The color purple is a motif in artist and “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms’s work. It’s the background of both her spare, utilitarian website and her video Notes on Gesture, 2015, the arresting centerpiece of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” her first solo gallery show. Of course, you can’t say or write “the color purple” without invoking The Color Purple—Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of it, and the cultural omnipresence of Oprah Winfrey ever since. Syms uses this rich chain of associations to orient her concerns, such as pop culture’s production of blackness and its mediation of radicalism, and maybe to introduce her sense of humor as well.
A kind of index, Notes resembles a series of jerking GIFS: A black woman’s movements—contemporary vernacular gestures as well as those taken from a seventeenth-century book about “the language of the hand”—are isolated and looped. As the actor clasps her hands together, pats her head, or wags a warning finger, meme-ish title cards of white text, such as a series that spells out “It ain’t about the money,” and audio snippets of speech (e.g., “Check yourself”) provide the hypothetical social contexts for these distilled signs.
The piece, shown on a monitor mounted away from the wall, commands viewers to make sense of the objects Syms has carefully scattered in its orbit. Two neo–Art Deco panthers coated with black flocking stand toward the front of the space, and C-stands display an array of found photos featuring hands and gestures. The show’s serene anchor is Belief Strategy VIII, 2015, an eight-by-sixteen-foot uniformly painted matte monochrome and presumably the purple background used for Notes. The overall effect of the installation is that of a paused or abandoned video shoot—totally stylish, with the added allure of something in process.
The walls are covered in pearlescent satin drapes; the floor is unfixed, made up of porous tiles that shift and crackle underfoot. “Two Suns,” Argentinean artist Adrián Villar Rojas’s solo debut in New York is an iteration of the site-specific investigations into antimonumentality for which he is known. Unlike his previous output, however, which includes sculptures that deteriorate naturally over time, Villar Rojas here dismantles the institution of the white cube.
The first gallery, empty and dark, first introduces exhibition as a space that is missing. Tiles in bone white, pewter and charcoal, Aegean and slate blue checker the floor with a square of dark gray at the center, which evokes the base of an outdoor sculpture—one that might have been placed in a busy fourteenth-century Italian piazza. The monument does not exist, yet it equally confronts the viewer in the symbolist manner of suggestion. As if counteracting absence, iPods, plastic bags, and coins are caught between the surrounding tiles like weeds, disrupting the regularity of the flattened geometry.
Villar Rojas’s maximalist approach, if at first only felt in scale and detrital happenstance, extends to the gallery’s south room, which is connected by a curtained hallway. Light pours from windows parted by thick gray curtains, onto a vast sculpture of a reclining nude, modeled after Michelangelo’s David. Positioned horizontally on two supporting pylons, Rojas’s contemporary version seems to sink precariously in its own largesse. Fissures run through its surface and gather at weak points like a network of dry veins that will eventually cannibalize the giant’s form and the work’s covetous ownership. This anti-David is not waiting coolly for predestined glory; dreary, he sleeps through the days in which his ashes are still stone and his display only temporary.
A fiber-optic cable snakes along the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, strangled by algae. This is one of four photographs in Trevor Paglen’s show, which swirls around the recent NSA scandal and our clicking, buzzing surveillance state. The picture’s title tells us that this cable has been tapped.
There are four images of the cable and three landscape photographs, all opaquely picturesque. The city seen from the harbor in NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States, 2014, is a quaint little skyline scrawled upon the dimming horizon. A map of that same area hangs next to the C-print, lashed with arrows and numbers, pocked with telegraphic messages punched onto the blank abstraction of this cartographic dream. Inset photographs of Brutalist architecture and a nineteenth-century political cartoon force a sense of inevitability, of pounding domination, to the map, and we see the photograph anew: a dense grid of data to be harvested by the state.
Paglen was the cinematographer for Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour (2014): His Eighty-Nine Landscapes, 2015, is a kind of ennobled “extra features” section on the DVD, as a two-channel video shows cities, facilities, hills, barbed-wire fences, clip-clopping policemen, a whole wordless montage of scenes and settings starkly composed. But all of these were material for Poitras’s film; they all tell the story of hypocritical agencies and whirring conspiracies. We come to understand that these neatly laid pictures—waves lapping in California, sheep working their way up a hill—have been stuck in the net of high-speed communications, images to be archived, perhaps turned against us. A grid of lit-up apartments glows warmly in the night; they twinkle like pixels.
Barbara Hammer’s work in experimental film has incalculably shaped the collective memory of lesbian and feminist experience. But, before she came to the medium—and before she came out, leaving her marriage “on a motorcycle with a super-8 camera” and shooting some of the first lesbian films in history, Dyketactics (1974) and Women I Love (1976)—Hammer made drawings. Her first-ever solo gallery exhibition presents sixteen of these works.
Hammer’s popularity and visibility in the art field has ebbed and flowed over the course of four decades—largely synchronous with vogues for and backlashes against identity politics. The works in this exhibition sidestep those trajectories altogether, veering into a surreal and at times psychedelic style that jibes with Hammer’s filmic eye. Not unlike the conditions within which queers existed in the ’70s, Hammer’s drawings oscillate between deep-seated political dread and shades of dreamy possibility. In two gouache, ink, and watercolor works (Untitled 4 and Untitled 5, ca 1970), a drowsy head rests on a tiny rural landscape, alongside gargantuan (and seemingly dead) flies, snails, and small rodents. Ink outlines ooze with rich greens, yellows, reds, and pinks, but there are conspicuous areas left uncolored, wanting for interpretation. Many of Hammer’s figures wear sly sidelong glances, bright faces peering out of the planar picture frames.
Lesbian Whale, the lone new work in the exhibition, is a video animation of Hammer’s early notebook drawings set to a sound track of commentary by the artist’s friends and peers. The script is composed of fragments and stray thoughts—“as a feminist I’m very skeptical”; “not necessarily physical time but emotional time”—and it’s not quite clear whether it’s spontaneous, planned, composed by the speakers, or read from Hammer’s notebooks. If Hammer’s artistic influence is well documented, this slippage between voices, authors, and images suggests an ethos of collaboration and conviviality that may prove to be her greatest legacy.
If art and wildlife have any correlation, a lover of both might evoke their propinquity to the sublime. “Terrapin,” organized by Magnus Schaefer, takes a direct, albeit frisky point of departure: Each work—save for one—features representations of animals, often conjured through differing levels of anthropomorphic adjustment. So the question could be posed, What is the sublime to an animal, and how do humans represent such? The answer, it would appear here, lies in absurdity and sex.
We might first examine the grouping’s exception: Bethenny, 2015, a swirling oil-on-canvas work by Lise Soskolne. Smiling, contorted daisies and gawky lavender spirals decorate its lower half. A crescent moon suspends above these forms, centering the composition with an enigmatic grin. Inside its lanky arc floats a logo—that of the horrorcore hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. This psychotropic quasi-firmament, while lacking in bodily creatures, emblematizes a screwy spirit carried forth in other works, such as Trevor Shimizu’s oil-on-canvas Licking Cat’s Penis, 2014, in which a human is seen giving a cat oral sex, or Sergej Jensen’s gracefully severe Sketch for Leda, 2014, an acrylic-on-linen composition that adapts the Greek myth wherein Zeus (materializing as a swan) rapes Leda.
Other photographic works are more serene, such as Roman Schramm’s Turtles, 2014, showing two piled-up turtles set within a border of a shadowy, digitally rendered space. In Heji Shin’s The Great Penetrator 2, 2012, a pensive horse gazes down from the camera, its mane windswept to one side and styled like bangs, stirring human empathy through unadorned representation of a nonhuman subject. And together, in their very production as images, this farcical array forms a metanarrative: one implicating humanity, witnessed as projecting its follies across the larger animal kingdom, and caught in its own pursuit of transcendence.
In his latest output, Federico Solmi scans hand-painted imagery and applies it to digital three-dimensional models of world leaders. He then imports each into a video-game platform and records their movements as if they were on a movie set. Titled “The Brotherhood” 2015, this series includes “video-paintings” of mostly infamous leaders with works that indict the viewer and society as much as the leaders themselves, as they flamboyantly posture like shallow celebrities. For example, The Invader (Christopher Columbus – Italy) (all works 2015), in which the titular figure struts, laughs, and salutes in front of an abstract landscape of shifting colors, resembles a Hollywood screen test
In group scenes such as The Waltz, Solmi emphasizes the pomp and circumstance that accompanies state functions, in this case manifesting in a ballroom dance where leaders from different eras, such as Ramses II and Mussolini, move in close embrace. The scratchy lines of Solmi’s distinctive, cartoonish, garishly hued renderings of the leaders and their surroundings thankfully don’t resemble the polished, rounded forms of mainstream digital animation, with its cloying, interchangeable characters.
The artist has painted ornamental details on the Plexiglas surface of the works, which covers each video monitor, further intensifying its theatricality. In The Brotherhood Triptych, Napoleon, Mussolini, and Marie Antoinette among others arrive at a red-carpet event, proceed down a grand staircase, and depart on a spaceship amid a cheering throng of spectators, evoking the idea that such leaders are mainly entertainers wielding unearned power. The audio tracks of individual works, including distorted national anthems and carousel music, combine to heighten the forced pageantry to comedic levels. Solmi has also painted the walls a deep reddish orange, so as to mimic the manufactured splendor of government-sponsored events—propaganda to maintain the status quo.
With each new show of small gorgeous landscapes by Maureen Gallace, it’s natural to look for what is different from last time, noting incremental shifts in technique or subject matter. (For example, there are more paintings of the sea in this group.) But the more important point seems to be that, after more than two decades, her paintings remain very much the same. In her vistas of usually rural New England, bluntly elegant, or maybe confidently awkward, brushstrokes make up sand, snow, flowers, foliage, and sky. Often, there’s a house, shack, or barn at the picture’s dead center, and often she reduces its structure to bare geometry. In the striking red, white, and blue Ice Storm, Easton (with Robert), 2015, two brick-red buildings are rendered as blocks without windows or doors. Their roofs are crisp white trapezoids broken up by mushy lines (sticklike winter trees and their shadows).
Gallace’s filtering of detail doesn’t follow an Impressionist’s logic of light and distance; it’s a product of her own compelling algorithm. Western art history is internalized, surfacing in a mysterious but coherent haze rather than as a collision of references. But she does exploit a collision of some kind. The uncanny effect of simultaneous naďveté and knowing in her small oils (Ice Storm is among the biggest in the show, at ten by thirteen inches) derives from the merging of incongruous qualities: the sincerity of the regional landscape genre or the plein-air hobbyist, the speed and sophistication of her wet-on-wet brushwork, and the studious aura of conceptualism around a more recent tradition—painting from photographs. While many artists devote a lifetime to the potentially breathtaking project of minor variation within sharp constraints, the enduring, unpinpointable coolness of Gallace’s work always makes one wonder if there is not an element of durational performance in her persistence.
Let’s begin with the allegory of Superman and the way the cultural icon pushes the conventions of heroics (alien on Earth and alienated from Kandor), all expressed within the concision of a comic strip. Beyond the habit of metaphor, the story of Superman, his displacement between here and elsewhere, haunts the exhibition—where the artist is definitively not present.
In his absence, models of the vigilante’s home planet—an assembly of many sculptures—litter the floor, while a series of lenticular light boxes limn their presence. The skylines of these cities mutate from elongated twisting spires to lumbering geometric blocks. Constructed of glistening stalagmites (sunstone crystals, perhaps?) and cast in colorful resins, these metropolises are portable and preserved by containment fields. Glass bell jars pump them with a cloying gas that spills off and over the citys’ surfaces. Each reduced, bottled-up world an eerie and cautionary reminder, for Kandor was infamous for indecision, inaction, and conservatism. Superman saved his home anyway, clutching to a memento and an unstable image, one altered by time and fans and memory.
But isn’t it too easy to collapse the struggle of our antihero into the romantic artist’s myth? Yet, this exhibition sells us the following equations: collector to Brainiac, institution to Kandor, white cube to comic strip. The recursive chain of similes builds spatially and raises the question: What was this artist’s kryptonite? Answer: The inability to reconcile a utopian vision in the stifling atmosphere of expanding gas.
For Polish-born painter Jack Tworkov, the 1960s were a cul-de-sac for the autographic gesture. AbEx had tipped from an earnest style into a mode of stylization, and the question was how to continue painting, if at all. Spanning five decades, Tworkov’s latest hang cleaves to the contours of this now familiar narrative. De Kooning’s influence looms large—the ligament-like impasto of Departure, 1951, is an obvious homage—as does Cézanne’s. Note, 1968, presents as a field of stubby, separative marks, sloped in the manner of cursive script or the latter’s “constructive stroke.” Spaced in quivering horizontals, they achieve a hazy grisaille.
The 1970s and ’80s reveal a Tworkov of late style and less anxious mien. The canvas now figures not as a void to be confronted but as a constraint with which to contend. Ruled lines define forms that vector from the perimeter in, yielding works that beat between drawing and painting. In Alternative IX (OC-Q1-78 #5), 1978, the tousled diagonals of Note unsquiggle into a straightedge algebra. Organized by the Fibonacci sequence, the canvas is a study in dynamic symmetry, its interior shapes—triangles, rhomboids, and irregular pentagons—syllogized with its frame.
Tworkov’s final work, Compression and Expansion of a Square (Q3-82 #2), 1982, takes the rectangle as its subject. Likewise established in a scheme of 3:5:8, its iterated forms progressively dilate and dilute in hue, as if literalizing the distortions produced by an angled view. Brushstrokes build in wilted green and yolky yellow, tempering the canvas’s otherwise rigorous plan. The result, for all its stringency, feels vaguely organic: a sense reinforced by the Fibonacci sequence’s relay to patterns in nature. Tworkov’s oeuvre softens in spite of itself, an archaeology of life animating his abstractions, a vestige of gesture loosening his geometries.
“Lichen! Libido! Chastity!” Anthea Hamilton’s debut solo museum exhibition in the US is an arrangement replete with ostensibly handcrafted objects that engage desire and fetish. Such discrete works include suites of knobby eating utensils, precarious chastity belts, and flamboyant knee-high boots. Here, parts of everyday life are taken as whole—that is, as whole worlds of their own—in which marketing, pleasure, design, and biology influence the objects’ composition and comprehension.
Of the five boot sculptures on view, Natural Livin’ Boot (all works 2015) is a droll pastiche of earthy-chic media that befits its gimmicky title: Crusted, peeling leather and flaky lichen clusters decorate this chunky-heel platform shoe, and its knee-high shaft is permeated with pebbles. Two works of a similar silhouette, Holistic Towel Platform Boot A/W and Holistic Towel Platform Boot S/S, embody a slightly more fab aesthetic that adheres printed terry cloth to towering leather shafts stuffed with silk scarves. Hamilton juxtaposes recognizable goods with extravagant flourishes of design and construction, trading codes of functionality for an aura that engages viewer desireunder scrutiny, these objects stir an unresolved, immiscible tension of attraction and repulsion.
Mutation is a unifying thread across the artist’s output, whether it references the material shifts her objects embody, the stream of appropriation between pop and counterculture, or the transformative nature of lichen. Three chastity belts are hung with chain link from the ceiling, resembling perverse swing sets. 1st Guimard Chastity Belt (Leather Twist) fuses elegant lavender leather against the belt’s stainless steel frame. 2nd Guimard Chastity Belt (Metal Twist) showcases a subtle but piercing steel talon jutting from the girdle’s nether regions. This exhibition’s press release remarks on how the works installed are seen as “intimately binding the body to products and things.” But perhaps the reverse is true: Hamilton sportively flings off these objects from their instrumental roles in life to create wild forms that appear, in some cases, as protean as desire itself.
The vibrant weaves and prisms of splintering, bundled lines in Mark Grotjahn’s well-known “Butterfly” and “Face” paintings are matched in complexity only by their art-historical lineages. In the artist’s latest sculptures, finger-painting, drips and throws of paint, and hole-punched visages tease at Grotjahn’s indelible formal awareness, as does the long, skinny tube that he has pierced into a nose’s position in each work, evoking breath, death, erection, and deception alike. While earlier exhibitions presented more varied shapes, here the artist prefers repeated forms: tall, slender bronze slabs, with proportions near that of the monolith in2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), cast from cardboard boxes. If the African and Oceanic masks that have long inspired Grotjahn still come to mind, so do stelae, megaliths, and dual-sided altarpiece panels. These hand-hewn monuments feel both contrarian and pleasingly familiar, not least owing to their echo of smartphone silhouettes.
Besides multiplying paintable planes, the works in this exhibition up the ante for Grotjahn’s preoccupation with the face. Sculpture’s specialties of forgoing frontality and reciprocating presence dramatize what the artist’s paintings already allegorized: Anything in the world can be understood to have a face, requiting our gaze. In so bluntly marking the frontal view, and lavishing attention on flat surfaces, Grotjahn may be curious to see what happens when sculptures are pulled toward painting rather than the well-rehearsed reverse. Many slabs here are scrawled just like walls; others could pass for 3D sections of splashy light and color sliced from Impressionist landscapes or postwar abstractions. The sculptures’ bronze base intensifies their pigments’ faintly oxidized look of museified Modernism—Van Gogh blues, Guston pinks—even as it cherishes cardboard’s original traits of ribbed corrugation and skirting flaps.
Light is a fundamental agent in Scott Lyall’s output, acting as both material and subject matter. The series “Black Glass,” 2014–15, includes twelve nearly seamless monochrome panels, each measuring some sixty-seven by forty-seven inches. The somber works are composed of pairs of glass panes, which Lyall has adhered with an ink-infused glue. They are coated with thick black ink on the reverse of the back pane and printed with a color gradient of diaphanous ink on the surface. These treatments ignite a reaction that recalls photographic development (some ambient light passes through the front pane, reflects off the back, and meets the front surface again). Lyall’s conceptual project is trapped between these panes: The light that comes back through the glass is neither reproduction, reflection, or representation, but material reaction.
Lyall’s process-oriented work functions as a compelling analogy for the material agency of images. By engaging light as both a subject and active medium, he points to otherwise-imperceptible aspects of image production—namely, the movement of light and its particle decomposition. It’s striking that this trick is deployed through works that are so serene and seductive, with surfaces so slick and seemingly empty. But this dissonance between elaborate theoretical demonstration and polished art object seems integral to Lyall’s practice.
Cameron never wanted another gallery show. After Wallace Berman was arrested in 1957 at the Ferus Gallery for showing an “obscene” reproduction of her Untitled (Peyote Vision), 1955—an ink drawing of a fantastical couple copulating—Cameron quit the commercial art scene. Then, as now, rejection is chic. A version of career suicide, Cameron’s bewitching no persisted until her death in 1995. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, opened her debut museum retrospective, and a sizable version of it has now traveled with the institution’s former director, Jeffrey Deitch, to his newly reopened gallery. Worries about insider trading aside, it’s high time Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, a so-called mystic, claims her rightful spot in art history. These bicoastal shows serve as overdue correctives.
In studies of mysticism, as in art history, the question of what’s canonical always nags. Cameron has long been primed for rebirth: her drawings, paintings, and poems were vital contributions to the 1950s and ’60s Los Angeles milieu, and these largely autobiographical pieces network to other (canonized, mostly male) artists, including George Herms, whose somber 1967 portrait is one of the first works viewers encounter in the exhibition. It’s also one of Cameron’s least gothic and sphinx-like takes, which occupy the majority of the show—from Untitled (Peyote Vision) to the undated ink-on-paper illustrations for Songs of the Witch Woman (made for a book of poems penned by her husband, rocket scientist and Thelemite occultist Jack Parsons) to 1966’s Holy Guardian Angel According to Aleister Crowley. These cult classics, as well as her spellbinding late-career abstractions for Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House, 1978–86, telegraph visualizations from one of Southern California’s, but also American art’s, most shrewd and beguiling heretics.
La Estrella, [P]y[X]i[S], oRiOn: We’re caught up in the jumbled syntax of the heavens in Keltie Ferris’s dazzling show of ten paintings and six body prints, all from 2015. The constellations that lend their name to some of these canvases trace distinct forms but are composed of flickering stars whose boundaries are less clear to us down on Earth. And this is a central aspect of Ferris’s paintings, whose thin airbushed oil layers and dragged acrylic strokes build a rich color space (here, moving beyond the loose neon graffiti of her 2012–13 gallery show into deep purples, reds, ochers) that shifts in and out of focus. Are these shapes or are they impressions?
This, of course, is also a key query for Ferris’s body prints, which for the first time are shown alongside her paintings. In these prints, the artist, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, like Elvis in Warhol’s screen prints, pressed her oiled figure against paper and then sprinkled powdered pigment over its ground, revealing a wrinkled, indexical presence. Yves Klein, Jasper Johns, and David Hammons come to mind. Their complicated relationships to body and identity are not lost on Ferris.
The mix of prints and paintings on view underscores the surface-to-air oscillations in her deft touch. On one wall, a particularly strong progression of material and atmosphere moves from the obscured, wildfire landscape narrative of Story to Marksman, which looks like a pixelated Pollock or Brice Marden made with the airbrush tool in Photoshop, to an untitled work that appears to be a collection of Ferris’s toes melting into a Gustonesque abstract field. These are followed by two body prints, with boxy lines painted around their impressions as if marking new astrological forms.
A major pleasure of reading is the stream of images that comes bidden into one’s head over the course of a book, produced by the exchange of one’s memory and the author’s imagination and occasionally syncing with, but always illuminating, the words. In Sue de Beer’s work since the early 2000s, we get to see—the way we don’t see our own—her personal image-streams on a wall, excellently crystallized into a series of lucid and fey film installations: Disappear Here, 2004, with a title from Bret Easton Ellis and a monologue from an untitled (and so far unreleased) novel by Alissa Bennett; Black Sun, 2005, with a title from Julia Kristeva and texts from two Dennis Cooper novels; The Quickening, which was based on writings by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Jonathan Edwards. Her latest, The Blue Lenses, 2015, relies again on Suspiria-type style and At Land–ish narrative, not plot, to give us horror in its truest form: life. It also gets its strangeness too easily. It questions what we read as “foreign” while making “foreignness” the reason to look.
The Blue Lenses is a noir transposition from London to Abu Dhabi of Daphne du Maurier’s blackly magic story by that name. Du Maurier’s heroine is cured of blindness only to see humans with animal heads; de Beer’s lead is watchful and silent, following an older male swindler to trip-hop parties and huge deserted malls, letting us see humans in the Middle East who are basically like humans in the Middle West. If that recognition is supposed to be a twist, it’s unacceptable: It’s the opposite of what de Beer has done best, which is to make viewers feel like tourists at home. (At Boesky East, the cobalt windows and plush rugs evoke a school trip to Islam.) Yet she is also doing film better than she has before, better than almost anyone in contemporary art, with an offhand control over an ever-wilder array of cinematic tricks for true beauty.
Sarah Sze’s sculptures usually involve a lengthy list of ready-made objects, seemingly purchased from every shop in the neighborhood: the pharmacy, the hardware store, the bodega. A number of works in this show, however, are unified not by the incorporation of commodities, but of torn photographs depicting celestial visions. These ink-jet scraps provide literal atmospherics: billowing, Turner-esque clouds; fiery sunsets that radiate an it's-all-coming-to-an-end melancholy; and views of Earth as seen from space, wreathed in darkness. The cobalt hues in the planetary images are echoed throughout the exhibition, in the form of string, tape, dried paint, and even the snapped lines of builder's chalk, marking regular intervals along the walls. Sze has a gift for invoking dimensions both prosaic and galactic.
In the tabletop sculpture Measuring Stick (all works 2015), a video projection combines a digital counter of the ever-increasing distance between Earth and the Voyager I spacecraft with slow-motion films of bullets shredding various materials into smithereens—an egg, an apple—many of which have intact physical instantiations nearby. Ecologically, we’re blowing it, Sze seems to suggest. This idea recurs, somewhat hammily, in the installation Seconds Clipped, which includes a plastic Smart Water bottle holding a wan arrangement of withered grasses. But that work also provides one of the most exquisite moments of the entire show—a clip of a flying bird of prey projected onto a photo scrap of a stormy sky. Sze’s brilliance lies in her insanely inventive eye, which allows her to create similarly sublime visions ex nihilo: Nearby, she has focused a small work lamp on a piece of black fine-grit sandpaper, revealing the glittering constellations dotting its surface—the universe in mere grains of sand.
A broadly accepted metonym for claustrophobia and unwanted social confrontation, the elevator receives top billing in Dana Schutz’s new series, “Fight in an Elevator,” 2015 (a title to which one could aptly add “and Variations on a Theme”). In energetic, large-scale paintings and smaller black-and-white (though no less vibrant) drawings, the artist trains her acerbic eye on the phenomenon of tight spaces and how people—specifically, Schutz’s misshapen, often deranged characters—deal with them. Where Schutz’s past works have long explored various surreal state-of-being narratives, these new pictures capture the melancholy and innate humor of daily life and its small dramas as they are often perceived by individuals—that is, magnified to cinematic proportions. Compressed within tight, straight-line spacial boundaries, the characters push against their surroundings. In Slow Motion Shower (all works cited, 2015), a woman’s bathtub, shower curtain, and rigid tiles become a comical trap: her oversize limbs amble around the small space as she struggles to wipe soap from her eyes. Meanwhile, the single woman in As Normal as Possible gives a goofy grimace through the circular spotlight of a police car’s headlamp, besieged by the light. And there are two elevator fights (Fight in an Elevator and Fight in an Elevator 2), each buttressed by half-open elevator doors revealing a crowded quagmire inside.
Painted with swift, wet-on-wet brushstrokes in bold, principally primary colors, Schutz’s new works convey the turn-of-the-century vigor of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, while her compositions combine the rigid architectural lines and animated physicality of Mexican muralism with Red Grooms’s sense of ambling caricature. The quintessential weirdness of Schutz’s usual characters gives way here to a more homogenized tribe. While this series lacks the liquid, fishbowl-like denseness and shimmering figure-ground dynamics that make her previous output so satisfying, the works on view succeed as investigative accounts of the banal gone awry—as if Schutz has stepped from the psychological toward the situational.
In Matthew Brannon’s latest output, candy-colored arrangements of objects and text—a wedding cake, a pack of Lucky Strikes, a bottle of vanilla extract—address the Vietnam War with a decorative aestheticism. This strategy may feel absurd, but Brannon deliberately avoids picturing scenes of violence, instead focusing on commodities, from a shuttlecock to a bottle of Heinz ketchup. These assemblages suppress violence almost to the point of invisibility, evoking a wartime America proceeding as if in an unaltered peacetime. In First Base (all works 2015), what initially seems a straightforward still life comprised of recreational equipment—a playing card, a World’s Fair souvenir, a record—is complicated by the fact that the record is a single of Barry McGuire’s 1965 protest song Eve of Destruction.
Leisure time and conflict are threaded through each other, and war mostly comes through indirect signifiers—world maps and international brand names that place the particularly “American” iconography within a larger context of global politics—or through civic imagery that has been so diluted as to be almost meaningless, as in an advertisement-like view of Washington’s monuments (Camelot). Clues to this latent violence abound. In Ready or Not, Brannon places a historically accurate draft notice, carefully reproduced via letterpress, among comparatively carefree detritus (a Peanuts greeting card, a box of Corn Flakes).
Concentrating on the conflict at home rather than on scenes of violence means that the images can also be funny. Three pictures of 1960s interiors, for example, are so pitch-perfectly bourgeois it’s easy to laugh: a rubber duck in the corner of a doctor’s office, a modish Braun radio. This comedic, almost satirical aspect offsets some of the nostalgia that underlies the abundance of domestically coded objects: If history is experienced through sentimental recollection in Brannon’s spare montages, farce can also subject that sentiment to critical reevaluation.
The star of Emily Mae Smith’s imaginative exhibition of hyperstylized paintings is the broom from Disney’s Fantasia (1940). At once an instrument of domestic labor and a tool of sorcery, the broom is a thinly disguised symbol that Smith calls upon to address sexual politics. In The Mirror, 2015, an oversize Lichtensteinesque hand mirror is surrounded by nine brooms. Each is posed seductively, parodying the clichéd and all too familiar representation of the female nude in western art (think of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, 1814).
Central to Smith’s thinking is scopophilia, and it is no coincidence that nearly all of her paintings play with but ultimately deny the gaze. Vaguely reminiscent of an Absolut Vodka advertisement, Still Life, 2015, for instance, depicts a sunglasses-wearing, full-lipped babe. Where her eye should be—that is, inside the contours of her lens—we find instead suggestive imagery, a melting ice cube and a ruby-red cherry, rendered in a photorealist style.
The most striking work in the exhibition takes as its subject the mythological figure of Medusa. Set against a brilliant red background that gradates to fuchsia, Medusa’s mane of serpents emerges from the phallic, open-mouthed head of Smith’s broom. Historically a symbol of the dark power of female beauty and sensuality, Medusa was appropriated and rebranded by second-wave feminists (such as French literary critic Hélčne Cixous and British film theorist Laura Mulvey) as an icon of the female gaze, making her a perfect heroine for Smith’s comically disruptive critique of patriarchy.
For Wu Tsang, dialogue is the primary actor by which subjectivities are accorded representation. In the artist’s latest outing, her voice musingly floods the gallery, in dissonance with that of writer and theorist Fred Moten. This audio track, playing independently from the images on display, forms half of Miss Communication and Mr: Re, 2014, a two-channel work that pays homage to a fortnight when Moten and Tsang delivered each other lengthy voicemails. Both their countenances play respectively over HD screens, which the artist has positioned like portraits. Tsang and Moten silently drift in thought and expression as the audio plays their overlapping associative ruminations—a diptych of simultaneous soliloquys. At times, Moten wears a grin with coral lipstick; occasionally Tsang’s eyes appear glazed with tears. Moten’s voice is once heard in self-retort: “Being meant for somebody means that they incomplete you.”
Across the gallery, Girl Talk, 2015, shows Moten in a garden, adorned in velvet and crystal, circling amid lens flares in an ecstatic state of spiritual harmony. The work’s sound track is a soulful a cappella rendition of Betty Carter’s song of the same name, performed by JosiahWise. Two eerie nearby sculptures, both Untitled, 2015, are drapes of beige mesh fabric and crystals over metal supports, seemingly given volume by invisible bodies.
Severing speech from image, Tsang evasively transmits representation. Given that the act of representing identity is often accompanied by expectations and diminished expressive autonomy, perhaps such splintered voices pose a service to their speakers: Their speech flows unchecked by the body. Concluding Miss Communication and Mr: Re, Moten talks over Tsang’s farewell message: “My messages were meant for your messages. . . . We were meant for one another, Wu.”
Katherine Bernhardt first gained notice for her drippy portraits of supermodels, which, like the paintings of some of her contemporaries in figuration—Sophie von Hellermann and Chantal Joffe, say—ply aggressively unfussy paint. Bernhardt has lately been forgoing cover girls for eye candy of a different sort: brightly colored patterns and funky groupings of foodstuffs and commodities, with Doritos, toilet-paper rolls, cigarettes, and tube socks making repeated appearances. In this exhibition, that Kmart cartful of items gets mixed up with fluorescent-hued flora and fauna of the Caribbean, specifically Puerto Rico, where she recently completed a residency. Bernhardt’s acrylic-and-spray-paint palette conjures all the colors of a bowl of Froot Loops, contrasting with the drab burlap overlay on the gallery floor—emptied coffee sacks containing a few stray beans, which occasionally crunch underfoot—that rounds out the tropical ambience and aroma.
Shunning linear perspective, Bernhardt paints her strange aggregations (of sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, and toucans, among others) in nonoverlapping, allover compositions in schematic profile view, suggesting an exuberantly garbled page of botanical illustrations or natural curiosities. But unlike carefully limned scientific representations, Bernhardt’s paintings feature sloppy, luminous strokes in service of a highly pleasurable visual nuttiness. In Sharks, Plantains, and Cigarettes (all works 2015), for example, the ash topping the cigarettes billows out laterally, forming demented, windblown toupees, and bunches of hanging plantains look like menacing Day-Glo claws. While most of the canvases are vast in scale, one of the smallest works, Cantaloupe and Toilet Paper, Café Mallorca, distills Bernhardt’s sprezzatura nicely: The fruit-juice puddles of orange paint in the background nearly camouflage the magisterial bronze spray paint outlining the abject rolls of toilet paper—a perfectly lyrical crudeness. Bernhardt knows just when to put the brush down, laugh, and call it a day.
Senga Nengudi trained as both an artist and a dancer in the 1960s and continues to work across a variety of mediums: sculpture, performance, photography, and more. As is evident in her current presentation, her practice abstracts and dematerializes bodily form while referencing its kinetic energy and elastic potential. Nengudi’s most moving group of works is her nylon mesh sculptures fashioned out of used pantyhose, three examples of which are included here. Untitled, 2011, features four of the leggings stretched tightly to the floor and weighted gracefully with sand. The ready-made garments are secured to a pole fastened in the gallery’s corner, evoking ballet dancers in tights in the midst of barre work. An adjacent photograph, Performance Piece, 1978, pictures artist Maren Hassinger performing within one of the twisted weaves of Nengudi’s pantyhose pieces, activating Nengudi’s sculptures and embodying them with a dynamic dancer’s presence.
Nengudi’s 1978 performance Ceremony for Freeway Fets is also chronicled, in eleven vivid photographs. At the time of its creation Nengudi was involved with Studio Z, a loose affiliation of artists in Los Angeles, including Hassinger, David Hammons, Barbara McCullough, and others who experimented collaboratively with discarded materials and abandoned spaces. Set under a nondescript freeway overpass in the car-bound metropolis, Nengudi wrapped the supporting columns in her sculptural nylon mesh forms and outfitted her performers in these customary creations as headdresses and drapery. Bodies bound across the images in flitting festivity, sculpture and performance creatively enmeshed. Nengudi’s work, as an antecedent example of the current commingling of the plastic and the performative, remains pioneering for our contemporary moment.