple image with very little detail and only the three basic colors—but a closer look reveals the intense care Goertz has given to a wonderful variety of brushstrokes, which give the beast an appropriately bulky sense of form. In a moody, muted view of the Brooklyn Bridge by Jeff Bellerose, a similar lack of detail places the viewer’s focus on the beautifully saturated colors (grays, blacks, browns, and blues) and the three essential elements of air, water, and stone, giving the work a feeling of timelessness. Finally, an engaging series of pencil sketches of full-length figures by Mike Meadors, done with tiny, energetic scribbles and erasures, presents small, unimportant, everyday moments that seem just right for a MetroCard. Here, a slightly disheveled young woman is absorbed in checking her phone; you might pass her on any street corner or subway platform without giving her a second glance, but the intensity of this little drawing makes her, and her experience, important and interesting.
Single Fare 3 itself feels important and interesting—there’s a vital sense of youth and freshness to the whole enterprise that comes as much from the serious enthusiasm of the artists as it does from the imagery in the exhibition. Asked for her thoughts about the experience of taking part in the show, Alyssa Monks responded, “Single Fare is a fantastic exhibition event which rallies artists together and inspires creativity, community and camaraderie. I'm both grateful and inspired to belong to such a community here in NYC.” We can be grateful, too. Here’s to next year’s event.