About seven years ago, Manhattan's huge gallery scene, by far the largest in the world, moved almost en masse from booming SoHo to the far western reaches of Chelsea, by the Hudson River north of Greenwich Village. Art began to displace the neighborhood's body shops and taxi depots. For some time after this Great Migration, the district was notable more for the quantity and size of its shows than for their quality. Outside New York, Chelsea was best known for splashy, sellable paintings that didn't seem to have much chance of leaving a historic mark.
This year the scene seems to have grown, if that's possible. It now takes two full days, morning to night, to visit just the best-known Chelsea galleries. But for the first time that I can remember, doing the autumn rounds felt mostly worthwhile. There was real variety on view -- of medium, subject matter, approach, scale. More important, there were a few artists and works that didn't fit into convenient pigeonholes. There were shows that left questions hanging in the air.
Of the 20 or more noteworthy exhibitions in Chelsea's fall season, six get a closer look inside this section, with extra images on view in our photo gallery.
The most interesting show of the Chelsea season also has the strangest premise behind it. Photographer An-My Le, who came to this country as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975, recently managed to get permission to photograph a "virtual Iraq" established for troop training at a Marine base in the California desert. Lugging a huge, tripod-bound view camera, she visited a corner of our Wild West now done up to simulate our wild corner of the Middle East. Le's show at Murray Guy gallery, an underrated space that's a touch off the beaten track, shows us the result.
A suite of abandoned prefab buildings that were once housing for U.S. officers is now smeared with such slogans as "Good Saddam," "Go Home GI" and "Kill Bush."(Imagine the Pentagon work order for that particular paint job.) Le's preternaturally crisp black-and-white photos show a bunch of troops-in-training taking turns playing good guys, bad guys and guys somewhere in between.
One photograph presents four young Americans costumed in scruffy civvies, wearing the homemade armbands of the Iraqi police. Complete with dangling Kalashnikovs, these amateur actors do a fine job of conveying lassitude and a desultory performance of duty. You have to hope the role's a stretch for them.
Another photo shows a platoon of uniformed Marines as they take down urban "insurgents" wearing track suits. An unarmed bystander -- presumably an officer -- watches the scene. He's in fatigues and is wearing a gas mask, but his hands are in his pockets and he leans against one of the houses with Cary Grant nonchalance.
A third image shows a distant desert landscape, with tiny GIs checking out a street of scattered houses surrounded by sand. Look more closely at the shot, however, and it turns out that the houses are just props; they're the kind of free-standing facades you'd find on the MGM back lot.
That sense of fantasy pervades Le's show. The most painful, important reality of our day comes at us in a "practice version" that's so stagy, it's almost surreal. The pictures are as crisply illusionistic as anyone could want. But the technical perfection of their realism implies a maximum of heavy camera gear, which means there's nothing candid about these shots. They may feel like open windows onto the action they show, but they couldn't have come about without tight planning and cooperation between the static photographer and her moving subjects. The show's news release compares Le's work to posed shots taken by the equipment-laden photographers of the Civil War. But their battlefield images involved manipulating things to show warfare after the fact. Le catches military action before it's even happened.