A column protruding from the gallery’s plate-glass storefront is papered with reproductions of 1930s to 1970s posters and graphic design from East and West Germany. Inside, the varied products of Klaus Wittkugel, a central figure in Eastern European graphic design little documented in Anglophone histories of the subject, are arrayed. Though the exhibition focuses on one designer, it more generally serves as an imagining of the curious nature of the profession in the Eastern Bloc, where the state was the client and propaganda the principal product.
A vitrine contains artifacts of East German material culture: Wittkugel’s designs cover packaging, glassware, and paperbacks, including the Jim Crow–shaming Auch ich bin Amerika: Dichtungen amerikanischer Neger (I Too Am America: Poetry of American Negros) (1948). A self-awareness runs through the works but is most apparent in the posters: In Das Plakat (The Poster), 1954, a ladder is propped against a column with an advertisement for an exhibition of posters. This nesting is characteristic of the sleight of hand with which Wittkugel stages the interaction with the image, suggesting a spatial relationship between the viewer and abstract subjects, such as electrification, Lenin’s political philosophy, or manufacturing quality.
The exhibition itself has reflexive touches as well, signaled by the poster column spilling onto the street, bearing the image of a poster column. The curator, Prem Krishnamurthy, foregrounds the nature of the presentation by embedding contextual texts among the objects, including record sleeves, stamps, and a slideshow that cycles through the artist’s exhibition designs, which are punctuated with slides of layouts using 3-D modeling software or Facebook screen grabs. A parallel show at OSMOS Address displays the designs of Anton Stankowski, Wittkugel’s contemporary and maybe West German double. The two designers’ points of intersection and ways of differing illuminate the contours of the histories being peddled (or taken for granted) on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.
Zhang Hongtu’s survey at the Queens Museum reveals a conflicted portrait of a Chinese-American personality, one that has personally rejected Mao but revels artistically in the Chairman’s influence and memory. Across multiple rooms, an abundance of Maos—cross-eyed Mao, smiling Mao, frowning Mao—is juxtaposed with Zhang’s hybridizations of Eastern and Western imagery and aesthetic movements.
The collection presents Zhang’s work from the 1950s through today, and his range—materially and conceptually—is impressive. Guo Xi–Van Gogh, 1998, depicts the mountainous ranges of Guo Xi’s shan shui scrolls rendered in Vincent van Gogh’s post-Impressionist brush strokes. Front Door, 1995, is a door with a peephole through which one can view old footage of the leader, while The Big Red Door, 2015, is a hulking gateway dotted with phallic knobs. And a giant photographic print, Great Wall with Gates II, 2015, wraps almost entirely around the exhibition space. The show also documents the changes in Zhang’s work after he moved to America; since leaving China, his interests in the East have intensified. The humble drawings of his Chinese peers back home feel very different from the kitschy soy-sauce workers’ leaflets, glazed zodiac figures, and Chinese blue-and-white-patterned Coca-Cola bottles he made in the States.
Visitors are also encouraged to test out Ping-Pong Mao, 2015, a tennis table featuring two Chairman-shaped holes on either side. The sport seems frivolous, but it references the infamous Ping-Pong Diplomacy, a Chinese political tactic in the early 1970s where Mao invited the US table tennis team to China. This trip initiated early Sino-American relations and Zhang’s fruitful explorations of Chinese culture through an American lens.
The exhibition “700 Nimes Road” is named for the address of Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel Air home, which Catherine Opie—who shared an accountant with the star—gained access to in November of 2010 and photographed over a six-month period beginning that December. The project took on new significance when Taylor, who had fallen ill, died: Opie’s fifty-print portfolio shows the contours and eccentricities of a life she never directly observed. The works also subtly chart the transition of the house from a home to something else—a memorial, an archive, or a complicated asset—as, for example, Taylor’s jewelry collection is aired and inventoried. The Emeralds, 2010–11, shows her famous Bulgari “green set,” a gift from Richard Burton. Shot in the sun, maybe by the pool, it’s out of focus, like Opie’s seductively generalized landscapes on view across town at the gallery’s Chelsea space.
Opie cites William Eggleston’s “Graceland” suite from 1984 as a precedent for this work, and it does echo his bold compositions. But, while Elvis Presley’s ostentatious taste becomes a somewhat impersonal artifact of Americana in Eggleston’s photos, Taylor’s hand and history are felt everywhere in Opie’s. Cropped views make captivating tableaux of the legend’s tchotchkes: perfume diffusers, Oscars, Maltese-terrier statuettes, and snapshots of Michael Jackson in cheap-looking frames. Wider shots reveal a worn fairy-tale land of pastel carpeting that one wants to wander in a dressing gown. In the detailed and mysterious photos of this cumulative portrait, Opie includes traces of both heartbreak and quotidian routine. And though such allusions give the work its voyeuristic edge, we’re satisfied by Opie’s discretion—the impressions relayed by an astute but unobtrusive guest.
As its title, “A Constellation,” suggests, this show draws together a range of seemingly disparate practices by black artists and invites the viewer to connect the dots. This is a loose curatorial rubric, but its strength is in pairing now-canonical artists with their emerging peers, initiating a cross-generational conversation about materiality, gesture, and political ambition.
It is worth seeing this exhibition for the opportunity to immerse oneself in the glow of work from a firmament that the Studio Museum itself fostered in the 1970s. Jack Whitten’s Psychic Intersection, 1979-80, evokes the modernist black square and grid with a nod to the interstellar, while Al Loving’s incandescent Variations on a Six Sided Object, 1967, leaves one wondering why it is not he, rather than Frank Stella, who is remembered as the post-painterly heavyweight of the modernist era. Across the gallery, one delights in poring over the dense materiality and sly wit of work by Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Adrian Piper.
But, as the show makes clear, the mantle of these greats has been taken on in knowing ways by a younger generation. Cameron Rowland plays on post-Minimalist form and the vernacular spaces of the inner city with his mordant plastic cube, Pass-Thru, 2014. Canadian artist Talwst creates subtle juxtapositions of the precious and the pressing with Por qué, 2014, a miniature depiction of the Eric Garner killing. And Baltimore-born Kandis Williams contributes the quietly show-stealing multimedia painting paralysis II, 2014—a grainy play of abstraction and photographic reproduction. If these are the Studio Museum’s new stars, the future looks bright indeed.
James Hampton, a janitor, built a tinfoil throne room for Christ’s return in a Washington, DC, rental garage; Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain is an adobe edifice in California made in honor of God’s enduring love; Laure Pigeon’s densely worked ink drawings are faithfully recorded transmissions from beyond the veil. Painter Jeni Spota C. unabashedly joins this lineage of ecstatic visionaries for whom art is a gateway into the divine.
One doesn’t just look at Spota’s paintings; one feels them. Their thickly encrusted oil surfaces warp—or rather, masticate—the orderly and elaborate geometry of the compositions. The textures read as hammered tin, disintegrating brocades, or even mortified flesh, and their eerily wan colors—acrid yellows, arid blues, and desiccated-looking greens, whites, and reds—are culled from another century. These images pulsate with religious patterns and insignias, along with the reverent faces of communicants, kings, saints, and queens. The most resplendent illustration of this, Venetian Victory, 2015, includes a pair of ossified cherubim flanking a sculptural crimson flower wreathed in ribbons, like an offering. And so we are transported: to Babylon and Lascaux; seventeenth-century Protestant graveyards; dusty monastery attics and basements; heaven.
Let it be clear: Despite the “outsider” appearance of her work, Spota is anything but. There is nothing willfully naive about her approach. She is a maker of sophisticated objects with a sophisticated art education to match. She knows her history and her aesthetic kin, and how she wants to place herself in the spectrum of contemporary thinking and making. But, like Sabato “Simon” Rodia, the architect of Watts Towers in Los Angeles—and a blood relative of Spota’s—she does as obsession, or the heart, commands.
Shara Hughes’s imagination yields rich, weird stuff. In earlier works, sundry abstract and natural forms are pushed through open-ended narratives within vibrant domestic spaces. In these dozen or so newer paintings, her psyche decides to peer out the living room window so that we can be made privy to an assortment of breezy and prismatic landscapes that plumb the depths of her idiosyncratic interior and exterior world views.
Hughes deftly combines the richly saturated palettes of the early Impressionists with the darker psychological tones of more recent picture-makers such as Forrest Bess, Philip Guston, and Dana Schutz. The artist divides a number of her canvases into compartments, making the images she foregrounds contrast quite sharply with the illusionistic depths of their backgrounds. A beautiful example of this is the hot-hued Split Ends, 2016, which is cut through the center by a tree trunk whose russet- and ocher-striped roots and branches create two windows that lead us down a path of bold red and orange fields illuminated by a blue-dappled sky. In Eye of the Swell, 2016, tall waves lap surrealistically around three central oases; and in Mushroom Hunt, 2015, a sun-soaked beach is viewed through a brown and sap-green forest. Like a byway through fractured layers of consciousness, Hughes’s vivid paintings marry apperception with fictional time and space—a rabbit hole that, truth be told, one is extraordinarily reluctant to escape.
Tracing Otto Piene’s rhythmic oeuvre, this poetically curated survey draws the viewer upward, elevating us from the earthly to the celestial, body to soul. Smoldering red paintings alive with molten hues flaring against tar-black clouds fill the first room: soot left by solvent set alight. The elemental love of color evident in these blazing crimson canvases distinguishes Piene from the other members of ZERO, the avant-garde group he cofounded in Düsseldorf in 1957. But like his peers, Piene famously pursued means of nontraditional mark-making, from using fire (in the tradition of his mentor Yves Klein) to pressing oil paint through screens onto canvas. A selection of “Rasterbilder” (Screen Pictures), also on the ground floor, are seductively tactile. Rows of white puckered bumps stud the mustard ground of Untitled, 1957/1967, like an army of barnacles.
Piene’s ethereal “Lichtballete” (Light Ballets) send dazzling patterns soaring across the third floor’s walls and ceiling. Golden anemones trail corrugated tendrils around the darkened room, lazily drifting through shifting planes of rosy bubbles and stars that morph into prismatic chrysanthemums. These projections, cast by kinetic lights whirring inside several perforated sculptures (hollow spheres and boxes comprising repurposed “Rasterbilder” screens), are at once hypnotic and stimulating. Created between 1963 and 2013, they testify to Piene’s tendency to revisit different chapters of his practice. These works will be familiar to those who saw the recent ZERO exhibition at the Guggenheim, but they assume new transcendent heights here as a coda to Piene’s mercurial career.
Gritty and glorious, the Lower East Side of the 1980s and ’90s blazes with bricks and stars in the paintings of Martin Wong. Night skies tattooed with constellations form the backdrops for calico patchworks of tenement buildings rendered in ruddy ochers, browns, grays, gold, and black. Hercules and Hydra arc above the everyday heroes and monsters of the city streets: lovers, junkies, prisoners, poets, fighters, and firemen. Lavishing countless layers of acrylic on every brick that forms this lawless, desperate world, Wong renders each mottled facade in almost carnal detail. The arresting contrast between these intensely corporeal structures and the astral planes above them suggests the key dualities coursing through Wong’s oeuvre: body and spirit, reality and fantasy, the sordid and the divine.
Wong died from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, at the age of fifty-three, and this elegant retrospective is the first to trace his too brief career. Battered walls and closed storefronts may dominate the show, but Wong also crafted intimate interior moments. Firemen were an erotic fixation for Wong, but My Fire Guy, 1988, is neither explicit nor conventionally fetishistic. Completely clothed, the fireman is chastely tucked into bed, his resting figure limned in saintly gold. Cradling a puppy, he is a child’s cherished hero more than a sex object. This tenderness is lacking in Wong’s later, slicker paintings of Chinatown, which revel more superficially in the gaudy ads and architecture along Canal Street. Wong’s Lower East Side paintings are his strongest, in full, magnificent force.
Few artists in recent memory have put more at stake so early in their careers than Cameron Rowland. His institutional debut here concerns itself with nothing less fraught than the persistent legacy of slavery within a thoroughly neoliberal twenty-first-century America. In the exhibition, Rowland presents a series of sculptures in the form of isolated, unmodified consumer and industrial goods whose histories of use, production, and acquisition are documented in their titles’ captions and a takeaway text available to visitors. A portion of the goods were sourced from Corcraft, a division of the New York State Department of Corrections that sometimes conscripts inmates into prison labor and sells the goods they produce for wages as low as one-fiftieth of the legal minimum to other government agencies and nonprofits. In his selection and presentation, Rowland identifies lodestones of US economic power and bureaucratic self-reflexivity—a tactic he has previously deployed to harrowing effect.
Armatures of government administration, such as New York State Unified Court System and Attica Series Desk (all works 2016), take the form of courtroom benches and an office desk. Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings are aluminum leveler rings for manhole hatches that obliquely reference the importance of convict road-building in the post–Civil War, preindustrial South. Insurance’s container-lashing bars and Lloyd’s register certificates evoke the maritime transport of property foundational both to the historical slave trade and to contemporary, globalized manufacturing. And a pair of flame-retardant firefighters’ suits from Corcraft’s West Coast equivalent CALPIA (the California Prison Industry Authority)—1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011—bring together the criminalized body and the body-at-risk in a single, collapsed figure.
If the work’s rigid, austere program reveals any weakness at all, it may be its aesthetic dimension, which occasionally veers into Minimalist sublimity. Such moments are redeemed, however, by an artist whose political commitments can never find complete resolution solely in the realm of the visual.
Mika Tajima’s work probes the tension between the rationalism of modernist aesthetics and the fragmentary—if not destructive—quality of modern life. Since the early 2000s, she has been creating noise music with her band New Humans and installations based on architecture that molds the activity of its inhabitants. Cinema sets, factory assembly lines, and Herman Miller’s Action Office of modular furniture are among her references.
Recently, Tajima has explored the symbiotic relationship between design and human affect, aided by data-scraping technology. “Embody” (all works 2015–16), her exhibition here, picks up where her 2014 Art in General commission, “Total Body Conditioning,” leaves off. Like “Total Body Conditioning,” this show includes new selections from her sleek “Negative Entropy” and “Furniture Art” series. The “Negative Entropy” textiles—woven paintings created on a Jacquard loom and stretched over sound-muffling panels—translate recordings of Japanese curator Kazue Kobata and the sounds from a Jacquard card cutter into patterned abstractions. The straightforward concept of data-as-portrait is enlivened with Tajima’s subjective color choices (magenta, chartreuse, and plum, in the case of Kobata’s panel). The “Furniture Art” works, composed of cloudy sprays of enamel barely visible from behind dark sheets of thermoformed acrylic, seem to mock painting as decoration (or speculative asset).
Tajima’s three brand-new “Meridian” mood-light sculptures deploy live data from social-media feeds and the stock market. The light sculptures house LED bulbs in vertebrae-like skeletons, made up of ergonomic chair parts wrapped with gauzy layers of cocoon resin. The colors of the lights represent two sets of data. In the front gallery, two bulbs flicker on a spectrum from red (positive) to blue (negative) based on the moods of social-media followers in London and Cairo, respectively. In the back, a light tracking the gold market vacillates from warm to cool tones, illuminating the shiny, hollow surfaces of the “Furniture Art” series: a mirror for our hyperdesigned lives.
You may think, standing in the empty, bleached space of Bea Schlingelhoff’s latest solo show, that it’s 1984 instead of 2016. From four small black speakers installed in each corner comes: “They made it clear from the start that the slightest deviation from the norm would be punished. They turned everything into prisons, even our own bodies.” This rhetoric, reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopic book, is read from Abigail Bray’s more recent novel Misogyny Re-loaded.
Winston Smith, Orwell’s central character, is referred to in Bray’s text, as is his torture in the infamous Room 101. The aim: Destroy your captive’s resistance by subjecting him or her to their worst fears. The method: Gaslighting, or using information to manipulate the victim by inciting doubt and, ultimately, insanity. The critique: Feminism has failed. Misogyny is alive and well, its insidiousness facilitated by capitalism and the patriarchy it supports.
It took Essex Street’s proprietors Maxwell Graham and Neal Curley a long time to record Bray’s book, which runs on a 270-minute loop. Schlingelhoff paid for Curley’s and Graham’s hours in an attempt to subvert the relationship between dealer and artist, institution and individual, male and female. Your body is the only thing on display in the starkness of this space as you listen to a woman’s fatalistic words, read by two men. It seems that what’s broken down is not feminism but a kind of humanism, the remains of which we experience in Schlingelhoff’s barren box and, of course, Orwell’s Room 101. “Now repeat after me,” Bray/Graham/Curley implores. “I am free.”
“The California Years: 1967–1975” documents a momentous shift in Miriam Schapiro’s practice, from the wry, abstract feminist-futurism of her hard-edge paintings to the busy decadence of her mixed-media “femmages.” For her handsomely mod paintings in the former category, she used computer software to model and manipulate three-dimensional geometric structures. While the exhibition’s press release notes that these images are often “coded depictions of yonic forms,” we’re not talking about seashells and split melons here. In the pristinely painted Keyhole, 1971, a fiery red-orange and rose-colored mother ship approaches from a cloudless blue sky. The chic all-blue Horizontal Woman No. 2 from the same year slyly references a reclining nude with its blank virtual architecture. A kind of landscape, the painting depicts something resembling a compound of modernist bungalows built into a featureless hilltop.
Just two years later, Schapiro produced the unapologetically pink and decorated Voyage, 1973. Panels of floral-print fabric run along the top and bottom of the vertical painting, while lace curtains were used as spray-paint stencils on the sides, making the canvas a homey portal that opens into a void of dripping sunshine. Another stunning piece, Flying Carpet, 1972, with its quilt-like collage of patterned fabric and paper, anticipates the gynarchic density of her later, fan- and heart-shaped canvases. Schapiro’s passionate, activist-minded engagement with the craft traditions of women’s domestic labor made her an influential figure in the overlapping Pattern and Decoration and Women’s Art Movements, both of which fueled decades of innovative work. Luckily, these transporting, visually exuberant offerings are just the tip of the iceberg—she also has a survey show at the National Academy Museum through May 8.
In the early 1970s, Indian photographer Bhupendra Karia set out to travel across his home country and depict its surging population rate. The grimly beautiful photographs on display here, all shot in Mumbai, were culled from the resulting project, “Population Crisis.” The decision to focus on one city makes sense, as Mumbai is not just India’s most populated city, it is India’s most visibly populated city. “Bombay is a crowd,” wrote V. S. Naipaul.
As a student at the Tokyo University of Fine Art, Karia studied wood-block printmaking, and this method of making images informed his photographic work. Whether shooting people, cars, or clothes hanging on a line, Karia arranged his subjects into neat rhythmic patterns. The result is a poignant paradox: extremely ordered photographs of disorder. The front of a ramshackle building, for example, is neatly divided into a grid of twelve squares, or apartments (Old Bombay Dwellings, 1970). But, as in a ragged patchwork tapestry, each block contains touching details—the missing window, the crumbling flowerpot—that remind us there’s nothing uniform about poverty.
Also on view is a quieter grouping of pictures from an unnamed portfolio dating to 1968–71: seventy-four photographs that Karia called the “meager harvest of my first twenty years in photography.” These works, shot throughout India, often feature common objects—umbrellas, lamps, guns, pots—hanging on white walls or against plain backdrops. Again, the influence of woodprint is palpable: Like a ukiyo-e artist, Karia used sharp contrasts and space to imbue everyday objects with a gentle, delightful mystery.
“A heartfelt seduction lasts a lifetime,” says the archly camp English band Black Box Recorder. And, no joke, they’re right, especially when it comes to Meret Oppenheim, whose sexy, Surrealist works balance nightmare and Eros with sinister aplomb. Beverly Semmes’s exhibition here, “Rabbit Hole,” is a love letter dropped into the abyss—an homage to Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, spoon, and saucer from 1936, Object.
Semmes’s colorful fabric “Ghost” sculptures, made between 1996 and 2016, are T-pinned to the walls of gallery, and all six of them wear little sewn-on skirts. Two carry patterns of dots and ladybug spots, while the rest have small emblems attached to their centers: black-and-white diagrams from Erle Loran’s Cezanne’s Compositions (1943), a picture of a single hand from Oppenheim’s Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers, 1936, and something that looks like a turquoise navel or asshole. Though they bear some resemblance to Semmes’s early iconic dress sculptures, these works are more abstract and formally simple. They call to mind so many things: mittens, rocket ships, cartoon fish, shrouds, or even Haitian Vodou flags—sacred objects meant to hypnotize you into realms otherworldly and divine.
In the center of the main space is Cups, 2015, a group of gnarly-looking ceramic teacups sitting atop bits of Day-Glo yellow fleece and squat, rough-hewn ceramic plinths. They’re kind of homely, rather lovely, and somehow vulnerable: things that seem a little afraid of getting too close to the object they cherish the most.
“Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015,” featuring the work of nineteen artists and artist collectives, invades sundry realms outside of the strictly photographic, such as sculpture, installation, and performance. The exhibition places a strong emphasis on the networks of communication that connect us all, while highlighting themes of image ownership, branding, and visual syntax.
Using tactics that feel satirical but border on the freakily earnest is DIS, whose installation Related by Contour, 2015, exists as an enormous stock image of a “multiculti” family, plastered to the gallery wall and watermarked with the official Museum of Modern Art logo. David Horvitz’s quasi-performance piece Mood Disorder, 2015, traces the flow of images through “click-bait” websites. Katja Novitskova’s freestanding cutouts of recently discovered species of spiders, Approximation (peacock spider), 2015, which were openly sourced from image-sharing websites, transform these miniscule organisms into alarming creatures of gargantuan scale.
Ilit Azoulay’s amorphously taxonomic Shifting Degrees of Certainty, 2014, expands the parameters of documentary photography by creating a mosaic of objects from Germanic culture, while Lieko Shiga’s phenomenally eerie installation Rasen Kaigan, 2010–12, captures the sights and damaged spirits surrounding the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan. Elsewhere, an exact replica of Lele Saveri’s underground storefront, The Newsstand, 2013–14, which once stood in a bustling Brooklyn subway station selling posters, editions, and zines, is a loud reminder that even underground and without Wi-Fi, the future of photography is still as bright as it’s ever been.
When Google debuted its new, sans-serif logo this past September, the tech giant tempered public disdain for its streamlined appearance by calling attention to one unassailable feature: The new design is just 305 bytes in size—tiny—and can be rendered from only a handful of lines and circles. In “Unhappy Users,” Luke Murphy’s paintings and digital animations adhere to a similar visual economy. Thin lines and irreducible symbols cover his milky-white and gray canvases, all huddled on a single wall of the gallery’s front room. Rectangles and arrows collide with dollar signs, capital letters, and aborted tic-tac-toe games. Wobbly circles atop arched lines represent a person’s head and shoulders—a provisional human avatar, in colors straight from a set of dry-erase markers.
Nearby, old PC keyboards cover the floor, ceiling, and walls of a freestanding passageway, Conversation Funnel, which leads to a darkened space (all works cited, 2016). Each step forward requires crunching their plastic, brittle keys. It feels like a desecration, but it’s perfectly in line with Murphy’s treatment of technology—and symbolic output—as pure substance. In the next room, several LED panels flash a variety of primitive animations on loops. The head-and-shoulders figure reappears, shifting colors in rapid sequence, and a stream of smiley emoticons floats across a marquee.
As with most retro technologies, the LED panels’ graphics appear quaint, allowing their materiality to come to the fore. Murphy’s Bad Pixel is a brilliantly self-reflexive illustration of this—a screen that displays a circle and arrow pointing out a few of its own busted LEDs. What Color animates one of the Internet’s oldest memes: the words “ORANGE,” “YELLOW,” “GREEN,” and so on, gliding across the display in colors different from those they signify. Do all symbols, no matter how elemental, eventually drift apart from their meanings?
“I want to feel free and do things as I please . . . normal human things . . . as normal human beings want to,” says a paranoid young woman in Zoe Beloff’s film The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff, 2011. Fulfilling this desire is a part of the utopian ideal, and the efficient use of time and technology can be a means to that end. Beloff presents this argument as an archaeological display of workaday paraphernalia staged on an industrial movie set. Her film, however, is the exhibit’s centerpiece, a study of solutions broken up over three channels (the other two show archival industrial films) that present a well-intentioned system of problem-solving.
The problem, of course, is labor, and the means necessary to work effectively for the benefit of humankind. In the industrial films, we are shown faster, more comfortable ways of filling a container and shuffling papers, with an actress performing each movement. This is supposed to help name the issues that need to be “fixed,” and every motion made is synchronized with the advancing seconds of a stopwatch.
Film is an apt medium to teach efficiency through mimicry and repetition. A properly “mechanized” body can produce more in less time and can live happily with whatever hours remain. Mutt and Jeff on Strike, an animated short from 1920 shown separately, tells us how the two famous comic-strip characters quit their jobs, work on their own animated film that flops, then beg to return to their jobs without pay. Beloff confirms that the problem of labor can’t be solved by focusing on how to improve or expedite procedural steps—that existential struggle, woefully, cannot be ironed out with an “automatized” formula. Scrutinizing the production time of a cog is worthless: Just get off the wheel.
Louise Despont’s “Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture” has a religious atmosphere. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entering the museum. Despont’s installation, an alternate universe containing two wooden chambers, is accompanied by a soft, live soundscape, courtesy of artist and musician Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Hung on the walls, Kuffner’s robotic gongs, drums, chimes, and bells—collectively titled The Gamelatron Roh Ageng, 2013—play continuously to mimic the gamelan, orchestral music traditional to Despont’s new home in Bali.
Despont’s sacred spaces serve as elaborate framing devices for her drawings—explorations of the subtle energy that moves between human, plant, and various other animate and inanimate forms. In the second enclosure after the main entrance is the most striking display: four highly stylized drawings of the human body in meditative poses, each meticulously cross-sectioned as if they were anatomical drawings from another world. Despont has rendered these figures almost life-size on sheets of antique ledger paper, which contain faded names, numbers, and dates scribbled between stenciled lattices. The energy centers thought to lie along the spinal cord and head, according to traditional Indonesian metaphysics, are exposed by Despont’s circular, compass-based lines and colored in with pastel hues of chartreuse, indigo, violet, and blood orange. Each piece gives insight into the transcendental, prompting soul-seekers to ponder their peripheries. What really inhabits the space between skin, air, and other beings? In this instance, it is the sound waves from Kuffner’s machines, certainly, among other elements reflecting the nature of existence as Despont imagines it: a mélange of beautifully formulated and evanescent Frankenstein beings who usually remain unseen.
Titled “Sirens,” Carrie Moyer’s new show of vibrant abstract paintings evokes the winged women of Greek mythology who caused shipwrecks with their beautiful singing, luring hapless sailors to their island’s rocky reefs. The work has a loud allure, pairing psychedelic tide pools—complex layered areas of stains, washes, gauzy patterns, and marbleized ooze—with the graphic blare of ultrasaturated, solid matte forms and wavy armatures. The jewel-toned Conflagration with Bangs, 2015, features a drippy take on a fiery O’Keeffian close-up, framed by a structure with green-gold Gumby legs, or, as its title suggests, a geometric hairstyle with blunt fringe. Moyer sometimes accents her decidedly acrylic looks with glitter. In Intergalactic Emoji Factory, 2015, it’s applied to a blob-like edifice, twinkling against a blue and fuchsia sunset; in Red Hot Plot Hole, 2016, it forms a scabby crust on a watery crimson shape that looks like a heart-shaped keyhole surrounded by dark velvet.
Her compositions are rich with allusions to abstractionist herstory, especially Helen Frankenthaler’s pour paintings and the central-core imagists of 1970s, while also reflecting Pop and countercultural styles. One sees tie-dyed fabric, blown glass, the illuminated depths of lava lamps, and Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster here, as well as more recent digital design aesthetics. Moyer founded the queer-activist public-art duo Dyke Action Machine! with photographer Sue Schaffner in the ’90s, plastering New York City streets with lesbian riffs on familiar ad campaigns—it’s fun to look at this group of paintings in light of those ingenious interventions. Moyer’s fluid synthesis of idiosyncratic references makes for a kind of deep agitprop, critical menace roiling beneath its varied gorgeous surfaces.
Mountain ranges and female bodies, with their slopes and crevices, precipitous peaks and valleys, are recurring motifs in Jeanette Mundt’s work, and they anchor this succinct, alluring show, appearing in the two most striking paintings. The Matterhorn, beloved by centuries of artists, is rendered in radioactive shades of cobalt, coral, and teal in Another Double Mountain and the Modern Sofa (all works 2016). And in Climbing, Mundt nods to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, copying the nude figure from his painting Crouching Woman with Red Hair, 1897. Both of Mundt’s works are painted on large, upright wooden panels supported by pipes. The artist’s treatment of their edges is deliberately rough. In Climbing, the perimeter veers wide in places, exaggerating the woman’s ample derriere, yet cuts closely elsewhere, carving a jagged notch out of her breast.
These raw, irregular borders and Mundt’s loose, expressive brushwork pose a wry answer to slicker forms of appropriation, such as the flawlessly excised knights and angels in Sarah Charlesworth’s “Renaissance Paintings,” 1991. But Mundt shares Charlesworth’s incisive fascination with how images shape the way we see. Hacking these iconic subjects from their original contexts, Mundt evokes the brutal process of memory and cultural learning. By looking, we cut these images out of art history and install them in our own psyches, where they inform our perception of women and nature. Neither nudes nor mountains would exist the same way in the absence of a culture that fetishizes them. Mundt’s aforementioned redhead wears an ambiguous expression, gazing down at a point beyond the bed. She appears quietly prepared (her pose suggests an impending penetration) or possibly resigned: ready for viewers and critics to plot their opinions onto her body.
“When Wayne Went Away,” Sue Tompkins’s first solo gallery show in the United States, requires close viewing. Her small, textured canvases of rich, dried-out paint don’t read from a distance or online. Neither do her typewritten fluorescent paper pieces “New Trances,” 2016, where pressed letters and carriage returns output textual shapes on a field (e.g., an orange page where the phrase “FEEL SO ALIVE” levitates over a tidy square of backslashes). With these forms, Tompkins shows a sincere urge to vocalize. They instantiate a moment when thought looks for language as a means of expression, or as a way to materialize a visual sound, part nonsensical and part lyrical, for more rhythmic intentions.
The front room installation gives plenty of breathing space for Tompkins’s conversational airiness. The painting Come on, 2016, exemplifies her eloquently brass tacks approach to image making. In it, a smearing of dark green is punctuated with daubs of glitter and blotches of metallic paint; just southwest of center, the canvas has been poked through, leaving a lipsticky red mark around the hole. The many surface surprises throughout the show—punctured canvases, glued-on wooden dowels, over-poured paint—make visible the maker’s hand and process. Her voice has an indelible pictorial presence, which must have something to do with her experience as a spoken word performer. Tompkins’s paintings and typed paper pieces fill the silent space with a clatter of sounds, none quite fully articulated but all wanting to connect.
Berlinde De Bruyckere is an artist whose work has made me cry in public. It’s remarkable when art makes you cry, unlike when you cry at a movie or listening to music, since hot tears are fine in the dark, yet unerotic and, at best, often disgusting in a white space. De Bruyckere is a master manipulator who doesn’t care how you feel. There is no other explanation for the horses she shows dead and hog-tied, one at a time or three together, piled in a mahogany armoire like the victims of a massacre.
Before you get to the great roan bodies in “No Life Lost,” you have to encounter them flayed out and drawn in pencil and tremulous watercolors—cloud black, dirty sunset pink—as if to resemble vaginas. The relationship between human and horse is the only one in nature that rivals that of a man and a woman for sheer struggling power and the mortal frustration that results. A horse, after all, must be broken. As a child, the painter Francis Bacon, a perennial analogue for De Bruyckere’s more cruciformal tendencies, was whipped by his father’s grooms the same way they whipped his father’s racehorses. His father was likely afraid of the young boy’s grace.
I can’t say whether it is crueler to treat a human like a horse or a horse like a human, as De Bruyckere does. I can say that the show’s final work, Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, 2012–13, a giant red elm meant to embody both the old woman in J. M. Coetzee’s story “The Old Woman and the Cats” and the forever-young martyr Saint Sebastian, is a resting place, generative after excess decay. Think of the coffins that could be made from it, the armoires, the plinths, and the pyres. Think of the bedframes. We live to burn another day and one day not to suffer, or be sorry, at all.
Curator Lynn Gumpert has dug into the Grey Art Gallery’s thousand-work-strong collection of Iranian art, and she deftly unpicks, then obliterates, the constraints so often present in the fraught categorization of most non-Western art. It is all too often pegged, states Gumpert, as “either too international (read: derivative) or too provincial (read: not of interest).”
Gumpert gives us sixty works by six artists, spanning three generations and two floors. Paintings and sculptures by older-generation artists Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram start off the exhibition. The gold and silver of Pilaram’s 1960s paintings have the richness of illuminated manuscripts through a geometric prism, yet adjacent installations from Barbad Golshiri and Chohreh Feyzdjou are dark, claustrophobic, and heavy. Golshiri deals with the markers of death, as evident in Memorial for Anonymous Martyrs, 2015, a leaning tombstone juxtaposing government text with poetry by Rumi and Nezami. Feyzdjou, who died of a genetic disorder in 1996, created 403 copies of a mystico-poetic book as an attempt to reach enlightenment (Série K [Series K], 1992).
This darkness does give way to visual lightness—though not without razor-sharp bite—in works by younger artists Shiva Ahmadi and Shahpour Pouyan. Exploring the relics of conflict, Pouyan’s military-inspired works include the vibrant Unthinkable Thoughts, 2014, a series of ceramic domes from various religious buildings—a nod to the use of making ceramics as therapy to treat PTSD. Even for those familiar with Iranian art, there are new discoveries. Tanavoli, for example, better-known for his “Heech” sculptures, here has delightfully nuanced reworkings of old folio lithographs. There’s a lot to see, but this show encourages you to dig a little deeper—read the labels, look at the work, then read the labels again. Are these works “global”? “Local”? It matters not—they just, powerfully, are.
Lining the vaulted halls and nestled in the bays, chapels, and gardens of Saint John the Divine, a Gothic and Romanesque cathedral with a long history of interfaith services and social justice activism, is a bounty of visual art focused on issues of food security, sustainability, and accessibility. Curated by Kirby Gookin and Robin Kahn, and organized into seven sections—Water, Soil, Seed, Farm, Market, Meal, and Waste—the show reflects the cycle of food production. The mixture of well-known with lesser-known artists, and installations with documentation of past works, reflects the intermingling of art-world visitors with parishioners, pastors, and acolytes.
One will immediately notice the more canonical works in the show—a photograph of Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, 1977, a downtown apartment filled with 280,000 pounds of earth, or documentation of Alison Knowles’s 2008 version of Fluxus Event Score: Make a Salad at Tate Modern, in which Knowles poured a cascade of balsamic vinegar into a giant salad mixed in a green tarpaulin by a team of interns, for whomever dared to partake. Such pieces, however, seem ornamental beside more poignant works on display, such as Eating in Public’s Share Seeds Station, 2015, a multitude of seed sharing stations offered free of charge to anyone interested in promoting the time-honored practice of seed saving and sharing, circulating heirloom seeds anarchically through the commons.
Near the entrance is Claire Pentecost’s Soil-erg, 2015, an imposing, enormous black-and-white tapestry of a skeleton dancing under a layer of topsoil, flanked by soil ingots on wooden tables. It is surrounded by plant roots and saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi, or “neurons of the earth.” In the drawing are banners—one reads “Compost is alchemy” and another, “Death is the food of life.” Anyone who has plunged their hands into fresh compost, just weeks after turning food scraps over to ravenous worms, knows that this is true. One wonders how many New Yorkers have ever done that.
Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders’s 1984 character study, opens as Travis Henderson (played by the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton), a rugged yet troubled loner in a desert landscape, and is on, and seemingly appears from, the road to nowhere. Taking this film as a departure, Koen van den Broek’s exhibition “The Light We Live In” dives into the same desolate atmosphere. Van den Broek is known for his steep, highly pronounced pictorial planes that depict the magisterial loneliness of unpopulated highway lanes, cityscapes, and curbside detritus––the kind of non-lieux that one may encounter en route to total isolation or escape. The twelve paintings on view here hint at ominous narratives that are part fictional, part autobiographical, while the figures that occasionally manifest in these tableaux feel like intruders.
A roughly delineated figure peers from a small field of traffic-light green into the gloam of Sunset (all works 2015). The shadow of a crawler tractor in Requiem brings to mind the dramatic, fluid lines of Franz Kline or the fathomless blacks of Léon Spilliaert. The mint-colored bushes of Vanishing Point and the terra-cotta-red highway in Furnace Creek Washington Rd surprise and hold the eye, especially with their eerie passages of dry brush that, at certain moments, become precipitous fields of limitless, abstract space. Van den Broek’s casual yet deliberate handling of paint is masterful and mesmerizing—his colors, deeply cinematic. Looking at the arid and claustrophobic environments he creates, one can’t help but return to Wenders’s antihero and his wish to move as far as possible from the constraints of modern life until, to paraphrase the character, every sign of man disappears.
The first photograph was made in 1825. It is attributed to Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor who originally dubbed it a “heliograph,” a direct index of the sun. This formulation proved popular into the 1850s, though Charles Baudelaire famously derided photographers as failed painters and “sun worshippers.” In “Direct Positive,” Bay Area–based artist Chris McCaw embraces Baudelaire’s vilification with an array of large-scale works made with handmade view cameras, military-grade optics, and vintage paper found on Craigslist and eBay or donated by friends.
At first glance, many of the works, such as Heliograph #98, 2015, appear to be painterly indeed, with gestural marks or cuts into a monochromatic surface, à la Lucio Fontana. But on closer inspection, topographies emerge in the lower register of the frame, and the paper appears to be singed and irradiated. These traces are not from McCaw’s hand but from the sun, to which the positive prints are given over in ultralong exposures amplified by the focal power of an industrial lens. These photographs do not merely capture photons but register the activity of the sun itself, as it makes its way through its varied arcs from latitude to latitude. In the “Heliograph” series, this yields delicate, surreal objects; in “Sunburn,” sublime landscapes. Sunburned GSP#850, 2015, draws together twenty-one negatives and a thirty-six-hour shot, marking the sinuous movement of an arctic sphere. It is a majestic composition, and one that extrudes new horizons from unrepentant medium-specificity.
In the center of a large star-spangled podium is a yellow phonograph, its title painted out in black letters across the front: “Jack Early’s Life Story in Just Under 20 Minutes!” The tune that plays from this 2014 work is a slapstick jazz number, spoken by the artist, about growing up gay during the Nixon administration in Raleigh, North Carolina. Early’s solo exhibition here is an autobiographical, Technicolor-drenched journey into a childhood that was a little bit sweet and a little bit saccharine, with a whole lot of sexy roiling just beneath.
In Jack, Mr. Early and Friends, 2016, thirty canvas gerbils surround a soft sculptural self-portrait of the artist as a nine-year-old, watching a plush television beside his pets, a fish and a cat (the kitty’s name: Mr. Early). Nearby are the paintings Push Up and Yellow Popsicle (both 2015), depicting the titular summertime treats shiny and dripping, in electric tones of canary and tangerine. Behind each pop is the toy-soldier wallpaper that covered the walls of the artist’s late-’60s, early-’70s bedroom. One feature, however, has been changed—Early altered the pattern to depict two male soldiers holding hands, transforming banal suburban decor into maps of prepubescent wish fulfillment and desire.
But then Jack takes a turn toward the nasty! In the paintings Hog Rider and Tubes and Pubes (both 2015), respectively, a man in assless leather chaps straddles a vintage motorbike, while another man in stripy white tube socks fiddles with his underwear to give us a show. Early’s returned to his youth—erotically, wistfully, hilariously—to claim what he couldn’t the first time around.
“Answer Me,” the titular command of Anri Sala’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States, falls urgently on the ear. Teeming with possibility, this aurally immersive show, which presents nearly two decades of video installations as well as sculptures, photographs, and drawings, scintillates and reverberates. From documentary accounts detailing loss and disaffection, such as Intervista (Finding the Words), 1998, and Nocturnes, 1999, or the relationships between disused, politically charged architecture and the present, such as Dammi i colori (Give Me the Colors), 2003, and Answer Me, 2008, Sala synthesizes imagery with verbal and nonverbal communication into a syntactically elegant exploration of collective memory.
In Ravel Ravel, 2013, two disembodied left hands—which belong to pianists Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Louis Lortie—reinterpret the French composer’s sinister Piano Concerto in G. Their exquisite movements correspond and clash across two channels, which creates a riveting pas de deux. In the work’s pendant, Unravel, 2013, a DJ, Chloé Thévenin, tries synchronizing Bavouzet’s and Lortie’s recorded arrangements on a pair of turntables, distorting our emotional perceptions of time through her sonic experimentations.
In 3-2-1, 2011/16, saxophonist André Vida riffs off a video installation, Long Sorrow, 2005, featuring musician Jemeel Moondoc, improvising out of a window of the Langer Jammer that gives the work its title, a decrepit-looking modernist housing project in West Berlin. They create an elegiac duet for a corroding edifice—and the “good intentions” whence it came. Here as elsewhere in this exhibition, Sala’s appeal to the void of time and history finds gravity in the sound of its own echo.
One encounters a table and chair from the now defunct Café ‘Ino. They sit there like relics, memorializing a place that exists only in unassuming photographs, fissuring the linearity of time. With no regard to chronology, this exhibition echoes the modus operandi of human memory, navigating different episodes of history—personal and public—in no specific order. Each image is a signpost for the many interlacing narratives that make up Patti Smith’s life and travels.
Beds, statues, rivers, open roads, and tombstones, which bear the names of figures who’ve shaped our culture, form a visual diary. Jean Genet, Frida Kahlo, and Paul Verlaine are resurrected through pictures of their belongings or their final resting place. It’s morbid, but it is essentially a desire to embrace mortality, and one’s heroes. Smith’s photographs create a rich web of elusive moments—much like the language of her books and songs. “Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory,” writes Smith in M Train (2015), her latest memoir, which functions as a kind of script for this show.
Smith is a nostalgist, and though her assessments of the past may look “pretty,” they are far from treacly sentimentality. She is an unrepentant romantic, a troubadour who can only follow where her heart takes her—places and moments that are beautiful, sad, and rich with longing.
The parade of mysterious photographic works on view in Eileen Quinlan’s new show fills both of this gallery’s Lower East Side spaces, but also leaves them feeling strangely empty. The pieces are large but not grand, spaced farther apart than what’s customary, and, altogether, have an unmooring effect. The potential significance or emotional resonance of any individual image—there’s a regal fox, brambly woods, shattered glass, a sexty crotch shot, and many abstractions—is undercut by its puzzling, seemingly random (but clearly calculated) relationship to the others. In the unsettling search for Quinlan’s subject matter among these quasi-placeholders, one guesses there’s some stock photography in the mix—indeed, the press release confirms it. The shattered glass in Paris Shot, 2016, for example, is an image of a restaurant window damaged in November’s terrorist attacks that the artist licensed from an agency and rephotographed. She adds her touch during the developing process with a chemical drip, cleaving the spider-webbed form in half.
This is one of many such spattered, flecked, or dripped-on black-and-white prints, left unframed, pinned to the wall like work for an art-school crit. As Quinlan puts contemporary photography—high, low, amateur, user-generated, corporate-controlled—through its paces, she employs the happy accidents of the increasingly unused darkroom. In contrast, the bigger color prints on view, mounted on Dibond and in metal frames, are portraits of the process of digitization itself: streaky nonpatterns made by sliding a mirror across a flatbed scanner at work. While their artifactual, glitchy qualities feel familiar, they’re not friendly objects. Quinlan’s tough formalism denies us most of what we want from photos, but, in upending rote reactions, she helps us parse the deluge.
There’s something spectral bouncing around the various pieces installed in this gallery. It’s left behind a flurry of questions that all lead to one very particular origin: Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous Baroque work Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca. 1620, which Anna Ostoya has cleverly dissected through an eclectic assortment of hard-edged paintings and ink-jet prints.
Ostoya’s display is akin to a detective’s evidence wall. She dismantles the Italian artist’s painting and reimagines alternative scenarios for the gruesome biblical story we can see, which has merged with the real-life rape of Gentileschi we can only imagine. Ostoya begins with allusions to Picasso—one of modernism’s more famous misogynists—in the geometric patterning of her paintings, such as Holofernes Slaying Holofernes (all works 2016). In the adjacent room are primarily photomontages, some of which seem to be tributes to Georgia O’Keeffe, the one most obvious being Sheets and a Hand, where the titular elements dissolve into each other, creating elegant curves that look like flowers and female genitalia. Two Faces, Judith and a Robot, however, is punctuated with dark humor, as it features a robot’s head superimposed on a woman’s face, resulting in a disturbing hybrid creature.
Two Faces, A Model and an Actress unravels the complex duality of human nature. The actress’s arresting gasp blends into the model’s serene porcelain face, resulting in a two-faced, one-headed monster. And it seems we’ve come to the core of the show: The demon that haunts the space from the moment we walk in spins well out of control, and points to the Holofernes inside all of us.
While the subjects in Nicola Tyson’s exhibition closely resemble women, winged creatures, and flowers, her most consistent visual (or for lack of a better term, thing) is a weird dancing figure that feels somehow familiar. Tyson’s drawings elide pat definitions, and the forms we encounter are polymorphously perverse—daffodils become faces and then turn into freaks, feathers, and sex organs, pictures from and made specifically for the subconscious. A rounded jigsaw puzzle–shaped nub serves as both head and arm for a lean, confidently drawn female humanoid in Standing Figure #7, 2016. The artist’s graphic economy conveys so much, and the cartographically drawn groin in this piece is, embarrassingly, difficult to ignore.
But, in Tyson’s universe, a malformed leg, too big foot, or absent nose contributes to a strangeness that is more than just grotesque—it’s tender, otherworldly. In Untitled (sketch book page) #34, 2005, dense colored pencil and graphite lines make up an animal-like head (or a lugubrious-looking mask) that possesses a creepy fairytale vibe—it fits in beautifully with the artist’s other renderings of witchy superheroes and some children’s-book landscapes. In the life-size Pencil Stub, 2016, private parts are conspicuously unconcealed: A dominatrix’s pupillary nipples stare out of a cutout top, while her pelvis, which looks like a shield or inverted jock strap, appears outside a short skirt. In her hands she brandishes a pencil and a switch. Tyson’s show is an immersive Rorschach test, authored by an imagination that doesn’t just blur but melts the lines between representation and abstraction.
Strawberry-flavored Dippin’ Dots, Sobranie Slims, Himalayan salt lamps, the ombré hem of Gwen Stefani’s wedding dress, the drunk tank at Santa Clara County, carnations on Mother’s Day, orchids, a love stone, Cam’ron in mink, Sissy Spacek as Pinky in 3 Women (1977), a Juicy Couture velour tracksuit, a Jem doll’s hair, Bazooka gum, an inflatable flamingo, Pucci lingerie from the 1960s, Wet n Wild 901B in a black plastic tube: These are the shadings of pink in Sojourner Truth Parsons’s new paintings that involve, variously, a Dalmatian, flowers, cigarettes, acrylic nails, and a temporary tattoo dispenser’s worth of butterflies. Many of these works seem to be of the artist’s best friend, Julia, whose face is never seen. She’s always turned around—perhaps blushing.
Hung large in the narrow rooms of this Lower East Side gallery, the five canvases on view are done in a real naïf style that owes a few things, directly or indirectly, to the Royal Art Lodge of fin-de-siècle Winnipeg. Outside Canada, where Parsons grew up and went to art school, the trend is obtained from the works and ethos of Paul Klee, or of Albert Oehlen, and it too often manifests, among newer painters, as badness, for a simple lack—or premature refusal—of taste. Parsons is better than that. And sweeter. Hers are no Sunday paintings, but paintings in which every day is Sunday, with a Sunday’s sense that a private self must be indulged. Hence the delicate pleasures here, the coordinated languor, and the attendant deep blues.
“Are you a feminist artist?” is a dogged refrain, running like an earworm through Mira Schor’s new exhibition of oil paintings and delicate works on paper. Rendered in the artist’s fluid, unfussy script—the hallmark of her painterly conceptualism and long-standing investigations of language as image—the text fills small boxy speech bubbles at eye-level with a repeated figure, ostensibly the feminist artist in question. She’s depicted as a playfully morbid diagram, reduced to a set of signs, a sparsely accessorized stick figure with breasts and a skull. Schor’s distilled figuration is not a dry semiotic exercise, though. Schor’s very into her materials, and employs an edge of angry wit.
Drawn with ink, pencil, gesso, and charcoal on vertical sheets of tracing paper tacked to the walls, her “‘Power’ Figure” series, 2015–16, which fills the gallery’s large main room, is composed of two dozen or so iterations of this symbol/woman. In a number of them, rust-colored lines connect their crotches or nipples to open books, as if the figures—or their organs—write telekinetically with menstrual blood or milk. Schor, with this weird archetypal imagery, provocatively confuses tropes of female reproduction with concerns of feminist representation. “Power” Figure #7: Still Too Young, Not Dead Enough, 2015, is a stark picture of the woman artist whose dead career will merit discovery or resurrection at her life’s end. In it, a dead alien head floats above a scribbly, sexed body and the show’s dominant query is countered with another pervasive contemporary demand: “Can you help once a month?” It’s a subtle time stamp embedded in this timeless-looking show, which, taken all together, forms a complex and energetic portrait of feminist fatigue.
Over the past two decades, photography, like film, has suffered an identity crisis in the face of proliferating digital technologies. The situation has led to a rise in self-reflexive practices—photography about darkroom processing, for instance. This impulse, however, is waning, and photography seems ripe for experiments with narrative that fly in the face of objectivity and indexicality. Willa Nasatir is a young artist who steers away from the strictness of medium-specificity and embraces psychological subject matter in her work.
Nasatir’s four glossy C-prints feel as though they’ve come out of an earlier group of works about crime photography—a “neutral” genre that is, at its core, anything but. Nasatir’s characters here are things, not bodies: a singed fan, bloodred candles, a pair of open shears, and a crown made of wire. They function as items plucked from some violent, satanic rite, symbols we project all manner of visceral horror upon. Nasatir photographs her objects in front of disorienting mirrors and subjects her shadowy prints to various manipulations, including burning. To add a sense of temporal disjuncture, she rephotographs her original prints through cobwebby skeins of Plexiglas and acrylic. Her moody aesthetic seems indebted to the theatrical, prop-centric performance art of the 1970s seen in the 2013–14 Whitney Museum exhibition “Rituals of Rented Island,” featuring artists such as Jack Smith, Stuart Sherman, and Sylvia Palacios Whitman. The images also recall the quasi-Surrealistic scenarios of Jan Groover and, of course, Goth music videos of the 1980s and ’90s.
The word apocalypse means revelation: a kind of unveiling to expose some higher power’s purpose (through mass destruction, of course). In Greg Parma Smith’s epically scaled six-panel painting titled Last Judgment (Selfless, Deathless, No World), 2015–16, the end of days is visualized through layers of canvas that literally peel off the picture plane, revealing a number of stylistically disjunctive images beneath. In the center is a deceptively kitschy, postcard-perfect sunset. Split in half across two panels, this dark star suggests that it increasingly takes away more than it gives—a vital source of life that simultaneously destroys it, as we have witnessed in all the havoc wrought by climate change.
On the leftmost panel of this giant work, two pelicans swoop across a seascape, their eyes rendered like marble. On the opposite end, another pelican—belonging to a different visual system—is psychedelically melting away in a triangular field of blues and browns. A composite of a woman, who seems like a holy deity, emerges from a portal of unfurled canvas, her body seemingly made up of other women from different worlds or dimensions. The fissures in her being are painted gold, like the tenderly mended cracks in Kintsugi pottery.
In an adjacent gallery there are a few small ink drawings (each titled At the mouth of a cave and respectively subtitled selfless; deathless; and no world, all 2016), which relate directly to the larger work. They call to mind the Victorian passion for collecting and drawing butterflies. One can locate Charles Burchfield’s hallucinatory formal influence in these works as well—another artist with a taste for the menacing and ecstatic.
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 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.
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.
The small earthenware objects arranged on plinths in Guðmundur 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.
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.
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 Thérèse 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 à 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.
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 à 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.