Emil Corsillo

Green Street Gallery

The seven large enamel-on-wood-panel paintings in Boston-based artist Emil Corsillo’s debut solo exhibition picture a quasi-abstract apocalyptic urban landscape devoid of living things. Rendered using superimposed source photographs of construction and demolition sites, the protagonists of these hard-edged images are I-beam frame works, chain-link fences, concrete barriers, and caution stripes.

Although Corsillo claims a formal allegiance to Russian Constructivism, the planar austerity and bold machismo of his fragmented architectural forms more strongly recall the pre–World War I Vorticist paintings of Wyndham Lewis, in which buildings—arranged as precisely contoured verticals and diagonals—appear ready to collapse. And while much of the work is derived from the physical upheaval of such contemporary local events as Boston’s “Big Dig” (an ambitious program of highway, bridge, and tunnel construction) and the 2004 Democratic National Convention, it maintains an eerie timelessness and sense of impending doom. Titles like Free Speech Zone, Church and State, and Hubris (all works 2004) confirm Corsillo’s political concerns.

The eighty-by-ninety-inch triptych Free Speech Zone depicts Corsillo’s view of the confining environment created by a chainlink fence erected during the DNC to enclose protestors. In the right foreground, a sharp piece of concrete from a pile of Big Dig rubble juts through an opening in the fence, its energy diffused by yellow and black diagonal lines semingly urging caution. The image gets its emotional punch from both a sequence of disorienting juxtapositions and from the artist’s positioning of us up close to the scene.

In the diptych O’er the Ramparts, Corsillo effectively combines realistically detailed areas of texture with simplified linear forms. White concrete Jersey barriers placed around Boston’s Federal Reserve building—presumably to protect it from terrorist attack—are dwarfed by intersecting gunmetal gray and silver buildings and a background of more black and yellow caution stripes. Two tumbling, vertically aligned parallelograms make obvious reference to the World Trade Center. The artist breaks up the flat, enamel forms by spraying and splattering high-key orange, red, and green paint freely across their rigid surfaces and intricate angles. In an artist’s statement, Corsillo explains his reasons for selecting a phrase from “The Star Spangled Banner” as the work’s title. According to him, ruminations on America’s foundations in war led to a painting about “the division between the battleground and the safe-zone, the division between just and unjust war, the division between two sides fighting each other—and what it might be like to be on the other side.”

Corsillo is most effective when he is the least literal and illusionistic. Less successful are paintings such as the posterlike Ministry of Peace, the Orwellian title of which refers to one of four government agencies in charge of war in 1984. The chimneys of a tall building are shown surrounded by an army of attacking helicopters, stenciled on an orange sky striped with white. Evocative of social realist propaganda, the earnest image is as contrived as a Hollywood film still. In his most recent, more resolved diptych, The End, Corsillo employs a muted palette of blacks, grays, and mauves. Hidden in the intersections of geometric shapes touched with a dapple of paint that resembles digital pixilation are the steel girders of historic elevated-train tracks, fated for imminent destruction. Corsillo’s metaphoric images of the rise and fall of his city become more meaningful precisely through their formal neytrality.

Francine Koslow Miller