“The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls. They try so hard to break out their little worlds.” — Tom Waits
Painter Mark Freedman has been described as the “Edward Hopper of Rhode Island.” In looking at his work from the not-distant past, it is evident why he earned that monicker. The images of the Ocean State, Providence in particular, are clean, clear, crisp and colorful.
His new paintings, in which he depicts the boroughs of New York City and the sprawl of Los Angeles, still retain a Hopperesque quality, but filtered through a Tom Waits soundtrack or an early Martin Scorsese film.
They lean toward the dark and dystopian with a palette rich in gray, black, oxblood and ochre. And in their deep recesses, light and hope timidly but persistently emerge.
In the ominously titled “Where the Shadows Come from Themselves,” a (Brooklyn?) neighborhood, is severed by a broad swatch of tarmacadam, devoid of vehicles or pedestrians.
Dark rectangles indicate windows on tenement buildings but in this near post-apocalyptic vision, one wonders if anyone is around to peer out of them.
Amidst the repressive grayness, bits of bleak blue and muddy yellow become as significant as neon.
In the large four-paneled “La Brea,” easily the most brightly hued painting in the exhibition, with bright red roofs, teal trees, and green lawns, Freedman reduces a Los Angeles district to an impersonal ticky-tacky suburban grid, dotted with billboards, intersected by streets and capped by a distant and heavy horizon.
But in that ugliness, he meets beauty and brings it to the surface.
The majority of the paintings in the current exhibition at the University Gallery in New Bedford feature subway trains on elevated tracks. In the numbered series “Almost Peripherique,” and “Q Train,” the els are the stars, the structures which allow the trains to traverse above the street, keeping the city alive and working and vibrant.
The Q Train runs from 96th on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Coney Island on the southernmost point of Brooklyn. In “Q Train #21”, painted on a hollow core door, Freedman has set a billboard proud atop a building against a murky sky. On the other side of the painting, a cab travels below the el. With its bright red tail lights and vivid yellow paintjob, the taxi glisters like a diamond.
Freedman embraces the shadows of the city and from those umbral depths, he releases the light trapped within. And the love of the urban landscape allows for flourishes like references to train cars tagged by graffiti artists. And one can almost hear the rumble of the Q above, as it speeds by.
Freedman is a formalist who does not abandon myth and the paintings resonate because of that. He is decidedly un-precious in his choice of mixed media, which includes packing tape, duct tape, grippers tape, staples, and bits of paper. The application is bold and crude and dynamic.
In “Study for Almost Peripherique,” done on corrugated cardboard, beyond the oil paint, and staples and tape, there is a bit of scribbling in purple marker, perhaps indicating nothing but notes to self. It reads: “Dion’s Drips,” Last Exit to Brooklyn,” Bare Wires,” Cuban Overture.” And it reveals the hustle-bustle thought process of an extraordinary painter.
“Mark Freedman: Urban Sounds” is on display at the University Art Gallery, 715 Purchase Street, New Bedford until November 16. An opening reception will be held on October 12, from 5:30-8:30 p.m. with an Artist Talk at 7:30 p.m.
Don Wilkinson is a painter and art critic who lives in New Bedford. Contact him at Don.Wilkinson@gmail.com. His reviews run each week in Coastin’.