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.
The cosmic nightscapes riotously abloom in Harold Ancart’s new works on canvas land us on an exotic planet. Vibrant plants, bonfires, and astral confetti in the show’s seven oil-stick paintings thrum in tropical colors against abundant, magnetic fields of black that concentrate contemplation, evoking lacquerware worlds. But if believable blossoms top stems here, so do moons and gradient disks resembling telescopic iris shots onto other planet floors, upending figure-ground certainties. The echo between a restless treelike shape in one painting and airborne sawtooth blobs in another (all works untitled, 2015) enacts these paintings’ own shifting states of coalescence and disassembly, like cloud clusters or avian flocks. Seen up close, even the color-flecked carbon black sometimes suggests ripped rind more than deep space.
The history of painting that lives in these works like chromosomal traces enriches such dimensional unknowns. Fauvist and Symbolist flavors are joined by AbEx and Minimalist devices, such as in the neat horizontal shelf of white paint frosting one work’s upper band, unaffected by the big stylized bonfire below that is the painting’s apparent subject. Discrete veins of color and encroaching edges recall Clyfford Still’s seismic fissures, while the single pin-thin verticals of white paint suspended in two works seem equally mindful of AbEx zips and Asian folding screens. The show’s sole small work, pictorially nearly identical to the big bonfire painting, faces the latter on the opposite wall, like a portrait or a progeny, as if either fantasia were indeed life-size.
This is the planet of painting, after all, and Ancart’s space exploration is the exploration of painted space: More than depicting petals and flames, how might a painting itself grow like a flower, ignite like fire, and bring about forms that thrive as life-forms in the otherworld it always is?
Is it too much to say that the most humane objects—cups, books, shirts, and socks—the things that regularly get intimate with us, often find themselves packed into cardboard boxes? An exhibition of sculptures, costumes, and performance documentation by Susan Cianciolo, “If God Comes to Visit You, How Will You Know? (The Great Tetrahedral Kite)” focuses on the designer and artist’s “kits,” selections of materials, tools, and ephemera collected in decorated cardboard boxes. Much of the contents are part of Run, her deconstructive fashion line emphasizing customization and personal relationships, for which she collaborated with Bernadette Corporation, Rita Ackermann, and Mike Mills, among others.
Remember Kids Activity Kit, 2004–14, includes a star pin, crystals, elaborately crocheted child-size dresses, skirts, and sweaters, linen fairy wings, clay pieces, inky paintings, and book images. It’s difficult to speak of glitter and pins, dolls and bits of string, without feeling twee—but at stake here is the relationship between care, labor, and materials. Other kits contain instructions for making a generic shirt, journals, and sketchbooks, as well as antique and vintage fabrics, which are at once diaristic and instructional. They are small calls to action, ingredients suggesting free-form recipes, invitations to improvise and to depart from standardization: “Make a sweatshirt that’s right 4 U!” reads a scrawl on Do-It-Yourself Sweatshirt Kit, 2001–15. Performers in a variety of headscarves at the show’s opening sat by the boxes and took visitors through their contents. Cianciolo continually reworks the contents of the kits–reconstituting, revising and restarting–offering different reconfigurations to equip for personal care and expression. If most human lives end with boxes, it seems like here that something is carefully trying to begin, and begin, and begin again.
For an exhibition of more than sixty items produced largely since the turn of the millennium, “Drawings: Studies for Works 2000–2015” coheres with an unusual syncopation. Little wonder that these ink-jet prints, gouaches, ink drawings, and other media works on view by Seth Price, whose heterogeneous output has often concerned distribution as much as it has distraction. Some pieces such as Books are Weapons, 2003, read as bits or fragments from a broader narrative, as if excerpted from an author’s meandering plot: This pen-and-graphite drawing displays a cartoonish publication against an upright, modest Victorian home, extolling that “Books are weapons . . . and houses, etc.” One windowpane is likened to an unsavory insect’s nine eyes, which all resemble monitors. Another work, Study for a Christian Novel, 2001–2002, summarily outlines a grand narrative that remains unwritten, depicting a flowchart prophesying incidents of mass migration, stockpiled cash of the 1 percent, plague-like religious conversion, and a “cult of the individual.”
Many studies glimpse presciently toward today, with its de facto modes of shambolic messaging and devout narcissism. Study for Confusion, 2003, lists the tent poles of balanced living, as if typed by a frenzied multitasker: “Wrok, Fmaily, Freidns.” Bisexual Litigator, 2013, labels an insufferably—and amusingly—individualized suitor: “Steeped in critical theory + psychoanalysis as well as Torah, high-powered and intense, looking to meet same.” As a whole, this boisterous array of works sketches out a musing, heretofore an overlooked layer of Price’s inquisitive yet otherwise materially infatuated practice—a mode of production that hangs in the balance between thinking and making.
“Profiled: Surveillance of a Sharing Society” starts off with a peculiar Instagram account belonging to James Bridle, its square images displayed both on a tablet and as a streaming projection. Dronestagram, 2012–, chronicles Google Earth locations where, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone attacks are taking place. Far from depicting the magnitude of the carnage on the ground, the aerial perspectives result in video-game-like imagery. The havoc, however, lies in some of the viewers’ “no filter” comments evincing a woeful ignorance of the matter.
Noteworthy is Paulo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico’s installation Face to Facebook, 2011, titled after the pair’s fake dating website built out of one million scraped Facebook profile pictures, which caused the ire of both the general public and the titular social network. The installation consists of a video showing different news channels’ reporting on the incident; a tablet where viewers can browse the website, which is no longer accessible online; three large panels filled with anonymous faces that were used for the social experiment; and a binder where a fierce though wryly written legal correspondence between Facebook’s and the artists’ attorneys unfurls. While the two parties fight over ethics and image rights, what becomes evident here is the absence of the users’ control over their own images, which are being treated like currency.
On the wall facing this piece, Julia Scher’s Mothers Under Surveillance, 1993, pays homage to the panopticon. Alternating between footage of a women’s nursing home and live footage of the gallery, the viewer intermittently goes from voyeur to subject. Amid all these thought-provoking pieces, Apexart’s very own watchful CCTVs go almost unnoticed.
If the Internet has come to bolster geographically dispersed tendencies and social groupings in the world of contemporary art, the price it has levied for this connectivity and acceleration has been the triumph of the image as the dominant vessel of influence. In their New York debut, Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel present a precise body of sculpture that lays siege to that dominance in the Beaux Arts townhouse where the gallery recently reopened. In this buildingonce owned by nineteenth-century merchant and art collector Cornelius Bliss and on the same walls where his daughter would hang works by Picasso and ModiglianiDewar and Gicquel have installed two strangely proportioned, handmade wool tapestries. When we see the works, they appear as hugely oversized wool sweaters. Too large to be donned, the truth of the lush, richly woven works rests in the volume of space they inhabit with their pliable contours and organic texture. In this sense, they challenge us to subjugate vision to a material presence that refuses to be subsumed by it. What better material than wool, the fiber of both resilience and warmth, could be pitted against the indifference of imagistic conditioning that would reduce a six-foot-tall tapestry to a piece of clothing?
The other works in the exhibition stalk a similar vector of attack: Hand-carved earthenware sculptures approximate a toilet and a wash basin set with such exacting detail that they seem they could be functionally deployed given the right plumbing. Their organic patinas of muddied green dance away from ideas of the readymade with which a viewer might meet them. The pitcher accompanying the basin provides a more elusive movement: Standing on a large foot, it evokes some unspecified near past. Its empty form tempts a figurative reading, but the work’s straight-faced rendering is an end only to itself. There are no molds or reproductions after all, but only a way for the artists to continue working.
Three works in David Maljkovic’s current show share the title Out of Projection: Two ink-jet-on-aluminum collages, both 2009/2014, and an HD video, 2009–14, depict retired Peugeot workers at a test track, milling around prototypes that look at once flamboyantly futuristic and hopelessly outdated. These works are set against wallpaper that reproduces a sparse view of Maljkovic’s 2014 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, whose interior is similar enough to Metro Pictures’s that the skewed black-and-white floor-to-ceiling images are mildly disorienting. More than producing a simple vertiginous effect, the installation poses questions with wider purchase: What happens when an artist’s work moves from institution to gallery? What is the purpose of literally transposing new works (for Maljkovic, this descriptor seems perpetually uncertain) onto past exhibitions?
Compounding this ambiguous status of artworks and documentation, a slide presentation titled In Low Resolution, 2014, shows images from the artist’s archive with some areas reduced to blocks of oversize pixels. It’s reminiscent of the televised censoring of nude bodies, a process of obfuscation that also tantalizes. Among the eighty slides are images of the Peugeot prototypes, along with production cars bearing indecipherable interventions. A hatchback has what appear to be round gray blocks adjacent to its wheels, but the indeterminacy of the rendering makes it difficult to distinguish impediment from improvement. It’s a compelling analogy for Maljkovic’s process-based critique of memory and historical narrative, in which the refusal to come to a conclusion is both an acutely political choice and a significant source of vitality.
History does not remember Marjorie Strider as well as it should. Tom Wesselmann, Mel Ramos, and Roy Lichtenstein were all contemporaries of hers in the 1960s, and there was a great deal of overlap in all their subject matter: Crayon-colored Pop representations of the female form. But what Strider didn’t do, which her dudely confreres did, was to subject her women to the burnishing effects of male Eros. Even the most embittered of Roy’s girls always wanted Brad back, pretty-perfect in crisp lines, red lips, tears, and distress. Strider wasn’t big on this form of boy’s-club fantasy and gaze—her ill-at-ease, uninviting ladies would rather see Brad’s head on a fucking pike.
This gorgeous miniretrospective of Strider’s works from 1958 to ’74—drawings, collages, sculptures, and bas-relief sculpture/paintings—are abrasive reconfigurations of midcentury American “femaleness,” subtly roiling in their formal discomfiture and attitude, a kind of voluptuousness threateningly rendered in a manner that evokes tumors. Only one of the artist’s famously bumper-boobed women is on display—Come Hither, 1963—a Liz Taylor doppelgänger in black and white with a rictus and slightly crossed eyes. But Strider’s caustic take on feminine softness and desirability comes across just as vividly in her still lifes, where “domestic” objects stand in for irritated female bodies, as in Untitled (Graters) and Untitled (Shakers), both 1973–74, a series of homely cheese graters and spice shakers oozing Lynda Benglis–style blobs of rotted-out, Play Doh–looking guts.
Green Horizontal (Jolly), 1964, looks like a prop out of an old Green Giant commercial, where, perhaps, a happy housewife pointed winningly to its pair of misshapen 3-D lima beans, ready to plop out of their pod. Are they dead ovaries? Or maybe even a sad sack of balls? They are all of the above, surely—and a funny, withering rejoinder to the pro-bro stylings of first-generation Pop.
Titled after Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” this exhibition draws on cybernetics in order to explore both utopic and dystopic systemic themes in art. Most acute, Brenna Murphy’s labyrinthine digital renderings of light and space seem to crystallize Brautigan’s vision of a “cybernetic meadow,” where idle humans are nurtured and sheltered in a technocratic paradise. The halcyon days of computer-science technologies that Brautigan envisions are difficult to imagine. Moreover, familiarity with his satiric writing leads one to believe that the poem is tongue-and-cheek in revealing the dark edges of a techno-utopia: surveillance and communication control.
Drawing out a long history of cybernetic fantasy, the earliest work on view also harks back to the late 1960s. Paul Laffoley’s The World Self, 1967, a diagrammatic pink-hued painting, resembles the tightly controlled aesthetics of system painting of the 1960s but lacks the rigor of actual scientific inquiry. Through its lack of cohesive meaning, it manages to operate in what Robert Smithson saw as the evasiveness of systems in art. Additionally, Lee Mullican’s methodic abstractions, here from the 1970s, attest to his experiments in a fictive-science abstraction from as early as the 1950s.
In our current self-assured technophilia, we imagine digital technology as a more objective approach to classification, which can resulting in less systemic prevarication. See Michael Portnoy's Kalochromes seemingly faithful bitmapped screen-prints of kale, which camouflage an encrypted image of a future trend-setting vegetable. Because the images deny the viewer full visual access, they also hamper full assimilation of information. Themes of systemic failure and distortion are carried through in Shannon Ebner’s black-and-white photographs of a poem, as she translates words into form, data, in a style reminiscent of the dot-matrix printer. Iman Issa’s information-based and unreliable reconstructions of canonical works of art remind us that systemic production has countless trajectories, which continuously engage in regression, actualization, dissolution, and recomposition within the same works. Conceptually rigorous and visually arresting, the exhibition, like the poem, manages to convey the enchantment and unease of our cybernetic universe.
James “Son Ford” Thomas began making skulls at the age of ten with the intent to scare his grandfather. Not amused, Thomas’s grandfather cried out when he encountered the first memento mori, ordering Thomas to get rid of the clay likeness. Not deterred, Thomas tied a string to his grandparents’ bedsprings, ran it through a crack in the wall, and tugged at it during the night—assuming the posture of a true prankster. He wanted to “shake ’em up.”
Thomas recounts this anecdote in documentary footage presented in his first major institutional presentation, “The Devil and His Blues.” In a succession of rooms that organize works by their figurative content, birds, caskets, busts, and dioramas join Thomas’s skulls. Working with unfired clay found in the earth of his native Mississippi, Thomas made facial features from resonant materials: an untitled, undated likeness of George Washington has cotton hair and marbles for eyes, and an untitled skull from 1989 features aluminum foil eye sockets and teeth made of pebbles. These small sculptures (few exceed ten inches in any dimension) upset expectations: the skulls were often made for humdrum use—as pencil holders, ashtrayswhile the placid birds obliquely reference a prohibition that prevented African Americans from hunting meat-rich quail.
Thomas is widely known as a Delta blues musician, and he also worked as a sharecropper and a gravedigger. Presentations of Thomas’s work are bound to explore the reverberations of these occupations, but this exhibition wisely avoids leaning heavily on mythic backstory. Idiosyncratic as Thomas can seem, he stakes out a generous foothold in the jumble of experiences, preoccupations, and passions that make up the textures of American life.
Chicago Imagism: second-rate Pop from a Second City that had its moment—for about a second—too many years ago. This, of course, is all bullshit, but it is the narrative that’s been built around this Midwestern movement of painting and sculpture, which privileged interiority, eccentricity, folksiness, and craft—aspects that seemed woefully out of step with what was happening in New York and Europe during the 1960s and ’70s.
Roger Brown, one of Chicago’s finest, was an inveterate collector of things and their stories, and his catholic tastes—from carnie art to dime store kitsch, images of the apocalypse, and even Kenny Rogers—permeated his extraordinary body of work. His current outing, “Virtual Still Life,” gathers eleven objects he made during the ’90s and might be one of the loveliest shows to hit New York this summer. Here, paintings pose as theatrical backdrops for a variety of found or thrifted vessels (primarily ceramic), elegantly arranged on lacquered shelves attached to the paintings’ frames.
Think of these works as little Haim Steinbachs, sans cynicism and postmodern pedantry, exquisite in their quasi-religious displays of pattern, play, and gentle humor. Brown’s painting/shrines feel like hybrids of Charles Rennie Mackintosh wallpaper and psychedelic band posters. Some are inhabited by tiny silhouettes of people, either enamored or aghast by the luscious fields of color splayed out before them, like miniature Dorothys about to be swallowed up by their rainbows. Virtual Still Life #12: Modernistic Planter With Half A Desert Painting, 1995, is a triangular wing nut of a work that flirts shamelessly with full-on grandma decor. It is pretty, nostalgic, and beautifully made—déclassé in all the best ways.
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.
In Andrea Crespo’s company, more than two is far from a crowd. The artist’s second solo show their first in New York is themed by “multiple systems”—the state of being one or two or six in a single body—but it’s less an expedition into relatively unmarked territory than it is a slumber fort for those who’ve never really been at home. Four microfiber shades, drawn with hydra-headed creatures, lead-colored flecks, and/or pale motifs such as the Celexa logo, palliate the sun in the windows. On the floor, a small machine (polymist: echolalic transponder, 2015) tries to sift remembering from pain using Crespo’s Eraserhead-ish score and an EMDR light bar, the flickers of which you track with your eyes, catlike, while sitting on a puzzle piece of foam. Mirroring the adage that the artist’s therapy is art itself, “polymorphoses” makes the viewer be patient. Eventually it’s the first time in years you’ve stood alone in a gallery and felt seen. “I am all of yourselves,” Clarice Lispector said, and so could Crespo.
An eleven-minute video, parabiosis: neurolibidinal induction complex 2.2, 2015, mixes more creatures and puzzle pieces with bar codes and squiggles and such affirmations as “you are a signal,” followed by lists of URLs and jargon, yet all of it is language all the same. Crespo’s portmanteaus alone are worth the trip, such as teratosyzygy (host), 2015, where the prefix for “monstrous” or “birth defective” meets the astronomical term for the alignment of three heavenly bodies. One result of said syzygy is an eclipse, which is also what the artist’s reflective brilliance does to lingering questions about their identity. Yet theirs is no après-Net attempt to occlude responsibility by sustaining the hoax of dead authorship; rather, they mean to spread authorship, sharing a body of work with others—for example, by commissioning illustrations from members of their community on DeviantArt—as righteously as they share their physical body.
Crespo’s fort has a purely material trendiness: Cables lace the room, data-security boxes stud, a Game Boy comes out to play. Even the fuzzy avatars and corresponding aliases for different selves aren’t altogether original to their practice. None of that matters. As we all know from fairy tales, lots of children owned the same toys, but only a few could make them live—and Crespo is one of the few, no matter how many they may be.
Regarded for his role as a painter, teacher, and critic, Andrew Forge created a visual language with the aim of reconciling perception and representation. In this latest presentation of his work, featuring nineteen paintings dating from the 1990s up to his death in 2002, the dotted and dashed compositions create a sensory Morse code capable of captivating viewers. These images reverberate with hints of fleetingly identifiable forms and employ a great variety of brushstrokes exploring the emotive possibilities of shape and color built from small, simple forms.
An untitled yellow-and-green watercolor from 1996 invites the viewer to swim, wade, or climb through the individual sensory units that compose the work. The eye follows a suggested diagonal divide created by earthy green dots integrated across the painting. The overlap and variability of each shape allows the fragments to read as an organic whole of unknown depth.
Downstairs, the oil-on-canvas painting April, 1991–92, displays a dynamic combination of colored dots, layered and arranged to create vague suggestions of form along with splotches of descriptive color, translating the sensory impressions of a late April day into a large-scale composition. In this piece, as throughout his work, Forge sought to address a particular query he expressed in a 1975 piece for Artforum: “What does any attribute of the outside world mean—what makes it worth commenting upon or isolating or trying to recreate on any level?” This examination of isolation is evoked by the individual, energetic elements that coalesce to form each painting.
It begins with a darkened room and a gleeful sheer-noise terror from a blank screen—a ghoul running its tendrils up and down musical keys, head thrown back and shredding out its wet, throaty mating call. It’s the 1990s Providence collective Forcefield, of course—audio tracks and a video dispatched straight from some utopian past. The impudence implied by the title of this exhibition of Chicago’s Hairy Who and Bay Area Funk artists, in addition to the freaks and no-goodniks of collectives Destroy All Monsters and Forcefield, is apropos. Then again, any nerves one might bring on board for this show are well ironed out by the latter’s don’t panic room.
With the mood set, amble on over to the other two galleries of paintings, sculptures, shrouds, beautified chairs, prints, drawings, zines, and a small pink plastic purse resembling a hat box for the shrunken among us. Purse Curse, 1968, is one of a few works included by Suellen Rocca, a painter associated with Hairy Who. A larger oil painting by her, Chocolate Chip Cookie, 1965, sticks an unassuming title to a work chock-full of big chip ideas and sweetly endearing imagery rendered in a palette of cocoa, lavender, and mint green. Nearby, fellow Hairy Who-er Gladys Nilsson and it-came-from–San Francisco troll Peter Saul make cartooning as strange as pure abstraction must have looked when it first debuted.
Though the works here tend to hail from the ’60s and ’70s via under-the-radar locales, early works by pivotal figures such as Mike Kelley attest to a slow-burn tension between the mainstream circulation of art objects and the fringes of artistic production and existence. Who needs the other side more?
Ruth Root’s Untitled, 2014–15, is a slightly larger-than-life, irregularly shaped canvas, which at seven feet high both relates to and dwarfs the average viewer. Big Top–like striped diagonals at the base and then flotsam and jetsam patternmaking at the top define its shape, which is primarily a parallelogram intersecting a rectangle. Suspended by grommets, the painting reveals sections of the gallery wall particularly when small textile rectangles nestle into a larger identical section of fabric. Never quite aligning, the collage of shapes affirms an intrinsic disjointed structure. Defying the anthropomorphism of sculpture, the illusionism of painting, and the object-hood of similarly scaled Minimalist outputs, its imbalance reinforces a tentative relationship to the body.
Root designs her textiles capturing a repetitive mode of patternmaking evocative of the mass-produced and ubiquitous. Multitudinous sources for her patterns can be noted: 1940s feed sack dresses, candy wrappers, 1980s Memphis furniture that has been flattened out against the wall. Familiar and yet also abstruse patterns pervade: Is that a golf ball floating beside a triangular yellow and orange sun?
Untitled is one of many unnamed works, all exceedingly flat explorations of color, line, and printed patterns. Because of the assymmetry of her canvases, Root is commonly compared to Frank Stella; however, here and in her earlier work, she echoes the lesser-known output of Leo Valledor. In contradistinction with both of these artists, she joins her painted sections to wallpaper-like selections of fabrics. The segmentation between paint and fabric is pronounced, but both areas carry all-over ornamentation. Remarkably, with pattern rather than volume, Root wittily explores the possibility of painting’s integration in and detachment from architecture, resulting in an alluringly capacious scopic field for the viewer.
A particular smell clings to New York City’s Chinatown in the summer. The aroma makes its way to Orchard Street. It inflects the eight drawings hanging at Room East. These direct cartoons depict FATEBE. FATEBE is artist Ebecho Muslimova’s alter ego. We may not know Muslimova, but FATEBE is a black line on white ground. And Fatebe is doing things (think Garbage Pail Kids). FATEBE is playing with herself; she is playing with her fat body. She stares at her face in a stream of shit. She twists her form into a mess on the potter’s wheel. She folds her flab over a wire. She flatulates out into the open. She digs up dirt with her hands. She drapes her flesh over handrails. She offers us a view of her symmetrical vagina.
But seriously, what compels us to gape at FATEBE? Why does our gaze linger so readily, so openly? These drawings thrust in front of us what we will to push aside. FATEBE taps into the drive that lures us downtown. She makes us inhale the foul stench of the moistest nights. She throws at us that which we are required to withstand: our bodies, our selves. FATEBE is a sinister feminist. She wildly grins.
Superheroes are born from the worst of times: Think of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s sexy, Semitic Übermensch coming to life on the eve of World War II, or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s psychedelic mutant marvels arriving the same year President Kennedy was assassinated. Hollywood’s bombarded us with all manner of muscle-bound escapism, especially over the last fifteen years, making fabulous bank by exploiting this country’s broken spirits from enervating wars, rotten politics, and economic crises.
For this exhibition, seven artists offer wan and parodic meditations on the superhero mantle, putting threatened, pliant, or ailing bodies into scenarios and costumes that offer little room for shiny, celebratory, CGI-style evasion. Jason Bard Yarmosky’s Whispering Grass, 2015, is a tenderly grotesque oil portrait of his grandmother in the throes of dementia, decked out in a pink wig and decrepit Wonder Woman costume, her aged skin as lovingly rendered as the dying field of grass in which she stands. Mark Newport’s, Bat Man 3, 2006, is a rendering of the Dark Knight in lurid detumescence—a hand-knit, adult-sized onesie that hangs feebly from the ceiling, an outfit more threateningly infantilizing than empowering. And Peter Williams’s three paintings from the series “Common & Proper Nouns: The N–Word,” 2015, depict a masked and caped black crusader, N-Word, fighting off cops and crackers in a style that seems a bold marriage of Ben Shahn, Dana Schutz, and Nicole Eisenman.
One won’t find any cartoon posturing or machismo in this show, simply because the artists participating are smart enough to understand that revealing vulnerability is in and of itself a remarkably powerful thing.
The marble Buddha laughs benevolently, luxuriating, on one side. His follower, a worried-looking marble snowman, stares back. He seems to be realizing that he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell at this whole enlightenment thing. Artist Peter Regli cleverly comments on metamorphosis through more than fifty small groups of these knee-high characters. Watching the deities serenely teach their lumpy, half-melted little acolytes is highly amusing—they make such unlikely pairs. Yet, the snowmen become relatable stand-ins for us humans, desperately seeking wisdom and meaning before it’s too late. To tackle the transience of life with so much humor isn’t easy, and Regli’s results are oddly moving.
Regli, who refers to this and other projects as “reality hacking,” gave photographs of Buddha tchotchkes, snowmen, and toys to marble carvers in Da Nang, Vietnam, who fabricated the sculptures. Before this commission, the craftsmen only produced a few traditional Buddha types for temples. And they had never seen snow. By introducing this foreign subject matter, Regli seems to be hacking their reality as well as the visual expectations of his viewers. That the statues are all carved in marble highlights their formal similarities—balls of snow echoing bald heads and round bellies—at the same time that it places them in conversation with classical Western sculpture, the slumping snowmen providing comic foils for the idealized bodies of ancient Greece. Their kinship extends beyond medium, though. All sculptures, Regli seems to point out, spring from a common human need to create characters in our own image. From eternal gods on altars to snowmen in suburban backyards, we grapple with time through sculpture, watching some weather the centuries while others slip away with the seasons.
Dismissed as craft for decades, fiber as a sculptural medium is finally getting its much deserved due. The recent rediscovery of its many forgotten pioneers continues with this modest but must-see survey of work by the seventy-two-year-old Françoise Grossen—astonishingly, the New York–based Swiss artist’s first ever survey in the United States.
Dangling languidly from the ceiling, Grossen’s sculptures are largely constructed through the repetition of simple everyday actions like twisting, braiding, and coiling, using two basic types of knots. Though primarily abstract, they cannot help but evoke bodies, owing to their palpable weight, soft contours, textured surfaces, and roughly human scale. While the modular structure of Five Rivers, 1974, acknowledges Minimalism, its row of five vertical stacks of plaits, varying in color, thickness, and length, resembles a festive conga line. Some of the braids in each stack reach across to their neighbor, draped casually on them like an arm resting on a friendly shoulder.
The five works from Grossen’s “Metamorphosis” series, 1987–90, are less cordial. Fiber is supplemented with plaster, plastic, paper, and acrylic paint, introducing smooth but sticky surfaces and rigid, bulbous protrusions. With their ashen surfaces, tinged with blood red and mustard yellow, these works summon fossils or eviscerated carcasses, all ribs, spines, and skins. Some are topped with a thick loop of cord, which, doubled over, strongly suggests a broken or cut neck, a simple abstraction that brings to mind the image of a lynched body.
In contrast, the most recent works, a trio from 1991 named after the three graces (Euphrosyne, Aglaia (Pink Touch), and Thalia (All Natural)), are positively buoyant, showcasing the almost fleshy beige of natural fiber. Vertical loops of thick phallic coils and soft undulating sheets are nested together to create delicate furrows and folds, playfully implying female genitalia while simultaneously re-creating the rhythm and lyricism traditionally associated with the oft-represented classical motif. Given that these were completed close to twenty-five years ago, one wonders about Grossen’s subsequent output. The understated strength of this sample suggests that a more in-depth presentation of her work is both warranted and inevitable.
“I’m gonna unwrap Reality Bites, and I’m gonna watch it,” Eileen Maxson announces in a video currently on view at the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York. The statement follows a careful recitation of the 1994 film’s cast, characters, and overarching premise as well as an appraisal of the current price for an unwatched, shrink-wrapped VHS copy—$21—one of which Maxson is shown covetously unwrapping for the duration of the piece. Its plastic sheath gleams against a ’90s-informercial-blue backdrop as she slowly rotates the tape, forcing the viewer to scrutinize the container of the film to which the entire show is devoted.
Reality Bites aspired to map the territory of Generation X, steering four recent college graduates through jejune Houston and their respective swamps of disenchantment. They’re bogged down by unforgiving bosses, conservative parents, and—worst of all—working at the Gap. Maxson dedicates her videos, sculptures, and images to the film’s best one-liner cries of ironic detachment. Janeane Garofalo’s character laughingly remarks that “Evian” is “naive” backwards; Maxson hires workers from around the world to photograph themselves holding a banner that reads either of the two words, and she prints the images on a thirteen-foot scroll of receipt paper. In a nearby half-hour-long video, the artist prompts scores of women to define the word irony, in a re-creation of Winona Ryder’s iconic ordeal.
Nothing kills a joke quite like repeating it, and Maxson cleverly plays upon Reality Bites’s strained affect of coolness by bestowing it with the studied zeal of a teenage fan. The film yearned to cultivate a metanarrative that could escape the materialistic dead end of mainstream ’90s culture, and Maxson is adept at playing upon the contradiction of its own manufactured discontent. Does the VHS tape she clasps in her hands hold the power to conjure generational ennui? Her subjects don’t have to explain irony; she has already shown us for them.
“The People of Town N,” the title of Nikolay Bakharev’s second solo exhibition at this gallery, refers to Novokuznetsk, the artist’s hometown in southwestern Siberia, where he’s managed to capture an assortment of its denizens in various stages of unguardedness or vulnerability for more than thirty years.
Novokuznetsk is a mill city—steel, iron—and the hardness of its environs can be read on the faces and bodies of Bakharev’s subjects. Though most of the pictures were taken after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bakharev’s people seem, at least from the perspective of Western eyes, to be trapped in the amber of impoverished, Communist-era aesthetics—outdoors or in their cramped apartments, in seventies hair styles and secondhand polyester swimsuits, with a few black market–looking American records or magazines lying about.
But the joy of Bakharev’s work is in his depictions of eroticism and camaraderie. See friends and strangers lying about in the woods in (Relationship #8, 1986-90) or smiling and getting drunk together in (Relationship #105, 2001), or various men and women (mostly women) posing in next to nothing or nude, exultant in their bodies in these moments of sweet, seditionary exhibitionism (it was forbidden to show or even take pictures of naked bodies during Russia’s Soviet years). Like so many documentary photographs, Bakharev’s work is unyielding in its moles-and-all frankness, but his touch is unequivocally tender—a chronicler of a great and immersive love among so many ruins.
The subtitle of the Tom of Finland exhibition currently at Artists Space, “The Pleasure of Play,” points to a key aspect of the artist’s work: its fundamental cheerfulness. Tom, who admired the work of Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell alike, gave his homoerotic drawings of well-muscled men in uniform (and in various states of undress) a subtly wholesome bent. He once vowed, “My men were going to be proud and happy men.” His young bucks’ cocks are mammoth, but often their good-natured grins are bigger. The highly repressive decades during which Tom’s work developed could not stem his innate sex-positivity.
This two-part exhibition, the largest to date in the US (where he first became known in the mid-1950s through his drawings for the Los Angeles quarterly Physique Pictorial), features nearly two hundred drawings, hung loosely by medium and theme rather than chronology, and an even greater number of reference collages—mass-media clippings arranged by type that helped guide the prominent cleft chins and flared-thigh jodhpurs that defined Tom’s hypermasculine ideal. Early gouaches from the mid-1940s feature urbane rakes whose illicit behavior is only occasionally explicit; but soon thereafter, Tom provided close-up views of every possible combination of orifice and appendage, as modeled by bikers, sailors, loggers, and cowboys. A standout in the main exhibition is a twenty-part 1977 series starring Tom’s recurring leather-daddy character, Kake, whose cruising instigates an orgy that grows one by one with a stream of onlookers turned joiners. It’s remarkable, not least because Tom rendered the profusion of compound convexities—nipples, biceps, asses, abs—in the unforgiving cross-hatching of pen and ink. His skill in graphite is no less extraordinary: Portraits made in the ’80s seem lit from within, all oiled skin and gleaming leather. But it’s a surreal intergalactic image that endures, providing a suitable analogy for Tom’s global effect on gay culture. In it, a brawny, mustachioed Scandinavian penetrates planet Earth in smiling ecstasy.
Thirty-two years ago, the Bauhaus-schooled artist and textile designer Anni Albers made Study for DO II, (1973), a shimmering mélange of small parallelograms and triangles. Colored in with shades of either silver or yellow gouache on blueprint paper, the work seems preparatory, almost casual: lines appear unruled, and shapes vary in size and skew. Brushstrokes haphazardly emerge and recede into flat color. One year later, Albers refined this pattern and christened it Eclat, which was subsequently manufactured and sold as an upholstery fabric by the design firm Knoll.
In 2009, Ellen Lesperance painted 1921, Annie Fleischmann Demonstrates Simultaneous Contrast Herself with the Help of a Knitted I-Cord Necklace: It Would Be a Year Before Even Meeting Josef Albers, a rendering of a knitting pattern that corresponds to a sweater she saw Albers wearing in an old photograph. This work and Albers’ Study for DO II are neighbors in this group exhibition, “Common Thread,” and they accompany fifteen contemporary paintings—all made by women—that employ pigment to imitate fabric. Sarah Harrison paints an intricate, pointillist detail of a Persian rug; Summer Wheat’s Twin Bed, 2015, drizzles loopy acrylic daisies atop a black canvas in a perfect evocation of a knotty yarn blanket. Angela Teng and Leslie Wayne venture further into the physical realm: The former crochets dried acrylic paint into a rigid cloth the size of a hand towel, and the latter molds oil-painted panels into the shapes of hanging rags, their ripples and curls eternally frozen into topographic simulacra.
By adapting properties of textile design to the conventions of painting, the works in “Common Thread” expose the restrictive power of our categories for artistic production. For many artists, it is an important theme; for others—the countless women who have been relegated to the domain of arts and crafts—it is the center of their practice.
In “Mon Ame,” 1897, an early poem celebrating his own genius, Raymond Roussel declares: “My soul is a strange machine.” It certainly produced some of the twentieth century’s most peculiar novels and plays: word-game phantasmagorias that prized fantasy over reality. Much to Roussel’s surprise, they were critical and commercial flops (he felt destined to outshine Victor Hugo). But the eccentric writer became a cult hero to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who even brawled defending his works. This sophisticated and transporting exhibition assembles a wealth of rare and previously unseen archival materials, charting Roussel’s work and those it continues to inspire.
The show opens with images of Roussel as a young boy dressed in costumes that augur his later, scandal-sparking theater productions, as well as a vitrine of early influences, including volumes by Jules Verne and the astronomer Camille Flammarion. A photograph of Roussel and the woman his mother hired as a public companion for her homosexual son hangs nearby. When the poet John Ashbery was researching Roussel, she cut herself out of the picture and sent him the half with Roussel. (Ashbery eventually reassembled the image and introduced Roussel to the US in the 1960s.) This idea of a ruptured, enigmatic record, pieced together by a passionate few devoted to Roussel, resonates throughout this scholarly show. The torn photograph is visually echoed in Joseph Cornell’s collages, which complement the ephemera, along with artworks by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marcel Broodthaers that riff on themes including dreams, exoticism, and travel. That this gallery, with its roster of contemporary contenders, has chosen to inaugurate its New York space with such a resurrection is a telling gesture, one that feels like a foil for Roussel’s fate. Discouraged and financially ruined by his lack of acclaim, the artist killed himself in 1933 at the age of fifty-six.
The island is a premier existential metaphor, and the works in “onthisisland,” Jack Pierson’s exhibition of some sixty-plus ephemeral oil and watercolor paintings, graphite drawings, and driftwood assemblages, offer new and fluid insight into the artist psyche. Pierson created the series during a four-month stay on the Floridian island of North Captiva, and the works, mostly small in scale, expose the poetics of process. Pierson practices his own variation on automatic drawing—he’s dubbed the results “Anagogic Paintings”—based on the Surrealist method. At once lushly abstract and confidently nonspecific, the works convey the topographical patterning of subliminal urges: Impasto belts of sand-thickened oil paint in acid-washed hues gently whirl around small canvases, taking forms alternately sexual (such as the pinkish, roselike form at the center of Nativity, 2015) and playful (the more staccato Deluges of Lethe, 2015), while dusky watercolors (all Untitled, 2014–15) sensuously pack together repetitive marks that look as though they’re still wet.
Pierson is known for his wistful, sensual photographic portraits and word sculptures composed of found sign parts—works that channel nostalgia and romance while accentuating the pathos evoked by gaze, body, and relic. In distinction, these new works directly take on the internal world, at once foregrounding the artist himself and forcing a Rorschach-like response of psychic and physical identity.
Tom Phillips’s approach to creating the strikingly luminous images in A Humument is by now a familiar one: He takes each page from W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document (a long-dead Victorian novel) and via collage, painting, and drawing, he turns them into voluminously embellished Concrete- or Language-inspired poems. When he happened upon the book nearly fifty years ago on a bargain rack in a London warehouse, he bet his rummaging companion that day, R. B. Kitaj, that he could turn it into “a serious long-term project.” And, indeed, with five different editions of A Humument printed and published, in addition to sundry objects and even an opera, Irma, 1969, all inspired by the artist’s transformation of the original text, it has become its own universe—endlessly generative, mysterious, and immersive.
Though color copies from different versions of A Humument frustratingly make up too much of this exhibition, twenty-six actual collages spun off from the project appear, using scores from Irma as well as tiny square- and diamond-shaped pieces that the artist refers to as “Fragments,” 2010–13. The copies tell us what the images “look like” in various permutations, but it’s in the originals where we can truly locate the weird and complex decision making that goes into the construction of every single collage (so tidy and Protestant in facture, yet numinously perverse in nature).
“She seized the gun. Shot through the air wreathes of smoke from her shining silver rifle as a rosy gold bullet with bitter ejaculation struck shooting him to sleep the big sleep,” reads one hard-boiled excerpt from an Irma score, tightly kerned and placed next to a square with a neatly burned-out center that says “bang.” Phillips’s imagery, wit, and considered sense of play call to mind the works of William Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, John Dee, or Syd Barrett, other dark and psychedelic fabulists whose imaginations have transformed our collective one for the better.
Adam Golfer spent much of the last decade working commercially, taking pictures for magazines and newspapers. His current exhibition centers around A House Without a Roof, 2011-, his new monograph and the half decade worth of research and travel through which it was envisioned. It includes a 2014 film, Router, but the show’s core is a series of ten large-scale digital C-prints culled from Golfer’s four years of travel and interviews in Israel and Palestine. Although the artist is a careful reader of spatial theory (especially Goldsmiths’ Eyal Weizman), here the pictures elide didacticism, yielding a body of work that oscillates between the panoramic and talismanic.
These pictures radiate desert light but convey a desolated surrealism: One shows a scale-model “museum” into which one enters standing on a plastic chair. Elsewhere, David Ben-Gurion’s library is brought into stark relief with the aid of a well-deployed flash. The medium-format photographs in A House Without a Roof are formally stirring—even beautiful—but their true strength is their capacity to cut through the rational layers of a contested history, visualizing it in small moments and sidelong glances. Some have argued, of course, that aura can create a gulf between viewer and object. But here, Golfer uses it to draw us nearer to a topography that thrums in minds of many but so often seems beyond our grasp.
Here is an artist happiest in the graveyard we call Google Images, promiscuous in his desire to absorb everything: stupid and brilliant, sickening and funny, banal and beautiful. Lots of people do this kind of looking now—gluttonous, glazed over, staring—and try making it into something. But few have the chops or intelligence to metabolize this modern habit into such febrile and gorgeously unhinged art.
Chason Matthams can paint like a motherfucker. Or a fatherfucker—he doesn’t care. His pictures look like a synthesis of Ingres, Ub Iwerks, and Norman Rockwell, fed on a steady diet of GHB and Nickelodeon. They radiate a sinister, fraudulent light. Though fussed over and finessed within an inch of their lives, these paintings act out—they are nasty, irritating, visceral. It must have something to do with the temporal space one’s shunted into while in their thrall. The sweat equity involved in his careful and tender rendering of so much mass-cultural excreta—by his hand and no other—mesmerizes.
Behold the cyclopean head of Miss Montag—Heidi, 2010,—orange as a new Birkin, scraped out of a Malibu afternoon and pasted onto a dead field of bluish gray, every bead of moisture around her collagen-enhanced lips flashing like little knives on a face that got lifted beyond reason at twenty-three. She is weird, “sexy,” and hopelessly broken, a casualty of reality television and more than a little self hatred. Let’s blame it on Large Warm Playback, 2015, a creepy, sensuously detailed portrait of a high-definition studio camera aimed into a nethersphere of seedy purple light. It’s dead and alive simultaneously, as good paintings are, and exactly like us as we sit there, camera-like, vacant and watching.
As suggested in the exhibition’s title, “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997” launches a conversation between two discrete time periods. Curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the presentation begins with paintings from the era following India’s independence from Britain, primarily by those involved in the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group that jumpstarted modernism in India. These artists’ interest in diverse media beyond painting—output that is rarely exhibited—is worth noting. See F. N. Souza, who used diluted printer’s ink and magazine paper to create what he dubbed “chemical paintings” in 1969, and Tyeb Mehta, who produced the sixteen-minute black-and-white film Koodal (“Meeting Place”) in 1970.
Two standout contemporary artworks that marry material experimentation with social commentary are Asim Waqif’s By-Construction and Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice, (both 2003). Exploring art-world consumption, the former is an ingeniously built sprawling structure composed entirely of trash generated by the exhibition itself, such as shipping crates. The latter is inspired by the inaugural speech of the newly formed and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Kallat transcribed each letter of the address with rubber adhesive that he then set aflame. Given that the work was constructed a year after the sectarian riots in Gujarat, the charred letters and the buckling of the mirror from the heat powerfully suggest that Nehru’s wishes for India were unfulfilled. Overall, the highlighting of experimentation with materials throughout the exhibition prevents the show from being weighed down by context—a chronic problem for display of “Indian” art —while not eschewing it either.
A collective imaginary exists surrounding Los Angeles that is characterized by its contradictions: arcadian but synthetic, decadent yet arid—an impossible paradise for the far-flung West. “Villa Aurora Revisited,” organized by the Los Angeles gallery Park View, makes a dissociated, retrospective musing of California’s sprawling metropolis through works by artists who spent time at Villa Aurora, a residency program housed in its Spanish-style mansion overlooking the Pacific coast.
“The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” Steven Warwick recites Joan Didion’s 1977 essay “Holy Water” in his work of the same name (all works 2015), which encompasses two supine flat-panel monitors soporifically displaying the twilight horizon of inland Salton Sea and its washed up garbage. Benjamin Carlson’s untitled work made of oil, wax, and gesso on canvas begs a second glance, appearing at first as a wall-mounted trompe l’oeil cardboard plane. With its craggy topology, the painting also resembles a barren lakebed. Hiker, an expansive chromogenic print by Buck Ellison, seductively depicts a shirtless, ruggedly styled fellow crouched neighborly amid wildflowers and sprouting greenery. Its casual air is problematized by the scene’s self-conscious fashioning and implores the question: What is there to be said when representations of social intimacy resemble stock photography? Across the gallery, an unassuming work poetically sums up the exhibition’s fanciful, impressionistic spirit: Elif Erkan’s painting Terroir (Trees and Ground), in which a chalky beige spans across the work’s Victorian frame, nearly blanketing its underlying image. The concealed pigments (daubs of green, orange, and blue) evoke vegetation against a placid sky, a glimpse toward a memory washed over in sand.
Abigail DeVille’s Haarlem Tower of Babel, 2012, is a steel tower that has had the top lopped off. It’s in two pieces, both of them choked by rusting metals, broken branches, and bits of cloth and paper that seem to shed like snakeskin. Babel is the centerpiece of a group show curated by Jane Ursula Harris, and DeVille's motifs—assemblage, foliage, the growl of defunct technologies—seep outward like nuclear waste until each piece glows with green-grey apocalypticism. Doom registers in the punch-click of Luther Price’s Light Fracture, 2013, an old-school slide projector casting images of smashed insects and bubbling paints on the wall, and each slide change marking time slowly, methodically. Foreboding, too, is Julie Schenkelberg’s Hearsay, 2013, a booth composed of bashed doors and household objects that slumps in the corner like a battered fort—home, destroyed.
So perhaps what’s being worked out here is how to shove the question of environmental collapse into the dainty vase of Art. Miniatures and models abound, like Christain Holstad’s Flotsam, 2012-2013, a fabric and metal work that reproduces, in microscopic scale, the vast island of trash floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. But for all the fantasy and bricolage, the works that seem boldest, the most regal in their mourning even as they traffic in chaos and dread, are LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The shots are a grid of perpendiculars, buildings propped up like stage sets but still settling into dust. Braddock is a steel town that was swallowed by the Rust Belt, and these photographs, less “contemporary” than current, sum up the show’s sensibility: they’re about memory and relics and ruin, and yet they carry with them a portent, some chilling prophecy of a future of pitted landscapes and empty space.
Laurie Simmons recalled encountering a trove of unfinished work in Sarah Charlesworth’s studio shortly after her death: “There was more green than I had ever seen in one art project . . . and that was how Sarah left us, with this beautiful—the green of springtime, the green of promise, and the idea that things weren’t ending, that there was a new beginning.” That verdant sense of imagination suffuses “Doubleworld,” Charlesworth’s first major survey in this city, and quite unlikely her last. Immersing oneself in more than forty years of this artist’s strange and searching eye, one is witness to a dexterous mind that could combine the seductiveness of the photographic surface and space with an inexorably Conceptualist rigor.
Elegantly and quite frequently, Charlesworth used photomontage as an illusion-breaking device to interrogate the junkyard of overlapping imagery and meanings within the histories of art, photography, and popular culture, culminating in tableaux that could look like hybrids of outdoor advertising, fashion spreads, and National Geographic. One sees this most pointedly in Gold, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1983–88, which reads like a flowchart of conspicuous consumption throughout history, a survey of this precious metal’s various incarnations and perversions, from pre-Columbian death masks and medieval tchotchkes to 1980s designer wristwatches and a gold lamé swimsuit.
But the didacticism of a lot of these dyed-in-the-wool Pictures-era works utterly melts away when we come to later series such as “0+1,” 2000, and “Available Light,” 2012, spacious and metaphysical bodies of work that are studies in the colors blue and white as luminous, palpably physical experiences. Make no mistake—these aren’t sentimental, late-in-life studio dalliances. Charlesworth’s meticulousness, even ruthlessness, as a thinker and maker is in high gear throughout these images. After all, unrepentant beauty is rarely for the weak of heart.
Countering Richard Serra’s famous Verb List of 1967–68, Anne Wilson’s To Weave, to Wind, to Knot, to Twist, to Push, to Pack, to Press, 2010—a light box of tools used for “women’s work” and reconfigured in glass—stresses the action embedded in this exhibition’s title. “Pathmakers” assembles more than one hundred objects by forty-two artists in a broad survey of historical and current practice. The show is divided into two floors: The “midcentury” galleries open with a cluster of Ruth Asawa’s dangling wire sculptures, ca. 1950–72, dramatically lit so that their shadows appear like the transparent fabric tapestries in their company. A floor below, “today” is anchored by projects from 2014: Michelle Grabner’s bright paper weavings and enamel paintings, and Polly Apfelbaum’s exuberant marker-on-silk pendants.
Curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales have chosen nine lesser-known figures for longer explanatory labels, including Alice Kagawa Parrott. Her unisex Hanten Jacket, ca. 1960, was a favorite of artists such as Agnes Martin, whose own version is on display. (I would have loved to see some connection to Gabriel Ann Maher’s Garment and accompanying video _Design, both 2014, which explore the role of gender in how we dress.) One emergent theme is the shaping of space. Textile pioneer Dorothy Liebes’s subtly luminous Room Divider for United Nations Delegates Dining Room, ca. 1952, finds its contemporary parallel in Hella Jongerius’s Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates Lounge, ca. 2012. Like Eva Zeisel’s whimsical Belly Button Room Divider, 1957, Jongerius’s curtain carves our environment and filters how we see it.
If certain historical and geographic contexts go unexplored—with everything from showerheads to gravy boats on hand, how could they not?—“Pathmakers” charts a postwar trajectory for women artists that includes corporate collaborations and individual experimentation, without hierarchy of genre. The show celebrates making as discovery. There’s no better illustration than Zeisel, whose work we surprisingly encounter again on the contemporary floor: In 2008, at the age of 102, she decided to try her hand at lighting.
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.
When Rosemarie Castoro appears in art history, it’s often as a footnote to Carl Andre, her husband for six years in the 1960s. This installation in her former loft, where she lived and worked from 1964 until her death this May, challenges Castoro’s preterition in boy’s-club accounts of minimalism. Culled largely from the '60s and '70s, the selection maps her movement from large-scale, pencil-scored canvases to raw materials, sourced from the hardware store and disposed in three dimensions.
Castoro conceived gray as an achromatic color, its austerity palliative of Pop’s syrupy, synthetic palette. Her art emerges as a study in its qualities: the sheen of aluminum, the density of graphite, or the bulk of stainless steel. Spine on its Side, 1970, consists of six hinged Masonite panels coated with gesso and modeling paste. Brushed with a broom when wet, then rubbed with graphite when dry, its surface is sinewy and dense, like roughage run through the digestive system. Part of the series, “Free-Standing Walls,” 1970, the piece posits painting as a function of sculpture, using the process of preparing a canvas—priming and underdrawing—to build a structure in low relief. Grisaille in hue and hatched in texture, it is a crusty chiaroscuro, extruded into sculptural space.
For Castoro, paint figured not as a medium of transformation but as a muck to be pushed through. The broom’s tracks through pigment in Spine on its Side register as incisions, heightening the title’s relay to the vertebrate body. Nearby, five black-and-white photographs image the artist as she drags a roll of aluminum through the streets of SoHo. The performance, Gates of Troy, 1969, analogizes the unfurling of metal to the parading of Hector’s corpse, with Castoro cast as a vengeful Achilles. Its conceit invites us to imagine other of Castoro’s objects as ravaged bodies, scabby and sutured.
There is a scene toward the end of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) in which a lantern on a solitary table rolls and falls into the grass, and though we hear a constant sound of leaves, the fall is silent. In Trisha Baga’s latest solo outing, the subtle drama of that unexpected sensual loss receives a strangely maximalist reincarnation. One scene of the 3-D video installation MS Orlando (all works 2015) depicts a group dance lesson in a mall, led by a head-miked, corporately poloed instructor, who becomes devoiced midscene, as if she’d switched to speaking with the silence of galactic voids. This beyond-sensical, post-Trecartin, post-Henrot, weirdly Tarkovskian mess couldn’t be more welcome at a moment when 3-D cinema often seems a glorified extrusion of the 2-D filmic surface. AbEx gestures float groundless between the viewer’s body and the screen, their casual ephemerality seeming to negate contemporary abstract painting’s earnest efforts, while footage taken from inside a carwash plays beyond. A snatch of Terminator dialogue bubbles over at the top: “Time isn’t linear, we just perceive it that way.” Yes, one thinks, and neither is space anymore.
The gallery is dominated by Baga’s ceramics, mostly depicting banal objects such as Crocs (Untitled) and one Purell dispenser. These works, formed and glazed with a careless virtuosity that self-consciously exceeds their subject matter, are numerous and crowded in display. Why give us this aggressive panoply? The answer is in the air above, where a 3-D peacock pecks at a portrait made of seeds (Peacock Museum The Department of Education). It’s pecking at plastic form itself.
The walls are covered in pearlescent satin drapes; the floor is unfixed, made up of porous tiles that shift and crackle underfoot. “Two Suns,” Argentinean artist Adrián Villar Rojas’s solo debut in New York is an iteration of the site-specific investigations into antimonumentality for which he is known. Unlike his previous output, however, which includes sculptures that deteriorate naturally over time, Villar Rojas here dismantles the institution of the white cube.
The first gallery, empty and dark, first introduces exhibition as a space that is missing. Tiles in bone white, pewter and charcoal, Aegean and slate blue checker the floor with a square of dark gray at the center, which evokes the base of an outdoor sculpture—one that might have been placed in a busy fourteenth-century Italian piazza. The monument does not exist, yet it equally confronts the viewer in the symbolist manner of suggestion. As if counteracting absence, iPods, plastic bags, and coins are caught between the surrounding tiles like weeds, disrupting the regularity of the flattened geometry.
Villar Rojas’s maximalist approach, if at first only felt in scale and detrital happenstance, extends to the gallery’s south room, which is connected by a curtained hallway. Light pours from windows parted by thick gray curtains, onto a vast sculpture of a reclining nude, modeled after Michelangelo’s David. Positioned horizontally on two supporting pylons, Rojas’s contemporary version seems to sink precariously in its own largesse. Fissures run through its surface and gather at weak points like a network of dry veins that will eventually cannibalize the giant’s form and the work’s covetous ownership. This anti-David is not waiting coolly for predestined glory; dreary, he sleeps through the days in which his ashes are still stone and his display only temporary.
Barbara Hammer’s work in experimental film has incalculably shaped the collective memory of lesbian and feminist experience. But, before she came to the medium—and before she came out, leaving her marriage “on a motorcycle with a super-8 camera” and shooting some of the first lesbian films in history, Dyketactics (1974) and Women I Love (1976)—Hammer made drawings. Her first-ever solo gallery exhibition presents sixteen of these works.
Hammer’s popularity and visibility in the art field has ebbed and flowed over the course of four decades—largely synchronous with vogues for and backlashes against identity politics. The works in this exhibition sidestep those trajectories altogether, veering into a surreal and at times psychedelic style that jibes with Hammer’s filmic eye. Not unlike the conditions within which queers existed in the ’70s, Hammer’s drawings oscillate between deep-seated political dread and shades of dreamy possibility. In two gouache, ink, and watercolor works (Untitled 4 and Untitled 5, ca 1970), a drowsy head rests on a tiny rural landscape, alongside gargantuan (and seemingly dead) flies, snails, and small rodents. Ink outlines ooze with rich greens, yellows, reds, and pinks, but there are conspicuous areas left uncolored, wanting for interpretation. Many of Hammer’s figures wear sly sidelong glances, bright faces peering out of the planar picture frames.
Lesbian Whale, the lone new work in the exhibition, is a video animation of Hammer’s early notebook drawings set to a sound track of commentary by the artist’s friends and peers. The script is composed of fragments and stray thoughts—“as a feminist I’m very skeptical”; “not necessarily physical time but emotional time”—and it’s not quite clear whether it’s spontaneous, planned, composed by the speakers, or read from Hammer’s notebooks. If Hammer’s artistic influence is well documented, this slippage between voices, authors, and images suggests an ethos of collaboration and conviviality that may prove to be her greatest legacy.
La Estrella, [P]y[X]i[S], oRiOn: We’re caught up in the jumbled syntax of the heavens in Keltie Ferris’s dazzling show of ten paintings and six body prints, all from 2015. The constellations that lend their name to some of these canvases trace distinct forms but are composed of flickering stars whose boundaries are less clear to us down on Earth. And this is a central aspect of Ferris’s paintings, whose thin airbushed oil layers and dragged acrylic strokes build a rich color space (here, moving beyond the loose neon graffiti of her 2012–13 gallery show into deep purples, reds, ochers) that shifts in and out of focus. Are these shapes or are they impressions?
This, of course, is also a key query for Ferris’s body prints, which for the first time are shown alongside her paintings. In these prints, the artist, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, like Elvis in Warhol’s screen prints, pressed her oiled figure against paper and then sprinkled powdered pigment over its ground, revealing a wrinkled, indexical presence. Yves Klein, Jasper Johns, and David Hammons come to mind. Their complicated relationships to body and identity are not lost on Ferris.
The mix of prints and paintings on view underscores the surface-to-air oscillations in her deft touch. On one wall, a particularly strong progression of material and atmosphere moves from the obscured, wildfire landscape narrative of Story to Marksman, which looks like a pixelated Pollock or Brice Marden made with the airbrush tool in Photoshop, to an untitled work that appears to be a collection of Ferris’s toes melting into a Gustonesque abstract field. These are followed by two body prints, with boxy lines painted around their impressions as if marking new astrological forms.
Sarah Sze’s sculptures usually involve a lengthy list of ready-made objects, seemingly purchased from every shop in the neighborhood: the pharmacy, the hardware store, the bodega. A number of works in this show, however, are unified not by the incorporation of commodities, but of torn photographs depicting celestial visions. These ink-jet scraps provide literal atmospherics: billowing, Turner-esque clouds; fiery sunsets that radiate an it's-all-coming-to-an-end melancholy; and views of Earth as seen from space, wreathed in darkness. The cobalt hues in the planetary images are echoed throughout the exhibition, in the form of string, tape, dried paint, and even the snapped lines of builder's chalk, marking regular intervals along the walls. Sze has a gift for invoking dimensions both prosaic and galactic.
In the tabletop sculpture Measuring Stick (all works 2015), a video projection combines a digital counter of the ever-increasing distance between Earth and the Voyager I spacecraft with slow-motion films of bullets shredding various materials into smithereens—an egg, an apple—many of which have intact physical instantiations nearby. Ecologically, we’re blowing it, Sze seems to suggest. This idea recurs, somewhat hammily, in the installation Seconds Clipped, which includes a plastic Smart Water bottle holding a wan arrangement of withered grasses. But that work also provides one of the most exquisite moments of the entire show—a clip of a flying bird of prey projected onto a photo scrap of a stormy sky. Sze’s brilliance lies in her insanely inventive eye, which allows her to create similarly sublime visions ex nihilo: Nearby, she has focused a small work lamp on a piece of black fine-grit sandpaper, revealing the glittering constellations dotting its surface—the universe in mere grains of sand.
Cameron never wanted another gallery show. After Wallace Berman was arrested in 1957 at the Ferus Gallery for showing an “obscene” reproduction of her Untitled (Peyote Vision), 1955—an ink drawing of a fantastical couple copulating—Cameron quit the commercial art scene. Then, as now, rejection is chic. A version of career suicide, Cameron’s bewitching no persisted until her death in 1995. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, opened her debut museum retrospective, and a sizable version of it has now traveled with the institution’s former director, Jeffrey Deitch, to his newly reopened gallery. Worries about insider trading aside, it’s high time Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, a so-called mystic, claims her rightful spot in art history. These bicoastal shows serve as overdue correctives.
In studies of mysticism, as in art history, the question of what’s canonical always nags. Cameron has long been primed for rebirth: her drawings, paintings, and poems were vital contributions to the 1950s and ’60s Los Angeles milieu, and these largely autobiographical pieces network to other (canonized, mostly male) artists, including George Herms, whose somber 1967 portrait is one of the first works viewers encounter in the exhibition. It’s also one of Cameron’s least gothic and sphinx-like takes, which occupy the majority of the show—from Untitled (Peyote Vision) to the undated ink-on-paper illustrations for Songs of the Witch Woman (made for a book of poems penned by her husband, rocket scientist and Thelemite occultist Jack Parsons) to 1966’s Holy Guardian Angel According to Aleister Crowley. These cult classics, as well as her spellbinding late-career abstractions for Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House, 1978–86, telegraph visualizations from one of Southern California’s, but also American art’s, most shrewd and beguiling heretics.
In his latest output, Federico Solmi scans hand-painted imagery and applies it to digital three-dimensional models of world leaders. He then imports each into a video-game platform and records their movements as if they were on a movie set. Titled “The Brotherhood” 2015, this series includes “video-paintings” of mostly infamous leaders with works that indict the viewer and society as much as the leaders themselves, as they flamboyantly posture like shallow celebrities. For example, The Invader (Christopher Columbus – Italy) (all works 2015), in which the titular figure struts, laughs, and salutes in front of an abstract landscape of shifting colors, resembles a Hollywood screen test
In group scenes such as The Waltz, Solmi emphasizes the pomp and circumstance that accompanies state functions, in this case manifesting in a ballroom dance where leaders from different eras, such as Ramses II and Mussolini, move in close embrace. The scratchy lines of Solmi’s distinctive, cartoonish, garishly hued renderings of the leaders and their surroundings thankfully don’t resemble the polished, rounded forms of mainstream digital animation, with its cloying, interchangeable characters.
The artist has painted ornamental details on the Plexiglas surface of the works, which covers each video monitor, further intensifying its theatricality. In The Brotherhood Triptych, Napoleon, Mussolini, and Marie Antoinette among others arrive at a red-carpet event, proceed down a grand staircase, and depart on a spaceship amid a cheering throng of spectators, evoking the idea that such leaders are mainly entertainers wielding unearned power. The audio tracks of individual works, including distorted national anthems and carousel music, combine to heighten the forced pageantry to comedic levels. Solmi has also painted the walls a deep reddish orange, so as to mimic the manufactured splendor of government-sponsored events—propaganda to maintain the status quo.
If art and wildlife have any correlation, a lover of both might evoke their propinquity to the sublime. “Terrapin,” organized by Magnus Schaefer, takes a direct, albeit frisky point of departure: Each work—save for one—features representations of animals, often conjured through differing levels of anthropomorphic adjustment. So the question could be posed, What is the sublime to an animal, and how do humans represent such? The answer, it would appear here, lies in absurdity and sex.
We might first examine the grouping’s exception: Bethenny, 2015, a swirling oil-on-canvas work by Lise Soskolne. Smiling, contorted daisies and gawky lavender spirals decorate its lower half. A crescent moon suspends above these forms, centering the composition with an enigmatic grin. Inside its lanky arc floats a logo—that of the horrorcore hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. This psychotropic quasi-firmament, while lacking in bodily creatures, emblematizes a screwy spirit carried forth in other works, such as Trevor Shimizu’s oil-on-canvas Licking Cat’s Penis, 2014, in which a human is seen giving a cat oral sex, or Sergej Jensen’s gracefully severe Sketch for Leda, 2014, an acrylic-on-linen composition that adapts the Greek myth wherein Zeus (materializing as a swan) rapes Leda.
Other photographic works are more serene, such as Roman Schramm’s Turtles, 2014, showing two piled-up turtles set within a border of a shadowy, digitally rendered space. In Heji Shin’s The Great Penetrator 2, 2012, a pensive horse gazes down from the camera, its mane windswept to one side and styled like bangs, stirring human empathy through unadorned representation of a nonhuman subject. And together, in their very production as images, this farcical array forms a metanarrative: one implicating humanity, witnessed as projecting its follies across the larger animal kingdom, and caught in its own pursuit of transcendence.
A broadly accepted metonym for claustrophobia and unwanted social confrontation, the elevator receives top billing in Dana Schutz’s new series, “Fight in an Elevator,” 2015 (a title to which one could aptly add “and Variations on a Theme”). In energetic, large-scale paintings and smaller black-and-white (though no less vibrant) drawings, the artist trains her acerbic eye on the phenomenon of tight spaces and how people—specifically, Schutz’s misshapen, often deranged characters—deal with them. Where Schutz’s past works have long explored various surreal state-of-being narratives, these new pictures capture the melancholy and innate humor of daily life and its small dramas as they are often perceived by individuals—that is, magnified to cinematic proportions. Compressed within tight, straight-line spacial boundaries, the characters push against their surroundings. In Slow Motion Shower (all works cited, 2015), a woman’s bathtub, shower curtain, and rigid tiles become a comical trap: her oversize limbs amble around the small space as she struggles to wipe soap from her eyes. Meanwhile, the single woman in As Normal as Possible gives a goofy grimace through the circular spotlight of a police car’s headlamp, besieged by the light. And there are two elevator fights (Fight in an Elevator and Fight in an Elevator 2), each buttressed by half-open elevator doors revealing a crowded quagmire inside.
Painted with swift, wet-on-wet brushstrokes in bold, principally primary colors, Schutz’s new works convey the turn-of-the-century vigor of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, while her compositions combine the rigid architectural lines and animated physicality of Mexican muralism with Red Grooms’s sense of ambling caricature. The quintessential weirdness of Schutz’s usual characters gives way here to a more homogenized tribe. While this series lacks the liquid, fishbowl-like denseness and shimmering figure-ground dynamics that make her previous output so satisfying, the works on view succeed as investigative accounts of the banal gone awry—as if Schutz has stepped from the psychological toward the situational.
For Polish-born painter Jack Tworkov, the 1960s were a cul-de-sac for the autographic gesture. AbEx had tipped from an earnest style into a mode of stylization, and the question was how to continue painting, if at all. Spanning five decades, Tworkov’s latest hang cleaves to the contours of this now familiar narrative. De Kooning’s influence looms large—the ligament-like impasto of Departure, 1951, is an obvious homage—as does Cézanne’s. Note, 1968, presents as a field of stubby, separative marks, sloped in the manner of cursive script or the latter’s “constructive stroke.” Spaced in quivering horizontals, they achieve a hazy grisaille.
The 1970s and ’80s reveal a Tworkov of late style and less anxious mien. The canvas now figures not as a void to be confronted but as a constraint with which to contend. Ruled lines define forms that vector from the perimeter in, yielding works that beat between drawing and painting. In Alternative IX (OC-Q1-78 #5), 1978, the tousled diagonals of Note unsquiggle into a straightedge algebra. Organized by the Fibonacci sequence, the canvas is a study in dynamic symmetry, its interior shapes—triangles, rhomboids, and irregular pentagons—syllogized with its frame.
Tworkov’s final work, Compression and Expansion of a Square (Q3-82 #2), 1982, takes the rectangle as its subject. Likewise established in a scheme of 3:5:8, its iterated forms progressively dilate and dilute in hue, as if literalizing the distortions produced by an angled view. Brushstrokes build in wilted green and yolky yellow, tempering the canvas’s otherwise rigorous plan. The result, for all its stringency, feels vaguely organic: a sense reinforced by the Fibonacci sequence’s relay to patterns in nature. Tworkov’s oeuvre softens in spite of itself, an archaeology of life animating his abstractions, a vestige of gesture loosening his geometries.
A fiber-optic cable snakes along the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, strangled by algae. This is one of four photographs in Trevor Paglen’s show, which swirls around the recent NSA scandal and our clicking, buzzing surveillance state. The picture’s title tells us that this cable has been tapped.
There are four images of the cable and three landscape photographs, all opaquely picturesque. The city seen from the harbor in NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States, 2014, is a quaint little skyline scrawled upon the dimming horizon. A map of that same area hangs next to the C-print, lashed with arrows and numbers, pocked with telegraphic messages punched onto the blank abstraction of this cartographic dream. Inset photographs of Brutalist architecture and a nineteenth-century political cartoon force a sense of inevitability, of pounding domination, to the map, and we see the photograph anew: a dense grid of data to be harvested by the state.
Paglen was the cinematographer for Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour (2014): His Eighty-Nine Landscapes, 2015, is a kind of ennobled “extra features” section on the DVD, as a two-channel video shows cities, facilities, hills, barbed-wire fences, clip-clopping policemen, a whole wordless montage of scenes and settings starkly composed. But all of these were material for Poitras’s film; they all tell the story of hypocritical agencies and whirring conspiracies. We come to understand that these neatly laid pictures—waves lapping in California, sheep working their way up a hill—have been stuck in the net of high-speed communications, images to be archived, perhaps turned against us. A grid of lit-up apartments glows warmly in the night; they twinkle like pixels.
Katherine Bernhardt first gained notice for her drippy portraits of supermodels, which, like the paintings of some of her contemporaries in figuration—Sophie von Hellermann and Chantal Joffe, say—ply aggressively unfussy paint. Bernhardt has lately been forgoing cover girls for eye candy of a different sort: brightly colored patterns and funky groupings of foodstuffs and commodities, with Doritos, toilet-paper rolls, cigarettes, and tube socks making repeated appearances. In this exhibition, that Kmart cartful of items gets mixed up with fluorescent-hued flora and fauna of the Caribbean, specifically Puerto Rico, where she recently completed a residency. Bernhardt’s acrylic-and-spray-paint palette conjures all the colors of a bowl of Froot Loops, contrasting with the drab burlap overlay on the gallery floor—emptied coffee sacks containing a few stray beans, which occasionally crunch underfoot—that rounds out the tropical ambience and aroma.
Shunning linear perspective, Bernhardt paints her strange aggregations (of sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, and toucans, among others) in nonoverlapping, allover compositions in schematic profile view, suggesting an exuberantly garbled page of botanical illustrations or natural curiosities. But unlike carefully limned scientific representations, Bernhardt’s paintings feature sloppy, luminous strokes in service of a highly pleasurable visual nuttiness. In Sharks, Plantains, and Cigarettes (all works 2015), for example, the ash topping the cigarettes billows out laterally, forming demented, windblown toupees, and bunches of hanging plantains look like menacing Day-Glo claws. While most of the canvases are vast in scale, one of the smallest works, Cantaloupe and Toilet Paper, Café Mallorca, distills Bernhardt’s sprezzatura nicely: The fruit-juice puddles of orange paint in the background nearly camouflage the magisterial bronze spray paint outlining the abject rolls of toilet paper—a perfectly lyrical crudeness. Bernhardt knows just when to put the brush down, laugh, and call it a day.
Senga Nengudi trained as both an artist and a dancer in the 1960s and continues to work across a variety of mediums: sculpture, performance, photography, and more. As is evident in her current presentation, her practice abstracts and dematerializes bodily form while referencing its kinetic energy and elastic potential. Nengudi’s most moving group of works is her nylon mesh sculptures fashioned out of used pantyhose, three examples of which are included here. Untitled, 2011, features four of the leggings stretched tightly to the floor and weighted gracefully with sand. The ready-made garments are secured to a pole fastened in the gallery’s corner, evoking ballet dancers in tights in the midst of barre work. An adjacent photograph, Performance Piece, 1978, pictures artist Maren Hassinger performing within one of the twisted weaves of Nengudi’s pantyhose pieces, activating Nengudi’s sculptures and embodying them with a dynamic dancer’s presence.
Nengudi’s 1978 performance Ceremony for Freeway Fets is also chronicled, in eleven vivid photographs. At the time of its creation Nengudi was involved with Studio Z, a loose affiliation of artists in Los Angeles, including Hassinger, David Hammons, Barbara McCullough, and others who experimented collaboratively with discarded materials and abandoned spaces. Set under a nondescript freeway overpass in the car-bound metropolis, Nengudi wrapped the supporting columns in her sculptural nylon mesh forms and outfitted her performers in these customary creations as headdresses and drapery. Bodies bound across the images in flitting festivity, sculpture and performance creatively enmeshed. Nengudi’s work, as an antecedent example of the current commingling of the plastic and the performative, remains pioneering for our contemporary moment.
In Matthew Brannon’s latest output, candy-colored arrangements of objects and text—a wedding cake, a pack of Lucky Strikes, a bottle of vanilla extract—address the Vietnam War with a decorative aestheticism. This strategy may feel absurd, but Brannon deliberately avoids picturing scenes of violence, instead focusing on commodities, from a shuttlecock to a bottle of Heinz ketchup. These assemblages suppress violence almost to the point of invisibility, evoking a wartime America proceeding as if in an unaltered peacetime. In First Base (all works 2015), what initially seems a straightforward still life comprised of recreational equipment—a playing card, a World’s Fair souvenir, a record—is complicated by the fact that the record is a single of Barry McGuire’s 1965 protest song Eve of Destruction.
Leisure time and conflict are threaded through each other, and war mostly comes through indirect signifiers—world maps and international brand names that place the particularly “American” iconography within a larger context of global politics—or through civic imagery that has been so diluted as to be almost meaningless, as in an advertisement-like view of Washington’s monuments (Camelot). Clues to this latent violence abound. In Ready or Not, Brannon places a historically accurate draft notice, carefully reproduced via letterpress, among comparatively carefree detritus (a Peanuts greeting card, a box of Corn Flakes).
Concentrating on the conflict at home rather than on scenes of violence means that the images can also be funny. Three pictures of 1960s interiors, for example, are so pitch-perfectly bourgeois it’s easy to laugh: a rubber duck in the corner of a doctor’s office, a modish Braun radio. This comedic, almost satirical aspect offsets some of the nostalgia that underlies the abundance of domestically coded objects: If history is experienced through sentimental recollection in Brannon’s spare montages, farce can also subject that sentiment to critical reevaluation.
Let’s begin with the allegory of Superman and the way the cultural icon pushes the conventions of heroics (alien on Earth and alienated from Kandor), all expressed within the concision of a comic strip. Beyond the habit of metaphor, the story of Superman, his displacement between here and elsewhere, haunts the exhibition—where the artist is definitively not present.
In his absence, models of the vigilante’s home planet—an assembly of many sculptures—litter the floor, while a series of lenticular light boxes limn their presence. The skylines of these cities mutate from elongated twisting spires to lumbering geometric blocks. Constructed of glistening stalagmites (sunstone crystals, perhaps?) and cast in colorful resins, these metropolises are portable and preserved by containment fields. Glass bell jars pump them with a cloying gas that spills off and over the citys’ surfaces. Each reduced, bottled-up world an eerie and cautionary reminder, for Kandor was infamous for indecision, inaction, and conservatism. Superman saved his home anyway, clutching to a memento and an unstable image, one altered by time and fans and memory.
But isn’t it too easy to collapse the struggle of our antihero into the romantic artist’s myth? Yet, this exhibition sells us the following equations: collector to Brainiac, institution to Kandor, white cube to comic strip. The recursive chain of similes builds spatially and raises the question: What was this artist’s kryptonite? Answer: The inability to reconcile a utopian vision in the stifling atmosphere of expanding gas.
The star of Emily Mae Smith’s imaginative exhibition of hyperstylized paintings is the broom from Disney’s Fantasia (1940). At once an instrument of domestic labor and a tool of sorcery, the broom is a thinly disguised symbol that Smith calls upon to address sexual politics. In The Mirror, 2015, an oversize Lichtensteinesque hand mirror is surrounded by nine brooms. Each is posed seductively, parodying the clichéd and all too familiar representation of the female nude in western art (think of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, 1814).
Central to Smith’s thinking is scopophilia, and it is no coincidence that nearly all of her paintings play with but ultimately deny the gaze. Vaguely reminiscent of an Absolut Vodka advertisement, Still Life, 2015, for instance, depicts a sunglasses-wearing, full-lipped babe. Where her eye should be—that is, inside the contours of her lens—we find instead suggestive imagery, a melting ice cube and a ruby-red cherry, rendered in a photorealist style.
The most striking work in the exhibition takes as its subject the mythological figure of Medusa. Set against a brilliant red background that gradates to fuchsia, Medusa’s mane of serpents emerges from the phallic, open-mouthed head of Smith’s broom. Historically a symbol of the dark power of female beauty and sensuality, Medusa was appropriated and rebranded by second-wave feminists (such as French literary critic Hélène Cixous and British film theorist Laura Mulvey) as an icon of the female gaze, making her a perfect heroine for Smith’s comically disruptive critique of patriarchy.
Light is a fundamental agent in Scott Lyall’s output, acting as both material and subject matter. The series “Black Glass,” 2014–15, includes twelve nearly seamless monochrome panels, each measuring some sixty-seven by forty-seven inches. The somber works are composed of pairs of glass panes, which Lyall has adhered with an ink-infused glue. They are coated with thick black ink on the reverse of the back pane and printed with a color gradient of diaphanous ink on the surface. These treatments ignite a reaction that recalls photographic development (some ambient light passes through the front pane, reflects off the back, and meets the front surface again). Lyall’s conceptual project is trapped between these panes: The light that comes back through the glass is neither reproduction, reflection, or representation, but material reaction.
Lyall’s process-oriented work functions as a compelling analogy for the material agency of images. By engaging light as both a subject and active medium, he points to otherwise-imperceptible aspects of image production—namely, the movement of light and its particle decomposition. It’s striking that this trick is deployed through works that are so serene and seductive, with surfaces so slick and seemingly empty. But this dissonance between elaborate theoretical demonstration and polished art object seems integral to Lyall’s practice.
A major pleasure of reading is the stream of images that comes bidden into one’s head over the course of a book, produced by the exchange of one’s memory and the author’s imagination and occasionally syncing with, but always illuminating, the words. In Sue de Beer’s work since the early 2000s, we get to see—the way we don’t see our own—her personal image-streams on a wall, excellently crystallized into a series of lucid and fey film installations: Disappear Here, 2004, with a title from Bret Easton Ellis and a monologue from an untitled (and so far unreleased) novel by Alissa Bennett; Black Sun, 2005, with a title from Julia Kristeva and texts from two Dennis Cooper novels; The Quickening, which was based on writings by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Jonathan Edwards. Her latest, The Blue Lenses, 2015, relies again on Suspiria-type style and At Land–ish narrative, not plot, to give us horror in its truest form: life. It also gets its strangeness too easily. It questions what we read as “foreign” while making “foreignness” the reason to look.
The Blue Lenses is a noir transposition from London to Abu Dhabi of Daphne du Maurier’s blackly magic story by that name. Du Maurier’s heroine is cured of blindness only to see humans with animal heads; de Beer’s lead is watchful and silent, following an older male swindler to trip-hop parties and huge deserted malls, letting us see humans in the Middle East who are basically like humans in the Middle West. If that recognition is supposed to be a twist, it’s unacceptable: It’s the opposite of what de Beer has done best, which is to make viewers feel like tourists at home. (At Boesky East, the cobalt windows and plush rugs evoke a school trip to Islam.) Yet she is also doing film better than she has before, better than almost anyone in contemporary art, with an offhand control over an ever-wilder array of cinematic tricks for true beauty.
The vibrant weaves and prisms of splintering, bundled lines in Mark Grotjahn’s well-known “Butterfly” and “Face” paintings are matched in complexity only by their art-historical lineages. In the artist’s latest sculptures, finger-painting, drips and throws of paint, and hole-punched visages tease at Grotjahn’s indelible formal awareness, as does the long, skinny tube that he has pierced into a nose’s position in each work, evoking breath, death, erection, and deception alike. While earlier exhibitions presented more varied shapes, here the artist prefers repeated forms: tall, slender bronze slabs, with proportions near that of the monolith in2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), cast from cardboard boxes. If the African and Oceanic masks that have long inspired Grotjahn still come to mind, so do stelae, megaliths, and dual-sided altarpiece panels. These hand-hewn monuments feel both contrarian and pleasingly familiar, not least owing to their echo of smartphone silhouettes.
Besides multiplying paintable planes, the works in this exhibition up the ante for Grotjahn’s preoccupation with the face. Sculpture’s specialties of forgoing frontality and reciprocating presence dramatize what the artist’s paintings already allegorized: Anything in the world can be understood to have a face, requiting our gaze. In so bluntly marking the frontal view, and lavishing attention on flat surfaces, Grotjahn may be curious to see what happens when sculptures are pulled toward painting rather than the well-rehearsed reverse. Many slabs here are scrawled just like walls; others could pass for 3D sections of splashy light and color sliced from Impressionist landscapes or postwar abstractions. The sculptures’ bronze base intensifies their pigments’ faintly oxidized look of museified Modernism—Van Gogh blues, Guston pinks—even as it cherishes cardboard’s original traits of ribbed corrugation and skirting flaps.
With each new show of small gorgeous landscapes by Maureen Gallace, it’s natural to look for what is different from last time, noting incremental shifts in technique or subject matter. (For example, there are more paintings of the sea in this group.) But the more important point seems to be that, after more than two decades, her paintings remain very much the same. In her vistas of usually rural New England, bluntly elegant, or maybe confidently awkward, brushstrokes make up sand, snow, flowers, foliage, and sky. Often, there’s a house, shack, or barn at the picture’s dead center, and often she reduces its structure to bare geometry. In the striking red, white, and blue Ice Storm, Easton (with Robert), 2015, two brick-red buildings are rendered as blocks without windows or doors. Their roofs are crisp white trapezoids broken up by mushy lines (sticklike winter trees and their shadows).
Gallace’s filtering of detail doesn’t follow an Impressionist’s logic of light and distance; it’s a product of her own compelling algorithm. Western art history is internalized, surfacing in a mysterious but coherent haze rather than as a collision of references. But she does exploit a collision of some kind. The uncanny effect of simultaneous naïveté and knowing in her small oils (Ice Storm is among the biggest in the show, at ten by thirteen inches) derives from the merging of incongruous qualities: the sincerity of the regional landscape genre or the plein-air hobbyist, the speed and sophistication of her wet-on-wet brushwork, and the studious aura of conceptualism around a more recent tradition—painting from photographs. While many artists devote a lifetime to the potentially breathtaking project of minor variation within sharp constraints, the enduring, unpinpointable coolness of Gallace’s work always makes one wonder if there is not an element of durational performance in her persistence.
For Wu Tsang, dialogue is the primary actor by which subjectivities are accorded representation. In the artist’s latest outing, her voice musingly floods the gallery, in dissonance with that of writer and theorist Fred Moten. This audio track, playing independently from the images on display, forms half of Miss Communication and Mr: Re, 2014, a two-channel work that pays homage to a fortnight when Moten and Tsang delivered each other lengthy voicemails. Both their countenances play respectively over HD screens, which the artist has positioned like portraits. Tsang and Moten silently drift in thought and expression as the audio plays their overlapping associative ruminations—a diptych of simultaneous soliloquys. At times, Moten wears a grin with coral lipstick; occasionally Tsang’s eyes appear glazed with tears. Moten’s voice is once heard in self-retort: “Being meant for somebody means that they incomplete you.”
Across the gallery, Girl Talk, 2015, shows Moten in a garden, adorned in velvet and crystal, circling amid lens flares in an ecstatic state of spiritual harmony. The work’s sound track is a soulful a cappella rendition of Betty Carter’s song of the same name, performed by JosiahWise. Two eerie nearby sculptures, both Untitled, 2015, are drapes of beige mesh fabric and crystals over metal supports, seemingly given volume by invisible bodies.
Severing speech from image, Tsang evasively transmits representation. Given that the act of representing identity is often accompanied by expectations and diminished expressive autonomy, perhaps such splintered voices pose a service to their speakers: Their speech flows unchecked by the body. Concluding Miss Communication and Mr: Re, Moten talks over Tsang’s farewell message: “My messages were meant for your messages. . . . We were meant for one another, Wu.”
The color purple is a motif in artist and “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms’s work. It’s the background of both her spare, utilitarian website and her video Notes on Gesture, 2015, the arresting centerpiece of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” her first solo gallery show. Of course, you can’t say or write “the color purple” without invoking The Color Purple—Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of it, and the cultural omnipresence of Oprah Winfrey ever since. Syms uses this rich chain of associations to orient her concerns, such as pop culture’s production of blackness and its mediation of radicalism, and maybe to introduce her sense of humor as well.
A kind of index, Notes resembles a series of jerking GIFS: A black woman’s movements—contemporary vernacular gestures as well as those taken from a seventeenth-century book about “the language of the hand”—are isolated and looped. As the actor clasps her hands together, pats her head, or wags a warning finger, meme-ish title cards of white text, such as a series that spells out “It ain’t about the money,” and audio snippets of speech (e.g., “Check yourself”) provide the hypothetical social contexts for these distilled signs.
The piece, shown on a monitor mounted away from the wall, commands viewers to make sense of the objects Syms has carefully scattered in its orbit. Two neo–Art Deco panthers coated with black flocking stand toward the front of the space, and C-stands display an array of found photos featuring hands and gestures. The show’s serene anchor is Belief Strategy VIII, 2015, an eight-by-sixteen-foot uniformly painted matte monochrome and presumably the purple background used for Notes. The overall effect of the installation is that of a paused or abandoned video shoot—totally stylish, with the added allure of something in process.
“Lichen! Libido! Chastity!” Anthea Hamilton’s debut solo museum exhibition in the US is an arrangement replete with ostensibly handcrafted objects that engage desire and fetish. Such discrete works include suites of knobby eating utensils, precarious chastity belts, and flamboyant knee-high boots. Here, parts of everyday life are taken as whole—that is, as whole worlds of their own—in which marketing, pleasure, design, and biology influence the objects’ composition and comprehension.
Of the five boot sculptures on view, Natural Livin’ Boot (all works 2015) is a droll pastiche of earthy-chic media that befits its gimmicky title: Crusted, peeling leather and flaky lichen clusters decorate this chunky-heel platform shoe, and its knee-high shaft is permeated with pebbles. Two works of a similar silhouette, Holistic Towel Platform Boot A/W and Holistic Towel Platform Boot S/S, embody a slightly more fab aesthetic that adheres printed terry cloth to towering leather shafts stuffed with silk scarves. Hamilton juxtaposes recognizable goods with extravagant flourishes of design and construction, trading codes of functionality for an aura that engages viewer desireunder scrutiny, these objects stir an unresolved, immiscible tension of attraction and repulsion.
Mutation is a unifying thread across the artist’s output, whether it references the material shifts her objects embody, the stream of appropriation between pop and counterculture, or the transformative nature of lichen. Three chastity belts are hung with chain link from the ceiling, resembling perverse swing sets. 1st Guimard Chastity Belt (Leather Twist) fuses elegant lavender leather against the belt’s stainless steel frame. 2nd Guimard Chastity Belt (Metal Twist) showcases a subtle but piercing steel talon jutting from the girdle’s nether regions. This exhibition’s press release remarks on how the works installed are seen as “intimately binding the body to products and things.” But perhaps the reverse is true: Hamilton sportively flings off these objects from their instrumental roles in life to create wild forms that appear, in some cases, as protean as desire itself.