Crossing to Safety

Christopher Gallego’s Tenth Avenue drawing series

May 26, 2022
Ephraim Rubenstein
Crossing to Safety

Gallego’s shapes glow like one of Rothko’s rectangles. Christopher Gallego, Tenth Avenue Crosswalk #1, 2012, charcoal and graphite on paper, 19 x 23 in.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Robert Frost

Crossing to Safety
Albrecht Dürer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503, watercolor and gouche, 16 1/8 x 12 5/8 in. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

The most immediate thing in the world to overlook is the ground beneath our feet. Relentlessly fixed on our immediate objective, we cast our glance into the distance or middle ground, ignoring the very ground that supports us. How is it that something so critical goes chronically so unnoticed? Artists have occasionally made us stop and consider this oversight. I think of Dürer’s Large Piece of Turf or any of a myriad of ground planes in Andrew Wyeth landscapes, from Christina’s World to Faraway.

These artistic ground planes not only urge us to acknowledge this surface of such great import, they also can reverberate with mythic vibrations of journeys, crossings and even- since we are buried in the ground- death. An example of this is Wyeth’s Trodden Weed, which for me points to Walt Whitman’s prospects for his own death: “Look for me under your boot soles.”

Christopher Gallego’s Tenth Avenue drawings are an extraordinary revisiting of this overlooked ground beneath our feet in a completely contemporary urban context.

Gallego conjures up this mysterious, otherworldly intersection out of the dirt, grit, and noise of the real one. The drawings are suffused with atmosphere and mystery, and a disquieting sense that you both know this intersection intimately, but also that you have never seen anything quite like it. You are there, in the same way that you are there—and not there—in a lonely De Chirico piazza. Even though you have never been to a place topographically like that, you have without question experienced that exact mood, that precise emotional tenor. The simultaneous visual truth and sometimes contradictory emotional truth are one of the things that give these works much of their punch.

Christopher Gallego drawing series
Christopher Gallego, Tenth Avenue Stop Line #1, 2016, charcoal and graphite on paper, 19 1/2 x 15 5/8 in. Private collection.

There is a contradiction at the center of Gallego’s Tenth Avenue drawings that makes them deeply enigmatic. Gallego’s intersection swims in space, air and absolute silence, even though it derives from one of the loudest, toughest, most physical intersections in New York City. And in addition to evoking an extraordinary mood and feeling tone, these drawings ask the philosophic question, What part of realism is real?

In assessing the gnawing beauty of Gallego’s Tenth Avenue drawings, a good place to start might be by standing at the actual intersection of in Hells Kitchen, Manhattan, where the artist lived for a number of years. The place is loud, bustling, and cacophonous; there are hundreds of cars, bikes, and pedestrians whizzing by. The continuous undifferentiated white noise of whirring tires is punctuated by the distinct blare of individual horns, the shouts of angry drivers, the bells of bicyclists, the barking of dogs, and the snippets of conversation as people move by you. Everything is in constant movement and the pace is frantic. Yet, these drawings are absolutely silent and suffused with an overwhelming sense of peace that resolutely tugs at you. How can this be?

The actual intersection feels more like this Robert Birmilin painting: chaotic, frenzied, fragmented.

One way to examine this contradiction is to start with the question of intent. Most people’s ostensible reason for being at that intersection is pragmatic. Like the proverbial chicken, our goal for being on the road is to get to the other side. But no such practical task guides us in the world of Gallego’s drawings. We, like the artist himself, are here solely to look, and to contemplate certain aspects of the location. In the real world, our senses have to be on high alert to avoid danger; running into other pedestrians, getting hit by a car. We have no psychic room left to contemplate the experience of being there, in that space, on that very particular piece of asphalt. So many sensory elements of being in that intersection — sounds, frenzied movement — are left out here, that our experience of the visual is magnified a hundred-fold. The hectic, super-charged world has slowed down to a threnodic pace — from a gallop to a dirge.

Christopher Gallego drawing series
Christopher Gallego, Tenth Avenue Stop Line #1 (detail).

Being in Gallego’s intersection is like the experience of being underwater. When you are out swimming and suddenly decide to go under, you immediately experience a world of immense quiet, in which you are confronted with a silence so profound, that you can hear your own heart-beat and feel your own pulse. The world- previously haptic and sensorial in so many ways- becomes completely visual and utterly without the usual cues provided by sound and movement. And this totally visual world also becomes thick with atmosphere- soft edges and hazy distances, in which you can mostly see only what is right in front of you.

When you finally come out of the water into the air, all of the sounds of life come rushing back, and normality is reinstated. But you always retain a memory of that silent, grave, mysterious world. In these Tenth Avenue drawings, Gallego has created a terrestrial version of that experience. It is as if you are underwater, and all of the usual sounds, shuffles and animation of life goes silent, and you find yourself in this sensorially pared-down but visually heightened world. If you have ever watched TV without the sound on, your visual acuity becomes magnified, as if to compensate for the lack of auditory cues. You notice people’s postures, their facial expressions and hand gestures with an intensity you never did before. Likewise, in Gallego’s drawings, you notice this universe of things you never saw before; the fact that this sewer cover and the one next to it are completely different, that the zebra stripe is riddled with cracks and missing pieces, that the asphalt dips and then levels out, that scuff marks and the dried blobs of chewing gum are everywhere. Christopher Gallego drawing series

Crossing to Safety
The various colored splatters and drips are the result of different painting projects executed over a period of time. The surface thereby reveals a narrative and tells the story of a man and his work. Christopher Gallego, Drop Cloth (detail), 2012, oil on canvas, 49 x 38 1/2 in. Private collection.

Gallegos’ series refers to yet another contradiction at the heart of city life. The fact that even though you are crammed together with millions of other people you can also feel very much alone. The city, by virtue of its sheer numbers, affords you a great deal of anonymity, and you, like the purloined letter, can hide-out in plain sight. Some people constantly want to argue that cityscape paintings need people in them, that that is the essential truth of the city. But others know that the lonely emptiness of the city is as profound a truth as the other. So while many great cityscape artists cram their scenes with people, animals and vehicles to express the city’s humming density, Gallego stakes his claim alongside the great artists of the empty city. Just as Vesalius stripped the body down through the orders of muscles, in order to leave you with the essential skeleton, these artists have stripped the city down to its basic geography, the stage-set upon which the action of life will transpire. I think of Hopper’s New York, Hammershoi’s London and Copenhagen, Antonio López García’s Madrid and Israel Hershberg’s Jerusalem.

While many of these other artists explore deep aerial views, Gallego looks down, right at the asphalt surface of the street. In so doing, he emphasizes the abstractness of the subject with its play of geometry and shape. This is part and parcel with much of Gallego’s other works; he is clearly fascinated with surfaces. And while he loves looking at surfaces, his examination of them goes so far beyond what people dismiss as “mere” surface. It is the kind of profound examination of surface that Nietzsche was thinking of when he claimed that “there is no beautiful surface without a terrible depth.” What does this mean?

Crossing to Safety
Look at the extraordinary number of different hard and soft surfaces on this chair. The painting is an invitation to touch. Christopher Gallego, Studio Chair, 1999, oil on canvas, 60 x 44 in. Private collection.

It means that you have to think about how the surface got to look the way that it does; how millions of people walk across this intersection and then disappear, but must leave some trace, some mark, of their passing. Sometimes, they leave something, like the desiccated blobs of chewing gum that everywhere dot the pavement. But they also take something of the street away with them. Each person inadvertently removes some tiny particle of the street on the bottom of their shoes, and this degradation of the surface is repeated with every passing pedestrian, thousands of times a day. Similarly, the weight of the millions of vehicles that drive over this intersection every year causes small seismic shifts in the pavement, resulting in the cracks, fissures, and pot holes that riddle the intersections surface. A Renaissance statue of a standing saint on an Italian street will always have a toe that has become shiny from everyone who walked by having rubbed it for good luck. Situated on a tall pedestal, the foot is the only part of the holy personage within reach. Each passing hand removes a tiny particle of its patina, leaving visual evidence of their passing. The physical examination of what was there, but now is not there, or is only partially there, is one of the most poetic undertakings of Western art. From Evaristo Baschenis’ miraculous painting of musical instruments covered with dust, that was partially removed by the gentle swipe of an unknown hand; to William Harnett and John Frederick Peto’s  poignant door paintings, with their missing postcards, torn papers, chipped paint and empty holes that once were filled by a nail or screw; to Cy Twombly’s chalk marks, erasures, palimpsests and pentimenti, these images never fail to move us.

Christopher Gallego drawing series
The scratched sides of a laundry boiler are endlessly fascinating. Christopher Gallego, Laundry Boiler, 2002, charcoal & graphite on paper, 21 x 26 in. Private collection.

This is why Gallego’s drawings ultimately have an elegiac quality. For they memorialize the passage of time and its visible effects. They make evident how we change everything with which we come into contact, ever so infinitesimally, whether we know it or not. At the end of a single day, do we feel that we have gotten older? Do we notice? We probably do not realize that we have moved an inch closer to our appointed end. But Gallego does, and he points it out in a manner so beautiful, that we cannot feel loss. Instead, we are moved and grateful for the insight that links us to every other thing, animate and inanimate, with which we share the planet and the passage of time. Gallego’s street intersection links him to Keats, and the most poignant of all epitaphs:

“This grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet…. One Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821.”

In his wonderful essay on the apples of Cézanne, Meyer Schapiro says that the artist removed his apples from the realm of appetite and put them into the realm of contemplation. What he means is that no one really wants to eat a Cézanne apple in the way one longs to take a bite out of an apple by Courbet. Cézanne’s apples are meant to be meditated on, not consumed. Similarly, you don’t go to Gallego’s intersection to get somewhere; you go there to look. In fact, there is only one drawing in which the opposite corner is even included. Gallego has similarly turned the practical and pragmatic into the contemplative and philosophical, by turning the “street to be crossed” into the “street to be pondered.” In doing so, he transforms the mundane into the miraculous. The overwhelming sense of silence and space in the drawings are the sine qua non for the contemplation that the drawings require. No one can focus on contemplative issues when one is afraid for one’s life. Gallego had to remove everything from the street that would be a threat or distraction (cars racing, road-raged drivers), or that would distract the viewer as “incident” (“I wonder what kind of dog that man is walking”). How is this magical transformation accomplished?

Crossing to Safety
Stella’s drawing exhibits the same luscious feeling for the materiality of charcoal; anything that charcoal can be made to do, Stella does. Jospeh Stella, Morning Mist at the Mine Mouth (Monongah), 1908, charcoal on paper, 17 1/2 x 23 in. The Columbus Museum, the Daniel Amos Purchase Fund, the Art Opportunity Fund, the Edward Swift Shorter Bequest Fund and by Exchange.

In a great work of art, all of the artist’s forces work in concert. The technique works in service of the concept, and the concept works in service of the vision. Gallego’s sense of bountiful quiet and space start with the very materials themselves: soft vine charcoal and graphite. Vine charcoal itself has a very delicate, airy look, and is often turned to when a soft atmosphere is wanted.

Using Arches hot press watercolor paper as a surface, Gallego blocks in the drawing very swiftly with soft vine charcoal, noting the major darks, lights, and progressive middle tones. He then rubs and smears the charcoal into the weave of the paper, securing it to the surface by rubbing the particles with his fingers or with a paper towel. Rubbing in this manner prevents the tones from lifting upon further contact. So at the very start, before the drawing even looks like a street, it is a softly glowing set of velvety shapes on a flat surface. It is only when he subsequently goes back into the drawing with the harder graphite, that details like sewer covers and zebra stripes get developed and become apparent. As the drawing takes shape, nothing is allowed to disrupt this sense of softly vibrating, quiet space.

Christopher Gallego drawing series
Is that opposite corner real, or only a mirage? Christopher Gallego, Tenth Avenue Crosswalk #4, 2020, charcoal and graphite on paper, 18 x 23 1/2 in.

Not all of the drawing process is additive—much is done subtractively. Gallego will often establish a tone, only to wipe part of it away with a paper towel or an eraser. He sometimes even uses steel wool or a razor blade to get rid of tone and to re-establish the lights. This subtractive technique always leaves a soft, atmospheric look.

And yes, we all know that God is in the details, and He is— but He’s really in the touch. The touch that distinguishes one draftsman from another; the touch that tells you to lose an edge, or sharpen it; to erase back into a tone one more time; to blend two tones together or to distinguish between them; to render one more detail, or just to let it go; the touch that tells you that you are looking at a Lopez Garcia and not at a Dickinson.

Christopher Gallego drawing series
Christopher Gallego, Tenth Avenue Crosswalk #3, charcoal and graphite on paper, 11 x 14 in. Christopher Gallego Drawing Series

There is only one drawing in the series in which a hint of the opposite corner, the ostensible goal of the intersection, is included. But the other side is so sparklingly indistinct and ephemeral that we feel, not only that we may never reach it, but that it may not even exist—that it may be only a mirage. But because it is hinted at, it lends this drawing the distinct feeling of a journey, of crossing to the other side—be it across one Manhattan intersection, or across no-man’s land, or across the gulf from adolescence to adulthood. In walking across Gallego’s Tenth Avenue intersection, you start out thinking you are making a short passage across a Manhattan intersection, only to find you may have embarked on a mythical journey through time and memory as well as space. What is the destination? Like Zeno’s paradox, you may never quite get to the other side, the other side being constantly just beyond reach. Footsteps forward in space take on the gravity of a “stages of life” allegory. Have we merely crossed Tenth Avenue, or are we starting our crossing of the River Styx? Christopher Gallego Drawing series

In this series, Gallego primarily looks down, emphasizing the inherent flatness of the subject. And yet, the softness of the tones and the touch give this flat world a vast sense of space. And that, I think, is essential to most of Gallego’s work. We see it in the floors of his interiors, and in the horizontal surface of the ocean as it rolls to the shore. Gallego always creates a sense of space, lovingly opening up in front of you, even in the flattest of subjects.

Christopher Gallego drawing series
Christopher Gallego, Tenth Avenue Stop Line #2, in progress, charcoal and graphite on paper, 32 x 36 in.

Deeply elegiac, lovingly spacious, exquisitely handled, Gallego’s intersection speaks to us of transience. And of memory. Memory desperately trying to hold onto everything in the world that is slowly and inexorably disappearing. That is why there are always some parts of the drawings that seem to have disappeared, or to never have been formed in the first place. They are elusive and ephemeral, like Leonardo’s sfumato (in the manner of smoke), or like Whistler’s “breath on the surface of a pane of glass.” All of which is accomplished through the most crucial element: the touch of the artist’s hand. Gallego’s intersection is a beautiful reminder that all of our names are writ in water.