In the intimate exhibition space of Billy Sullivan’s flirty paintings and drawings, the air is charged with a tinge of the erotic. The room is a vibrating chamber of rumors, memories: We are privy to the artist’s interior world, his tender relationships and various loves, both living and lost. Re-created from Sullivan’s personal cache of photos, seven of the ten works on display are titled after their subjects, including Cookie Mueller (Cookie, 2016) and the artist’s husband, Klaus Kertess (Klaus and Klaus, 2015–16). Sullivan’s brushstrokes are gentle and effortless—details are hazy, contours contrast and blend. Lightly discordant color pairings like emerald and magenta, or sapphire and ocher, are sprinkled throughout—tones that call to mind Brooks Brothers’ plaids, a strawberry ice cream in Provincetown, or the look of an East Hampton hedge while coming off a tab of ecstasy.
The pleasure of Sullivan’s works comes in two distinct waves: first, from simply falling into their luscious, exquisite surfaces, and then bearing witness to all of the artist’s posh friends from his haute milieu—this is a privileged gaze, full of scopophilic desire. This entwined sensation seems most palpable in Klaus in Tulum, 2003, where the titular curator is lying naked behind a sheer veil. Hypnotic pinky purples and lemon yellows embellish surrounding tiles and walls as if the atmosphere itself were painted, and this quality bleeds into the exhibition itself. Sullivan’s show pulsates like a circuit of gossip at a party, sexy and pleasurable.
Crisscrossing Italy in the 1970s and ’80s, the photographer Luigi Ghirri did for his homeland what notable New Color artists were doing for the US during those same decades—namely, capturing the country’s social, cultural, and actual landscapes in vivid hues. Ghirri died in 1992, but the work in this exhibition, despite its occasionally dated subjects and slightly color-shifted prints, feels current, and not just because much of contemporary photography revels in nostalgia. Long before today’s de rigueur interest in de- and rematerialized images and mania for rephotographed printed matter, Ghirri observed how the image world abuts and interrupts the real one: A poster of a lemon tree peels away from a stucco wall below its flowering three-dimensional analogue; a billboard blowup of a reclining beauty is caressed by the green bough of a nearby maple.
Like his transatlantic counterparts, Ghirri seemed to view the world slightly askance, defamiliarizing the ordinary so that, as he wrote, “even objects that might seem to be entirely described by sight can, in their representation, prove to be like the blank pages of a book yet to be written.” In Roma, 1979, a view of the Colosseum and a too-blue sky echo a vintage postcard; yet the image centers not on the iconic monument but on the back of an anonymous brown-suited man in the middle distance, as if the camera had been mistakenly jostled sideways just before the shutter opened, revealing a sightseer idling among the hedges. Printed at snapshot size, the details are ultrasharp; here, and in several deadpan images of topiary from his series “Colazione sull’erba” (Lunch on the Lawn), 1972–74, the foliage evokes the stippled trees that pattern the vistas of Flemish paintings, whose meticulousness Ghirri revered. A proper viewing of Ghirri’s own precision requires that you genuflect twice: first in scrutiny, then again in wonder.
In Maggie Lee’s solo debut here, a teen mausoleum crawling with early-to-mid-aughts moods and references, the artist presents a suite of dioramas centered on the Jenny doll, a fantasy avatar the artist dresses and entombs in, mostly, glass tanks. Each takes on the logic of the miniature world, inviting viewers to lean in at different angles, as all but one work rest on custom stands of various heights. With a decisive but sometimes frenetic hand, Lee revisits transitional periods in her life. Her exhibition re-creates many familiar coming-of-age experiences and sites: bedrooms, vintage shops, nightclubs, acid trips, and at least one hangover.
In I Want to Believe (all works 2016), a Genzken-ish raver stomps across a reflective discotheque floor, indifferent to her own image caught in a shard of broken mirror as well as to the discarded Oi Oicha tea bottles and records—Comus, Peaches—lining the corners of her room. We witness other signs of 2000s adolescence: among them, tiny Orangina bottles, Keroppi stickers, shrunken Comme des Garçons ads, the Erowid logo, rhinestones, and trendy outfits for Jenny/Maggie, made with Hanna Törnudd. In Psycho, a club-ready Jenny is surrounded by spare notes of giallo glamour—a Dario Argento poster hangs behind the shiny chrome of a BDSM-looking hamster wheel near a furry black divan, close to a scrap of magic mushroom and an empty Adderall capsule. As if setting booby traps, she fills her installations with visual refrains—hamster bedding, salt licks—imbuing the works with arch self-awareness and twee humor.
For “Feather Belly,” Carlos Reyes’s solo exhibition here, the peephole in the gallery’s door has been reversed, allowing visitors to peek into the space before entering. What you witness gazing through it is a fisheye perspective on an ominous scene: An enormous, spiky deathtrap occupies the entire entrance floor. In a corner, an orb, colored black and blue like a bruise, shines a beam of white light in the direction of the peephole, signaling the work’s menacing presence to any potential voyeur. An anxiety-inducing sight, to say the least.
The scene unravels, however, once one is inside the gallery. What at first looked like a prop from the Saw franchise of torture-porn films is actually Feather Belly #1 (all works 2016), a sculpture composed of a smooth sheet of luminous steel (formerly the floor panel of a large utility van), pierced by spikes made of walnut. The emotional and intellectual trajectory of this work’s unfolding—from behind the door, then through it—is eerie, mesmerizing. It is a formally beautiful landscape that’s weirdly familiar and utterly foreboding.
The same uncanny transition happens with Feather Belly #2, the aforementioned round, light-emitting sentinel. In actuality, it’s a bowling ball with a small LED shining from one of its finger holes. Hanging on the gallery walls are Feather Belly #3 and #4, two unfired clay works resembling charred wood. The surfaces of these pieces—in deep, inky tones of purple, black, and blue—resemble reptile skin. Their psychedelic patina is derived from ordinary desktop-printer ink. Again, Reyes manages to successfully pervert the boundaries between the mundane and the otherworldly.
Lionel Maunz’s fourth solo show with this gallery, “Fealty,” pushes creepiness outside of a general, and easily commodified, aesthetic experience. The title refers to, among other things, the bonds of family, and all the torturous shit that comes with it. Blood relationships—poisonous, petty, and horrifying—come to dramatic life with Maunz’s realistic graphite drawings of early twentieth-century incubators designed to keep newborns free of germs from filthy mommies in Obligation 1–3 (all works 2016). Vertical Chamber gives us an image from Harry Harlow’s “pit of despair,” one of the notorious behavioral researcher’s controversial apparatuses, used to cruelly isolate and observe infant monkeys.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Maunz comes from a dysfunctional family unit himself, having grown up in a religious cult somewhere in rural Montana. Whatever doomsday bunker mentality was imposed upon him as a child, he’s certainly exorcised it with the exhibition’s centerpiece, Mother My Body Disgusts Me, a grouping of poured-concrete boxes/tombs that display steel bars and funereal, mutilated-looking cast-iron figures. Maunz’s brutish metal sculptures viscerally detail all manner of physical trauma and decay—the artist uses an assortment of queasy images from medical texts as reference. As one can imagine, all the runny “mistakes” that occur during the making of these pieces only serve to amplify the gore.
Buried in Ward Shelley’s Extended Narrative, v. 1, 2014—a chronological taxonomy of Western art since the Enlightenment—is a reference to its forebear: Alfred Barr’s famous 1936 diagram of the evolution of abstraction. While expressing modernism’s penchant for positivist, even teleological narratives, the comically swerving arrows of Barr’s history also point toward the absurd oversimplifications and elisions on which they are premised. This same ambivalence informs all the charts here, painted on Mylar and gathered under the exhibition title “The Felicific Calculus.” Named after Jeremy Bentham’s proposed algorithm for happiness, the works graph the history of our culture, ranging from art to the automobile, politics to pornography. Though meticulously researched, they suggest that information is not neutral, as their bright colors and allusions to natural forms—including a dissected frog—posit that data is the object of both cultural discourse and subjective judgments, aesthetic and otherwise. Furthermore, each chart is presented as the first of three possible versions, acknowledging that they’re merely iterations of a mutable truth.
The same open-endedness informs the other series on view, “The Last Library,” 2015–16, which riffs on Borges’s fantasy of a library containing all imaginable books. A collaboration with Douglas Paulson, these bookcases of titles that have not yet been written (e.g., Master a Fearful Rhetoric, by Newt Gingrich) are organized by whimsical criteria such as “books written at sea level” and are decorated with Carol K. Brown’s hand-painted knick-knacks and complemented by purpose-built wainscoting. Whereas the charts open up the past, the bookcases, like science fiction, open up the present by imagining an uncanny future. If the flip side of Bentham’s dream of better living through programming is the nightmare of total control (emblematized by his “Panopticon”), understanding that both the future and the past are up for grabs is a precursor of resistance.
Displacement, dismantlement, and mirroring are at the heart of Oakland-based Zarouhie Abdalian’s first solo show in New York, “A Betrayal.” Despite a spare, poetic visual vocabulary, Abdalian’s site-responsive work reverberates with frustration and anger toward a failing political system and the violence of gentrification.
Close of Winter (all works 2016), a window gate taken apart into four sections that stand as spindly floor-bound sculptures, testifies to the broken nature of “broken windows” policing. The works, with their delicate, organic motifs—a contemporary response to Giacometti’s attenuated, existential figures?—call to mind the steel or wrought-iron fences one associates with dangerous urban neighborhoods. In one of the gallery’s windows flutters Interregnum, a sepia-colored print on mesh fabric that duplicates the view: Images of an old water tower and an ever-rising skyline blur with the real ones just beyond the sill, causing a subtle visual and psychic disjuncture. In One into two, plaster busts of the Roman god Janus face each other, eyes wide open. Rather than representing the past and future, these two heads illustrate an ahistorical echo chamber of clear-sighted—and closed-circuit—myopia.
Abdalian deploys sound as a type of psychogeographic material, much in the vein of Susan Philipsz or Susan Hiller. In 2013, she created Occasional Music, a sound installation of ringing bells that resonated across Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza (which was unofficially renamed the Oscar Grant Plaza by local Occupy protestors to memorialize Grant’s death at the hands of police officers in 2009). Here, the quiet of the space is punctured by Openings, a mortise lock embedded in the wall that clicks at irregular intervals. While not as politically specific as the Oakland work, this insertion of an interior fitting more often seen in sleek condos casts a mood of uncertainty over the gallery—one of the few midcentury art loft spaces still located on SoHo’s Broadway shopping corridor.
A video, an empty stage, and you: These are the things that make Ed Atkins’s show go. For this sparest of installations—which feels radical next to the overbearing clusterfuck exhibitions so au courant these days (Mike Kelley they ain’t)—the artist puts the sprawl where his mouth is and delivers a rollicking, multipronged poem. The video, titled Performance Capture, 2015–16, is a CGI anthology of more than one hundred people tag-teaming parts of a sharply enunciated monologue delivered by a single head and a pair of detached forearms, all floating against a white background. Ostensibly male, the face and hands fade in and out of focus, gesticulating with the flow of the video’s language and changing its facial expression with the subtle intelligence of a true thespian. The face isn’t anyone’s—it’s a composite of all those tensely articulating actors thinking aloud, far and wide, which, again and again, returns to human bodies, animals, digital images, fat, and the rendering they are subjected to.
They exclaim: “My body is precisely NOT here,” and their face looms large, grimacing. They murmur, “if marrow were a grammatical device or a literary mode,” and tiredly remember “getting the feathery cross-hatching around the face bone bits.” We need to make “animals into more useful stuff,” through “a rendering process yield[ing] a fat commodity.” A factory farm renders animals into fatty edibles, or other things we want that can’t bite back. Artists, too, can render any extra fifteen pounds—or minutes—they find lying around into another kind of excess, which can be traded for capital or sent for gutting on the art market’s slaughterhouse floor. But, to paraphrase the video, true rendering is concerned primarily with the look of love.
Beauty has often been in the eye of the patriarchal beholder. Frequently, where the male gaze is concerned, women are weak—their delicate (and delectable) bodies meant to fuel desire and consumerism. A “beautiful” woman, by Western standards, is defined by the Aryan trifecta: blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. She is soft, fragile, helpless. And her tearful face divulges a constant need to be saved and cared for.
With imagery sourced from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Anne Collier’s photographs of women remind us that misogyny is not just found in the fine print of policy, or within a GOP debate. It is a deep-seated cultural phenomenon that pervades everything. The restaging of these found photographs—tricks of advertising that manufacture counterfeit emotions—is a scathing critique of imposed standards of beauty and femininity.
For instance, take the photograph Woman Crying #8, 2016. It depicts a “sincere” tear at the start of a sinuous journey down a woman’s cheek. This tender scene, however, is shattered by the reflection of the photographer’s beauty dish in her iris that no amount of mascara or fake lashes can hide. Hanging nearby is Quality Control, 2016, a magazine advertisement that pairs a camera lens with a picture of a seductive-looking nude woman, poolside, with her ass in the air.
Collier’s work is more than a clinical survey of visual language. It’s a reminder that while scores of women in the past century have made great strides for their rights, the battle for gender equality is far from over.
The small earthenware objects arranged on plinths in Guđmundur Thoroddsen’s show “Dismantled Spirits” evoke a garbled ancientness, a mishmash of Paleolithic, Sumerian, and Greco-Roman styles united by a scatological and phallic throughline. Pinocchio noses and double-headed dildo forms emerge from lumpy, daubed-together urns placed next to what look like rough-hewn tools and obelisk-type things. Hot Dog Mask, 2015, is a mini-monument to grossness: an imperfect green-glazed Doric-like column, interrupted by a diarrheaish cloud of Caucasian-colored clay just above its base and topped with a turd-cock (in the same fake flesh hues), reaching for the heavens. The “dismantled spirits” of the exhibition’s title are the loose ends of a transhistorical patriarchy in crisis.
Airy and magnetic works on paper elaborate this pregnant, semifictional scenario, depicting fragmented narratives of antisocial behavior—destruction, conflict, racist violence, and explosions—through rudimentary depictions of male figures in profile, often with their dicks out. In most of them, a featureless (but carefully shaded) sausage shape floats above the action like a numb deity. However, in Angry God, 2016, it grins on the floor while a giant ghoul drawn in graphite pops out of a trapezoid like a jack-in-the-box. While this work, with its Captain Caveman humor, engages in a patrilineal tradition of patheticism , it also refreshingly brings to mind other, more scathingly crude work. One thinks of Carol Rama’s brilliantly lewd drawings of snakes, tongues, shoes, and shit, and senses an homage to Nancy Spero’s urgent Vietnam War–era drawings, which deploy both ancient and childlike representational techniques to protest military atrocity and technologized male violence. Thoroddsen, in a similar style, celebrates the spectacular dissolution of all that horror ’s symbolic bedrock.
From afar, Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s works look like big glossy Shrinky Dinks pressed against the walls. And up close, too, with their wavy, irregular Plexiglas edges and splotchy colored areas—especially the ones that evoke paper-doll clothes, such as the disembodied form in Dress (all works 2016), with its rainbow popsicle geometry, or Wolford Shapewear and Various Objects, which draws you in with its painterly lingerie curves in “nude” and a picture from a monograph on Chardin. But, unlike Dinks, Rafferty’s objects have an ethereal depth, achieved with layers of ink-jet printing and acrylic polymer paint. Screwed into the walls, these seductive collage-like pieces mix industrial processes and materials with office supplies. In FM FM 1990, a washy silhouette in a fuchsia shirtdress—maybe a mannequin torso—resembles a laminated ghost divided into a grid of wrinkled letter-size acetate sheets, the Hewlett Packard label still visible. Faintly printed, backwards text is hard to make out. The MOSCH of MOSCHINO, however, is unmistakable.
Brands, luxury and otherwise, are important here and appear as they might in dreams—internalized, filtered, and distorted, mixed with memories, aspirations, or notes-to-self. The show, titled “Dresses and Books,” literalizes how exteriors (covers, cases, clothes, and screens) can be both transparent and reflective, refracting their contents while mirroring their environs. It also captures the curious way apparel floats in blank space on webpages and in virtual shopping carts, awaiting our final decision.
At Yve Laris Cohen’s opening, people milled about carefully, minding the edges of the movers’ blankets on the floor. Like protective islands, they marked off space for their storied cargo—the disassembled set for Martha Graham’s 1958 dance Embattled Garden (which is this show’s title, too). The striking biomorphic décor—a floating harlequin-patterned platform and a stylized twelve-foot-tall tree, designed by Isamu Noguchi—was displayed with forensic elegance, like puzzle pieces. Or like wreckage: When the Hudson River flooded the far West Village during Hurricane Sandy, the Martha Graham Dance Company’s theatrical property, housed in the basement of the historic Westbeth complex, was among its art-world casualties. For his “Embattled Garden,” Laris Cohen, an artist with a background in dance and a part-time job as a production assistant for the company, is replicating the water-damaged set. Each day the gallery is open, for five weeks, he’ll clock in to construct a sanctioned knock-off.
This poetic, unfolding gesture of institutional critique—or something like it—collapses the role of the artist who renews the institution through a torch-bearing of ideology and craft with that of the wage laborer who rebuilds and maintains it materially. The collapse isn’t contrived, though; it’s one that occurs in real life all the time. Hooking viewers with the mystique of local avant-garde history, and the fascinating unofficial provenances of its beautiful artifacts, Laris Cohen makes visible the complicated tradition of artists daylighting in the arts—as installers, stagehands, studio assistants, and gallery attendants.
A few days after the opening, I found the artist working at a long table, laptop open and a delivery of fresh wood leaning against the wall. Things had shifted only slightly in the gallery as a result of his low-key ongoing performance, but perhaps, in the spirit of Graham, there will be moments of dramatic tension. (Like when, as per Noguchi, he skewers the charming structures with colored rattan rods?) I’ll check back.
Carlos Motta is a necromancer. His practice involves a kind of communion with the archive, animating its traces in order to call forth the nearly moribund histories of queers of color. Hermaphrodite (8), from the series “Beloved Martina,” 2016, is a haunting 3-D-printed statuette in Greco-Roman style, based on a photograph by Nadar. Martina was a woman who, in 1803, was put on trial for hermaphroditism in a Colombian court. She is also one of the protagonists in another work, Motta’s apparitional film, Deseos, 2015. In it, Martina and a woman called Nour carry on a fictional epistolary correspondence—the former in Suesca, the latter, Beirut—surrounded by elegiac landscapes, visceral scenes of ruins, and a crucified Christ. This work, a documentary-fiction hybrid, places the viewer within a liminal space, transmogrifying the familiar into the uncanny.
Tiny silver figurines, washed in gold and tumbaga (a gold and copper alloy), are organized with taxonomical precision in “Towards a Homoerotic Historiography,” 2013–14. Niches cut into walls house these little sculptures, each one gently lit and sealed behind a pane of Plexiglas, emphasizing their “archeological” qualities and those of the gallery itself. (The walls and floor of the space are painted an otherworldly midnight blue, which further upends the traditional sterility of the white cube.) These small, shiny, joyful men, survivors of colonialist exploitation and wreckage, perform acts of carnal desire and phallus worship, from raunchy gangbangs and genital frottage to delirious bouts of masturbation—an erotic jouissance that lustily bring back the dead.
We can hardly imagine the banality of the ant farm for the ant, who carries on even when its digs are revealed in an anthropogenic, vertical slice. So what, then, is the secret life of the sawdust and shavings likewise vitrined in these five untitled wall works, 2016, by Hans-Christian Lotz?
Each piece collects piles of khaki- or cardboard-brown-colored sawdust and shavings between two panes of Plexiglas framed in wood. The thin shelf-like area, created by a third, slightly smaller pane stuck to the inside-front with visible gobs of silicon, bunches the settling fluff into what we might recognize as monochromatic compositions of pockets and gaps. Thus Lotz cuts the works’ material self-reflexivity and mild chance with a plainly contrived gesture. The pieces cite the artifice of abstraction—Rothko’s downy rectangles come to mind—with a conspiratorial nod to Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, 1920. The image of dissected burrows is more than formal. The pieces dryly evoke, say, the mating habits of sawdust; they also embody our own acculturated desire to have nature flat and on a wall.
Under a table by the windows, a bunch of laptops and cords run a script mindlessly “scraping” headlines and ledes from NPR’s website. Gallery staff dutifully print and bind reams of the stuff to stack on the table. Forget Zika, screw Trump; in this “paperless” age, there’s a larger, unimaginable shape to this mound of merely human crises.
At the end of the catalogue for “The Responsive Eye”—the infamous survey of contemporary Op art that opened at MoMA in February 1965, marking the movement’s simultaneous debut and apogee—curator William Seitz asked, “What are the potentialities of a visual art capable of affecting perception so physically and directly? Can an advanced understanding and application of functional images open a new path from retinal excitation to emotions and ideas?”
These fifty-year-old questions, which Seitz did not venture to answer, have been taken up anew by “The Illusive Eye.” On its face, the show aims to expand the geographic and historical purview of Op, giving greater emphasis to the Latin American artists who developed a dizzying language of geometric abstraction from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many of these have since become critical and/or commercial darlings, including Julio Le Parc, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Carlos Cruz-Diez. But the show also has its surprises, exemplified by Norberto Gómez’s Untitled, 1967, a white grid of closed and open rectangular volumes that are stacked vertically but almost seem to cascade diagonally.
In a brief text, Jorge Daniel Veneciano, El Museo’s director, foregrounds a second, more philosophical aim of the show. As if replying to Seitz, he argues that Op’s abstraction is not an end unto itself but a vehicle for mystical experience, generated by groundless space, geometric patterns, repetitive movement, and the esoteric belief in mathematics as universal truth. The premise is provocative, and not only because of Op’s deliberate embrace of scientific principles and industrial forms and materials (a topic explored most recently by the art historian Pamela Lee). Though these terms may seem irreconcilable, the small number of kinetic machines in the show—which notably were excluded from “The Responsive Eye”—suggest that works such as Martha Boto’s Optique Helicoidial (Mouvement), 1967, offer an encounter with the technological sublime.
If photography is said to provoke factual recollection, painting aids memory’s embellished tales. John Houck’s recent photographs are made at the dizzying intersection between remembering and retelling. The secrets of their construction slip under the darkened edges of archival prints and the thick lines of paint they depict, where the flatness of each photograph’s surface betrays the layers hinted at within. The works take root in Houck’s “History of Graph Paper” series from 2013, in which photographic still lifes of personal relics serve as backdrops for those same physical objects, placed atop their printed reproductions, then photographed again. Now he’s introduced paint into his works as a quiet intervention—sometimes quite directly, on the surfaces of his prints, but mostly as rephotographed bits of trompe l’oeil. His “brushstrokes” snicker throughout the distorted layers of space and depictions of studio equipment such as sponges, tape, and a spray bottle. A cube painted on the cover of a book, depicted three times, twice open and once closed , seems to carve holes into its pages (Petals and Interleaves, 2016). The pale-blue cuff of a dress shirt is painted onto a mold of the artist’s hand, completing the illusion of an arm (Family Crest, 2016). Clear jars are smeared with red and positioned near the apparent culprit—an outline of a paint tube, also in red (Incidental and Intentional, 2015).
The exhibition is titled “Playing and Reality,” which is a way of saying the works are about the tumultuous process of creation. As the artist writes on a folded sheet of newsprint that accompanies the show, “Don’t ask what it means so much as where does it go. Drawn lines are sometimes representations, but they also lead somewhere.”
Of the many delights in this survey, my favorite is Der Raupen wunderbare Verwunderlung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars) from 1679 by Maria Sibylla Merian—an ambitious volume as lovely to see as it is fun to say. Open to a single spread of text and illustration, the book contains fifty such copperplates depicting the life cycle of caterpillars in great scientific detail, along with, according to the work’s caption, “the fruits and flowers on which they feasted.”
The exhibition, curated by Madeleine Viljoen, is a wunderbar feast, celebrating the extraordinary efforts of generations of women (from creators to collectors to curators) without glossing over the adversity and sexism etched in acid bite onto the most bucolic landscapes. The works were originally assembled by Henrietta Louisa Koenen between 1848 and 1861 and are part of a collection at the library that has not been shown since 1901. Koenen’s husband was director of the print room at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and she quietly began her own personal collection, buying works by amateur and professional female artists from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.
Viljoen gathers a broad array of styles, skills, and subject matter: Here are prints by the first woman to sign her work in the sixteenth century and women signing their work simply “his wife,” women copying famous artists’ compositions (a common printmaking practice), and women depicting themselves in frank self-portraits (Angelica Kauffman’s casual pose is breathtaking, as is the scale of Thérčse Holbein’s image of her sketching in Alpine scenery). There are botany studies, calligraphy, and abstract lace designs particularly suited to the exacting lines of engraving. There’s a garlanded portrait of a woman who was earning her doctorate in 1680 (though we know that it was never bestowed).
Cutting history open, the wall labels have just the right amount of juicy detail. Look for references to heterodox ménages; the story of a print depicting a lounging lion and putti in the woods, given as a “suggestive gift” to Thomas Jefferson by its maker, Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway; delightful doodles of heads and horses by a seventeen-year-old princess practicing how to write her name backward to accommodate the etching’s printing; and the first female student at the University of Utrecht, who made the commanding Self-Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman, Aged 33, 1640. This, in short, is a banquet you will leave hungry for more.
In the catalogue that accompanies this show, there is a photo of the artist David Hammons in Harlem in 1980. From behind a pair of sunglasses, he is reading Tales of Power (1974), a volume in Carlos Castaneda’s account of the teachings of an indigenous Mexican shaman. Though presented without comment, the photo is a winking nod to Hammons’s reputation as a kind of art-world sorcerer and also to his own anthropological interests: For five decades he has deployed conceptual jokes and everyday materials to reflect on the paradoxes and complexities of African American life. Although by no means exhaustive, this exhibition offers an important opportunity to survey the artist’s career, including his early “body print” Spade (Power for the Spade), 1969, and his sardonic riff on Minimalism, Untitled, 1989, a sculpture of fortified-wine bottles.
Inevitably reframed by the discourse around the Black Lives Matter movement, the show hits hardest with In the Hood, 1993, a severed hood of a black cotton hoodie—the supposedly “hood” garment that Trayvon Martin dared to wear while walking in a Florida suburb. Hung high on a wall, it connects contemporary black bodies to the histories of both lynching and trophy hunting, and suggests that art collecting itself is a blood sport. Though no stranger to success, Hammons remains elusive, and his work is marked by a similar resistance to being visually mastered: Veiling, hiding, and obscuring are rampant here, and the tension between presence and absence in works like In the Hood speaks to the dangers of both visibility and invisibility, in life as in art.
Created by Dor Guez in 2009, “The Christian Palestinian Archive” invites the titular community to scan their family photographs, in an attempt to trace their histories and journeys. As part of this project, fourteen black-and-white photos tell the family story of Samira Monayer, the artist’s grandmother. These images, from a series titled “Scanogram #1,” 2010, were scanned multiple times and reassembled using a variety of digital programs to accentuate the original photos’ rips and tears. Guez, the inventor of the scanogram technique, seeks to emphasize the creases of time and convey the natural decay of these pictures as objects. In doing so, he deconstructs the images and therefore the past.
Nearby are five large scanograms of broken and vandalized Christian Palestinian graves from a cemetery in Israel (40 Days, 2012). The photos, shot by Guez’s grandfather, have been affected by time and humidity, and in the process have become colorful abstractions full of ghostlike forms, as if to indicate the instability of this dispersed populace.
In the back of the gallery is Sabir, 2010, a twenty-minute video about Samira’s life and journey. Raised in Jaffa, Samira and her family fled their home in 1948 and moved to al-Lydd, known today as Lod. Samira reveals her fascinating story in Arabic and Hebrew, generating a document of what today is considered a “controversial” history. In the video (Sa)Mira, 2009, Guez’s young cousin, named after their grandmother, shares how her Israeli boss asked her to change her Arabic name to the more common Israeli name Mira. By repeating this story over and over again, Samira gradually realizes the racist reality she lives in, and how it feels to be an Arab in Israel today.
Any clear distinction between the human and the natural in Alwar Balasubramaniam’s refined sculptures has become increasingly blurred since he abandoned Bengaluru, India, for his ancestral village in Tamil Nadu. His latest exhibition features a series of textured monochromes, the surfaces of which uncannily resemble geological formations shaped over millennia. A trio of cast fiberglass panels—two unique but similar works, both titled Rain in the midnight, 2015–16, as well as Under current, 2015—re-create rippled beds carved by water flowing over earth and stone. Graphite gives the surface of the former works their inky sheen, while the latter, smaller in size, approximates the patina of oxidized copper or bronze.
Privileging sedimentation over erosion, the craggy surfaces of a different group of panels—a diptych titled Dunes, 2012; and three more cast fiberglass pieces titled Wind Waves, 2012; Wings of the wind, 2014–16; and Burst, 2015—are built up through the slow, careful addition of acrylic (and occasionally pigment, soot, and glue) subjected to the artist’s artificial air currents carefully orchestrated in the studio. The colors—synthetic-looking red, blue, and white—are the sole overt indications of his hand. These objects quietly introduce a sense of nature’s longue durée into the process of artistic creation, making the cumulative effects of imperceptible forces visible.
Other works return to familiar Balasubramaniam territory: the existential relationship between self and corporeality, which the artist has previously interrogated through works in various media that usually begin from a cast of his body. Body as shell, 2011–15, presents a figure as a deflated sheath crumpled on the floor, carved from sandstone. Shell as body, 2015–16, a large, broken, cowrie-shaped terra-cotta pot, reinforces the idea of body as vessel. Neither work, however, dictates what exactly they might hold.
Like George Condo portraits stripped of specificity and affect, the Albanian-born, New York–based painter Lui Shtini’s whimsical, bulbous abstractions are centrally positioned against monochromatic backgrounds. While meticulously labored, Shtini’s works are refreshingly spare. They are also explicitly spiritual—an attempt to make manifest the aura of the supernatural jinni beings who, according to Arabic mythos, influence the fates of those in our own realm.
Shtini’s works are best when they explicitly evoke the corporeal “skins” of these supernatural creatures. His careful etchings and concise palette marks in color fields of wet oil evoke body hair and feathers. Despite their physicality, these paintings, weirdly, are somehow unphotographable. Their vivid textures dissolve under most lenses, and flatten them into Pop iconography, making them lose their psychic verve. Up close, the brushy buildup of paint that forms the inverted crescent of Skin I, 2016, for instance, suggests a mustache ŕ la Nick Offerman, bristling below a symmetrical black, vaguely facial form.
Shtini’s works demonstrate a sculptural consideration of his oil medium—with hatched carvings into dense areas to reveal the layers beneath and knifed impressions to produce the illusion of scales. These paintings operate like Rorschach inkblots, revealing facial features, torsos, molars, bare bottoms, or genitalia—indicating the jinn’s shapeshifting powers, or the viewer’s preoccupations and interests. Choose your own adventure.
In her landmark essay on the grid, Rosalind Krauss outlined the form’s reductive modernist ontology, and its exemplary capacity to align the work of art with its material support. In several diaries presented in Nasreen Mohamedi’s inaugural exhibition here, some of the artist’s supports are commercial notebooks, whose ready-made matrices she used to create linear inked compositions sometimes interwoven with strings of words that read like poetry.
The strong showing of Mohamedi’s signature drawings, which have been steadily gaining international attention, however, departs from Krauss’s reading. In these works, created with architectural drawing instruments that delicately distributed ink or graphite in millimeter-thin lines, the grid is deployed repeatedly, but in ways that resolutely resist the flatness of the picture plane. Instead, gridded lines tilt inward or are interrupted by geometric voids. The resulting optical effect is not one of illusionistic volume, exactly—it is more an intimation of unbounded space that the grid, in its strictest iterations, does not provide.
The survey also includes photographs in which, again, the line roams free of its supporting context: The separation of the beach and the ocean seem to be of gestural intention (Untitled, ca. 1960), while the markings on pavement appear to relieve the ground of its horizontality (Untitled, ca. 1970).
The curatorial narrative emphasizes Mohamedi’s suffering from the debilitating shakes of Huntington’s disease to mark a division between her landscape-based freehand abstractions of the 1960s and the rigorously precise works of the 1980s. Wall didactics and the show’s catalogue also note influences from Islamic, Sufi, and Bhakti traditions’ of geometric nonrepresentation and notions of emptiness. These contextual determinants are important for considering Mohamedi apart from other Minimalists with whom she is often cursorily lumped in. Each work’s obstinate space for attentive reflection simultaneously causes such cadres to recede toward an indeterminate horizon.
Duane Michals thrives when pitted against an unfamiliar medium. And having waited over four decades to approach filmmaking, he does so now with the wide-eyed sincerity and innocence of a first-timer. A theater within the gallery looks like a seedy Times Square peep show from another era. A flashy electric arrow guides you toward an entrance with a red velvet curtain. Right outside is a small handwritten note, listing all twelve of the short videos made by the artist over the last two years. Michals describes these pieces as “mini-movies,” and they are as thoughtful and as cosmic as his photos, though these works give him an expanded set of parameters for storytelling.
In the main exhibition space is a miniretrospective of Michals’s most significant photo sequences of the 1960s and ’70s. Gelatin silver print series such as “Things Are Queer,” 1973, and “Something Strange Is Happening,” 1975, remain timeless meditations on the slipperiness of reality. There are also twelve individual stills from the new movies, scribbled on like souvenir Hollywood posters, in Michals’s distinctive hand. For Tickets to Heaven, 2016, Michals is shown selling salvation on the streets for five bucks a pop (plus tax). Written in squiggly caps on the top-right corner of this photo is “NO SINNERS WERE INJURED IN THE MAKING OF THIS FILM.”
More than half of the shorts star Michals as a wisecracking old man, ad-libbing with slapstick humor and cheap puns. The films are clean and digital, but the production value’s rather high-school drama class. The artist blissfully embraces the campiness of his movies, balancing their tongue-in-cheek tenor with a deep poignancy in such pieces as Are You Still a Faggot? and A Last Walk in the Woods (both 2016). Grappling with familiar themes of sexuality, aging, and loss, Michals translates the qualities of his photographs into dynamic motion pictures that will linger long after you’ve left the gallery.
Yorgo Alexopoulos, The Way to the Sea, 2015–16, digital animation on HD translucent LCD display, Thassos marble, gypsum 3-D print, aluminum, steel, glass, C-print on brushed aluminum, mixed-media diorama, LEDs, polished stainless steel, custom electronics, 10-minute infinite loop, 31 1/2 x 47 x 9''.
The most striking piece in Yorgo Alexopoulos’s latest show is Act of Nature: In Eight Chapters, 2015–16. Ten minutes of footage loops infinitely across eight synchronized LCD screens positioned at right angles to one another along the gallery’s back wall. Time-lapse photographs of landscapes merge with images both still and filmed; a blue triangle meets its translucent counterpart as a waterfall fades in and out of a densely populated forest.
Water undulates on seven screens in the similarly hypnotic Split Swell, 2016. Here, we experience an ocean rendered digitally, and we watch it at eye level, as if through portals on a ship. Time is the element in question here, unfolding against a changing sky whose hues shift from bright, citrusy colors to cold blues. The final destination on this perceptually fragmentary and time-collapsing journey? Totally unknown. But it’s nice to think that one needn’t embark on such a trip when it can be experienced through a mesmerizing simulated reality.
The Way to the Sea, 2015–16, a modular work that incorporates a looped digital animation, has dimensionality as its focal point. A 3-D gypsum print of a lush, mountainous tableau connected to a piece of robotically carved marble that juts out the parameters of the work’s tidy frame seems to explore the boundaries between our pastoral past and a technologically mediated future. There is an implicit irony in the way Alexopoulos moderates the natural world via the screen, trying to capture its essence and preserve a sense of idealism as might be done in an advertisement.
In Cindy Sherman’s eagerly awaited new show, older women—played by the artist, as always—appear in photographs reminiscent of 1920s Hollywood glamour shots or movie posters. Costumed and posed as younger women might be, these bobbed, finger-waving, and stylishly hatted women with precision-painted eyebrows—think Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, or Lillian Gish—seem to be reliving their heydays, in color. Or, maybe, this evocative psychological premise is simply a fortuitous byproduct of Sherman’s age. She’s sixty-two now and continues to work as she has for decades: alone and as a master of all trades, her own model, makeup artist, art director, and stylist.
Shot before a green screen, the photos feature Photoshopped backgrounds, such as hazy skyscrapers, suggestions of wisteria, a length of creased pastel brocade, foreboding skies, digital abstractions, and possibly Athens. These manipulated “sets” throw the artist’s hyperdetailed, brazenly unretouched, and unforgivingly lit form into relief. Impasto foundation collects in her fine lines, plows over her real, intact eyebrows, and is not blended past her décolletage. Also, her hands don’t look young. This wonderful combination of self-assured “age inappropriateness” and classical Hollywood themes produces moments of campy, ramshackle eroticism, with bluish raccoon eye shadow and red cupid's-bow lips, in tresses ŕ la Mary Pickford with a headband and a sexy loose tunic, perched before a storybook tree (Untitled, 2016). But such images are more stately, poignant, or contemplative than funny. One wants to add that Sherman looks great, which she does, but that’s never been the point. As she proceeds to use herself as a convenient mannequin for conceptual endeavors, or, alternately, exploit her exceptional gift of chameleonic dexterity, she further illuminates the cultural conditions of the so-called blank slate. In ignoring the unspoken edict to age out of her self-defined project, her work becomes mysterious and confrontational all over again.
“26,” the title of Richard Tuttle’s solo exhibition here (which refers to the number of previous one-man shows the artist has had in New York since 1965) gives us a deep view into a fully substantiated system with a coherent internal logic—fifty years of artistic hits that have subtly bent and shaped art history. These works, though profound in effect, are humble in facture. For instance, in Red Dots, Deep Maroon over Green, 1986, the hot glue doesn’t hide its job as binding. The work’s materials, such as stickers, masking tape, and Styrofoam, don’t fuss with pretenses—they are what they are. And in 10th Wire Piece, 1972, the artist feels virtually absent, but in the best way: The torqued wire delineates space simply and directly while quietly revealing some ineffable truth. At times, however, his configurations feel more distinctly wrought, particularly in the sprawling Systems, IX, 2012—one senses that Tuttle steadily kneaded this piece from concept to object.
The show’s strongest works, such as the aforementioned wire piece or Fiction Fish I, 1,1992—a graphite line leading to baby-blue modeling paste and a hot-pink rectangle, hung just above the gallery’s floorboards—materialize with an almost supernatural elegance. The curved, green-painted paper intersecting with a dribbling brown splotch painted onto the wall in Titel 3, 1978, snaps the background plane into focus while simultaneously confusing figure and ground. Knottier still is the sense that these grounded abstractions are numinously harnessed manifestations: nonlinear, contingent realities of what’s right here and yet to be.
“Life is not a dream / Beware! Beware! Beware!” So wrote Federico García Lorca after a night of fitful walking through Manhattan. But life is a dream, especially for Chicago-based photographer Kenneth Josephson, and a lovely one at that.
Multiple exposures, collages, time lapses, and doctored colors: Since he began working in the late 1950s–early ’60s, Josephson has used just about every available technique to question our accepted notions of reality. Which is to say that in his best work—much of which is on display at this greatest hits–style exhibition—formal experiments are really metaphysical provocations.
In Chicago, 1960, for example, pedestrians walk down a sun-drenched sidewalk, followed by a tangle of eerie, diaphanous humanoid shapes. Josephson exposed the photograph more than once, certainly, and somewhere along the line, shifted the frame. What we’re actually seeing, then, is the same group of people in different places. In another artist’s hands, this could be a pedantic effect. But by combining it with an exquisite gossamer texture, and conjuring a mood of ethereal solitude, Josephson persuades us that spirits are floating past the street. Similar otherworldly beings appear throughout his work.
Josephson often includes photographs within his photographs. Held in a free hand, lying in the grass, tacked on the frame as in a montage—their self-reflexive presence unsettles us like an LSD revelation. A revelation of what? Of the fact that our world, so intimate and heavy, might well be little more than a greater someone’s photo album.
The scene is set in what looks like a futuristic cemetery, only it’s today—we encounter 3-D-printed and CNC-carved bodies, based on real people, in see-through plastic bags. Of the four on display, one’s a bookkeeper; another, a humble entrepreneur (Productivity Gains [Brandon/Accountant]; By Close of Business [Maura/Small-Business Owner], all works 2016). They lie on the floor, shriveled in fetal positions. Expressions of loss—or is it peace?—appear on their synthetic faces, and their attire’s tidy and wrinkle free. In Josh Kline’s world, obsolescence is the law of the land, and humans are a passé fad . . . or just literal garbage. It’s an entirely sinister and familiar display, and one that doesn’t require much reading between the lines. Its grave humor is explicit—it’s the death of the middle class, a wide swath of the country, rendered as expendable creatures ready for the discard pile.
Nearby is Universal Early Retirement, a fictional three-minute commercial for a federally subsidized income. Its spirit seems to ricochet off the many political campaign ads that have been assaulting our retinas of late. The tone is jovial, the music uplifting, and the American flag is blowing in the wind. People from different ethnic backgrounds laud a new kind of New Deal that would give them enough free time to pursue their true passions. This promise of a utopian kind of social reform is, alas, vaguely believable.
Since consumerism is the cornerstone of any capitalist economy, naturally, elimination is necessary for keeping such a system alive. The future belongs to those who can monetize expendability. And if you think otherwise, Kline’s dark poetry suggests, the heap still awaits.
At the dark end of this gallery reside pontianaks—the vengeful ghosts of women who died during pregnancy—believed throughout Southeast Asia to dwell in banana trees. These long-haired, pale-faced vampires, who purportedly suck the blood of young virgins and prey on men, are at the heart of Yee I-Lann’s exhibition and her thirteen-minute three-channel video Imagining Pontianak: I’ve Got Sunshine on a Cloudy Day, 2016. The video begins with female voices singing the Temptations’ 1965 song “My Girl” before transitioning into a haunting Malaysian ballad. The contrast is stark, reminiscent of the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs when Mr. Blonde cuts off a police officer’s ear and douses him in gasoline to a lighthearted Stealers Wheel tune.
Cultural critic Barbara Creed once wrote, “All human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject,” and Yee creates a powerful testament to one of those visions here. In the video, women line up against a white wall, posed as if for eyewitness identification or for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. They bicker and laugh, gossiping or wrestling with motherhood and shaving, all beneath the wigs worn on their faces in a reference to pontianaks. By hiding their source, the individual voices speak not just for themselves but for women the world over. Yee reimagines these folkloric creatures to retaliate against the myths of the horrific maternal body. That “demon” is made considerably more human through dialogues that puncture those misogynist stigmas: “A good day is when my daughter wakes up and makes her own breakfast,” says a woman. “I should have the right to say, ‘I want an abortion,’” declares another. Fear, perpetuated by the hiding of faces—and lives—of women, is defused, leaving only unruly manes due for a haircut.
Sunglasses, ice-cream cones, nudes, bolt cutters, and, of course, layer cakes are just a few of our favorite things depicted in this airy, career-spanning sampling of Wayne Thiebaud’s work. The sophisticated whimsy of the painter’s realism is reflected not just in his choice of charming subjects but also in his meticulous renderings of them. Via his multicolored outlining technique, which the artist refers to as “halation,” the works are imbued with a subtle Kodachrome radiance. And up close, one finds a fanciful mini-sunset at the edge of each object. In the magnificent and never-before-exhibited painting Five Chocolate Cookies, 1989—which is not much bigger than a sheet of loose leaf paper—Thiebaud defines a row of dark glossy disks (Thin Mints?) with confetti-like marks of crimson, tangerine, and turquoise. White paint, meant to suggest a pristine plate or a Formica countertop, arcs around the cookies and moves in velvety horizontal strokes, like an infinite plane of vanilla buttercream.
While the artist is best known for his perfect takes on the post–World War II American quotidian, he frequently branches out. In the surreal Up Street, 1993, multiple lanes of traffic take a sharp vertical detour, as if on a roller-coaster track, and a funny palm tree teeters at the top in the distance. Mound and Cloud, 1972, is an otherworldly landscape in which a meringue-like puff floats in a bright blue sky above a snow-topped mountain with a cliff face of what looks like rainbow-flecked ganache. An adroit and subtly trailblazing literalizer of the frosting/oil paint parallel, Thiebaud, as the range of this lovely exhibition proves, can apply his signature unfussy delicacy to anything at all.
With only twenty-two paintings produced over six decades, this Robert Ryman exhibition is a summa of the artist’s process, via the reduction and synthesis of the fundamental elements of painting. Different mediums, textures, and supports—canvas, paper, aluminum, fiberglass, Plexiglas—are used to investigate the luminous frequency of white in all its possible gradations. The artist has chosen to exhibit the paintings under natural light, and he is right to do so. I viewed the show when the sky was clear, then when it was cloudy, and then under artificial light. The last condition was decisively the worst, since it imbued the works with a very disturbing pinkish tone. Under natural light, however, the gradations of white appear in all their shimmering, pulsating richness, with vibrations of gray, blue, or black, on surfaces that are highly tactile or smooth, absorbent or polished.
Ryman has been investigating methods and structures of painting since the 1960s. Carrying out an operation of progressive subtraction, he eliminates the stretcher frame and instead attaches sheets of paper or canvases directly to the wall or subverts the axis of vision by propping works, supported on the floor with metal rods, against the wall. He also experiments with the potential of industrial materials by contrasting shiny aluminum surfaces with matte white paint or by using steel bolts on the paintings’ surfaces. And the abatement of tones to the minimum degree of whiteness provides Ryman with a limitless field of freedom. Varying the paint’s density and methods of its application, he regulates the absorbency or the refraction of light, sometimes applying a variety of colors beneath the white to instill the deceptively monochrome surfaces with warmth or acidity. The result is an articulate and complex symphony of minimal tones, much like Brian Eno’s compositions of ambient music. This show, a place of reflection and expansion, uses essential examples to describe Ryman’s research. With a kind of magic and rigor that few can match, Ryman catalyzes perceptual processes, remaining attuned to the objective properties of materials and to the pure evidence of paint and light.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
At the beginning of her career, Eva Kot’átková’s practice seemed inextricable from the past, both personal and artistic, that fed it. Born in 1982 in Prague, the artist spent her early childhood behind the Iron Curtain. Her striking installations and collages, featuring the body under institutional constraint, evoke the aesthetics of Eastern European Dada and Surrealism. Today, Kot’átková’s work, which has focused on the inmates of prisons and asylums, is more suited to the critical lens of disability studies via psychoanalysis than to art-historical connect-the-dots. (Not coincidentally, the artist herself has completed a PhD on the topic of self-taught art.)
Kot’átková’s first solo at this gallery, “a mouse’s home is the snake’s body,” springs from workshops that the artist conducted with children under psychiatric care in Prague. The title alone, which is shared by a piece that consists of looping metal script installed along the base of several walls (all works 2016), suggests the way language can naturalize deeply disturbing phenomena. Collages, installed in several salon-style configurations, combine vintage images of kids, animals, and folk art. On many of these images, the artist has scrawled blindfolds, gags, boundaries, and diagrammatic arrows. The sculptures on view, mostly made of metal, are naive configurations based on typewritten statements by the young patients. These entries, which catalog fears, ailments, and strange perceptions, verge on romanticizing emotional disturbance (a common complaint about outsider art). And yet, in some instances, their words evince wisdom. In Animals I’m Scared of: . . . (Collection of Anxieties), Kot’átková arrays sculptures and photographs on a low plinth, illustrating a list compiled by a twelve-year-old named V. These feared creatures include hedgehogs, snakes, spiders, and a terrifying species familiar to most of us: “my mother because she has hands that punish me / myself because sometimes I can’t recognise myself.”
Certain artworks can’t help but hint at the affect of the bodily actions that shaped them. Many of the iconic process-based sculptures of the 1960s—those shredded webs, tangled filaments, and crisscrossed threads of “Eccentric Abstraction,” for example—suggest a touch of psychic or manual frenzy. Such knotted fibers make an appearance in N. Dash’s current solo exhibition, but only in a twice-removed, two-dimensional form, in paintings silk-screened with images of cloth scraps that the artist rubs to the point of disintegration between her fingers, a daily practice that has occupied her since childhood. While Dash literally worries her diminutive textile sculptures to pieces, the majority of these works (all Untitled, 2016)—composed primarily of stacked or beveled arrangements of jute-stretched canvases, quantities of gessoed or hand-painted fabric, and lengths of twine embedded in or hanging from troweled-on adobe grounds—feature tactile surfaces manipulated by the sure hand of composure.
Underscoring the work’s poise may imply that it’s a bit too well-behaved, too withholding, but in fact any perceived surfeit of restraint gives way, on closer inspection, to a distinctly physical avidity: A strip of pink Styrofoam wedged between shaded areas of graphite and a blush-tipped wooden dowel lying within a flap of black canvas evoke intimate flesh secreted within dark cavities; the fields of New Mexican clay are marked by dermal wrinkles and puckers; and expanses of monochrome paint are rippled by broken adhesion, as if two clinging skins have been pulled reluctantly apart. (It’s hard to resist the urge to run a finger across these planes to test the feel of that cool earth, those viscid oils.) Against the grain of so much hyperarticulate, studied art, Dash’s resolute materiality gently disdains academic prudishness or defensive cleverness. It stays mute, understanding that so much can be said with the mouth firmly shut.
Trudy Benson’s paintings owe a debt to the more baroque proponents of Abstract Illusionism. Think of painters such as Jack Lembeck or Michael Gallagher, artists who ignored the irony of Roy Lichtenstein’s flat renderings of AbEx brushstrokes and went on to depict them as trompe l’oeil forms floating in space, with drop shadows—perverse art-historical gestures that attempted to resuscitate midcentury grandiosity in a jazzy new guise but instead managed only to influence 1980s commercial design and early forms of computerized image craft.
It’s within this matrix—let’s call it “The Forever Now,” after the minisurvey of “atemporal” contemporary painting that took place at MoMA in 2014–15—where one can find the aesthetic precedents of Benson’s work. Her latest paintings in “Spooky Action at a Distance” traffic in restraint and solemnity—indeed, sincerity—that dampen fashionable cleverness and allow the viewer to enjoy these works for their sheer retinal voluptuousness.
The show’s title is borrowed from the language of quantum physics, a term that more generally means that a thing can be transformed or moved without straightforward contact. It also refers to the layering technique the artist employs. Benson builds up several heterogeneous skins of paint using different tools such as an airbrush and an industrial roller. Each coat of paint is applied only after the prior one has dried. Consider Inbetweens, 2016, where Benson uses black-on-white scumbling, which we see in a number of other pieces. She treats each paint layer discretely—creating an environment that Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop users will recognize—which allows for distinct visual shifts from one element to the next that optically pop. These paintings, though operating on a very timely continuum of abstractionist facture, occupy a space all their own.
Jocelyn Hobbie’s variations on boredom could make a viewer lie awake at night. Her painted depictions of women frozen in their tedium offer no reference for this absence of joie de vivre, and each flawless beauty appears slightly displaced among her eclectic, patterned wallpaper and vibrant linens, her perfectly made-up face, her icy gaze. This gaze never seeks contact outside of the canvas and it is always vacant. It makes one insane, attempting to rationalize the origin of each woman’s ennui.
Hobbie’s technical prowess in the fourteen oil paintings on display mesmerizes. Her ability to combine scintillating, clashing designs—draping them together into backgrounds, pillows, and skirts—is enviable, and aids in shielding these elegantly aloof figures against our desire to better know them. The artist crystallizes the kind of dissatisfaction that tends to linger and then lift during mundane routines . . . like, perhaps, living. Her beautiful girls reveal a contemporary condition that is felt all too often, a twenty-first-century limbo that no amount of overstimulation could break. (Never has a dense, sweet slice of something that looks like cinnamon raisin bread, tenderly held by a freckled Lolita in a stripy boat-neck top and gingham tie [Untitled, 2014], appeared so simultaneously delicious and dull.)
Stare at the canvases long enough and it’s easy to imagine the scaffolding of supersaturated ornamentation that keeps them together utterly falling apart. Stream, 2015, calls to mind John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, 1851–52, where Millais’s tragic heroine floats vacantly, helplessly down a stream. Hobbie’s paralyzed sylph, despite her seeming emptiness, or perhaps because of it, makes one want to curl up near her limp arms and grow mad together.
In the photographic diptych How to Look at Mexican Art, 1995, Silvia Gruner displays a punctured molcajete, or Mexican grinding mortar, atop bright-red plastic. Her hand grips the object from above in the first image and playfully penetrates it from below in the second. Not only does she juxtapose something typically associated with indigenous Mexican culture with a strictly contemporary material, but Gruner also inserts her body into her work to challenge assumptions about her artistic heritage. Similarly, in the adjacent film Centinela (Sentinel), 2007, the artist, her head shaved due to her recent cancer treatment, stares into the churning waters of a modernist fountain designed by Mathias Goeritz, Ricardo Legorreta, and Isamu Noguchi, a set of male modernist masters that the artist is confronting as much as she faces the imposing abyss.
Her early film pieces also centralize her body, poised between stasis and movement. In Arena (Sand), 1986, Gruner, naked, covers herself with a mixture of mud and pigment and repeatedly climbs up and tumbles down a dune on Cape Cod, in a Sisyphean loop that marks the surface of the sand. Cyclical repetition is also made visible in Re-Start, 2014, a brief stop-motion animation of the artist’s hands threading a knitting needle, yielding a kinetic set of tangled lines while subtly alluding to women’s association with craft. This more abstract engagement with feminist concerns is manifest in the show’s centerpiece, the two-channel video Hemisferios (Hemispheres), 2014, whose title conflates the artist’s psychic and physical spaces. Here we see Gruner’s assistant undoing two sets of yarn labyrinths that the artist set up in the front and back gardens of her home. One consists of a neat grid, laid out in thickly knitted red lines, while the other is a tangle of the same wool wrapped messily around tree limbs and stray objects. We watch as the two sets of fibers are respooled in real time, staging the tension between material permanence and ephemerality that permeates Gruner’s work, suggesting that artistic labor is always a process of doing and undoing.
Working across a range of mediums and practices, Peter Linde Busk channels classical and popular culture to conjure protean figures and mythological narratives in his first solo exhibition in the US, “Any Port in a Storm.” Many of his multifaceted works, which include mosaics and reliefs, are assembled like intricately interlocking puzzles. Linde Busk creates these patchwork objects primarily with detritus salvaged from the studio, such as cardboard and wood scraps, tile, lithographic stones, and broken shards from his own ceramics.
He coats his ceramics with a matte white glaze that settles into indentations and fingerprints like milky puddles. In Rosebud and We All Have to Decide for Ourselves How Much Sin We Can Live With (all works cited, 2016), the clay is flattened and carved into like a stone tablet. Both are fractured by large cracks that add to their air of antiquity. Similar to Arlene Shechet’s metallic-gray vessels from 2007, other ceramics evoke respiratory organs or musical instruments, as in Charon’s Call, which resembles a bagpipe.
The exhibition is anchored by three monuments to feminine symbols of power: the artist’s version of the Venus de Milo, Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, and Sister Ray, the latter of which is named for the Velvet Underground’s smack-dealing drag queen antiheroine. Each piece is rendered with varying techniques, but they all feature the same central form—a gaunt figure in contrapposto with one arm extended, perhaps holding a weapon. We may never know what the original Venus de Milo was doing with her arms, but it’s safe to say Linde Busk’s spectral beings have axes to grind. Many of the artist’s titles quote literature and TV shows, which can lead to moments of heavy-handedness. But they do nothing to impede the evocative and eclectic visual world the artist has forged.
Amie Siegel’s latest works probe the pathos of preterit things. Shot in crystalline HD, Fetish, 2016, documents the annual cleaning of Freud’s London home, preserved since the early 1980s as a museum. Bronze sibyls, ceramic sphinxes, and ivory Buddhas line bookshelves and Biedermeier cabinets like patients awaiting analysis. Two conservators, outfitted in Freud Museum fleeces (the only confirmation of context), methodically remove, dust, and return each figure to its site. Yet the true protagonists are the objects themselves, which Siegel images from their best angle, straight on and centered in the frame. Close-ups silhouette Freud’s artifacts against shallow fields, while parallel tracking shots cultivate distance, enclosing each specimen in a solipsistic world. In these hermetic, eclipsed spaces, the viewer can only trespass.
Freud conceived the fetish as an undecided object: a substitute for the absent phallus, at once mnemonic of and protective against its loss. Siegel’s artwork dilates the “both-and” quality of its namesake, treating the museum’s miscellany as sachlich things and animate actors. Displaced from its perch, a metal porcupine seems less threatening than forlorn: a pocket-size Pierrot. Moments earlier, Siegel’s camera scans an emptied shelf, recording its punctuated topology of sediment. The work closes with a long shot of Freud’s infamous couch. Conservators successively strip and restore its carpet overlay in a choreography by turns tender and mundane. Disused and sagging, the settee makes a musty odalisque. Similar care is taken by the preservationists seen in Double Negative, 2015. Their headquarters in Canberra, Australia, occupy a black replica of Le Corbusier’s modernist icon, the Villa Savoye. The doubled building tropes the doubled nature of object existence that Siegel’s camera discloses. Her pieces tempt us to slip into the histories of things—to imagine the analysands supine on Freud’s sofa or the faithful who fondled his sphinx—yet hold us indefinitely at the surface.
Two concurrent exhibitions focus on the work of Billy Al Bengston in the decades following the 1966 close of Los Angeles’s epochal Ferus Gallery. Bengston’s idiosyncratic practice, influenced by the West Coast’s surf and high-gloss car cultures, cemented his reputation as a deeply original progenitor of LA cool. “Warm California,” on view at Andrew Kreps, serves up Bengston from 1972–76 via his “Draculas” series of works: screens, which feel like stained glass, painted on canvas and either stretched on frames or mounted between dowel rods, with muted depictions of irises (maybe the Dracula’s Kiss variety, similar to sculptor Ken Price’s thought that the flowers resembled the transformational moment between vampire and bat). Punotaria Latifolia Draculas, 1975, in dusty green, magenta, yellow, and purple, hangs from the ceiling, a dreamy work full of inviting, soft-focus, hallucinatory forms. “Plenty Aloha: Billy Al Bengston, Works 1982–1984,” at Franklin Parrasch, regales us with weird, jazzy ’80s-style cutouts in acidy colors and 3-D cut-paper noodles that bop around in deep-set frames. The artist’s visual language here is, tonally, quite different from what we experience at Kreps, with all the heart-shaped leaves, rainbow hues, and goofy-guy profiles.
In our age of seemingly irony-free normcore, Bengston’s works feel current, as they happily occupy the suburbany television aesthetics of Gilligan’s Island, or even Hawaii Five-O. One can’t help but think of Bengston’s iconic 1968 exhibition at LACMA in collaboration with Frank Gehry (who Bengston hired to produce the exhibition’s scenography), which positioned the artist’s graphic paintings near sofas, area rugs, and little side tables for lamps—gestures of decorative “whimsy” that subtly destabilize.
The mixed-media work in Harmony Hammond’s new show has a rare presence, evoking the sides of barges, stucco walls, and flesh. She uses oil paint, layered strips of canvas, and hardware to imbue her irregular reworkings of fraught modernist forms—monochrome painting, the grid—with luminous, repaired, weathered, and weather-proofed qualities. Here, grommets function as both marks and portals to the blank wall behind, punched into her canvases and arranged in rows. In the grand, off-white Witness, 2014, an elegant fold in the canvas suggests a horizon line or a shirt seam. In the upstairs gallery, fiery grommet-grid variations, one in yellow and one in red (Naples Grid and Red Stack, both 2015), are dramatic exceptions to the show’s subdued palate.
In this latest installment of the artist’s lifelong undertaking to recuperate and subvert the gendered associations of her materials and processes, the sturdy paintings find a delicate foil in a series of text-based “Ledger Drawings,” 2015. As in grammar-school blackboard punishments, words repeat in neat rows on graph paper. In tireless script, Hammond has written loaded terms that attach to the late-career woman artist. One drawing reads “diva” again and again; another accuses or dismisses with “your generation.” Hammond, an influential figure of the 1970s feminist art movement, notes in the press release that she executes these colored-ink drawings at night, reiterating the put-downs to “render them powerless.” Repetition transforms them for the viewer, too: One easily un-recognizes the words and lets them become curlicued forms, blurring into stripes. Intimate and forceful, the drawings stand as spells against not just sexist disregard but also—in the spirit of Hammond’s feminist formalist oeuvre—the false opposition of abstraction and personal/political content.
“Stop Playing in My Face!”—the title of both Rashaad Newsome’s show and its mesmerizing queer Afrofuturist video centerpiece—is taken from a rebuke/mantra invented by Samantha James Revlon: black trans woman, YouTube luminary, and camera-phone diarist. In Newsome’s four-minute loop, Revlon’s vivid vernacular becomes a springboard and framework for theoretical discussion. Set to an eerie dance beat, the cut-up voices of feminist cultural critics, such as bell hooks and Janet Mock, debate the practical and philosophical potentials (or pitfalls) of sexual self-commodification. Meanwhile, the nearly floor-to-ceiling projection shows a dancer in red stiletto boots and a black turtleneck leotard, voguing solo in a blankly grand virtual setting (somewhere like the Parthenon, or a mall at night). Strangely paced animated camera movements heighten the video-game feel and eventually dramatically zoom out to reveal the dancer as one of many moving parts in a cosmic entity of rotating architecture, diamonds, pearls, and giant glossy-red talking lips.
The digital collage aesthetic of this glam deity is reflected in the works on paper in the front gallery, but these pieces are constructed the old-fashioned cut-and-paste way. The artist cleverly cobbles together cyborgian figures from appropriated images of opulence—jewel-encrusted surfaces, custom rims, made-up mouths, models’ limbs, flames, and gold-domed buildings. Playing with layers and modes of realness, Newsome pairs these condensed photographic representations of fabulous excess and gendered artifice with veritable luxury materials. In YAAAAAAAS! (all works cited, 2016), a portrait of a glittering humanoid occupies an ornate octagonal frame made from black leather and automotive paint. In this sharp and effervescent show, tropes of conspicuous consumption mingle with reflections from trans and feminist voices on what it’s like to be conspicuously consumed; and Revlon’s nuanced, boundary-setting, space-making edict resonates with both interpersonal and intergalactic import.
In the youth of the Soviet Union, Constructivism gave form to the new society’s most utopian ideas about style, labor, and family—a science fiction of everyday life. Little as this endeared the movement to Stalin, not even he could disappear the spiraling geometries of filmmaker Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (1924) or the Shabolovka Radio Tower. “Diálogos constructivistas en la vanguardia Cubana” (Constructivist Dialogues in the Cuban Vanguard) reveals how these satellites were received on the other side of the planet. Amelia Peláez was born shortly before the end of Spanish rule, and the thick black lines embroidering her paintings annex domestic scenes to the surrounding colonial architecture. Naturaleza muerta en un interior/Las Puertas de la Habana (Still Life in an Interior/The Doors of Havana), 1948, feels like a stained-glass window for a church not yet founded. Light spills across the canvas in delirious crystals.
Loló Soldevilla’s geometric sculptures seem to restrain themselves to the spare palette of a chessboard, their squares and circles paused mid-motion, like the vertiginous obstacles in a 3-D Super Mario level. Her oil painting Carta celeste: Noches en el cosmos (Celestial Letter: Nights in the Cosmos), 1958, is a partially striated circle with two smaller orbs floating within. For Zilia Sánchez, still active at ninety years old, her lunar imagery is a portal to more terrestrial bodies. She stretches canvases over wooden armatures until they pant soft colors. Shapes undulate against one another. I thought of that TV screen bulging outward in Videodrome (1983), a throb loosed from flesh. The first Constructivists dreamed of building to distant planets; after seeing Sánchez’s art, you may fantasize about caressing one.
In her New York gallery debut, Alicja Kwade presents a fun house of cerebral sculptures that play with and challenge perceptions of space. The artist displayed a similar sleight of hand with her recent commission for Public Art Fund, Against the Run, 2015, a street clock with a backward-revolving face that disorients passersby yet, nevertheless, gives the correct time. Here, Kwade makes efficient use of sculpted and ready-made materials to construct a series of works that portray objects at an impasse, oscillating between various states of being and meaning.
Three central sculptures—whose titles combine to form the exhibition’s title, “I Rise Again, Changed But the Same”—are arranged like room dividers in a tight cluster. Their steel frames operate as pathways, windows, and mirrors through which a dizzying labyrinth of views is created. In Changed (Fig. II) (all works 2015–16), a double-sided mirror reflects a stone on one side and its twin, cast in aluminum, on the other; from certain angles it appears as a single object divided neatly between two materials. In Incident (Trait Transference), Kwade performs a similar alchemical shift with four sculptures that pair up equal-size panels of mirror and Corten steel. Transmitted like a virus or fungus, the weathered steel’s rusted coating spreads over the mirror’s surface, supplanting the reflected image with a corroding double.
Kwade’s subjects are objects in crisis, divorced from their traditional functions or contexts. Time Machine is a scattering of fallen leaves, out of place in an otherwise pristine installation. The found set of keys in Wo oben zum Unten (Where Top to Bottom) is affixed to the ceiling, defying gravity and flipping our perspective. These two inconspicuous pieces go virtually unnoticed unless you’re really looking, which Kwade compels you to do, again and again.
Curated by Murtaza Vali and Prajit Dutta, this exhibition features artists hailing from or affiliated with South Asia and the broader Middle East. It focuses on Minimalism as a capacious philosophical concept that draws together non-Western practitioners from different generations. The works end up defying this aesthetic categorization, however, as there is a subtle emotional tactility throughout the show that enables content—personal, political—that, of course, runs counter to chilly, textbook Minimalism.
Rasheed Araeen’s and Somnath Hore’s large bodies of work provide a historical anchor to this display. Araeen, who holds a degree in civil engineering, first began experimenting with Minimalist sculpture during the 1960s, after moving to London from Karachi. His simple yet dynamic structures, painted in bright colors, call to mind Sol LeWitt’s gridded sculptures but are more eccentric, playful. Hore’s cast paper series “UNTITLED (WOUNDS),” 1970–72, indeed, look like mortified flesh—they resonate quite palpably with horror and trauma.
Joël Andrianomearisoa’s sculpture of denim fragments hanging on a single nail, OKMARCLAURENT77MONDAY BOY, 2016, and Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s barely-there cityscape, Perspectives, Bank Junction, London, 2014, are quietly intense objects—traces or remnants of gestures and materials, carefully conceived, that make us question the veracity of sight as well as the conceptual definition and physical manifestation of “weight.” Abdullah M. I. Syed’s Tears II: 4 Midnight Blue and Black Squares, 2016, actually use the artist’s tears as a medium—it feels like a tenderer, more intimate version of Ad Reinhardt’s famous black monochromes. The artists in this show demonstrate rather beautifully that the making of “reductive” art functions most resoundingly when it carries a human touch.
One of the highlights of Frieze New York last month was this gallery’s presentation of Abraham Palatnik, an octogenarian Brazilian artist whose “Kinechromatic Devices,” 1951–2004, helped to pioneer kinetic light art during the mid-twentieth century. Though included in venues such as the first Bienal de Săo Paulo in 1951, and the Venice Biennale of 1964, coming across one outside the artist’s studio today is rare: as with other kinetic works, their delicate mechanisms and elision from art-historical narratives keep them from view. Happily, they can be seen again in this show, where they are situated within the context of Palatnik’s long career.
A founder of abstraction in postwar Brazil through his involvement with Grupo Frente and Neo-concretism, Palatnik is primarily fascinated with the abstraction of movement itself. Inspired by the sight of a flickering candle, his light boxes display colors and forms that are in perpetual transformation. The crepuscular light and protean shapes defy easy identification, resisting the sublimation of sensual experience into language. And yet, like the sensing body itself, they are not without order: Most notably, some of them, like the Kinechromatic Device of 1969/1986, share our bilateral symmetry.
The same tension between order and disorder appears in Palatnik’s nonkinetic works, in which he exploits the inherent properties of his materials to create irregular yet balanced patterns. To make his “Progression Reliefs” of the 1960s and ’70s, he rearranged vertical strips of jacaranda wood, its natural grain suggesting a staccato contraction and expansion across the horizontal axis. Whether mechanized or not, the restless movement of his works affirms the desire of both art and technology to reorder the world, and our experience of it.
Meg Webster’s Solar Grow Room (all works cited, 2016) centers greenery—lettuces, herbs, and assorted blooms—under LED grow lights that are powered by solar panels affixed to the gallery’s exterior. Equipment and edibles join in a self-sustaining (and sustainable) system that commutes between natural and electronic forms of energy. Disposed in nondescript planters, leaves and stems swell upward toward the lights in arrangements that suggest traditional still-life paintings, where botany often traffics in complex allegories of transience and decay. Yet Webster’s take is less downbeat than pumped up. The LEDs’ spectrum of syrupy reds and synthetic cyans lends the growth a vaguely lunar gleam, yielding the impression that the plants are fluorescing. Sheathed in Mylar, the walls amplify the lights’ effects. Space and skin emerge in hi-fi hues that loosen the installation’s claim on the organic. Animated by a power adapter’s low-level buzz, this is a radioactive landscape.
Considered after Solar Grow Room, the show’s remaining works, arranged in the gallery’s main room, present something of a non sequitur. An ovoid mound of salt, a rectangular crop of moss, and a circular tangle of twigs indulge in a poetics of materials that implicates mythologies of mother earth (as evidenced in the title of the first piece, Mother Mound Salt, whose contour Webster has compared to a pregnant belly). One wishes that Webster had lingered in Solar Grow Room’s uneasy hyphenations of nature, machines, and informatics. Instead, the trio prospects an escape from technology. Unaltered organic materials here claim a sort of utopian immediacy, exemplified by the bosky smell of peat. The results recall Carl Andre’s definition of sculpture as “matter mattering” and Donald Judd’s assertion of three dimensions as “real space.” At once naturalizing technology and technologizing nature, Webster’s Solar Grow Room begs the question of whether such spaces, “real” or otherwise, are still available.
Larry Walker is Kara Walker’s father, and it’s hard to resist reading this career-spanning show of his drawings and mixed-media paintings, curated by his famous daughter, through her work. You look for—and find—ways in which his practice, described by her in the press release as “the background hum of my life from infancy,” may have shaped her sensibility. Larry Walker’s use of silhouette, for example, is striking in its own right, but it’s particularly notable in light of Kara Walker’s brutal and exquisite cut-paper murals of plantation life in the antebellum South. Both artists share a tendency toward black and white, leveraging the graphic impact of their anti-palette while invoking the racialized rhetorical sense of the phrase “black and white” lurking in every description of their work.
In Larry Walker’s charcoal drawing Elegy for Michael: Passage Through the Valley, Metamorphic Series, 2010, Michael Jackson is shown in profile, turning away from us in a cowboy hat and surrounded by flame-like birds. His outline is filled not with his features but with a big misplaced eye and a sliced-up photograph of himself. This embellished collage element depicts the pop star morphing into a horse-demon. Larry Walker shifts gracefully, psychedelically, between figuration and abstraction––often within the same composition––to achieve an effect of lyrical interiority. But his use of found material and pop-cultural references breach the dreaminess. Some of his paintings feel gummed up by reality itself, with layers of advertisements and magazine pages. His “Wall Series,” a continuing body of work that began in the 1980s, includes a pair of sober diptychs on canvas, each cleaved by a hanging sculptural element. In the landscape-ish abstraction Secret # V (With Spirit Voices and W’s), 2009, a chain-wrapped piece of Georgia granite is suspended just below the painting’s edge by a black rope. Similarly, in the mostly black, elegantly spray-painted Secret # II, Wall Series (Extension), 2008, antique slave shackles hang dead center like a frozen pendulum.
This unusual survey show, a welcome introduction to the little-known artist, is an opportunity to reflect on intergenerational influence, on how things are not simply handed down but explored simultaneously, the work benefiting from a mutual “background hum” of intellectual-artistic osmosis.
Were these photographs staged? Not really. So they were naturally captured? Well, not quite. The trouble, you see, is that Sasha Rudensky’s subjects themselves can’t tell illusion from reality. Children of post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia, they grew up with nothing to believe in, inhabiting an ideological void. Now, in a rush to cultivate identity and transcendence, they aridly ape American-style capitalism—its money, spectacle, sex, and clothes. In a profound sense, they are always playacting. The photographer sometimes orchestrates the setting, but she needn’t ask them to pose.
Indeed, Rudensky—who was born in Moscow, moved to the US as a child, and has spent a decade photographically exploring the Soviet Union’s complex legacy—seems to view contemporary Ukraine and Russia as one giant stage. Her subjects, people she encountered while recently traveling through the countries, are often shot against backdrops of desire (boutiques, nightclubs, malls, massage parlors) and usually alone. The result is a series of existential crises. Though well off and surrounded by comforting possessions, they appear melancholy, uneasy, forlorn. In Karaoke Europa, 2013, for example, a well-dressed man stands on stage in a snazzy but eerily empty karaoke club. It’s a chilling metaphor for his life: There’s no audience, but he still performs.
Amid all this bleakness, however, there is also palpable visual sensuality. Rudensky has always favored strong color and here bathes her subjects in various shades of blue. It’s a felicitous decision. Blue, as Goethe noted in Theory of Colors (1810), “may be said to disturb rather than enliven.” Rudensky’s photographs certainly disturb. What’s uncertain is whether her subjects can be enlivened.
If Hitchcock could have hired El Lissitzky as a set designer and cast Pee-wee Herman as a lead, the results might have looked a lot like Anna & Bernhard Blume’s oeuvre. In “Scenes from a Photo-Novel”—the couple’s first solo show in New York since 1989—grids of black-and-white photos and drawings storyboard the mounting terror of a priggish German couple, acted out by the Blumes themselves, as sculptural elements and household objects begin to run amok and hurtle through space, seemingly vivified by an unseen, vengeful telekinetic. The hyperbolic physical comedy of a Saturday-morning cartoon prevails: A man clings for dear life to a falling tree, clutching his hat to his head, in Hansel and Gretel, 1990/1991. In Kuchenkoller (Kitchen Frenzy), 1985/2016, potatoes appear to emerge from a sieve and whirl across a room in ring formation.
Much can be said of the Blumes’ roots in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where Joseph Beuys taught and Sigmar Polke was a classmate. And given that these gravity-defying scenes were created in the 1980s, one can’t help but wonder how some of them were shot pre-Photoshop. (With the help of safety nets and cushions, apparently.) But most intriguing is the extent to which this oeuvre, right now, feels fiercely contemporary, or at least astonishingly consonant with the concerns of a generation of emerging photographers, who—preferring cool formality over messy anthropology—are building elaborate, often semiabstract sets for their images, captivated by the picture plane’s primal role in their medium. The Blumes’ works evince a similar set of formal concerns, presciently exploring the overlap with filmic and graphic-novel representations of violence. In Transzendentaler Konstrukt (Transcendental Construct), 1992/2016, beams and blocks, sick of being objects, become pugilists instead, impaling Anna and socking Bernhard in the jaw. It all seems like a nightmare in which Constructivism’s legacy has come to life, determined to beat the crap out of its bourgeois inheritors.
Joseph Geagan documents his scene in a delicate analog mode, with pastel and paper instead of an iPhone. The artist’s exhibition here, “Toast for Old Chum,” consists of sixteen large drawings depicting Geagan’s glamorously louche friends in an electric, expressionistic style. At first glance you think you’re looking at East Village denizens, circa 1980-something. But Geagan’s not a dyed-in-the-wool nostalgist. Though the artist’s pictures are deliberately handmade, they are, paradoxically, suited to Instagram (on the gallery’s feed, some of Geagan’s subjects pose in front of their representations). The diaristic tone of these works creates a strange intersection of autobiography and allegory. His figures transmit a wide range of characteristics—erotic, hilarious, evil, or incandescent—which we see perfectly in Village Predator (all works cited, 2016), a creepy, quasi-self-portrait, and in The Street Stalker, a depiction of a Baudelairean pervert malingering on Orchard Street at dusk, looming over splayed nudes.
Polymorphous notions of sexuality and identity are at play. Take The Fiddling Mykkis, a group portrait with transfabulous rapper Mykki Blanco. This is a glitteringly queer family, “nuclear” only by sheer force of their all-encompassing charisma. And the debauchers of Elsie from Chelsea defy today’s norms of productivity or restraint—they embrace the libidinal now. Geagan reconfigures Weimar decadence—George Grosz, Christian Schad, and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin—for New York City, 2016. Surface and style is self, my friends, and total liberation.
After recently performing Samuel Beckett’s Not I (1972), actress Lisa Dwan wrote: “Only a few of us know what it is to hang in that darkness . . . till the curtain opens to let in the laser of light that fires the mouth and then to speak so fast you can’t think and think so fast you can’t speak . . . yet speak she must.” In the play, a disembodied mouth, illuminated by a single beam of light, spews an agitated text after a long silence. Save for this mouth, the room is pitch black, making the senses of those patrons in the dark acutely attuned to the language happening before them.
For Sam Lewitt’s first institutional solo exhibition in New York, “Less Light Warm Words,” the artist employs a similar tactic. Lewitt has removed the fluorescent lights from the main gallery and redirected the electricity to ten slim, floor-based copper heating circuits. Virtually illegible pairings of words, some of which derive from industrial vocabulary—“VACUUM SEALED,” or “DEFOGGED MIRROR”—are written out in the circuitry on the heaters, implicating language in the pathway of energy belonging to each piece. The gallery is temporarily bereft of its fluorescent lighting, housing both a host of high-temperature electro-glyphs and, consequently, a heat unbearable in Manhattan’s summer months. Like the purposeful monotony of a spotlit mouth in the void, Lewitt’s composition of space and the speech acts it contains are here subject to concerted focus.
Don’t take the stairs to Xaviera Simmons’s show in the second-floor galleries, as it starts in the elevator. A video titled Islands (all works cited, 2016) plays on a monitor mounted above the doors. One looks up in order to look down at the ocean, a single shot of choppy water. The short loop is a fitting introduction to this transporting multimedia exhibition in which seductive images of water and sun-soaked terrain, their locations never identified, become symbols for an abstract site. Simmons’s “island” is metaphorical and mediated, much as “the body” is, a parallel emphasized by the pronounced erotic juxtapositions favored by the artist. For example, Two Minutes One Second Seven Frames features alternating footage of ripped, jock-strapped go-go boys undulating in a club and a clip of waves—a swimmer’s rhythmic strokes in the distance breaking the cerulean surface. In the photograph Red (Number One), a woman, shot in front of majestic cliffs, holds a bulletin-board-like grid of photos, selections from the artist’s collection of Jamaican dancehall-culture images that depict daggering, a newish kind of dance known for its stylized simulations of sex acts.
Simmons refers to such indexical image-boards as “maps,” and the large-scale text-based Saturated, a white-on-black sculptural work, further elucidates her interest in the term. An edited stream of phrases culled from maps reveals the lush repetitive language—speculative, poetic, colonial, and scientific—used to describe land and bodies of water. And the show itself is a kind of map––the “foundation for a unique choreographic score,” the press release states, for a future performance that will, no doubt, reflect Simmons’s eye for evocative combinations of pedestrian movement, nightlife culture, and the natural world.
The twelve artworks in Anna Sew Hoy’s show mostly stand apart from one another. But, via supports and sightlines, they are all inextricably intertwined. Cords are embedded in resin arms, while ovoid sculptures form frames around neighboring works. Oozy blue-jean tentacles creep into your peripheral vision. There’s really no place in the gallery to hide from Sew Hoy’s creations. The voyeuristic mirror-eyes of Invisible Tattoo, 2016—also the exhibition’s title—reflect all the dimensions of the surrounding pieces. The artist uses the mirrors as mute figures of surveillance, and each one is hugged by denim to weirdly amplify its sensuous, bodacious curves.
Sew Hoy’s everyday materials summon up the body—deformed, fragile, marvelous—cleverly, even viscerally. All three objects from “Utopic Accumulation (Arm Hook),” 2012–16, have electrical cables buried into their sickly amber limbs. Two of them hold Denim Worm, 2016, stuffed jean things whose varying lengths either skim or lazily rest entangled on the ground, depending on the number of Frankensteined pant legs they possess. These goofy creatures counteract the cerebral coolness of Bubble Space (Partially Buried), 2015, two fiberglass domes set in purple sparkly sand. It’s the only work that feels separate from the others. Maybe it’s because if you turn just so, it’s the only thing you’ll see without visual disruption in this deftly manipulated exhibition.
The lovely and occasionally creepy figurative paintings by six intriguing artists take shade beneath the curatorial parasol of a Sylvia Plath poem. “I Am Silver,” the show’s title, is borrowed from the first line of “Mirror,” in which the poet assumes the titular object’s dispassionate voice. With sly, mounting despair, she/it narrates the waning of a woman’s desirability. Beauty and its cruel, ridiculous genderedness might be the metasubject here. In Plath’s tradition, the works on view mourn, satirize, cheapen, or resent beauty, or make it horrifying, without utterly eradicating it.
Chelsea Culprit’s Watermelon Crawl, 2016, is a funny, unsettling iteration of art-class Surrealism in a punchy Lisa Frank palette. Lavender lips hover on a damaged canvas while a disembodied arm boasts a watermelon-patterned, bubble-fingered hand opposite a green talon. Kiki Kogelnik contributes an exhilarating monster-woman in Untitled, ca. 1972. She’s got bedroom eyes and a pinup pout, but her face is striped in candy colors, with crimson spines sprouting from a head of helmet hair. Becky Kolsrud’s girls are phantoms—her druggy, Kilimnikesque faces peer wistfully though lattices. Justin Vivian Bond’s meticulous diptychs are full of mysterious longing: Bond pairs self-portraits with reverential homages to the iconic Estee Lauder model Karen Graham, both of them styled identically. Sojourner Truth Parsons presents a cool, grubby take on Matisse’s buoyant compositions in the forbiddingly titled The same rope that pulls you will hang you his and hers edition I, 2016. An angular bright-pink nude floats in a collaged environment, with a wonderfully nonchalant, dingy daub-y white poodle in the foreground. Anna Glantz dramatizes another common thread—the mirror as hallucinatory springboard. Her painted pastiches—sci-fi scenarios suggesting time travel and other worlds—are more views through the looking glass than renderings or distortions of its reflections.
The year in American media has been nothing if not a shrill, torrential fever dream: an obsessive and escalating news cycle reflecting a savage reality torn apart by killer cops, active-shooter rampage, virulent right-wing populism, and a looming American vote of world-historical consequence. A sardonic reversal of political discourse, then, arrives in the deliberately patchy whirring of this group exhibition during an election year, a time when many galleries exert themselves to prop up their best approximations of politically motivated art. This show is different. Organized by Monika Senz, it critically examines daily life under advanced capitalism, in tones that seem to irreverently fly in the face of the dour nation. The works feel almost vintage in their listless tranquility, a kind of stoned obsession with decor, wellness, lifestyle, and cocktail parties.
A series of photographs by London-based artist Georgie Nettell, “Opportunity,” 2015, showcases elegant, deeply unremarkable interiors by the artist’s friends, belonging to their well-to-do parents’ orderly homes. Two photographs of highbrow galas by Josephine Pryde, warped and printed on aluminum tubes (Style, My Daughter and Have I Got My Shoes On - Am I Still Me?, both 2009) require a more rigorous scrutiny—they seem like a hissing reply to the instant legibility and rapid dispersal of images today. Sam Pulitzer’s five anxious, introspective wall texts, “Untitled,” 2016, are scattered throughout the gallery, and echo his memorable 2014 Artists Space exhibition, where visitors were also directed through the gallery by a prescriptive wall text. Two video works, one by Loretta Fahrenholz (Que Bárbara [That Bárbara], 2011) and another by Nettell and Morag Keil (The Fascism of Everyday Life, 2016), capture la vie bohčme from vastly different class perspectives, from indulgence to restraint. Restraint, in fact, may be this show’s major strength, gleefully scaling back ambition and intellectual density to lead us toward the docile, Kracauerian politics that script contemporary experience.
As an extension of a lecture he gave in March 2016 at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, Matthew Ronay contextualizes his own recent wood sculptures with works by Fernand Léger, Serge Charchoune, Terry Riley, and Graham Marks to investigate how abstraction can intuitively tap into and communicate elemental concepts. With the exception of Léger’s foreboding, nebulous form in Green Foliage, 1930, the artist’s graphic, object-centered works struggle to transcend their subject matter and are the least effective here. But we do get a rare opportunity to view the work of Léger’s contemporary, Charchoune, an overlooked painter and poet who hopscotched between genres, eluding categorization.
Ronay’s selections illustrate Charchoune’s eclectic approach to abstraction, from doodled symbols to dense monochromes. Charchoune’s vibrant, symmetrical seascape, La croix marine (The Navy Cross), VII-VII, 1950, looks like the direct inspiration for Ronay’s sculpture The Kernel, 2016, a boat of stacked tongues carrying a spongy egg across a rippled slab of azure-stained basswood. Ronay transforms his material into supple, velvety forms that playfully allude to the body—arterial tubes, porous sacs, and juicy folds. In contrast, Marks embraces the imperfections and grittiness of clay to create heavy earthen sculptures that resemble overgrown seedpods or geological specimens.
As Riley’s undulating and hypnotic compositions wash over the exhibition, ebbing in and out of our awareness, Marks’s sculptures lie in repose, functioning as punctuation marks. Performed on an electronic organ modified with digital delay loops, Riley’s drone-heavy, raga-like pieces, including Shri (Mister) Camel, 1980, play from a wall-mounted turntable, though they might as well be transmitted from an interstellar church. For Ronay, these varied abstractions are more than a reduction of forms—there is a consciousness that connects the works to one another, and forces far greater.
Spectral shapes manifest in light clouds of color through the undulating barrier of Trace Fields (all works 2016), which hangs from a brass rod in the gallery window. Heralded by this luxurious patch of printed silk, Yanyan Huang’s effervescent show follows like an exotic garden path. Swimming through colors and amorphic blobs, visitors are immersed in a space tricked out with inscrutable designs.
Huang’s paintings are as mesmerizing as they are impenetrable, overflowing with hairline strokes and fern-like bursts. Calligraphic characters of vibrant hues pulsate in decadent works that are neither referential nor abstract. Being become present II offers a swathe of watery brown paint reminiscent of the beady-eyed head of a dolphin and a yellow patch like a four-fingered cartoon hand. Being become present III is home to a feisty squiggle that raises its head with a precocious tilt. Like a jungle to get lost in, the wallpaper piece Untitled (Spoonflower) is a sultry forest of graffiti-like marks whose lushness befits the opulent humidity of the summer swelter. Violent fuchsias and jaundiced greens peek coyly from the background, made alien by digital effects; Photoshop’s lasso tool leaves a muddy stamp upon this work.
A faux-marble shelf sports an array that marries ikebana to the stateliness of an old-estate solarium, all part of an “Untitled (ceramic set).” The artist’s formal flexibility allows her to map any medium. Skillfully flowing between the digital and the dimensional, Huang proves—if, indeed, we remain unconvinced—the unity of art and design.
Summer shows can feel like that other seasonal occurrence, the stoop or yard sale. “It’s Not Your Nature” is a hodgepodge of art under a vague sign. But when you’re dealing with Lee Krasner, Harry Bertoia, and Norman Lewis—and when your view is Fairfield Porter’s, across the barrier islands in Maine—it’s compelling stuff to sift through. It’s also a rare chance outside of a museum to see so many modern American masters up close and personal.
The show’s title is a confusing pun, as the pieces seem very much in the nature of the twenty-two artists on display and incorporate an expansive conception—whether petroglyph, bird, branch, or sky—of what one thinks of when it comes to the natural world.
But it’s the work that matters, and there are wonders. Lenore Tawney, a fiber-arts pioneer who was a confidant and studio neighbor of Agnes Martin at Coenties Slip in New York, is represented here by a stunning unraveling of Minimalist line, Arbor #1, ca. 1960: a profusion of golden flowers that climb up rambling vines of wool, linen, and silk open-warp weaving. In delightful directional counterpoint, Hale Woodruff’s painting Landscape with Fallen Star, 1979, hangs next to it. Another strong cluster includes a knockout small Joan Mitchell, Untitled, ca. 1967, that carries in its blue-green abstraction the tonic viridity of two adjacent works: Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Trees), ca. 1945, and Alma Thomas’s Lake Reflecting Advent of Spring, 1973. Depending on your nature, you’ll find your own treasures.
Hilton Als’s “One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie, and the Rest” is strung together loosely, just like the celebrated New Yorker critic’s personal essays. Voice is structure; memory comes in vivid rushes; friendship is a seismic force. This, the first phase of the artist’s six-month season at the Artist’s Institute (also the inaugural project of the Institute’s new UES address), is a dreamy paean to, as the artist writes, “various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world.” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, the figures named in Als’s title, were trans Warhol Superstars; but Bobbie, we learn, was not famous—just a luminous friend, represented here by a small image in a corner of this elegantly makeshift installation. In Bobbie, 2016, an old-fashioned projector shows vintage slides of an angelic blond, a gender-indeterminate young person. In one picture, they are standing in the sun on the street, almost smiling, gazing at a point slightly above an unknown photographer.
The gallery is kept dim, lit by all manner of budget mood lighting. In one room, colored bulbs with messy, exposed cords accent Judy Linn’s striking black-and-white portraits of drag legend Ethyl Eichelberger from 1990, while a loop of louche art films plays on an adjacent wall, as a disco mix made by Als pumps from little computer speakers. Elsewhere, a handful of flickering liquid tea lights sit on the floor, not too far from the piece Stormé, Bobbie and the Rest, 2016, in which a classroom overhead projector throws a faint image of Bobbie onto the wall—and onto Diane Arbus’s 1961 portrait of butch dreamboat and Stonewall hero Stormé DeLarverie.
This is not a photography show, though photos anchor it; and it’s not a group show, though many artists haunt it. This is curating as artistic practice, as shrine-making—a “one-man” exhibition that engenders so much more.
Alice Tippit’s boldly graphic, hard-edge paintings are refined and puzzle-like. In these sketchbook-scale works, she offsets a cool, formal harmony with a wry and cryptic language of symbols, arabesques, and geometry. Irregular vases, decontextualized fruit, elongated hands, and weird animals populate her spare compositions, evoking vintage textile design and antique sign painting as well as art history. In Iris (all works 2016), a Victorian crescent moon hangs facing down—like a happy, Cyclopean eyelid—in a velvety-black sky. A canary-yellow banana under it makes a big clownish smile. Flat is the profile of a forest-green boob with an inverted nipple, set against a coral-flesh background. Or is the nipple-dip not negative space but a protruding part of a concave object in green space instead? Tippit’s paintings ask us to toggle between myriad readings. And hues of sepia, peach, and terra-cotta pop up in most of the works on view, so we seek out the body everywhere.
Up close, you see the paintings are carefully, subtly constructed, containing rich areas of barely-there color gradients and cross-fades. Part might be the most detailed piece. Rendered in a vaguely familiar illustrational style, a sullen face with precise features emerges from a field of beige. The “part”—a midpoint of the subject’s striking hairstyle—doubles as a butt crack. It’s hard not to notice that the dark, wavy shoulder-length hair looks like the silhouette of a person from the back, bent over. Pointed toes and shapely calves raise an ass into the air. Such genial lasciviousness along with painterly lushness lends the artist’s unsolvable riddles rare appeal.
A Tim Rollins and K.O.S. installation—Darkwater III (After W.E.B. Du Bois), 2013—sets the tone of this show. Pages of the titular author’s essays are mounted on twelve panels hung side by side, partially obstructed by gold acrylic and “furnace black” watercolor. Indeed, the work looks as though it were recovered from a fire. One of panels reads “Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery.” This statement, written in 1920, could not be more apropos now, where black men and women are still part of a ruthless cycle that subjugates and victimizes.
Just past these pieces is Kader Attia’s collage series “Modern Architecture Genealogy,” 2014. It reminds us that colonization boils down to a twisted rewrite of the Pygmalion and Narcissus myths. Here, the artist offers up representations of conquered, non-Western bodies who are expected to become mirror images of their rulers in order to be deemed “civilized.” The architecture here seems like a prison for fragmented, vulnerable identities. Elsewhere, the indefatigable Mickalene Thomas’s multichannel video Angelitos Negros (Black Little Angels), 2016, comments on femininity and sexuality by revisiting Eartha Kitt’s performance of Antonio Machín’s song of the same name. The video—Pop, yet transcendent—is a message of empowerment for women forgotten by the system.
At a time when levels of xenophobia are painting a racial landscape that echoes the first half of the twentieth century—or, frighteningly, even earlier—exhibitions like this one are vital and necessary. “Repossession” asks us to fight against a hatred that’s become far too normalized.
Slow, accident-prone, temperamental, occasionally indistinct—the slide projector is an endearing thing, as it mimics a range of clunky human idiosyncrasies familiar to us all. It is evocative, nostalgia-inducing. It takes us through the rabbit hole of dreary art-history surveys in overwarm auditoriums, or the dusty rec rooms of distant relatives, where we vicariously relive their vacations, birthdays, barbecues, and graduations. When a projected image hits a taut surface, we can’t help but fall into the rhythms of narrative, picture after picture after picture.
It’s not that Francisco Ugarte’s “Slideshow” is haunted, but the absence of representational imagery from the four projector works in the dimly lit gallery, indeed, unsettles. Words cannot make sense of the projectors’ incessant chatter. Nonetheless, Ugarte’s strange environment allows us to witness the malleability of light and color through hundreds of manipulated slides. In Untitled (Light and Corner), 2008, the slides are printed with geometric shapes that get flashed into the corner of a wall. The Kodak Ektagraphic’s lens finds no focal point on the slide’s glassy center, but it never stops attempting to locate one, so the light gently pulses on the wall with every successive image-form. For Untitled (Primary Colors), 2015, three projectors offer up abstract, modernist compositions made from the titular hues—so scintillating, so seductive. A plinth near the exhibition’s entrance holds a light box where rows of Ugarte’s altered slides can be viewed (Untitled [Light Box II]), 2016. It’s here that the secrets of the artist’s compositions reveal themselves very quietly by the illuminated traces of tiny cuts and humble bits of tape.
“Emo is on the verge of a comeback,” I told a friend not long ago. And wouldn’t you know it, the next day I heard the unmistakable wah-wah melody of Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine” thudding through my floorboards, courtesy of my neighbors. Though it is not exactly twee, we are living in a moment of confessional culture, bolstered by important discussions about the social consequences of identity. “Mirror Cells,” the first group show of contemporary sculpture in the Whitney’s newish building, acknowledges this personal turn. The exhibition brings together five artists who realize inner worlds through hands-on and collage techniques. As curators Christopher Y. Lew and Jane Panetta argue, this work contrasts with the art world’s recent obsessions with technology.
The sensibility at play is more hermetic than polemic. Win McCarthy’s low-relief tabletop installations loosely depict shabby cities in miniature. They recall Joseph Cornell in their ambition to capture a fleeting moment in time. They are adorned with newspaper headlines, voodoo-ish dolls, photos, poems in everyday language, and daily horoscopes (the artist was apparently born under the sensitive sign of Cancer). Elizabeth Jaeger’s nearly flat, cracked ceramic vessels on sawhorses, “Jack Jaeger,” 2016, pay homage to her grandfather. And yet, politics (of selfhood and otherwise) aren’t completely abandoned. Rochelle Goldberg’s installation No Where Now Here, 2016, evokes environmental disaster through animal forms coated with an oily glaze, staged on a sprouting bed of chia seeds. Four video sculptures by Maggie Lee, playing chapters from her experimental documentary about her mother’s sudden death, Mommy, 2015, hearken back to avant-gardists such as Nam June Paik but also call to mind the funereal shrines of various Asian cultures. Liz Craft, the oldest artist in the show, presents her creepy “Spider Woman” figures, 2014–16; a series of “Little Lips,” 2016; and speech-bubble sculptures. While some of the latter works are free of text, others contain searing messages directed at women—notably, Your Pussy or Your Life, 2015.
To be a fly on the wall at Meriem Bennani’s first institutional solo show is to adopt her perspective of contemporary culture. Her video installation FLY, 2016, mimics the mosaic structure of a fly’s eyes with a patchwork of projectors, creating an immersive experience. Resembling a concept room that a first-year architecture student might draft in SketchUp, the irregular, multiscreen theater requires the viewer to construct a strategy for digesting the seventeen-minute film. Seating is not a problem; Bennani provides benches.
The story centers around a wedding set in Bennani’s native Morocco. A fruit fly that resembles Clippy, the Microsoft Word mascot, serves as a guide for the peripatetic narrative that skips from genre to genre, scene to scene. The insect addresses the audience directly, pausing only to sing a baby-voice ballad hardly recognizable as Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better.” The short, something like a music video, is a reconstitution of television tropes. The young artist interrupts her Travel Channel–worthy shots of the souk with reality TV–style confessionals, blooper noises, and other cartoonish interventions. Pixelated flames lick unharmed actors—her family and friends—as they dance their way into the night. Reality and the virtual commingle.
A nod to the input streams that compete for our attention both on and offline, the kaleidoscopic installation accepts the oscillating gaze of the metamodern state and builds upon it. Looping in perpetuity, FLY invites allusions to Morocco as a developing nation caught between past and present. Bennani has a reverence for high and low culture, and the artist’s fluency across media allows her to make something that, though not entirely subversive, is universally enjoyable.
In a curatorial move akin to a Sadie Hawkins dance, this exhibition asks women to flex their female gaze and depict men. Thirty-two artists present varying perspectives on the male form—from neutral, detached portraits to ones steeped in obvious desire. Many offer up their sitters in attitudes historically reserved for female subjects, as come-hither nudes or odalisques. Others catch them in private moments of sleep or self-love, both literal and figurative, as in Grace Graupe-Pillard’s painting of a young artist mid iPhone selfie, hand curled in a manner that recalls Dürer’s Self-Portrait in Fur Coat, 1500.
The phallus persists throughout, though this emblem of masculinity is recast in the service of female pleasure or made delicate, even feminized. Celia Hempton haloes supple, skin-toned paintings of erogenous zones with pale blues, and Louise Bourgeois’s 1964 sculptural ode to male anatomy is cheekily titled “little girl,” or Fillette (Sweeter Version), 1968–99, a joke Lynda Benglis takes further in Smile, 1974, a smirking double-sided bronze dildo. Who needs men when we’ve already manufactured their replacements? Benglis’s comment on female self-sufficiency is echoed in Jenny Holzer’s marble bench, the sole nonfigurative work, engraved with “Men don’t protect you anymore.”
But hewing to gender roles can sometimes be fun. A 1965 Diane Arbus photograph brilliantly captures a teen couple in gendered self-fashioning playing at man- and womanhood. The girl raises dark, heavily penciled lids at the camera. Her boyfriend looks sidelong in studied aloofness, his hand on his belt loop and legs splayed in what this generation of female observers would unhesitatingly dub a manspread.
At the entrance to this exhibition, one is seduced by a real garden of yellow bromeliads and pulsating, patterned walls, inspired by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Burle Marx is known for his animated biomorphic designs, such as the graphic pavement along Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, and the scintillating, verdant discotheque that is the Kuala Lumpur City Centre Park—gigantic modernist arrangements that simultaneously disrupt and compliment their surroundings.
Burle Marx’s site plans, such as Design for the Minister’s Rooftop Garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio De Janeiro, 1938, or Design for a Garden for the Grand Hotel, Pampulha (Unbuilt), 1943–44, are pragmatic documents that are also masterly abstract paintings. His archive is vast, and his distinct vision suffused many facets of his creative endeavors, from Cubist oil paintings and ink portraits to theater sets and jewelry.
Works by contemporary artists that engage Burle Marx’s legacy also punctuate the space. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s video Plages (Beaches), 2001, captures lively images of Copacabana Beach—and Burle Marx’s adjacent mosaic boardwalk—during New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2000. Juan Araujo’s Pavimento exterior del Banco Safra Casa Central (Exterior Pavement of Banco Safra Headquarters), 2015, is an oil painting based on a photograph of Burle Marx’s mineral roof garden for the titular bank. And Nick Mauss’s glazed ceramic plaque, Askew, 2016, is situated near Burle Marx’s own ceramic tiles. Burle Marx was a multihyphenate maker whose design “practice” was, really, a guide for an immersive, aestheticized lifestyle. His rich imagination directs us toward a charmed way of life.
In a second-floor gallery leading to a dark room where Nan Goldin’s epic slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1976–96, plays in a dedicated installation, vintage flyers from the artist’s archive highlight its start as an improvised and evolving performance staged in the long-gone clubs and alternative venues of New York’s downtown scene. This canonical masterpiece, shown here in its original 35-mm slide format, comprises nearly seven hundred images: fearlessly intimate snapshot-like documents of Goldin’s chosen family and a devastated demimonde at the height of AIDS. The photos—ordered in untidy categories such as couples, mothers, injuries, male nudes, and shooting up—are appropriately fleeting. Just as one recognizes Goldin’s luminous contemporaries (Greer Lankton, Cookie Mueller, and Mark Morrisroe, to name just a few), they’re gone. It’s impossible to absorb every charming or startling detail. And the enthralling parade is set to an eclectic sound track. You can imagine it playing in any of the cozily derelict East Village apartments or dive bars depicted.
Goldin has called her stark, bruised self-portrait, Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984, the “central image” of “Ballad.” In it, the powder-blue wall and curtain of her background complement the subconjunctival hemorrhage of her left eye and her perversely matching, carefully applied vermillion lipstick. Such bold self-exposure grounds her diaristic magnum opus, giving it a heroic credibility that will forever distinguish it from all the Goldinesque knockoffs made since. This image is not an aestheticization of violence—it’s a refusal to be shamed by it. Her photos are not glamorizing but often undeniably glamorous, simply because her subjects are. The pervasive longing that suffuses “Ballad” parallels our own desire to know more about a very different New York and the minutiae of brilliant lives cut short.