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Ephemeral Magic Mirrors the Life of a Bronx Center

Manuel Acevedo's "WTC: Tropism," one of the artist's concepts for ground zero, on view at the Bronx River Art Center
Manuel Acevedo’s “WTC: Tropism,” one of the artist’s concepts for ground zero, on view at the Bronx River Art Center.

For nearly 25 years, the Bronx River Art Center has been organizing exhibitions, art classes and public school programs out of a funky, century-old building in a battered neighborhood called West Farms. Beginning in September, the building will undergo an overhaul, leaving the center to float for two years in temporary locations.

Its current gallery show, “Manuel Acevedo: Keys of Light,” is well suited to this in-between state. An ultra-spare survey of a decade’s worth of work by an artist approaching midcareer, it makes for an apt farewell to an old space and an auspicious look ahead. And its subject is both practical and visionary: how, through luminosity, architecture can be transformed.

Born in Newark in 1964, Mr. Acevedo is known for his inventive mixing of photography, video, flip-book animation and camera obscura optics, as well as for his success at sustaining indie-artist status. He has let his professional life unfold almost entirely within the sphere of alternative art organizations, relying on teaching, community work and residencies to circumvent reliance on the commercial gallery system.

To this end, he has kept the materials and technical demands of his art modest. From an early point, he focused much of his energy on filling notebooks with highly personal drawings and collages. Among these images were proposals for utopian projects, notably for renovations to abandoned structures in run-down and neglected parts of cities. Given the locations, the ideas were unlikely to be realized, though Mr. Acevedo delivered them with conviction, as if he believed they might, after all, be do-able even if in ephemeral form.

For "Untitled (Night Projection)"from 2002, Manuel Acevedo superimposed an interior scene onto the exterior of a house
For “Untitled (Night Projection)” from 2002, Manuel Acevedo superimposed an interior scene onto the exterior of a house.

Fairly recent examples of such designs appear in a series of drawings called “WTC: Tropism,” which is based on Polaroid photographs that Mr. Acevedo took, then added to and altered, during a residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in 2007. The photographs, shot from a high studio window, are all of ground zero, which was still at the time an empty excavation.

On one level, the series is a tribute to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council itself, which until 9/11 had its studios in the World Trade Center. (One resident artist, Michael Richards, died when the north tower fell.) At the same time, Mr. Acevedo uses the Polaroid for the very specific purpose of proposing new structures that might occupy and revivify ground zero.

To do this, he fills the blank twin towers site in each photograph with a drawing of a monumental grid-patterned abstract form. Sometimes biomorphically plump, sometimes shimmering, sheer and curtainlike, these are hybrids of architecture and sculpture. From drawing to drawing no two forms are exactly alike, yet they all share an air of agitation. They twist and swell above ground zero as if trapped by and resisting its magnetic pull.

In another piece from the same time, Mr. Acevedo puts these pictures to a different use: he turns them into a time-lapse, flipbook-style video animation. In this case, ground zero is left empty except for thin columns of smoke or steam that suddenly rise from its surface, as if leaking from some underground source.

The images in both series — the drawn forms, the columns of smoke — are fantastical, but not necessarily pure fantasy. There is a sense that the drawn forms in particular were conceived with some idea of existing as 9/11 memorials, maybe as short-term projections. But signifying what? With their linear patterns bound around blobs of pale, glowing matter, the forms have an architectural heft but no balance, no stability. This architecture is useful only for illustrating the sheer vanity of building anything on a site that always was, and is now more than ever, charged with aggressive and eruptive power.

In 2007, Mr. Acevedo took up a second residency, this one at the nonprofit Spaces gallery in Cleveland. There, with backing from the National Performance Art Network and assistance from a local artist named Eartha Goodwin, he initiated a collaborative project that allowed him to engage with architecture quite directly.

He called it Camera Communis and designed it for a group of Cleveland schoolchildren living in a volatile working-class community. In addition to teaching the students basic photographic techniques, he had them keep hand-written and collaged diaries, like his own, in which they recorded observations about their neighborhood, the changes taking place there and ways they might shape things for the better.

To encourage them to pay close attention to their home environments, he turned rooms in apartments and houses into walk-in versions of the pinhole camera, or camera obscura — primitive, proto-photographic devices that project outdoor scenes from the street into interior spaces. A group of Mr. Acevedo’s Camera Communis photographs are in the show, organized by José Ruiz, the former director of the Bronx River Art Center, and they capture the effect of image-washed interior walls melting and dissolving.

Finally, in a serial piece titled “Untitled (Night Projection),” begun in 2002 and extending into the present, Mr. Acevedo takes architectural intervention in the exact opposite direction by projecting shots of domestic interior life onto the exterior wall of a wood-frame house hemmed in by other buildings in Newark, his home city. Distilled into a large-format slide show for the exhibition, the piece gives everyday indoor objects and figures of people asleep in their beds a magnified, cinematic presence, and makes a plain house look like a kind of giant light-box, dimming and brightening as the seasons change.

Once it begins its various relocations next month, the Bronx River Art Center may experience its own dimmings and brightenings of spirit. According to its new director, Chad Stayrook, business will be conducted as normally as possible, though after-school programs and art classes will be held in new quarters. Artists who had studios in the old building will have to be provided for. And exhibitions will take place a distance away, at BronxArtSpace in the Mott Haven area of the South Bronx.

These floating conditions find an echo in Mr. Acevedo’s eminently portable art, in his determinedly unencumbered career and in the one camera obscura installation on view, “Keys of Light,” which gives the show its title. Materially, there’s not much to the installation: paper, a pinhole, light. Technically, almost anyone could have made it. Conceptually it’s very much Mr. Acevedo’s. By bringing images of hardscrabble life on a Bronx street into one of the borough’s most resilient art spaces, he turns all kinds of cultural priorities and social hierarchies of the art world inside out. N.Y. Times

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