Imagine a sexual identity outside of the tedious LGBTQ-whatever-whatever-whatever acronym, one that doesn’t fall into the rank and file of stultifying political positioning or compartmentalization. Imagine bodies who’d balk at the notion of belonging to anything other than themselves, their ideologies indefatigably linked to the viscerally erotic—getting you off while scaring you shitless. Welcome to the savagely erogenous theatre of Genesis BREYER P-ORRIDGE and Pierre Molinier, two beacons of glittering black light amid a pallid sea of dumdum process-based abstraction by fuckwit, twenty-something straight boys.
Remember the better part of the 1990s, when being labeled a pervert, à la Pat Califia, Ron Athey, or Annie Sprinkle was a badge of honor? Experiencing this exhibition reminds me of what we see so little of in the art world anymore: risk. Money talks a lot today, and it’s bred an infinity of banality. Molinier’s photomontages are the stuff of magnificent obsession: jewels of pain, desire, and horror scrupulously built from the atom up. Nearly every costume, mask, and prop featured in his photographs were either created or altered by him, much in the way he “created” and altered his own flesh—transmogrifying the pat sexiness of lingerie, stiletto heels, or an erect cock into symbols and sensations infinitely more hallucinatory, majestic, and satanic.
BREYER P-ORRIDGE’s Polaroids document the surgeries and sex positions s/he shared with he/r departed other half, Lady Jaye, with whom s/he embarked—and continues to embark—on the project of Pandrogeny, a rigorous and metaphysical interrogation of gender and identity’s fallibility and mutability. What Molinier tried to do with his own body, BREYER P-ORRIDGE has done quite literally, undergoing a wide range of procedures to look like and become one with Lady Jaye. What s/he’s created manages to go beyond art—it’s a rebus of divine possibility—and a revived hope that real strangeness and beauty haven't entirely vanished.
At a moment when social-media fatigue may be finally tempering the ebullient narcissism of practically a decade of “status updates,” Brian Calvin’s new works crystallize the inevitable malaise of an acutely self-aware population. His clever and luminous paintings—rendered in the Day-Glo colors of overexposed photographs—depict hyperexposed pretty young things casually mugging for an unseen observer, their faces flattened (visually and figuratively) with the stylized ennui of Modigliani’s oblong portraits. In Reflect, 2014, a nude woman gazes at herself in a makeup mirror, and alongside her we study her mildly uneven breasts. In other works, he zeroes in even further: the same pair of sensually parted glossed lips reappear throughout the show, and he often tightens the frame to reveal gap teeth and a dormant tongue.
Emotionally distant and elusively cool, Calvin’s characters convey the banality of selfie culture, and, like selfies, they evade any narrative arc. A California-raised artist, Calvin is occasionally compared to David Hockney, whose colors and subject matter equally evoke the ominously easy life of a sun-bleached suburbia, and to the New Yorker Alex Katz, whose graphic, flat compositions are visual siblings of Calvin’s, but whose paintings tend to suggest backstories and aftermath. Calvin takes a more existential approach to portraiture, treating the human face or body as a self-contained landscape, and in these new pictures he has both tightened and expanded his focus. Where his earlier works tend to portray the awkwardness of casual interactions between people, these breviloquent scenes close in on an epidemic of self-awareness: The objective filter of a close-up may magnify the physical, but it also protectively hides the soul.
This salon-style hanging of David Benjamin Sherry’s work is made up of a profusion of paradoxes—campy landscapes manipulated in the darkroom, punk-inspired portraiture, and an enormous sculpture of a Kelvin thermometer—that require an investment in slowness, a willingness to consider how potent social commentary can emerge from the meandering crevices of a mountain. It is as if Jimmy DeSana and David Lynch met on the road and decided to mine the gung-ho American idealism of Edward Weston and Frederick Sommer for its previously unconsidered potential.
Sherry’s insertion of queer themes into the trajectory of modernist photography gives us space to stop and consider the erotic body of the image itself. Crisply rendered and awash in flamboyant colors, Sherry’s landscapes, shown concurrently at Danziger Gallery, are in a perpetual process of unity and visual decomposition akin to that of the human body. In Deep Blue Sea Rising, Oregon, 2014, for example, Sherry’s vision of the American landscape breaks down into the tactile skin of the sea, only to be brought back together by swaths of pigment. It is a similar operation to Amy Sillman’s rendering of her friends as quasi-abstract figures, as in her painting N & O, v3, 2006.
It is no mistake, then, that presiding over the exhibition is a self-portrait of Sherry in drag, an image that sets in motion a new understanding of photography as an embodied medium, even in the impersonal haze of the digital age. Through a distinct intimacy with the land, the body, and the darkroom, Sherry’s photographs strive to be as supple and complex as skin itself, and in so doing, they call into question the passé one-dimensionality of formalist photography and Romanticism.
In “Made by Whites for Whites,” a sister exhibition to “Rescue” at Jack Shainman's Twenty-fourth Street gallery, Nick Cave abandons his signature Soundsuits—flamboyant and playful bodysuits fashioned out of everything from fabric, beads and buttons to metal, wood, and even human hair—for artifacts of a dark period in American history: blackface memorabilia. Circulating widely through the past two centuries these common household objects—featuring caricatures with jet-black skin, bulging white eyes, thick red lips, and wide toothy grins—surreptitiously domesticated and reinforced racist stereotypes. Cave rehabilitates these grotesqueries by placing them at the center of object arrays made from a variety of found garage sale kitsch, creating new contexts that suggest alternative reads.
A ceramic jar featuring a scowling face is the focus of Sea Sick (all works 2014). Placed high on a shelf, it is flanked by a pair of golden hands, thumbs facing outwards and fingers pointed up. Framed by repeated maritime scenes, the distortions of caricature read as an anguished primal scream against atrocities suffered during the Middle Passage, revealing the horrors hidden in and by the picturesque. Sacrifice features another, more curious head; made of painted wood and attached to the end of a pole, it resembles a club but was most likely used as a target in a carnival game. Cradled by a pair of wall mounted bronze hands, this uncanny assemblage evokes both the tender gesture featured in paintings of Christ’s lamentation and the barbarity of a beheading.
Through poignant but simple, almost homely gestures—raising some up onto pedestals, using casts of his hands to present others with care, enshrining still others in sheltering halos of exuberant kitsch—Cave redeems these abjections by transforming each into an altarpiece where we may begin to exorcise the lingering demons of racism.
In the rear gallery, a film documents a young, naked woman with a billowy 1980s hairdo and slip-on heels who reclines stiffly, her back arched, on a small stage. She has pillows below and around her, but they don’t provide support. Photographers and assistants dart around the platform, adjusting her body parts and the pillows while providing running commentary of the scene. The edges of the platform are rough and unpainted; at its periphery are big lights and a camera, tools, other people, and a dog. After the shoot, the girl has trouble standing again as the lights are shut off. The film is Harun Farocki’s 1983 Ein Bild (An Image), which patiently observes the creation of a centerfold for German Playboy. The outsize interest in bland visual production is characteristic of the artist who passed away in July. Here, too, the staging works as an ideological microcosm, reproducing perfectly the priorities of a much larger system that cannot be seen.
The exhibition also includes Farocki’s most recent, and sadly last, body of work. Titled Parallel I–IV, 2012-14, four video pieces systematically unpack the world as rendered by computer games. Twenty years after Ein Bild, the subject is still the constructedness of the visual field. The videos combine a player’s typical vantage on the game with screen views of what programmers see when building the game, as well as footage of the latter at work, while a stolid voice-over provides commentary. Yet a lot has changed. In Parallel I for instance, simulated movement in trees, clouds, and waves gives rise to reflections on perpetual effects without stimulus. In sharp contrast to the aforementioned photographic subject, Parallel IV approaches a female character in a game. Described by the narrator as “between person and prop,” she inheres at the margins of the game’s universe, incapable of interaction, bobbing slightly with a permanent smile. Farocki was clearly attentive to the unsettling societal implications of an action-motivated aesthetic framework arising in response to singleplayer attention, carefully scripted yet appearing to have no limits nor end.
For her latest exhibition, Lily van der Stokker has assembled a fiercely united front of matte, Pepto-Bismol-pink painted wooden boxes, furniture, panels, and walls bordered with ribbons of fuchsia and the occasional dollop of creamy yellow for a daisy’s center. The artist—a purveyor of margin-style doodles blown up to mural scale—begins the show with Yelling Women (all works 2014), a sculptural speech bubble protruding off the wall like an advertisement, proclaiming, “only yelling older Women in here Nothing to Sell.” It’s a preemptively dismissive gesture, and critical in turn for how it winks at the invisibility in which established women artists continue to labor, especially within the market (nothing to sell, nothing to see?).
Throughout the installation, text blurbs with polite phrases and small chat sayings such as “nice” or “best regards” pepper the corners of paintings or lie in cut vinyl, cloud-shaped puddles around the base of sculptures, as in Huh 2. A stack of painted boxes over nine feet tall, draped with flat, thin vinyl cartoon drips and crowned with toilet paper rolls epitomizes the artist’s wayward translation of banal commercial design and products into an individual vocabulary. Over the past three decades, Van der Stokker has displayed an impulse towards totalizing ornamentation and a curious commitment to sentimentality bordering on mawkishness, as deep and light as the flat, pink puddles here. But it’s this very lightness, combined with a generous consideration for beauty, which renders her gestures radical when art is dominated by sparsity and political grandstanding.
Allan McCollum’s “The Shapes Project,” which began in 2005, was designed to create a unique sculpture for every person in the world, with an objective of producing over thirty-one billion different shapes. His latest iteration presents an explosion of color and dissimilarity that evoke ethnographic associations, emphasizing the impossibility of containing the profusion of difference that exists in American society.
McCollum presents pairings of multicolored shapes: Each has been attached to its own discrete wood panel and stacked with the others on the gallery wall. The result are several large grids that have been assembled for this exhibition; while the shapes are hung in specific compositions, later iterations can be organized in a variety of ways. While the arrangements invoke critiques of the grid and the monochrome, more crucial is the way the color and cut of the wood forms comment on gender and sexuality. With each unique twosome, always amorphous but oddly complimentary, there is a resistance to categorization and a deliberate rejection of the categorizing impulse of the eye. For McCollum, vision’s role as the foundation of difference is unseated and open to queer reformulations.
And yet it is melancholy that overruns the exhibition: Each couple is caught in time, forever sealed within a single, immobilizing box. If McCollum’s project seems initially about unity, his appeal here seems driven by anxiety: What would it take to fully break the normative ties that visually and culturally bind these figures together?
Find. Fold. Photograph. These actions form one of the basic strategies of Erica Baum’s exquisite practice, for which she mines outmoded, moribund printed material, such as library card catalogues and yellowed dime-store paperbacks from the 1960s and ’70s, to create simple yet infinitely engrossing “found collages.” For “The Paper Nautilus,” this bibliophilic artist has brought together new works from three distinct series: “Stills,” “Viewmasters,” and “Naked Eye,” which capture the halftone, molecular blueprint of their subjects.
Though her well-known concrete poetry constructions are not on view, text (and the literary pleasures associated with it) remains instrumental to her recent pictures. The exhibition itself, for instance, takes its name from a 1940 poem by modernist writer Marianne Moore (1887–1972), who, like Baum, is known for having recycled and explicitly recontextualized the words of others. Meanwhile, despite the oftentimes abstract and elusive quality of Baum’s imagery, her redolent titles, such as The Warren Commission, which is coupled with a grisaille Josef Albers lookalike, and Kent State, which accompanies a more conspicuously bifurcated image (one half of which pictures silhouetted soldiers against leafless trees), not only color her mostly black-and-white compositions, but also allude to their sources.
Whether image- or text-based, Baum’s pieces are replete with references both familiar and obscure—the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich, the graphite grids of Minimalist Agnes Martin, and the rule-based Conceptual work of Sol LeWitt are but some of the most frequently cited. However, the very richness of her production resides in the considerable space it leaves viewers to fill in the gaps, to free associate visuals and narratives of their own making, and, most of all, to engage in such intimate ways with material on its way—or perhaps already—out the door.
Including several series which have never before been on public display, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1979–1989” takes a rare glimpse into the early work of the Los Angeles–based artist’s forty-year career. The exhibition fills a crucial gap in understanding his development: In the formative years of Conceptualism, Gaines—a longtime colleague of Sol Lewitt—created a complex, rule-based approach to his two-dimensional gridwork, which consisted of numerical sequences in pencil or ink on large sheets of gridded paper. Those familiar with Gaines’s more recent work may be surprised by the lack of any visible mention of the politics behind this seeming painstakingly developed methodology, epitomized by the nonrepresentational numerical sequence “Regression,” 1973–74.
Gaines’s foundational interest in systems-based abstraction as an implicit ideological critique over explicit political sentiment is showcased through these early works. In each work in his twenty-six part series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” 1975–2014, Gaines represents a barren walnut tree three ways: as a black-and-white photograph, a drawn outline of the tree, and a numerical sequence mapping the distance of the tree in relation to all the trees represented before it, in effect creating a numerical orchard. Here, impartial mathematical sequences provide an alternate logic for viewing the world. At the same time, the outline of the tree bears traces of the artist’s hand, which lends a touch of the spontaneous in an otherwise orderly mathematical formality. Finally, the mapped tree orchard is indicative of Gaines’s stake in both duration and the effect of time on perception. His commitment to revealing systems of representation is repeated in other series—including portraiture in “Faces,” 1978, and the human body in “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance,” 1981—each deploying systems that skirt politics to land on identity.
Trisha Brown’s choreography is notoriously difficult to capture, with its swift turns and continuous transitional phrases. In early works such as Roof Piece, 1971, seen through the able lens of Babette Mangolte, multiple dancers transmit simple movements to one another across New York City rooftops, invoking both the performers’ and viewer’s capacities for recall. With each performance, Brown anticipated the way her work would be seen, questioning the disappearance so often ascribed to dance. The photographs, short films, videos, and ephemera that comprise this exhibition record Brown’s performances for posterity, in turn influencing Brown’s own practice. Mangolte’s exhilarating film Watermotor, 1978, shows Brown performing the eponymous dance in real time. It’s then slowed down by half—perhaps best evidencing what Craig Owens once called “mechanical inscription,” or the multiple perspectives and temporal freeze/flow of film and photography registered in the dancing.
Since the 1970s, Brown and her company have investigated the terrain of lower Manhattan—whose buildings, seen from the windows of the space, provide an apropos backdrop and real-time reminder of context. Curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, and conceived by Sam Miller, this deceptively compact show foregrounds the conflation of site and sight, particularly in the “Equipment Pieces.” Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, uses gravity to defamiliarize ordinary movement: rigged to a harness, a performer descends down the facade of 80 Wooster Street. Photographed from below by Peter Moore, the figure is dwarfed by the architectural surface, whose pictorial flatness causes the vertical surface to appear nearly horizontal—“site-specificity” might here extend to the event’s relationship with its documentation. An iteration of Man Walking forty years later is included in a grid of color photographs documenting the company’s reperformances—yet Brown’s symbiotic relation to reproductive media, and her photographers’ collaborative voices, become lost to the digital, high-resolution ennui of contemporary image-making. In this survey of her practice, Brown’s play with the fugitive nature of movement is strongest when the process of seeing dance itself is illuminated.