Scott Silvey’s small body of work titled Civic Remedies: New Paintings from Tokyo, now showing at Whitespace Gallery, comprises maniacally consistent, well-made, illustrated landscapes. Dominating the center of nearly every composition are whitened, almost ghostly structures of modern Asian-esque architecture. But our view of these buildings is obscured by the expansion of flowering weeds, which emerge unemotionally from empty urban lots in the foreground. Their peaceful, decorative demeanor disarms the paintings’ content: a classic conflict between nature and the built environment.
Silvey’s careful to make a fiction of plain design. His choices of symbolism are not grandiose or even exotic, as we often expect from Japan; the landscapes do not possess the swift neon energy of commercialism, nor of a bustling populace. They are not scenes of destruction or of the Apocalypse, but of quiet leftover places. The “medicinal herbs” (as Silvey calls them) in the foreground are not aggressive, and yet they conquer and dominate our view with their colorful sweetness. A certain quiet healing is taking place, suggesting a natural process that invites our empathy without becoming anthropomorphized—a radical notion for a metropolis where every crevice is packed with human development.
Curiously, vending machines also play a role in Silvey’s symbolism. And, in several paintings, an electrical box sits humorously at the edge of an urban field. When I asked Silvey about this, he said, “Vending machines are everywhere in Toyko.” (Silvey now lives in Japan.) Mounds of dirt are yet another recurring image—a Silvey-ian trope I recognize from previous artwork he made when he lived and practiced in Atlanta seven years ago.
Stylistically, the quality of Silvey’s illustration seems retro; there is no shortage of detail—a viewer can walk right up to the surface of the works and still get a lot out of it. (This is the sort of intimacy of line and color I can sometimes find in a used children’s book when I “luck out” at the thrift store.) Silvey’s controlled palette is a nice break from the graphic “bling” we tend to see a lot lately in contemporary art.
And the exhibition space helps a great deal to bring character to the illustrations. An antithesis of its name, Whitespace is relatively moody and damp for a commercial gallery. Silvey’s thin paint achieves a look of stained or weathered wood. Had he shown in the typical all-white gallery environment, the works would have seemed earthier by contrast. But instead, the sparse placement, dark brown walls, and brick floor help to create an atmospheric context. And, of course, this aspect of the show could have been pushed further with edgier curation. I especially liked the minimal layout in the second gallery, where three paintings seem almost illuminated by their pink sunset backgrounds, and are grouped nicely together at the far edge of a dark wall.
My only disappointment was the absence of an actual plant element, especially since I know Silvey has the full capacity to create sculpture and conceptual installations. I could imagine, for instance, that the inclusion of glass terrariums and/or engineered humidity would help complete and ground Civic Remedies and the fantasy of a plant take-over presented in its images.
Civic Remedies: New Paintings from Tokyo will be on view at Whitespace through July 3.