KNOCK KNOCK. Jerry Kearns’s latest show beats down its own door and invades the gallery walls with acid-colored expressions printed in large-scale comic-book bubble letters. Their onomatopoeic allusions—SKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!—vibrate, animating the space and engulfing one in the narrative that unfolds in five wall murals and eight large paintings. The show simultaneously flattens and disbands Kearns’s layered, nuanced so-called psychological Pop paintings, which build on the American Pop tradition of painting begun by Roy Lichtenstein. Combining screenprinting and handpainting, the works bizarrely fuse American twentieth-century imagery relating to hero/villain archetypes, Christian zealotry, the Wild West, and the Bronze Age of comics. Our protagonist, Jesus, is rendered here as a campy, crown-of-thorns-bearing savior, galloping from one scene to another on horseback. Dressed as a slightly ditzy cowboy, he hopelessly confronts tricky, goblin-like outlaws—always, it appears, on the brink of ambush as he looks the wrong way.
The characterization of Jesus as semihero in an American Hero’s clothing speaks to the paradox of a Bible Belt mentality that celebrates Christian values of Good Shepherd peace and simultaneously parades violent ideals such as free gun commerce. Building on Kearns’s ongoing exploration of soft and hard power dynamics as well as gender stereotypes, these new works intertwine historic paradigms of American masculinity, the tomboyish aesthetics of 1970s animation, and the covert manipulation of “sublime landscape” paintings (which, as Kearns has noted, were originally produced as propaganda for notions of Manifest Destiny). Here, Kearns compels us to interrogate the ethics undergirding societal values using the age-old carrot-and-stick strategy: on one hand deploying subtle overlapping of culturally charged imagery that rewards deeper analysis, and on the other hand leveling us with the punch of cartoonlike murals that blast aggressive afterimages into viewers’ minds.
Nancy Rubins is known for her large public works composed of airplane parts, boats, televisions, mattresses, and other detritus mined from the boneyards of industrialized consumerism. Here she presents four sculptures formed from conglomerations of aluminum animals typical of fairground rides and children’s playgrounds—horses, ducks, and elephants among them—tightly bound together by wire cables. Three floor-based works rise from pedestals, expanding into multicolored cornucopias, while the largest piece, Our Friend Fluid Metal, 2014, also the name of the exhibition, emerges from a wall like zoological ectoplasm, billowing into the room above the viewer.
The brightly painted expressions of Rubins’s infantilized animals were once perhaps intended to augment the rider’s carnival experience, but with their redundancy, the paralyzed smiles and battered carcasses evoke hollow bewilderment rather than warm nostalgia, so that these works function as funereal totems to long-gone childhood pleasures.
While lacking the volume to inspire awe, or many of the other superlatives commonly applied to Rubins’s work, the sculptures do possess density and mass—qualities which strike an ominous tone. The creatures are so pitifully compressed and restricted in their suspended cages that they become not only a representation of detachment from youthful freedoms, but also a conduit for notions of seizure and abuse, relating less to animals than to the materials that Rubins’s menageries are made of. Although these structures are built from reconstituted metals, the greater suggestion is of a Benjamin Button–like societal regression should we continue to plunder and discard our finite resources.
Biological and psychological ritual are the backbone of Matthew Ronay’s latest exhibition, which presents a series of intimate gouaches rendered in a palette of vivid blues, purples, and reds. These amorphic exercises in what Ronay refers to as “muscle memory” were composed daily and focus, as does the practice of meditation, on the undulating of the human respiratory system. Unlike some of Ronay’s previous work, the erotic component of this series is nonexplicit, the focus instead on the intersection between the stimulating and the spiritual. There is the delicately sexual 12.10.13, 2013, which calls to mind the moment of conception, and 01.23.14, 2014, an intricate meandering of pale pink through tears in tissue-like red.
Of the one hundred works made as part of this series, only thirty-four were put on view, and the empty space creates a sense of drama, causing the viewer to wonder why certain days were omitted. The pieces are set irregularly in two rows, surrounded by barely visible gray-washed shadows of identical size, which are standing reminders of Ronay’s other visual meditations. The psychosexual symbology within these works coupled with the tension between the gouaches and their ghostly counterparts ignites questions of self-censorship. “Wavelength” is an elegantly curated reminder that ritualized creation has a strong history in both the visual and spiritual.
This retrospective, which takes over the second floor of PS1, reveals James Lee Byars as a peripatetic showman whose work engaged some of the most compelling artistic questions of his time. Included in his variegated oeuvre is a collection of letters—the majority addressed to Joseph Beuys, Byars’s hero and most obvious influence—that evince the artist’s desire for creative correspondence. But, these letters, written in Byars’s intricately ornamented “star script,” evince a simultaneous fascination with gnomic indecipherability, as in all of his work. This conflicting set of impulses is equally evident in his “book” sculptures, which, in their irregular shapes and illegible typefaces, seem to flaunt their unreadability. Tropes of communication bleed into a sort of communion in Byars’s multiperson garments, such as the Pink Silk Airplane, 1969, which can accommodate one hundred simultaneous wearers. These call to mind contemporaneous works by Franz Erhard Walther, though the idea of the artwork’s activation through participation was already present in the interactive paper sculptures that Byars made after spending time in Kyoto. His World Question Center project, also 1969, was dedicated to compiling America’s “most interesting” questions—Byars’s response to Beuys’s contention that “everyone is an artist”—but left them conspicuously unanswered.
In Byars’s most original works, the opulent sculptures he produced from the 1980s on, his desires to show and to shroud are reconciled by embracing a Jodorowskyesque theatricality. Byars would interact with these works, which combine blood-red silk, gilded marble, and dramatic spotlighting, in temporal actions he called “plays.” The retrospective ultimately succeeds by presenting all of the artist’s work in such terms, with the galleries’ walls painted black and luminous gold, giving the impression of a black-box theater turned gnostic temple.
Trisha Brown’s choreography is notoriously difficult to capture, with its swift turns and continuous transitional phrases. In early works such as Roof Piece, 1971, seen through the able lens of Babette Mangolte, multiple dancers transmit simple movements to one another across New York City rooftops, invoking both the performers’ and viewer’s capacities for recall. With each performance, Brown anticipated the way her work would be seen, questioning the disappearance so often ascribed to dance. The photographs, short films, videos, and ephemera that comprise this exhibition record Brown’s performances for posterity, in turn influencing Brown’s own practice. Mangolte’s exhilarating film Watermotor, 1978, shows Brown performing the eponymous dance in real time. It’s then slowed down by half—perhaps best evidencing what Craig Owens once called “mechanical inscription,” or the multiple perspectives and temporal freeze/flow of film and photography registered in the dancing.
Since the 1970s, Brown and her company have investigated the terrain of lower Manhattan—whose buildings, seen from the windows of the space, provide an apropos backdrop and real-time reminder of context. Curated by Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, and conceived by Sam Miller, this deceptively compact show foregrounds the conflation of site and sight, particularly in the “Equipment Pieces.” Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, uses gravity to defamiliarize ordinary movement: rigged to a harness, a performer descends down the facade of 80 Wooster Street. Photographed from below by Peter Moore, the figure is dwarfed by the architectural surface, whose pictorial flatness causes the vertical surface to appear nearly horizontal—“site-specificity” might here extend to the event’s relationship with its documentation. An iteration of Man Walking forty years later is included in a grid of color photographs documenting the company’s reperformances—yet Brown’s symbiotic relation to reproductive media, and her photographers’ collaborative voices, become lost to the digital, high-resolution ennui of contemporary image-making. In this survey of her practice, Brown’s play with the fugitive nature of movement is strongest when the process of seeing dance itself is illuminated.
Fifty years ago, architect Philip Johnson invited the edgy up-and-coming artist Andy Warhol to produce one of ten commissions for the facade of the World’s Fair New York State Pavilion—Warhol’s first and ultimately last public-art project. Working in the midst of his “Death and Disaster” depictions of car crashes and race riots, while taking his initial photobooth strips of socialites, friends, and, of course, himself, Warhol devised a work for the pavilion that would merge the profane and the portrait: blown-up silk-screened mug shots of the thirteen most-wanted men taken straight from the City of New York’s police department. As the story goes, someone in power had objections, perhaps to its coarse aesthetics, thinly veiled homoeroticism, or simply the banal subject material. By the time the World’s Fair opened on April 22, 1964, the 13 Most Wanted Men was covered in a thick coat of silver paint (a proposal to replace the work with twenty-five identical panels of a beaming World’s Fair President Robert Moses was, alas, rejected out of hand).
The making of the work, its quick demise, and its afterlife in Warhol’s oeuvre make up this meticulously researched and precisely installed exhibition. The fascinating murder mystery of the Men unfolds chronologically, weaving in appearances by potential culprits Philip Johnson, Robert Moses, Nelson Rockefeller, and most enigmatic of all, Warhol himself. Nine silk-screened portraits of the Men that were made the summer after the debacle form the core of the exhibition, which is supplemented by an array of other works by Warhol, such as Little Electric Chair, 1964–65, and Nelson Rockefeller, 1967, and archival materials documenting Warhol’s year of production on the pavilion, the World’s Fair exhibition, and the reception of the controversial destruction of the work. By the end of 1964, for Warhol, “Death and Disaster” had transformed into a Flowers elegy and the Men had mutated into the screen-test series 13 Most Beautiful Boys, 1964–66. What remains in this exhibition are the relics of an astounding transitional moment in the artist’s work.
Here today, gone tomorrow. If last year’s overnight whitewashing of graffiti haven 5Pointz in Queens revealed anything, it's that the fleeting form of graffiti tags is as susceptible as ever to the whims of property owners and real estate speculation. All the more prescient, then, was artist Martin Wong’s vision to amass his extensive collection of graffiti works on canvas, wood, Masonite, doors, and any other conceivable writing surface. Aspiring to be the “Albert Barnes of graffiti,” Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994—“City as Canvas” is the first selected display of these materials.
One of the earliest items exhibited is Wicked Gary’s Tag Collection from 1970–72. Compiled during the nascent years of graffiti’s ubiquity, the gridded display features the distinct signatures of almost one hundred pioneering writers. Among the more legible signatures indexed are Super Strut and Flint, For Those Who Dare; the posturing and bravado of both are a staple of the spirit of graffiti tagging. By 1981, the Metropolitan Transit Authority heightened police measures and installed razor-wire fences and guard dogs in train yards as initial efforts to “clean up” the city. Lady Pink, notable as one of the few female graffiti writers, foreshadowed the eventual effects of these developments in her 1982 self-portrait, The Death of Graffiti. The artist stands nude atop a mountain of spray cans pointing mournfully to a whited train as a graffiti-marked train passes behind it, the stark contrast emphasizing what has been covered in the first; a stifling feeling of inevitable gentrification pervades the scene.
Indeed, in 1989, New York City mayor Ed Koch declared the subway “graffiti-free” as a result of the cleanup efforts. That same year, Wong founded the Museum of American Graffiti in the East Village to bring archival attention to what he deemed his “aerosol hieroglyphics.” The project proved short-lived, closing within a year due to financial pressures. Yet the museum—the first of its kind in the United States—provides a lens into Wong’s sustained preservation efforts. An original vitrine from the museum’s inaugural exhibition is on display here. Covered in chain-link fences and signature scrawls, the case provides an appropriately urban, idiosyncratic display for a similarly alternative collection from a nearly bygone era.