New York

Alix Vernet, Lady, Saint Marks, November, 2021, cheesecloth, latex, spray paint, 54 × 13".

Alix Vernet, Lady, Saint Marks, November, 2021, cheesecloth, latex, spray paint, 54 × 13".

Alix Vernet

Throughout Manhattan’s East Side neighborhoods, a certain type of building, constructed as the nineteenth century met the twentieth, still stands in all of its bygone grandeur. Architecture historian Zachary J. Violette calls these structures “decorated tenements” for the elaborate ornamentation marking their exteriors—scenes rendered in high relief in stone or formed on soaring sheet-metal cornices featuring gilded characters, now obscured by decades of smog and grime, declaring the builder’s name. So ingrained are these designs within the visual chaos of the city’s streetscape that, despite their showiness, they are often missed by passersby.

Such exquisite architectural details were given careful new attention in a small but insightful exhibition at Helena Anrather gallery by Alix Vernet, who treats these public decorations as found materials. The artist showed soft hanging sculptures that she fashioned by casting these “sourced” friezelike elements in latex, the process inevitably becoming entangled with a fascinating social practice: Whenever a cracking terra-cotta effigy or fancy stone awning caught Vernet’s eye, she would go to the building those ornaments appeared on and befriend its residents. With their permission, she crawled through windows and even ascended fire escapes with a ladder, where, strapped into a harness, she painted wet latex onto threadbare cheesecloth in order to get her cast. Vernet would pull the delicate material tautly over the hard surface, peel it off after it dried, then finish it with a generous coat of metallic spray paint.

Named for the apartment complex where they were discovered, the archways Veil, 3A, East Broadway and Veil, 1B, East Broadway (all works 2021) mirrored each other as if stationed on alternate ends of an empty street. Sagging with stringy tendrils and crinkled like tinfoil, they seemed as precious as ancient artifacts and were riddled with small holes—produced not by the passage of time but by the cheesecloth used to cast them. Ornament was decried as duplicitous by many housing reformers at the turn of the twentieth century—a way to “tempt a lot of the well-housed tenants away” from their more austerely designed, proletarian quarters, Jacob Riis wrote in his 1890 treatise How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Yet in the 2019 book The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age, Violette points out that these embellishments marked an effort by their makers—often immigrant architects with their own tastes and cultures and trained in European traditions of urbanism—to shape their own communities’ standards of living.

With shimmering silver latex, Vernet even made a beat-up window bust look like arcane jewelry. Nowhere was this more explicit than in Lady, Saint Marks, November. This spectral, tapestry-like object was pulled from a limestone siren Vernet caught gazing down at her from the perch of an edifice located on the titular street in New York’s East Village. Though the artist didn’t capture the figure’s head, the work retained the shape of the body, with its long belly and breasts. A thin cloth tail from the work swept the floor, making it seem ghostlier than it already was—this feeling was amplified by a number of photographs Vernet took of Manhattan’s rough crumbling landscape that were displayed nearby. Included was a snapshot of the Saint Marks woman, but perhaps more compelling was the diptych Burial, Henry St.: One image shows a strikingly similar lady, who calls to mind a mermaid, but in the accompanying picture the figure has been removed from its pedestal, leaving behind a lonely slab of rock.

Also featured in the show were round but irregularly shaped ceramic pieces with antique lettering, cast from the exteriors of several notable buildings and monuments—including the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library—rearranged to form new words and compositions. These varied greatly in size: The largest, Here Are Enshrined, Reliefs from Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch, covered one wall of the gallery with its textural stoneware surfaces, while another configuration simply spelled out the word HERO. In this exhibition, Vernet was able to summon a palpable sense of place through many scattered parts, unmoored from their original contexts. Whether embodying an act of preservation in the face of rampant redevelopment or a close reexamination of a city’s misunderstood past through its lingering records, what she sees is lovely to see.