In 1995, Hale Tenger’s contribution to the fourth Istanbul Biennial was a portrait of her country as a cramped, one-room guard house, cordoned off in a concrete yard by a towering barbed-wire fence. Inside the structure were the barest necessities for passing time in the isolation of guard duty; walls were plastered with postcard scenes of natural wonders, including some of Turkey’s most breathtaking vistas. The images indicate that whoever served their time in that space dreamt of life outside the fence, suggesting the guard as a kind of prisoner. This play of perspective echoes in the installation’s title—We didn't go outside; we were always on the outside/ We didn’t go inside; we were always on the inside—which flows almost like a call-and-response chorus of an old song. Fittingly, the only company kept within this guard house comes via a battered transistor radio, which here crackles out a rotation of old-timey tunes. While the artist proposed the installation as a metaphor for Turkey’s geopolitical isolation, the presence of the radio subtlely implicates the government’s hand in that isolation, namely the monopoly on radio programming, which was under direct state control from 1923 up until ’94.
For this exhibition, Tenger restages the installation in the basement of New York’s historic Westbeth Building. If in 1995, Turkey was musing on what it means to have its media out from beneath the blunt thumb of the state, now, twenty years later, the country is contemplating a return to state control of media outlets. Once more, it seems, Turkey has found itself uncertain on which side of the fence it lies.
Is it too much to say that the most humane objects—cups, books, shirts, and socks—the things that regularly get intimate with us, often find themselves packed into cardboard boxes? An exhibition of sculptures, costumes, and performance documentation by Susan Cianciolo, “If God Comes to Visit You, How Will You Know? (The Great Tetrahedral Kite)” focuses on the designer and artist’s “kits,” selections of materials, tools, and ephemera collected in decorated cardboard boxes. Much of the contents are part of Run, her deconstructive fashion line emphasizing customization and personal relationships, for which she collaborated with Bernadette Corporation, Rita Ackermann, and Mike Mills, among others.
Remember Kids Activity Kit, 2004–14, includes a star pin, crystals, elaborately crocheted child-size dresses, skirts, and sweaters, linen fairy wings, clay pieces, inky paintings, and book images. It’s difficult to speak of glitter and pins, dolls and bits of string, without feeling twee—but at stake here is the relationship between care, labor, and materials. Other kits contain instructions for making a generic shirt, journals, and sketchbooks, as well as antique and vintage fabrics, which are at once diaristic and instructional. They are small calls to action, ingredients suggesting free-form recipes, invitations to improvise and to depart from standardization: “Make a sweatshirt that’s right 4 U!” reads a scrawl on Do-It-Yourself Sweatshirt Kit, 2001–15. Performers in a variety of headscarves at the show’s opening sat by the boxes and took visitors through their contents. Cianciolo continually reworks the contents of the kits–reconstituting, revising and restarting–offering different reconfigurations to equip for personal care and expression. If most human lives end with boxes, it seems like here that something is carefully trying to begin, and begin, and begin again.
As suggested in the exhibition’s title, “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997” launches a conversation between two discrete time periods. Curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the presentation begins with paintings from the era following India’s independence from Britain, primarily by those involved in the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group that jumpstarted modernism in India. These artists’ interest in diverse media beyond painting—output that is rarely exhibited—is worth noting. See F. N. Souza, who used diluted printer’s ink and magazine paper to create what he dubbed “chemical paintings” in 1969, and Tyeb Mehta, who produced the sixteen-minute black-and-white film Koodal (“Meeting Place”) in 1970.
Two standout contemporary artworks that marry material experimentation with social commentary are Asim Waqif’s By-Construction and Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice, (both 2003). Exploring art-world consumption, the former is an ingeniously built sprawling structure composed entirely of trash generated by the exhibition itself, such as shipping crates. The latter is inspired by the inaugural speech of the newly formed and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Kallat transcribed each letter of the address with rubber adhesive that he then set aflame. Given that the work was constructed a year after the sectarian riots in Gujarat, the charred letters and the buckling of the mirror from the heat powerfully suggest that Nehru’s wishes for India were unfulfilled. Overall, the highlighting of experimentation with materials throughout the exhibition prevents the show from being weighed down by context—a chronic problem for display of “Indian” art —while not eschewing it either.
When Richard Serra erected his seventy-three-ton wall outside New York’s Federal Building in 1981, it was a gash in public space, a twelve-foot-high insult that seared the hide of civic respectability. By contrast, Rey Akdogan’s sculptures hang low to the floor in sharp aluminum stripes, signs of a frosty rapprochement between minimalism and the late-capitalist office. Akdogan’s crash rails, bars that line the blanched spaces through which we so passively pass (hallways, elevators, corners), are painted black or white, some striped with red or orange, some cut with a neat bevel. Behold that other Invisible Hand, the loose fist of administrative oversight, the soft nudge of municipal regulation—it cups the demos in its palm. The rails are safety measures and quiet fixtures; here, they’ve been named after colors—CRA 200 (line #T3), for instance, or CRA 800 F [HSS 500, RAL 3020] line #2, both 2015—in the bloodless taxonomy of industrial precision.
Fetishes, to Freud, simply fastened the mind to some winking irrelevance in order to stifle an old psychic wound. Akdogan’s sculptures do just that, as they narrow their gaze to the unannounced and unredeemed—clean rectangles that glint with utility at the edge of peripheral vision. But splayed above the pieces is the vast emptiness of the white cube: blank walls sculpted by the sculptures. Whole lives are spent toiling within such spaces, the clean corners of button-down officialdom: a structure more gruesome than Serra’s ever was.
Bodies in bad form make up Torbjørn Rødland’s second solo show at Algus Greenspon. There is the belly in Drunken Man, 2014–15, wine-splashed and birthmarked and fat. There are the hands in The Photographer, 2015, or rather, the fetal stumps. There is The Geller Effect, 2014, a deathly still life in which bent and broken utensils lie with blond wisps of hair, and there is a green-looking foot hooked into the waist of a man’s pants in Red Pump, 2014–15. The ten photos in “Corpus Dubium” are lit in ways that can only be described as wrong: from behind or below, lending subjects or objects a silvery, queasy cast. All recall nothing so much as the Seconal dream tableaux of Jo Ann Callis.
The only bodies that aren’t deformed belong to two or three white girls of different ages (almost everyone in Rødland’s output is, like himself, white and Scandinavian—he has referred to his work as autobiographical). The youngest girl, in This Is My Body, 2013–15, has a strong pair of hands at her neck and in her mouth, as if she’s about to have an exorcism or lose a baby tooth. The oldest appears in The Mirror, 2014–15, taking a naked selfie with one white sock and one white shoe on. She could also be the girl in Blue Jeans, 2014–15, holding the jeans’ huge waist away from her torso with a white-gloved hand, making the image either a weight-loss ad or the scene of a crime—but since we don’t see her face, we don’t know. We also don’t know whose pill case is shown in This Is Every Week, 2012–15, its contents shot across undulating strips of gray material in Tablets and Waves, 2014–15. We do know that there is rarely a cure for a pattern. There is instead, as in the titular image of a man’s muscled arm squiggled with varicose veins, a chance to see beauty as symptomatic.
For an exhibition of more than sixty items produced largely since the turn of the millennium, “Drawings: Studies for Works 2000–2015” coheres with an unusual syncopation. Little wonder that these ink-jet prints, gouaches, ink drawings, and other media works on view by Seth Price, whose heterogeneous output has often concerned distribution as much as it has distraction. Some pieces such as Books are Weapons, 2003, read as bits or fragments from a broader narrative, as if excerpted from an author’s meandering plot: This pen-and-graphite drawing displays a cartoonish publication against an upright, modest Victorian home, extolling that “Books are weapons . . . and houses, etc.” One windowpane is likened to an unsavory insect’s nine eyes, which all resemble monitors. Another work, Study for a Christian Novel, 2001–2002, summarily outlines a grand narrative that remains unwritten, depicting a flowchart prophesying incidents of mass migration, stockpiled cash of the 1 percent, plague-like religious conversion, and a “cult of the individual.”
Many studies glimpse presciently toward today, with its de facto modes of shambolic messaging and devout narcissism. Study for Confusion, 2003, lists the tent poles of balanced living, as if typed by a frenzied multitasker: “Wrok, Fmaily, Freidns.” Bisexual Litigator, 2013, labels an insufferably—and amusingly—individualized suitor: “Steeped in critical theory + psychoanalysis as well as Torah, high-powered and intense, looking to meet same.” As a whole, this boisterous array of works sketches out a musing, heretofore an overlooked layer of Price’s inquisitive yet otherwise materially infatuated practice—a mode of production that hangs in the balance between thinking and making.
Take what you want from all the Marxist cant surrounding Christopher Williams’s long-term project on the history and discourse of the photographic. What one finds at the heart of his practice is something simpler but no less profound: a reverence for the miracle of seeing and for the efforts we’ve made at trying to approximate or capture the mystery of this extraordinary phenomenon with the invention of the camera.
Juliet Jacobson is a drawer who works exclusively from photographs, transforming the information of mechanical reproduction into experiences that are startlingly physical and emotive. Though her technical prowess is stunning, her goals are well beyond pat mimesis or academicism. “There Is Nothing Perfectly Beautiful Except the Invisible,” her first solo exhibition at this gallery, is an investigation into the slipperiness of perceived reality, where the idealism of photographic space is shunted out of its Platonic sphere and put back into the sensuous realm of material facture and presence.
And sensuous is the word for Jacobson’s graphite and colored-pencil drawings, not simply in the exquisiteness of her hand—which is tender, replete, gorgeous—but also in the scrupulous observation she affords her seemingly banal subject matter. Gently crumpled or folded sheets of white paper and dirtied surfaces of mirrors that subtly reflect pale swaths of prismatic color feel like sites for spiritual projection—empty screens that are anything but, full of divine potential (and, strangely enough, not too unlike religious icons—objects that seem to gaze more fully into us than we into them).
In her latest show, Xylor Jane continues to explore the visual and cognitive qualities of numbers, mapping them onto canvases in compositions that resemble complex puzzles or decks for dark arts. In some works, such as Twelve Twenty One and Leap Second, both 2015, and RX Rose, 2012, Jane overlays staccato spots of paint on a solid ground. In others such as Threes, 2015, she applies a spectrum of hues in tightly packed, geometrically allocated spaces. This technique is magnified in Twenty Nine, 2015, a surface of glossy black paint brushed in different directions, each segment reflecting light at different wattage. The works’ visual impact pivots on the vibrating edge tension achieved not just by color but by paint itself, as Jane milks both for their luminosity and tactile quality, recalling the potent subtlety of Ad Reinhardt and the vitality of a monochrome Grotjahn.
The balletic quality of numerical equations as well as the geometry they often describe are critical to these works. Yet if computational symbols and structures imbue her work with layers of meaning and an opaque mystical quality, the visceral power in her pictures lies in their meditative quality: Visually pulsating with measured ticks, the pictures translate a dreaminess and the sense of hyperfocused study that is innate to a state of delirious subconsciousness. Jane has spoken of working often in dark early-morning hours, when her mind is still more connected to sleep than it is awake. Her works transport us to that same metaphysical place, as shimmering gestures take on recognizable forms, at once tangible visuals and homages to invisible ideas.
“Some clients ask us to piss on them, but I'd be happy to shit on them on behalf of all women.” So opens this group exhibition—including works by Sanja Iveković, Rajkamal Kahlon, Victoria Lomasko, OKO, Cecilia Vicuña, and Carla Zaccagnini—with the words of one woman in Lomasko’s Girls, 2012, a collection of impromptu sketches of Russian sex workers whom the artist interviewed. It’s not the only sentence in the exhibition that rings with the easily recognizable sound of necessity. “They are willing to bury us alive,” reports Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in Lomasko’s Pretrial Tagansky Hearing Pussy Riot, 2012. Here is a show for a world already buried alive in the shit of patriarchy.
Razor slashes in white paper in Zaccagnini’s My Hieroglyphic on the Velázquez Venus Will Express Much to the Generations of the Future, 2012, abstract the violence chronicled in her book Elements of Beauty (2012), which sits on a bench nearby and is made up of documents of the attacks on paintings in the UK carried out by early twentieth-century suffragettes. It is this legacy of risk and altruistic punishment that holds the crowded show’s formal diversity together. Iveković’s Isn’t She Too Old for That?—On Witches, 2013, combines casual photographs of older women with illuminated witch-hunt illustrations, in a perverse affirmation of the monstrous guises female artists are assigned. As the contemporary feminist Sophia Cleary put it recently: “An isolated lone woman artist is like crazy and disturbed ‘probably poisoned by lead’ but an isolated lone male artist is a glorified monk.”
A woman’s tongue licks and slurps brightly colored candy and cake decorations off a pane of glass positioned above the camera lens in Marilyn Minter’s eight-minute video Green Pink Caviar, 2009. The fluorescent hues of the film illuminate the darkened gallery, as meditative music plays through headphones hanging nearby. Dana Levy’s palette in the video Everglades, 2014, projected onto the back wall, is less obnoxious but equally provocative, toying with the viewer as voyeur. The video was shot at night in Florida’s Everglades National Park: A full spectrum of colored lights permeates the park’s dense vegetation as gallery visitors listen to distorted sounds of environmental destruction playing from speakers overhead.
Themes of objectification and spectatorship, commonly associated with Minter’s cropped close-up shots, also appear in Anna K.E.’s video Gloss of Forehead, 2015, but K.E. pushes them beyond glamour and the fetishized female form. Her comparatively wide camera angle reveals an disheveled artist’s studio and engenders a narrative about the economics of aesthetic cultural production as its subject moves objects and materials meaninglessly around the space. The figure is doubled over and anonymous, its bare bottom facing the camera as if to mock it. As in Levy’s piece, it’s easier to focus on the visual spectacle here rather than considering the poignancy posed by the distortion of natural phenomena and the human form.
“Enchanted Space” is Barbara London’s first curatorial project since leaving MoMA in 2013, and its perversity results partially from watching these three videos in the dark. But perhaps there is also a guilty pleasure to be had in participating in the self-abasement of these human and environmental subjects, as well as of ourselves.
History does not remember Marjorie Strider as well as it should. Tom Wesselmann, Mel Ramos, and Roy Lichtenstein were all contemporaries of hers in the 1960s, and there was a great deal of overlap in all their subject matter: Crayon-colored Pop representations of the female form. But what Strider didn’t do, which her dudely confreres did, was to subject her women to the burnishing effects of male Eros. Even the most embittered of Roy’s girls always wanted Brad back, pretty-perfect in crisp lines, red lips, tears, and distress. Strider wasn’t big on this form of boy’s-club fantasy and gaze—her ill-at-ease, uninviting ladies would rather see Brad’s head on a fucking pike.
This gorgeous miniretrospective of Strider’s works from 1958 to ’74—drawings, collages, sculptures, and bas-relief sculpture/paintings—are abrasive reconfigurations of midcentury American “femaleness,” subtly roiling in their formal discomfiture and attitude, a kind of voluptuousness threateningly rendered in a manner that evokes tumors. Only one of the artist’s famously bumper-boobed women is on display—Come Hither, 1963—a Liz Taylor doppelgänger in black and white with a rictus and slightly crossed eyes. But Strider’s caustic take on feminine softness and desirability comes across just as vividly in her still lifes, where “domestic” objects stand in for irritated female bodies, as in Untitled (Graters) and Untitled (Shakers), both 1973–74, a series of homely cheese graters and spice shakers oozing Lynda Benglis–style blobs of rotted-out, Play Doh–looking guts.
Green Horizontal (Jolly), 1964, looks like a prop out of an old Green Giant commercial, where, perhaps, a happy housewife pointed winningly to its pair of misshapen 3-D lima beans, ready to plop out of their pod. Are they dead ovaries? Or maybe even a sad sack of balls? They are all of the above, surely—and a funny, withering rejoinder to the pro-bro stylings of first-generation Pop.
Start anywhere, go everywhere—that would seem to be the calling card of mid-twentieth-century painter Charles Burchfield’s body of work, which predominately captures scenes from nature and rural, country life as charged by drama, tension, and a freewheeling style that rockets straight out of humble en plein air painting’s crypt and into the stratosphere of vision. The effervescent landscape drawings in this exhibition are often cut through with shafts of light, as in Dawn in Early Spring, 1946–66, which depicts a forest. The picture—done in watercolor and charcoal, as many works in the show are—is centered by a ringed wood backlit by some burgeoning glow while vegetation and trunks teeter between representation and exuberant mark making.
In the nearby Moonlight in a Flower Garden, 1961, the sky is a canopy of biomorphic waves balanced above the similarly shaped flora below it: as above so below. Even a series of three lightly sketched ink-and-charcoal drawings are positively calligraphic, with two of them including a line of cursive punctuating the compositions. One, circa 1960, reads “The spirit of winter lurking in a woods” underneath a handful of graceful outlines describing trees. But then, any line throughout the works here could rally itself to a poem, if one were so willing to read it.
Light showers down, and clouds and foliage vibrate in their rows of lines and washes, as if threatening to explode into painterly abstraction like the work of Burchfield’s contemporaries over in America’s metropolitan centers during his era. Instead they hold their breath and tenuous forms, basking in an illumination by turns divine and pagan.
If the Internet has come to bolster geographically dispersed tendencies and social groupings in the world of contemporary art, the price it has levied for this connectivity and acceleration has been the triumph of the image as the dominant vessel of influence. In their New York debut, Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel present a precise body of sculpture that lays siege to that dominance in the Beaux Arts townhouse where the gallery recently reopened. In this buildingonce owned by nineteenth-century merchant and art collector Cornelius Bliss and on the same walls where his daughter would hang works by Picasso and ModiglianiDewar and Gicquel have installed two strangely proportioned, handmade wool tapestries. When we see the works, they appear as hugely oversized wool sweaters. Too large to be donned, the truth of the lush, richly woven works rests in the volume of space they inhabit with their pliable contours and organic texture. In this sense, they challenge us to subjugate vision to a material presence that refuses to be subsumed by it. What better material than wool, the fiber of both resilience and warmth, could be pitted against the indifference of imagistic conditioning that would reduce a six-foot-tall tapestry to a piece of clothing?
The other works in the exhibition stalk a similar vector of attack: Hand-carved earthenware sculptures approximate a toilet and a wash basin set with such exacting detail that they seem they could be functionally deployed given the right plumbing. Their organic patinas of muddied green dance away from ideas of the readymade with which a viewer might meet them. The pitcher accompanying the basin provides a more elusive movement: Standing on a large foot, it evokes some unspecified near past. Its empty form tempts a figurative reading, but the work’s straight-faced rendering is an end only to itself. There are no molds or reproductions after all, but only a way for the artists to continue working.
Countering Richard Serra’s famous Verb List of 1967–68, Anne Wilson’s To Weave, to Wind, to Knot, to Twist, to Push, to Pack, to Press, 2010—a light box of tools used for “women’s work” and reconfigured in glass—stresses the action embedded in this exhibition’s title. “Pathmakers” assembles more than one hundred objects by forty-two artists in a broad survey of historical and current practice. The show is divided into two floors: The “midcentury” galleries open with a cluster of Ruth Asawa’s dangling wire sculptures, ca. 1950–72, dramatically lit so that their shadows appear like the transparent fabric tapestries in their company. A floor below, “today” is anchored by projects from 2014: Michelle Grabner’s bright paper weavings and enamel paintings, and Polly Apfelbaum’s exuberant marker-on-silk pendants.
Curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales have chosen nine lesser-known figures for longer explanatory labels, including Alice Kagawa Parrott. Her unisex Hanten Jacket, ca. 1960, was a favorite of artists such as Agnes Martin, whose own version is on display. (I would have loved to see some connection to Gabriel Ann Maher’s Garment and accompanying video _Design, both 2014, which explore the role of gender in how we dress.) One emergent theme is the shaping of space. Textile pioneer Dorothy Liebes’s subtly luminous Room Divider for United Nations Delegates Dining Room, ca. 1952, finds its contemporary parallel in Hella Jongerius’s Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates Lounge, ca. 2012. Like Eva Zeisel’s whimsical Belly Button Room Divider, 1957, Jongerius’s curtain carves our environment and filters how we see it.
If certain historical and geographic contexts go unexplored—with everything from showerheads to gravy boats on hand, how could they not?—“Pathmakers” charts a postwar trajectory for women artists that includes corporate collaborations and individual experimentation, without hierarchy of genre. The show celebrates making as discovery. There’s no better illustration than Zeisel, whose work we surprisingly encounter again on the contemporary floor: In 2008, at the age of 102, she decided to try her hand at lighting.
Allen Ginsberg once compared Fred W. McDarrah, the inaugural staff photographer at the Village Voice, to Weegee, a fellow photojournalist whose nocturnal flash revealed a multitude of subversions. McDarrah, however, was preoccupied not with crime but with the convulsions of culture—in literature, art, music, and politics—and his lens was primarily trained on happenings south of Fourteenth Street, from Beat readings to Club meetings. In 1961, he published The Artist’s World, a book in the tradition of the quasi-anthropological photographic essay, complete with explanations of the curious habits of downtown natives. McDarrah shot intrepid painters in illegal lofts; late-night coffees at the Chuck Wagon after the Cedar Tavern’s last call; and opening-night dinners “invariably” held at Chinese restaurants—where the artist of the hour could bask triumphant, “replete with excitement and egg rolls.”
Artforum dismissed the book as a “movie magazine for intellectuals,” while Brian O’Doherty, in the New York Times, winkingly fretted that it signaled the East Coast avant-garde’s imminent decampment for Hollywood. But history has burnished this erstwhile gossip fodder: Today, McDarrah’s images often populate the archival nooks of exhibitions and the margins of catalogue essays. This show brings together a majority of its vintage gelatin silver prints (far outshining the book’s coarsely screened halftone repros), revivifying scenes from a lost New York: Robert Rauschenberg in a junked-out lot, reading the newspaper; Bob Thompson on the bongos, accompanying Red Grooms; Jane Wilson, pensive in a French twist.
If occassionally unremarkable as photographs, these images do remarkable work: Vasari frequently got his facts wrong, but McDarrah presents us with the lives of the artists in fine-grained detail. The Artist’s World may have been accused of glamorizing the avant-garde, yet McDarrah’s book divulged that the artists themselves picked up the post-opening dinner tab, and many returned to cold-water flats in the early morning hours, after the world stopped looking so picturesque.
Written in a small, clinical typeface near the gallery entrance are the words “Start Here,” which introduce seven hundred digitally manipulated photographs by Lucas Samaras, collectively titled XYZ 1550 - PLACEBO 97, 2015. From there, a biographical narrative unfurls, which finds Samaras revisiting his family photo album in a manner that recalls his early Polaroid manipulations of the 1960s and ’70s. In the room’s center stands Doorway, 1966 (constructed 2007), a monumental mirrored cube that reflects the gallery’s contents and greets visitors with their unavoidable reflections. Despite the colossal scale of these works, the most spectacular aspect of the presentation is what can actually fit into your pocket: Samaras’s brilliant counterpart app, Album 2, which takes its name from the exhibition and is home to downloadable versions of all the photographs in the show, free of charge.
In the gallery, the entire collection is neatly matted and housed within a series of aligned shelves. Attuned with the artist’s previous output, the majority of works are digitally collaged self-portraits that have been melded together with an array of computer graphics and overlays. In the app, those same works transcend physical space and are shown within an immaterial realm, where each image is at once infinitely replicable and preserved in its original state. It’s in this app that both time and space—themes with which Samaras has wrestled throughout his career—have finally dissolved into complete submission.
Leidy Churchman’s “The Meal of the Lion” opens not with an apex predator but with a modest character presented in a painting that takes its name: Insecure Rat, 2013. Gazing quizzically at its own reflection in a brackish puddle, the creature sets the tone for an anxious show rife with reference points that are individually rich but collectively inscrutable.
Past the gallery entranceway is the exhibition’s namesake and largest work: Churchman’s 2015 rendition of naïf painter Henri Rousseau’s iconic jungle tableau, which depicts a lion with what appears to be a leopard dangling from its bloody maw. Like the earlier artist, Churchman, a painter with a collector’s knack for ferreting out curious imagery, affords pride of place to visual phenomena that he has never seen in person. Here he extends Rousseau’s penchant for the exotic to a range of visual referents that are obscured in various ways. Some have clear barriers to direct observation, such as Churchman’s mapping of invisible underwater tides in The Great Global Ocean Conveyer Belt, 2015. Others are more puzzling: Jungle Café, 2014, seemingly presents a pamphlet painted from life at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s restaurant of the same name. Only the street address is off—Churchman’s 699 Manhattan Ave. in place of the café’s actual address, at 996.
Churchman’s hand has a flatness that recalls not painterly guesswork (of shadows and other nuances available only to the painter from life), nor the intentional flattening of cartography or design, but that of painting from photographs. If the accumulation of imagery is ultimately underwhelming, it is not for lack of cohesion (which was likely never the intention here)rather, in the paintings’ inability to seduce the viewer into recognition of the terrifying wonders they reproduce, nor of the artist’s motives in copying them.
Strapped, whipped, and yanked along, this show is a bridled beast, and like its namesake—Anne Desclos’s 1954 S-M novel The Story of O—it gasps with exquisite agony. Jared Madere’s untitled installation is a battered monument to binding and constraint: Branches are stuffed into a hippie dress and topped with a wig, making a psychotic mannequin, a wretched anthropomorphism of fabric and bark. Behind it (her?), Madere has strung up what looks like sagging sails, streaked with blue and patched with cracked mirrors, a picture both glittering and strangely soft—but the whole thing is bolted to the floor with metal cables, and voilà: We’re slapped back into Desclos’s chamber of bruises and leashes.
Pretty homologies spring up all around. Lynn Randolph’s Transfusions, 1995, also writhes within the tangles of bondage and sexualized submission. The painting is wittily crass, as it depicts a white woman—perfect measurements, chest thrust up in a cartoon of ecstasy and possession—preyed upon by bats, an IV drip, and a fanged, claw-shaking Nosferatu. Lucy Dodd’s metal sculpture Mantis, 2015, glances at it from across the room, its power cord snaking on the floor like a dropped whip.
But the floor itself is what locks the pieces in a final grid of domination and surrender. It’s stamped with a diagram from philosopher Graham Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, 2011, a key text in the field of object-oriented ontology (OOO)—the exhibition’s other namesake. Harman has made a career of leveling human consciousness, pounding subjects into objects: but the branches, cables, cords, and wires dribbling over his rigid chart whisper a different story, that of a consciousness both throttled and free, laughing through the beating.
If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.
When the 1963 negative for Le Bonheur (1965) lost most of its colors, Agnes Varda had a new one created to look more original than the first. The name given to things more original is artifice, but Varda has said that the film’s palette was exactly as she found it in nature, a truth that applies itself well to the realaesthetik of painter Lisa Yuskavage.
Opening with the green-on-green oil-on-linen Bonfire, which is split in two panels of equal, familiar brilliance, the exhibition unreels into a series of canvases obscured in shades of fog, letting iridescence win over her signature scale-tipping chromaticism. A second surprise: The woman who for years has felt like painting other women now also feels like painting a number of men, some of whom she affectionately termed “dudes” in the titles of her works. Others appear with babes, peek up from supine positions (The Neighbors, 2014) or fan out in splendor from behind (Hippies, 2013). Most of these boys are coyer, cuter, and more virginal than the feminine subjects we’ve often mistaken for “girls.”
But if her subjects-as-objects have always been grown, her style is matured—tenderer, reveling in awe. It’s rare that we get to see a famous painter changing before our eyes, especially so late in a game she has already won (though fans of John Currin, her straightforward counterpart, may have a different opinion). In a show that extends her career-long field day with color, a sunset coda—three pieces in finely splayed pastels over ink-jet on paper, each re-presenting a scene or a subject from her oils—gives us a chance to see Yuskavage’s figures in a state that feels closer to her nature, as heavenly and earthy as it is.
The 450 photographs that comprise Wolfgang Tillmans’s slideshow Book for Architects, 2014, first seen last year in Rem Koolhaas’s Venice architecture biennale, pull off a neat trick: They turn down objectivity and subjectivity at once. Shot with no specialized equipment, his photos dissent from the pristine midcentury architecture photography of Ezra Stoller or Julius Shulman, but Tillmans muffles his own voice through spontaneous cropping, unmediated lighting, and indifference to scale. Many of the images come from London—and few artists since Hogarth have made that city look as vile as Tillmans, with his shots of the rebarbative new city skyline, comically ugly Vauxhall condos, or the money launderers’ palaces known as One Hyde Park. Others evince cool, downbeat placelessness: HVAC systems in Russia or Korea, anonymous towers in Berlin or India, airport security lines, a doorknob, an elevator.
Early in his career, Tillmans would tape or pin his relaxed, vernacular photographs directly to gallery walls, and favorite images—of his friends Lutz Huelle and Alexandra Bircken in the forest, or a backpacker encountering a deer on the beach—would repeat in his installations for years. Those recurrences bugged a lot of people, but Tillmans was onto something: He turned his own output into a perpetually renegotiable archive, a memory bank wherein individual images matter less than their relations and their redeployment.
Book for Architects, with its unidentified locations and slideshow presentation, reaffirms that transmission and circulation matter as much or perhaps more to Tillmans than form or place. “Architecture today is little more than cardboard,” Koolhaas averred in Venice last year, and Tillmans, on the evidence, wouldn’t seem to disagree. Yet Tillmans is smart enough to know what you can do with cardboard—the perfect medium for the projection of past memories and dreams that never came true.
Trenton Doyle Hancock works in a baroque grotesque, from portraits whose emetic intricacy recalls George Grosz to centerless, Boschian tableaux. This retrospective starts with drawings from the artist’s childhood and maps his career’s uncanny continuity up to the present season. Already in the heavy graphite wobble of a ten-year-old, Hancock had chosen Torpedoboy as his avatar, a caped and hero-diapered character who would appear throughout the decades and here adorns a site-specific installation of his 2002 series “Studio Floor.”
This drawing series is the exhibition’s garish centerpiece, with captions in acrylics below each frame narrating the superhero’s theft of tofu from the bony, bone-white, repulsively awkward beings known as the Vegans. This begins to read as an episode of an ongoing racial conflict (another work on display, Vegans Send Newly Acquired Moundmeat to the Tofu Converter, 2004, reveals the creatures’ sacred pabulum to be made out of their darker rivals), but the story devolves with a gorgeously absurd narrative absentmindedness. Torpedoboy escapes, gets distracted by a prostitute, performs some anxious scat play in a hotel room, then falls asleep alone beside a nasty, worm-segmented dildo.
The series’ use of walls and frames in the manner of a cartoon panel sequence marks Hancock’s expansion from the page to other forms, among which are his pizza-box paintings, animations, and the frightening cutout series “Step and Screw,” 2014. Describing the development of Torpedoboy alongside Philip Guston’s “Klansmen” paintings and racist killings in the South, the subject matter draws the viewer in, then it disorients with too much information. It is the artist’s favorite strategy.
There is the problem of eyelashes. The six unnerving photographs that Laurie Simmons displays here feature interchangeable models against perky colored backgrounds: vapid, prosaic images from a fashion world where Vogue is no longer distinct from twelve-year-olds’ makeup lessons on YouTube. But the eyelashes: Overpainted on the upper lid, much too thick on the lower one. It takes a few seconds to notice—compliments to the dexterity of this maker’s hand—that the models’ eyes are actually clamped shut, and irises and pupils have been painted over their lids. What gives the game away are the lashes—the lower lashes are in fact upper lashes: monstrous, spidery antennae, markers of an enduring but diseased humanity on bodies that makeup and Photoshop have otherwise scrubbed of biology.
In The Land of Green Plums, 1994, the Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller writes of the body as a pell-mell cluster of organs, any one of which could betray the others. “If you control your face, it slips into your voice,” she writes. “If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers.” Like Müller, Simmons employs the techniques of Surrealism not as a dated language for internal fantasy, but to express the very real effects of external pressures on the body, the psyche, that thing we used to call the soul. There’s no point going inward, these images say; even your imagination has been spoiled, and the dream you dream with your eyes closed tight belongs, if we’re honest, to the international conglomerate that sold you the mascara. Put on a brave face for the camera, but the body cannot withstand the onslaught; keep the pain behind your eyelids, and it will slip out through your lashes.