Raymond Sicignano : Light and the Urban Landscape

Raymond Sicignano ’s paintings evoke the quality of light on the urban landscape. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Sicignano has painted since he was a child. He studied at Pratt Institute and after graduating in 1981, he left painting to pursue other interests. Following a year living in Europe, he began painting again in 1990. One of the first things the viewers notice about his paintings is their direct fidelity to the shapes and forms of contemporary architecture; the artist records the way light falls on storefronts in such places as Harlem, New Orleans, and Paris—even Englewood, New Jersey, where Sicignano currently works. His truth to nature, however, is never simplistic or sentimental; instead, he brings to his art of recording neighborhoods the felt intelligence of someone devoted to his task. In consequence, his striking use of color, whose intense hues border on boldness, enables him to picture a world we immediately recognize but often do not really see, so taken are we with our daily pursuits.

Sicignano’s poetic portrayals of the ordinary and offbeat establishments of a city bring to mind the lyrical elegance of Edward Hopper, but with a contrasting sanguineness as opposed to Hopper’s melancholic isolation. These places constitute much of what we experience as the texture of a city neighborhood—the artist makes this clear by calling his series “Urban Portraits.” By focusing on the commonplace, Sicignano makes it clear that he is documenting real places in real time; his principled capture of John’s Recovery Room, a moribund bar in Harlem, has the stark truth of a specific site—he even gives us the street names where the declining bar is located: Malcolm X Boulevard and Lenox Avenue. Painted in winter twilight, Sicignano’s work, entitled The Recovery Room, establishes the time of the day when the light itself appears suffused with a degree of sadness. In fact, the subtle subtheme of Sicignano’s can best be described as a contemplative reading of the consequences of change, in neighborhoods made vulnerable either by poverty or by gentrification. The different Harlem storefronts Sicignano so carefully records, demonstrate his sympathy with the feeling of a place, whose intangible atmosphere is somehow palpable, even if it is impossible to physically trace. In other paintings of Harlem, such as Soul Food Diner and Lenox Lounge, the painter’s audience sees him take up once and again the raked light illuminating locations that many would simply pass by, without recognizing their unspoken beauty.

Soul Food Diner consists of a row of small businesses on the bottom floor of a yellow, three-story building; the long shadows of the pole lamp, fire hydrant, and street stroller indicate it is late afternoon, while the hazy cirrus clouds fix the date as late in the year. Sicignano revisits, in sharp detail, the atmospheric isolation of the scene; attention is paid to the architectural façade rather than to the pedestrian or man exiting the soul food restaurant. Lenox Lounge is a study of the red front of a jazz club with a guitar hanging in the window and a black woman in a sleeveless green dress resting against the brightly lit classical façade of the building next to it. These establishments have deep character; their integrity inevitably contrasts with the bland mediocrity of the franchises—Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Starbucks—that have taken over much of New York City. Other studies of Harlem sites, including Baobab Tree and Paris Blues (a neighborhood bar) emphasize the understated quality poverty can impose on a place and it’s inhabitants; the people in these paintings possess a muted dignity which is emphasized by Sicignano’s careful renderings of them.

Sicignano has made a specialty of keeping the details of city neighborhoods alive as evidenced in two paintings of New Orleans. St. Roch’s displays the weathered charm of a market built in the 19th century in the New Marigny section of the city, and a particularly strong painting of a restaurant, entitled Casamento’s, shines brilliantly into the night that surrounds it, with the name of the place clearly lit in neon and artificial light streaming outside from within. A simple rendition of an urban frontage, the painting quite literally glows, with an air of mystery emanating from the unlit second floor.

Another night scene is included in a study of Englewood, displaying again, the fusion of warm and cool interior and exterior lighting which radiates onto the street. Midnight Cleanup depicts the popular restaurant Baumgart’s, an ice cream shop that has remained defiantly old-fashioned in its atmosphere. More than anything else, Sicignano takes interest in the way a certain feeling can saturate the ambiance of a given place; time and again, he instills strong emotion into his incisive views. These paintings stand out as quintessentially American outlooks on places that will soon give way to the proverbial progress that harms so much of our city environment. In a way, then, Sicignano keeps alive the presence of a way of life, one that neither reaches after sentiment nor celebrates the recently new. Instead, the innate mood of long afternoons and sites (many of them to be effaced in a short time) is rendered both objectively and with deep affection.

Such care is not only the consequence of craft, it also results from a profound commitment to place, so that the vestiges of these neighborhoods remain in our thoughts, long after we have seen the art.