“What is romance?” asked Aki Sasamoto in a recent performance at JTT gallery. Clad in optical blinders, she stumbled about, welcoming the audience with beer bottles in hand. Astrud Gilberto tracks played on repeat from overhead, and the packed crowd reassembled almost magnetically around Sasamoto as she moved. Her art of making room in tight places is epitomized in these shows—four of which are slated for the exhibition’s run. In the off-performance hours, the gallery is a bare-bones café with do-it yourself service—beers are in the fridge, there’s an espresso machine, and the lighting is flattering.
Another vignette: Holding up a microphone to a floor fan to amplify the blowing air, Sasamoto slowly stepped backward so the wind drew a line in space that made us part around it. Then, lying flat on the floor—her face against a stack of flapping papers with handwritten words on the top left corners—she read the words into the mic, raising her head slightly to let each page fly against the shoes of those hovering around her. Some words were accompanied by a story, and others weren’t read at all. Commonplace gestures and objects are expertly staged in an intricate choreography of contingencies and clichés.
It’s hard not to feel wooed by Sasamoto , even when she’s slamming an impossibly tiny one-by-four-foot door carved into a mobile gallery wall in your face, then pushing the wall itself forward from behind until you are forced out of the space, an absurd gesture of inhospitality with endearingly comic effect. In the performance I attended, people stayed close after being evacuated, lingering at the entrance doors. What is romance? It’s like Sasamoto’s performances, where everything is suspended but somehow still secure; each object and nugget of space is infused with a new promise.
Matt Hoyt’s sculptures resemble stones, sticks, shells, and geometric curios individually not much larger than a golf ball or quail egg. He presents these pieces in tidy museological arrangements of two or three (sometimes more) and rests the groupings on flat, hand-cast sheets of MDF and polyurethane bases that have been dyed in muted hues to amplify the objects’ organic-seeming patinas. Speaking in the historical vocabulary of the objet trouvé, these small sculptures are bits of sly fiction. What appear to be pebbles or exotic sea shells are actually constructions of various putties, tempera paint, and the occasional cameo of other materials—bits of metal, plastic, or wood. These mediums are intimately handled in their process of becoming sculpture: Hoyt often spends months carefully laboring over, revising, and living with each one. Likewise, the finished works themselves invite handling and affective caress, offering a sympathetic surface that absorbs that most effervescent of earthly energies: the human touch.
In his latest presentation, Hoyt for the first time shows his works and their flat, colored bases on freestanding tables that he also designed, allowing visitors 360-degree access to the works (previously, the works were presented on wall-bound shelves). With unconstrained visual access, viewers can now explore the many crevices, recesses, and details of each work. A pearl-white, hollowed-out protrusion (with a mysterious slit) seems to have been the home of some imaginary deep-sea mollusk; a sun-stained pebble seems to tell the story of the deep Southwestern canyon where it was formed millennia ago. In this liberalized mode of display, the works now more than ever seem to resemble evidentiary material from fictive natural processes in the stories they tell—stories that are, in fact, only the hushed voice of a patient and subtle artist at work.
Throughout art history, the technique of collage has commonly been used to create juxtapositions that highlight disjuncture and difference. Zarina’s latest exhibition, “Descending Darkness,” is a tour de force demonstration of how collage might be used differently, more quietly. Her limited palette of black and gold coupled with her restraint and precision produces delicate, minimal paper-cut collages, through which one may probe issues of spirituality and mortality.
For the triptych Shadow on My Table I, II, III, 2014, black strips are carefully arranged on a white background to re-create the angular patterns that result from light streaming through window blinds. In the diptych Northeast Light I & II, 2014, thin horizontal strips mottled with gold leaf alternate with thicker strips of black paper on a printed rectangular black background, creating an abstraction that manages to capture the uncertain crepuscular luminosity of shortening fall days. Alternating thick and thin strips of black paper are similarly arranged in Steps III, 2014, the pattern only emerging once our eyes begin to register the subtly different blacks used. In all these works the seams and edges characteristic of collage are never declared but are revealed gradually through close looking.
Other works, like Aleppo, 2013, are less austere. Fragmented into an irregular array of rectangular black frames, the composition evokes both the pages of a miniature manuscript and an architectural floor plan. Holes punched in gold-leaf paper both index the titular city’s recent devastation and mimic a mashrabiya, carved wooden latticework often found covering second story windows in old Arab cities. And finally, Folding House, 2013, a set of fifty variations on the house, one of Zarina’s favored motifs, demonstrates the versatility of collage as a technique despite, or maybe because of, the restrictions of simple geometry.
“The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk,” Hegel wrote in 1820, which is to say, before the world ends, no critique is possible. There is no flight to be seen in Ann Lislegaard’s cool, enigmatic 3D animation of animatronic owls, their faceted white feathers in glistening high definition, and not much Minervan clarity either. The birds in Oracles, Owls . . . Some Animals Never Sleep, 2014, seen earlier this year at the Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney, are antiprophets who speak simultaneously in indecipherable bursts that are interrupted with sonic glitches. A few phrases borrowed from the I Ching can be made out through the static and feedback: “building relationships,” or “destroying machines.” Fragments that once prophesied change or fortune now just recede into our perpetual feed of blips and bloops.
Lislegaard, one of numerous Norwegian artists now winning international prominence, has a long-standing interest in science fiction. Oracle, Owls references Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and its dystopian character carries through to her other black-and-white video here. Dobaded, 2014, takes its name from a word coined by the experimental Japanese sci-fi writer Chiaki Kawamata in his novel, Death Sentences, where characters fall into a realm beyond consciousness after getting the word stuck in their heads. Lislegaard’s 3D animation takes place in a similar dream state, floating through domestic spaces whose dimensions seem to vary with each passage. Along with a blatant shout-out to J. G. Ballard, whose work appears on a bookshelf, the ghost of Duchamp hovers: There’s a spinning wheel, and the camera gets caught in a web of string recalling his 1942 sixteen-mile tangle. Then the owl appears again, auguring a future not of wisdom but of emptiness.
Daniel Gordon locates his photographs through a triangulation of painting, collage, and cutout. His C-prints compose still-life fare in complex tableaux, which he lights in-studio and captures on large-format film. Sourced from the Internet and cut freehand from printer paper, each element is inserted in a topography that makes little effort to disguise its seams. Plants sport skeins of hot glue; vases build up from clipped geometries; and apples resemble disused origami. Paper figures as a material at once volumetric and planar, drawn into space through facets and folds or collapsed into flatness by an abruptly scissored edge.
In Summer Fruit (all works 2014), Technicolor edibles occupy a field of clashing dots, checkers, and stripes. If the still life has historically been keyed to imaginative consumption, presenting spreads for the viewer to fictively digest, Gordon’s scene precludes the same. His watermelons are conspicuously shrink-wrapped, his strawberries an unculinary cyan. Nature is made luridly artificial, as if to parody the still life as an art-historical cliché, wherein foodstuffs become vehicles of symbolic elaboration: a peach for fecundity, a peeled lemon for transience. Like the other photographs on view, Summer Fruit courts overdetermination. Apples and artfully rumpled tablecloths recall Cézanne’s late still lifes, while jars with doubled, upturned lids invoke Cubism’s signature mode of de- and recomposition.
This is to suggest that, for all their disjuncture, Gordon’s C-prints are deeply familiar. Photographic space is dispersed only to be consolidated under the sign of modernist painting and papier collé. It’s a seductive gesture, though one whose implications, both for photography and for modernism, are not entirely clear.
Two silhouettes cut from sheet vinyl, one black, one butterscotch, hang from two coat hangers that are looped through wire to the canvas’s upmost edge. Slung against an acrylic gradient (pink-rimmed azure melted in lavender), each silhouette traces the contours of a body once full but now flayed: an enervated membrane, all surface and no sex. Sterile yet strangely seductive, like moltings from a space being, they treat the body as schema or sieve, limp and radically inorganic.
The piece, Hanging, by Kiki Kogelnik was made in 1970 as part of a series of cutouts traced from human forms and executed in silky, slick resins. A transplant to New York from Austria, Kogelnik settled downtown in 1962, where she befriended Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Carolee Schneemann, among others. (Claes, not on view here but made the same year as Hanging, takes the soft sculptor’s body as its template.) Her early art informel–style paintings quickly yielded to work that indexed the city’s emergent Pop aesthetic, grafting its concerns with high-tech materials, synthetic color, and transfer techniques such as silk-screening and stenciling onto her commitment to militant feminism.
Spanning 1964 to 1971, the twelve works on view mine the possibilities of the human in the age of Sputnik and spectacle. Scissors emerge as Kogelnik’s tool of choice, which she conceived of as both a surgical implement and a feminist weapon, in the manner of Valerie Solanas or Hannah Höch. Women’s Lib, 1971, shows a silk-screened Kogelnik, her skin a martian shade of green, wielding a pair of oversize scissors over a tangle of hangings. It’s a fitting self-portrait for an artist who considered the body a schizoid thing, disjunct and always desiring.
Kathy Halbreich’s world-shaking MoMA retrospective of the slipperiest artist of the postwar era contained no less than 265 works. They’re all in London right now, and yet somehow there are still enough Polkes around to fill three simultaneous New York gallery shows: a photography showcase at Paul Kasmin, photocopier works at Fergus McCaffrey, and this nine-painting exhibition focusing on the artist’s use of fabric. In the 1980s, Polke delighted in ugly wallpaper (think of the floral-print Seeing Things As They Are, 1991, the anchor for Halbreich’s show), and several paintings here feature bisected grounds of patterned wallpaper overlaid with expressionistic daubs, or else cartoonish, pseudo-anthropological markings. Later works, with printed images recalling both his early raster dot paintings and his concurrent photocopier experiments, play with art-historical precedents. An untitled 1993 painting has the bottle and wine glasses of a modernist still life; a 2002 artwork intermingles a coral circle-patterned quilt with what appears to be a rejigged rococo tapestry.
In a 1977 text, Polke likened the experience of art to “not being able to defend yourself . . . or the desperate effort not to want to.” That is the effect of a painting such as The Raven, 1996: It includes a ground of both plaid and nautical-themed fabrics and a Gothic sketch of man and bird that is partially painted over in an uncontrolled skim of white oil paint. The work calls into question his sincerity and intelligibility—and our own desire for the same. Nevertheless, these smaller Polke shows have the (perhaps unavoidable) tendency to make Polke easily defensible. The genius of Halbreich’s MoMA retrospective was that, for all its rigor, it insisted that Polke was in fact uncontainable. This show and the other two on view in New York now have their reasons to pin Polke down, but I suspect he’ll slip away again.
Installed on a massive LED wall at the Lincoln Center’s main plaza, John Gerrard’s Solar Reserve, 2014, could at first sight appear to be footage of the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, during which Muslims circle the sacred cube of the Kaaba in their devotions. Initially indefinable objects slowly move around a central tower, echoing the sense of eternal circling central to that ritual. But Gerrard’s computer simulation is of something more secular: a solar thermal power plant in Nevada, its tower the focus of ranks of mirrors that tip to catch the sun.
Controlled by a team of computer programmers, the camera homes in on the monumental plant while simultaneously shifting perspectives from satellite-eye view to ground level over the course of an hour. It lends the perspective of the sun, even a deity looking down. There are links with Gerrard’s series “Smoke Tree,” 2006, as this work too runs in real time, seasonally and from day to night. The shifting patterns of light and shade, sun and the constellations make this installation a portentous meditation on nature, people, and the things they make.
The films of Nuri Bilge Ceylanthe Turkish director whose long, stately new film Winter Sleep (2014) won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festivaloffer a defense of the narrative capabilities of cinema at a moment when television is pushing the medium to the edge. He began his career as a photographer and his intense still images, never exhibited in the United States, argue for the continued relevance and viability of narrative through images. “The World of My Father,” a series from 2006–2007, consists of seven images of Mehmet Emin Ceylan, who passed away in 2012 and had appeared in several of his son’s early films. Whether the films are staged or documentary, whether Ceylan’s father is himself or another, is of no consequence: Their narratives bleed from the image into personal life and public society; they make worlds as they refashion our own.
Some of Ceylan’s photographs are so rigorously composed that they look like film stills: His father gazes from a window in Midafternoon, 2006, or stares into space from his bed in Sleepless Night. In The Backyard, 2007, he’s caught facedown in the grass, exhausted and possibly crying; Freight Train in the Steppe, from the same year, captures Mehmet from behind, his gray hair echoing the snow on the grassland. Have we become too suspicious of such images—too certain that a cinematic impulse in still photography must be autocritical? I suspect so. And I would not want to think that medium interrogation is the only virtue of an image as powerful and beautiful as A Winter Day on Galata Bridge, 2007. Ceylan’s father looks out onto the strait dividing Europe and Asia, ice clinging to his overcoat, the sky filled with dozens of gulls. In the background, cloaked in fog, is Yeni Cami (The New Mosque). The Hagia Sophia, just out of the camera’s reach, presides behind. Cities are narratives, too, and must constantly be rearticulated in order to hold their meaning.
Any account of Chris Ofili’s career will invoke the scandal around his rise to prominence in the 1990s, when he merged large-scale figuration with old-fashioned base materialism. His Holy Virgin Mary, 1997, was nearly banned when it debuted at the Brooklyn Museum, but his “afro lovers” and resin-coated elephant dung would reappear, including at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where he turned the British pavilion into a nocturnal redoubt.
Ofili’s American retrospective highlights his play of light and contrast and showcases a decade of new work, including forays into sculpture and theatrical design and refinements of earlier interests in drawing and portraiture. Many ’90s-era paintings are on display, and they are worth the price of admission. Widely circulated in reproduction, those paintings take on new power when encountered here. Larger than life, drizzled with resin, and festooned with map pins and glitter, their psychedelic landscapes are revealed as an intricate network of color and line. Curators now, as they have done in the past, try to read politics into the work, but Ofili’s skill as formalist is contribution enough.
Two galleries show the artist in maximalist mode: He flaunts his influences (Matisse, Bacon, Douglas, Warhol) but synthesizes them fluidly, aided by soft lighting that produces an ethereal experience of immersive looking. Nine oil paintings (2006–2014) nearly occlude their content, rendered in deep blues and hung like Rothkos; a garish suite of more narrative scenes hang on walls reimagined as the textile work of a scene shop. They blur the line between work and display, and utterly transfigure the New Museum’s blank surfaces. Ofili is off in new directions, and seemingly in grand modernist fashion.
The current, malign vogue for wearable gadgets could have panned out so much better if Nam June Paik were still around, there to remind us to interrogate, to laugh at, or to disrupt technology rather than accept it wholesale. His TV Bra for Living Sculpture, 1975, a pair of screens sported by a nude Charlotte Moorman, or TV Penis, 1972, a sort of television condom worn during a performance at The Kitchen, imbricated technology and the human body, but not into some cyborg third term. Even with his TV Cello, 1971, which Moorman played in a kind of carnal embrace, new media was used to enable new forms of human eroticism and potentialities, rather than to subordinate bodies to machines, or worse, corporations.
In this way, Paik—trained as a composer—might be much closer to Richard Wagner, the original tech-obsessed erotic mastermind of “the artwork of the future,” than to his alleged successors using tech for tech’s sake. This selective exhibition, the first in New York since Paik’s death in 2006, revalorizes Paik's sculptural works (notably the early radio-controlled assemblage Robot K-456, 1964) and reemphasizes his views of new media, which were, like Wagner’s, prescient but ultimately too romantic. Long before the rise of the Web, Paik saw television as not a one-to-many transmission, but a more plural affair in which individuals could intercede and reconstitute the mechanisms of broadcasting. Younger artists or anyone still naively confusing technology with progress would do well to heed Paik’s words from 1965: “Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important.”