Paul Caranicas, "Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow; New Paintings," Oct. 5-28, 2006, at Bernarducci.Meisel.Gallery, 37 West 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019
The view of the southern Manhattan skyline from across the mouth of the Hudson River in Jersey City, where the painter Paul Caranicas has his studio, is nothing short of spectacular. The new skyscrapers of Battery Park City rise soaring above the water, their granite and glass surfaces glistening in the sun, a utopia for modern times. Under the gaze of an artist like Caranicas, who weaves reality and allegory seamlessly together, the scene becomes fraught with emotional, social and historical meaning.
This proud cityscape is our world, a triumph of human ingenuity. Even the earth it stands on is new, famously reclaimed from the waters, consisting of landfill from excavation for the World Trade Center. Both corporate and cosmopolitan, these buildings are temples to the glory of science and engineering and all the money it brings -- the four postmodernist towers of Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center, built in the 1980s and home to Dow Jones, American Express and Merrill Lynch, flanked by structures like Cass Gilbert’s neo-gothic Woolworth Building (1913) and the 55-story Millennium Hilton, a black monolith that appears like a tombstone across from the empty site of the World Trade Center.
In a series of paintings depicting this panorama of contemporary civilization, Caranicas makes the humble artistic underpinnings of it all quite clear, as the shining curtain walls dissolve, upon close inspection, into a grid of hand-drawn pencil lines, as if a sample of Euclid’s own geometry. This modest artistic device preserves the human touch, and reminds us that the humanist spirit is the basic building block of our culture.
Meaning radiates from this scene like rays from a sun. Hidden behind the first row of buildings is the site of the World Trade Center, still a gray and empty pit five years after 9/11, an absence that draws hundreds of visitors a day. (It’s astonishing to realize that the PATH train, which carries commuters between New Jersey and downtown Manhattan, passes right along two edges of the site, as providing a kind of postmodernist amusement ride.)
Our cityscape, our emblem of the modern world, is sited at the mouth of the Hudson River, whose scenic vistas give us the Hudson River School, America’s first homegrown art movement. As Gotham represents civilization, so do scenes of the New England wilderness articulate an American mythology of primeval forests and daring pioneers.
Within this one scene, then, we have the present as well as seeds of the past and the future -- the subject of the three large paintings in Caranicas’ epic triptych, titled Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Caranicas gives us a special vantage point in Today -- a marshy inlet on the Jersey side of the river, separated from the energetic city, whose glory is laid out before us -- that signals that we are entering a special territory, a kind of landscape of transition. Transport to a more perfect world is the aim of art and science, after all.
An allegory of passage is especially evident in Today, which shows the city in the distance and an approaching ferry in the middle ground, while the left center is occupied by a skeletal octagonal clock, a landmark when seen from the New York City side but here viewed from the back -- a striking image that suggestively places us outside time, as it were. The artist is recording a crossing that is both mundane and momentous, showing commuters racing the clock in a daily routine and a journey like that of the ferryman carrying souls to their final destination.
Against this picture of the present, Caranicas posits a wilderness past and an uncertain future. In Yesterday, a solitary boater paddles a yellow kayak up a river in a verdant woods, moving away from the viewer. Our rower is on a pilgrimage into a transcendent nature, a semi-mystical site of emotional renewal and repair.
Completing the vista is a picturesque ruin, but here it is not a relic of classical times but a railroad trestle that cuts right across the picture, so as to cite not Europe’s grand landscape tradition but a specifically American past. The trestle adds a touch of discord. In the 19th-century, the railway was the essence of the modern, rendering the countryside easily available to the city and vice versa, giving us modern notions of leisure and the "weekend getaway." Now, the railroad has been superseded by the automobile, and the railway trestle is a marker of a deteriorating industrial past, a modernism abandoned. In Caranicas’ Past, the once-future, like modernism itself, has been crossed, charted and conquered, leaving behind only a timeless arcadian present.
The most unsettling painting in Caranicas’ triptych is, of course, The Future. Once again Caranicas has placed us in a transitional space, a kind of desiccated marsh that seems to stretch out in all directions. Against a hard blue sky sits a strange concrete building, biomorphic but cold and lifeless -- presumably under construction, though it could just as easily be deserted. This structure is flanked by some kind of futuristic jet ski (an image of the fastest boat known to man, as it happens).
In the middle ground is a row of modern windmills for generating electric power, clean and ecological, while off on the horizon can be spotted a scattering of modern buildings, their towers spotting the distance like a row of broken teeth. It’s Atlantic City, that present-day Sodom and Gomorrah that produces nothing but desperate hopes.
Balancing out the panorama is a large billboard of the sort that might advertise a forthcoming attraction at a casino nightclub. Against a blood red background -- the color of the 20th century’s barbaric utopia, Communism -- is nothing but the ominous encominium, "Soon. . ." and the image of a generic entertainer -- savior, or anti-Christ? Frankly, it could go either way.