For the greater part of his forty-year career, Allan Sekula leveled challenges to the neoliberal agenda through his highly specialized focus on the global maritime industry. Classically romantic subjects—seafarers, vessels, oceans—were put to service as a way to trace the movement of goods and reveal a rigged global economy.
His last major photo series, “Ship of Fools,” 1999–2010, is an intimate account of a single activist action on the restored cargo ship the Grand Mariner. Put to sea by the International Transit Workers Association, the ship housed an exhibit of work by various artists intending to expose corruption and exploitation in murky waters of maritime labor practice. The self-described agit-ship circumvented the globe, stopping in ports from the Caribbean to New Zealand, opening its doors to seamen, dockworkers, and the general public. Sekula’s photographs document the traffic on the dock itself, capturing a larger global politic via portraits—as if the social ills of commerce are visible in the folds of the affected’s skin.
The photo Churn stands apart from this focus on the faces on the dock. It’s a postcard-like shot from the stern of the Grand Mariner, depicting disturbed waters trailing toward a sunset in the distance. It brings to mind the fact that the split-second economic transactions of today’s world are still dependent upon the real-world movement of physical goods that travel at the same maritime speed of sea voyages centuries ago. Sekula’s critique emerges in spaces like that of Churn—in moments of calm that get at the pause and disconnect between ports, nation states, and ideologies.
Forty years ago, Robert and Mimi Melnick published a peculiar photographic study, Manhole Covers of Los Angeles. Drawn to the decorative patterns of industrially forged steel, the Melnicks’ mixed aesthetic appreciation of folk industrial traditions with archaeological rigor. Twenty-four years later, Steve McQueen embarked on an analogous study of the gutter barriers of Paris, culminating in the photographic series “Barrage,” 1998, which is on view as part of his latest exhibition. Here, McQueen focused on the improvised cloth bundles deployed by street sweepers to redirect the city's effluent. Fashioned from discarded towels, carpets, and other cast-off materials, the barriers bespoke a history of degraded cotton, cigarettes, and rubble. When illuminated by McQueen’s flash, the photos elicit a criminological tint, as if the barriers themselves were wrapped corpses subjected to the most horrific violence.
The second half of the exhibition shows McQueen’s hypnotizing triptych Drumroll, 1998. With two cameras positioned at the sides of an oil drum and another in the middle, Drumroll records an endlessly rotating panorama in mid Manhattan. Conceptually similar to Gabriel Orozco's Yielding Stone, 1992, where the artist rolled a malleable ball of Plasticine through the streets of New York. Just as Orozco’s ball accumulated the dust and grime of the street, McQueen’s oil drum yields to the street’s sights and sounds: horns, steam, and other street-level noise. As the oil drum both impedes and propels movement, McQueen is heard apologizing throughout, “Watch out, miss, watch out . . . excuse me, excuse me.” Notably, with every rotation of the central camera, the projected image consumes the very ground upon which it is placed, whereas the two adjacent projections, facing out to street-level traffic, articulate a panorama with no fixed horizon line. The cumulative effect is vertiginous, both groundless and unstable. It is these two views of the street—a revolving panorama in Drumroll, and debased cloth bundles in “Barrage”— where the labors of the street are cast awry.
Chuck Nanney’s first solo exhibition in over ten years is a spare tableau redolent with magical thinking. In “Body Parts & Oracles,” the wraparound whiteness of this new gallery’s single room is dotted and dashed at various heights by small colorful blocks, tall vertical sticks, and diminutive decorative wings that angle off the walls to toy with fantasies of architectural liftoff. But as much as the latter are wings, the oblong protrusions presented here are also pink tongues and purple thumbs, stiff schlongs and saggy sideways sacs, skin flaps and mottled scabs punctuating the space and erogenizing it with abstract anatomies. Nanney retains all of the handmade, low-budget, biomorphic queerness that so marked his practice of the 1980s and ’90s.
Anchored in place or hinged with utility hardware, the works exercise a Calder-inflected distinction between stability and mobility throughout. Where bulbous flipper shapes (called “lingums” [sic] and “nubs” in titles) are the “body parts” of this new corpus, the “oracles” are those small painted rectangular blocks scattered all over that conjure manual things like a Tarot deck or smartphone in size. Several slightly larger panels bare runes that border on legibility and suggest the letters of a monogram or logo but turn out to be sigils, coded markings embodying magic spells cast by the artist. One refers in its title to “secret love,” another to forgetting, while yet another constitutes part of a low-hanging landscape composition named telepath, 2014.
Everything is symbolic; everything is condensed. Smallness is a way to cultivate ruminative intimacy in viewing. And a sunny aesthetic disposition as willfully bright and happy as Nanney’s reads both as gaiety incarnate and a sly way to cover up a lifetime of sadness and trauma survived in the shadow of AIDS.
By the mid-1980s Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacral” buzz was peaking, and the artists featured in Andrew J. Greene–curated “Bad Influence” responded to the dislodgment of exchange value (from commodity object to brand logo) with a mix of cultural and technological anachronisms. Produced between 1985 and ’92, works by Gretchen Bender, Ashley Bickerton, Wim Delvoye, and Jonathan Lasker offer a compelling account of a decade, but the show’s main provocation points to an anxiety of influence. See Bickerton’s sculpture Seascape: Floating Costume to Drift for Eternity III (Elvis Suit), 1992: Surrounded by four bright-yellow pontoons emblazoned with the word SUSIE—the artist’s self-conceived brand logo—the main body encapsulates a rhinestone-encrusted Elvis suit behind a panel of glass that recalls both television screen and display vitrine. If Bickerton’s pop-cultural time capsule offers a playful riposte to the more serious museological display strategies fashionable at the time, the work’s unsightly details—frayed gaffer tape and a disordered skein of black rope—subtly deflect kitsch commodity seduction by way of material fatigue. Similar material and cultural collisions persist in the work of younger artists, but differentiating aesthetic complacence from capitalist critique now seems futile or beside the point—bad influence indeed.
Across the way, Lasker’s To Caress the Naked Eye, 1987, is a premonitory example of how digital technologies currently infiltrate the space of painting. Layered planes of wavy figures and bold, off-kilter grids challenge the status of foreground and background (pre-Photoshop), and screen-friendly chartreuse hues almost predict the digital mediation of today’s LED transmissions. Yet, there are hints of Klee in Lasker’s imagery, and these historical references to primitivism—a regressive modernist response to the technological innovations of the previous century—remind us that the media-obsessed conditions of late capitalism might still be met with thoughtful resistance. Whether today’s artists can or care to defy the commercial efficiency of an endless stream of backlit appearances and the dizzying excess of speculative economies still remains an open question.
In a 1954 de Kooning knockoff called Mother and Child hung at the beginning of John Altoon’s long-posthumous (and very politely hung) retrospective, a lone squiggle floats like an errant feather across the surface of seething figures. Laura Owens points it out in the show’s stellar catalogue (which also includes a brilliant, anal-recussive screed by Paul McCarthy that would make Pere Ubu blush). Altoon’s singular career flows out of that single, wholly deliberate, slightly sploogy mark.
A little fleshy, a little gross, his spacey pastel abstractions sometimes look like reassembled fourth-dimensional space aliens, but like the East Coast AbEx defector Philip Guston, all the primordial ooze coalesced mid career into figures. For Altoon, these figures shape into jangly lined porno drawings and reworked advertisements, their barely suppressed lusts splurting to the top. His muted palette of tertiary turquoises and lavenders rocks steady throughout with levity, but the play of the purposeful squiggle expands out of the necessary self-seriousness of midcentury abstraction and into the freewheeling ’60s, the postwar abstract angst swirling into form around the new found sexuality. Collected by Mike Kelley and McCarthy, Altoon inspired with a blithe spirit in life and work a few generations of Los Angeles artists including Monique Prieto, Monica Majoli, and Barbara T. Smith, all also contributors to the catalogue.
Altoon ultimately turned whimsy to a purpose—individual desire wrought fearlessly and joyfully can be a revolutionary act within a regimented society. In 1966, Altoon collaborated with Robert Creeley on a series of lithographs and poems titled About Women (a favorite subject). Creeley matched the corporeal joy blossoming out of his collaborator near the end of his life (snipped short by a heart attack at forty-four in 1969): “Always your / tits, not breasts, but / harsh sudden rises of impatient flesh . . . which flower / against the vagueness / of the air you move in.”
The small, sincere voice of Sue Tompkins echoed from the courtyard into the gallery during the opening of “Contort Yourself,” an exhibition of four Glasgow-based artists. Singing with all the passion of a teenage punk chanteuse but with none of the backing music, Tompkins’s voice was at first jangly, then awkward, settling into its own strange beauty by the end of her performance. Inside the ample, James Turrell–designed gallery, her paintings and works on paper include smallish gestures—signs, letters, shapes—writ loud, like her voice, by the odd and singular force of their aesthetic ardor. Hung low to the ground, the paintings overlooked vitrines of her typewritten works, each a jumble of design and image coded out of typography with a few words written almost in declarations.
The room over, Jim Lambie’s vividly varicolored circus ladders reach from floor to ceiling. With mirrored rungs, each leads nowhere but back at you in their reflections. One step beyond, behind a curtain, Luke Fowler’s feature-length video All Divided Selves, 2011, is on view, a beautiful collage of archival footage circling the controversial Scottish psychiatrist and poet R. D. Laing, who quietly winks at the camera in the middle of a group-therapy session. With Jonnie Wilke’s ethereal sounds tinkling out of a hi-fi back in the main gallery, the show begs some stab at their unified Scottishness (or more specifically Glaswegian-ness): the absurd and sometimes twee heights of their joy, the cutting chill of their desolate winters in the poorest city in the UK. Curated by Glasgow-based gallery the Modern Institute and titled after the electric jolt of No Waver James Chance’s most famous tune (which also appears in a poster above Wilke’s spinning record), this summer show comes together like a song.