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In a new Valentine Museum exhibition, artist Brett Busang uses paint and canvas to depict Richmond's uneasy attempts at balancing past and present. 

Painting the Town

Talk about layered! "Painting the Town: Richmond Neighborhoods, Past and Present," the Valentine Museum's ambitious new exhibition, is complex. But deceptively so. It is also highly accessible and digestible considering the gravity of the questions it asks: What makes a neighborhood? What constitutes community? And what part does loss and memory play in the equation? In some ways it's a one-man painting exhibition expounding the single, clear vision of Brett Busang. But then again, the exhibit is so much more with photographs of buildings and neighborhoods; remnants of old buildings; and well-chosen words. These add up to offer an experience that's simultaneously unsettling, reassuring, sad and celebratory.

There's something unsettling about many of the 30-some Busang canvases of Richmond streetscapes. He doesn't necessarily depict postcard-perfect places such as Monument Avenue, Capitol Square or choice blocks in the Fan. He's drawn to the edgy fringes: places where a high-speed expressway has gouged a sagging, but proud old neighborhood. He finds alleyways where the lush weeds reign so victoriously that the terrain looks tropical. He captures buildings that seem ready to cave in from years of wear or neglect. Many of his cityscapes capture the time and places where fragments of the past are clinging on, but what appears to be replacing them is no improvement.

There's plenty that's reassuring about many of the photographs in the exhibit, all drawn from the Valentine Museum's extensive photography collection. That Richmond's rich architectural history has been so carefully documented throughout this century speaks volumes about the respect many Richmonders hold for their built heritage.

In contrast, there's something pathetic about the few dozen architectural remnants — finials, gingerbread trim, window panes and balustrades — that add three-dimensionality to what could have been a presentation of mostly flat objects. Yanked from their original settings, these fragments seem irrelevant. But then, that's probably the point.

Finally, there's something celebratory about a medium-sized city like Richmond that can boast scores of distinctive old neighborhoods. In "Painting the Town," the Valentine focuses on seven: Oregon Hill, Carver/Newtowne West, Ginter Park, Church Hill, Old Manchester, Jackson Ward and the Virginia Commonwealth University academic campus. While these areas are the exhibition's focus, they're only emblematic of dozens of others that could have been spotlighted such as Forest Hill, Barton Heights, Union Hill, Westhampton, Fulton Hill or the Carillon area.

Juxtaposing contemporary paintings and historic photographs and artifacts, the exhibition explores growth and change — not always for the better.

The exhibition had its genesis earlier this year when Busang, a transplanted New York painter, approached the Valentine about showing his oil paintings of Richmond places. He was especially disturbed by destruction in Jackson Ward as demolition began for the Richmond Centre expansion.

Meanwhile, Jon B. Zachman, the Valentine's astute curator of general collections, had been mulling over how to bring to light an eclectic stash of museum-owned works by Richmond artists of local scenes.

What evolved is something neither of these talented men probably envisioned. And it's a collaborative effort unlike anything we're likely to encounter anytime soon here or elsewhere: a unique blend of contemporary art and recorded history with plenty of room for the viewer's own interpretation.

Busang's warm, confidently-stroked images evoke highly romantic moods, and the Valentine has included his written thoughts on the caption labels, things that inspired, amused or bemused him as he moved across the city. His words are often as brilliantly poetic as the light emulating from his canvases.

In addition to Busang's paintings and the museum's black-and-white photographs (many of the latter are familiar from previous exhibitions and publications), a welcome surprise of the exhibition are colored photographs from the Edith Shelton Collection. The core of this collection are photographs by a Richmond woman whose hobby at mid-century was capturing Richmond buildings on color film. Occasionally, these photographs rise almost as high as Busang's work in evoking lost Richmond. A 1979 photo of the 900 block of Park Avenue shows the silhouetted "Temple," the former VCU theater and cafeteria, being demolished to make way for the new performing arts building.

A black-and-white photo (not from the Shelton collection) of the Hippodrome movie theater on Second Street suggests that Harlem had little on Jackson Ward in its heyday. In this 1959 image, dozens of women and girls in summer white dresses fill the city sidewalk as they enter the theater.

In addition to paintings and photographs, Zachman has made excellent and ironic choices of words and quotations. Especially intriguing is a remark from 1853: "Oregon Hill is home to honest, industrious working men, who have acquired comfortable homes for their families, and who cannot be induced to give them up for money." The words ring true today. The show points out that Oregon Hill has been besieged even into the late 20th century by VCU and Ethyl Corp.'s expansion.

The Valentine also makes wise, but sparing use of higher-tech devices. A well-edited video includes brief front-porch interviews with citizens in its selected neighborhoods as well as splices of life from the political stage such as Mayor Tim Kaine discussing VCU expansion at a City Council meeting.

And as one moves through the large, one-room gallery, there are sounds from the city — honking car horns, birds and the roar of traffic from a soundtrack.

But ultimately the exhibit has an air of melancholy, not unlike the romantic English poets. Does Busang love these old, sometimes ragged, always changing neighborhoods? If his pictures don't convince you, his words will: "I don't care much for isolated monuments, places of historic character without a living history to bind them to the more prosaic structures in their midst," he writes in his caption to "North of Broad," painted at the intersection of Cedar and 21st streets. "History with a capital H ignores them, but, on the other hand, capital letters are only needed to begin a sentence; the lower case fills it out, keeps it going, gives us flavor, character, life."

Much like Richmond's leading literary figures of the past — Samuel Mordecai, Ellen Glasgow and Virginius Dabney — used words, Brett Busang uses paint and canvas to depict the community's uneasy attempts at balancing past and
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