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If New York’s buildings are living, breathing, creatures, then artist Gwyneth Leech’s Liminal New York — now open at the Foley Gallery presented by Garvey | Simon Projects — captures the Big Apple’s skyscrapers moment-by-moment as they grow into the steel and chrome titans of tomorrow.
“My paintings are all about the process,” said Leech of her work, which explores the never-ending construction of Hudson Yards, Billionaire’s Row, and other Midtown developments. “I’m very interested in the skeletal — what’s under those reflective glass skins, and even the facade process, which is really incredible. I think that most New Yorkers want to ignore the construction until it’s done, because it’s noisy, it’s dirty — you have to walk around it — you don’t want to see it. But it became super interesting to me, instead of something to avoid.”
She has been following Hudson Yards, prominently featured in the exhibit, since its inception. “There’s a whole span that I’ve painted from 2016 to the present represented there,” she said.
Leech — who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and began painting buildings under construction after one popped up in front of her art studio in the Garment District — has had a front row seat to the birth of Hudson Yards: “There were so many things going on around us, and somehow I felt really driven to capture all these in-between phases — here we are in Hell’s Kitchen, where we’re this low-zoned area and yet we’re surrounded by all these tall buildings,” she said.
She was drawn to the idea that the most interesting aspect of the glitzy, glossy walls of Hudson Yards was not the chance to enter them but instead to stay outside and look in — after all, for the average New Yorker, Hudson Yards and Billionaires’ Row will always be out-of-reach playgrounds for the rich.
“At both Hudson Yards and Billionaires’ Row, they’re targeted to people in a much different economic bracket,” said Leech. “The gleaming towers are not for the ordinary citizens — it’s a world apart.”
Despite the intimidating impermeability of such neighborhoods, Leech found human connection during her time documenting the builds. “During the process, one of the things that happened in all the sites was that I met a lot of people who were working on them — either because I was physically there with an easel on the sidewalk and people saw me working, or through Instagram when I was posting my process shots,” she said. As a result, she connected with workers from the Local 40 union.
“I have connected to, and stay in touch with, a lot of iron workers, and I’ve seen people from job site to job site,” she said. “There’s a real feeling of community — I think the people who work on the buildings have a similar feeling to me that when the building is finished, it’s not for them.”
In spite of the transient nature of New York construction crews, her continued relationships with contractors have even led to some sales. “I have a lot of collectors now who are in the construction industry — steel erectors, concrete contractors, engineers, and architects,” said Leech.
Another facet of her Hudson Yards series is a focus on the dichotomy of COVID-era homeless encampments against some of the most expensive buildings in Manhattan.
“I watched these communities grow, and eventually started to make paintings about it, because the contrast was so striking,” said Leech. “These homemade shapes in the foreground and then Hudson Yards rising beyond them really hit home to me.”
She added: “I was seeing people living through an entire winter, through blizzards, out in the snow. Here are these luxury developments and more office space going up — it’s so exciting and impressive to see the modern technologies applied to these huge buildings, and it’s done with such amazing choreography and done so fast — and yet, we’re stalled on this pressing issue of housing for ordinary New Yorkers.”
The slowdown of city construction at the height of the pandemic is a point of interest in her new work, with Leech choosing to “shift my focus a little bit from the towers going up, to yellow excavators and holes in the ground.”
One pandemic structure missing from Leech’s exhibit? “I find the temporary dining sheds endlessly fascinating, but I decided not to include them in my work,” she said. “I wanted to keep the exhibit focused on a few types of things, but I have watched them come and go and change and grow — some become more permanent and some of them vanish, that continues to be endlessly interesting,” she added.
As she looks ahead to her next series, Leech plans to both expand her reach to outer boroughs: “I am overdue a trip to downtown Brooklyn and to Long Island City, both of which have changed massively,” and Citi Biking around the neighborhood where “I’m seeing things just as they’re happening — there’s always fresh material just to be discovered by biking around.”
“And as the summer is unfolding, one of the things that keeps grabbing my attention are some phenomenally overgrown empty lots,” added Leech. “There’s vegetation coming up and some of them are located with construction in the background, and I’m pretty interested in that contrast. So that might be something that’s creeping into the next series — I may be getting into some weedy places.”
Regardless of her next projects, the artist maintains that there is always relevance in paying close attention to the buildings that surround us. “It’s almost like these huge buildings are saying, ‘nothing to see here, I’m not here — don’t mind us, we’re not really here,’” she said. “You can watch them build, panel, by panel, by panel. You can watch them get smaller and smaller up in the sky. But in the end, all of that skeleton and all the support structures are gone, and it’s just the reflective glass — these sky-colored, geometric shapes, blending in.”
Gwyneth Leech: Liminal New York shows through June 26 at the Foley Gallery, (59 Orchard Street) Wednesdays through Saturdays 11am to 5:30pm & Sundays 12pm to 5pm