Reclaiming the Subway: Iris Loughran’s Visual Pollution Series



written by Kevin Quirolo


Loughran’s paintings appear, at first, as imaginatively colorful and textured abstractions. The mottled blotches of colours in ‘Completely Ripped’, for example, seem composed to balance the left and right sides. On the left sluggish yellow shading into white cut-through and surrounded by jagged strips of black. Near the middle are two enigmatic patches of saturated dark red and blue. On the right, past an undefined partition, is a marbled copper-green, silver-grey blotch in a globular blackish frame. Out of the silver-grey there almost emerges a skeletal face, with a gash running below its cheek across the center of the panel: a broken streak of bright red dribbles down the canvas.


Completely Ripped

But it is not some ‘trans-avante-garde-post-painterly-abstraction’, it is actually just a faithful reproduction of a poster in the subway that has been completely ripped off. It is a sight that is familiar to any New Yorker. The posters on subway platforms are easily (and often) peeled off, cut open, collaged together, marked up, and generally improved by the generous citizens of this city. What is left behind is the subject of Loughran’s exhibit at the McCarren Park pop-up gallery, ‘Visual Pollution: MTA Ad Defacement’.



The exhibit is a set of paintings that are immediately evocative, beautifully composed, and finely executed. And also a series of images that have to be thought of in conversation with a broader array of works by artists in the 20th century. The most obvious of these is Keith Harring’s ‘subway chalkings’. The project to document ad defacement shows New York’s defacers referencing a broad range of work: At their most scatological Richard Hamilton’s ‘The citizen’, at their most violent Sam Gilliam’s ‘Simmering’.



Parallels with other artists lend a political force to Loughran’s work. Much of art’s engagement with mass-marketing has been appropriation (Jacques de la Villegré), satire (Edward Ruscha, Robert Indiana), or aestheticizing, generally re-using or reproducing the ad in part or in whole. Instead of a reaction with or against the ad, these canvases side-step to aestheticize the absence of ads, and entice us to see public space in a new way. To see in the actual rips and smudges what Iris names, “surprisingly beautiful, painterly defacements,” and to appreciate the relief they offer from the marketing-saturated environment of New York City and the world.


Star-like Smudge

If ‘Visual Pollution’ entices us to see public space differently, it also urges us to see the gallery differently. Perhaps Loughran does not see herself as an urban Monet expressing herself with transit lily-pads, but rather a street-art Sturtevant insisting on the importance of the radically democratic expression of others. In claiming these images as art, reproducing them in the quintessential ‘artistic’ format, she is also questioning the format, authorship, and venue which proclaim her own work ‘Art’. Her paintings, though often gliding and gentle, are still insistent: Why limit beauty to the gallery and its favored clientele? Why these people here, and not all people everywhere?


Square with Smudge


Find more on Iris Loughran’s ‘Visual Pollution’ at: