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Thomas Bittner's Photographs at Queen City Gallery

Silo City

One of our first touristy summer outings taken but reluctantly after moving to Buffalo in 1990 was a boat ride encouraged by my then mother-in-law sponsored by a friend of hers at the Industrial Heritage Committee, Inc. My cranky little family sat squirming among local preservation enthusiasts on the promenade deck of the Miss Buffalo, squinting into the sun, craning our necks to stare up at massive grain elevators, silos, and storage bins, which at a distant profile always looked like so many mothballed aircraft carriers. Slipping past them along the winding waterway our initial skepticism paled, and the baby actually stopped fussing as we gaped up close at the looming scale of these monster edifices here and there pierced with invasive vegetation. As the director of the excursion gave us a historically personal account of what part the silos played in the industrial prominence of Western New York and especially the “Queen City on the Lake,” we joined with the faithful and took heart someday this architectural graveyard of a past gloried economy would be made useful again. Stepping firmly off the gangplank back at the marina, we began to take a stubborn pride in our new city.

Thomas Bittner’s photographs pick up where the magnificence of these benighted behemoths in Buffalo’s industrial outback are set against the natural ecosystem that is gradually reclaiming the landscape. Bittner’s exhibition at Queen City Gallery, a not unattractive little space among the stalls of the Market Arcade building, is divided into six different approaches focusing on the physical plant of what has become known as Silo City. Charged with the light of early mornings his by the river scenes resonate with bright Impressionistic hues casting a reflection into the stillness of the canal in corrugated shimmer. Geometry anchors the second series, perspectives, where swaths of sky and acute diagonals abstract the architectural picture plane in razor sharp delineations. The cavernous undercarriage of these long silent structures sets up a receding vanishing point deep into the cast shadows of the graffiti-scrawled, load-bearing columns. It’s as if one has stumbled into a collage of an Anselm Kiefer painting with sections of the Berlin Wall on all sides.

Indeed, Bittner, a transplanted German national is, like other artists of his country, fascinated by the brutal beauty of aging industrial landscapes with their rust-worn manufactured simplicity of once purposed intention. His third series, contrapositions, takes the viewer even further into the multiplicity of color, texture, and the unique interplay of scale he manages to create often from precarious vantage points. Succeeding images focus on portraits of interior spaces alive with streaks of slanting light that cut across the windowed confines of barren ruins or zoom high into the reaches of the silo tubes to catch the astral-like light of the outside world. Peeling paint and oxidized debris fields form coruscated abstractions. Window mullions, brick arches, and angle iron stanchions create stark armatures of high contrast against the raking sunlight.

In his final series, nightshift, Bittner stays up late to shoot gorgeous velvet sunsets and ink dark skies paired with the mute witness of Silo City below. In recent months the status of the waterfront has once again provoked a strong argument for preservation and reuse of formerly industrial sites long past economic utility. Artists like Bittner are giving viewers a glimpse into the past as well as a sense of what aesthetic assets may be made of these profound wonders of the industrial world.

Bittner’s show runs through November 9.

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