In June 2006, Brooklyn artist Isabelle Garbani began the fieldwork for a series of pastel paintings now on display at Box Heart Gallery. Entitled 24 Hours, the exhibition recalls philosopher Martin Heidegger's concept of the "moment of vision" even as it draws unlikely inspiration from the early motion picture.
Heidegger had identified the moment of vision as one during which "we experience a direct sensation that we can grasp in the immediacy of a present presence [but] cannot cognitively conceive of … at the actual point it occurs." The idea was conceived in response to the increased speed and alienation of modernity -- initially embodied by the locomotive.
24 Hours identifies the subway train as a continued manifestation of urban dynamism and assures that abstract representations of speed remain a persistent element of the urban experience. Garbani's paintings echo Heidegger's suggestion that what we consider a moment of vision must in fact be composed of several moments or "elongated instances."
Fieldwork for the series spanned several months during which she generated a multitude of photographs, written notes and personal feelings. The resulting series features 24 paintings wherein separate instances have been combined to capture a specific "mood … and motion," says Garbani in an interview. She researched each hour individually, on different days of the week, and condensed her data to form one archetypical image to represent that hour of the day.
Although Garbani's paintings are still frames, time and motion play a vital role in comprehending 24 Hours. The work depends upon a frame-by-frame depiction of time that is mirrored in the horizontal flashing of subway windows. Her paintings recall the work of 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who also attempted to discern the nature of movement (most famously, a horse's gallop) in a series of isolated instants. Both artists relied on mechanical means to still motion, and in doing so reveal the inherent separation between cognitive conception and the fleeting moment.
Garbani's paintings reflect the momentary nature of photography and suggest -- as did the pioneering Muybridge's work -- motion pictures: On Box Heart's website, for instance, gallery co-owner Nicole Capozzi features Garbani's still frames in a fitting animation. But Garbani's paintings aspire to do more than chronicle successive motions. They conceptualize her daily commute in order to reveal the alienating effects of speed and repetition.
Composed from a myriad of nonlinear episodes, "24 Hours" recreates a day in the life of New York City, thus recalling Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's classic film "Manhatta." The 1921 short celebrates productive energy and mass movement as the circulatory system of Manhattan's harsh geometric frame. Superimposed quotes from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass render the city as a living organism animating the largely mechanical environment: "[M]illion footed Manhattan unpent descends to her pavements." Doubtless, part of the vitality of "Manhatta" comes from the motion picture itself, but Sheeler and Strand's emphasis on infrastructure and mass human movement contribute to their portrayal of the city as a living entity.
By contrast, the city as seen through Garbani's commute is strikingly indifferent toward the human experience. 24 Hours adversely renders New York City as a lifeless architectural labyrinth characterized by cold geometry and impersonal space. Paintings like "4 AM" intentionally flank the viewer's point of entry with horizontal barriers, while in "1 AM," crossbeams interrupt the space and intensify the shallow depth of field. Garbani's still frames avoid human reference entirely in favor of a mechanical aesthetic that artificially stops time. Her "caution"-yellow color palette fittingly evokes the restricted experience of a urine-soaked subway station.
"10 PM" is likely the most alienating image in 24 Hours, depicting three Turrell-like rectangles that emit a dim yellow light. The painting's softly blended edges suggest a blurred glance from within the train as it flies through an empty station. Intermittent pillars partially obscure the view and suspend the observer in a state of perpetual isolation.
24 Hours is a microcosm of the fast-paced and often alienating experience of urban life. Garbani's formal characterizations of Heidegger's moment of vision illustrate the callous nature of mass transit and the impossible task of relishing any instant before it's gone. Moments pass quickly and unnoticed in the subway tunnel. Whitman's "million footed" and "unpent" city-dwellers now plunge into the black hole -- complacent in their own self-interest, staring blankly outward through their reflection into the darkness beyond.
24 HOURS continues through Aug. 13. Box Heart Gallery, 4523 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-687-8858 or www.boxheart.org