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.
Light them as you will; Victor Man’s nocturnal paintings insist on their place in the long, dark corridor of art history. Their subjects emerge from the gloaming, buoyed by a bright tunic or foulard—or a gloss of Picasso, Balthus, or Mantegna—that hovers, almost protectively, over his tenderly rendered models. Yet Man is no timeless painter. His citations follow a historical dialogue between painting and photography, with precedents from Manet to Richter, here extended discerningly into our century. In Grafting/or Lermontov Dansant Come [sic] Saint Sebastien, 2014, the “double exposure” of a boy’s head as it lists to the side results in an extra, misregistered eye. The Photoshop mouse as Sebastian’s arrows? Perhaps, but the point is largely irrelevant before the boy’s frank, tricloptic gaze. The painted portrait wins out over the ghost of a photograph, even as it cribs photography’s latest tendencies; painting has time, after all, on its side.
In the back gallery, Man presents paintings from his series “The Chandler,” 2013–14, variations on a modern-day Saint Denis in secretarial dress. Though the press release implicates Georges Bataille’s anarchic and antirational Acéphale, the paintings themselves gesture elsewhere: to a chastened Judith, to Medusa, or to beheaded martyrs. Their palettes’ obscurity makes mysterious what might be irritatingly plain in a photograph: A cropped image of a woman has become the image of a cropped woman. The gesture recalls chandlers, medieval servants charged with the upkeep of household candles, who lopped off long wicks to keep their flames burning. The objectification accomplished by cropping out a nude’s face, not incidentally, has done similar work for viewers’ burning desire. In the most recent painting, the sitter’s hand recoils as the head looks up at its old roost, suddenly aware of its violent reorganization—a shock of self-recognition of the model no less than the motif.
Beijing-based photographer Ren Hang has devoted his first New York exhibition to naked bodies deviously posed in surreal, emotional configurations. Figures find puckish fit with one another or amid flora and fauna—a nocturnal lily pond, a butter-yellow python. The protagonist of Untitled 14 (all works 2014) gazes neutrally at the camera as five manicured hands pinch her neck into a comely five-point necklace of skin. In Untitled 6, three kneelers interlock their heads for a triskelion of sexless backs. Locations keep to the anonymous urban spaces of white-wall apartments, rooftop edges, and sequestered spots outdoors (Chinese law prohibits nudity en plein air). There is a refreshed, fetishy feel to these pictures; lips and nails are nearly always glopped wet red.
Ren’s willful though vulnerable subjects seem to prosper in their found places, warding off the solitude in the gap between their bodies and the frame. In other images too, where one head vanishes behind another, extra limbs line up, or succulent flowers are joined to human feelers and spouts, forms of idiosyncratic mutuality roundly win out over atomized individualism.
China’s ban on nudity in art was officially lifted three decades ago (a couple of years before Ren was born), but expressions of sexuality remain hushed in public, and an earlier generation of contemporary Chinese artists (like Zhang Huan or RongRong & inri) tended to set the nude as a symbol, indicating the fragile yet enduring individual or the idea of shared humanity. By contrast, the existences in Ren’s photographs evince infinite (if stylized) variety, proclaiming not bare life but a high life all their own: being otherwise, together.
The showstopper of “Here and Elsewhere,” last summer’s exhibition of contemporary Arab art at the New Museum, was this Lebanese artist’s Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila, 2014, a knotty consideration of the interwoven terrain of cinema and politics. Becoming Jamila has its roots in back issues of the pan-Arab culture magazine Al-Hilal—which, during the Algerian War, frequently praised the revolutionary Djamila Bouhired as a model of Arab womanhood. Bouhired became a character in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, and the actress in Arsanios’s video is preparing to star in a new film based on her life. She sits in a bar in Beirut rehearsing her lines, imagining Bouhired (or the woman who played her in 1966) planting a bomb in an Algiers café. Yet as she holds up copies of Al-Hilal, including one whose cover shows Bouhired toting a gun, we realize that the remake isn’t actually going to be made. Representation isn’t what it used to be, and, frankly, neither is freedom fighting.
This first American survey for Arsanios, which had an earlier iteration at Kunsthalle Lissabon, includes some early animations that interrogate modernist architecture in Beirut (the sound track of one, a little incongruously, features a snippet of the ’90s eurotrash banger “What Is Love?”). But the Al-Hilal series is her strongest work, and along with Becoming Jamila, this show includes a melancholy new video, OLGA’s NOTES, all those restless bodies, 2014, that also looks at postwar Arab culture with deep, post–Arab Spring skepticism. In 1963, as part of president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s modernization program, a new ballet school opened in Cairo with the explicit aim of creating “the new body” for the Egyptian nation. What have those bodies become, Arsanios asks as she films one woman dancing Trio A and another on a stripper pole. Overworked and scarred by history: the locus of an ongoing war between modernity and domination, which proceeds by attrition and doesn’t even stop when you’re worn to the bone.
The exhibition starts in the stairwell, with battered sheets of painted cardboard woven through the banister and collaged with handmade sheets of rough, grody paper—welcome to the gallery, it’s been waiting for you. From there you ascend through two floors of discretely installed sculptures and large paintings, interrupted by hallways and landings displaying an array of manic collaborative efforts between Lena Henke and Max Brand, who studied at Frankfurt’s Städelschule together. The first floor hallway exhibits a zigzag pattern of shredded paper rectangles adhered directly to the walls with green goo oozing out behind the edges as well as a series of Brand’s watercolor, pen, and crayon drawings of cartoon figures and high octane scribbling—all untitled and from 2014—framed and hung on top of the wall collage. Discarding preciousness, this passage delights in its scrappiness while refraining from attitudinizing coolness.
Inside the first floor gallery are a series of hollow wall-mounted resin sculptures, painted sea-foam green on the outside and crisscrossed by thick rubber bands. Their curious, protruding faces are revealed to be the molds for Henke’s figures made of sand that recline on metal towers on the second floor. Each work in this series resembles and is titled after iconic specimens of Manhattan architecture, such as the work Your Flatiron (Female Fatigue Series) or Their New Museum (Female Fatigue Series), both 2015. These voluptuous mounds of sand repose in stark relief with their unsympathetic environments—the sharp metal corners juxtaposed so near to the soft bodies, evoking vulnerability. Bordered by structure, the figures seem safe, but also trapped.
A forceful, magnetic tension fuels the infectious energy of this show, conjured by curator Bob Nickas. The diverse works by twenty-one artists gravitate toward opposing poles, the obsessive and the spontaneous. You can feel them attract and repel one another from across the room.
Intricate, labor-intensive pieces by Xylor Jane, Richard Tinkler, and Chip Hughes buzz with complex grids and patterns. Thousands of small dashes densely scratched into wet purple paint form Hughes’s labyrinthine I tried to hide the heart from the head, 2014. Currents of James Siena, his Op art forebears and trippy twangs of 1960s psychedelia course through these compulsive works, the best of which operate as mandalas, their visual complexity sucking the viewer into unexpected meditations. Balancing the neurotically detailed efforts are more subdued abstractions. One can linger quietly with Lisa Beck’s You Are Here, 2014, comprising a small painted mirror and block of wood, subtly stained by wiped-away enamel.
The misses are few. Eric Lindman’s large red canvas punctuated by navy jags doesn’t teach us anything that Clyfford Still didn’t reveal with more rigor. Staunchly rooted at the slacker end of the spectrum are Nikholis Planck’s untitled drawings featuring violet scribbles. They recall the evidence of people testing pens in stationery stores. Taken all together, though, these works provide an exhilarating tour of formal concerns. They eschew social and political questions (David Ratcliff’s paintings of stars trailing smoke, which evoke American warfare, are an exception). Instead, they offer us a vicarious joy. They enable us to enter the artists’ minds and join them in reveling in media, color, line, and in the variety of roads—from deer trails to superhighways—by which one can arrive at a compelling image.
Tibetan art is now meta-ethnic. In this exhibition, the Shangri-la imaginary collides with realities particular to the global Tibetan cultural diaspora. The redefinition proposed here delivers a broad range of formal possibilities and artistic strategies. Most involve some degree of secularizing the Buddhist themes that defined art––thangka painting––for centuries.
The inclusion of Western artists working in Tibetan idioms dramatically expands the discourse. Livia Liverani trained in Ladakh with an experienced painter of the sacred arts; she recreates traditional compositions in a pastiche of patterned silks. Yet Buddhist iconography is shunned in Tserang Dhondup’s portrait of a Tibetan man wearing a Nike jacket and holding an iPhone5. An academically trained painter, Dhondup represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Chinese artist Lu Yang’s video Wrathful King Kong Core, 2011, puts Tantric gods within a sci-fi context. Using a dedicated sound track by noise musician Yao Dajun, she visualizes attributes of the wrathful god Manjushri alongside a neuroscientific introduction to the anger pathways of the human brain stem.
Tibetan-Swiss artist Sonam Dolma Brauen’s sculptural installation My Father’s Death, 2010, is the most stirring work: an understated pile of crimson-and-gold monks’ robes folded on the floor. These consummately Tibetan materials—monks robes, donated at the artist’s request—surround nine plaster-molded stupas (tsa tsa). Making and offering tsa tsa is an important spiritual practice, and while the significance of the plaster stupas may be obscured behind geometric abstraction, Brauen’s minimalism implies the deeply personal stories couched in their materials. In these contexts, we discover new boundaries where ethnicity, artistic training, or formal attributes correlate in novel ways. “Tibet” becomes a remarkably diverse concept tenuously binding everything together.
Oh, how we long to be seduced. Imagine that quickening of the pulse when Christian Dior unveiled his New Look in 1947, after all the misery and asceticism of the World War II years—that fulsome twenty yards of fabric draped over a revamped Edwardian silhouette, returning to the world what Parisian fashion had always done best: aristocratic hauteur alloyed with sumptuous glamour.
Faggy, filigreed, fabulously flat—Caitlin Keogh’s scintillating crop of nouveau paintings are a welcome respite from all the slopped-out, dudely, abstractionist facture littering Chelsea and far beyond. Keogh’s in possession of a razor-sharp style and illustrative swagger that looks back to the greatest: thirties fashion magazines, Jean Giraud, 1970s glam rock, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Steve Strange, all of which aggregates into an unrepentant Surrealism that’s more Gene Moore than Salvador Dali could ever have hoped to be.
And so much pink! Plush, powdered, pussy pink—from the vulvar split between the shoulders of the multiply perforated female form in The Illustrator (all works 2014), to the anthropomorphized ribbon about to quiescently behand itself with a pair of enormous shears in The Modiste, to the queerly de-nippled odalisque-like Eve, delivering the Serpent, in The Writer. It’s a vision of “sinister femininity” (to quote the show’s curator, Piper Marshall) that Keogh has appropriated from historically misogynistic sources and made entirely her own, doing as the quaintrelle, or female dandy, should: destabilizing paint into maquillage, enhancing veneer into armor.
And honestly, it can’t be overstated: There’s nothing like a gracefully manicured edge to cut through all the shit.
Now that the Met’s presentation of Leonard Lauder’s Cubism collection has come down, we can safely say that the most vital collision of forms currently on view in New York takes place in Untitled (3/95, I), 1995, a firecracker from this German artist’s early days. Charline von Heyl paints a seafoam easy chair from the side, its feet resting at the bottom of the composition, its right face scored with dark-blue hatches and white crosshatches, the latter as smothering as a fisherman’s net. Overtaking the top half of the canvas is a painter’s palette, the thumbhole cloned twice over. Unlike the chair, the palette is depicted from above, or actually, it’s not really depicted at all; it’s merely signified by a calligraphic white flourish. Panes of color respect the palette’s border on the right, but on the left the background bleeds over onto the chair. It’s a disjunctive, dynamic crypto-Braque whose “incorrect” elements surpass nonfigurative harmony.
Von Heyl painted the seven works in this show while working for Jörg Immendorf, her professor at art school; there are echoes in the chair of the cool palette of his Grand Guignol “Café Deutschland” series. She had no time for expressionist bluster, though, and while her canvases evince a dark humor, she has never pulled the longstanding German trick of beating up on painting in order to save it. In both of this winter’s major painting shows—MoMA’s much-contested “The Forever Now” and Gavin Brown’s better received “Call and Response”—von Heyl stood out for her refusal of both zombie formalism and Kippenberger-lite mess making, as if she is still working through the modernist explosion with which the rest of us have decided not to come to terms. Do not recoil, von Heyl insists. Paint because it’s hard; paint because you’re an adult.
What do women smell like? In her latest solo exhibition, Anicka Yi pushes at the limits of our episteme and provides a whiff. It’s not ready to wear; in fact, it reeks. One hundred women—primarily artists, curators, and critics (full disclosure: I was one)—were swabbed, and the resultant samples have been cultivated here in a moldy petri dish “billboard” that assaults visitors at the entrance to the show. The thriving bacterium, which Yi nurtured with the help of MIT synthetic biologist Tal Danino, is a budding contaminant, a collective, germy growth. A strain from our culture as well as one captured from air samples in Gagosian Gallery were rendered into a chemical composite, and the ensuing scent is being discharged in a second, all-black room via three diffusers topped with helmets in transparent vinyl boxes (which strongly echo Jasper Johns’s Duchamp-inspired sets for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, 1968). If it sounds like a queasy blend, it is. It’s also heavy on butyric acid—think Parmesan cheese, rancid butter—with a sour floral accord up top, and it’s festering among all the other odors in the show: all that plastic for the boxes and the various organic sculptural assemblages therein, such as a flayed-skin-like array of kombucha scobies.
What does feminism smell like? The women Yi sampled don’t come out of any particular wave, nor do they adhere to one mode or affiliation. Yet she seems to want us to inject new expressive and affective strategies into old issues that traverse all of society—namely, feminism, patriarchy, and capitalism. She wants us to make a stink if those exchanges—new terms, new smells—fall short. “You Can Call Me F” is the title of the show.
In his New York debut, Hans-Christian Lotz presents two bodies of work as potent allegorical puzzles regarding questions of longing, nostalgia, and technical mediation. Near the entrance of the gallery, visitors encounter “Rain Over Water,” a series of eight framed works whose discrete but uniform titles imply a radical negation. Each piece is made of black screen-printed solar panels and inhabited, alternately, by either actual animal brains (from pigs) or zinc casts of the same. These facsimiles embedded in the panels sink into their substrate, the light reflected by the shiny chemical element illuminating the rich blackness swallowing each object. The works with the organic matter meanwhile create no such ghostly projections. Rather, they document the process by which the organic becomes entangled in the inorganic, with a series of trapped airstreams dramatically pulling away from the flattened organs.
In the gallery’s main space are three wall-bound works: isolated automatic sliding doors, their sooty surfaces implying years of use in far different contexts. Like a mechanical jack-in-the-box, each sculpture erupts into jerky, violent motion upon a visitor’s approach. The motion shifts the act of artistic reception from passive reflection toward a more reactive response to this familiar but somehow jarring event. Above each sliding door, the artist leaves its animating mechanisms exposed while adorning them with a series of mysterious, out-of-reach objects: A musical flute suspended with strings and its decrepit cast facsimile are the most legible.
Opting to present his show with no title or formal press release, Lotz renders his poetics with the flair of a hard-boiled cyberpunk author—choosing unapologetic machinations over the more reverent Marxist sentiment with which so many of his contemporaries address life’s confrontation with the Anthropocene.
If the witch’s hovel in Pumpkinhead were a suite in a Collins Avenue boutique hotel during Art Basel Miami Beach, that might give some sense of the flavorings Alex Da Corte has injected into his ambitious and garishly stunning three-story installation “Die Hexe.” Da Corte throws into question what it means to feel fear in its multitudes: fear of mirrors, fear of old ladies, fear of death, fear of life after death, fear of mint Listerine, fear of homosexual men, fear of Miami, fear of appropriation art, or as R. W. Fassbinder so aptly put it in his film title, Fear of Fear.
The scripted journey begins downstairs, the first chamber one of muted grunginess, illumined by lo-fi psychedelic black light. Candied apples are on the mantle—razor blades included, I hope. A closed door offers an eye-level view of a Robert Gober drain, which functions as a peephole into $1 Store Kusama, the first of a series of inspirational mood/concept works by Mike Kelley, Bjarne Melgaard, and Haim Steinbach—father figures all. These artists adumbrate the spells that the sorceress intones: trash culture and Home Depot shopaholism; outsiderness as abjection and glamour, sexual lure and vicious degradation; a DMT palette that might electroshock the Acid Queen. Each is placed in an individual room, though the rivulets of semiotic blood flow fresh throughout all the galleries for the discerning spectator.
The best room is the last, a bathroom/spa/morgue in mint green, likewise scented, and violently fluorescent-white flicker-flicker lit. It’s clean and bright, fresh and unnerving, with little details cuing the enveloping hysteria, viz., the moldings are out of joint. The top floor promises rebirth; hell is downstairs. One of three morgue drawers has been slid open, so one can discover that the body has dissolved and gone down the drain. Maybe “Die Hexe” recapitulates Dante’s Commedia, an ascent from the filth of hell to the pristine clarity of heaven? Except the absolute hell might be not at the bottom in the dark but rather in the Room at the Top.
Ten diverse black-and-white drawings created with an electrostatic printer make up Marsha Cottrell’s Index 1 (Presence of Nature), 1998–2013. A spare, crisply gridded work on typewriter paper hangs near another made on cloudy Mylar. Manipulated while damp, the smudged streaks waft upward like wisps of smoke. The busiest drawing whirls with scattered ovals and staccato dashes, a musical score blown to smithereens. These flurries of stray marks contrast with more solid, linear forms, and it feels as though an indecipherable architectural diagram is disintegrating into the maelstrom. Still others recall astronomical phenomena: solar eclipses, orbiting planets, and their moons. Modestly sized, Cottrell's output pulses to its own enigmatic tempo, a beat born out of careful control and technological chance. The nuanced results, refreshingly, flout photographic reproduction. These are best seen in person.
In the works forming another, particularly cryptic, set of printer drawings, glowing horizontal lines are framed by rounded, overlapping rectangles. It feels as though we are encountering these bands—reminiscent of graphic renderings of audio files, burning horizon lines, and flatlining patients—through a series of monitors or welding helmets. Still others, also composed of overlapping rectangles, run multiple times through the printer, recall rooms seen through several offset windows. These pieces simultaneously invite figural associations while eluding explicit representation.
With a little more editing, the show would be as economic as its best works. One massive piece comprising more than a hundred sheets of letter-size paper interrupted by a single blank circle feels especially gratuitous. The stronger, more complicated pieces operate in a quiet, inquisitive way, vibrating with an absorbing tension. They needle the parameters of what constitutes drawing, prodding the discipline’s vulnerable areas as though it were a voodoo doll.
A fact lost on most media: “On Kawara—Silence,” the title of the most comprehensive overview to date of the late Conceptualist’s work, is accompanied by a tiny spiral icon, a miniature Guggenheim ramp. Whether didactic, deadpan, or an allusion to the impressive totality of his work (probably all three), the symbol is an idiosyncratic detail the artist desired. Its closest typographic kin, “@,” doesn’t really suffice, even though it aptly lights up the poetically terse, direct address of much of Kawara’s best work, its pre–social media forthrightness. See the postcards to his friends (the “I Got Up” series, 1968–79), which trace his itinerancy and are elegantly pinned between large panes of glass in freestanding displays in this show, and, similarly, the telegrams (from “I Am Still Alive,” 1969–2000), a testament to his “at-ness.” Above all, his longest-running work, the Date Paintings, from the “Today” series, 1966–2013, carry forward this focus on self-reliance, on having a daily practice, and on being directed, if only one way—in a monologue.
Ascending the final, top ramp, one encounters a show within the show: fifty-one of the Date Paintings, marking each year of Kawara’s production, beginning with two canvases from January 12, 2013. Without any fanfare, the exhibition simply ends. January 30, 1966. Drifting back down to the exit, one finds the commencing work from this series, painted on January 4, 1966, in the first gallery. It’s like the eternal return. Kawara’s spiral feels complete.
The moods of this elegant exhibition, which includes loose pastels and watercolors, precise pencil sketches, and frenetic ink drawings, fluctuate like the spikes on an EKG. There are moments of warmth here—a mother and child on the beach—but many of Alice Neel’s subjects are solitary: an old woman with no purse riding a train, a brooding child, a lost-looking man with an empty coffee cup. Even when several figures share a space, they can appear isolated. In Alienation, 1935, Neel lies naked on a bed, lips and eyes firmly shut. A nude lover stands above her, turning away, limbs crossed defensively. Inky shadows threaten to consume the old man lying on the curb in Untitled (Bowery), 1936. Other haggard figures trudge past him, their weariness and despair scrawled and scratched into their features.
Suffering, as W. H. Auden observed, unfolds while “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Neel adroitly pins the pain and quotidian sorrows of her subjects to a heedlessly humming city. In an ink-and-gouache depiction of her dying mother, Neel incorporates other hospital patients receiving visitors and, through the window, a boat going about its business, an urban counterpart to Auden’s “expensive delicate ship” bypassing Pieter Breughel’s drowning Icarus.
Neel strips the world away in other portraits, allowing her sitters to dominate the blank paper. In Ginny, 1975, Neel’s youthful daughter-in-law gazes past us with large gray eyes, a modern-day sibyl in sneakers. In the horrifying Self-Portrait Skull, 1958, Neel paints herself as death’s head with stringy hair and broken teeth. Black ink gushes in grotesque streams from one eye socket. Taken together, the works in this startling show create compelling cycles of life and death, simultaneously universal and profoundly intimate.
From 1974 to 1978, Lynn Hershman Leeson doubled as Roberta Breitmore. She rode the bus, signed a lease, and solicited encounters with strangers, whom she met by placing personal ads in San Francisco city newspapers. The performance was ongoing and, for the most part, unwitnessed, sporadically documented in photographs taken by private investigators under the artist’s employ. “To me, she was my own flipped effigy: my physical reverse,” Hershman Leeson has described. “Her life infected mine.”
Concerns with duplication and bodily impurity organize Hershman Leeson’s oeuvre, which here receives a retrospective gloss. The iteration at stake is almost always of the artist’s self, rehearsed through the genre of self-portraiture and technological media (photography, video, Second Life, and so forth) that are themselves duplicative. Again and again, Hershman Leeson calls us to the precarity of our status as subjects. Selfhood emerges as a sebaceous thing, slippery and secreted like so much glandular waste. It’s work that feels proleptic, loosely 1990s even in its ’70s moment.
A pair of C-prints, titled Roberta and Blaine in Union Square, 1975, frame Breitmore on a bench beside a middle-aged man, his face puffy and his hair pomade-slicked. The scene seems a filched view of some vague impropriety, the whole thing seedy and synthetic. Breitmore’s outfit (platinum wig, prefab cardigan) heightens the effect, lending her the air of a department-store mannequin. Innervated by plastics, life, like the self, becomes alien, as indexed in Breitmore’s incarnation as a telerobotic doll in CybeRoberta, 1996, which viewers can manipulate remotely. A nearby photograph, Construction Chart Drawing, 1973, finds Breitmore’s face dissected, as if it were a cadaver. Tenuously organic, the artist’s alter ego figures as a vacant (because partially mortified) site. Mediated and surveilled, Hershman Leeson is perpetually elsewhere.
The only way to understand the full extent of the revelations of Edward Snowden—the disregard for law, the imbrication of governmental and corporate power, the simultaneously awesome and pointless data harvesting—is to put your own grievances to one side and look from the position of the surveillant. For more than two years, the German artist Simon Menner combed through the archives of the Ministry for State Security and unearthed disturbing, at times bitterly comic photographs of Stasi agents trying on disguises (mustaches, hairpieces, fur coats with flared collars) and practicing hand signals: an outstretched palm or a fist pointing downwards, as structured as an Yvonne Rainer performance. A hundred Polaroids document not just illegally imported coffeemakers and West German marks stuffed into cigarette cases, but also unmade beds and sloppy desks: The agents put everything back after their raids, leaving the surveilled in the dark. The oppressors are watching you. But what do they see, and what do they want to see?
The nine other artists in this show take a more contemporary view of surveillance and of the photographic apparatus’s complicity in repression and privacy violation. For The New Town, 2013, Andrew Hammerand took footage from a CCTV camera set up in a planned American suburb, and the grainy images of teenagers and families have the look of a crime scene. Drone vision, whether in the black-and-white shots of Tomas van Houtryve or the Google Earth appropriations of Mishka Henner, turn life into data. Neither legislation nor public outcry seems to be enough to stop such gazes, and unless you can shrink to a size of a pixel, as Hito Steyerl has recently suggested, you aren’t going to escape. One other way out might be the one proposed by Hassan Elahi. Every week since 2002, he has sent the FBI hundreds of photos of his daily life, flooding the system and rendering it even more worthless.
This large and important exhibition, first seen at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University and including more than six dozen drawings, prints, and photographs, shows that artists of the 1930s were just as uncertain as we are of how to depict inequality and how to fight it. Instead of the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton or of Grant Wood, artists on view here, all members of the left-wing John Reed Clubs (a Communist Party organ that later founded the Partisan Review) favored bold, often indignant imagery that veered in some cases to agitprop, in others to bizarre mysticism. Naming your enemies is easy. But how do you portray them, and for that matter, yourself?
In a charcoal drawing by Henry Simon from 1933, done with bold chiaroscuro and off-kilter perspective, a worker atop a skyscraper looks out triumphantly on the lights of Chicago, and yet at the edge of the composition hover the familiar spirals of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. That tension between the utopian abstraction of Soviet Constructivism and representative, even Hollywood-style imagery pervades this show, and the battle ends with no winner. Face-offs between more expressionistic drawings of robots and factories on the one hand and frank, representational etchings of the downtrodden on the other begin to feel not like a dialectical investigation of the power of art, but the imagistic equivalent of a circular firing squad. If these artists, like their literary and political counterparts, sounded their alarms to no avail, then perhaps they can teach us today to rethink our own inability to represent the current crisis, and to seek an art that does less but lasts longer.