Billboard

What do you call a half-consumed liter bottle of Coca-Cola, a crushed can of Red Bull, a creased oval mattress in the gutter, and a crutch abandoned on a sidewalk?  To photographer Jiuxun Jin, that’s a “Picnic.” You can see where this wiseguy is coming from: this scene is right out in the open, as picnics are, and technically speaking, there are both places to sit and ingestible things at hand.  Of course, you might also get hit by a car.

Or maybe you won’t. The curbsides in Jin’s photographs are deserted. There’s not a vehicle around; there aren’t any pedestrians, either.  His stark and occasionally scathing photographs, which are on view at IMUR Gallery (67 Greene St.) today and tomorrow in a show called “Paramnesia,” contain plenty of traces of careless humanity.  People’s trash, yes, but people, no.  No neutron bomb has gone off, and no place has been evacuated. This is merely the pavement at night, in the hours before the maintenance crews have arrived and the janitors have shown up with their brooms, with evidence of habitation and hard use everywhere, unapologetic, unashamed, sometimes ugly, but often strangely beautiful, too. Jin shows us the city before it puts on its face: the candid city, a little weary, a little sarcastic and a wee bit unwelcoming. Soon enough, the sun will come up, and the town will have to be accommodating. Jiuxun Jin has no patience for the masquerade, though. His shots are akin to images of an aging star, caught backstage, makeup off, exhausted after a performance, maybe glaring at the photographer, but submitting to a good, hard, educational look.

“Paramnesia” may remind visitors of the definitive urban exploration show mounted in Jersey City over the last few years: Christian Gallo’s superb “Alive Is a Matter of Opinion,” a late-night skulk around the periphery of a city not unlike ours. Gallo’s exhibition, which hung at SMUSH Gallery in late 2021, also focused on city detritus, cracks in the pavement, and afforded glimpses of deserted streets at their most desolate. But Gallo’s city was an enchanted fairyland — a clubhouse for reprobates willing to pierce the veil of evening and wrap themselves up in the weirdness of the built environment. Jiuxun Jin isn’t anywhere as sanguine. He’s also willing to be snarky in a way that urban romanticists never are. “Welcome Home” is a shot of a door torn off its hinges and set against the trunk of a barren curbside tree. Its knob is gone; a knotted-up Hefty bag squats at its foot.  As a photograph, it’s striking: neatly balanced, black and white and high-contrast, shot on thirty-five millimeter film and printed with care on cotton paper. As a comment on habitation, and urban unfriendliness, and the profusion of doors, metaphoric and otherwise, going nowhere, it’s the farthest thing from sweet.

Like most of this tidy-sized but talkative show, “Welcome Home” and “Picnic” are concerned with comfort: the illusory promise of it, and its unavailability in a place as hard-edged as the city. Jin likes to juxtapose chairs, cushions, and mattresses with hard macadam and concrete. Beds are slung across the sidewalk, or leaned up against corrugated iron gates.  A sofa, stripped of its cushions, waits, mutely, the single white line of a barren road for the garbage man.  These are objects created to provide rest, and here they are, worn-out and ill-used, placed in compromising positions that rob them of their utility.  In the best shot in the show — and the one that sums up “Paramnesia” most concisely — a black desk chair sits next to a poorly whitewashed wall near an outdoor drain.  Its ergonomic design cannot save it from the weeds that gather around its wheels or the corrosive effects of the elements. One arm is a little higher than the other.  White stains mark the lip of the cushion where a sitter’s butt should go.  It desperately awaits an occupant who isn’t going to come again.

“Manifesto” (that’s the name of the chair shot) is one of several Jiuxun Jin photos that suggest that these unloved objects miss the human touch just as much as the humans miss the succor they’re supposed to provide. Even as we’re done with them, they bear the imprint of our activity. The drama of these pictures is one about renunciation and waste, and Jin’s merciless camera implicitly challenges us to put the pieces of the city back together. In “Billboard,” a blank space is thrown against the sky.  No advertisement adorns its surface. Instead, there’s nothing but the rusted rivets where an image might hang.  One day soon, a person might shimmy up the pole and place something official on the billboard, or tag it with graffiti.  For now, it’s merely blank.  But wordless as it is, it’s got a message for us.  It may be tired, and used up, but it’s not stripped of dignity.  Like the rest of the urban environment, it demands care. Jiuxun Jin is unconvinced that help is on the way.  It’s up to the rest of us to prove him wrong.

trismccall@gmail.com

Tris McCall

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...