James Romberger at Gracie Mansion

Review from Art In America, December 2002, by Calvin Reid

James Romberger's work is essentially a visual anthropology of the East Village and Lower East Side of New York. Gallery artist, sometime musician and, along with his partner, Marguerite Van Cook, a talented creator of comics, Romberger recently exhibited rich, expressively rendered, pastel genre scenes capturing the dingy grandeur of this wonderful neighborhood.

Romberger is basically an urban romanticist, and his hazy, lazy, daylit drawings suggest a latter-day John Sloan. His sensitive pastels carefully document the physical character of the area with a moody naturalism. The aging tenements seem to sway in gauze-- filtered sunlight. Engine 28, Ladder 11 (2001) depicts a firehouse with a sadly ubiquitous, ad hoc street memorial, presented in a post-911 moment of quiet grief. In another piece, a midblock vacant lot filled with cars is blanketed in an afternoon shadow. Garish and lively, his night scenes, with their solemn blackish-blue hue, have a visual bite that is distinct from the vaporous daytime views.

More so than in previous shows, Romberger's drawings focus intently on the cityscape. When present, his figures seem to be used as accents; they are conceptual social highlights in these oddly miasmic representations of Manhattan's hard, dense and crazily jumbled urban reality.

Shabbos, Delancey and Suffolk (2002) is a stunning, elongated evening panorama looking west down Delancey Street from the Williamsburg Bridge. The composition exploits a wide-angle distortion, revealing Romberger's talent for formally dramatic urban landscapes. Under a looming, shadowed, night-blue sky, the lower section of this drawing is demarcated on the left by a line of grungy, graffitied trucks parked behind a fence. A dark, modernist apartment building rises above the battered truck lot. In the center, bright orange and white emergency cones recede in a perspectival procession toward a brilliant vanishing point on Delancey Street. On the right, a hulking red brick structure squats in the shadows of Suffolk Street. A cockeyed necklace of streetlights explodes across the lower sky in a salvo of flashes. Romberger's drawings manage to capture the prosaic social interaction, the emotional character and the magnetic attraction of this legendary New York City area.