New York

Looking Skyward

Kevin Cooley, Skyward Installation, 2013

In an unassuming brick building on a gray Willamsburg street, adjacent to a used car lot and several doors down from a polythene bag manufacturer, there is a portal to the West Coast. Kevin Cooley’s Skyward, currently on view at the Boiler—the project space of the Pierogi Gallery—captures the quintessence of Los Angeles life: the car as constant, the looping freeways, the towering palm trees and impossibly blue Southern California sky.

Skyward is projected on a huge screen hung from the 40-foot high ceiling of this former factory boiler room, and viewers lie on the floor on a patch of asphalt scattered with pillows to watch the film. In a radical reversal of birds-eye perspective, it was shot through the open sunroof of a moving car, providing an unusual, exhilarating view of the city.

The juxtaposition of the unheated, industrial New York gallery space with the bright, open images of L.A. is striking, and, according to Cooley, entirely intentional. He is familiar with both cities, having grown up in Los Angeles and spent the last 15 years living in New York; the piece speaks to what he called his “nostalgia for my childhood L.A.”

“I’m fascinated by how much you can see the sky out here compared to New York. In L.A. you’re constantly driving and looking out the window, looking up, whereas in New York you never really look up unless you’re a tourist. … The sky in the film is very ethereal, and I loved the idea of having it pierce through the heaviness of this industrial space,” Cooley said in a phone interview.

Particularly when viewed on a blustery day in the dead of winter, the film evokes our longing for what we do not have and highlights the East Coast illusion of California as an otherworldly, sunlit refuge. Cooley’s 10-minute film weaves the moving sequences shot through his sunroof together with still frames to create one long, fabricated tracking shot. The seamlessness of the final product and the forward momentum of the car cast a sort of trance over the viewer. I happened to visit on a weekday and the space was blissfully empty; in the absence of human chatter and movement, left alone with the cawing of the seagulls and the clack of palm fronds, I was transported.

Skyward provides a stripped-down vision of L.A. that is devoid of both Hollywood cliché and human influence. The achingly empty azure sky is the only constant, serving as background for the flight of a flock of birds, the release of a cluster of white balloons and the slow, majestic procession of a blimp as it glides across the screen.

At the end of the film, in shots taken from an airplane window, Cooley pans over the sprawling city and the ocean before his camera rolls back into the clouds. It’s a subtle reminder of how the disparate elements we’ve been propelled past still come together as part of one complex system. This cinematic ode to the unique intricacies of L.A. translates beautifully to a dark New York boiler room, reminding us of both the defining characteristics of place and our ability, through fantasy, to transcend mundane physical boundaries.