New York

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 14". From “Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present.”

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 14". From “Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present.”

“Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present”

The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 14". From “Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present.”

In the half century after World War II, cities across the United States and Europe underwent structural transformations. In America, middle-class whites fled downtowns for the safety and amenities of the suburbs, leaving behind a minority “underclass” to bear the brunt of the shift to a postindustrial economy. In Europe, it was the poor who were pushed to urban fringes (think Parisian banlieues) while central districts became jewel boxes cosseting the wealthy. On both sides of the Atlantic, cities sprawled outward, absorbing once-independent suburbs into larger metropolitan frameworks. “Peripheral Visions” gathers works by photographers who have examined the liminal zones created by these demographic and infrastructural developments in Italy—places neither wealthy nor extremely poor, not quite suburban yet with enough wildness to offset their urban density.

This concise, well-edited show, curated by Hunter College faculty member Maria Antonella Pelizzari, moves quickly through the decades, encompassing four grainy, late-1950s pictures of Milan’s edges by Mario Carrieri and, just a few feet away, Vincenzo Castella’s ambiguous 2009 photograph of that city’s Pirelli tower, into which a small plane crashed in 2002. Pelizzari identifies as the show’s presiding spirit Luigi Ghirri, whose own work and 1984 curatorial effort, “Viaggo in Italia” (Voyage to Italy), translated the spare, sober postwar work of Carrieri, Paolo Monti, and filmmakers such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica into a more playful, witty, Conceptualist language that later practitioners would mimic. The absurdity that characterizes many of Ghirri’s pictures reaches its apotheosis here in Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_CATANIA 09, 2009, in which an enormous matte-black orb rests incongruously amid brick industrial-exhaust towers. The menacing egg is symbolic of pre–financial crisis attempts to rehabilitate these peripheral spaces: It is a performing-arts center located at the site of a defunct sulfur mine.

In contrast to the strange iconicity of Barbieri’s image, smaller gestures, themselves reflective of Ghiri’s eye for vernacular landscapes, predominate. Mimmo Jodice captures the dented corrugated sheet metal imperfectly covering a stone column in Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977. Mario Cresci, who envisions southern Italy as a “foreign” space within the country’s borders, transforms wires snaking along walls into poetic abstractions in Martina Franca, 1979. Guido Guidi, working a decade later, positioned himself directly at the leading edge of human incursion into the natural environment, his pictures juxtaposing messy construction sites and, in the distance, unpopulated mountain ranges. Other works suggest one need not even travel to find incidents worth recording. Franco Vaccari simply shifted perspective for his 1971 film I cani lenti (The Slow Dogs), crouching down in order to see as canines do. Likewise, Marina Ballo Charmet’s digital slide show Con la coda dell’ occhio (With the Corner of the Eye), 1993–94, finds a stoic beauty in the weeds and debris that accumulate on dozens of street corners.

Few of these images are populated, yet the insistent focus on textures seems like an attempt to reveal what such neglected spaces feel like to their inhabitants. Here are the loose, ragged edges of the urban fabric, the places that for decades have suffered the indifference of authority that in today’s political climate, with its calls for austerity, seems our common fate. “Peripheral Visions” offers knowledge of a subject that increasingly occupies the minds of scholars and policymakers. The lessons to be drawn from such work remain unclear, but the sense of urgency is palpable.

Brian Sholis