It’s been stamped on the collective retina: a reclining Susan Sontag, 1975, sheathed in a turtleneck, her hands stuffed in her hair, her face crowned with that smirk of effortless intellection. She looks like a sleek, belletristic otter floating on its back. This is Sontag as we’ve always thought of her—sly, a little wistful, possessed of a dark, delicate intelligence that pitches its gaze at something just beyond the frame. Embalmed in her persona, served like some pickled exotic fruit.
But that embalmment—the aspect that has haunted both the practice and the theory of photography—gathers a darkly literal force in this exhibition, “Lost Downtown” (which is being presented collaboratively with Pace/MacGill). What, precisely, has been lost? An entire way of life made possible by low rents, a pre-Giuliani tolerance for urban desuetude, and a lingering ethos—now melted in the furnace of capital—of antibourgeois insouciance. Fran Lebowitz [at Home in Morristown], 1974, scowls from her teenage bedroom in New Jersey—the wallpaper is goofily suburban, with a pattern that looks like little pustules bursting with bad taste. Divine, 1975, the plump, lovely muse of John Waters, is depicted here as some high-Romantic heroine, her ample belly swelling at the buttons and soaking up the feathery shades of Hujar’s lighting. It’s poignant, but yes, a bit camp—a bomb lobbed at our notions of respectability and grace. Waters himself smiles from across the room (John Waters (I), 1975).
But lost, too, are individual figures of the so-called downtown scene, picked off by cancer and AIDS—the latter greeted by the establishment with criminal indifference. David Wojnarowicz, 1981, gawky and boyish, gazes spectrally from a bed, his nose and temples carved starkly from the dark—years before he was infected. And after Hujar’s death, Wojnarowicz would take a photo of his corpse. That photograph isn’t included here, but the spooky echo resounds: another talisman, a memento mori, a furtive ritual of an extinct tribe.
Few artists in recent memory have put more at stake so early in their careers than Cameron Rowland. His institutional debut here concerns itself with nothing less fraught than the persistent legacy of slavery within a thoroughly neoliberal twenty-first-century America. In the exhibition, Rowland presents a series of sculptures in the form of isolated, unmodified consumer and industrial goods whose histories of use, production, and acquisition are documented in their titles’ captions and a takeaway text available to visitors. A portion of the goods were sourced from Corcraft, a division of the New York State Department of Corrections that sometimes conscripts inmates into prison labor and sells the goods they produce for wages as low as one-fiftieth of the legal minimum to other government agencies and nonprofits. In his selection and presentation, Rowland identifies lodestones of US economic power and bureaucratic self-reflexivity—a tactic he has previously deployed to harrowing effect.
Armatures of government administration, such as New York State Unified Court System and Attica Series Desk (all works 2016), take the form of courtroom benches and an office desk. Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings are aluminum leveler rings for manhole hatches that obliquely reference the importance of convict road-building in the post–Civil War, preindustrial South. Insurance’s container-lashing bars and Lloyd’s register certificates evoke the maritime transport of property foundational both to the historical slave trade and to contemporary, globalized manufacturing. And a pair of flame-retardant firefighters’ suits from Corcraft’s West Coast equivalent CALPIA (the California Prison Industry Authority)—1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011—bring together the criminalized body and the body-at-risk in a single, collapsed figure.
If the work’s rigid, austere program reveals any weakness at all, it may be its aesthetic dimension, which occasionally veers into Minimalist sublimity. Such moments are redeemed, however, by an artist whose political commitments can never find complete resolution solely in the realm of the visual.
A column protruding from the gallery’s plate-glass storefront is papered with reproductions of 1930s to 1970s posters and graphic design from East and West Germany. Inside, the varied products of Klaus Wittkugel, a central figure in Eastern European graphic design little documented in Anglophone histories of the subject, are arrayed. Though the exhibition focuses on one designer, it more generally serves as an imagining of the curious nature of the profession in the Eastern Bloc, where the state was the client and propaganda the principal product.
A vitrine contains artifacts of East German material culture: Wittkugel’s designs cover packaging, glassware, and paperbacks, including the Jim Crow–shaming Auch ich bin Amerika: Dichtungen amerikanischer Neger (I Too Am America: Poetry of American Negros) (1948). A self-awareness runs through the works but is most apparent in the posters: In Das Plakat (The Poster), 1954, a ladder is propped against a column with an advertisement for an exhibition of posters. This nesting is characteristic of the sleight of hand with which Wittkugel stages the interaction with the image, suggesting a spatial relationship between the viewer and abstract subjects, such as electrification, Lenin’s political philosophy, or manufacturing quality.
The exhibition itself has reflexive touches as well, signaled by the poster column spilling onto the street, bearing the image of a poster column. The curator, Prem Krishnamurthy, foregrounds the nature of the presentation by embedding contextual texts among the objects, including record sleeves, stamps, and a slideshow that cycles through the artist’s exhibition designs, which are punctuated with slides of layouts using 3-D modeling software or Facebook screen grabs. A parallel show at OSMOS Address displays the designs of Anton Stankowski, Wittkugel’s contemporary and maybe West German double. The two designers’ points of intersection and ways of differing illuminate the contours of the histories being peddled (or taken for granted) on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.
In these sassy, severe works from the 1970s, Jürgen Klauke transforms his body through low-tech effects. In the first photo of his black-and-white triptych Illusion, 1972, he uses a mirror to produce a bilaterally symmetrical image of himself without a penis. In the next two, he’s wearing pantyhose, and the angled mirror turns his crotch into a diamond-shaped void. It’s a great use of nude nylons—at once exploiting their functional properties (to constrain flesh and efface detail), their potency as a symbol of feminine conformity, and their fetishy charge. Ich & Ich (I & I), 1970, depicts an expressionless Klauke with an Eno-ish pageboy and a handlebar moustache in incremental stages of makeup application. His charted metamorphosis is reminiscent of Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, 1972, a serial photographic documentation of her thirty-seven-day weight-loss performance. As Klauke’s bearded face is contoured, it becomes more feminine, but also gaunt, even malevolent. His is not a straightforward, or strictly playful, makeover.
While his work from this period engages with the ideas of his feminist contemporaries and body-art forbears, it also merges the aesthetics of queer Surrealists—such as Claude Cahun and especially Pierre Molinier—with glam rock’s androgyny and artifice. In the full-color “Transformer ” pictures from 1973, Klauke wears a red leather outfit with platform boots and long, upwardly curved nipple extensions, one of which he kittenishly licks. There’s also a hand-sewn garment in the Rot photos from 1974: A fascinating hermaphroditic genital apron that can be worn casually like a sweatshirt tied around the waist or fastened up, over pants, to give the impression one has a lipped fissure extending from tailbone to pubis, with an almost navel-high, pinky-like dick.
The exhibition “700 Nimes Road” is named for the address of Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel Air home, which Catherine Opie—who shared an accountant with the star—gained access to in November of 2010 and photographed over a six-month period beginning that December. The project took on new significance when Taylor, who had fallen ill, died: Opie’s fifty-print portfolio shows the contours and eccentricities of a life she never directly observed. The works also subtly chart the transition of the house from a home to something else—a memorial, an archive, or a complicated asset—as, for example, Taylor’s jewelry collection is aired and inventoried. The Emeralds, 2010–11, shows her famous Bulgari “green set,” a gift from Richard Burton. Shot in the sun, maybe by the pool, it’s out of focus, like Opie’s seductively generalized landscapes on view across town at the gallery’s Chelsea space.
Opie cites William Eggleston’s “Graceland” suite from 1984 as a precedent for this work, and it does echo his bold compositions. But, while Elvis Presley’s ostentatious taste becomes a somewhat impersonal artifact of Americana in Eggleston’s photos, Taylor’s hand and history are felt everywhere in Opie’s. Cropped views make captivating tableaux of the legend’s tchotchkes: perfume diffusers, Oscars, Maltese-terrier statuettes, and snapshots of Michael Jackson in cheap-looking frames. Wider shots reveal a worn fairy-tale land of pastel carpeting that one wants to wander in a dressing gown. In the detailed and mysterious photos of this cumulative portrait, Opie includes traces of both heartbreak and quotidian routine. And though such allusions give the work its voyeuristic edge, we’re satisfied by Opie’s discretion—the impressions relayed by an astute but unobtrusive guest.
James Hampton, a janitor, built a tinfoil throne room for Christ’s return in a Washington, DC, rental garage; Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain is an adobe edifice in California made in honor of God’s enduring love; Laure Pigeon’s densely worked ink drawings are faithfully recorded transmissions from beyond the veil. Painter Jeni Spota C. unabashedly joins this lineage of ecstatic visionaries for whom art is a gateway into the divine.
One doesn’t just look at Spota’s paintings; one feels them. Their densely encrusted oil surfaces warp—or rather, masticate—the orderly and elaborate geometry of the compositions. The textures read as hammered tin, disintegrating brocades, or even mortified flesh, and their eerily wan colors—acrid yellows, arid blues, and desiccated-looking greens, whites, and reds—are culled from another century. These images pulsate with religious patterns and insignias, along with the reverent faces of communicants, kings, saints, and queens. The most resplendent illustration of this, Venetian Victory, 2015, includes a pair of ossified cherubim flanking a sculptural crimson flower wreathed in ribbons, like an offering. And so we are transported: to Babylon and Lascaux; seventeenth-century Protestant graveyards; dusty monastery attics and basements; heaven.
Let it be clear: Despite the “outsider” appearance of her work, Spota is anything but. There is nothing willfully naive about her approach. She is a maker of sophisticated objects with a sophisticated art education to match. She knows her history and her aesthetic kin, and how she wants to place herself in the spectrum of contemporary thinking and making. But, like Sabato “Simon” Rodia, the architect of Watts Towers in Los Angeles—and a blood relative of Spota’s—she does as obsession, or the heart, commands.
Louise Despont’s “Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture” has a religious atmosphere. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entering the museum. Despont’s installation, an alternate universe containing two wooden chambers, is accompanied by a soft, live soundscape, courtesy of artist and musician Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Hung on the walls, Kuffner’s robotic gongs, drums, chimes, and bells—collectively titled The Gamelatron Roh Ageng, 2013—play continuously to mimic the gamelan, orchestral music traditional to Despont’s new home in Bali.
Despont’s sacred spaces serve as elaborate framing devices for her drawings—explorations of the subtle energy that moves between human, plant, and various other animate and inanimate forms. In the second enclosure after the main entrance is the most striking display: four highly stylized drawings of the human body in meditative poses, each meticulously cross-sectioned as if they were anatomical drawings from another world. Despont has rendered these figures almost life-size on sheets of antique ledger paper, which contain faded names, numbers, and dates scribbled between stenciled lattices. The energy centers thought to lie along the spinal cord and head, according to traditional Indonesian metaphysics, are exposed by Despont’s circular, compass-based lines and colored in with pastel hues of chartreuse, indigo, violet, and blood orange. Each piece gives insight into the transcendental, prompting soul-seekers to ponder their peripheries. What really inhabits the space between skin, air, and other beings? In this instance, it is the sound waves from Kuffner’s machines, certainly, among other elements reflecting the nature of existence as Despont imagines it: a mélange of beautifully formulated and evanescent Frankenstein beings who usually remain unseen.
In a suite of eight paintings, Lari Pittman’s “NUEVOS CAPRICHOS” depict familiar, shadowy figures on the giving and receiving ends of a world of hurt. The show’s title comes from Francisco de Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” 1797–98, a set of etchings where the court artist laid bare his withering observations on human folly and savagery. Pittman’s homage probes the same ugly impulses and similarly uses animal/man imagery as well as interiorized dialogue, voiced here in word swirls and banners that contain verses from Emily Dickinson’s poems.
Pittman’s jam-packed orchestration of supergraphic decorative patterns and motifs seem ready to bleed out of their frames. Though we’re witness to a great deal of action and violence in these pictures, a deeper sense of dread comes from the terrors suggested beyond the works’ boundaries. Where Goya’s illustrations present humanity’s nastier urges as the root of societal ills, Pittman’s pieces reveal a labyrinthine inner state as a deeply felt response to trauma. His reactions are emotional—compassionate, even—which is a marked contrast from Goya’s more accusatory tone. In Capricho #7, 2015, a skeletal crowned figure holding a plumed rod, perhaps a scepter or an axe, stomps and dances on a prostrate man’s bony back. The carefully placed words absence and disembodies shift the focus from blame to affect, captioning the internal condition and finality of both aggressor and victim. The prevalence of the word pain in these works makes one throw up a psychic shield, as it’s apparent that you, the watcher, are being pummeled. A walk around the room allows for a recalibration to a higher frequency: With each numbered capricho building on the last, this unified assembly of paintings offers a free fall into a hyperkinetic morass where each blow is felt and remembered.
There are a lot of works in Robert Melee’s show, and various kinds of it are mounted on the walls, or, it almost seems, pushed against them by the explosion of Bower Pool, 2016, an overturned above-ground swimming pool that hangs from the gallery’s ceiling, hemorrhaging decorations. The glittery trappings of Christmas, Mardi Gras, birthdays, graduations, and Pride cascade from the backyard tub like a piñata frozen in time at its climax. Or, as per the title, it’s a nest: Bowerbirds decorate with natural baubles and bright garbage to attract mates.
In hotels, restaurants, and sometimes homes, ornamental panels with aesthetic purpose waver in status between artwork, decoration, and fixture. Much of Melee’s attractive work has that ambiguous presence. His “Inter Guilded Semi-Quasi Substitution” pieces (all works 2015) have a high-end modern-décor, puzzle-piece feel (“Polynesian” in a Brady Bunch way); the “Untitled Bower Curtain” paintings are bubblegummy, confetti-based takes on drippy high modernism with a dash of your mom’s friend’s fiber art; and the “Atlantic City” wall-mounted photosculptures, made from images of hotel lobbies and casinos, actually incorporate light fixtures. The latter are the least friendly pieces, with the hardware and glass of chandeliers jutting out from the folded space of angular photocollages. Portrait of Debs with Fans is similarly disorienting, featuring two cheap ceiling fans. As the only portrait, it’s a revealing wildcard. In a storyboard-like collage, fashion designer David Quinn, in boudoir maquillage and various states of undress, appears haphazardly wielding a paintbrush. Like a lonely bowerbird working to seduce with what he can find, he manages to pull things together—or rather, Melee does, perfectly, matching Quinn’s tinsel garland to the fans’ fake-fancy gold accents.
Tauba Auerbach’s art, cerebrally and seductively, marries system theory and aesthetic acuity. The paintings, sculptures, and publishing projects within this exhibition engage the ideas and writings of architect and theosophist Claude Bragdon, whose 1915 treatise Projective Ornament expounds architecture’s transcendent possibilities. For the show, Auerbach has gorgeously republished Bragdon’s century-old text through Diagonal Press, her imprint, and given us objects that revel in the elemental dynamism and beauty of geometry and nature.
Four of Auerbach’s woven canvases reveal her interests in structures and their supports. Chiral Fret (Meander)/Extrusion/Ghost, 2015, consists of unpainted canvas woven into a composition that references both the right angles and continuous lines of Greek fret as well as the shapes of chiral molecules. The decorative motifs highlighting natural structures in these canvases use base forms to exquisite effect—her patterns simply vibrate throughout the work.
Auerbach’s sculptures similarly visualize the organic as ornamental. Altar/Engine, 2015, consists of a blue tabletop display of nearly one hundred black, gold, and white 3-D-printed objects derived from the helix. Auerbach has extruded and rotated the helix’s form into a wide array of mutations that bend, braid, coil, curve, and extend the essential structure of our DNA. The result is a geometry that transforms elemental configurations and shows us the kind of vivid and embedded ornamentation that undergirds life itself.
The press release for Em Rooney’s exhibition at this gallery is written in first person and ends with a list: “Future words for forest: apple, brazil, empire, expro, exxon, gate, gates, grass, fire, loneliness, love, sand, seed, sunrise, rattlesnake, rock.” Almost alphabetical, the list is imperfect, personal—much like the artist’s photographs. Rooney, no Luddite, nonetheless worries about the ephemeral textures and qualities of material—and memories—that are imperiled by transitions to digital storage and circulation.
Rooney’s hand colored silver gelatin prints depict views of loft apartments and squats, some woods in Maine, and a melancholy zoo. They are images from a personal archive that dates back to her high-school years. Their pastel-tinged, black-and-white aesthetic imparts a de facto nostalgia, but these are not exactly resurrected snapshots. Subtle traces of manipulation abound. One can detect double exposures, bits of collage, and a wry intermingling of digital and analog processes, especially in The End of Oil (all works 2015), an image that is crowned with a Preview edit toolbar, marking its trajectory from film to digital archive to print. The “hand colored silver gelatin print in artist’s frame” description for this piece is deceptively twee and simple.
“Artist’s frame”—what a nebulous triangulation of medium, material, and display device that term is. Rooney says her frames contain “thatch, ash, fruit and stone,” but we can’t see them. However, three larger wall-mounted panels, shaped like frames or mats with empty centers, make good on the insinuation, as their exterior portions are studded with three-dimensional objects. In Outer frame for Elliot (The Sawdust Ring), a fake orange and three spooning ceramic figures are suspended in the hand-dyed canvas and leather surface. As its title suggests, this work is “for” a framed photograph called Elliot. What of the redundancy? For one thing, the “extra” frame proffers a strange opportunity to stash things away—a playful paean to imperiled marginalia.
“Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015,” featuring the work of nineteen artists and artist collectives, invades sundry realms outside of the strictly photographic, such as sculpture, installation, and performance. The exhibition places a strong emphasis on the networks of communication that connect us all, while highlighting themes of image ownership, branding, and visual syntax.
Using tactics that feel satirical but border on the freakily earnest is DIS, whose installation Related by Contour, 2015, exists as an enormous stock image of a “multiculti” family, plastered to the gallery wall and watermarked with the official Museum of Modern Art logo. David Horvitz’s quasi-performance piece Mood Disorder, 2015, traces the flow of images through “click-bait” websites. Katja Novitskova’s freestanding cutouts of recently discovered species of spiders, Approximation (peacock spider), 2015, which were openly sourced from image-sharing websites, transform these miniscule organisms into alarming creatures of gargantuan scale.
Ilit Azoulay’s amorphously taxonomic Shifting Degrees of Certainty, 2014, expands the parameters of documentary photography by creating a mosaic of objects from Germanic culture, while Lieko Shiga’s phenomenally eerie installation Rasen Kaigan, 2010–12, captures the sights and damaged spirits surrounding the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan. Elsewhere, an exact replica of Lele Saveri’s underground storefront, The Newsstand, 2013–14, which once stood in a bustling Brooklyn subway station selling posters, editions, and zines, is a loud reminder that even underground and without Wi-Fi, the future of photography is still as bright as it’s ever been.
Fifteen archival prints of photographs of sunlight streaming into Grand Central Station, watermarked with their sources—sites such as Art.com, Easy Art, Picasso.com—greet visitors to Penelope Umbrico’s latest exhibition, playfully drawing attention to her process of appropriation while offering the prosaic material a more profound afterlife. Adjacent is a video of all the variations of the four source photographs of Grand Central that Umbrico found online, demonstrating slight differences in contrast and graininess. Interested in the way images circulate and are valued, Umbrico previously culled photographs of sunsets from Flickr and TVs for sale from Craigslist, transforming them into meditations on our relationship with file sharing and originality.
In addition to her Grand Central project, Umbrico offers photographs of the moon. For her installation Everyone’s Photos Any License (654 of 1,146,034 Full Moons on Flickr, November 2015) (all works 2015), Umbrico printed approximately six hundred of the million-plus images she found on the site and then taped them together to cover a wall of the gallery. The moons range in size and color from cloudy green to fiery red to grayish white, and the fact that many are nearly identical destabilizes their tenuous link to authorship. Umbrico further contests their singular status in works like Screenshot 2015-11-07 18.34.11 / Pink Filter and Screenshot 2015-11-24 18.14.32 / Blue Filter by arranging the images chromatically, yielding grids of pinkish-orange or white-ish blue moons, which almost become abstract motifs. Emphasizing the collective nature of this archive, Umbrico includes a scroll of screenshots of the moon, rolled out lengthwise on the gallery floor. Its discarded, sculptural presence contrasts with her loftier presentations of the full moons, revealing both the ubiquity and elusiveness of her subject.
With only twenty-two paintings produced over six decades, this Robert Ryman exhibition is a summa of the artist’s process, via the reduction and synthesis of the fundamental elements of painting. Different mediums, textures, and supports—canvas, paper, aluminum, fiberglass, Plexiglas—are used to investigate the luminous frequency of white in all its possible gradations. The artist has chosen to exhibit the paintings under natural light, and he is right to do so. I viewed the show when the sky was clear, then when it was cloudy, and then under artificial light. The last condition was decisively the worst, since it imbued the works with a very disturbing pinkish tone. Under natural light, however, the gradations of white appear in all their shimmering, pulsating richness, with vibrations of gray, blue, or black, on surfaces that are highly tactile or smooth, absorbent or polished.
Ryman has been investigating methods and structures of painting since the 1960s. Carrying out an operation of progressive subtraction, he eliminates the stretcher frame and instead attaches sheets of paper or canvases directly to the wall or subverts the axis of vision by propping works, supported on the floor with metal rods, against the wall. He also experiments with the potential of industrial materials by contrasting shiny aluminum surfaces with matte white paint or by using steel bolts on the paintings’ surfaces. And the abatement of tones to the minimum degree of whiteness provides Ryman with a limitless field of freedom. Varying the paint’s density and methods of its application, he regulates the absorbency or the refraction of light, sometimes applying a variety of colors beneath the white to instill the deceptively monochrome surfaces with warmth or acidity. The result is an articulate and complex symphony of minimal tones, much like Brian Eno’s compositions of ambient music. This show, a place of reflection and expansion, uses essential examples to describe Ryman’s research. With a kind of magic and rigor that few can match, Ryman catalyzes perceptual processes, remaining attuned to the objective properties of materials and to the pure evidence of paint and light.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
As its title, “A Constellation,” suggests, this show draws together a range of seemingly disparate practices by black artists and invites the viewer to connect the dots. This is a loose curatorial rubric, but its strength is in pairing now-canonical artists with their emerging peers, initiating a cross-generational conversation about materiality, gesture, and political ambition.
It is worth seeing this exhibition for the opportunity to immerse oneself in the glow of work from a firmament that the Studio Museum itself fostered in the 1970s. Jack Whitten’s Psychic Intersection, 1979-80, evokes the modernist black square and grid with a nod to the interstellar, while Al Loving’s incandescent Variations on a Six Sided Object, 1967, leaves one wondering why it is not he, rather than Frank Stella, who is remembered as the post-painterly heavyweight of the modernist era. Across the gallery, one delights in poring over the dense materiality and sly wit of work by Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Adrian Piper.
But, as the show makes clear, the mantle of these greats has been taken on in knowing ways by a younger generation. Cameron Rowland plays on post-Minimalist form and the vernacular spaces of the inner city with his mordant plastic cube, Pass-Thru, 2014. Canadian artist Talwst creates subtle juxtapositions of the precious and the pressing with Por qué, 2014, a miniature depiction of the Eric Garner killing. And Baltimore-born Kandis Williams contributes the quietly show-stealing multimedia painting paralysis II, 2014—a grainy play of abstraction and photographic reproduction. If these are the Studio Museum’s new stars, the future looks bright indeed.
Zhang Hongtu’s survey at the Queens Museum reveals a conflicted portrait of a Chinese-American personality, one that has personally rejected Mao but revels artistically in the Chairman’s influence and memory. Across multiple rooms, an abundance of Maos—cross-eyed Mao, smiling Mao, frowning Mao—is juxtaposed with Zhang’s hybridizations of Eastern and Western imagery and aesthetic movements.
The collection presents Zhang’s work from the 1950s through today, and his range—materially and conceptually—is impressive. Guo Xi–Van Gogh, 1998, depicts the mountainous ranges of Guo Xi’s shan shui scrolls rendered in Vincent van Gogh’s post-Impressionist brush strokes. Front Door, 1995, is a door with a peephole through which one can view old footage of the leader, while The Big Red Door, 2015, is a hulking gateway dotted with phallic knobs. And a giant photographic print, Great Wall with Gates II, 2015, wraps almost entirely around the exhibition space. The show also documents the changes in Zhang’s work after he moved to America; since leaving China, his interests in the East have intensified. The humble drawings of his Chinese peers back home feel very different from the kitschy soy-sauce workers’ leaflets, glazed zodiac figures, and Chinese blue-and-white-patterned Coca-Cola bottles he made in the States.
Visitors are also encouraged to test out Ping-Pong Mao, 2015, a tennis table featuring two Chairman-shaped holes on either side. The sport seems frivolous, but it references the infamous Ping-Pong Diplomacy, a Chinese political tactic in the early 1970s where Mao invited the US table tennis team to China. This trip initiated early Sino-American relations and Zhang’s fruitful explorations of Chinese culture through an American lens.
Gritty and glorious, the Lower East Side of the 1980s and ’90s blazes with bricks and stars in the paintings of Martin Wong. Night skies tattooed with constellations form the backdrops for calico patchworks of tenement buildings rendered in ruddy ochers, browns, grays, gold, and black. Hercules and Hydra arc above the everyday heroes and monsters of the city streets: lovers, junkies, prisoners, poets, fighters, and firemen. Lavishing countless layers of acrylic on every brick that forms this lawless, desperate world, Wong renders each mottled facade in almost carnal detail. The arresting contrast between these intensely corporeal structures and the astral planes above them suggests the key dualities coursing through Wong’s oeuvre: body and spirit, reality and fantasy, the sordid and the divine.
Wong died from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, at the age of fifty-three, and this elegant retrospective is the first to trace his too brief career. Battered walls and closed storefronts may dominate the show, but Wong also crafted intimate interior moments. Firemen were an erotic fixation for Wong, but My Fire Guy, 1988, is neither explicit nor conventionally fetishistic. Completely clothed, the fireman is chastely tucked into bed, his resting figure limned in saintly gold. Cradling a puppy, he is a child’s cherished hero more than a sex object. This tenderness is lacking in Wong’s later, slicker paintings of Chinatown, which revel more superficially in the gaudy ads and architecture along Canal Street. Wong’s Lower East Side paintings are his strongest, in full, magnificent force.