Seeing ‘Sub’ Aesthetics


By Tanya Silverman

50C:7-13. 2014. Pigment print on dibond.

Some seem scalded or scratched, others spotted and splattered. They resemble reverse collages of the French decollage style or paintings like the American Abstract-Expressionist movement.

Upon further study, hints–like a blue “F” Facebook icon, an image of a printer, or a fragmented text that reads “New York”–give slightly clearer clues to what, when, and where they are from.

They’re photographs of peeled-off NYC subway advertisement boards. They currently line the walls of the Lower East Side’s Foley Gallery. They comprise a project, Subtext, by artist Wyatt Gallery. He collaborated with Hank Willis Thomas on two pieces.

“These are all made unintentionally by employees installing or de-installing posters thousands of times,” explains Gallery.

50C:9-367-9. 2014. Pigment Print on Dibond.

Gallery traces the original idea back to 2006, when he traveled down to New Orleans to photograph the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. He developed an interest in black walls and their reflective effects so he kept working with the motif. One day, Gallery received a call from Thomas, who noticed a particularly alluring black wall in an NYC subway station tunnel.

The artists met there, in the subterranean C-Line stop beneath Manhattan’s 50th Street, consequently capturing it. However, they also became intrigued by the removed subway ad right next to it.

“That’s how it started transitioning into subway walls,” Gallery explains. “After that I just kept my eye out all the time for places where the ads had been removed.”

Montrose L:124-05. 2014. Pigment print on dibond.

Gallery has photographed removed ads mainly in Manhattan, but also some in Queens and Brooklyn. He printed them out using a relatively new process with dibond. Ink is printed on aluminum so that it sits on top rather than getting absorbed, creating a tactile, 3D effect. Moreover, the Subtext pieces look like they embody watercolor washes, or charcoal smudges, or graffiti fissures–layers that symbolize the parallels of artistic mediums.

Gallery edited out the white wall tiles that line the background of these ads, but kept on the drips of black paint and glue. Other than those adjustments, he had no control over the subjects, and just documented them as they were.

A busy opening night at Foley Gallery. Photo courtesy of Jane Kratochvil.

Appreciative of Subtext’s accidental beauty, Gallery brings up its inherently ephemeral nature. The boards look this way only for few days, he explains, until they get covered up with another advertisement.

Riding public transportation is a perfunctory chore for many of us. However, finding abstract, accidental aesthetics in such settings might make us question what we miss and what lies beneath.

‘Subtext’ will be on display at NYC’s Foley Gallery until Feb 22, 2015.

All art by Wyatt Gallery & Hank Willis Thomas.