ART REVIEW: "Sharka Hyland: this thing we call a city"-Gallery Joe, Philadelphia

Sharka Hyland’s “this thing we call a city,” on display at Gallery Joe until February 28, is a strange sort of exhibition.  While at first glance it might seem underwhelming, consisting of what look like mere handwritten words on paper, on closer inspection—and upon actually reading the drawn words—the viewer is pulled into a collaboration with Hyland to create imagery in the viewer’s mind.

“this thing we call a city” consists of nine drawings, all hanging on one wall in the stark white inner room at the gallery.  The drawings, neatly and precisely done, are of text: namely, of quotations by famous individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, and Walter Benjamin, all discussing various aspects of city living.  The works are drawn either in pencil or watercolor on plain, white-creamy paper.  The viewer immediately notices the strange juxtaposition of quiet white room and loud, colorful city, with the drawings serving not only bridge that large gap but also to recreate the city in the room.

With such evocative texts as Hyland uses, her aim quickly becomes clear: instead of creating paintings based on Wright’s or Baudelaire’s descriptions of city life, she invites us to create the paintings ourselves by presenting the viewer with their words about the subject.  This technique works especially well with several of the drawings, particularly a drawing of the words of the poet W.C. Williams in W.C. Williams, The Great Figure, which reads:
           Among the rain
                                                            and lights
                                                            I saw the figure 5
                                                            in gold
                                                            on a red
                                                            to gong clangs
                                                            siren howls
                                                            and wheels rumbling
                                                            through the dark city

W.C. Williams, The Great Figure, 2014
SBH - 215 (E16)
Watercolor on paper
11 x 14 inches
Signed on back
Courtesy of Gallery Joe

By recreating his words, she has invited us to make the imagery Williams has described ourselves, thus involving the viewer to take part in the creation of a whole work.  Other drawings in the series are a bit more complicated in their use of imagery to link with the viewer. Baudelaire’s quotation, for example, is difficult to appreciate unless you speak French, while Frank Lloyd Wright’s two drawn quotations are typically grandiose and flowery in their description of how he views “the city’s flesh.”  Another lovely example of imagery comes in the brief, two-line prose work by Ezra Pound:

                                                 The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
                                                 Petals on a wet, black, bough.
Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro, 1916, 2014
SBH - 230 (E30)
Watercolor and pencil on paper
11 x 14 inches
Signed on back
Courtesy of Gallery Joe

The last highlight, in terms of sheer written power, comes in Hyland’s choice of Kafka; the work Franz Kafka, Amerika (37), 1911-1914 reads:

                                    And in the morning as well as in the evening and in dreams at
                                    night, an incessant, urgent traffic rushed through this street,
                                    which, when seen from above, was an always new mixture of dis-
                                    torted human forms and the roofs of all sorts of vehicles, out of
                                    which arose a renewed, multiplicitous, wilder combination of
                                    noise, dust and smells, and all of this was seized and permeated
                                    by a powerful light, which was continually scattered, carried
                                    off, and eagerly reassembled by the mass of objects, and which
                                    appeared as physical to the perplexed eye as though a pane of
                                    glass extended over everything was being smashed with full
                                    force at every moment, over and over again, above this street.
Franz Kafka, Amerika (37), 1911-1914, 2014
SBH - 232 (VN31)
Pencil on paper
9 3/8 x 10 1/2 inches
Translation by Sharka Hyland © SH
Signed on back
Courtesy of Gallery Joe

Ultimately, “this thing we call a city” does cause the viewer to wonder: since the act of choosing and mounting the quotations on the wall to facilitate this viewer-artist collaboration is an act of art itself, does Hyland’s copying and drawing of the quotations really add anything to the experience, or to the understanding of what the intended effect of the exhibition is?  I am not sure.  That Hyland has chosen to turn the text into drawings of text seems like more of an afterthought than an intrinsic part of the connection she is attempting to make among word, mental image, and drawing.

This exhibit is not so much about the medium Hyland uses as much as it is about the sheer power of words to summon up all sorts of pictures in our mind’s eye. “this thing we call a city” asks the question: is all written imagery inherently a work of art in and of itself, or do the maker and location matter as well?

(This piece was first published at Title Magazine here!)