She BUILT this City

In Downtown Jacksonville, on the corner of Laura and Forsyth streets, three historic buildings — formerly the Florida Life Building, the Bisbee Building and the Old Florida National Bank — sit empty. Known, but unrecognizable today as the Laura Street Trio, the buildings, once appreciated for their appropriations of neoclassicist and Prairie-style architecture, are largely hollowed out and have, for many, come to represent the long, frustrating failure-to-launch of the city’s efforts to revitalize its Downtown. Even as the city’s urban core makes marked progress with renovation projects spread throughout the area, the trio remains dormant.

Meanwhile, a few short blocks away, within the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville’s Project Atrium space, a new site-specific installation attempts to convey a narrative about urban landscapes that wouldn’t sound unfamiliar to those who’ve followed the troubles of the Laura Street Trio.

From the left wall of the atrium, shiny steel beams rise to the ceiling in eight-by-four-foot modular sections before disintegrating into smaller pieces that appear increasingly unanchored, as still-smaller pieces of steel escape the atrium, intruding into the staircase on the room’s right flank. Panels of varying sizes and colors featuring incongruent views of cityscapes cover some but not all of the structure’s subsections. When viewed from left to right, the splintering of the structure and its myriad perspectives give the installation a chaotic, derelict quality. When viewed from the opposite perspective, however, the installation seems to intimate a kind of progress, as the disparate pieces organize into an integral, albeit unfinished, structure.

Now completed, the project, called Gentle Defiance of Gravity and Form, emerged from the mind of New York-based artist Nicola López. López’s work is notable for its inventive exploration of humans’ interactions with urban landscapes. She is acutely interested in how cities — and the structures and institutions within cities — can be viewed as simultaneously being in a state of both development and destruction.

During a patron’s preview in mid-November, López shared that she “views urban landscapes as a narrative about human ambition and human capacity.”

“This project really reflects an actual construction — its materials, format and large scale,” López says of her installation, which displays through Feb. 26. “It comes close to being a building and at the same time functions more as a plan or depiction of an architectural idea.”

López also sees architecture as a metaphor for the human body, using words like skeletal, bones, membrane and skin to describe her work.

For her Gentle Defiance installation, printed panels — featuring images inspired by photographs López shot of buildings in New York City and Mexico City — hang on the outside of the interior skeleton, or “bones,” as she describes them.

“The prints function like a curtain wall of windows on a real building as they lay on the outside of the sculpture,” she says. “They aren’t structural, just a membrane.”

Born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, López specializes in printmaking, drawing and installation. She teaches at Columbia University and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. López says that time spent working and travelling through different landscapes, as well as an interest in anthropology, architecture and urban planning, have inspired her work.

Certainly, López’s work is topical not just in Jacksonville, but across the world as, over the course of the past decade or so, more people of working age have shown an affinity for the benefits of densely populated communities (from walkability to expanded economic opportunity). Institutions and local governments have responded in kind by incentivizing migration to these areas, with more money set aside for the rehab, renovation or full-scale demolition of old structures.

The cost-benefit analysis of such “progress” can be a quagmire of nuance, however — such activity often leads to rising housing costs, the displacement of minority groups, and the loss of an area’s distinctive character. The rapid and disruptive urban makeover of López’s Brooklyn, for example, has done more to make “gentrification” a dirty word than any other place, save perhaps Portland, Oregon, or San Francisco’s Mission District.

“The landscape that we live in has become saturated with signs of the easy mobility, speed, constant communication, imposition of structure, insistence on growth and glorification of technology,” López says in her website’s artist statement.

López’s work doesn’t show indifference to change, though; rather, it seems to treat change as being inescapable.

López says that her work doesn’t “propose a clearly navigable territory or a clear destination, but ask[s] the question of where we really are and where we might be going.”