When Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, he did so out of reverence for those outsiders of the art world whose authenticity drew as much from their asocial behavior or mental illness as from their resolve to put all they had into their artwork. This gathering of work from the abcd collection—presented with Mario Del Curto’s photo portraits of the artists—would almost be too didactic, but with fervor comes momentum, and across many mediums, from the tribulations of Henry Darger’s watercolors of little girls, to Judith Scott’s lumpy fiber compositions hanging low above the floor, to Koji Nishioka’s ink drawings of musical scores morphing into swirling vortexes on paper, a common troubled intensity emerges. Bordering on obsession, these hybrid works by more than sixty artists spread through space, physically and mentally via the recycling of discarded material or by relentless markings—as in Zdeněk Košek’s Untitled, c. 1990, febrile graffiti on newspapers and magazines, or Guyodo’s untitled incarnations of humanoid forms, done in ballpoint on cereal boxes.
A rummaging documentation of time, however undated and untitled, runs wildly through this so-called raw art. And at times brilliantly so, as in Lubos Plny’s mixed-media drawings. An artist who often blends phantasmagoric representations and medical sketches, and incorporates blood and hair, Plny here used his parents’ ashes in Mother and Father, both 2009. Each drawing contains the ashes in a round capsule at the center, and spiraling around them are the dates of every single day they were alive, making it a diptych homage.
This expansive multimedia exhibition makes clear the extensive purview and inventiveness of Danish artists’ responses to the social, sexual, and political upheavals of 1965 to 1975. The show emphasizes the different ways in which artists sourced popular culture, explored the body and performance as media, adopted collective authorship, and participated in events—all as means for creating socially conscious work. Of the several experimental films that form the core of the exhibition, The Female Christ II: The Expulsion from the Temple, 1969, best integrates these concerns. It presents Bjřrn Nřrgaard’s iconic recording of a naked Lene Adler Petersen nonchalantly carrying a cross through the Copenhagen Stock Exchange, to the utter bewilderment of suited white brokers, in a pointed feminist infiltration of Danish commerce.
Five smaller rooms to the side of one of the galleries especially accentuate the provisional and polemical aspects of collective events. One room re-creates “The Camp,” a 1970 installation in which artists lived and worked with their children as part of “Damebilleder” (Images of Women), one of the first feminist exhibitions in the world. (It occurred in Rĺdskćlderen, a small space at Charlottenborg by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and at Trefoldigheden, a building near Den Frie Udstillingsbygning.) In another room, Nřrgaard’s 1969 film Slump depicts an experimental settlement that undertook random creative acts. A third room presents the interdisciplinary trials of Eks-skolen, an alternative art school co-founded by Per Kirkeby and art historian Troels Andersen in 1961. The fourth room offers documentation from “Women’s Exhibition XX,” a 1975 show that included readings, discussions, and works by international artists as well as nonartists. The final room offers the sensory spaces of architect Carsten Hoff and artist Susanne Ussing. As with the exhibition as a whole, these galleries encourage visitors to contemplate the innovative nature of the original events and address afresh the questions those moments posed.
Deceptively immaterial yet richly layered, thirty of Peter Doig’s wall-size paintings, along with dozens of prints and studies, open like portals into other dimensions—temporal, physical, metaphysical. Arranged neither thematically nor chronologically, the paintings often appear to shimmer in and out of focus, like panes of stained glass stacked atop varying light sources. In Milky Way, 1989–90, a black panel of pointillist stars is reflected in water, bordered by moonlit lime-green foliage. Cinematic yet still, the painting shows Doig’s early interest in capturing darkness and light, shadows and organic mirrors in nature—as well as the boundaries of horizons.
Doig’s tangible evocations of pathos and place thread together early and more recent works: Some are quite narrative, such as House of Pictures, 2000–2002, in which a cloaked, russet-haired man peers into dark pictures (or are they windows reflecting the twilit city behind him?); others, such as the spooky silhouetted Man Dressed as a Bat, 2007, seem like surreal embodiments of the subconscious.
With the celestial concerns and apparitional quality of fellow Trinidad resident Chris Ofili’s paintings, and the kaleidoscopic airiness of Pierre Bonnard, Doig’s depictions of nature nod to Impressionism and, in the high-concept art atmosphere of 2015, a refreshing subscription to the singular power of pictures. By using photographic (and occasional cinematic) references as well as his own memories, Doig constructs images that register in phases; looking at his work is not unlike recalling a dream. Yet by leading one’s perception through various channels and layers of recognition, Doig generates a heightened reality that tests the truth of our senses.
The painter and sculptor Lars-Gunnar Nordström was a self-taught artist who began his career as a kind of cubist primitivist but soon moved on to a severe form of Concrete art. In 1949, he was the first artist in Finland to show abstract artworks. Today he is considered a Nordic classic.
During his formative years in the late 1940s and ’50s, Nordström divided his time between Finland and Sweden, often also spending time in Paris, where he met American artists including Ellsworth Kelly. Visits to New York in the ’60s brought him in contact with Stuart Davis, Josef Albers, and others. As this excellent retrospective shows, his subsequent works reflect American influences in their increased size and scale, both with multiple panels and shaped surfaces.
A typical Nordström painting is nevertheless a single panel composed of tightly interlocking forms with razor-sharp edges, painted with industrial enamels without visible brushstrokes—a bold, challenging work allowing the viewer to see its rhythmic and spatial dynamics, its swing. The result feels much like traditional jazz with its syncopated horns. Thus it is no surprise to learn that the artist had a collection of 11,000 jazz records and that he enjoyed playing (and teaching himself) the trumpet.
While the full title of Kim Gordon’s current solo exhibition—“Design Office: Noise Name Paintings and Sculptures of Rock Bands that are Broken Up”—makes direct allusion to the concept of noise, the show itself might just as easily be characterized by the dramatic effect of silence that it invokes on both visual and thematic levels. The main walls of the long gallery space are lined with black-and-white paintings that memorialize and canonize current noise bands as well as groups that are now defunct. Distinctly nonfigurative, the paintings still bear some affinity to icons; they contain only the written names of bands—such as the Stooges, Noise Nomads, or Secret Abuse—some of which are known for interspersing textured and often dissonant sounds with long stretches of silence.
Five of Gordon’s paintings are muted by their illegibility; these unstretched canvases have been scrunched into sculptural mounds and placed directly onto the gallery floor as if discarded. The graffiti-like drips of black paint that slide down from cursorily rendered letters in each piece are still visible, yet the full names are buried within the folds and swells of canvas.
Despite the generous amount of breathing room given to the works, the exhibition space is not actually silent; an opening-night performance by Gordon’s current musical duo, “Body/Head,” is projected from speakers at the gallery entrance. Yet this ambient sound track complements the reflective atmosphere created by the sparse arrangement of works, which lead towards a large concave mirror positioned like an altar at the back.
If this group exhibition feels breezier than most, it’s not just the five electric fans in László László Révész’s drawing Verti, 2008. This breath of fresh air comes courtesy of curator Zita Sárvári, whose “On Paper II” takes the popular conceit of the summer works-on-paper show and infuses it with a vibrancy and spontaneity rarely associated with the genre. Some of this dynamism stems from Sárvári’s rejection of the unspoken mandate that works on paper must be limited to two dimensions: Ádám Ulbert’s watercolors are slathered in polyurethane then dangled from laths using pins; Csaba Szentesi stacks intricately contoured cut-outs into collages set out from the wall; Enikő Márton shapes chipboard into freestanding hexagons coated in undiluted acrylic hues; and Zsófia Keresztes fashions her object-assemblages from scraps of Plasticine or discarded iPhone instructions. Keresztes’s untitled floor sculpture from 2015 is anchored by the box for an Apple iMac, which features a full-screen shot of Yosemite’s Half Dome set against a silky, cantaloupe-colored sky. The artist builds this image out to create a miniature mountain range around the box, transplanting the desktop image into its “natural” landscape.
But works need not be sculptural to steal the show. Amid the strong gestural swoops and electric color palettes of emerging talents such as Ulbert, Szentesi, and István Halmi-Horváth, two 2003 tempera abstractions by István Nádler—who at seventy-seven is one of Hungary’s most celebrated artists—crackle with an intensity that feels truly just out of the box.
Spread over four oddly shaped rooms, this tight-knit exhibition begins with a portrait gallery of cardboard cutouts mounted on the walls. Roughly sketched out, effigies of Cicero and Giordano Bruno rub shoulders with those of Chinese revolutionary heroes as well as some token household items (a bathtub, a typewriter) tucked away at one end. Affixed to wooden poles or borne on shoulders, these effigies are among the trophies carried by members of the shadow procession unfolding across eight screens in William Kentridge’s new video installation, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, around which the show is built.
Filmed walking on a raised platform in a studio, the performers—some of whom are sheathed in plastic, which partly obscures their colorful clothing and forms a luminous halo around each figure—are perfectly framed by a glowering sky and some straggly vegetation in Kentridge’s animated charcoal drawings. In this layered work, color and monochrome, movement and stasis, reality and fantasy, combine into one fluid whole to beguiling effect.
An even wider range of animation techniques is deployed in Other Faces, 2011, the latest in Kentridge’s “Drawings for Projection” series, 1989–, and in the eight-screen video installation I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine, 2008, which presents thematic and formal overlaps with the new work. I Am Not Me grew out of the artist’s work on Dmitri Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose (1928) for the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, just as More Sweetly was developed alongside a new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu (1935) that Kentridge directed in 2015 at the Dutch National Opera.
Imagine sending someone a breakup text and signing off with a sad-face emoji. A nineteenth-century equivalent to this modern-day perversity can be found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, (1857) when the womanizing Rodolphe writes his farewell letter to Emma and leaves the ink blotted with ready-made “tears” sourced from a nearby glass of water. Cally Spooner’s exhibition “On False Tears and Outsourcing” takes Rodolphe’s letter as one starting point to investigate instances when emotional excess is employed as a managerial strategy for maximum efficiency and gain.
The first phase of this live exhibition saw Spooner choreograph a sequence for six dancers in which gestures are appropriated from corporate team-building exercises well as rugby scrums—where bodies are interlocked in a collective effort to activate competitive aggression. For the show’s second phase, Spooner hosted a course in method acting for financiers focusing on techniques for producing tears on command, and throughout August she’ll be working with a group of singers on a vocal piece dealing with time-sensitive instructions. If the ideas still feel somewhat sprawling and raw, that’s part of the appeal of seeing new work in developmental stages.
Running parallel to the exhibition is a group show curated by Spooner and Vleeshal’s new director Roos Gortzak. Works by artists including Rosa Aiello, Bernadette Corporation, Andrea Fraser, and Jef Geys further draw out ideas around labor, outsourcing, and the lucrative extraction of affect. The exhibition title comes from Bruce Nauman’s 1986 video Violent Incident, a twenty-eight-second loop installed at the entrance to the show, which brilliantly encapsulates Spooner’s running concern with passionate outbursts becoming purely technical processes.
The title of Norwegian artist Ane Hjort Guttu’s exhibition of five film and installation works, “Eating or Opening a Window or Just Walking Dully Along,” refers to a line in W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” describing artists’ portrayals of people’s busy indifference to those who suffer. Like Auden does in his poem, the characters in Guttu’s ambitious film Time Passes, 2015, reflect on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558, and its depiction of farmers and seamen oblivious to Icarus, just fallen from the sun, splashing in the sea beside them. The film’s protagonist, Damla, eventually experiences an existential crisis brought on by her performance piece of sitting with Bianca, a Roma woman, on Bergen streets. By the end of the film, Damla deeply identifies with Bianca and refuses to document her work, insisting that doing so would compromise the integrity of her acts.
In other works, the artist continues to explore individuals’ passive participation in and pathological acceptance of societal power dynamics. For example, her light-box kiosk, Jason, 2015, arrestingly contrasts splashy advertising with an e-mail correspondence between Guttu and a digital ad editor who secretly inserts subliminal imagery that works against his ads’ intended message.
This exhibition is a timely confrontation with Bergen’s current political landscape: the city has recently awarded its first contract with a major advertising agency as it weighs legislation that would outlaw street begging. By commenting directly on sanctioned infiltration of public and intellectual space, the artist speaks equally to global matters of net neutrality and the co-opting of personal data for commercial gain. Like Bruegel’s farmers, we casually ignore greater forces in our surroundings.
Heavy with materiality, ornamentation, and pattern, the forty intricately woven wool tapestries by Hannah Ryggen in this exhibition have an odd, cartoonish aesthetic apt to send a snicker to the lips—all too often only to be choked back by the weight of her content. A left-wing pacifist, Ryggen spent most of her life working in the remote region of Řrlandet, Norway. Newspapers informed her of world events, which stirred her firm political beliefs into ambitious and powerful statements capturing key developments of her time. From her earliest major works, Ryggen addressed moral themes, and as the world tilted into political unrest in the 1930s her objections grew. It is in works such as The Death of Dreams, 1936—which depicts the Nazi imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky—that Ryggen’s jarring combination of nonfiction and visual humor brings home her message.
By the end of World War II, her somber subjects became interwoven with uplifting, playful themes such as love, nature, utopia, and portraiture. In these, the smiles piqued by Ryggen’s aesthetic compound the pleasant optimism and cheeky sense of humor radiating from the works. However, Ryggen’s political critique never subsided; American involvement in Vietnam motivated her final protest work, Blood in the Grass, 1966, which caricatures President Lyndon B. Johnson flanked by a tufted green lawn cut by lines of red.
Ryggen’s strongest pieces here pivot on their tensions—awkward and shocking, serious and amusing, at times optimistic, at others despairing, but always sincere and forthright.
Janek Simon’s current solo exhibition, “People with the heads of dogs,” is as much a reflection on the phenomenon of travellers’ confabulations about their journeys as it is a study of the self. The title refers to a passage from Marco Polo’s Description of the World (ca. 1300), one of the travel accounts most notorious for blurring lines between fiction and reality. In the show, the story is recalled via a work sharing the exhibition’s title that features a series of colorful figurines straight from a 3-D printer. The artist is a traveller himself, as evidenced by his trip to Antananarivo to create Polish Year on Madagascar, 2006. Now, he further explores the poetics of travel in a video and installation titled Mr. Seven, 2013. It depicts a man he encountered in the city of Auroville in India, who recounts to the camera an imaginary life story that involves celebrities and superheroes. Simon, who perceives Mr. Seven as his alter ego, in turn plays with his own life narrative via several other strategies, for instance by displaying objects he encountered while travelling—such as a dried exotic lizard and a Polaroid found in a shipwreck—on shelves he made with metal and MDF. He also presents an untitled series from 2015 where he tells the story of multiple heartbreaks in a visual code—gracefully merged features of advanced electrical circuits diagrams and neoplastic compositions—whose meaning is known only to himself.
The nearly two hundred works in this exhibition pay homage to one of Catalonia’s major abstract painters, Alfons Borrell. The curator of the exhibition, artist Oriol Vilapuig, created seven sections to highlight different aspects of Borrell’s work, such as “Color as Subject” and “Experiencing the Boundaries.” For Borrell, the way the sun colors the world orange at dawn, or green while one is walking in a forest, is not so different from how a painter applies hues to a canvas—both are about immersion.
The artist’s work is informed by close observation of nature, which becomes explicit in nine untitled drawings from 1980 shown in the “Repetition and Variation” area as well as in his only film, Aigua fosca (Dark Water), 1964, which follows the movement of water. In most of the paintings, though, recognizable motifs seem hardly relevant, as the quality of these pieces resides in the concentration of gesture and emanation of color.
In 1960, Borrell took part in an action staged by the group Gallot at the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, where several artists joined forces in painting expressive marks on a seventy-five-meter roll of paper. It was a radical statement of rebellion during the years of Franco’s reign. Most of Borrell’s works, however, if we look at them now, look rather reflective and contained as opposed to expressionist. His paintings show gradual changes in color, with thoughts or emotional content seemingly inscribed by marks or lines, as in 23.4.85, 1985, featuring green and black planes with some rougher brushstrokes providing the drama.
The most dramatic, and popular, exhibition in the museum’s recent history borrows its title from Jacques Derrida’s late lecture on the beast and the sovereign—the two entities he identified as being beyond the law’s reach due to ignorance and supremacy, respectively. For Derrida, the two subjects are not only a binary opposition; they are also engaged in an act of co-becoming. This idea infuses the most intriguing works in a thirty-artist exhibition exploring dominance in surprisingly intricate ways. Artists address surgical pandrogeny and fictional identity, provide a narrative analysis of suicide terrorism, and display rare archival photographs of SS officers cross-dressing and heatedly embracing. In the animal realm, Jan Peter Hammer’s documentary film Tilikum, 2013–15, on SeaWorld’s and humankind’s cruel attempts to control nature, made me ashamed of all of us.
The seat of controversy here, however, is a sculpture by Austrian artist Ines Doujak, Not Dressed for Conquering, 2010, which depicts the former Spanish king Juan Carlos engaged in a backward-facing sexual act with Bolivian labor leader and activist Domitila Chúngara and a joyful dog. The day before the exhibition was to open, MACBA’s director cancelled it. After protests, the show finally opened, but days later the director resigned and rumors are still circulating. The supreme irony is that the director’s final act was to fire the two talented curators of “The Beast and the Sovereign,” Valentín Roma and Paul B. Preciado. The institution’s power struggles are a timely reminder that a commitment to creative sovereignty isn’t merely theoretical: Artists and curators fight to make such exhibitions possible.
An archival show presented as fragmented, polyvocal narrative, “Unfolding” is the history of the contemporary Middle East spun out in multiple directions at once, threading war mythology with pendulant social progress, inevitably and helplessly politicized.
Zaatari, who came of age during the nation’s civil war, maintains some criticality toward interpretive documentation. Considering the witness account as both journalism and diary, he cocreated the Arab Image Foundation in 1997, which has so far collected 600,000 photographs from the past 150 years in the region. The archive is a resource whose wealth lies not only in the sheer volume of such precarious and delicate ephemera but also in its diversity—capturing not only the news but the history of the photographic medium in this cultural context.
Heavily convoluted backstories are illustrated by overlapping, simultaneous still and moving images. In the town of Saida in the ’50s, a Mr. Baqari is an ominous neighbor to the photographer Hashem el Madani, and their shadowy exchanges are captured in Zaatari’s multimedia project Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem, 2010–15, a main thread in this exhibition. Baqari’s wife, her sister, and their friends would visit the artist’s studio to have their portraits taken; after learning about this, Mr. Baquari demanded that the negatives be destroyed because his wife participated without his permission. They compromised by scratching the photographs with a pin. The resulting lacerated images by el Madani are interspersed among various excavated films emanating from a constellation of projectors, with seating for an audience of one. Lone women, each identified only as “Mrs. Baqari’s friend,” look out between the rough etches as though from behind bars. Recirculating these images puts a match to them, finally igniting what’s long been kept covered over low heat.