Critics’ Picks

View of “The Men in Gray Suits,” 2013.

New York

Ben Morgan-Cleveland

Eli Ping Frances Perkins
205 East 125th Street
September 26 - October 27

In the late summer of 2012, Ben Morgan-Cleveland brought the street into Real Fine Arts—the Brooklyn gallery he cofounded with Tyler Dobson five years ago—by turning the space into a camera obscura, projecting a kind of live-stream image of Greenpoint’s busy Meeker Avenue into the blacked-out exhibition site. His latest show, “The Men in Gray Suits,” elaborates this gesture by bringing the streets into the gallery again as an augmented version of the sprawling reality outside its doors. To create the heavy maltreated paintings that constitute the show, Morgan-Cleveland made nightly sojourns to a cobblestone street near his Greenpoint apartment frequented by nighttime commercial-truck traffic. There he glued large swaths of burlap to the public road with a heavy-duty binder and abandoned them overnight to absorb the hundreds of tons of passing freight traffic.

The seven resulting canvases reflect a multitude of variables at play: Imprints of cobblestones reshape the burlap while spilled oil and loose debris create abstract compositions; highway grime is injected into the fabric by the pressure, which makes it significantly heavier and stiff; rips and tears mark where the canvas falters at the material duress of commercial transport; weather conditions exacerbate or minify these forces. Summarily, each work compresses time and traffic—like a digital image after a lossy compression to a smaller file size, the canvases become evidence of the conditions of their production without ever being able to completely describe them.

One could argue for these works as pure painting, but Morgan-Cleveland refuses to display them as such, presenting instead a single pile of canvases on the floor that echoes a Garment District fabric or rug shop and further emphasizes their callused materiality. While the exhibition’s title refers to slang surfers use to describe the open-water danger of sharks, the individual pieces are named after seven species of snake (e.g. copperhead, black racer, diamondback)—evoking a playfully menacing vocabulary to project naturalist ruthlessness onto the banal flesh of logistically driven commerce and distribution.