Preserving a Way of Life-On Canvas

Edla Cusick’s show Cityscapes at the Asyl Gallery, which came down on Feb. 5, frankly wasn’t a resounding success. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the pictures didn’t sell. The gallery’s location, on a Godforsaken stretch of frozen tundra off the Hudson River, at 547 West 27th Street, may have had something to do with it. But the subject matter also didn’t help. Missy, as she’s known, doesn’t paint slutty chicks or whatever passes for chic these days. Her inspiration is Hell’s Kitchen. Not the Hell’s Kitchen of cappuccino bars and upscale restaurants. But the one of windswept parking lots, gas stations and flat, unforgiving light.

Her paintings, which owe something to the aching loneliness of Edward Hopper’s work and also to Richard Diebenkorn’s infatuation with color, depict things like taxis traversing desolate stretches of highway, stores whose leases are ticking down, and merchants whose beleaguered expressions suggest they’re not convinced the customer is always right. Ms. Cusick sees her mission as saving a neighborhood from the wrecker’s ball, at least on canvas.

“Apparently Edward Hopper experienced a similar panic,” she said in her show’s statement, “that all the good stuff had already vanished, only scraps remained, and he had to document them.”

The show’s most polished work may be of Nirmal Gupta, the impassive Indian cook at the Garment District deli where Missy gets her morning green tea on her way to her studio. Strictly speaking, it’s not a portrait, since Mr. Gupta is competing in the composition with a jumble of shapes meant to conjure what passes for décor in his world: Chapstick, key chains, nail clippers and phone cards. “He brought his wife and children to the show,” said Missy, who’s in her early 50’s and has the fine bone structure of a fashion model. “To him and his wife, I don’t think it made any sense,” that she spent six weeks trying to capture his likeness. “We’re getting to the end of the show, and nobody bought any pictures, so maybe he was right.”

Perhaps the problem isn’t with the paintings, some of which possess a “gelid” beauty, one of Missy’s favorite words-“kind of hard, cold, bright,” she explained. Rather, it’s the possibility that people don’t mourn the loss of her neighborhood as much as she does-at least not those who can afford to buy art and probably live in different ZIP codes, anyway.

A few days earlier, she’d attended an Upper East Side dinner party where she made the acquaintance of one such patron of the arts. “As soon as she found out I lived on Ninth Avenue, she turned on her heel,” the artist said, her voice rising. “She was gone. I couldn’t possibly be of interest. I feel my life is very interesting and absent the kind of brittle insincerity that pervades my class-the air kissing and all that crap.”

The artist grew up on Central Park West and attended the Nightingale-Bamford School and Bryn Mawr College. But her free-thinking attitudes probably owe less to her education than to the matriarchy that produced her. Missy’s grandmother was Aline Bernstein, a well-known theatrical designer who was a companion of Thomas Wolfe in her younger days while she was married to Theodore Bernstein, a financier. Her mother, Edla Cusick, who died in 1983, published a couple of murder mysteries- A Well-Born Corpse (1939) and Murder Without Makeup (1940)-and counted S.J. Perelman, Alexander Calder and Isamu Naguchi among her friends. On an evening in 1930, Calder gave a performance of his Circus , a play in which he used wire sculptures to depict animals and clowns, in Edla’s living room, with Naguchi operating the Victrola.

Missy herself sounds equivocal about the Disneyfication of Times Square and the way its freaky, holiday atmosphere seems to be spilling over into her neighborhood. “There’s less crime, I guess,” she said. “Fewer guys in an aroused state wandering the neighborhood threatening my daughter.”

She remembers how grateful she was when her daughter and son, now 17 and 15, respectively, were small and couldn’t read the suggestive marquees on 42nd Street’s X-rated movie houses.

Yet it’s those not-so-distant dark ages that the artist seeks to memorialize. “Here’s what I love about my neighborhood,” she explained, standing in the gallery before a still life of olive oils, baskets and peppers from Manganaro’s, an Italian deli on Ninth Avenue at 37th Street. “This is what they have, and they put it in the window. It’s beautiful in its honesty.”

She seems to be afflicted by a virus peculiar to those who grew up in the city or have lived here for a long time and recall the unself-conscious days before there was a Starbucks or a Godiva chocolate on every other block, and you didn’t have to travel miles for a spool of thread. It was possible to buy a sandwich on something besides focaccia bread, and everyone didn’t feel like hip, winking extras in a Seinfeld episode.

Missy’s resentment at the latest developments in human engineering recently boiled over when she was asked to participate in an experimental community-safety program under the auspices of the Midtown Community Court. Three neighborhood residents confronted three quality-of-life criminals with a mediator present, apparently in an effort to shame them into becoming better people. The perps were johns who’d been caught in a sting operation by female police officers impersonating prostitutes.

“It was two young guys from New Jersey and one middle-aged guy from Westchester,” she remembered. “And I felt, God bless you if you want to come to New York to get laid. The way they were squirming in embarrassment made me very uncomfortable, and I concluded it was none of my business.

“I apologized to these guys,” she continued. “They were already deprived of their cars and had to do community service apart from this. For them to be humiliated seemed to be too much. But I have to say when we had prostitutes right outside our door a few years ago, it was very disturbing. So I guess I’ve got mixed feelings about all this.”

Missy’s most conspicuous contribution to her neighborhood is a five-story mural that graces the corner of 44th Street and 10th Avenue. It was completed in 1993.

The mural overlooks a parking lot and depicts an Elysian landscape, mostly air and light, seen through a vaulted colonnade. Her goal, besides obliterating the graffiti-strewn wall that blighted her block, was to create something that would bring pleasure to the people who work in the area-the parking lot attendants who nicknamed her “La Flaca,” the skinny one, and the cab drivers she sees trudging to work at dawn, thermoses in hand, to pick up their taxis at the fleet garages that proliferate in the neighborhood.

“It was really successful.” she explained. ” I have a big list of people from Italy, France, Yemen, Tunisia and half a dozen other countries who told me it’s just like home.”

However, she knows her mural will also eventually succumb to the Times Square District’s inexorable march westward. “The parking lot where the mural is surely will be a building in no time,” she said wistfully. “You can’t landmark the parking lots. There’s nothing nice about them.” Preserving a Way of Life-On Canvas