Since the birth of modernism, the city has been a subject of fascination for artist and poet alike. The embodiment of modernity’s technological wonders, a magnet for the multifarious and multiethnic, the city is home to both permanence and flux. One can find oneself and lose oneself in cities, sometimes in the same moment. Who has not experienced the thrill of turning a corner and suddenly discovering an entirely new setting—the vortex of an avenue and its rush of traffic, the quiet of a long-forgotten square now patrolled by pigeons, or just the facade of a building glazed by late afternoon light? We are lost to such moments, fended off by the sheer enormity of the buildings and streets, and yet embraced by them as one among many. Observation is the tool by which we order our private experience of this public realm.
Peter H. Begley’s new series on “Cornices” restores and values the pleasure of the eye ranging a city street. Though we associate the city with crowds, there are no people here, for these are paintings meant to be inhabited by the viewer before them. Within their abstract lineation veiled by surface daubs of white, something uncannily alive emerges through the pure act of sight. A building’s severe angularity softened by the cornices that detail it, an intersection’s clash of energies anchored by a squat facade, or the way a skyline beckons to the mute but ever-changing sky; this is the richness and variety that all great cities supply to the eye that delights in them. And this is precisely what these paintings revel in: what we notice is the sheer satisfaction of our noticing. Begley reminds us that to live in the city is to immerse oneself in a continual engagement with the arbitrary and the patterned. Surprise and discovery may unfold in a newfound street or shop, and yet ease and sociability live within the routines we create for ourselves while traversing the city’s varied spaces.
The crossroads we are brought to is one where the abstract and the figurative conjoin—a place where the imagination serves as the traffic light directing the scene that lies before us. In this manner, Begley’s paintings embrace the gargantuan in order to render it humane through the gaze that configures it. Here is a street corner, just around which mystery lingers; look how those cornice lines extend our sight into the heart of the canvas. As we enter the spaces before us, all is shape work and shifting: the definitions we discover are those that we supply ourselves. At the same time, Begley’s triptych motif reminds us that he still controls the theater of our construction. The result is a kind of restoration, an agreed-upon trust in the artist to supply us with a version of reality that we ourselves create.
“Unreal city,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “At the violet hour… when the human engine waits.” Out of such trepidation, Peter H. Begley has rescued the incidental joy of happenstance discovered within seeming permanence. Here, amid vibrant color, such masses and volumes no longer suppress but rather embolden us to live in the flux of our being – vision without object, the physical freed of constraint, the eye roaming the surface of the moment’s core.
Peter Filkins is a poet and translator. His books include What She Knew, After Homer, and Ingeborg Bachmann’s collected poems, Darkness Spoken.