For her first solo exhibition at this gallery, Saira McLaren shows nine paintings and three porcelain ceramic pieces that evince a keen empathy for materiality, color, and the mutability of form. The sculptures, all untitled and produced in 2014, are craggy lumps glazed in mint green and patched with gold, and sport alternating pockmarked or scaled surfaces like a coral fished from the deep.
The paintings are wildly colorful yet somewhat ghostly due to how they’re less painted than stained with dye and pigment. Gestural marks are marshaled into a focused flow, evoking fantasy landscapes or the flat, dense style of graffiti signatures. The colors—turquoise, hot pink, apricot, gold, and lime—dance around and through one another, here as a bold puddle or there as a wispy, worming line. Each element holds the hand of the other, as in the three smaller paintings displayed in the front room. One of these, Birds in Spring, 2015, features soft lines that coil and swarm around one another in a pattern that would look equally at home printed on silk as on a city’s brick wall. The jettisoned perspectives and lack of representational anchoring in these three works feel less encumbered than the larger paintings in the back of the gallery, which hint at psychedelic expanses of nature. However, Untitled (Reflection), 2014, is the exception within these larger works, featuring a row of three teal trunks exploding with gold and pink dots and forest-green streams that echo below in a reflection dripped over the lower part of the canvas. It looks washed away, as if a rain had come and dissolved its structure, leaving the picture to cry itself into a smeared abstraction. Ruined, but free.
Car parks, Sam’s Club, mom’s house, Target. At Panera Bread with your sister-in-law. Driving to Home Depot for shower hooks, a towel rack, new batteries. Take some more Tylenol, and you’ll still feel like shit. This stripe of existential cauterization sits at the heart of Libby Rothfeld’s solo show—her first in New York—titled “Good To Think With, Good To Think Against.” Rothfeld’s work acts as a sort of excavation of selfhood from suburban life, an attempt to find distinction within a landscape of mediocre vistas and big-box desolation.
Rothfeld’s three floor sculptures, all 2015, are mainly composed of distressed photographs depicting automobile interiors, adhered to planks of MDF with resin, which are mounted on tombstone-like cement slabs. Each work is skirted by sand embedded with small pieces of junk, such as old rubber bands and cracked bits of plastic. In Car #3, ceramic hands with pointed fingers on metal rods rise heavenward from a cluster of Subaru stars, while Car #2 has a row of three demure, bunny-eared fetish figures nestled atop a close-up picture of a grimy dashboard vent. Rothfeld is trying to imbue these banal images and materials with a mythology, a spiritual life—attempting to forge a haunted heart amid some sham ruins.
Warner Communications, 2014, is an oil painting of a floating monolith with the Saul Bass–designed Warner Bros. logo levitating before it. It sits on the back wall of the gallery’s closet, the floor within it littered with empty water bottles, cheap wire shelves, and flimsy sheets of painted wood. The painting feels like something pulled from a secret portfolio that could’ve belonged to Jack Goldstein—funny, smart, and in love with a dumb world that barely deserves it.
There’s mystery surrounding the output of V.S. Gaitonde, perhaps because—up until this succinct exhibition—he has received no comprehensive survey. While not quite a full fledged account, “V.S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life,” presents a nuanced narrative around India’s foremost abstract painter’s life and philosophy, offering a wide selection of his most accomplished abstracts from the 1970s and ’80s.
Gaitonde preferred to call his work non-objective rather than abstract and was influenced as much by Wassily Kandinsky as scroll painting and Zen Buddhism. In Painting No. 1, 1962, Gaitonde approaches the Russian artist’s ideas about music and color through the lens of Zen and meditation—here, an orange circle in a field of green and blue is meant to represent silence. This survey, as the press note relates, emphasizes on Gaitonde's singular practice emerging from a “transnational set of references”, which effectively acknowledges multiple modernities, countering the idea of an opposition between an original and its derivative. A work like Painting No. 1 showcases this inventiveness.
Art historical gestures aside, the pleasure in this exhibition lies in Gaitonde’s compositions: his manipulation of paint, the translucent layers over thick patches of reds, yellows, greens, and grays that ascend lightly across the vertical canvases. The artist was known to use bits of newspaper to press paint onto the surface of his works. Contained within fields of subtle color gradations, these shapes of thickly applied color resemble hieroglyphs, indecipherable and mesmerizing all the same.
Given the current acme of self-referencing Buzzfeed culture—the phrase 90s nostalgia is a nearly ubiquitous descriptor for the millennials’ tics—Devin Troy Strother’s new works are a timely celebration of the cannibalizing nature of this generation’s zeitgeist. Here, Strother gives the 1990s Warner Bros. flick Space Jam top billing as an aesthetic jumping-off point for his lively installations, paving two of three rooms with basketball-court-inspired flooring and the third with loopy, space-themed carpet. Though three life-size cartoon-cutout Knicks introduce the show, Michael Jordan is center stage. Small cutouts of cartoon Jordan animate Strother’s lush paintings, which cheekily direct visual (and titular) references to Lynda Benglis, Cory Arcangel, and Rob Pruitt, among others. Five massive, shellacked black boxes stand Stonehenge-like around a basketball court hung with marble-and-bronze baskets; individually named for iconic b-ball stars (Who’s that big nigga in the room over there [TERRANCE]; Who’s that big nigga in the room over there [SHAQUILLE], both 2014), each structure is a McCracken-like homage to Kubrick’s monolith in that other space-themed movie.
Strother’s titles—a bronzed deflated basketball is called “fly like an eagle” (LeBronze), 2014; tactile paintings composed of pennants have names such as “we won nigga we won” (nigga, we never even scored), 2014—act as self-aware punch lines for each work, commenting not only on art history but basketball culture and its place in racial identity in America. With imagery that layers his stylistic and intellectual tribute to artists such as Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall over the glossy hologram aesthetic of the NBA, Strother boldly merges the inquisitive exploration of fine art with the bright-lights appeal of popular culture, flattening a hierarchy of cultural stigma.
“What do you call a feminine top?” John Waters posed to a captive audience one summer night on New York’s very own gay Xanadu, Fire Island. Smirking, he replied, “Why, a blouse, of course.” Having both written and directed such cult-classic movies as A Dirty Shame, Pink Flamingos, and Hairspray, the “Prince of Puke” has made a name for himself skewering contemporary culture and celebrating society’s misfits while gleefully offending conservative tastes along the way. And for his current show, “Beverly Hills John,” Waters once again turns his caustic eye toward the twin, rock-hard pillars upon which celebrity rests: mortality and eroticism.
Waters’s Fellini’s 8 1/2, 2014—an oversized wooden ruler with the titular text pressed into it in bold black letters—is an empirical bon mot to the Italian director’s, well, achievements. Meanwhile, in the black-and-white photostrip, Shoulda!, 2014, a lineup of five fatal femmes (Whitney Houston and Anna Nicole Smith among them) follow a film-still caption that proclaims, “SHE SHOULD’A SAID ‘NO’!,” a not-so-subtle meditation upon the darker side of fame. Elsewhere, three large-scale color headshots depict pop-culture icons post cosmetic surgery (Beibs, Lassie, and Waters himself). With plumped lips and augmented cheekbones that just scream Jocelyn Wildenstein, Waters’s digitally altered self-portrait, Beverly Hills John, 2012, mordantly places under the knife the entertainment industry’s obsession with aging and appearances.
But not all of Waters’s works are so playfully tongue in cheek. Among them, the black-and-white photograph Separate But Equal, 2014, appropriates Elliot Erwitt’s iconic image Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina, 1950, depicting the racial prejudices that imbued the Jim Crow South. By swapping the terms “Whites” and “Colored” for “Gay Married” and “Gay Single,” Water emphasizes the growing alienation segments of the LGBT community feel from more assimilated members, which is anything but a one-liner.
For her latest output, Corinne Vionnet has pulled thousands of photographs of international landmarks—the Parthenon, the New York skyline, the Hollywood sign, Mount Fuji, an ocean-scape in Capri—from across the Internet, a substantial number taken by tourists. She has layered these pictures to create a single image of each given landmark, creating works that have a painterly, impressionistic feel and interrogate the relationship between tourism and mass media. Vionnet combines multiple registers of media, emphasizing the expanded life an iconic picture has today as it triggers millions of like images modeled and cropped after it. As a result, her work subtly updates a tenet set by the Pictures generation—that within every picture is another picture—by three-some decades.
In London, 2006, Big Ben becomes a murky monument caught in a wild dance in a landscape populated with impossible relationships: Figures that appear to be walking together are in fact from different source images; tourist photographs, when laminated atop one another, bring strangers together into a shadowy dialogue across time and space. One is reminded of Cindy Sherman’s rear-screen projections, in which Sherman is at once a part of the image and necessarily separated from it; a corporeal oscillation that peels back the seamless unity of the photographic image. More than the postmodern truism that pictures are always citations, Vionnet’s work shows that the process of citation and layering can actually create human relationships, even though they are just simulations.
Mingling homage with sabotage, Tal R frequently adopts the styles of other painters to produce anachronistic works. For his seductive new show, “Altstadt Girl,” the Copenhagen-based artist nimbly channels Modigliani and Matisse, creating clever modernist chimeras with contemporary bite. Abstracted female nudes with masklike faces shower, smoke, and lounge like odalisques in richly patterned, jewel-toned interiors. One standing woman, her body rendered in the shades of a particularly spectacular sunset, holds up an actual mask, a puckish, art-historical in-joke on primitivism. The figure in ET, 2014, sports the signature high ponytail of Sylvette, Picasso’s teenage muse. Knowing details aside, it’s enough to simply catch a contact high from R’s obvious enjoyment of paint and color. Three stripes of red, yellow, and blue on Sylvette’s neck serve as a subtle ode: This is the trio that makes everything else possible.
Twenty-seven black crayon drawings on vividly painted paper also feature undressed women but are more psychologically complex: The models return or avoid the artist’s gaze as individuals, alternately coy or confrontational, stiff or serene, and their surroundings are highly personal, apartments crammed with digital alarm clocks, desk lamps, and cluttered coffee tables. The series riffs as much on the tradition of the female nude as it does on photographers such as Olivier Zahm and Terry Richardson, who upload the fruits of soft-core sessions with beautiful amateurs to online diaries. It’s easy to flip through a glut of these images without registering the woman’s mood, let alone the wallpaper. R’s drawings keep the offhand spontaneity of snapshots, but his devotion to detail—the undulating tread on the sole of a sneaker, the water tower visible through one girl’s window—makes the viewer linger over subject matter others have rendered regrettably banal.
Lucy Kim’s latest paintings operate between a fidelity to realist depiction and to dreamscapes that distort her deliberate verisimilitude. This is a departure for Kim, who previously molded in aluminum foil to achieve less representational and more abstract renderings of the body. Her new casts and relief paintings of friends’ hands, bodies, and teeth constitute a refreshing expansion on narrative with personal and metaphorical allusions. She eschews the hyperreal imagery and anodyne abstraction so frequently seen in painting today and drills into messy, literal reality, all the while bridging the indexical to the imaginary. Kim handles the metaphorical via two modes, extension and reversion.
Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Leeza Smiles), 2014, extends the subject’s expression into a metonymic commentary on portraiture itself, as Leeza’s uneven teeth are reproduced over a hundred times across a flat, gray expanse, with an effect reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s “apparition of these faces in the crowd.” In An Edge, 2014, Kim addresses the foundational color spectrum of different visual languages. Against a ground depicting half an orange with its dimpled stem facing the viewer, a vertical stripe divides six squares of color. On one side, these forms are filled with a painter’s primary yellow, blue, and red; on the other, a computer printer’s cyan, magenta, and yellow. The contrast is a reminder of the division between traditional techniques and those of our CMYK-saturated, digital culture. A return to the bodily need not be perilous.
This vest-pocket exhibition of two dozen photographs offers a valuable opportunity to see how quickly the terms of image perception are changing: how the period eye must now be measured not in centuries but in years. See the artist’s early, excellent black-and-white New York photographs—a predesecration 2 Columbus Circle (58th Street at 7th Avenue, Midtown, New York, 1978) and then West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York, 1978, which depicts a pre-gallery neighborhood full of low-slung Chevrolets. During the Met’s last outing of Struth in 2003, you still might have been happy to see the grit go, believing New York’s best days still lay ahead. In post-Bloomberg New York, where the crime-gripped 1970s city can seem a prelapsarian Eden, Struth’s unpopulated photographs feel closer to Eugène Atget’s images of pre-Haussmann Paris than to the typologies of his professors Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Struth’s most enduring and difficult works remain his museum photographs, whose depictions of dedicated art lovers or aimless tourists in Europe’s palaces of culture waver between faith in and doubt of aesthetic experience. A more contemporary reading of them might begin with a simpler observation: not one of the tourists is holding a camera or a phone. In the 2003 retrospective, these photographs offered a sly view of an ossified European culture. Ossification: We should be so lucky. Earlier this month, the Met’s newly appointed chief digital officer told the Wall Street Journal that the museum plans to track visitors’ movement throughout its exhibitions and permanent collection; if you pause for a moment in front of Madame X or the Etruscan chariot, your smartphone will ping with “an instant coupon for the catalog, or a meal being sold at the cafeteria that’s based on it.” Even the encyclopedic institution now treats its holdings as data in the service of profit, while the mass tourism Struth photographed decades ago looks bewitchingly unsullied: a last gasp before art’s pitiful reduction to shareable content.
Villa Design Group’s first exhibition in New York, “One Blow In Anger (Evidence 2011–2014),” sinisterly flirts with the porous, parasitically connected lifestyles and aspirations of bohemia and the bourgeoisie. Here, aristocratic values shape the blueprint for a restless social circle’s ambitions, and in turn isolate these young bohemians as they strive for la dolce vita. The thread connecting the exhibition’s framed array of fine sketches and collages on graph paper is Evidence of Childhood I–XIX, 2015, a nineteen-part tale etched on aluminum plaques that are positioned individually below the framed works. This noir fiction recounts the murderous exploits of some few arriviste minded bohemians, punctuated by self-fashioning, vengeful greed, episodic betrayal, and pools of blood. Posh, albeit sterile, symbols of luxury and taste act as ready-mades and are bestrewed about the gallery space, including reproduction Barcelona chair frames and atavistic Calvin Klein Collection sweatshirts emblazoned with the label’s hallmark fragrances (Obsession, Eternity, Escape).
It is very difficult not to take the cynical exchanges described between the parable’s figures, Master Jays, Master Clark, and Master Connick, as an allegory for Villa Design Group’s own perspective toward collaboration and artistic communities—indeed, the exhibition’s press text confirms this. The narrative, coupled with the group’s use of fetishy, aspirational luxury design objects as raw material for their practice, outlines a harsh critique of hegemonic bourgeois values and yearning social climbers. What’s unclear—and detrimental to the project—is how, if at all, the artists situate any concern toward their own function as fabricators of taste and material goods directly marketed to an aristocratic clientele. Leaving this unsettled, “One Blow In Anger (Evidence 2011–2014)” appears to subscribe to a myopic, particularly late-capitalist logic: that subversive politics can be somehow made while working with steady materialist cravings and latent yearnings for accumulated wealth.
Paul Thek first visited the Italian isle Ponza in 1968 and later sojourned there, on and off, for a decade. It is said that he spent these salad days boating, swimming, reading, and, as his works from the time avow, painting—namely, the sea, over and over. When in Rome, he deftly transcribed passages from St. Augustine’s Confessions in three of his profuse notebooks (“Do the heaven and the earth then contain Thee, since Thou fillest them?”) alongside some of his own contemplations: black-and-white Polaroids of clouds. Is this how myth builds?
A quick Ponza image search is jaw dropping for its array of acidy, unreal blues, but Thek’s cerulean hues are softer—though not without bite. Dedicated to his work in Italy in the 1970s, this show makes a strong case for a rigor under the waves, against interpretation. While the gouache seascapes on newspaper are by now perhaps familiar emblems after his 2010–11 retrospective, the few small oil-on-canvas works that zoom out to broader scenes, astonish. There is Untitled (figures by rocks, water), ca. 1975, which gives us a diver, a sunbather, a rocky grotto, and water for days. The scene nearly seems fixed, like a postcard—the opposite of the once-decaying newspapers. On the heels of Robert Gober’s recent retrospective, which had two humble figurative canvases from 1975 opening and closing the show, Thek’s impact on a younger New York generation feels specific and local despite his wanderlust. The city was lucky he came back.
Handmade clocks and sundial calendars populate Emily Roysdon’s latest exhibition, where geometric shapes and popping colors produce a scene reminiscent of the 1980s Italian design group Memphis or of the magnetic pages of Colorforms collages. Roysdon’s fashioning of time renders the arrangement of objects in space a dramaturgical feat. An upside-down triangle motif is prominently cast in bold sculptural forms, the top line of which traces the identical crescent-like ridges of a rudimentary wave drawing. In Beyond the Will to Measure, 2014, a stretch of uniform royal-blue ceramic wave-triangles hang alongside one another, each sporting the hands of a clock—one thin white hour hand; one light-blue squiggly, extended minute hand. They soldier on, documenting the time spent in the gallery, fixing the time as image and rhythm in sync. For Roysdon, the transition from a wave to a line is not only a kind of visual flattening but a stilling of movement as well. The wave-triangle is repeated elsewhere: Mauve and blue clocks sit atop red metal stands, their wheels suggesting a curious mobility.
In a series of photograms, flat white photographic circles outlining the bulbous ends of butt plugs, are light and time-sensitive flashes of an object no longer there, but also there, occurring in different form. In Uncounted, a text poster accompanying the exhibition, Roysdon writes of “honoring a margin from a movement.” It is by honoring this fixed, stilled, and distilled image—not the movement itself but a margin from movement, from action—that the artist proposes a conception of “alive time,” which works against static/dynamic and form/content dualisms. It is here that time has the room to waver, to be a less disciplined form.
Of all the postwar tendencies that have been rejuvenated, kinetic art seemed the least likely to return to favor. Yet in recent years, and most notably with the Guggenheim’s retrospective of the ZERO group, the genre is getting another eye-twisting look. The work of Jesús Rafael Soto, seen in that exhibition and now the subject of this bracing miniretrospective, refuses the easy pleasures of Op art. His three-dimensional painted grids and immersive environments of painted rods sit more comfortably among sculptures by his Nouveau Réaliste and ZERO contemporaries—and not only because this output questions the importance or even the possibility of stasis. More important is their challenge to rational perception, often expressed through illusions of weightlessness, that makes Soto’s art feel not only relevant but still disturbing, a phenomenological spring trap for digital narcissists who still think what you see is what you get.
Born in Venezuela (where there is now a museum devoted to his art), Soto came to Paris in 1950, where his early work made use of rhythmic, syncopated, rectilinear forms in the manner of Mondrian. Later assemblages of panels affixed to painted backgrounds disorient in a trippy sort of way, but the larger sculptures of suspended thin dowels, such as Ecriture noire, 1982, do something more important: They unfix positive and negative, artwork and space, and make the viewer’s vertigo not just a fun-house effect but a starting point to reassess the very legitimacy of perception. With Soto you feel that the basic laws of the universe have been suspended, especially in his disconcerting “Vibration” series. The large Vibración amarilla y blanca (Yellow and White Vibration), 1994, which concludes this show, is an almost immobile mobile of painted rods whose shimmering, eye-straining motions are delightfully un-Instagramable.
“Under the shade I shall flourish,” reads the national motto of Belize. The Central American country is mostly covered in forest, and in the 1750s it was the site of the first export of logged mahogany to Europe from the New World. In Lucy Skaer’s second exhibition at this gallery, “Sticks & Stones,” which is concurrently on view with Skaer's other show at Peter Freeman, Inc. titled “Random House,” the artist uncovers the shadowed history of Belizean mahogany, a product that was later abandoned because of fluctuating market demand until the mid–twentieth century, by subverting its material uniqueness.
Ten flitches lie consecutively on the gallery’s blond wooden floors. The two primary rectangular cross sections made from a mahogany tree are located at the entrance. These slabs are successively replicated in detail in four different materials, including stacked ceramic tile, matte-gray marble, reflective aluminum, and hollow veneered wood. The forms of the originals remain the same. Inset within each slab are geometric or figural objects that have also been replicated and transubstantiated, such as coins or handheld sculptures made of tiger’s eye. In their context, these inhabitants act like stand-ins for compartmentalized environments, including rooms, monetary systems, or bodies. Wedged between these fixed variations, they perform more like bridges or joints.
Together, these materials appear to develop in the same way the history of media that have built cities over the last few centuries has unfolded: the thatched roofs of Mesopotamia, the fired walls of Babylon, the marble colonnades of Greece, the glistening metals of Abu Dhabi, and the facsimile of data on the information superhighway. It may only take a stick or a stone to topple even the grandest of empires; the next one might be right on the horizon, even if the overwhelming shade of the present blocks out its light.
Titus Kaphar’s timely two-part exhibition formally addresses the obfuscation and silencing of black bodies through portraiture. “Asphalt and Chalk,” the title of the Twenty-Fourth Street portion of the show, references the materials Kaphar utilized to produce the majority of the works on view while also evoking the outline police use to mark the position of a fallen dead body. Kaphar’s subjects include the late black men killed at the hands of white male police officers as well as scenes from the collective nationwide outcry in response. For Asphalt and Chalk, Michael Brown, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin (all works 2014), Kaphar superimposes the four faces of the titular victims of police brutality in a single chalk-on-asphalt paper drawing. The conflated portraits signal the persistent attack on black masculinity and mourn the loss of these individuals. In Yet Another Fight for Remembrance, Kaphar depicts anonymous Ferguson protestors in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gestures of solidarity against the killing of unarmed Michael Brown. Here, Kaphar provocatively whitewashes the figures with sweeping brushstrokes, pointing to the erasure and removal of black existence that catalyzes the show.
With “Drawing The Blinds,” the Twentieth Street section of the exhibition, Kaphar critiques the historical eradication of blackness within the representational field through revisionist remixes to the genre of history painting. He reworks the canvas itself, shredding or removing tableaux of white sitters from the picture plane altogether. In other instances, Kaphar lifts the veil with double-canvas paintings that feature black sitters emerging from behind rolled-up or half-draped displays. Taking these parts in tandem, the exhibition acts as a corrective rejoinder to the problematic lineage of history painting while also reconfiguring contemporary calls to action.
“Double Trouble” makes for a rare experience. Not only is it the first solo institutional presentation of Sturtevant in the United States since a small 1973 show in Syracuse, New York, it also allows one to see the artist’s work at the museum that holds many of the so-called iconic pieces that she has used as her working material: On one floor you stumble upon Marcel Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, 1920, a reduced scale French window, where the name of the artists’ female alter ego Rose Sélavy is inscribed as COPYRIGHT ROSE SELAVY 1920 at the base of the piece, while in another gallery seven of these glasses have been lined up on a black wall (Sturtevant’s Duchamp Fresh Widow, 1992/2012). There is wallpaper with human genitalia on one floor (Sturtevant’s Gober Genital Wallpaper and Gober Drain, 1994/95), which is also on view as part of Robert Gober’s retrospective on the first floor. One encounters “Warhol,” “Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” “Joseph Beuys,” “Stella,” among others, it's as if all are actors cast in a play staged by Sturtevant.
Long before it was a household term, appropriation was, for Sturtevant, simply another word for a brush creating what she refers to as a “total structure,” which is perhaps the institution of art, its social context, and its politics, as well as the narrative of twentieth-century art that the Museum of Modern Art has actively participated in constructing since the institution’s inception in 1929. This, then, is a show that has been at MoMA for a long time, though it has remained invisible. Sturtevant flipped the Duchampian coin and put a disco ball in front of the readymade gesture. She wanted to make an “artwork that could disappear,” but one that aimed to expose the discourse of art from within.
The stage is a medium in itself for Ryan McNamara. While this has been gestured at in McNamara’s earlier output—including his 2012 show “Still” at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, which considered the production and circulation of performance images—his latest exhibition uses theatrical accoutrements, specifically the spotlight, as formal devices, expanding the breadth of how the gallery can frame art as performative. A cluster of moving-head LEDs stand like antic sentinels at the center of the gallery, highlighting—and sometimes black-lighting—the show’s sculptures, “performance plaques,” and wall-bound reliefs in timed intervals.
The exhibition, curated by Piper Marshall, is titled “Gently Used,” referring to the worn materiality of the objects on display. Taken from McNamara’s performances, previously donned costumes—invariably a mix of futuristic flair and camp comedy—are repurposed through sculptural means, providing a second aesthetic life to the indexes of McNamara’s ephemeral live art. For instance, in Misty Malarky Ying Yang, 2014, fabric outfits from McNamara’s recent High Line performance are encased in colored Plexiglas in a freestanding swinging panel display. And in Unitard Stretch (Purple), 2014, seven unitards are pulled across wooden stretcher bars, producing an interlaced, entwined composition. Statically installed in the gallery, these works and others stand as tongue-in-cheek follow-ups to McNamara’s sprawling performances.
Images from McNamara’s productions make their way into many of the works as well, including the decoupage MEƎM (Silver), 2014, whose titular palindrome reflects back on itself and references the narcissism of the Internet age. Invoking the choreographed spectacle of McNamara’s award-winning performance MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet, 2013, an overload of photographs of figures from the dance float atop the canvas’s Factory silver background. More posed than poised, the gestures captured range from Thriller-esque hand claws to awkward, twirling bends. Every seven minutes the exhibition’s spotlight hits MEƎM with a black light, soaking the work and its immediate surroundings in an ultraviolet glow. For McNamara, even the white-walled gallery is a platform for shifting, immersive effect.
Louise Nevelson, we are told, was never one to shy from theatricality. In photographs she appears, long-limbed and frontal, all angles and kohl and cultivated style. Pace’s latest foray into Nevelson’s oeuvre reveals an artist of softer, more scumbled contours. The show collects nearly twenty untitled collages, most made between 1956 and 1965, coextensive with the more explicitly sculptural work for which she is best known. All are small in scale and mounted on wood board. Their components—doilies, newsprint, paper bags, chamfered cardboard, bits of foil—are untransformed and betray signs of past use: here, the impress of a cup; there, the plan of a tissue box. Color is local and muted, limited to beiges, peats, and boggy grays. When paint appears, it’s sprayed or sloppily brushed on, less a gesture of expressivity than an abstraction of the same.
Nevelson described her first encounter with Picasso as epiphanic, and her debt to his brand of collage is everywhere evident. (In this context, her use of cheap wood seems a relay to faux bois.) Yet if Cubism was obsessed with justifying, by literalizing, the picture plane, Nevelson’s collages take the flatness of their support as a given. Framing, not flatness, emerges as a key concern, as in a 1959 example, which interleaves its elements with sheets of black paper and cardboard. Clausal coordination coincides with list-like accretion. It’s a logic parallel to that of her assemblages, which often build from small, recessed enclosures. A continuous line develops: a collage aesthetic traversing the whole of Nevelson’s practice. Perhaps more interesting, however, is to think of Nevelson’s assemblages outside the formalist confines of “pictorial sculpture.” In this attempt, her early collages, dispersive and self-differing despite their containment, offer an opening.
Six sex-soaked abstract paintings from the 1960s make up Duane Zaloudek’s first New York exhibition in twenty years, and they fulfill a promise of art that is not always met: to move past beauty to desire, and to imbue form with the hot, sticky breath of life. Unlike his later, sparer paintings, which stamp down on sensory pleasure, these early works, painted in Portland and rhyming somewhat with the West Coast abstraction of Billy Al Bengston or Paul Jenkins, use circuitously erotic forms—solid shafts and bifurcated ovals, whose erogenous charge is compounded by a palette of cadmium red and rich, organic green. You’ll leave like Pygmalion: unhealthily in love, and desperate to join body to image.
The four paintings on canvas here are each called Milarepa, after a beloved eleventh-century Tibetan master—and advocate of karmamudrā, a disciplined sexual practice—whom Constantin Brancusi, a touchstone for Zaloudek, idolized. (At times, Brancusi imagined himself as Milarepa’s reincarnation.) Three of the works, from around 1965, feature pairs of large, drooping ovoids in the upper ground, bisected by firm vertical tubes that are themselves affixed with smaller ellipses. If the anatomical resonance in the first three canvases is unavoidable, the fourth one, from the end of the decade, joins the ovoids and the transversal shaft into a single tantric form. What’s more, Zaloudek introduces a stranger, more jagged black element that pushes the paintings beyond representation and into the realm of the senses. They pulsate, they shudder, they seduce and exhaust; they turn the riddle of abstraction into a carnival of pictophilia.
In 1968, commissioned by Merce Cunningham to write the score for the dance work RainForest—which also featured flying Mylar balloons by Andy Warhol—the composer David Tudor hooked up everyday objects to homemade transducers. Rather than “playing” the objects, Tudor allowed them to emit their own resonances, which sounded like birdsong, cicada chirps, and ambient ringing.
That critical reversal in electronic music, using speakers not as a mechanism for amplification but as the source of the musical signal, retains its thrill a decade after Tudor’s death in 1996. Rainforest V, 2015, credited here to Tudor and a group called Composers Inside Electronics, fills the gallery with the squeaking, squawking, beeps and boops, and a continuous ambient hum, derived from a boggling array of objects suspended all around. A case of Bordeaux and a welder’s mask give off a sound not unlike a monkey’s screech. Stick your head inside an oil drum and hear the ringing of a Tibetan prayer bowl.
The experience is intense (pity the attendants who endure it eight hours a day), yet the enduring force of this landmark of sound art is plastic as much as sonic. The readymade is too often misunderstood as an end point. As Tudor proposed, it is actually a generative system that yokes together a person and object, producing a new and better relationship in which mastery gives way to risk. If this century has taught us that technology has far less liberatory potential than was previously supposed, Tudor reaffirms that only a much less rigid treatment of its elements can get us anywhere near beauty.
Petra Cortright’s latest paintings are born of plebeian Web tools and swatches, then printed onto clear Plexiglas. The artist mounts these images on mirrored or regular acrylic, where they take on a more resolutely physical feeling: Their stacked surfaces implore the viewer to peer between them; their underside imprints beg to be compared to their reflected marks. They also look better in person than on Instagram, which is not always the case with digital art incarnated into gallery solids. In chess and buffy keepers+kick.rom, both 2015, foregrounds of holiday GIFs or shiny blackberries, some applied as stickers, float atop backgrounds of feathery blossoms and brushstroke gestures. Each produces a stereoscopic blur that recalls a wearied vection or floaters ubiquitous in the age of the screen, and highlights the incidental aesthetic elements of digital interface, such as pixel lag and backlight bleed. These are works that relish the embodied feel of the ether, wondering how its version of life might yet invigorate ours.
Cortright titled an exhibition last year “ASMR,” after “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which is the tingle some feel at hushed frictional sounds such as shushing or rustling. In their comfy, kinetic intimacy, those videos (for which Cortright became known) elicit ASMR’s visual correlative through scenes depicting cascading hair and solo dancing, blazing sparkly motion trails. Like the whispery ASMR role-play videos that comprise a sizable YouTube community, often aimed at allaying the insomnia aggravated by time online, the current show revels in what relief the medium can offer from itself. Recurrent clip-art icons insinuate liveliness—knotted and unfurling ribbons, promising gift boxes, bats whose fluttering attacks always flaunt animation (as the Lumieres’ arriving train flaunted cinema). Dated graphics and some titles’ tribute to creaky file extensions (kick.rom, du.exe) aside then, the allure of Cortright’s tactile, lyrical images, which revisit landscape, portraiture, and still life, may be their classicism more than technostalgia. While amenable to “post-Internet” speculations, their preoccupation with coming to life was painting’s all along.
Frank Magnotta’s previous corporate logo conglomerations, surreal architectural mash-ups of text and ornamental design, are impressive on technical merits alone, but have also raised issues with the global hegemony these companies wield. His figurative graphite drawings on view here hint at the controversial legal concept of corporate personhood, a theory that riled hecklers in 2011 at one of former United States presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign stops when he said, “Corporations are people, my friend.” For these works, Magnotta uses an underlying collage of logos from the mid-1960s and ’70s as a starting point for his detailed cartoony renderings of individuals whose features take the same form as those images. In addition to Magnotta’s intricate shading technique, his use of sepia ink, often as a stain, gives his outlandish depictions a quality reminiscent of an antique photograph.
Using the United States Bicentennial, in which patriotic celebrations transformed a country reeling from a post–Vietnam War malaise, as a connecting thread, many of Magnotta’s characters take on performative roles to commemorate the event. In Co-Patriot (all works 2014), a portly man with a pipe hanging from his mouth dons garb resembling President George Washington, while the hippie in Bicentennial Bob sports a tasseled coat and an absurdly ornate hairstyle while holding a marijuana leaf. Others, such as Debbie Double, a grotesque multi-eyed caricature of a waitress serving a towering burger, speak more about America in general, where a determined working class soldiers on in unglamorous jobs to make the country hum along.
In “Speaking of People,” artists cut, collage, and repurpose Ebony and Jet—two magazines launched in the mid–twentieth century for black audiences—to draw attention to representations of race in print. In her inventive sixty-piece grid, DeLuxe, 2004–2005, Ellen Gallagher has added googly eyes, Plasticine, and paint to models’ faces in magazine ads to distort and transform the figures, as well as the promises that they advertise. Lorna Simpson further points to the fantasy of mutability inherent in such images in Riunite & Ice, 2014, a series featuring a floating female head on which she has collaged and painted different hair styles and accessories, a seriality that underscores both potential self-reinvention and the nature of the magazine as a medium.
Other artists isolate images of products advertised in these magazines, as Glenn Ligon does in his 1985 series. By pairing handpainted images of African American male hair products, such as Nu-Nile, Dax pomade, and Afro Sheen, with depictions of Giacometti and Brancusi sculptures that were shown in MoMA’s 1984 “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition, Ligon draws attention to how notions of blackness are disseminated, usurped, and remade in both high and low culture. Hank Willis Thomas also spotlights the circulation and representation of blackness in Black Is Beautiful (1953–2014), which features every woman in Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” column from the magazine’s print run, creating a compendium of changing approaches to black female beauty. Such work transforms isolated individuals into a single, monumental installation, demonstrating how print culture permeates our everyday world and serves as a material to be mined and defamiliarized by artistic intervention.
It has only been a few years since Peter Hutton and James Benning began working with film in a digital format. In these artists’ two-person exhibition, one sees a trio of three-channel video installations. The works here advance—both topically and technically, as descendants of analog—the argument that cinema’s once-dominant aesthetic status has given way to more flexible, immersive moving forms.
Hutton’s At Sea, 2004–07, originally a single-channel 16-mm silent film, is here digitally converted and split into three distinct elements. Each frame documents a different stage of a cargo ship from manufacture to disassembly. We see the vessel’s journey feted by polychromatic streamers, a checkered array of freights sailing plainly into vast marine blue, and finally the ship washed up—massive and perished, in black-and-white. In showing these episodes simultaneously, Hutton narrativizes the beginning, middle, and end of industrial production. Benning’s work has similarly ruminated on industrial society and particularly its dissidents. Tulare Road, 2010, shows extended footage of cars passing on a highway that leads to the California State Prison in the city of Corcoran. Benning’s strict framing makes horizons bisect while roads stretch into the center of each image, drawing comparative attention to the distinct weather conditions each channel reveals.
If a protagonist were to be located in all three installations, it might be montage itself, which is problematized by the very fact that it meanders continuously across each triptych’s components, making discrete visual elements share space. To adroitly scan this sublime footage won’t feel unfamiliar to a contemporary viewer: In their shift toward digital images and multichannel installations, the filmmakers seem to acknowledge cinema—that boxed enclosure lit by a single screen—as an outdated site of entertainment corresponding to the very modes of industry and labor from which their work offers recourse.
Is an art of climate change as beyond our reach as a politics of climate change, too large and too comprehensive for the brains of our little ecocidal species? Not for the Bay Area artist Amy Balkin—one of the nine artists in this exhibition curated by Olga Kopenkina—whom visitors to the last Documenta will recall for her effort to list the earth’s atmosphere as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and who has spent the last three years collecting ephemera from sites worldwide where environmental disaster is already dreadfully fathomable. The array of objects that constitute her essential A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, 2012–, shows climate change as a part of daily life: a plastic fork and knife found in New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward. Postage stamps from Tuvalu, the island nation set to drown in our lifetimes. An empty can of tuna fish from Cape Verde. A whale vertebra carved by an Alaskan in a dissolving landscape. It’s an archaeology of the present for a planet with no future.
Belkin’s archive is the strongest work in this broad show, which partially restages a 2012 exhibition mounted on a nuclear-powered Soviet vessel now docked in arctic Murmansk and serving as, what else, a museum. Now that the century of utopian dreaming is past, the artists here interrogate what the point of it all was: Isa Rosenberger’s video The Captain (Vladimir’s Voyage), 2013, represents Nixon and Khrushchev’s 1959 “kitchen debate” as a perpetual kibitz session in the afterlife, intercut with a sensitive reminiscence by a Soviet naval captain living in Brighton Beach, New York. To arrest the climatic changes that even the IPCC recently described as “irreversible” would take a utopian effort on a magnitude even Khrushchev could not imagine. Art, at least, has the luxury of hopelessness: a little motorized sculpture by Judith Fegerl elicits a tinny repetitive birdsong, a final, mechanical lamentation.
Francesca Woodman’s brooding body of thirty, tiny photographs on view in this unassuming solo exhibition depict the artist, her friends in New York, or fellow students at RISD in the 1970s—common enough to her practice, but these works specifically come from a moment when the artist became keen on “trying her hand” at fashion photography. What emerged was a subversive meditation on how the feminized figure is variously enhanced and drowned by the cloaks and curves of fashion imagery and its coded imperatives. Across several black-and-white photographs, such as Untitled, New York (N.325), 1979–80, there’s a repeating juxtaposition of female models and animal pelts, each arranged in similarly crooked poses. Rather than wearing their furs, the women mimic them in a haunting conflation of subject and object. Imitation is the sincerest expression of aspiration, they're haunted by the compulsion to flatten oneself into an image or object for consumption.
Elsewhere, her figures tussle with the limitations of composition and photography’s imperative to contain and fix a view. A green-suited girl bends at a painful angle to partially reflect herself in a mirror in Untitled, New York (N.408), 1979, or claws up the side of a wall in Untitled, New York (N.409), 1979, as if desperate to escape these images. These rarely exhibited works confirm that given more time, Woodman would likely have become a photographer who transcended genre and the boundaries of embodied beauty so rigorously policed by the business of fashion. The little photographs whisper their truths, and with the right kind of ears they could break your heart.
While Hito Steyerl defends the poor image, Ernst Fischer explores the other end of the spectrum, namely, what happens when you overwhelm a photograph with information? Here, the endeavor results in the creation of phantasmagoric landscapes reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich or Francisco Goya. Titled “18%” after the middle gray to which all color film is calibrated, Fischer’s exhibition explores the digital sublime through elaborate technical maneuvers.
For these works, the Swiss-born artist built a microphotographic rig that takes hundreds of close-ups of minerals and the light reflecting off them. The digital photographs are then inputted into software that often fails to process the amount of information in them, resulting in glitched images evoking postapocalyptic scenes. Two particularly arresting works from this group are Lead 3, 2014, and Zinc 1, 2013, both daunting by virtue of their scale and subject matter. The former hangs alone in the back of the gallery and features dark colors portraying angry skies and the top of a cliff, making the viewer feel as if on a precipice. The latter recalls pictures of outer space, with the mineral photographed here resembling the surface of a comet covered in ice.
The show concludes with a peculiar sculpture titled Mirror, 2015, consisting of an Ergoline tanning bed that hangs from the ceiling. Painted gray—perhaps as a way to tie the show back to its title—it bears an eerie resemblance to a piece of damaged 35-mm film. It stands in the room like a war monument, as if memorializing the disappearing analog world.
Have you experienced inanimate surveillance—a shoe, a handbag sitting on a table, staring at you with a vaguely smug, unanswerable formalism? I have. Erica Baum and Barb Choit have, and with this exhibition they venture to reciprocate the gaze, in photographs whose deadpan reaches the under-sung, confident beauty that is true blandness.
Refreshingly, the premise of the show (part of a series by the gallery) is to display material that inspires the artists’ current output proper. (Both Vancouver-based Choit and New York’s Baum are better known for work adapting the sensibilities of Concrete poetry to photography and sculpture.) Their offerings, mostly the stuff of thrift stores, documented in different banal situations, give you the feeling that none is trying too hard to be art, some perhaps not trying at all. At center of the gallery, across from a single specimen of Baum’s formal oeuvre (Furnish, from her “Naked Eye” series, 2015), is a row of her squarely shot documents of purses sitting on blue tissue paper—Clutch, Strap, Pocketbook (all 1996/2015), evoking forerunners of eBay portraiture. The shoes, more purposefully artful with a comic touch of mall-studio grace, are Choit’s: Shoe #1, Shoe #2, Shoe Diptych #1, Shoe Diptych #2 (all 2015). . . .
Uniting these two groups of works that feel as if they have just woken from a nap, feline in their not caring what you think of them, it is the thrifted-fake-flower arrangement Centerpiece (2015) that most demands attention in person. Sanctified in its absurdity by the artists’ crucial decision to leave all the price stickers on, this altar to the plastic ornaments makes for a satisfying climax in the curatorial conceit itself: the praise of things that laugh at monumentalism.
Abstract painter and sculptor Julia Dault titled one of her aesthetically seductive and conceptually rigorous paintings Chasing Waterfalls, 2014, after TLC’s 1995 hit song. Featuring a repeating motif of semicircular shapes (reminiscent, says Dault, of a waterfall), made with a triangular comb to expose layers of brightly hued underpainting, this rule-based composition is but one of several exceptional works in this smart and refreshingly bold show.
An immersive environment expunged of color, the first room consists of several black-and-white geometrically patterned canvases. The walls have been covered with a polka-dot design, creating the feeling that the content in the paintings has spilled over the canvases and into the room. Visible from this achromatic area is a twenty-foot Plexiglas-lined wall in the adjacent gallery that has been carefully angled to reflect the phantasmagoria of color that awaits in the next space.
In contradistinction to the effusive and spontaneous productions of AbEx artists, Dault abides by a set of self-imposed rules (e.g., no mixing colors). To avoid the transcendental subtexts of many mid-century nonobjective works (think of Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51) and give viewers immediate access to her pictures, she titles them after pop-cultural phenomena. Twizzler, 2014, a standout electric-blue-and-ruby-red painting bordered by a black-speckled white frame, for instance, is named after the licorice used to generate the work’s constitutive wavy lines. Unorthodox tools are a staple of Dault’s idiosyncratic practice. The white shapes populating the amoeba-like forms in Five Guys (named after the burger franchise), 2014, were made with foam blocks from the children’s megastore Toys“R”Us. Don’t be fooled, however, by their playful titles and vibrant colors, these process-driven works demand and reward sustained attention.
For her US debut, Swiss artist Claudia Comte uses the language of the palindrome to toy with the viewer’s sense of space: foreground and background are given equal primacy throughout the exhibition. It’s an apt motif for her American arrival that is based so much on a Euro-Brazilian past.
“No Melon No Lemon” is the result of a month-long residency at the gallery, where the artist created a series of sculptures as well as monumental linear paneling/painting that wraps around the perimeter of the space. Historical references abound in her smooth, burled wooden curvilinear forms and jagged totems that sit on shelves or plinths that extend from the walls. The biomorphic modernist abstraction of Jean Arp echoes throughout, as does Constantin Brâncuși’s unfettered output. But in their custom-built environ—which alternates between burnt-black wood slabs, into which the artist has carved with a chainsaw, and sections of polished Op-like linear bands rhythmically painted bright yellow—the sculptures become part of a multireferent equation.
As such Neo-Constructivists as Lygia Pape discovered, the line could be a place of residence when cut into. In Comte’s installation, not only does this become true as drawn lines are violently and imperfectly sawed, creating uneven and splintering valleys along the walls, the lines also jut out and become places of residence for Comte’s refined yet unabashedly naturalistic sculptures. It is as if Comte has literalized the cannibalistic relationship of modern Brazilian art with the tradition of its European predecessor, by way of Arp and Pape, while simultaneously providing an antihierarchal, illusive space for them to infinitely communicate.
Taking the concerns of the Renaissance masters and applying them to humdrum, domestic spaces, Argentinine artist Analia Saban wrests lightness and movement from heavy materials. In three works all titled Markings, 2014, Saban scrapes away skeins of emulsion from photographs printed on one side of a canvas. She then arranges these malleable slivers in an empty white space on the other side of the canvas. Images of potential materials and tools—a stack of roof tiles, shelves of paint cans, sample chips—now dance delicately as a scraps of tissue paper or insect wings. Material alchemy is also captured in Paint Cross Sections (from King Tut to Judy Chicago), 2015, an arrangement of microscopic photographs of the pigments on several historic works, taken by the Getty Research Institute, revealing many mixtures of grainy minerals.
Elsewhere, crystalline, porcelain dust ground away from the corner of an old bathroom sink, whips across a canvas like a sharp breeze. And Saban’s “Draped Marble” sculptures, slabs that have been smashed in the center and reconstructed so that they hang over wooden sawhorses (with such exquisite names as Saint Laurant, Fior di Pesco, Emperor’s Gold, all 2015), are an acme. Mineral veins exposed, each hangs gently as if towels slung over a rack. Managing to evoke a sense of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sensibilities by focusing on lowly subjects found in an average back yard, Saban democratically realizes the transformative potential in everyday materials: Michelangelo rearranging his cupboards. Bernini hanging his laundry out to dry.
“If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work,” remarked Tomi Ungerer, creator of the charming and lucrative Mellops family series of children’s books, to a crowd at an American Library Association conference in 1969, when the artist was angrily questioned about the dirty pictures he was unashamedly making and publishing in addition to such innocent fare. That event marked the end of Ungerer’s visibility, at least in the United States, for nearly thirty years.
But it didn’t dampen his success overseas: He was named the Goodwill Ambassador for Childhood and Education of the Council of Europe in 2003, and in 2007 the Tomi Ungerer Museum - International Center for Illustration in Strasbourg, France opened to glorious acclaim. “Tomi Ungerer: All in One,” a retrospective that covers over seventy years of this master illustrator’s output, beautifully organized by the Drawing Center’s Claire Gilman, is as dark, funny, and complex as the phases and facets of childhood and beyond that the artist has brilliantly obsessed over for generations of fans.
A dead chicken obligingly seasons itself with canned peas in an ad for Bonduelle vegetables; a black cat gets masturbated by an electropneumatic sex machine/scratching post; a Third Reich–looking Minnie Mouse pulverizes a little boy’s ass with a nightstick near a sign that reads WE WANT MOTHERS. Ungerer’s knack for pulling humor out of hopelessness and horror places him among a certain kind of satirical elite (think Al Jaffee's wonderfully perverse Fold-Ins for Mad Magazine, or Jay Lynch for Topps’ Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids) who’ve utilized advertising and other kinds of pop and juvenile formats towards smarter, more subversive ends. But there’s another range, too, tender, lonely, and rich with melancholy—one feels it in the sumptuous gray vistas of Fog Island, 2013, and the war-torn teddy bear of Otto, 1999—drawings from two books that seem to emphasize how childhood is rarely ever for children.
Robert Stone once intuited that comedy amounts to “I was there”—an illustrative insight for Danny McDonald’s output. The American artist makes sculptures out of cartoonish characters—action figures; dolls from myths, fables, and movies; ghoulish masks—yet his works feel less comical than urgent. In Mechanical Bank, 2015, a villainous Uncle Sam is positioned upside-down—his eyes smolder in black and red, a fat gold coin is clenched in his teeth, and a cackling brown goblin is perched atop the neck of his severed head, an American dream gone dark and Rocky Horror Picture Show. If reality—by which I mean the stuff that goes on in the day-to-day world of people and stock markets and foreign policy and wars and blizzards and elections and celebrities—seems increasingly absurd as it becomes more readily accessible, constantly updating on myriad screens, fantastical tropes can act as truth serum, wiping away complexity and clarifying the current ethos.
And as toys are pedagogical, this work is necessarily about how we teach our culture and how our culture has taught us who we are. In Suspension of Questionable Belief, 2014, a slender alien perches on the back of a golden-winged dragon, and a muscled monster hangs nearby while Santa Claus, Jesus, and King Kong build a formidable base. Ur-stories are stacked into a single object, one that feels irrational, illogical, and even inappropriate, which means it’s a rather accurate expression of our time. Look to Arnold Schwarzenegger slurping from a straw stuck into a pink dildo in The Thirst, 2014, and An Aggressive Character, 2014, where three sexed-up Incredible Hulks tackle one another inside a vitrine. These are clear-eyed works of social portraiture, amplifications of reality that demand our present moment to be understood. Nearby is Self Portrait of a Sales Strategy, a pyramid of Yoda figurines gazing inexplicably into the distance, each strung with an orange price tag—wisdom has never had a better market.
Repressed emotions usually find a route of escape, as Freudians would have it, in slips, dreams, and jokes, but in David Cronenberg’s body horror The Brood (1979), the director shows rage and pain swelling on the skin as bursting pustules. Following an experimental therapist, played by Oliver Reed, and his patients, the film builds toward the birth of murderous “psychoplasmic” children, borne on the skin from a woman’s wrath. Artist Candice Breitz has appropriated three histrionic scenes from this film, each featuring Reed enacting role-plays with his patients and standing in for mommy, daddy, and child, for her new video work Treatment, 2013, here seen as a two-screen installation. Breitz has brought this sticky, itchy family psychodrama one uncomfortable step closer to home by asking her mother and father and her own psychotherapist to create new voice-overs for the scenes, which are seen on one screen, while the recording booth is seen opposite. Breitz’s therapist is female, speaking Reed’s words, and the gender swap makes for some queasy comedy, as do the sudden outbursts of dialogue, in which Breitz’s mother describes “bad mummies . . . fucked up and bad,” or in which her father wails, ‘I love you, Daddy!”
Breitz opens up a vein in Cronenberg's original film, from which the director's own acrimonious custody battle and painful family relationships spill forth (he has described the film as deeply personal), while subtly hinting at the festering dramas of her own family. Both dig beneath the surface skin of their material, and the ugly complexes that can drive creative work, released to a world with a professional veneer. I visited Breitz’s installation twice and each time viewers regularly erupted into laughter, perhaps signaling their own awkward emotions bubbling over.
There was a time when the words “Orange County art scene” did not summon images of Real Housewives and dolphin statuary. In the 1960s and ’70s, Southern California was a hotbed of experimentation, resulting principally from the preponderance of art schools there that fostered a multiplicity of practices, ranging from the ephemerals of Conceptual and performance art to the endurance of sculptural form. Barbara T. Smith—who attended two of the most defining institutions in the region during that period, Pomona College and University of California, Irvine—has consistently engaged both ends of the aforementioned spectrum.
Works in the exhibition are brought together by their common material: resin. This synthetic is associated with a particular SoCal brand of artwork often referred to as finish fetish. Finish as well as fetish become more than euphemisms in Smith’s Field Piece, 1968/72, a module composed of larger-than-life phallic “blades,” through which naked people, as a blown-up photo illustrates, were encouraged to frolic, triggering light and sound with their weight.
However, unlike Southern California sculpture that is characterized by smooth, sensual surfaces that work so hard to create distance from the human body, most of Smith’s resin pieces appear gloppy, even dirty, and evince close association with their maker. The centerpiece of the show is documentation and remnants from The Holy Squash, 1971, a collective eight-day ceremony at the UC Irvine Gallery that resulted in the casting of a gourd “to remain an object of reverence for centuries.” Unlike Craig Kauffman’s iconic synthetic bubbles of the same era, “the faintly purple lozenge of about 150 pounds” in the words of the artist is all about interiority, not surface. As in a number of other objects in the show—where Smith used resin to encase ephemera, photographs, scribbles—the material’s primary function is a kind of obdurate commemoration, giving longevity to relations and material that dominant (read: patriarchal) culture considers of little worth.
To be among Kevin Beasley’s new sound installation, sculptures, and photographs is to negotiate a doubled sense of “here”—both the physical recognition of oneself, and the claim for recognition evoked by discarded materials, bound and shellacked in polyurethane, their histories unknown but deeply felt. In Beasley's debut at Casey Kaplan, these contradictory present-tense sensations come together in circular wall-mounted acoustic mirrors cast from satellite dishes. In Untitled (Focus Black Boy II), 2015, Beasley immobilizes an Air Jordan jacket amid outstretched white T-shirts in coagulated coats of resin, taut and transparent as cellophane, yet thickly refracting ambient noise and viewers’ wafting conversations.
As Beasley demonstrated in his 2014 Whitney Biennial performances, in which he activated his sculptures like mutant instruments, sonic experience is inextricable from a corporeal, at times unwieldy, knowledge. This becomes evident in Movement IV, 2015, which wires an elegant Steinway to a massive mixing console. Audiences, invited to play the piano by appointment, will find that even lightly brushing or tapping the keys produces percussive, sticky tremors of reverb, its echoes vibrating in the ribcage for minutes afterward.
Floor-bound sculptures, such as Untitled (Lumbar), 2015, a zippered backpack choked with pooled, festering polyurethane buildup, imply a similarly disjunct, if intimate, relationship: You stoop, lean in, or try to squeeze by, aware of how the body must improvise in constricted spaces. Nearby, a plastic yellow mop bucket is displayed at a slightly further remove: Detached from its original context and fastened to the wall, it’s nonetheless unable to exceed the social labor and industrial utility associated with its past life. This work requires a reckoning with the physical and emotional detritus of the familiar, yet often unseen; its brilliance is to collapse this separation, to frame hearing and feeling ultimately as forms of witnessing.
Noah’s ark, that proto–postapocalyptic time capsule, has manifested as a yellow wheelbarrow of varicolored resin sand dollars at the entrance to New York–based Hayley Silverman’s “Unmanned Lander”: Each transclucent cast inside contains a pair of coins or other mated monies (berries, pollen) for the times to come (Crude Currency, 2015). Meanwhile, the sculpture’s weathered frame appears to say this has been tried and has failed before. Throughout the show, utopia is in the shadow of the retrofuture: Witness Is terraforming reincarnation?, 2015 (with Emily Shinada), an octagon of inward-facing mirrors perched on a metal tripod, that resembles both a zoetrope and the Space Needle. Invoking three respective centuries of hope in new technology, the work’s interior reveals the hollow repetition at their heart—an infinite, abstracted desert, effected by some coldly glowing sand and a leaning-cowboy silhouette.
A weaving of a window with a half-drawn pull shade rests on top of a light box in Untitled (For Jo), 2015 (with Shinada). The work is dizzying with nested eras: The textile part, originally by the artist’s mother, evokes a 1970s nostalgia for nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts, with its domestic-pastoral, spooky simplicity. It feels like a museum piece, but with the box below it shining light not only through but all around, a futuristic coldness takes us from a present archive to, perhaps, the part of the spaceship where you go to feel like you’re back home.
Among other inspired chronocultures on display, the only one not from this year is Watering Hole, 2013, part of Silverman’s “Flood” series of figurines caught in soups of artificial vegetables. Set apart with the display insight that is the hallmark of this gallery, its tone diverges; nonetheless, a phrase the artist used when speaking of the series on the BBC describes its newer, strange companions: “the return of a lost cause.”
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, the narrator recounts testing grown-ups by presenting them with a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Most adults recognize it as a hat, causing the drawing’s maker to never again discuss “boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars” with them, but instead “bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties.”
Judith Scott’s sculptures give a sense of shape-shifting between things like hats and processes like boa constrictors swallowing elephants. They are typically amorphous forms—mostly large yet small enough that they could still be cradled by an adult—that were produced by tightly binding and weaving fibers, generally multicolored yarn and fabric, around clusters of common objects. In a few instances, the underlying, often industrial materials—plastic tubing, wooden sticks, and clothing, for instance—poke out. More commonly, however, different things come to constitute a unified entity that is completely strange, but perhaps all the more so because it retains a sense that there is something we know very well hiding inside.
Scott was born with Down syndrome; she spent her life nearly deaf and was unable to speak. In her forties, Scott joined the Creative Growth Art Center, an art studio in Oakland for artists with developmental and physical disabilities, and her entire body of work was produced during the following eighteen years. Rather than pathologizing the artist, or divorcing these astounding artworks from their maker, this posthumous retrospective at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art prompts a reading of her work that is informed by ideas shared by feminism and the growing field of disability studies: that an art object is both connected to and dependent upon not just the lived experience of its producer but also a surrounding network of equally embodied subjects that are an integral, albeit frequently unrecognized, part of both making and the making of meaning.
Risky scenarios clash with compulsions toward stability in “I: A High Stakes Gamble,” Taslima Ahmed’s New York solo debut. Including a factious composite of glossy PVC-laden prints and sculptures, wall-embedded security safes, and a two-player card-game sculpture, the exhibition questions contemporary art’s relationships with uncertainty. Seven laminated C-prints mounted to Sintra populate the gallery walls, each of which displays an atmospheric, digitally rendered environment punctured by subtle moments of urgency. Helter Skelter (all works 2015) shows a struggling pair of hands clutching the cusp of a perilous, moonlit mountain. In Throw Your Life Away, a blurry, backlit dashboard (ostensibly in transit) provides the backdrop for a seemingly spotlit, sharply rendered falling feather and the outstretched palm seen reaching to catch it. Elsewhere, two steel security safes are installed flush against gallery walls. One of the steel works, North, South, East, West, Gun, Safe also holds an imitation Beretta 9-mm pistol. Beyond its wide-reaching use among law enforcement and private security forces, the Beretta is also a favorite for personal defense.
With Passion, a resin-coated table strewn with silk-screened glass card tiles, Ahmed formulated a simple betting game in which the participants are classified as master, citizen or slave. Hierarchy is embedded in the game’s rules, and power grabs are achieved by accurately blind guessing the opponent’s card in play. Whereas game theory specifically aims to minimize risk by collating hypothetical scenarios and exhaustively mapping chance, the procedures for Passion forego such mathematical determinism, in favor of spontaneity. Reading artworks as evidence of decision-making, Ahmed exploits these terms by arranging nearly a dozen pieces of varying media and themes that together foreclose a feeling of coherent certainty.
Dogs and the dead populate the videos, sculptures, and print works in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s first US retrospective, a show that summons questions about what companion species are beyond human companionship, what cadavers are other than former humans.
“A person who dies had the ability to die,” the Thailand-based artist gently proposes in the film The Class I, 2005, addressing a room of deceased “students” on trays, bodies borrowed from a hospital in Turin. The line echoes Maurice Blanchot’s insight that death is horrifying to us because it promises to take away the mortality that makes us human, but Rasdjarmrearnsook speaks with a frank and unassuming tone that softens the thought. This and the other necrocentric works on view (such as the video I'm Living, 2002, in which the artist dresses a corpse lying on its back) impress an amicable continuity between the living and the dead, and are unique in doing so without anthropomorphizing the latter.
In Some Unexpected Events Sometimes Bring Momentary Happiness, 2009, a pile of paw-size bandages sits tenderly below projected footage of the dog to whom they once belonged, documenting the day that the animal spontaneously regained control of his long-paralyzed hind legs. Rasdjarmrearnsook’s straight presentation lets the dog’s obvious enjoyment of moving around her yard speak for itself, and like the exhibition in general, the piece feels risky, out of step with common antisentimentalism. Rasdjarmrearnsook lacks the pretense that she comprehends all that her camera apprehends, and it lends her work a sense of celebratory empathy.
The exhibition starts in the stairwell, with battered sheets of painted cardboard woven through the banister and collaged with handmade sheets of rough, grody paper—welcome to the gallery, it’s been waiting for you. From there you ascend through two floors of discretely installed sculptures and large paintings, interrupted by hallways and landings displaying an array of manic collaborative efforts between Lena Henke and Max Brand, who studied at Frankfurt’s Städelschule together. The first floor hallway exhibits a zigzag pattern of shredded paper rectangles adhered directly to the walls with green goo oozing out behind the edges as well as a series of Brand’s watercolor, pen, and crayon drawings of cartoon figures and high octane scribbling—all untitled and from 2014—framed and hung on top of the wall collage. Discarding preciousness, this passage delights in its scrappiness while refraining from attitudinizing coolness.
Inside the first floor gallery are a series of hollow wall-mounted resin sculptures, painted sea-foam green on the outside and crisscrossed by thick rubber bands. Their curious, protruding faces are revealed to be the molds for Henke’s figures made of sand that recline on metal towers on the second floor. Each work in this series resembles and is titled after iconic specimens of Manhattan architecture, such as the work Your Flatiron (Female Fatigue Series) or Their New Museum (Female Fatigue Series), both 2015. These voluptuous mounds of sand repose in stark relief with their unsympathetic environments—the sharp metal corners juxtaposed so near to the soft bodies, evoking vulnerability. Bordered by structure, the figures seem safe, but also trapped.
This large and important exhibition, first seen at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University and including more than six dozen drawings, prints, and photographs, shows that artists of the 1930s were just as uncertain as we are of how to depict inequality and how to fight it. Instead of the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton or of Grant Wood, artists on view here, all members of the left-wing John Reed Clubs (a Communist Party organ that later founded the Partisan Review) favored bold, often indignant imagery that veered in some cases to agitprop, in others to bizarre mysticism. Naming your enemies is easy. But how do you portray them, and for that matter, yourself?
In a charcoal drawing by Henry Simon from 1933, done with bold chiaroscuro and off-kilter perspective, a worker atop a skyscraper looks out triumphantly on the lights of Chicago, and yet at the edge of the composition hover the familiar spirals of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. That tension between the utopian abstraction of Soviet Constructivism and representative, even Hollywood-style imagery pervades this show, and the battle ends with no winner. Face-offs between more expressionistic drawings of robots and factories on the one hand and frank, representational etchings of the downtrodden on the other begin to feel not like a dialectical investigation of the power of art, but the imagistic equivalent of a circular firing squad. If these artists, like their literary and political counterparts, sounded their alarms to no avail, then perhaps they can teach us today to rethink our own inability to represent the current crisis, and to seek an art that does less but lasts longer.
From 1974 to 1978, Lynn Hershman Leeson doubled as Roberta Breitmore. She rode the bus, signed a lease, and solicited encounters with strangers, whom she met by placing personal ads in San Francisco city newspapers. The performance was ongoing and, for the most part, unwitnessed, sporadically documented in photographs taken by private investigators under the artist’s employ. “To me, she was my own flipped effigy: my physical reverse,” Hershman Leeson has described. “Her life infected mine.”
Concerns with duplication and bodily impurity organize Hershman Leeson’s oeuvre, which here receives a retrospective gloss. The iteration at stake is almost always of the artist’s self, rehearsed through the genre of self-portraiture and technological media (photography, video, Second Life, and so forth) that are themselves duplicative. Again and again, Hershman Leeson calls us to the precarity of our status as subjects. Selfhood emerges as a sebaceous thing, slippery and secreted like so much glandular waste. It’s work that feels proleptic, loosely 1990s even in its ’70s moment.
A pair of C-prints, titled Roberta and Blaine in Union Square, 1975, frame Breitmore on a bench beside a middle-aged man, his face puffy and his hair pomade-slicked. The scene seems a filched view of some vague impropriety, the whole thing seedy and synthetic. Breitmore’s outfit (platinum wig, prefab cardigan) heightens the effect, lending her the air of a department-store mannequin. Innervated by plastics, life, like the self, becomes alien, as indexed in Breitmore’s incarnation as a telerobotic doll in CybeRoberta, 1996, which viewers can manipulate remotely. A nearby photograph, Construction Chart Drawing, 1973, finds Breitmore’s face dissected, as if it were a cadaver. Tenuously organic, the artist’s alter ego figures as a vacant (because partially mortified) site. Mediated and surveilled, Hershman Leeson is perpetually elsewhere.
Ten diverse black-and-white drawings created with an electrostatic printer make up Marsha Cottrell’s Index 1 (Presence of Nature), 1998–2013. A spare, crisply gridded work on typewriter paper hangs near another made on cloudy Mylar. Manipulated while damp, the smudged streaks waft upward like wisps of smoke. The busiest drawing whirls with scattered ovals and staccato dashes, a musical score blown to smithereens. These flurries of stray marks contrast with more solid, linear forms, and it feels as though an indecipherable architectural diagram is disintegrating into the maelstrom. Still others recall astronomical phenomena: solar eclipses, orbiting planets, and their moons. Modestly sized, Cottrell's output pulses to its own enigmatic tempo, a beat born out of careful control and technological chance. The nuanced results, refreshingly, flout photographic reproduction. These are best seen in person.
In the works forming another, particularly cryptic, set of printer drawings, glowing horizontal lines are framed by rounded, overlapping rectangles. It feels as though we are encountering these bands—reminiscent of graphic renderings of audio files, burning horizon lines, and flatlining patients—through a series of monitors or welding helmets. Still others, also composed of overlapping rectangles, run multiple times through the printer, recall rooms seen through several offset windows. These pieces simultaneously invite figural associations while eluding explicit representation.
With a little more editing, the show would be as economic as its best works. One massive piece comprising more than a hundred sheets of letter-size paper interrupted by a single blank circle feels especially gratuitous. The stronger, more complicated pieces operate in a quiet, inquisitive way, vibrating with an absorbing tension. They needle the parameters of what constitutes drawing, prodding the discipline’s vulnerable areas as though it were a voodoo doll.
Beijing-based photographer Ren Hang has devoted his first New York exhibition to naked bodies deviously posed in surreal, emotional configurations. Figures find puckish fit with one another or amid flora and fauna—a nocturnal lily pond, a butter-yellow python. The protagonist of Untitled 14 (all works 2014) gazes neutrally at the camera as five manicured hands pinch her neck into a comely five-point necklace of skin. In Untitled 6, three kneelers interlock their heads for a triskelion of sexless backs. Locations keep to the anonymous urban spaces of white-wall apartments, rooftop edges, and sequestered spots outdoors (Chinese law prohibits nudity en plein air). There is a refreshed, fetishy feel to these pictures; lips and nails are nearly always glopped wet red.
Ren’s willful though vulnerable subjects seem to prosper in their found places, warding off the solitude in the gap between their bodies and the frame. In other images too, where one head vanishes behind another, extra limbs line up, or succulent flowers are joined to human feelers and spouts, forms of idiosyncratic mutuality roundly win out over atomized individualism.
China’s ban on nudity in art was officially lifted three decades ago (a couple of years before Ren was born), but expressions of sexuality remain hushed in public, and an earlier generation of contemporary Chinese artists (like Zhang Huan or RongRong & inri) tended to set the nude as a symbol, indicating the fragile yet enduring individual or the idea of shared humanity. By contrast, the existences in Ren’s photographs evince infinite (if stylized) variety, proclaiming not bare life but a high life all their own: being otherwise, together.
Tibetan art is now meta-ethnic. In this exhibition, the Shangri-la imaginary collides with realities particular to the global Tibetan cultural diaspora. The redefinition proposed here delivers a broad range of formal possibilities and artistic strategies. Most involve some degree of secularizing the Buddhist themes that defined art––thangka painting––for centuries.
The inclusion of Western artists working in Tibetan idioms dramatically expands the discourse. Livia Liverani trained in Ladakh with an experienced painter of the sacred arts; she recreates traditional compositions in a pastiche of patterned silks. Yet Buddhist iconography is shunned in Tserang Dhondup’s portrait of a Tibetan man wearing a Nike jacket and holding an iPhone5. An academically trained painter, Dhondup represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Chinese artist Lu Yang’s video Wrathful King Kong Core, 2011, puts Tantric gods within a sci-fi context. Using a dedicated sound track by noise musician Yao Dajun, she visualizes attributes of the wrathful god Manjushri alongside a neuroscientific introduction to the anger pathways of the human brain stem.
Tibetan-Swiss artist Sonam Dolma Brauen’s sculptural installation My Father’s Death, 2010, is the most stirring work: an understated pile of crimson-and-gold monks’ robes folded on the floor. These consummately Tibetan materials—monks robes, donated at the artist’s request—surround nine plaster-molded stupas (tsa tsa). Making and offering tsa tsa is an important spiritual practice, and while the significance of the plaster stupas may be obscured behind geometric abstraction, Brauen’s minimalism implies the deeply personal stories couched in their materials. In these contexts, we discover new boundaries where ethnicity, artistic training, or formal attributes correlate in novel ways. “Tibet” becomes a remarkably diverse concept tenuously binding everything together.
What do women smell like? In her latest solo exhibition, Anicka Yi pushes at the limits of our episteme and provides a whiff. It’s not ready to wear; in fact, it reeks. One hundred women—primarily artists, curators, and critics (full disclosure: I was one)—were swabbed, and the resultant samples have been cultivated here in a moldy petri dish “billboard” that assaults visitors at the entrance to the show. The thriving bacterium, which Yi nurtured with the help of MIT synthetic biologist Tal Danino, is a budding contaminant, a collective, germy growth. A strain from our culture as well as one captured from air samples in Gagosian Gallery were rendered into a chemical composite, and the ensuing scent is being discharged in a second, all-black room via three diffusers topped with helmets in transparent vinyl boxes (which strongly echo Jasper Johns’s Duchamp-inspired sets for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, 1968). If it sounds like a queasy blend, it is. It’s also heavy on butyric acid—think Parmesan cheese, rancid butter—with a sour floral accord up top, and it’s festering among all the other odors in the show: all that plastic for the boxes and the various organic sculptural assemblages therein, such as a flayed-skin-like array of kombucha scobies.
What does feminism smell like? The women Yi sampled don’t come out of any particular wave, nor do they adhere to one mode or affiliation. Yet she seems to want us to inject new expressive and affective strategies into old issues that traverse all of society—namely, feminism, patriarchy, and capitalism. She wants us to make a stink if those exchanges—new terms, new smells—fall short. “You Can Call Me F” is the title of the show.
If the witch’s hovel in Pumpkinhead were a suite in a Collins Avenue boutique hotel during Art Basel Miami Beach, that might give some sense of the flavorings Alex Da Corte has injected into his ambitious and garishly stunning three-story installation “Die Hexe.” Da Corte throws into question what it means to feel fear in its multitudes: fear of mirrors, fear of old ladies, fear of death, fear of life after death, fear of mint Listerine, fear of homosexual men, fear of Miami, fear of appropriation art, or as R. W. Fassbinder so aptly put it in his film title, Fear of Fear.
The scripted journey begins downstairs, the first chamber one of muted grunginess, illumined by lo-fi psychedelic black light. Candied apples are on the mantle—razor blades included, I hope. A closed door offers an eye-level view of a Robert Gober drain, which functions as a peephole into $1 Store Kusama, the first of a series of inspirational mood/concept works by Mike Kelley, Bjarne Melgaard, and Haim Steinbach—father figures all. These artists adumbrate the spells that the sorceress intones: trash culture and Home Depot shopaholism; outsiderness as abjection and glamour, sexual lure and vicious degradation; a DMT palette that might electroshock the Acid Queen. Each is placed in an individual room, though the rivulets of semiotic blood flow fresh throughout all the galleries for the discerning spectator.
The best room is the last, a bathroom/spa/morgue in mint green, likewise scented, and violently fluorescent-white flicker-flicker lit. It’s clean and bright, fresh and unnerving, with little details cuing the enveloping hysteria, viz., the moldings are out of joint. The top floor promises rebirth; hell is downstairs. One of three morgue drawers has been slid open, so one can discover that the body has dissolved and gone down the drain. Maybe “Die Hexe” recapitulates Dante’s Commedia, an ascent from the filth of hell to the pristine clarity of heaven? Except the absolute hell might be not at the bottom in the dark but rather in the Room at the Top.
The showstopper of “Here and Elsewhere,” last summer’s exhibition of contemporary Arab art at the New Museum, was this Lebanese artist’s Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila, 2014, a knotty consideration of the interwoven terrain of cinema and politics. Becoming Jamila has its roots in back issues of the pan-Arab culture magazine Al-Hilal—which, during the Algerian War, frequently praised the revolutionary Djamila Bouhired as a model of Arab womanhood. Bouhired became a character in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, and the actress in Arsanios’s video is preparing to star in a new film based on her life. She sits in a bar in Beirut rehearsing her lines, imagining Bouhired (or the woman who played her in 1966) planting a bomb in an Algiers café. Yet as she holds up copies of Al-Hilal, including one whose cover shows Bouhired toting a gun, we realize that the remake isn’t actually going to be made. Representation isn’t what it used to be, and, frankly, neither is freedom fighting.
This first American survey for Arsanios, which had an earlier iteration at Kunsthalle Lissabon, includes some early animations that interrogate modernist architecture in Beirut (the sound track of one, a little incongruously, features a snippet of the ’90s eurotrash banger “What Is Love?”). But the Al-Hilal series is her strongest work, and along with Becoming Jamila, this show includes a melancholy new video, OLGA’s NOTES, all those restless bodies, 2014, that also looks at postwar Arab culture with deep, post–Arab Spring skepticism. In 1963, as part of president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s modernization program, a new ballet school opened in Cairo with the explicit aim of creating “the new body” for the Egyptian nation. What have those bodies become, Arsanios asks as she films one woman dancing Trio A and another on a stripper pole. Overworked and scarred by history: the locus of an ongoing war between modernity and domination, which proceeds by attrition and doesn’t even stop when you’re worn to the bone.
A forceful, magnetic tension fuels the infectious energy of this show, conjured by curator Bob Nickas. The diverse works by twenty-one artists gravitate toward opposing poles, the obsessive and the spontaneous. You can feel them attract and repel one another from across the room.
Intricate, labor-intensive pieces by Xylor Jane, Richard Tinkler, and Chip Hughes buzz with complex grids and patterns. Thousands of small dashes densely scratched into wet purple paint form Hughes’s labyrinthine I tried to hide the heart from the head, 2014. Currents of James Siena, his Op art forebears and trippy twangs of 1960s psychedelia course through these compulsive works, the best of which operate as mandalas, their visual complexity sucking the viewer into unexpected meditations. Balancing the neurotically detailed efforts are more subdued abstractions. One can linger quietly with Lisa Beck’s You Are Here, 2014, comprising a small painted mirror and block of wood, subtly stained by wiped-away enamel.
The misses are few. Eric Lindman’s large red canvas punctuated by navy jags doesn’t teach us anything that Clyfford Still didn’t reveal with more rigor. Staunchly rooted at the slacker end of the spectrum are Nikholis Planck’s untitled drawings featuring violet scribbles. They recall the evidence of people testing pens in stationery stores. Taken all together, though, these works provide an exhilarating tour of formal concerns. They eschew social and political questions (David Ratcliff’s paintings of stars trailing smoke, which evoke American warfare, are an exception). Instead, they offer us a vicarious joy. They enable us to enter the artists’ minds and join them in reveling in media, color, line, and in the variety of roads—from deer trails to superhighways—by which one can arrive at a compelling image.
How do you document an affair? Receipts, maps, menus, locks of hair, ticket stubs, empty contraception packages, fingernail clippings, letters explicitly recounting sexual positions, and photographs—hundreds and hundreds of photographs, which in this affair were taken by Cologne businessman Gunter F. of his young secretary, Margret. The couple spent a year together, and all of the above material was meticulously collected by Gunter and packed into a briefcase, which was later found in an abandoned German apartment. This archive is currently receiving its US debut, “Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970,” after being first shown at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
The exhibition feels dramatically of the past—not just because the archive is—but because the sorts of ephemera on view are alive with traces of time and touch. There is loopy, expressive cursive, a crumpled napkin spotted in blood, a neat clipping of hair taped to a sheet of yellowed paper. All get at the essence and gravity of the keepsake, which increasingly today is not an object or even image of an object but an image in and of itself, kept behind a screen. Does the memento risk extinction? And if so, what are the stakes of such a loss?
It’s the sheer physicality of this collection that transmits the poetics of memory, ushering one into another’s nostalgia and getting at the complexities of voyeurism. Beyond personal appeal, however, is a near-pathological belief in the totemic power of the object. At play then is the collateral damage of the digital archive—that losing our keepsakes may not only be a loss in sensorial memory but a reconstitution of memory itself. The same obsessive impulse to document keeps memory as alive as it does dead: To possess it through an object is to declare its mortality—but what happens if there is no object?
The moods of this elegant exhibition, which includes loose pastels and watercolors, precise pencil sketches, and frenetic ink drawings, fluctuate like the spikes on an EKG. There are moments of warmth here—a mother and child on the beach—but many of Alice Neel’s subjects are solitary: an old woman with no purse riding a train, a brooding child, a lost-looking man with an empty coffee cup. Even when several figures share a space, they can appear isolated. In Alienation, 1935, Neel lies naked on a bed, lips and eyes firmly shut. A nude lover stands above her, turning away, limbs crossed defensively. Inky shadows threaten to consume the old man lying on the curb in Untitled (Bowery), 1936. Other haggard figures trudge past him, their weariness and despair scrawled and scratched into their features.
Suffering, as W. H. Auden observed, unfolds while “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Neel adroitly pins the pain and quotidian sorrows of her subjects to a heedlessly humming city. In an ink-and-gouache depiction of her dying mother, Neel incorporates other hospital patients receiving visitors and, through the window, a boat going about its business, an urban counterpart to Auden’s “expensive delicate ship” bypassing Pieter Breughel’s drowning Icarus.
Neel strips the world away in other portraits, allowing her sitters to dominate the blank paper. In Ginny, 1975, Neel’s youthful daughter-in-law gazes past us with large gray eyes, a modern-day sibyl in sneakers. In the horrifying Self-Portrait Skull, 1958, Neel paints herself as death’s head with stringy hair and broken teeth. Black ink gushes in grotesque streams from one eye socket. Taken together, the works in this startling show create compelling cycles of life and death, simultaneously universal and profoundly intimate.
Studio paintings are seductive. They invite us to enter the sites of creation, extending the tantalizing hope that doing so will demystify the process. Then they thwart our expectations. From Brueghel to Brancusi, Daumier to de Kooning, curator John Elderfield has mined the centuries for artists’ paintings of their ateliers, plucking fifty-odd works from far-flung museums, foundations, and private collections and setting them in the gallery like precious stones. The variety is mesmerizing. When models appear, they range from relaxed and sexy (Henri Matisse) to anguished (Lucian Freud). The rooms themselves can be oases or prisons.
A self-referential playfulness courses throughout: These are the spaces where art is made, not the art itself, yet the rooms become that too. They offer intimate insights, but they also omit and obscure. In several studios, stretched canvases are turned to face walls. In Carl Gustav Carus’s Das Atelierfenster (Studio Window), 1823–24, we see the back side of a painting propped in the window. Is the artist hiding it from us? Or showing it off to the world? It feels like a fitting metaphor for the tension between exhibitionism and opacity charging these works.
No matter how stylistically busy or spare, neoclassical or cubist, these images all pulse with a sense of vital necessity. A round table dominates Pink Summer, 1975, a large, bubble gum–hued oil painting by Philip Guston. It and most of the objects lying on it are sketchily outlined in red, but half a sandwich, a bunch of brushes, and a watch get more tonal attention. All the artist needs, they seem to say, is food, tools, and time. In the background, a half-obscured head in profile suggests a sphinx sinking into the sand. But these studio paintings are not Ozymandian monuments to vanity, bound for the ash heap of history. Elderfield presents an eloquent argument for their profound and complicated value, fueling their enduring allure.
Light them as you will; Victor Man’s nocturnal paintings insist on their place in the long, dark corridor of art history. Their subjects emerge from the gloaming, buoyed by a bright tunic or foulard—or a gloss of Picasso, Balthus, or Mantegna—that hovers, almost protectively, over his tenderly rendered models. Yet Man is no timeless painter. His citations follow a historical dialogue between painting and photography, with precedents from Manet to Richter, here extended discerningly into our century. In Grafting/or Lermontov Dansant Come [sic] Saint Sebastien, 2014, the “double exposure” of a boy’s head as it lists to the side results in an extra, misregistered eye. The Photoshop mouse as Sebastian’s arrows? Perhaps, but the point is largely irrelevant before the boy’s frank, tricloptic gaze. The painted portrait wins out over the ghost of a photograph, even as it cribs photography’s latest tendencies; painting has time, after all, on its side.
In the back gallery, Man presents paintings from his series “The Chandler,” 2013–14, variations on a modern-day Saint Denis in secretarial dress. Though the press release implicates Georges Bataille’s anarchic and antirational Acéphale, the paintings themselves gesture elsewhere: to a chastened Judith, to Medusa, or to beheaded martyrs. Their palettes’ obscurity makes mysterious what might be irritatingly plain in a photograph: A cropped image of a woman has become the image of a cropped woman. The gesture recalls chandlers, medieval servants charged with the upkeep of household candles, who lopped off long wicks to keep their flames burning. The objectification accomplished by cropping out a nude’s face, not incidentally, has done similar work for viewers’ burning desire. In the most recent painting, the sitter’s hand recoils as the head looks up at its old roost, suddenly aware of its violent reorganization—a shock of self-recognition of the model no less than the motif.
Perhaps due to the popularity of Game of Thrones, Folkert de Jong’s “The Holy Land” seems topical, despite that three of the sculptures are made from three-dimensional scans of Henry VIII’s armor. Dispensing with his previous contemporary materials of Styrofoam and polyurethane, de Jong depicts three stages of Henry’s life and hints at current global conflicts, including the outright medieval beheadings perpetrated by the Islamic State, in these patinated bronze relics. The green, red, and blue patinas of the bronze remains consistent throughout the triad, but each sculpture retains a distinct personality: the youthful king in Fidei Defensor (all works 2014), the virile middle-aged warrior with a bulging codpiece in From Stately Throne, and the bulky barrel-chested one in Old DNA.
Several of de Jong’s works are encased in acrylic glass vitrines with colored panels, the most macabre being The Knights Move, a ghost of war with a snakelike body made from pigmented polyurethane foam adorned with a coat that de Jong’s uncle wore in the Dutch navy. By incorporating a biographical aspect, de Jong contradicts the anonymity of this faceless soldier, bringing a human element to its nightmarish form. Notwithstanding the permanence of its bronze material, the freestanding Babel’s Maze appears precarious due to the spindly base propping up its central element, a top-heavy cluster of cast machine guns with a decaying, greenish finish. Connected to a bowler hat and cane by a thin armature, the work depicts a violent empire potentially doomed to fail, as implied by these theatrical components. Although de Jong eschews any overt references in these works, one can’t help but make associations with the current stances and policies of nations that take cues from religion, divine-right theory, and the philosophy of “might makes right.”
Oh, how we long to be seduced. Imagine that quickening of the pulse when Christian Dior unveiled his New Look in 1947, after all the misery and asceticism of the World War II years—that fulsome twenty yards of fabric draped over a revamped Edwardian silhouette, returning to the world what Parisian fashion had always done best: aristocratic hauteur alloyed with sumptuous glamour.
Faggy, filigreed, fabulously flat—Caitlin Keogh’s scintillating crop of nouveau paintings are a welcome respite from all the slopped-out, dudely, abstractionist facture littering Chelsea and far beyond. Keogh’s in possession of a razor-sharp style and illustrative swagger that looks back to the greatest: thirties fashion magazines, Jean Giraud, 1970s glam rock, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Steve Strange, all of which aggregates into an unrepentant Surrealism that’s more Gene Moore than Salvador Dali could ever have hoped to be.
And so much pink! Plush, powdered, pussy pink—from the vulvar split between the shoulders of the multiply perforated female form in The Illustrator (all works 2014), to the anthropomorphized ribbon about to quiescently behand itself with a pair of enormous shears in The Modiste, to the queerly de-nippled odalisque-like Eve, delivering the Serpent, in The Writer. It’s a vision of “sinister femininity” (to quote the show’s curator, Piper Marshall) that Keogh has appropriated from historically misogynistic sources and made entirely her own, doing as the quaintrelle, or female dandy, should: destabilizing paint into maquillage, enhancing veneer into armor.
And honestly, it can’t be overstated: There’s nothing like a gracefully manicured edge to cut through all the shit.
Caught up in the fluorescent reds, acidic greens, and woozy ultramarine blues coating erotic entanglements of cartoons and classical figuration, politics and fantasy, in these acrylic and oil canvases, you could just miss the black marker insignia “SAUL ’68” on Target Practice. Hiding in plain sight is evidence that these large works hail from an era of riots, uprisings, the Vietnam War, and the flourishing of countercultural glee in America. Take equal parts hysterical protest and militaristic righteousness and you have a painting like Pinkville, 1970: A glistening orange American solider with a cross around his neck, a protruding erection, and a green army helmet stabs and stomps on dehumanized representations of Vietnamese women, one of whose hair curls into fat black letters spelling Big Murder. This canvas’s power lies in the way it toys with enshrining entitled fantasies about domination while bellowing its protest against such scenes, which are brought to life through war time after time.
Throughout the paintings on view, not an inch of their surfaces backs down from competing for the eye’s attention through their formal ingenuity, lurid palette, and the brake-screeching words, such as Bank of Shit or Fucking Cop, that address all too contemporary realities. The latter phrase is emblazoned across the length of a red-faced policeman’s fleshy pink schlong, whose head splits to grasp the blade of a sickening yellow pocketknife inscribed with Decency in Self Defense, 1969. The handle of the knife reads Self-defense, though, and is delicately grasped by the claw of a Black Panther woman tangled in the drooling policemen’s limbs. But her expression reads cool as a cucumber compared to the cops’ spluttering hate, fear, and telling lust.
Barbara Kasten did not study with Josef Albers, but the Bauhaus ghosts her work. The photographs on view in her latest exhibition are constructions, geometric props positioned to throw colored light and shadows across the page. The plastic forms in these images delineate space but neither rise into the foreground nor fall into the background.
A spatial visual exchange registers on the photographic paper. Where De Stijl jockeys color and line in two dimensions, Kasten’s “Transpositions,” 2014, opt for a manipulation of volume and air. This respiration of form into space appears as an intentional blurring, a reverberation caught by the still of the camera frame. This relational pull conjures up the words of architecture historian Sigfried Gideon, who acutely described the movement of modern buildings as “cubes of air within, cube of air without.” The neue-architektur of modern times was a model that demarcated potential and provided a physical framework for the utopian ideal. These photographs offer an architecture that takes in the expired ideals of their historical forebears to expand them outward, splaying their shadows into a transitional space. Kasten’s images have the power to show a new generation some basic concepts of art that they can explore with their nifty digital tools.
“Hie to Kolob,” Jason Metcalf’s cathedral-like exhibition, explores the quintessentially American qualities of regional evangelism and religious art, especially the pioneer’s folklore of Mormonism. Metcalf himself was raised in Utah, and his personal history is deeply steeped in the residual culture around the state’s predominant religion. Titled after a Mormon hymn that incants aspirations to reach Kolob, a star recognized by the LDS Church for its supposed proximity to God. “Hie to Kolob” is a winking homage to the massive Christus installation at Salt Lake’s Temple Square, colloquially known as Space Jesus.
The series positions large, airbrushed supernova-like canvases beside a graduating-light installation of incandescent lamps, and A paved work of pure gold, 2012–15, which, as its title suggests, is a foot-square tile made of aerospace-grade aluminum plated with a 99.999% pure layer of gold. The metal is the most thorough reflector of infrared radiation (footnote to NASA’s use of gold to plate the surfaces of astronauts’ helmet visors); a sharp pillar of light that radiates to the ceiling from the single square punctuates the room with an ecclesiastical luminosity.
Religious narratives and imagery are by nature often surreal and irrational; though Metcalf humorously acknowledges this absurdity via his co-opted devices of melodrama-via-airbrush and staged lighting, at heart these are not cynical works. The chromatic vibrance of the paintings increases as the lamps over them brighten, producing a fool’s-gold effect of religious divinity that climaxes with the reflected light of real gold: The experience may be dominated by special effect, but there is sincerity at its core.
Jamie Isenstein titled her latest exhibition “Para Drama,” after a phrase used to describe infighting among paranormal investigators. The term equally applies to the attendant theatricality of Isenstein’s sculptures that incorporate her own body (past examples include a live hand extending from a wall to form a candelabra, à la Cocteau; actual arms and legs fleshing out a wingback chair). For this show, Isenstein has expanded her idiosyncratic surrealism to include a sculpture in which the body remains invisible and instigates movement. In Mechanical Bed (all works 2015), a quilted coverlet inches up and down a mattress incrementally, manipulated by the artist’s hidden hands. The action is so eerily, robotically smooth that a viewer could easily not realize that there is a human laborer concealed within were it not for the materials list, which includes “actor.” (An INTERMISSION sign appears on the still sculpture when Isenstein is absent.)
Other sculptures are enlivened by more elemental forces: The breeze from a fan animates two white gloves that flutter aloft, bewitching an empty chair decked with tinkling wind chimes; a flame emerges from a solitary dinner plate in Theater and be Theatered, and another flickers from the lips of a porcelain mask resting on a crisp white pillow in Fire in the Mouth. Such materials recall the early installations of Jannis Kounellis, but while those dealt in references to ancient history and classical music, Isenstein appears to draw from more populist fare: Disney’s Fantasia, The Addams Family’s Thing. Many of these works feature visually ingenious gags we’ve seen from Isenstein before, but two seemingly comedic sculptures titled Onions—which feature mascot heads layered with multiple masked disguises, from clowns to circus animals—point to a missing inner being, an infinite regress of vanitas masquerading as camp: It’s melancholy all the way down.
Now that the Met’s presentation of Leonard Lauder’s Cubism collection has come down, we can safely say that the most vital collision of forms currently on view in New York takes place in Untitled (3/95, I), 1995, a firecracker from this German artist’s early days. Charline von Heyl paints a seafoam easy chair from the side, its feet resting at the bottom of the composition, its right face scored with dark-blue hatches and white crosshatches, the latter as smothering as a fisherman’s net. Overtaking the top half of the canvas is a painter’s palette, the thumbhole cloned twice over. Unlike the chair, the palette is depicted from above, or actually, it’s not really depicted at all; it’s merely signified by a calligraphic white flourish. Panes of color respect the palette’s border on the right, but on the left the background bleeds over onto the chair. It’s a disjunctive, dynamic crypto-Braque whose “incorrect” elements surpass nonfigurative harmony.
Von Heyl painted the seven works in this show while working for Jörg Immendorf, her professor at art school; there are echoes in the chair of the cool palette of his Grand Guignol “Café Deutschland” series. She had no time for expressionist bluster, though, and while her canvases evince a dark humor, she has never pulled the longstanding German trick of beating up on painting in order to save it. In both of this winter’s major painting shows—MoMA’s much-contested “The Forever Now” and Gavin Brown’s better received “Call and Response”—von Heyl stood out for her refusal of both zombie formalism and Kippenberger-lite mess making, as if she is still working through the modernist explosion with which the rest of us have decided not to come to terms. Do not recoil, von Heyl insists. Paint because it’s hard; paint because you’re an adult.
A fact lost on most media: “On Kawara—Silence,” the title of the most comprehensive overview to date of the late Conceptualist’s work, is accompanied by a tiny spiral icon, a miniature Guggenheim ramp. Whether didactic, deadpan, or an allusion to the impressive totality of his work (probably all three), the symbol is an idiosyncratic detail the artist desired. Its closest typographic kin, “@,” doesn’t really suffice, even though it aptly lights up the poetically terse, direct address of much of Kawara’s best work, its pre–social media forthrightness. See the postcards to his friends (the “I Got Up” series, 1968–79), which trace his itinerancy and are elegantly pinned between large panes of glass in freestanding displays in this show, and, similarly, the telegrams (from “I Am Still Alive,” 1969–2000), a testament to his “at-ness.” Above all, his longest-running work, the Date Paintings, from the “Today” series, 1966–2013, carry forward this focus on self-reliance, on having a daily practice, and on being directed, if only one way—in a monologue.
Ascending the final, top ramp, one encounters a show within the show: fifty-one of the Date Paintings, marking each year of Kawara’s production, beginning with two canvases from January 12, 2013. Without any fanfare, the exhibition simply ends. January 30, 1966. Drifting back down to the exit, one finds the commencing work from this series, painted on January 4, 1966, in the first gallery. It’s like the eternal return. Kawara’s spiral feels complete.
In Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô (1862), the cannonballs that fall on Carthage have been engraved with insults (“swine,” “vermin”) or else bitchy witticisms (“catch!”), and the victims they strike down have the abuses imprinted on their flesh. Hence the jagged backward writing carved on a cannonball in Caleb Considine’s small but riveting Painting for Salammbô, 2015, reads “I have thoroughly earned it.” The work depicts the piece of artillery in his Brooklyn studio next to a ratty sofa and a crumpled winter jacket. The couch, a Craigslist hand-me-down of woven brown and beige, seems undisturbed by the armament that sits upon it. If the cannonball had fallen from the sky, surely the sofa would have been smashed. Is Considine then, in his studio, the victim of the assault? Or could it be Considine who is preparing to catapult the ball upon those of us who still can’t think through painting, us who “have thoroughly earned it”?
Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education may seem like easier parallels to the naturalistic precision of Considine’s paintings. Yet more than any of Flaubert’s novels, the grandly camp Salammbô offers a model of artistic creation—a naturalism with no documentary aim, a proudly useless perfection—that Considine, with his catapult in the corner of the studio, understands as nothing less than an act of war. And if naturalism were at its core a pessimistic, deterministic style, then perhaps for young artists today it may have new use. History is not fiction, it turns out. History is fate, and to make sense of that dreadful downturn we need art that’s not an umpteenth bloodless critique, but an act of creation as forceful as a cannonball to the chest.
Censorship and sexuality have long been strange bedfellows. “Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship” details around a dozen international episodes of erasure and exclusion over the past half century, in which the frank depiction of queer people and sexualities rubbed up against church, state, and individual bigotry, resulting in physically and psychologically violent acts of censorship. Curated by Jennifer Tyburczy, "Irreverent” importantly includes many previously censored works and brings them renewed exposure. Additionally, through the creative incorporation of diverse ephemera, including installation photographs of censored artwork as well as documentary footage and signs from activist responses, the exhibition deftly contextualizes the sociocultural arenas in which censorship and its ramifications have played out.
Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, and Andres Serrano loom large, the past and more recent censorship of their art acting as lightning rods, to which “standards of decency” (in the words of Jesse Helms) continue to be applied. On view are three Serrano works from “The History of Sex,” 1995, which were vandalized with axes and crowbars in Lund, Sweden, in 2010 by alleged neo-Nazis. The damaged prints themselves are on display, their shattered frames and ravaged images showing where Serrano’s lush, large-scale photos of bestiality and interracial gay fellatio were virulently attacked.
As the world’s only gay and lesbian art museum, this institution is uniquely positioned to “celebrate” censorship in a tongue-in-cheek manner that recuperates these works from a once-criticized position. For instance, an initial display of Alma López’s Our Lady, 1999, a flower-clad Virgin of Guadalupe interpretation supported by a bare-breasted female angel, incited protests from religious communities in Santa Fe for its queering of sacred iconography. López’s image now graces the museum’s entranceway and the cover of its quarterly scholarly publication, a fitting resurrection for this “irreverent apparition.”
The sun sets on a passive-solar conference room, on ergonomic pleather rolling chairs around a glossy table with a conference phone. Everyone’s excited in this video (Elizabeth Orr’s Applied Marketing Topic: Loss Leader [all works 2015]) to talk about a pricing strategy for which the piece and exhibition, Orr’s first solo, take their names. (A loss lead, like a nascent art practice, is something offered at a profit loss in hope of future gain.) Swiveling toward the camera, a corporately assertive acolyte played by the artist Mariana Valencia vaguely declares: “My understanding of loss lead is just in terms of marketing.” Another, played by Emma Hedditch, is eager to learn: “I am going to be interviewing them later this week about strategic meditation in the workplace.”
Such moribund exuberance already suggests the inanimate, and the piece’s installation as a sculpture, closely facing one wall and supported by a metal pole descending from the ceiling, cements its continuity with the abstractions on display. The show has nothing on the walls, and at the center of the gallery are two Formica structures, Ghost Posture and Projected Return, the former’s shape resembling a traffic arrow and the latter’s something like an airport carry-on size-test box. On these stand unframed panes of minimally varied tinted glass, evoking, perhaps, the Instagram filter array, or just how much the history of Minimalism and the pages of a Uline catalogue really have in common. Corporations are disseminators of aesthetics, too—the architectonic mishmash seems to say—and this is what their dreams look like.
The only way to understand the full extent of the revelations of Edward Snowden—the disregard for law, the imbrication of governmental and corporate power, the simultaneously awesome and pointless data harvesting—is to put your own grievances to one side and look from the position of the surveillant. For more than two years, the German artist Simon Menner combed through the archives of the Ministry for State Security and unearthed disturbing, at times bitterly comic photographs of Stasi agents trying on disguises (mustaches, hairpieces, fur coats with flared collars) and practicing hand signals: an outstretched palm or a fist pointing downwards, as structured as an Yvonne Rainer performance. A hundred Polaroids document not just illegally imported coffeemakers and West German marks stuffed into cigarette cases, but also unmade beds and sloppy desks: The agents put everything back after their raids, leaving the surveilled in the dark. The oppressors are watching you. But what do they see, and what do they want to see?
The nine other artists in this show take a more contemporary view of surveillance and of the photographic apparatus’s complicity in repression and privacy violation. For The New Town, 2013, Andrew Hammerand took footage from a CCTV camera set up in a planned American suburb, and the grainy images of teenagers and families have the look of a crime scene. Drone vision, whether in the black-and-white shots of Tomas van Houtryve or the Google Earth appropriations of Mishka Henner, turn life into data. Neither legislation nor public outcry seems to be enough to stop such gazes, and unless you can shrink to a size of a pixel, as Hito Steyerl has recently suggested, you aren’t going to escape. One other way out might be the one proposed by Hassan Elahi. Every week since 2002, he has sent the FBI hundreds of photos of his daily life, flooding the system and rendering it even more worthless.
Lutz Bacher’s current solo exhibition, “For the People of New York City,” feels a lot like a Frank O’Hara poem: clever, buoyant, wistful, and utterly enthralled by all the garbage and loveliness of city existence. Her ability to resuscitate amateur videos, industrial throwaways, or bodega tchotchkes into numinously charged tableaux aligns her with urban visionaries such as Jess or Joseph Cornell, makers seemingly preordained to make even the stupidest of ready-made things exquisite.
Bacher’s Empire (all works 2014) has nothing of the dead-eyed, steely glamour of Andy’s: Hers swings, blurs, and bobs in space on multiple surfaces, translucent and opaque, woozy with luscious, lurid color from a pair of precariously balanced digital projectors. Like a disarrayed Stonehenge, larger-than-life-size windshields made of Plexiglas are scattered throughout the main area of the ground floor, kept upright in metal stands weighted down with sandbags. Images of this famous edifice reflect into and onto one another, all over and at once, creating an atmosphere that’s like a touristy phantasmagoria by way of a boozy Midtown cab ride.
How Will I Find You is perhaps the most funereal experience of the show. What seem to be hundreds of dirty plaster molds and broken figurines of bunnies, bowling pins, and a beheaded Pillsbury Doughboy are collected into a vast heap in the middle of a room, all gathered around two columns. Is it a Canal Street junkyard? A 9/11 elegy? Heavy-handed, homely, and immanently heartbreaking—just like this terrible city that is so dearly loved.
Fragments, ciphers, mirroring, and a whisper about lineage are hung as five oil paintings in Caitlin MacBride’s New York debut. Presenting a mysterious array of oblong forms severed from discernable context, MacBride’s works slink around the alleys of representation but have clearly inhaled the vapors of abstraction and had more than a few liaisons with “Pictures.” Orphaned from any alliances, they look like they’re searching for where they might fit in, as if wandering down art history’s halls, querying David Salle: “Are you my father?”
The two largest works pull the heavier weight of ideas. The first is mysteriously titled Wry Proportion of Its Begetting, 2015, and is predominantly painted a night-colored black and centered by an olive-green display containing three amorphous, articulately rendered blobs all in a line and individually posted on rods or a shelf. They resemble nothing so much as 3-D printed tchotchkes living in a flat monochrome realm cut off from any world except that of race-to-the-black-square minimal painting.
The second, Neck for the Worm Arm, 2015, functions less as a unified composition and more like a layering of competing visions for contemporary painting. A rocky indigo-blue shape in the top center opens a window onto a ghostly white folkloric scene of a deer and a shadowed figure holding out a sword. This interruption in the otherwise color-blocked painting feels cinematic, like an oblique zoom into an intimate scene or a rip in the veil of abstraction. To say that this gentle, even pretty, sight is the painting’s true face emerging from the coded gestures around it, though, would be too trusting given the pieces’ evidently wily nature. Spend the night with them, yes, but in the morning you might not recognize them.
For his second solo exhibition at this gallery, Arthur Ou took fourteen portraits of artists who work primarily within the realm of the photographic—people such as Uta Barth, James Welling, and Moyra Davey—reading parts of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous treatise on the limits of perception and language, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in settings both public and domestic all over the world. Also on view are two R. M. Schindler–inspired chairs on which viewers are encouraged to dally and pore over pocket-size volumes of Wittgenstein’s book, republished in three variations—World, Picture, and Fact—where instances of these three words in the text have been replaced by the artist with the word photograph.
There is a nineteenth-century strain of quiet in this suite of small black-and-white images by Ou. It is a temperament that seems to honor interiority, solitude, and a sort of tender pictorial loveliness—qualities that run counter to the extroverted supergraphic shininess of much contemporary photography. The artist doesn’t seem persuaded by the idea that Photoshop has killed the photograph, either. On the contrary, his exquisitely produced gelatin silver prints seem to announce that analogue photographs, as documents of representation, intention, technology, and time, are more intractable and mysterious than ever, and have a power far stranger than any digitally over-manipulated mutation floating across a screen. Ou’s modest works are as subjectively and materially rich as paintings, a medium we once foolishly thought died from modernity, too.
Jamian Juliano-Villani’s new canvases are huge, bulging, and flat. They panel up the walls and leave almost no empty space. In addition to seeming unmannered, they’re rude. Fly Kama Sutra (all works 2015) swipes through frames of at least three different, disjointed, and frankly unhinged scenarios. To see it in its entirety, you have to step outside the doors and look in through glass. Have you ever been to a tiny, shitty apartment with no real furniture, no food in the cupboards, but then a seventy-two-inch brand-name TV? Juliano-Villani’s third solo exhibition feels a lot like that, inviting judgment from an inner classy mom: This artist is irresponsible; this artist is not spending wisely.
Nor is hers an easy, happy profligacy, as her brushes with cartoon airiness and billboard surrealism suggest. The best painting is the one that looks you square in the eyes, but its own eyes are scratched right out: Penny’s Change is a smear-up of a puffer-jacketed graffiti artist’s selfie and Peter Saul’s Mona Lisa Throws Up Pizza, 1995, with the kind of teeth—big but mostly missing—that appear to you in nightmares about money. If you can bear to zoom in on it, you’ll notice that its surface is greasy, like a screen that’s been touched or spilled on, as if the painting has been handled without any care or maybe with far too much.
In the photographs that compose Martin Beck’s Flowers (set 4) and Flowers (set 5) (both 2015), a bouquet sits in various states of completion, quite corporate in its prim pose, housed in a clear vase and floating in a field of black: This is the empty dream-space of stock photography, where portraits twinkle like Platonic ideals. At first, the arrangement is a bustle of white blooms (the better to slice against the black), while later stages burst into yellow, bloodred, and pink. These are not pictures of flowers but of cleanliness, of bureaucratic pleasantness, of the sanitized cheer kept up by those manicured hands that crane delicately from beyond the frame to fondle the petals and stems. Here at last is the utopia dreamt up by HR manuals and company retreats, a no-place of smiling industriousness and aseptic bliss.
This show sparkles with a glassy politesse that reaches its apex in Strategy Notebook, a video installation in which words such as “question,” “recall,” “reduce,” and “hold back” fade on and off a screen of alternating colors—the terms themselves were lifted from a 1970s “problem-solving” manual. Spliced with the limpid C-prints, the scene is one of workplace bubbliness, bourgeois incentives, and the hardening of entire states of mind (“memorize”) into techniques to be launched at the vaporous challenges that face a whole droning class of white-collar meaninglessness. The words—“chart,” “simulate,” “search”—dissolve and materialize on the cheerful flatness of digitized space, bobbing so gently there that it’s easy to forget what they are: commands.
Erin Shirreff’s art beats between objects and images. Her latest show, “Arm’s Length,” consists of four bodies of work: large-scale cyanotypes, lush pigment-print diptychs, plinth-bound arrangements of plaster geometries, and layered compositions of steel. Its structure is syntactic, defined through a vocabulary of forms that recur across materials and media. Here tapered to a line, there fixed as a photograph, Shirreff’s shapes resist self-containment, meeting in shifting constellations that fail to congeal.
Drop (no. 14) (all works 2015) began as a catalog of curves—the stock stuff of art-school figure drawing—that Shirreff sketched in her studio. Resized to the ready-made parameters of sheets of hot- and cold-rolled steel, the curves coexist as template and cutout, the bend of a semicircle hedging the rectangle from which it was clipped. Isolable and absent jointing, each leans against the gallery wall in mime of the pictorial logic of figure against ground. Cobbled with a sort of calculated casualness, the array seems primed for reconfiguration. A nearby cyanotype, Four strings, literalizes Drop’s insistence on a frontal (and, hence, imagistic) encounter with form. Created through the exposure of sculptural elements to light-sensitive fabric, the image indexes an object that no longer exists. Stretched to a scale typical of postwar abstract painting, its effect is at once factual and vague, the blunt aniconism of its forms contravening the lyricism of its rheumy scale of blues.
Such slippages between photographic, pictorial, and sculptural space organize the installation. Images sidle into objects; objects are percussed into images. In each case, Shirreff’s work appears other to us, close enough to touch yet poised at asymptotic remove: the not-quite nearness of an arm’s length.
In Sanskrit, samsara denotes the endlessly repeating cycle of birth, life, and death, the quality that is, according to Buddhist philosophy, determined by individuals’ actions. Max Greis illustrates this concept in an impressive exhibition of eighteen mixed-media artworks. He packs myriad scenes and tiny details into apocalyptic panoramas that evoke history, war, conquest, development, and environmental devastation.
While from a distance the compositions appear as moody landscapes that evoke Constable or Turner, close viewing reveals the influence of Bosch and Breugel. Where the Buffalo Roamed, 2015, depicts a surreal palimpsest of North America’s occupants: Native Americans and herds of bison, teepees and Conestoga wagons, give way to soldiers, cars, and military barracks. Terraced fields and industrial installations give rise to piles of garbage and the leisurely bourgeoisie. Nearby is the Oklahoma Land Office, a launching rocket, and a satellite dish, deftly evoking a century and a half of exploration and expansion. Above it all fly small planes, fighter jets, and birds of prey. Heaven, hell, animals, humans, titans, and hungry ghosts—the six realms of existence described in Buddhism—are all here.
In several works, Greis projects video footage onto the panels, perfectly matched to the landscapes in scale and perspective, adding yet more layers of time and history. And on a shelf, a row of dioramas set into vintage books extends the exhibition’s themes, with book titles providing ironic commentary: The Future as History, Outside In, Strange Animals I Have Known, Carved in Sand, Only in America, Beyond the Summit.
Squashed under glass like butterflies, a pink down jacket, five Hermès ties, and a human-hair wig lie inside a frame. Peanuts & Turtles & Hunters & Chains & Potted Plants, 2015—named for the items cheerfully printed on the ties—encapsulates the keen wit pervading Nina Beier’s first solo show in New York. The materials are whimsical, but their humor is undercut with horror. The flattened jackets and sleeping bags in this series suggest crushed bodies; the sinuous ties swirling around them become viscera spilled on impact. Flattening the ties allows us to examine them as though they were drops of viral blood viewed through a microscope. The jaunty prints become bizarre and a little sickening. Beier’s interest in exposing the perversity of everyday commodities recalls Mike Kelley’s unnerving arrangements of soiled stuffed animals and yard-sale relics.
In a second series, Beier creates giant glasses that Goliath might use to sip a cosmo. Each one contains objects extracted from photographs—hand sanitizer, scissors, bone—encased in translucent, blue-tinted resin. By placing these items in stemware, Beier points to how we consume ready-made images and to their power to alter our minds, moods, and behavior. The still lifes themselves conjure a tension between preservation and decay. Hair spray and Band-Aids as well as the substrate in which they’re embalmed contrast with fragile, transient tokens of the natural world: dismembered beetles, the shards of a shattered emu egg. These exquisitely cryptic sculptures play on the biblical conversion of water into wine. Metamorphosis lies at the heart of Beier’s work, which so effectively transforms prosaic materials, exploding their contexts and stretching their meanings to startling proportions.
If barbarism is shoved deep into art, it sits snug as a gun in its holster. Let’s call Hito Steyerl’s work an epistemology of the holster. This survey of her videos since 2004 betrays a preoccupation with casings, coverings, capsules: that is, the thin membrane of criticality stretched taut over so much art discourse. Steyerl’s filmed lectures tickle the art world’s left-ish pieties, as we see her—speaking with pedagogical placidity as she gets all political—deliver the eagerly anticipated theoretical assault. And the artist lecture is itself a kind of casing or effluvium, a foam that forms on top, as the art world’s stony concerns—selling, buying, selling again—churn beneath.
Is a Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, a two-channel video installation, presents a theory that dances along by Steyerl’s bracing, associative logic: It knots together the storming of the Hermitage by Russian revolutionaries; the commingling of arms manufacturers and the culture industry; and the technological imaging systems that make possible both the steel flexion of a Frank Gehry structure and of a fighter helicopter. The museum doesn’t simply “reflect” violence but is itself a site of contestation, destruction, and—we hope—retaliation (which is why the seating in the gallery is made of piled sandbags, perfect for ducking enemy fire). The theme is more poignant in the film Guards, 2012, for which Steyerl interviewed museum guards that have served in the armed forces at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her gesture scuffs the polished halls of culture with the mark of state violence.
It’s difficult these days to imagine any work that can’t simply be looped back into capitalism’s cynical embrace like a prodigal son. Not so here: With her pixelated images, her ironic truth-telling, and the coy fluttering of her dialectics, Steyerl dares to see agency in complicity, cunning in crime.
When the 1963 negative for Le Bonheur (1965) lost most of its colors, Agnes Varda had a new one created to look more original than the first. The name given to things more original is artifice, but Varda has said that the film’s palette was exactly as she found it in nature, a truth that applies itself well to the realaesthetik of painter Lisa Yuskavage.
Opening with the green-on-green oil-on-linen Bonfire, which is split in two panels of equal, familiar brilliance, the exhibition unreels into a series of canvases obscured in shades of fog, letting iridescence win over her signature scale-tipping chromaticism. A second surprise: The woman who for years has felt like painting other women now also feels like painting a number of men, some of whom she affectionately termed “dudes” in the titles of her works. Others appear with babes, peek up from supine positions (The Neighbors, 2014) or fan out in splendor from behind (Hippies, 2013). Most of these boys are coyer, cuter, and more virginal than the feminine subjects we’ve often mistaken for “girls.”
But if her subjects-as-objects have always been grown, her style is matured—tenderer, reveling in awe. It’s rare that we get to see a famous painter changing before our eyes, especially so late in a game she has already won (though fans of John Currin, her straightforward counterpart, may have a different opinion). In a show that extends her career-long field day with color, a sunset coda—three pieces in finely splayed pastels over ink-jet on paper, each re-presenting a scene or a subject from her oils—gives us a chance to see Yuskavage’s figures in a state that feels closer to her nature, as heavenly and earthy as it is.
Trenton Doyle Hancock works in a baroque grotesque, from portraits whose emetic intricacy recalls George Grosz to centerless, Boschian tableaux. This retrospective starts with drawings from the artist’s childhood and maps his career’s uncanny continuity up to the present season. Already in the heavy graphite wobble of a ten-year-old, Hancock had chosen Torpedoboy as his avatar, a caped and hero-diapered character who would appear throughout the decades and here adorns a site-specific installation of his 2002 series “Studio Floor.”
This drawing series is the exhibition’s garish centerpiece, with captions in acrylics below each frame narrating the superhero’s theft of tofu from the bony, bone-white, repulsively awkward beings known as the Vegans. This begins to read as an episode of an ongoing racial conflict (another work on display, Vegans Send Newly Acquired Moundmeat to the Tofu Converter, 2004, reveals the creatures’ sacred pabulum to be made out of their darker rivals), but the story devolves with a gorgeously absurd narrative absentmindedness. Torpedoboy escapes, gets distracted by a prostitute, performs some anxious scat play in a hotel room, then falls asleep alone beside a nasty, worm-segmented dildo.
The series’ use of walls and frames in the manner of a cartoon panel sequence marks Hancock’s expansion from the page to other forms, among which are his pizza-box paintings, animations, and the frightening cutout series “Step and Screw,” 2014. Describing the development of Torpedoboy alongside Philip Guston’s “Klansmen” paintings and racist killings in the South, the subject matter draws the viewer in, then it disorients with too much information. It is the artist’s favorite strategy.
The 450 photographs that comprise Wolfgang Tillmans’s slideshow Book for Architects, 2014, first seen last year in Rem Koolhaas’s Venice architecture biennale, pull off a neat trick: They turn down objectivity and subjectivity at once. Shot with no specialized equipment, his photos dissent from the pristine midcentury architecture photography of Ezra Stoller or Julius Shulman, but Tillmans muffles his own voice through spontaneous cropping, unmediated lighting, and indifference to scale. Many of the images come from London—and few artists since Hogarth have made that city look as vile as Tillmans, with his shots of the rebarbative new city skyline, comically ugly Vauxhall condos, or the money launderers’ palaces known as One Hyde Park. Others evince cool, downbeat placelessness: HVAC systems in Russia or Korea, anonymous towers in Berlin or India, airport security lines, a doorknob, an elevator.
Early in his career, Tillmans would tape or pin his relaxed, vernacular photographs directly to gallery walls, and favorite images—of his friends Lutz Huelle and Alexandra Bircken in the forest, or a backpacker encountering a deer on the beach—would repeat in his installations for years. Those recurrences bugged a lot of people, but Tillmans was onto something: He turned his own output into a perpetually renegotiable archive, a memory bank wherein individual images matter less than their relations and their redeployment.
Book for Architects, with its unidentified locations and slideshow presentation, reaffirms that transmission and circulation matter as much or perhaps more to Tillmans than form or place. “Architecture today is little more than cardboard,” Koolhaas averred in Venice last year, and Tillmans, on the evidence, wouldn’t seem to disagree. Yet Tillmans is smart enough to know what you can do with cardboard—the perfect medium for the projection of past memories and dreams that never came true.
There is the problem of eyelashes. The six unnerving photographs that Laurie Simmons displays here feature interchangeable models against perky colored backgrounds: vapid, prosaic images from a fashion world where Vogue is no longer distinct from twelve-year-olds’ makeup lessons on YouTube. But the eyelashes: Overpainted on the upper lid, much too thick on the lower one. It takes a few seconds to notice—compliments to the dexterity of this maker’s hand—that the models’ eyes are actually clamped shut, and irises and pupils have been painted over their lids. What gives the game away are the lashes—the lower lashes are in fact upper lashes: monstrous, spidery antennae, markers of an enduring but diseased humanity on bodies that makeup and Photoshop have otherwise scrubbed of biology.
In The Land of Green Plums, 1994, the Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller writes of the body as a pell-mell cluster of organs, any one of which could betray the others. “If you control your face, it slips into your voice,” she writes. “If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers.” Like Müller, Simmons employs the techniques of Surrealism not as a dated language for internal fantasy, but to express the very real effects of external pressures on the body, the psyche, that thing we used to call the soul. There’s no point going inward, these images say; even your imagination has been spoiled, and the dream you dream with your eyes closed tight belongs, if we’re honest, to the international conglomerate that sold you the mascara. Put on a brave face for the camera, but the body cannot withstand the onslaught; keep the pain behind your eyelids, and it will slip out through your lashes.
If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.