Sep 26, 2023

From Brooklyn to the Bronx in 36 Paintings

For most of 2022, Stipan Tadić rode the D train from Coney Island to the Bronx and back as he meticulously explored each stop, retracing the route countless times in search of perfect scenes for his series of New York cityscapes. Now, Tadić’s finished project Metropolis: 36 Views of New York — composed of 36 oil canvases that document the blocks surrounding the subway line — is on view through September 5 at James Fuentes Gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The result is a series of ubiquitous New York imagery: chicken hanging in a steamy restaurant window, delivery drivers waiting in the cold, and the unabashed stare of a bodega cat. Sometimes Tadić sketched what he saw and other times he snapped photographs, bringing both back to his studio to paint them in his characteristic cartoonish style.

Now a resident of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, Tadić was born and raised in Zagreb, Croatia, and moved to New York to earn an MFA, graduating in 2020 and staying through the pandemic. But he says he still paints from an outsider’s perspective. With dozens of scenes so distinct from one another, even when the locations they portray are geographically close, the finished series probes the notion of whether one can truly ever know a place.

“New York gives you a lot of ideas without you going too deep into your own creativity,” the artist said. “New York is doing its own thing, and you can pick that up.” Tadić wanted a project with a beginning and an end, and found inspiration in 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s series 36 Views of Mount Fuji. The woodblock prints all show the mountain foregrounded by different people and activities in varying locations throughout the same region. Tadić thought the idea could translate to depicting New Yorkers who share one commonality — in this case, the D train. The “next logical step,” the artist said, was to document the city along the subway line, which he thinks provides “the most fundamental mapping of New York.”

Tadić didn’t romanticize what he saw on his subway journeys or alter the passengers’ clothing or accessories. “I wanted the work to be in the now,” he said. The artist’s works are rife with timestamps: A man in a painting near the Fordham Theatre in the Bronx wears a mask and the Tommy Hilfiger tricolor coat that was everywhere last winter. In “Ecuadorian Restaurant – 62nd Street,” Tadić paints his chicken dinner in vibrant colors and his surroundings in black and white, rendering a pair of diners, the subway entrance, and the brick buildings outside as washed-out sketches in comparison to the meal in front of him. A snapshot of a winter morning outside of the Barclays Center on Atlantic Avenue shows delivery app drivers, bundled up and chatting with their scooters parked waiting for the first pickups of the day.

Other works venture beyond obsessive documentation. Tadić infuses his paintings with historical references and contextual information, often compulsively spilling his internal commentary onto the canvas, however lost it may be on the viewer. In his painting “Bedford Cafe – Bedford Park,” a photograph tacked on the wall above the diner table depicts a train yard — the artist knew one was nearby and wanted to make sure this small fact made it into the piece. Other details are much more recognizable, even iconic: A headshot of Jean-Michel Basquiat appears above an overhead view of Greenwood Cemetery, where Basquiat is buried.

The rest of the work is painted from life. A steaming cup of diner coffee and a familiar set of condiments help set a cozy diner scene, one of the warmest and most familiar locations in the series. Many of the paintings include videogame references, such as imagery from a 1990s game called Elders Scroll in “Bodega Cat – 50th Street.” Here, a relaxed central figure lies surrounded by shiny packaged junk foods, gazing at the viewer from his resting place on a rubber non-slip mat, sporting a slight look of fear but an even more convincing expression of not wanting to get up.

“Smoker – 20th Street” depicts two subjects standing below horizontal bars that appear when a file downloads, and another walking beneath the three dots that emerge when a person types on an iPhone. A warm-hued painting of the Bryant Park Christmas fair shows a navigator and a young man with an imaginary mission scrawled below: “Find a German bratwurst.” It’s a lighthearted response to what could be a very grim observation: That living in a place as dense and overwhelming can strip someone of empathy and make them reduce other people to side characters in their own life.

In other works, Tadić paints New York City devoid of human subjects. An overflowing trash can is plastered in flyers and a filthy subway tunnel is empty. In a wide view of Yankee Stadium, Tadić adds his subjects back into the canvas in the form of floating close-ups. In all of his works, Tadić paints the places and the people he sees in detail, translating their images from the photographs and sketches he took near the D train to playful musings that speak to the endless number of tiny worlds that exist along a single New York City subway line.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics. More by Elaine Velie