“New York Scenes,” Vincent Giarrano’s show at Susan Powell Fine Art in Madison, Connecticut (May 7–June 13), offered agreeable evidence of the continuing vigor of the artist-flâneur tradition. In this series of recent oil paintings, Giarrano focuses on a fairly narrow swath of the urban experience, observing women moving around the streets of Soho. It’s a neighborhood blessed with remarkable architecture, notably the Beaux-Arts cast-iron palazzos that have been repurposed several times over the last century, from warehouses and factories to artists’ studios and galleries to upscale boutiques. Giarrano seems largely uninterested in the sociological implications of gentrification, although he remarks that the cityscape “feels like ancient ruins that are inhabited by new people that are totally unconnected with its past.” Most of his dramatis personae seem to be passing through. He deftly captures the sense of perpetual movement in, for example, a multi-figure composition such as Street Corner in Soho (2010), where two blondes with cell phones cross paths in a typical urban dance. He catches them in mid-stride, back feet in the air. That stance works even better in a less busy composition, Couple in the Rain (2010). Sharing one of those small black umbrellas that street vendors produce at the first sign of precipitation, they hurry past dark metal stairs that rise from the sidewalk to a battleship-grey industrial door, on the right, and a chic gallery, on the left. The peach walls of the gallery interior, with gilded frames and an elegant Asian vase, look inviting against the monochrome of a rainy afternoon, although Giarrano uses the girl’s flaxen hair and warm golden-brown shoulder bag to balance the color. The walls provide flat areas of almost-abstract gestural painting.
Giarrano likes to combine different levels of resolution in a single image. Realism, for him, does not mandate meticulous observation of details, which might be a priority for an artist documenting architectural forms. For the most part, he keeps his eyes at street level. The protagonists of Japanese Girls (2010)—fashionably dressed, with cell phones, shopping bags and pretty black flat-heeled shoes suitable for walking—are the centerpiece of an arrangement of painterly rectangles in blue-black and brownish grey. A sparkling dress emerges from the gloom of a nearby display window, and, between rusty columns, a pearly gallery window presents the ghostly reflection of an elegant façade across the street. Urban reflection is also a mainstay of the photorealists, but their hard mirror-like sheen has a completely different look. For Giarrano, “achieving a true sense of light presents a more believable impression.” The word impression evokes a group of nineteenth-century painters who relished city life and the effects of light. Giarrano’s Solitude (2008), with a girl with an iPod sitting on a low step in the blurred-paint shadow of fire escapes, has a contemporary Impressionist aura. Specifically, the wide expanse of empty, sunlit sidewalk suggests a composition by William Merritt Chase, at that phase of his career when he was shifting from brown realism to brighter, spottier color. But Giarrano doesn’t break up the surface into optically kaleidoscopic patterns, and his palette is usually low-key, reflecting a preference for the cool shadows in Manhattan’s building-shaded canyons.
His paintings are realistic in their anthropological and architectural observations, and the artist is sensitive to the complex play of light. But he adds to his depicting skills a strong compositional sense, a flair for mise-en-scène. The streetscape becomes a theatrical space, as the figures make their entrances and exits and fall into the accidental choreography of the city’s rhythm. In one of his more dynamic scenes, White Dress (2010), the perspective is sharply angled, determined by the diagonals of the grey pavement and first-story cornices of the storefronts—white in the foreground, black and brown in the middle and red brick at the end of the block. The white pilasters and columns of the nearest building rise up and beyond the proscenium of the frame, and the girl in the white dress steps into the chic shop with the ease of a practiced actress. Giarrano most often catches only glimpses of his characters, who turn away, veiled by manes of hair, sunglasses or umbrellas. When he tries a straight-on portrait, as in Shop Girl (2010), some of the mystery evaporates. It’s the relationship of the figure to the setting, the human body to the spatial configuration that carries a charge of visual interest, as happens in Message (2008). The pretty woman with messy dark hair, in urban summer casual separates and dark sneakers, sits on the painterly grey steps, ignoring the viewer, staring at her cell phone and unaware of how her pose brings the architecture to life. Susan Powell Fine Art, 679 Boston Post Road, Madison, Connecticut. Telephone (203) 318–0616. Email firstname.lastname@example.org