New York

Mary Lum, Villa La Roche, 2014, mixed media on paper, 9 × 12".

Mary Lum, Villa La Roche, 2014, mixed media on paper, 9 × 12".

Mary Lum

Mary Lum, Villa La Roche, 2014, mixed media on paper, 9 × 12".

The sixteen works created by Mary Lum for her latest exhibition are part collage, part (often the larger part) painting. Angular blocks of flatly applied acrylic surround photographs and strips cut from comic books that portray fragments of the urban environment: anonymous intersections and a ribbon of paint-spattered wall, precariously tilted buildings and a concrete staircase turned dizzyingly on its head. The artist’s preferred haunts—New York, Paris, and London (Detroit also makes a brief appearance)—are identified only by the works’ titles, for Lum rigorously avoids recognizable metropolitan landmarks in favor of vigilant attention to unremarkable urban corners.

This focus on the everyday facts of lived experience in the city might suggest an allegiance to the Situationist practice of the dérive, as might the title of one of the collages, Belleville (all works 2014), which places us in Paris’s most politically radical neighborhood. But the collage itself, like the rest of the work that was on display, seems geared less toward urban critique than the discovery of chance color combinations. The photograph in the work’s upper right documents the junction of a pink-and-red doorframe, a pale-pink strip of worn linoleum at the threshold, and the patterned ruby carpet glimpsed in the interior, an aleatory grouping that sets the color key for the vertical and diagonal stripes of paint that dominate the image.

In Villa La Roche, the chromatic scale is determined by an altogether more elevated architectural fragment: a corner of the famed Parisian residence designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in the 1920s to house its owner’s collection of Cubist pictures. But here too it is random juxtapositions rather than the architect’s meticulously planned order that catch Lum’s eye. The rectilinear structure of the monochrome building, seen in a sharply foreshortened and off-kilter photographic detail, serves as the basis for a series of interlocking gray, beige, and off-white painted planes whose raking angles playfully unsettle the villa’s balanced restraint. The collage also recalls the color “keyboards” Le Corbusier created in 1931 for the Salubra paint company, but again so as to disturb the master’s equilibrium. Whereas the architect designed the keyboards around a prescriptive set of rules concerning what he deemed to be appropriate color combinations, Lum rejects such systematization, pressing the villa and its muted harmonies into contact with the untidy reality of the urban environment. The venetian blind hanging in the villa’s window is juxtaposed with the parallel lines of a litter-clogged grating; the window’s black frame is aligned with linear fragments cut from a comic book.

If Le Corbusier’s chaste vision is thus brought into contact with the impure and the popular, the goal is less a critique of modernist asceticism than a celebration of the aesthetic possibilities of the city. With some collages, it is as though La Roche’s Cubist collection had been released onto the streets—or rather, as though that collection’s vocabulary of shards and intersecting planes had been found there, ready-made. New York 0314 has at its heart a photograph of the stark, quasi-Cubist geometry of a commonplace roofline, white eaves set off against a cloudless sky and shadowed wall. Echoes of Synthetic Cubism also reverberate in the monochrome facets of Index. (The work’s title, invoking the Peircean semiotics through which Cubism has sometimes been interpreted, confirms that the resonance is deliberate). Other collages look to the Soviet avant-garde: The orthogonals and disorienting perspectives of Finchley Road echo Rodchenko’s and Mayakovsky’s poster designs of the 1920s.

Still other works claim that the city is itself a color keyboard. In London 0213, cropped photographs of multihued plastic buckets are pasted together to create a symphonic chromaticism. London 020114 juxtaposes orange plastic mesh wrapped haphazardly around a handrail with the green tiles of a Victorian pub. These pasted elements suggest a view of the city itself as collage, as a series of unplanned accretions and chance conjunctions that generate unexpected moments of pleasure. It is this experience of the city that Lum’s collages attune us to, defamiliarizing the urban environment by turning its details disorientingly on their heads and embedding them in arrangements of paint that revel in the accidental aesthetics of the street.

Alastair Wright