Approach and peer down into an abyss. Wreathed in matte white—a tech-world fetish color—the parapet begs to be bent over. Do so and dive into an aerial view of eighteen chambers, neatly parceled into three rows of six. Each chamber contains a rectangular couch oriented toward a large window—or is it a screen?
This compressed, airless cosmos is Samara Golden’s A Trap in Soft Division, 2016. For her largest installation to date, the artist showcases the antiseptic, adolescent bravado of minimalist lifestyle porn. The first row of rooms is punctuated by blouses shrugged off, laptops abandoned, and red cups knocked over; the third adds frilly curtains, laundry baskets, and a stray blue afghan. Nestled in the middle of the lineup are scenes distinctly more saturated—faux stained glass made of lighting gels and black caulk, Tiffany lamps, more afghans, more cups, more stuff. Though familiar, their occupancy here is that of invaders in an inhospitable land. Likewise, this center aisle is overgrown with houseplants, mostly Epipremnum aureum, also known as devil’s ivy. Something sinister is indeed afoot: That cavernous maw is not an orifice, but a mirror; the rooms are not below, but above and upside down; those windows are not even screens, but skylights, flushing the gallery with rosy light, then edging it in blue.
Golden’s notion of a “sixth dimension,” in which past, present, and future inhabit the same space, can perhaps be likened to the archives of a digital backup. Yet what she captures best is the desperation for those files, the sense that the bits of life they contain are constantly under threat. To protect them, from a fire for instance, one protocol is Halon suppression, an extinguishing agent that leaves no residue. The result is a room with the oxygen sucked out.
Whether or not the sixteen artists known as the “Monster Roster” liked their moniker is ultimately not up to them, given that this first serious survey of their work canonizes their collective mood into a movement. The name is fitting, as corpses, golems, and ghouls abound, along with dismembered arms, legs, and faces of scraped paint that resemble melting skin. Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, H. C. Westermann, and June Leaf are the most well-known of this Chicago-bred cohort, but some of its best artists were isolated by their decision to live and work outside of New York. They include Theodore Halkin, Evelyn Statsinger, Seymour Rosofsky, and George Cohen, whose paintings are visual revelations that speak with familiarity to today’s concerns of speed and doubt. Fans of Jean Dubuffet, Cobra, and German Expressionism will no doubt immediately understand the importance of these artists in the 1950s era.
There may be thirty scarred faces and half as many clay-charred bodies in this exhibition. If this is an army of cadavers, then its state flag is Cohen’s 1954 painting Emblem for an Unknown Nation, a collage of unidentified limbs. Although the show taps the trauma of WWII as an artistic wellspring, the “Monster Roster”—which never had a meeting or a manifesto and was named by the critic and artist Franz Schulze, who is also included here—is more indebted to frequent visits to sketch at the Field Museum’s collection of ethnographic arts. Whether borne out of the Midwestern Gothic myth or on the cusp of Postmodernism, this group forged a singular dirge from sixteen distinct voices.
The conventions of mapping that organize Courttney Cooper’s immense ink drawings of Cincinnati, Ohio, provide a structure for his more cognitive cartographies. An array of landmarks punctuate dark congestions of scribbled grids and city blocks on collaged sheets of paper portraying the psychology of these spaces where the mood contradicts revelry with riot. These works—which mostly span the past decade—depict a city, perhaps an alternate reality called “Zinzinnati,” per the exhibition’s title, that is perpetually in celebration, evinced by the balloons and banners decorating some of the maps for the city’s Germanic Oktoberfest.
But the party above belies the social tensions below: Gradually, one notices scrawled writing layered underneath Cooper’s landscapes, the text erupting in the blank passages of the streets. In one drawing from 2015 (all works are untitled), visitors see the phrase “The bitch, you fucking bitch” echo across a neighborhood, and in another, the capitalized word police drifts at the horizon line between an amusement park and a street festival. The metropolis is portrayed in a more modestly scaled 2007 drawing with agitated districts extending in all directions from three prominent buildings labeled “Hamilton County Court House,” “Hamilton County,” and “Justice Center” across their broad rooftops.
Given Cincinnati’s history of police violence toward black men—the shooting of unarmed nineteen-year-old Timothy Thomas provoked riots in 2001, and in 2015, unarmed Samuel DuBose was shot dead during a routine traffic stop, to name a few—Cooper’s maps uneasily juxtapose the city’s jubilation and social unrest simultaneously. Each street conjured here questions and fantasizes how men of color like him can survive and thrive in these public, urban spaces.
“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” is more than a feast: It is a glut of information and artifacts—including ephemera, sound recordings, video, photography, and sculpture—re-animating Moorman’s archives in a thoroughly researched and thoughtfully organized exhibition whose focus is divided between her artistic practice as a musician and performer and her activities as a promoter and festival organizer. (She founded and ran the New York Avant Garde Festival from 1963 to 1980.)
As a cello prodigy who played in her hometown’s symphony orchestra at thirteen to a Julliard-trained classical musician under the spell of the avant-garde, she performed on the trapeze, submerged in a tank of water, and covered in melted chocolate and coconut shreds. Moorman also performed signature works by collaborators throughout her career, and micro-exhibitions throughout “Feast” capture the drama with which she adapted John Cage’s 26'1.1499'', 1955, and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1965—recontextualized by Moorman’s personal battle with breast cancer—and the authoritative agency with which she executed Nam June Paik’s TV Cello, 1976.
The show rehabilitates Moorman’s objectified memorialization as muse, living sculpture, and topless cellist—thanks to an arrest for indecent exposure after performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique, 1964, naked—emphasizing her role as autonomous artist and powerhouse administrator instead. Amid a generation of artists experimenting with the fusion of art and life, Moorman truly lived this ideal, and the main triumph of “A Feast of Astonishments” lies in demonstrating Moorman’s success at connecting the fringes of the avant-garde with the general public, and in doing so itself.
In Xavier Cha’s film abduct, 2015, the footage follows, frames, and cuts together close-ups of actors performing an unsentimental, discordant series of engrossing gestures and facial expressions. Seven slick-muscled virtuosos in stylish white underwear and undershirts appear interchangeably one at a time in front of the kind of plastic curtain used in places such as slaughterhouses to modulate temperature or block noxious sprays. Heavy static and intermittent droning vibrations fill the room. The actors perform apparently purposeless but ultimately unnerving wide-eyed stares. They’re like aliens practicing facial calisthenics. They spurt exhalations, body wriggles, and unsatisfying sighs. One delivers a silent insult; another receives a phantom slap then curls her tongue. Eyebrows beckon or leer. Confrontation melts into surprise come-ons. A raptor-like chomp is followed by brief and unpredictable shifts between acute expressions of wonder, anger, nausea, horror, and quick-feigned bliss. Watching abduct is like watching the faces of actors during all of the climaxes from Hitchcock’s filmography back to back and without the aid of pacing, plot, dialogue, character, or romance. It’s terrifying.
Perhaps because of its effect—the performers are intense but lack personality or purpose—abduct, when first viewed, might seem to spur its audience to sermonize about the loss of humanity in the digital age. Yet the productive shock delivered by Cha’s film is, in large part, due to its ability to resist moralizing. Instead, the point of view of the film might be summed up like this: The aliens are here. They might destroy us and our way of life. So what?
The Vietnam War was the first to be televised, and though broadcasts of its carnage spurred many to antiwar activism, they also demonstrated modern media’s ability to compress images of violence behind screens and between commercials breaks. Online, banality mixes with atrocity with even greater ease. Pop-ups advertising resort getaways obscure environmental disaster reports. On our individual feeds, articles on war or terrorism pulled from the 24/7 news cycle are sandwiched between pet photos and brunch updates.
In this mini survey, Martha Rosler proves deft at dissecting and reconfiguring mass media to restore discomfort with such constellations. Her “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” montages, 1967–72, splice together Vietnam War–era photojournalism with spreads from House Beautiful magazine, the latter full of home and beauty tips for the upper-middle-class aspirant. In these works, war moves beyond the page and TV screen, encroaching upon 1960s and ’70s domestic bliss. Beauty Rest transplants a picture-perfect mattress ad’s family to a bombed-out bedroom. In Tron (Amputee), a Vietnamese woman balances on her good leg—the other severed and bandaged—inside a vast ranch-style living room. The series’ prescience is underscored through its display with the 2003–2008 reprisal “House Beautiful,” which sets photos of the Web 2.0–era Iraq War against images of affluence and consumption: Models catwalk next to a corpse; a Paris Hilton doppelgänger checks her cell phone while gunfire rages outside her glassed-in condo. Ripostes to advertising and its cousin, stock photography, have become something of a standard in contemporary art, but most lack the political bite of Rosler’s enduringly moving, unsettling hybrids.
The nine large-scale installations for this show prompt us to “wonder” at the alchemical transformation of fairly quotidian materials into art. Though the labor of producing these works leaves a few visible traces, the emphasis here is less on process than on the result: a conversion of the Renwick’s galleries into sensual environments.
It’s a fitting way to reopen this museum, which houses the Smithsonian’s craft and decorative arts collection, after a two-year renovation. In the first gallery, Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 (all works 2015)—two ethereal planes of rainbow-colored thread—hang between stark-white Corinthian columns. Nearby, Leo Villareal’s Volume (Renwick), a twinkling galaxy of 23,000 computer-controlled LED lights, illuminates the freshly gilded grand staircase. These approximations of natural phenomena are consistent with the show’s preoccupation with the anthropogenic environment. Further, Chakaia Booker offers a labyrinth of recycled rubber in Anonymous Donor, while Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, an installation of thousands of green fiberglass marbles, suggests the fragility of topographic forms.
The imbrication of the natural and the technological signals that for today’s artists craft is not a retreat from technology but a means to “live differently in the modern world,” as the show’s curator, Nicholas Bell, puts it. Judging by the works here, living differently means responding to even low-tech, handmade forms with the same sense of wonder that typically greets new technologies. But perhaps living differently might also mean wondering if our insatiable appetite for amazement is as innocent as it seems. At first glance, Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig, a room full of towering, nest-like forms of molded tree saplings, invites us to play; its vertiginous curves and arabesques exhilarate the eye (and elude the camera). But the work also is imbued with the tension of the struggle between man and nature, and its shadows are a nightmarish thicket. Like wonder itself, it entices but threatens entrapment.
At no point in Leslie Hewitt’s “Collective Stance” does the artist allow us the full picture. She instead gives incongruous pieces to assemble. One first encounters a series of screens perched on jagged walls forming a dark passage. Each plays a film of borrowed 1970s leader footage, for which Hewitt collaborated with cinematographer Bradford Young. This simple, structural installation, Stills, 2015, introduces an exhibition in which political residue slowly emerges through sober and at times abstract works.
Hewitt’s sculpture series “Untitled,” 2012, lies on the main gallery’s floor with white swaths of coated sheet metal, bent at angles, interrupting the pathway. Four tiny lithographs hang around the room, reproducing fragments of Hewitt’s source material. Only one pair names its origin, though: Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again (Distilled moment from over 73 hours of viewing the Civil Rights era archive at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas), 2012. Adding further nuance is Hewitt and Young’s Untitled (Structures), 2012, a film installation of long takes depicting buildings in Memphis and Chicago that were significant to the civil rights movement.
The artist is known for integrating sculpture and photography—as well as private and public stories—and all kinds of contrasts are palpable here. There is no dominant interpretive key, though. Hewitt repurposes space, mediums, and historical material in such a way that unanticipated negotiations unfold. The greatest impact, however, comes from her unsentimental presentation of two parallel histories—the Minimalist movement and civil rights actions in the 1960s. Viewing her subtle precision, one is forced to ask who is implicated in which line of history and who has a choice about facing it.
Mario García Torres’s exhibition “Caminar Juntos” (Let’s Walk Together) is held at four different locations across Mexico City but all within the parameters of the artist’s Museo de Arte Sacramento, a “museum without walls” in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, conceived by the artist between 2002 and 2004. Theoretically, all of this show is included in the geographic space of Torres’s museum. The work Redrawing the Exhibition Space or Museo de Arte Sacramento in Mexico City, 2004–15, presents the floor plan of his institution, which is nearly 200,000 square feet, superimposed over a section of the city. The Tamayo Museum, one of the exhibition’s galleries, hosts the largest cross section of the artist’s work. Opening with a printed version of his floor plan, Torres’s installation suggests a dislocating play between time and space.
His museum is a self-determined space for conceptualizing ideas within the context of physical geography, but Torres also allows for disruptions therein. The ongoing series “Prometo . . .” (I Promise . . .), 2004–, is a continuous thread throughout the installation here and comprises a simple set of twelve sheets of his writing on the letterhead of hotels he resided in while researching and producing this show. While the letters provide suggested finish dates for his works, also embedded in them is a promise—that he’ll be a better artist—and by their proximity to works realized based on ideas formulated in the correspondence, they serve as a documentation of artistic thought and production. Within this fantastically complex exhibition, Torres blurs any standards regarding linear time or functional space, ultimately offering an opportunity to reconsider our understanding of reality.