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Dark Side of the City

Art Review

Dec. 22, 2008
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According to the German Expressionist Ernst Kirchner, you could tell a lot about artists from their prints. That's certainly true of Richard Haas. Though best known for his large trompe l'oeil murals grafting the unsightly wounds of postwar expansion in cities like New York and Chicago, it's his prints that serve as a bedrock for his soaring romanticism. A new exhibition at Villa Terrace, "Richard Haas: Thirty Years of Looking at Architecture" (running through Jan. 11, 2009), presents renderings and photographs of approximately 14 proposed and completed public works as well as a collection of etchings and lithographs for which he first gained recognition.

His unwavering interest in architecture is immediately apparent in these prints of mighty urban edifices. Despite belonging to one of the liveliest periods of American printmaking, when artists were pushing the conventional boundaries of the medium, Haas' prints show no real evidence of stylistic innovation or improvisational abstraction. If anything, they reach back to the early 20th century, when American artists like Edward Hopper and John Sloan were channeling film noir and the undercurrents of city life to create moody, atmospheric works. Although Haas' prints are far more static and make more conventional use of European precedent, they too use the city as a muse. In his work, however, civic monuments rather than the city's inhabitants become the heroic exponents of a tense urban drama.

Haas' work shows a range of stylistic influences, from the futuristic echoes of Chicago View, Morning (and the dystopian Chicago View, Fog) to the Hopper-inspired steep shadows of 57th Street, Looking East. New York's famous Flatiron Building is rendered with Piranesi-eque detail and intensity, surging forward like the prow of a ship, while etchings like that of the GE Building, which appears to hold an orb of light aloft in a blue velvet sky, convey the glamour of Art Deco.

Haas' lively adoration for architecture finds a larger canvas in his public murals. However, here we have to rely on large drawings and before-and-after photographs. This somewhat weakens the already tenuous connection between reality and illusion that is the singular domain of the trompe l'oeil painting, even if it helps us gauge their impact on their environments.

The selection of projects represented here showcases Haas' skill as a muralist, but doesn't fully relay the wit and ingenuity he's displayed in projects like Milk Street in Boston or the Peck Slip Arcade in New York City. The need to ameliorate exposed warehouse walls and poorly conceived faades blighting the urban landscape is clearly cataloged, and the antiquated aesthetics applied to them are certainly an improvement, though they also conjure the illusionistic grandeur of Vegas hotels and shopping malls.

The most salient examples here present the building faade as a receptacle for memory, embodying Haas' belief that it can and should tell a story. Some, like the mural for Milwaukee's Center Theater building or Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center, incorporate reflections or shadows of buildings that once occupied the site. A proposed project predating 9/11 that shows the reflection of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings transposed onto the faade of the Twin Towers might be read as a statement on the inflated ideals of capitalism reflected back upon themselves.


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