Thursday, December 28, 2006

The southwest view from the corner of Third Ave. and 3rd St. in Brooklyn, late afternoon on a snowless day between Christmas and New Year’s, 2006.

The sky is ¾ cloudy and the air is mellow dusty, the beams of the sun tracing lines across the rooftops. I walk down 3rd Avenue toward my work studio, keeping pace just in front of an old man pushing a shopping cart. His back is so bent that his head is even with the cart, but his legs propel him as quickly as mine. He rattles behind me for blocks.

I stop at the northeastern corner and let the man behind me push his shopping cart past. The two-story building across from me -- an old Jewish bathhouse? An abandoned bank? -- catches my eye first, for the watch it keeps over the surrounding cityscape, flattened, with few signs of new construction. The building sees nothing -- its windows are boarded up black and its second story ledge is garnished with rusty barbed coil wire, grey with old plastic bags. Romantic ruins.

But the building is just the frame. The picture stretches out to the right, a long horizontal painting of muted colors and indifferent glory. I see it in terms of the composition Phyllis Kulmatiski taught me in the 9th grade, when I shared an art table with Dave Taylor and the first two girls who were sweet to me, sharp-tongued, bow-lipped Quincy Thomas and gentle, smart, beautiful, doomed Joanne Powell. Mrs. K, as Dave called her, taught us a rule of threes: We were not to divide our work into halves, the natural instinct of simple creatures, but thirds. And so I see the cityscape before me: Third Ave., coasting down to the swell of the 3rd St. drawbridge over the Gowanus, dominates the lower third; a construction fence of plyboard panels painted pine green fills the second; the sky, fading blue and dusty yellow and dull iron, completes the third. Third Avenue is unremarkable, but the fence looks like a series of panels by Ben Shahn, somehow painted and etched and printed all at the same time. One board peels toward me, revealing the crapscape behind it, layers upon layers.

The magnificence of the scene, though, rises from the fence. To the north, the Kentile Floors sign, the metal skeleton of an industrial beast that died. I’m looking at the back of the letters, rising over Brooklyn. To their south, if perspective was geography, is the trapezoidal lace of the steel arches suspending the F-Line, five train tracks over the city. To the north -- actually, closer to me -– stands a double row of beige, cement silos. The tracks point to the Kentile Floors sign, and so do the dust-filled sunbeams. The silos, like the old bath house, are part of the frame, but taken as flat shapes, as the diamonds that all squares viewed at an angle and a distance become, they, too, point to the sign. The sign, Mrs. K. would say, is the point of emphasis; all perspectives lead the eye to it. But it faces away from me, faces the setting sun, which does what it can to spotlight the sign’s rusty grandeur. This is a scene of industrial afterlife, and I’m not part of it.

Then again, I am. I keep walking, past a shiny new madrassah of fake red stone and over a bridge crossing a tributary of the Gowanus and zigzagging my way from Third Ave to Second on a series of half streets and loading dock alleys til I emerge at 9th Street, between the Kentile Floor Sign and the elevated tracks. Then I enter my building, beneath the bridge, and disappear into the picture completely. That is where I’m writing from.

(2005 photo by Mike at Satan's Laundromat)