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Greines's Surreal Urban Legends

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2000; Page N24

IRVING GREINES is certainly not the first urban photographer to turn his camera away from the streets of the inner city to focus on the pockmarked bricks and paint-streaked signage on the walls behind him. In the first half of the 20th century, perhaps most famously, Brassai and Aaron Siskind aimed their lenses at the crumbling, graffitied battlements of Paris and Manhattan, respectively. Their approaches were not only documentary (Brassai often revisited the same walls over time to record their changes) but expressionistic (Siskind used the textures and patterns formed by light and shadow on chipped paint to convey emotional states).

In some 30 photographs now on view at the American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery, the California-based Greines mines this same territory, but with the distinction that his images are saturated in lurid, high-key color. The effect of these contemporary scenes--all shot since 1992 in San Francisco's Chinatown and in Soho, Greenwich Village, Little Italy and Alphabet City in lower Manhattan--is pungent and frequently stunning.

Take "54 Mercer Street, Manhattan, September 1, 1997" (all of Greines's pictures are titled simply with an address and date). The shot depicts a wall whose texture suggests stucco. Clinging to the striking wash of burnt orange paint on plaster is a scrap of what looks like an old advertising poster, its rough, torn edges as loose as a flake of sunburned skin waiting to be scratched off. Printed on it is an unblinking eyeball, staring back at Greines (and for that matter, you) with an unnerving intensity.

What's most disorienting about this particular tromp l'oeil is that, if you look at it long enough, you lose all sense of foreground and background: After a while you can't tell anymore whether the eye is merely a printed image stuck to the wall (as logic dictates it is) or whether it is a real eye peeking out through a hole torn in the wall (as it appears to be).

Lest you assume that some digital trickery is involved, Greines defends his works' honesty: "Each reflects reality exactly as I found it," he insists.

That surreal photo is not the only one to mess with your head either, like a cat with a squeaky toy. Greines loves playing with the idea of the watcher and the watched, and several of his wall portraits document faces on posters from which the eyes have been gouged out in what is likely deliberate defacement. In other cases, nothing is left but the eyes, and in a couple of others, new eyes have been painted onto the wall by an anonymous street artist. Wryly reflected in a shard of mirror in "Wooster Street (West Side) Just North of Canal, Manhattan, October 7, 1995," the artist even includes himself crouching next to his own cyclops: his camera and tripod.

Other, subtler illusions are exploited with "Soho, Manhattan, November 4, 1994" and "47 Howard Street, Manhattan, November 19, 1996." In these two photographs--both essentially of glossy black-painted walls and little else--there appear to be traces of blue and red paint on the elegant architectural ornaments. Now this itself is unsurprising, considering that most of Greines's sites have been brushed, sprayed or doused with pigment of some kind (so often in some cases that the thick coat is now as wet-looking and luscious as cake icing). But here the colors feel like the faint blush of rouge masking the pallor of death. Your mind might well convince you that it's little more than a trick of the light due to reflected neon, but Greines's sleight of hand--and ability to animate the inanimate--may make you think twice.

Gotham and Frisco: what endlessly fascinating places for photographers like Greines, who have the sharpness of eye to identify flowers amid the weeds! But as our American metropolises increasingly clean up their acts, how long will these seekers of urban scarification be able to find subjects suitably battered--not merely beauty amid ugliness, but rather the beauty of ugliness--for their cameras?

The question comes up contemplating an intriguing pair of Greines's photographs, both shot at 146 Waverly Place in San Francisco (one of only two sets of images taken at the same address). The first, shot on Feb. 15, 1993, shows a Chinatown wall with dirty, decaying bricks. Ironically, the more recent of the two images, taken four years later to the day, shows the same yellow and white bricks looking remarkably fresh and restored.

Okay. Urban renewal and gentrification are supposed to be good things. But here, as cast in the lovely, jaundiced light of Greines's photo-documentary of decay, these improvements seem almost sad.

URBAN WILDERNESS--CHAOS TRANSFORMED: Photographs by Irving Greines -- Through March 10 at the American Institute of Architects Headquarters Gallery, 1735 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202/638-3105. Web site: www.aafpages.org. Open Mondays through Fridays 8:30 to 5. Free.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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