A monthly glimpse at the works in the current exhibition Gilded: Contemporary Artists Explore Value and Worth. On view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNCG through April 8, 2023.

James Nares, ‘Lafayette VII,’ 2019. 22k gold leaf on Evolon, 149 1/2 x 68 1/2 in. © James Nares, photo courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery, New York

Since relocating to New York from London, James Nares has been a student of both the city’s skylines and streets. The latter, the literal ground that millions of inhabitants and visitors walk daily, has particularly captured and sustained the artist’s attention.

In her Monuments series, of which these two works are a part, Nares pays tribute to the artistry and craftsmanship of workers whose names have long been lost, or perhaps were never even known. The large-scale images were made from taking rubbings of New York’s oldest surviving sidewalks, made more than a century ago by immigrant masons. Giant slabs of granite were chiseled with improvisational marks to create an overall texture to keep pedestrians from slipping on the surfaces. Located in lower Manhattan where Nares first lived when she moved to the United States, these simultaneously artisanal and functional objects were part of her first impressions of her new home. Artistically returning to them nearly 40 years later carries an element of reaching back into her own story, alongside a broader interest in the history of the city.

James Nares, Lafayette VII, 2019. 22k gold leaf on Evolon, 149 1/2 x 68 1/2 in. © James Nares, photo courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery, New York

Like the original masons, the artist’s process for making these works is emphatically physical. She and her assistants paint rolls of synthetic paper black, then take it down to the street and tape it over one of the sidewalk slabs. As Nares describes it, “We get down on our hands and knees and pay homage to our ancestors and rub it,” with a transparent wax, in the same manner that one might make a brass rubbing or gravestone rubbing. They roll up the paper and return to the studio, where they unroll it and gild the entire surface by hand. Once the gold leaf has been applied, the surface is brushed, and the gold breaks loose from the unwaxed spaces to reveal the impression of the rubbed stone.

More than 11 feet high by five or more across, these gilded surfaces are — true to their collective title — monumental. Individually named for the streets on which the stones are found, they display the grandeur of a royal portrait or commemorative statue, albeit in minimal, abstract form. The metallic luster elevates these humble artworks and honors their anonymous makers. It also recalls that historic rumor of American streets “paved with gold,” an allusion to the literal wealth that many immigrants thought to find here, and the value of the opportunities they hoped to secure.

Gilded is on display now at Weatherspoon Art Museum through April 8, free and open to the public.

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