First, the pumps in the subway system fail, flooding the tunnels with water. Weeds, insects, and other critters invade the neighborhoods. The first houses to decay are the ones with skylights, which leak and cave in. And contrary to popular myth, after whatever apocalypse at last rids the planet of its human inhabitants, cockroaches don’t fare much better in these climes: Without the warmth generated by human settlements, they flee the Piedmont winter or die trying.
Painter and sculptor Scott Silvey imagines this post-apocalyptic moment in Civic Remedies, a collection of 15 recent acrylic paintings on panel now on view at Inman Park’s Whitespace Gallery. In the paintings, Silvey presses the architecture of Tokyo’s Setagaya-ku district into service as a forlorn backdrop devoid of human inhabitants. Houses, industrial facilities, and other structures stand in relief against washed-out, acidic skies, revealing little of the buildings’ former inner lives.
Standing in for the erstwhile residents, vending machines populate the middle ground landscape in rigid pairs and trios, their wares ready for customers who will never arrive. The vending machines invoke the voracious, get-it-now appetites bred into much of humanity in the middle of the last century. Totems of instantaneous desire. These and every other vestige of human existence are rendered pallid in ghostly gray carbon lines, and pale, barely there washes of thin paint.
In stark contrast, the plant life in this world is florid and thick with vitality. Rendered in bright, naturalistic tones, each painting features a different plant, herb or weed launching the first salvo in a war to reclaim the land. Wild geranium, violet and bryony grow out of piles of dirt arranged incongruously in abandoned lots and open spaces. The paintings are riotous with life; it just happens not to be of the human variety.
“Fern” is a standout work. In it, the titular plant grows from mounds of dirt before a two-story domestic structure and a row of vending machines. The ferns’ scroll heads emerge lyrically in tight clumps under the overcast haze. Ferns are among the most ancient of plants. You can almost see the Triassic Era reassert itself in this work as a kind of geological “take two.” This time, we sense, the earth will try it without people.
“Lemon Balm” is another well-wrought work and one that exemplifies the wild distortions of scale that also mark Silvey’s paintings. The rugged-looking leafy plant with its delicate white blossom grows normally in the picture plane’s foreground, but behind the spectral apartment building in the background it dominates the roofline and surpasses the telephone poles. The plants are not so much integrated as superimposed on the urban landscape.
Silvey demonstrates a clear sense of eccentric composition in his 15 paintings. Exposed to Japanese design as a youth and as an MFA student at Georgia State University, he shows its influences in the disciplined use of color and a willingness to let blank space remain blank space.
If Civic Remedies has any failing, it’s that the works are somewhat short-circuited by their small scale. Made in a small room in Tokyo (where the artist currently resides), the largest single panel is just over 2 feet high, and many are a good deal smaller. Small work succeeds brilliantly when it’s designed to be looked at closely and intensely — Atlanta painter Cosmo Whyte comes to mind here. But the less-than-taut line quality (a result of Silvey’s process of transferring from drawings and photographs to the panels using carbon paper) falters under close inspection. The painted areas, on the other hand, are rich and succulent, the paint strokes fully committed.
Other artists are dealing with the high anxiety produced by overcrowding, pollution and overconsumption in these opening years of the 21st century. But unlike the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, for example, which eulogize a human-worn landscape in deep distress, Civic Remedies offers no warnings to repent. Instead, Civic Remedies comes along at the moment when everything human has at last failed and nature is allowed to return unfettered.
Notably, the ghostly architecture is not in an advanced state of decay or disrepair. Not even a crack mars the glass on the totemic vending machines. Silvey seems to have captured that first moment after the death of the last man or woman and optimistically has begun to imagine what’s next.
Civic Remedies is a homecoming of sorts for Silvey. A significant voice in the Atlanta art scene beginning in his student days, he decamped for Tokyo where he still lives today. Whitespace’s textured floors and occasional unfinished walls are the perfect setting for the rough-hewn quality of the aged and weathered supports on which Silvey paints. And the curatorial trick of clumping the small works into little groupings of two or three paintings each keeps them from being swallowed up by the space.
As the fatalistic works chart a course through contradictory impulses of despair and perverse wish-fulfillment, Civic Remedies gives us a glimpse of Mother Nature waiting in the wings. “Don’t worry,” she seems to say. “Consume to your heart’s content. I’ll get it all in the end.”
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