L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
The same E.B. White responsible for Charlotte’s Web—still, to my mind, one of the most stabbing child-geared depictions of the circle of life—was also the obsessive stylist behind Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, that little book that told America, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words” (and still receives hate mail). But long before he did either of these things he wrote essays—swaths of them, and most of them crafted, endearingly, almost to a fault. He would later refer to one particular essay, written in 1939 and called “Here is New York,” as a “period piece.” But today it feels weirdly prescient. Especially when, after meandering through idol worship (White was staying just blocks from where Earnest Hemingway punched Max Eastman in the nose), neighborhood boundary lines, and the “cold guilt” of the Bowery, White winds down with this: the subtlest change New York has undergone of late, “one people don’t speak much about,” is that the “city, for the first time in its long history is destructible.”
A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges. . . . The intimation of death is part of New York now: in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
White’s fixation on jets overhead had to do with World War II era paranoia; the twin towers hadn’t even been built.
But his foresight, however uncanny, isn’t what makes White’s essay compelling; it’s his reliability as a craftsman. I trust White to understand destruction because he understands the preciousness of construction so well, building up sentences word by word, and paragraphs sentence by sentence.
Artist Chris Doyle understands construction too, as his current exhibition at Sam Lee Gallery in Chinatown shows. The landscape Doyle depicts, often industrial but never really urban, is far less specific than the cityscape White wrote about. It’s a series of built-up vignettes, shown in lightboxes, small prints loosely based on the dimensions of dollar bills, and, most prominently, a 6 minute, 26 second video animation. Called Waste_Generation (also the name of the show) and informed by the romantic ruins of Hudson River Painter Thomas Cole’s Desolation, the video cycles through images of nature and the trappings of manufacturing as they collide and merge with each other. These 6 minutes took a year to compose, and all images were hand-drawn on a computer tablet and then animated using flash. I imagine it’s quiet soundtrack, composed by collaborator Joe Arcidiacono, took a comparably long time. As a result, each moment has an immense intentionality to it, and the video’s careful craftsmanship seems, potentially, like an antidote to the man-made devastation it depicts.
The press release specifies that Brooklyn-based Doyle’s reinterpretation of Cole is, in part, an attempt to react to 9/11. It’s hard to forget a fact like that, though it’s just as hard to know what that means, and knowing probably isn’t that important. That the currency, buildings, and waste heaps that cycle through are treated as tenderly as the foliage and blooms is what’s important.
E.B. White ends his essay on New York with a tribute to a tree, a willow, “long-suffering and much-climbed.” Says White, “whenever I look at it nowadays and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: ‘This must be saved.’” Of course, it’s the effort White puts into constructing a description of this tree, a “marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death,” that preserves it, or makes preservation in general seem like a worthy cause. The weird, embodied foliage that grows and wilts in Doyle’s animation has a similar effect: by taking the time to create, carefully, these images, Doyle suggests an understanding of destruction goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of what it takes to craft destructible things.