Outside the Western New York Book Arts Center, Mohawk Street is being torn up to let traffic return to the roadway. Inside the building is Max Collins’ impressive new exhibit, “Deconstructing Main Street,” which documents the visible and invisible forces reconstructing Main Street, while also expressing the anxiety and uncertainty of its future.
The show is a mixture of collage and single photograph prints, which hang on the white and gray walls, and are accompanied by city planning guides from the 1970s.
Collins is the third of five artists selected to exhibit in the gallery as part of the 2014 “12 x 14” series at WNYBAC. The program also includes an artist-led community workshop and a print to be included in an end-of-year portfolio.
Chris Fritton, studio director at the WNYBAC, explained that this year they were looking for artists who were doing progressive, region-relevant work, and getting noticed by the community. Collins is best known for a large outdoor mural, which led to a discussion with collaborator Ian DeBeer about street art at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in December 2013. In April, he opened another show “Obsolescence,” in the boutique furniture store Ro on Elmwood Avenue.
Using a technique from his murals, Collins mounts his images on wood blocks, using wheat paste to adhere the thin toner prints to the surface, and then seals the images with a different paste mixture, resulting in a slight brown tinge on the prints.
“This is the cleanest I’ve ever presented them,” Collins said in an interview. “I put way more intention with compositing the images.”
His diligence shows, with scars bending across surfaces, and the wood block peeking through small tears in the paper. The textures work with the images to evoke the mess of construction and imagined design of Main Street at the same time.
In the 1970s, to compete with suburban malls, planners developed ideas to enclose Main Street and used books to present their vision. Brightly colored, with sketches of people shopping, the city planning books on display provide a historical layer to the exhibit. By appropriating images from these materials like in the colorful “Main St. Galleria” and the angular “Self-Recognition,” Collins provides a look at the intersecting narratives of development, destruction and construction that continue to repeat on Main Street.
What makes “Deconstructing Main Street” so successful is how the photographic pieces combine the uncertainty of the future with the fantasy and reality of the past, while grounding the composition in the present construction.
“Modulation,” an eerie depiction of Main Street with construction on the right, theaters on the left, and rail lines and towers in the middle, grounds the creeping fog, which looks wispy and haunted. The future seems to beckon underneath the cloud, and it is difficult not to strain to see it appear.
“Don’t Hide the Madness” examines a different kind of progress from the inside of a white-tiled foyer, with a chain-link security gate pulled down in front of the entrance. The gate is piled high with construction materials on the other side, which blocks the view of a dusty gray exterior street. Security and safety systems push against one another, capturing the decades-long struggle for the identity of the street.
The clever framing leans toward cliché in “Show Scars Like Medals,” capturing construction of a building in the side mirror of a car. With “Trust Issues” he veers a bit from the message, as a black billboard demanding “Try God” dominates the composition, which includes the electric tower disappearing up into the fog.
One aspect missing from all of the images is people. Since the only humans seen in the exhibit are imaginary, in the pages of the urban planning guides, Collins created a reminder in his quiet, dirty, misty images, that to really reconstruct Main Street, it will take the presence of people.
What: “Deconstructing Main Street”
When: Through July 5
Where: Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St.