In 1968, commissioned by Merce Cunningham to write the score for the dance work RainForest—which also featured flying Mylar balloons by Andy Warhol—the composer David Tudor hooked up everyday objects to homemade transducers. Rather than “playing” the objects, Tudor allowed them to emit their own resonances, which sounded like birdsong, cicada chirps, and ambient ringing.
That critical reversal in electronic music, using speakers not as a mechanism for amplification but as the source of the musical signal, retains its thrill a decade after Tudor’s death in 1996. Rainforest V, 2015, credited here to Tudor and a group called Composers Inside Electronics, fills the gallery with the squeaking, squawking, beeps and boops, and a continuous ambient hum, derived from a boggling array of objects suspended all around. A case of Bordeaux and a welder’s mask give off a sound not unlike a monkey’s screech. Stick your head inside an oil drum and hear the ringing of a Tibetan prayer bowl.
The experience is intense (pity the attendants who endure it eight hours a day), yet the enduring force of this landmark of sound art is plastic as much as sonic. The readymade is too often misunderstood as an end point. As Tudor proposed, it is actually a generative system that yokes together a person and object, producing a new and better relationship in which mastery gives way to risk. If this century has taught us that technology has far less liberatory potential than was previously supposed, Tudor reaffirms that only a much less rigid treatment of its elements can get us anywhere near beauty.
Petra Cortright’s latest paintings are born of plebeian Web tools and swatches, then printed onto clear Plexiglas. The artist mounts these images on mirrored or regular acrylic, where they take on a more resolutely physical feeling: Their stacked surfaces implore the viewer to peer between them; their underside imprints beg to be compared to their reflected marks. They also look better in person than on Instagram, which is not always the case with digital art incarnated into gallery solids. In chess and buffy keepers+kick.rom, both 2015, foregrounds of holiday GIFs or shiny blackberries, some applied as stickers, float atop backgrounds of feathery blossoms and brushstroke gestures. Each produces a stereoscopic blur that recalls a wearied vection or floaters ubiquitous in the age of the screen, and highlights the incidental aesthetic elements of digital interface, such as pixel lag and backlight bleed. These are works that relish the embodied feel of the ether, wondering how its version of life might yet invigorate ours.
Cortright titled an exhibition last year “ASMR,” after “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which is the tingle some feel at hushed frictional sounds such as shushing or rustling. In their comfy, kinetic intimacy, those videos (for which Cortright became known) elicit ASMR’s visual correlative through scenes depicting cascading hair and solo dancing, blazing sparkly motion trails. Like the whispery ASMR role-play videos that comprise a sizable YouTube community, often aimed at allaying the insomnia aggravated by time online, the current show revels in what relief the medium can offer from itself. Recurrent clip-art icons insinuate liveliness—knotted and unfurling ribbons, promising gift boxes, bats whose fluttering attacks always flaunt animation (as the Lumieres’ arriving train flaunted cinema). Dated graphics and some titles’ tribute to creaky file extensions (kick.rom, du.exe) aside then, the allure of Cortright’s tactile, lyrical images, which revisit landscape, portraiture, and still life, may be their classicism more than technostalgia. While amenable to “post-Internet” speculations, their preoccupation with coming to life was painting’s all along.
Frank Magnotta’s previous corporate logo conglomerations, surreal architectural mash-ups of text and ornamental design, are impressive on technical merits alone, but have also raised issues with the global hegemony these companies wield. His figurative graphite drawings on view here hint at the controversial legal concept of corporate personhood, a theory that riled hecklers in 2011 at one of former United States presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign stops when he said, “Corporations are people, my friend.” For these works, Magnotta uses an underlying collage of logos from the mid-1960s and ’70s as a starting point for his detailed cartoony renderings of individuals whose features take the same form as those images. In addition to Magnotta’s intricate shading technique, his use of sepia ink, often as a stain, gives his outlandish depictions a quality reminiscent of an antique photograph.
Using the United States Bicentennial, in which patriotic celebrations transformed a country reeling from a post–Vietnam War malaise, as a connecting thread, many of Magnotta’s characters take on performative roles to commemorate the event. In Co-Patriot (all works 2014), a portly man with a pipe hanging from his mouth dons garb resembling President George Washington, while the hippie in Bicentennial Bob sports a tasseled coat and an absurdly ornate hairstyle while holding a marijuana leaf. Others, such as Debbie Double, a grotesque multi-eyed caricature of a waitress serving a towering burger, speak more about America in general, where a determined working class soldiers on in unglamorous jobs to make the country hum along.
In “Speaking of People,” artists cut, collage, and repurpose Ebony and Jet—two magazines launched in the mid–twentieth century for black audiences—to draw attention to representations of race in print. In her inventive sixty-piece grid, DeLuxe, 2004–2005, Ellen Gallagher has added googly eyes, Plasticine, and paint to models’ faces in magazine ads to distort and transform the figures, as well as the promises that they advertise. Lorna Simpson further points to the fantasy of mutability inherent in such images in Riunite & Ice, 2014, a series featuring a floating female head on which she has collaged and painted different hair styles and accessories, a seriality that underscores both potential self-reinvention and the nature of the magazine as a medium.
Other artists isolate images of products advertised in these magazines, as Glenn Ligon does in his 1985 series. By pairing handpainted images of African American male hair products, such as Nu-Nile, Dax pomade, and Afro Sheen, with depictions of Giacometti and Brancusi sculptures that were shown in MoMA’s 1984 “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition, Ligon draws attention to how notions of blackness are disseminated, usurped, and remade in both high and low culture. Hank Willis Thomas also spotlights the circulation and representation of blackness in Black Is Beautiful (1953–2014), which features every woman in Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” column from the magazine’s print run, creating a compendium of changing approaches to black female beauty. Such work transforms isolated individuals into a single, monumental installation, demonstrating how print culture permeates our everyday world and serves as a material to be mined and defamiliarized by artistic intervention.
It has only been a few years since Peter Hutton and James Benning began working with film in a digital format. In these artists’ two-person exhibition, one sees a trio of three-channel video installations. The works here advance—both topically and technically, as descendants of analog—the argument that cinema’s once-dominant aesthetic status has given way to more flexible, immersive moving forms.
Hutton’s At Sea, 2004–07, originally a single-channel 16-mm silent film, is here digitally converted and split into three distinct elements. Each frame documents a different stage of a cargo ship from manufacture to disassembly. We see the vessel’s journey feted by polychromatic streamers, a checkered array of freights sailing plainly into vast marine blue, and finally the ship washed up—massive and perished, in black-and-white. In showing these episodes simultaneously, Hutton narrativizes the beginning, middle, and end of industrial production. Benning’s work has similarly ruminated on industrial society and particularly its dissidents. Tulare Road, 2010, shows extended footage of cars passing on a highway that leads to the California State Prison in the city of Corcoran. Benning’s strict framing makes horizons bisect while roads stretch into the center of each image, drawing comparative attention to the distinct weather conditions each channel reveals.
If a protagonist were to be located in all three installations, it might be montage itself, which is problematized by the very fact that it meanders continuously across each triptych’s components, making discrete visual elements share space. To adroitly scan this sublime footage won’t feel unfamiliar to a contemporary viewer: In their shift toward digital images and multichannel installations, the filmmakers seem to acknowledge cinema—that boxed enclosure lit by a single screen—as an outdated site of entertainment corresponding to the very modes of industry and labor from which their work offers recourse.
Is an art of climate change as beyond our reach as a politics of climate change, too large and too comprehensive for the brains of our little ecocidal species? Not for the Bay Area artist Amy Balkin—one of the nine artists in this exhibition curated by Olga Kopenkina—whom visitors to the last Documenta will recall for her effort to list the earth’s atmosphere as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and who has spent the last three years collecting ephemera from sites worldwide where environmental disaster is already dreadfully fathomable. The array of objects that constitute her essential A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting, 2012–, shows climate change as a part of daily life: a plastic fork and knife found in New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward. Postage stamps from Tuvalu, the island nation set to drown in our lifetimes. An empty can of tuna fish from Cape Verde. A whale vertebra carved by an Alaskan in a dissolving landscape. It’s an archaeology of the present for a planet with no future.
Belkin’s archive is the strongest work in this broad show, which partially restages a 2012 exhibition mounted on a nuclear-powered Soviet vessel now docked in arctic Murmansk and serving as, what else, a museum. Now that the century of utopian dreaming is past, the artists here interrogate what the point of it all was: Isa Rosenberger’s video The Captain (Vladimir’s Voyage), 2013, represents Nixon and Khrushchev’s 1959 “kitchen debate” as a perpetual kibitz session in the afterlife, intercut with a sensitive reminiscence by a Soviet naval captain living in Brighton Beach, New York. To arrest the climatic changes that even the IPCC recently described as “irreversible” would take a utopian effort on a magnitude even Khrushchev could not imagine. Art, at least, has the luxury of hopelessness: a little motorized sculpture by Judith Fegerl elicits a tinny repetitive birdsong, a final, mechanical lamentation.
Francesca Woodman’s brooding body of thirty, tiny photographs on view in this unassuming solo exhibition depict the artist, her friends in New York, or fellow students at RISD in the 1970s—common enough to her practice, but these works specifically come from a moment when the artist became keen on “trying her hand” at fashion photography. What emerged was a subversive meditation on how the feminized figure is variously enhanced and drowned by the cloaks and curves of fashion imagery and its coded imperatives. Across several black-and-white photographs, such as Untitled, New York (N.325), 1979–80, there’s a repeating juxtaposition of female models and animal pelts, each arranged in similarly crooked poses. Rather than wearing their furs, the women mimic them in a haunting conflation of subject and object. Imitation is the sincerest expression of aspiration, they're haunted by the compulsion to flatten oneself into an image or object for consumption.
Elsewhere, her figures tussle with the limitations of composition and photography’s imperative to contain and fix a view. A green-suited girl bends at a painful angle to partially reflect herself in a mirror in Untitled, New York (N.408), 1979, or claws up the side of a wall in Untitled, New York (N.409), 1979, as if desperate to escape these images. These rarely exhibited works confirm that given more time, Woodman would likely have become a photographer who transcended genre and the boundaries of embodied beauty so rigorously policed by the business of fashion. The little photographs whisper their truths, and with the right kind of ears they could break your heart.
While Hito Steyerl defends the poor image, Ernst Fischer explores the other end of the spectrum, namely, what happens when you overwhelm a photograph with information? Here, the endeavor results in the creation of phantasmagoric landscapes reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich or Francisco Goya. Titled “18%” after the middle gray to which all color film is calibrated, Fischer’s exhibition explores the digital sublime through elaborate technical maneuvers.
For these works, the Swiss-born artist built a microphotographic rig that takes hundreds of close-ups of minerals and the light reflecting off them. The digital photographs are then inputted into software that often fails to process the amount of information in them, resulting in glitched images evoking postapocalyptic scenes. Two particularly arresting works from this group are Lead 3, 2014, and Zinc 1, 2013, both daunting by virtue of their scale and subject matter. The former hangs alone in the back of the gallery and features dark colors portraying angry skies and the top of a cliff, making the viewer feel as if on a precipice. The latter recalls pictures of outer space, with the mineral photographed here resembling the surface of a comet covered in ice.
The show concludes with a peculiar sculpture titled Mirror, 2015, consisting of an Ergoline tanning bed that hangs from the ceiling. Painted gray—perhaps as a way to tie the show back to its title—it bears an eerie resemblance to a piece of damaged 35-mm film. It stands in the room like a war monument, as if memorializing the disappearing analog world.
Have you experienced inanimate surveillance—a shoe, a handbag sitting on a table, staring at you with a vaguely smug, unanswerable formalism? I have. Erica Baum and Barb Choit have, and with this exhibition they venture to reciprocate the gaze, in photographs whose deadpan reaches the under-sung, confident beauty that is true blandness.
Refreshingly, the premise of the show (part of a series by the gallery) is to display material that inspires the artists’ current output proper. (Both Vancouver-based Choit and New York’s Baum are better known for work adapting the sensibilities of Concrete poetry to photography and sculpture.) Their offerings, mostly the stuff of thrift stores, documented in different banal situations, give you the feeling that none is trying too hard to be art, some perhaps not trying at all. At center of the gallery, across from a single specimen of Baum’s formal oeuvre (Furnish, from her “Naked Eye” series, 2015), is a row of her squarely shot documents of purses sitting on blue tissue paper—Clutch, Strap, Pocketbook (all 1996/2015), evoking forerunners of eBay portraiture. The shoes, more purposefully artful with a comic touch of mall-studio grace, are Choit’s: Shoe #1, Shoe #2, Shoe Diptych #1, Shoe Diptych #2 (all 2015). . . .
Uniting these two groups of works that feel as if they have just woken from a nap, feline in their not caring what you think of them, it is the thrifted-fake-flower arrangement Centerpiece (2015) that most demands attention in person. Sanctified in its absurdity by the artists’ crucial decision to leave all the price stickers on, this altar to the plastic ornaments makes for a satisfying climax in the curatorial conceit itself: the praise of things that laugh at monumentalism.
Abstract painter and sculptor Julia Dault titled one of her aesthetically seductive and conceptually rigorous paintings Chasing Waterfalls, 2014, after TLC’s 1995 hit song. Featuring a repeating motif of semicircular shapes (reminiscent, says Dault, of a waterfall), made with a triangular comb to expose layers of brightly hued underpainting, this rule-based composition is but one of several exceptional works in this smart and refreshingly bold show.
An immersive environment expunged of color, the first room consists of several black-and-white geometrically patterned canvases. The walls have been covered with a polka-dot design, creating the feeling that the content in the paintings has spilled over the canvases and into the room. Visible from this achromatic area is a twenty-foot Plexiglas-lined wall in the adjacent gallery that has been carefully angled to reflect the phantasmagoria of color that awaits in the next space.
In contradistinction to the effusive and spontaneous productions of AbEx artists, Dault abides by a set of self-imposed rules (e.g., no mixing colors). To avoid the transcendental subtexts of many mid-century nonobjective works (think of Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51) and give viewers immediate access to her pictures, she titles them after pop-cultural phenomena. Twizzler, 2014, a standout electric-blue-and-ruby-red painting bordered by a black-speckled white frame, for instance, is named after the licorice used to generate the work’s constitutive wavy lines. Unorthodox tools are a staple of Dault’s idiosyncratic practice. The white shapes populating the amoeba-like forms in Five Guys (named after the burger franchise), 2014, were made with foam blocks from the children’s megastore Toys“R”Us. Don’t be fooled, however, by their playful titles and vibrant colors, these process-driven works demand and reward sustained attention.
Taking the concerns of the Renaissance masters and applying them to humdrum, domestic spaces, Argentinine artist Analia Saban wrests lightness and movement from heavy materials. In three works all titled Markings, 2014, Saban scrapes away skeins of emulsion from photographs printed on one side of a canvas. She then arranges these malleable slivers in an empty white space on the other side of the canvas. Images of potential materials and tools—a stack of roof tiles, shelves of paint cans, sample chips—now dance delicately as a scraps of tissue paper or insect wings. Material alchemy is also captured in Paint Cross Sections (from King Tut to Judy Chicago), 2015, an arrangement of microscopic photographs of the pigments on several historic works, taken by the Getty Research Institute, revealing many mixtures of grainy minerals.
Elsewhere, crystalline, porcelain dust ground away from the corner of an old bathroom sink, whips across a canvas like a sharp breeze. And Saban’s “Draped Marble” sculptures, slabs that have been smashed in the center and reconstructed so that they hang over wooden sawhorses (with such exquisite names as Saint Laurant, Fior di Pesco, Emperor’s Gold, all 2015), are an acme. Mineral veins exposed, each hangs gently as if towels slung over a rack. Managing to evoke a sense of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sensibilities by focusing on lowly subjects found in an average back yard, Saban democratically realizes the transformative potential in everyday materials: Michelangelo rearranging his cupboards. Bernini hanging his laundry out to dry.
For her US debut, Swiss artist Claudia Comte uses the language of the palindrome to toy with the viewer’s sense of space: foreground and background are given equal primacy throughout the exhibition. It’s an apt motif for her American arrival that is based so much on a Euro-Brazilian past.
“No Melon No Lemon” is the result of a month-long residency at the gallery, where the artist created a series of sculptures as well as monumental linear paneling/painting that wraps around the perimeter of the space. Historical references abound in her smooth, burled wooden curvilinear forms and jagged totems that sit on shelves or plinths that extend from the walls. The biomorphic modernist abstraction of Jean Arp echoes throughout, as does Constantin Brâncuși’s unfettered output. But in their custom-built environ—which alternates between burnt-black wood slabs, into which the artist has carved with a chainsaw, and sections of polished Op-like linear bands rhythmically painted bright yellow—the sculptures become part of a multireferent equation.
As such Neo-Constructivists as Lygia Pape discovered, the line could be a place of residence when cut into. In Comte’s installation, not only does this become true as drawn lines are violently and imperfectly sawed, creating uneven and splintering valleys along the walls, the lines also jut out and become places of residence for Comte’s refined yet unabashedly naturalistic sculptures. It is as if Comte has literalized the cannibalistic relationship of modern Brazilian art with the tradition of its European predecessor, by way of Arp and Pape, while simultaneously providing an antihierarchal, illusive space for them to infinitely communicate.
“If people didn’t fuck, you wouldn’t have any children, and without children you would be out of work,” remarked Tomi Ungerer, creator of the charming and lucrative Mellops family series of children’s books, to a crowd at an American Library Association conference in 1969, when the artist was angrily questioned about the dirty pictures he was unashamedly making and publishing in addition to such innocent fare. That event marked the end of Ungerer’s visibility, at least in the United States, for nearly thirty years.
But it didn’t dampen his success overseas: He was named the Goodwill Ambassador for Childhood and Education of the Council of Europe in 2003, and in 2007 the Tomi Ungerer Museum - International Center for Illustration in Strasbourg, France opened to glorious acclaim. “Tomi Ungerer: All in One,” a retrospective that covers over seventy years of this master illustrator’s output, beautifully organized by the Drawing Center’s Claire Gilman, is as dark, funny, and complex as the phases and facets of childhood and beyond that the artist has brilliantly obsessed over for generations of fans.
A dead chicken obligingly seasons itself with canned peas in an ad for Bonduelle vegetables; a black cat gets masturbated by an electropneumatic sex machine/scratching post; a Third Reich–looking Minnie Mouse pulverizes a little boy’s ass with a nightstick near a sign that reads WE WANT MOTHERS. Ungerer’s knack for pulling humor out of hopelessness and horror places him among a certain kind of satirical elite (think Al Jaffee's wonderfully perverse Fold-Ins for Mad Magazine, or Jay Lynch for Topps’ Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids) who’ve utilized advertising and other kinds of pop and juvenile formats towards smarter, more subversive ends. But there’s another range, too, tender, lonely, and rich with melancholy—one feels it in the sumptuous gray vistas of Fog Island, 2013, and the war-torn teddy bear of Otto, 1999—drawings from two books that seem to emphasize how childhood is rarely ever for children.
Robert Stone once intuited that comedy amounts to “I was there”—an illustrative insight for Danny McDonald’s output. The American artist makes sculptures out of cartoonish characters—action figures; dolls from myths, fables, and movies; ghoulish masks—yet his works feel less comical than urgent. In Mechanical Bank, 2015, a villainous Uncle Sam is positioned upside-down—his eyes smolder in black and red, a fat gold coin is clenched in his teeth, and a cackling brown goblin is perched atop the neck of his severed head, an American dream gone dark and Rocky Horror Picture Show. If reality—by which I mean the stuff that goes on in the day-to-day world of people and stock markets and foreign policy and wars and blizzards and elections and celebrities—seems increasingly absurd as it becomes more readily accessible, constantly updating on myriad screens, fantastical tropes can act as truth serum, wiping away complexity and clarifying the current ethos.
And as toys are pedagogical, this work is necessarily about how we teach our culture and how our culture has taught us who we are. In Suspension of Questionable Belief, 2014, a slender alien perches on the back of a golden-winged dragon, and a muscled monster hangs nearby while Santa Claus, Jesus, and King Kong build a formidable base. Ur-stories are stacked into a single object, one that feels irrational, illogical, and even inappropriate, which means it’s a rather accurate expression of our time. Look to Arnold Schwarzenegger slurping from a straw stuck into a pink dildo in The Thirst, 2014, and An Aggressive Character, 2014, where three sexed-up Incredible Hulks tackle one another inside a vitrine. These are clear-eyed works of social portraiture, amplifications of reality that demand our present moment to be understood. Nearby is Self Portrait of a Sales Strategy, a pyramid of Yoda figurines gazing inexplicably into the distance, each strung with an orange price tag—wisdom has never had a better market.
Repressed emotions usually find a route of escape, as Freudians would have it, in slips, dreams, and jokes, but in David Cronenberg’s body horror The Brood (1979), the director shows rage and pain swelling on the skin as bursting pustules. Following an experimental therapist, played by Oliver Reed, and his patients, the film builds toward the birth of murderous “psychoplasmic” children, borne on the skin from a woman’s wrath. Artist Candice Breitz has appropriated three histrionic scenes from this film, each featuring Reed enacting role-plays with his patients and standing in for mommy, daddy, and child, for her new video work Treatment, 2013, here seen as a two-screen installation. Breitz has brought this sticky, itchy family psychodrama one uncomfortable step closer to home by asking her mother and father and her own psychotherapist to create new voice-overs for the scenes, which are seen on one screen, while the recording booth is seen opposite. Breitz’s therapist is female, speaking Reed’s words, and the gender swap makes for some queasy comedy, as do the sudden outbursts of dialogue, in which Breitz’s mother describes “bad mummies . . . fucked up and bad,” or in which her father wails, ‘I love you, Daddy!”
Breitz opens up a vein in Cronenberg's original film, from which the director's own acrimonious custody battle and painful family relationships spill forth (he has described the film as deeply personal), while subtly hinting at the festering dramas of her own family. Both dig beneath the surface skin of their material, and the ugly complexes that can drive creative work, released to a world with a professional veneer. I visited Breitz’s installation twice and each time viewers regularly erupted into laughter, perhaps signaling their own awkward emotions bubbling over.
There was a time when the words “Orange County art scene” did not summon images of Real Housewives and dolphin statuary. In the 1960s and ’70s, Southern California was a hotbed of experimentation, resulting principally from the preponderance of art schools there that fostered a multiplicity of practices, ranging from the ephemerals of Conceptual and performance art to the endurance of sculptural form. Barbara T. Smith—who attended two of the most defining institutions in the region during that period, Pomona College and University of California, Irvine—has consistently engaged both ends of the aforementioned spectrum.
Works in the exhibition are brought together by their common material: resin. This synthetic is associated with a particular SoCal brand of artwork often referred to as finish fetish. Finish as well as fetish become more than euphemisms in Smith’s Field Piece, 1968/72, a module composed of larger-than-life phallic “blades,” through which naked people, as a blown-up photo illustrates, were encouraged to frolic, triggering light and sound with their weight.
However, unlike Southern California sculpture that is characterized by smooth, sensual surfaces that work so hard to create distance from the human body, most of Smith’s resin pieces appear gloppy, even dirty, and evince close association with their maker. The centerpiece of the show is documentation and remnants from The Holy Squash, 1971, a collective eight-day ceremony at the UC Irvine Gallery that resulted in the casting of a gourd “to remain an object of reverence for centuries.” Unlike Craig Kauffman’s iconic synthetic bubbles of the same era, “the faintly purple lozenge of about 150 pounds” in the words of the artist is all about interiority, not surface. As in a number of other objects in the show—where Smith used resin to encase ephemera, photographs, scribbles—the material’s primary function is a kind of obdurate commemoration, giving longevity to relations and material that dominant (read: patriarchal) culture considers of little worth.
To be among Kevin Beasley’s new sound installation, sculptures, and photographs is to negotiate a doubled sense of “here”—both the physical recognition of oneself, and the claim for recognition evoked by discarded materials, bound and shellacked in polyurethane, their histories unknown but deeply felt. In Beasley's debut at Casey Kaplan, these contradictory present-tense sensations come together in circular wall-mounted acoustic mirrors cast from satellite dishes. In Untitled (Focus Black Boy II), 2015, Beasley immobilizes an Air Jordan jacket amid outstretched white T-shirts in coagulated coats of resin, taut and transparent as cellophane, yet thickly refracting ambient noise and viewers’ wafting conversations.
As Beasley demonstrated in his 2014 Whitney Biennial performances, in which he activated his sculptures like mutant instruments, sonic experience is inextricable from a corporeal, at times unwieldy, knowledge. This becomes evident in Movement IV, 2015, which wires an elegant Steinway to a massive mixing console. Audiences, invited to play the piano by appointment, will find that even lightly brushing or tapping the keys produces percussive, sticky tremors of reverb, its echoes vibrating in the ribcage for minutes afterward.
Floor-bound sculptures, such as Untitled (Lumbar), 2015, a zippered backpack choked with pooled, festering polyurethane buildup, imply a similarly disjunct, if intimate, relationship: You stoop, lean in, or try to squeeze by, aware of how the body must improvise in constricted spaces. Nearby, a plastic yellow mop bucket is displayed at a slightly further remove: Detached from its original context and fastened to the wall, it’s nonetheless unable to exceed the social labor and industrial utility associated with its past life. This work requires a reckoning with the physical and emotional detritus of the familiar, yet often unseen; its brilliance is to collapse this separation, to frame hearing and feeling ultimately as forms of witnessing.
Risky scenarios clash with compulsions toward stability in “I: A High Stakes Gamble,” Taslima Ahmed’s New York solo debut. Including a factious composite of glossy PVC-laden prints and sculptures, wall-embedded security safes, and a two-player card-game sculpture, the exhibition questions contemporary art’s relationships with uncertainty. Seven laminated C-prints mounted to Sintra populate the gallery walls, each of which displays an atmospheric, digitally rendered environment punctured by subtle moments of urgency. Helter Skelter (all works 2015) shows a struggling pair of hands clutching the cusp of a perilous, moonlit mountain. In Throw Your Life Away, a blurry, backlit dashboard (ostensibly in transit) provides the backdrop for a seemingly spotlit, sharply rendered falling feather and the outstretched palm seen reaching to catch it. Elsewhere, two steel security safes are installed flush against gallery walls. One of the steel works, North, South, East, West, Gun, Safe also holds an imitation Beretta 9-mm pistol. Beyond its wide-reaching use among law enforcement and private security forces, the Beretta is also a favorite for personal defense.
With Passion, a resin-coated table strewn with silk-screened glass card tiles, Ahmed formulated a simple betting game in which the participants are classified as master, citizen or slave. Hierarchy is embedded in the game’s rules, and power grabs are achieved by accurately blind guessing the opponent’s card in play. Whereas game theory specifically aims to minimize risk by collating hypothetical scenarios and exhaustively mapping chance, the procedures for Passion forego such mathematical determinism, in favor of spontaneity. Reading artworks as evidence of decision-making, Ahmed exploits these terms by arranging nearly a dozen pieces of varying media and themes that together foreclose a feeling of coherent certainty.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, the narrator recounts testing grown-ups by presenting them with a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Most adults recognize it as a hat, causing the drawing’s maker to never again discuss “boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars” with them, but instead “bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties.”
Judith Scott’s sculptures give a sense of shape-shifting between things like hats and processes like boa constrictors swallowing elephants. They are typically amorphous forms—mostly large yet small enough that they could still be cradled by an adult—that were produced by tightly binding and weaving fibers, generally multicolored yarn and fabric, around clusters of common objects. In a few instances, the underlying, often industrial materials—plastic tubing, wooden sticks, and clothing, for instance—poke out. More commonly, however, different things come to constitute a unified entity that is completely strange, but perhaps all the more so because it retains a sense that there is something we know very well hiding inside.
Scott was born with Down syndrome; she spent her life nearly deaf and was unable to speak. In her forties, Scott joined the Creative Growth Art Center, an art studio in Oakland for artists with developmental and physical disabilities, and her entire body of work was produced during the following eighteen years. Rather than pathologizing the artist, or divorcing these astounding artworks from their maker, this posthumous retrospective at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art prompts a reading of her work that is informed by ideas shared by feminism and the growing field of disability studies: that an art object is both connected to and dependent upon not just the lived experience of its producer but also a surrounding network of equally embodied subjects that are an integral, albeit frequently unrecognized, part of both making and the making of meaning.
Noah’s ark, that proto–postapocalyptic time capsule, has manifested as a yellow wheelbarrow of varicolored resin sand dollars at the entrance to New York–based Hayley Silverman’s “Unmanned Lander”: Each transclucent cast inside contains a pair of coins or other mated monies (berries, pollen) for the times to come (Crude Currency, 2015). Meanwhile, the sculpture’s weathered frame appears to say this has been tried and has failed before. Throughout the show, utopia is in the shadow of the retrofuture: Witness Is terraforming reincarnation?, 2015 (with Emily Shinada), an octagon of inward-facing mirrors perched on a metal tripod, that resembles both a zoetrope and the Space Needle. Invoking three respective centuries of hope in new technology, the work’s interior reveals the hollow repetition at their heart—an infinite, abstracted desert, effected by some coldly glowing sand and a leaning-cowboy silhouette.
A weaving of a window with a half-drawn pull shade rests on top of a light box in Untitled (For Jo), 2015 (with Shinada). The work is dizzying with nested eras: The textile part, originally by the artist’s mother, evokes a 1970s nostalgia for nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts, with its domestic-pastoral, spooky simplicity. It feels like a museum piece, but with the box below it shining light not only through but all around, a futuristic coldness takes us from a present archive to, perhaps, the part of the spaceship where you go to feel like you’re back home.
Among other inspired chronocultures on display, the only one not from this year is Watering Hole, 2013, part of Silverman’s “Flood” series of figurines caught in soups of artificial vegetables. Set apart with the display insight that is the hallmark of this gallery, its tone diverges; nonetheless, a phrase the artist used when speaking of the series on the BBC describes its newer, strange companions: “the return of a lost cause.”
Dogs and the dead populate the videos, sculptures, and print works in Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s first US retrospective, a show that summons questions about what companion species are beyond human companionship, what cadavers are other than former humans.
“A person who dies had the ability to die,” the Thailand-based artist gently proposes in the film The Class I, 2005, addressing a room of deceased “students” on trays, bodies borrowed from a hospital in Turin. The line echoes Maurice Blanchot’s insight that death is horrifying to us because it promises to take away the mortality that makes us human, but Rasdjarmrearnsook speaks with a frank and unassuming tone that softens the thought. This and the other necrocentric works on view (such as the video I'm Living, 2002, in which the artist dresses a corpse lying on its back) impress an amicable continuity between the living and the dead, and are unique in doing so without anthropomorphizing the latter.
In Some Unexpected Events Sometimes Bring Momentary Happiness, 2009, a pile of paw-size bandages sits tenderly below projected footage of the dog to whom they once belonged, documenting the day that the animal spontaneously regained control of his long-paralyzed hind legs. Rasdjarmrearnsook’s straight presentation lets the dog’s obvious enjoyment of moving around her yard speak for itself, and like the exhibition in general, the piece feels risky, out of step with common antisentimentalism. Rasdjarmrearnsook lacks the pretense that she comprehends all that her camera apprehends, and it lends her work a sense of celebratory empathy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Studio paintings are seductive. They invite us to enter the sites of creation, extending the tantalizing hope that doing so will demystify the process. Then they thwart our expectations. From Brueghel to Brancusi, Daumier to de Kooning, curator John Elderfield has mined the centuries for artists’ paintings of their ateliers, plucking fifty-odd works from far-flung museums, foundations, and private collections and setting them in the gallery like precious stones. The variety is mesmerizing. When models appear, they range from relaxed and sexy (Henri Matisse) to anguished (Lucian Freud). The rooms themselves can be oases or prisons.
A self-referential playfulness courses throughout: These are the spaces where art is made, not the art itself, yet the rooms become that too. They offer intimate insights, but they also omit and obscure. In several studios, stretched canvases are turned to face walls. In Carl Gustav Carus’s Das Atelierfenster (Studio Window), 1823–24, we see the back side of a painting propped in the window. Is the artist hiding it from us? Or showing it off to the world? It feels like a fitting metaphor for the tension between exhibitionism and opacity charging these works.
No matter how stylistically busy or spare, neoclassical or cubist, these images all pulse with a sense of vital necessity. A round table dominates Pink Summer, 1975, a large, bubble gum–hued oil painting by Philip Guston. It and most of the objects lying on it are sketchily outlined in red, but half a sandwich, a bunch of brushes, and a watch get more tonal attention. All the artist needs, they seem to say, is food, tools, and time. In the background, a half-obscured head in profile suggests a sphinx sinking into the sand. But these studio paintings are not Ozymandian monuments to vanity, bound for the ash heap of history. Elderfield presents an eloquent argument for their profound and complicated value, fueling their enduring allure.
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.
How do you document an affair? Receipts, maps, menus, locks of hair, ticket stubs, empty contraception packages, fingernail clippings, letters explicitly recounting sexual positions, and photographs—hundreds and hundreds of photographs, which in this affair were taken by Cologne businessman Gunter F. of his young secretary, Margret. The couple spent a year together, and all of the above material was meticulously collected by Gunter and packed into a briefcase, which was later found in an abandoned German apartment. This archive is currently receiving its US debut, “Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970,” after being first shown at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
The exhibition feels dramatically of the past—not just because the archive is—but because the sorts of ephemera on view are alive with traces of time and touch. There is loopy, expressive cursive, a crumpled napkin spotted in blood, a neat clipping of hair taped to a sheet of yellowed paper. All get at the essence and gravity of the keepsake, which increasingly today is not an object or even image of an object but an image in and of itself, kept behind a screen. Does the memento risk extinction? And if so, what are the stakes of such a loss?
It’s the sheer physicality of this collection that transmits the poetics of memory, ushering one into another’s nostalgia and getting at the complexities of voyeurism. Beyond personal appeal, however, is a near-pathological belief in the totemic power of the object. At play then is the collateral damage of the digital archive—that losing our keepsakes may not only be a loss in sensorial memory but a reconstitution of memory itself. The same obsessive impulse to document keeps memory as alive as it does dead: To possess it through an object is to declare its mortality—but what happens if there is no object?
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.
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.
Caught up in the fluorescent reds, acidic greens, and woozy ultramarine blues coating erotic entanglements of cartoons and classical figuration, politics and fantasy, in these acrylic and oil canvases, you could just miss the black marker insignia “SAUL ’68” on Target Practice. Hiding in plain sight is evidence that these large works hail from an era of riots, uprisings, the Vietnam War, and the flourishing of countercultural glee in America. Take equal parts hysterical protest and militaristic righteousness and you have a painting like Pinkville, 1970: A glistening orange American solider with a cross around his neck, a protruding erection, and a green army helmet stabs and stomps on dehumanized representations of Vietnamese women, one of whose hair curls into fat black letters spelling Big Murder. This canvas’s power lies in the way it toys with enshrining entitled fantasies about domination while bellowing its protest against such scenes, which are brought to life through war time after time.
Throughout the paintings on view, not an inch of their surfaces backs down from competing for the eye’s attention through their formal ingenuity, lurid palette, and the brake-screeching words, such as Bank of Shit or Fucking Cop, that address all too contemporary realities. The latter phrase is emblazoned across the length of a red-faced policeman’s fleshy pink schlong, whose head splits to grasp the blade of a sickening yellow pocketknife inscribed with Decency in Self Defense, 1969. The handle of the knife reads Self-defense, though, and is delicately grasped by the claw of a Black Panther woman tangled in the drooling policemen’s limbs. But her expression reads cool as a cucumber compared to the cops’ spluttering hate, fear, and telling lust.
Perhaps due to the popularity of Game of Thrones, Folkert de Jong’s “The Holy Land” seems topical, despite that three of the sculptures are made from three-dimensional scans of Henry VIII’s armor. Dispensing with his previous contemporary materials of Styrofoam and polyurethane, de Jong depicts three stages of Henry’s life and hints at current global conflicts, including the outright medieval beheadings perpetrated by the Islamic State, in these patinated bronze relics. The green, red, and blue patinas of the bronze remains consistent throughout the triad, but each sculpture retains a distinct personality: the youthful king in Fidei Defensor (all works 2014), the virile middle-aged warrior with a bulging codpiece in From Stately Throne, and the bulky barrel-chested one in Old DNA.
Several of de Jong’s works are encased in acrylic glass vitrines with colored panels, the most macabre being The Knights Move, a ghost of war with a snakelike body made from pigmented polyurethane foam adorned with a coat that de Jong’s uncle wore in the Dutch navy. By incorporating a biographical aspect, de Jong contradicts the anonymity of this faceless soldier, bringing a human element to its nightmarish form. Notwithstanding the permanence of its bronze material, the freestanding Babel’s Maze appears precarious due to the spindly base propping up its central element, a top-heavy cluster of cast machine guns with a decaying, greenish finish. Connected to a bowler hat and cane by a thin armature, the work depicts a violent empire potentially doomed to fail, as implied by these theatrical components. Although de Jong eschews any overt references in these works, one can’t help but make associations with the current stances and policies of nations that take cues from religion, divine-right theory, and the philosophy of “might makes right.”
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.
Barbara Kasten did not study with Josef Albers, but the Bauhaus ghosts her work. The photographs on view in her latest exhibition are constructions, geometric props positioned to throw colored light and shadows across the page. The plastic forms in these images delineate space but neither rise into the foreground nor fall into the background.
A spatial visual exchange registers on the photographic paper. Where De Stijl jockeys color and line in two dimensions, Kasten’s “Transpositions,” 2014, opt for a manipulation of volume and air. This respiration of form into space appears as an intentional blurring, a reverberation caught by the still of the camera frame. This relational pull conjures up the words of architecture historian Sigfried Gideon, who acutely described the movement of modern buildings as “cubes of air within, cube of air without.” The neue-architektur of modern times was a model that demarcated potential and provided a physical framework for the utopian ideal. These photographs offer an architecture that takes in the expired ideals of their historical forebears to expand them outward, splaying their shadows into a transitional space. Kasten’s images have the power to show a new generation some basic concepts of art that they can explore with their nifty digital tools.
“Hie to Kolob,” Jason Metcalf’s cathedral-like exhibition, explores the quintessentially American qualities of regional evangelism and religious art, especially the pioneer’s folklore of Mormonism. Metcalf himself was raised in Utah, and his personal history is deeply steeped in the residual culture around the state’s predominant religion. Titled after a Mormon hymn that incants aspirations to reach Kolob, a star recognized by the LDS Church for its supposed proximity to God. “Hie to Kolob” is a winking homage to the massive Christus installation at Salt Lake’s Temple Square, colloquially known as Space Jesus.
The series positions large, airbrushed supernova-like canvases beside a graduating-light installation of incandescent lamps, and A paved work of pure gold, 2012–15, which, as its title suggests, is a foot-square tile made of aerospace-grade aluminum plated with a 99.999% pure layer of gold. The metal is the most thorough reflector of infrared radiation (footnote to NASA’s use of gold to plate the surfaces of astronauts’ helmet visors); a sharp pillar of light that radiates to the ceiling from the single square punctuates the room with an ecclesiastical luminosity.
Religious narratives and imagery are by nature often surreal and irrational; though Metcalf humorously acknowledges this absurdity via his co-opted devices of melodrama-via-airbrush and staged lighting, at heart these are not cynical works. The chromatic vibrance of the paintings increases as the lamps over them brighten, producing a fool’s-gold effect of religious divinity that climaxes with the reflected light of real gold: The experience may be dominated by special effect, but there is sincerity at its core.
Jamie Isenstein titled her latest exhibition “Para Drama,” after a phrase used to describe infighting among paranormal investigators. The term equally applies to the attendant theatricality of Isenstein’s sculptures that incorporate her own body (past examples include a live hand extending from a wall to form a candelabra, à la Cocteau; actual arms and legs fleshing out a wingback chair). For this show, Isenstein has expanded her idiosyncratic surrealism to include a sculpture in which the body remains invisible and instigates movement. In Mechanical Bed (all works 2015), a quilted coverlet inches up and down a mattress incrementally, manipulated by the artist’s hidden hands. The action is so eerily, robotically smooth that a viewer could easily not realize that there is a human laborer concealed within were it not for the materials list, which includes “actor.” (An INTERMISSION sign appears on the still sculpture when Isenstein is absent.)
Other sculptures are enlivened by more elemental forces: The breeze from a fan animates two white gloves that flutter aloft, bewitching an empty chair decked with tinkling wind chimes; a flame emerges from a solitary dinner plate in Theater and be Theatered, and another flickers from the lips of a porcelain mask resting on a crisp white pillow in Fire in the Mouth. Such materials recall the early installations of Jannis Kounellis, but while those dealt in references to ancient history and classical music, Isenstein appears to draw from more populist fare: Disney’s Fantasia, The Addams Family’s Thing. Many of these works feature visually ingenious gags we’ve seen from Isenstein before, but two seemingly comedic sculptures titled Onions—which feature mascot heads layered with multiple masked disguises, from clowns to circus animals—point to a missing inner being, an infinite regress of vanitas masquerading as camp: It’s melancholy all the way down.
The sun sets on a passive-solar conference room, on ergonomic pleather rolling chairs around a glossy table with a conference phone. Everyone’s excited in this video (Elizabeth Orr’s Applied Marketing Topic: Loss Leader [all works 2015]) to talk about a pricing strategy for which the piece and exhibition, Orr’s first solo, take their names. (A loss lead, like a nascent art practice, is something offered at a profit loss in hope of future gain.) Swiveling toward the camera, a corporately assertive acolyte played by the artist Mariana Valencia vaguely declares: “My understanding of loss lead is just in terms of marketing.” Another, played by Emma Hedditch, is eager to learn: “I am going to be interviewing them later this week about strategic meditation in the workplace.”
Such moribund exuberance already suggests the inanimate, and the piece’s installation as a sculpture, closely facing one wall and supported by a metal pole descending from the ceiling, cements its continuity with the abstractions on display. The show has nothing on the walls, and at the center of the gallery are two Formica structures, Ghost Posture and Projected Return, the former’s shape resembling a traffic arrow and the latter’s something like an airport carry-on size-test box. On these stand unframed panes of minimally varied tinted glass, evoking, perhaps, the Instagram filter array, or just how much the history of Minimalism and the pages of a Uline catalogue really have in common. Corporations are disseminators of aesthetics, too—the architectonic mishmash seems to say—and this is what their dreams look like.
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.
In Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô (1862), the cannonballs that fall on Carthage have been engraved with insults (“swine,” “vermin”) or else bitchy witticisms (“catch!”), and the victims they strike down have the abuses imprinted on their flesh. Hence the jagged backward writing carved on a cannonball in Caleb Considine’s small but riveting Painting for Salammbô, 2015, reads “I have thoroughly earned it.” The work depicts the piece of artillery in his Brooklyn studio next to a ratty sofa and a crumpled winter jacket. The couch, a Craigslist hand-me-down of woven brown and beige, seems undisturbed by the armament that sits upon it. If the cannonball had fallen from the sky, surely the sofa would have been smashed. Is Considine then, in his studio, the victim of the assault? Or could it be Considine who is preparing to catapult the ball upon those of us who still can’t think through painting, us who “have thoroughly earned it”?
Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education may seem like easier parallels to the naturalistic precision of Considine’s paintings. Yet more than any of Flaubert’s novels, the grandly camp Salammbô offers a model of artistic creation—a naturalism with no documentary aim, a proudly useless perfection—that Considine, with his catapult in the corner of the studio, understands as nothing less than an act of war. And if naturalism were at its core a pessimistic, deterministic style, then perhaps for young artists today it may have new use. History is not fiction, it turns out. History is fate, and to make sense of that dreadful downturn we need art that’s not an umpteenth bloodless critique, but an act of creation as forceful as a cannonball to the chest.
Censorship and sexuality have long been strange bedfellows. “Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship” details around a dozen international episodes of erasure and exclusion over the past half century, in which the frank depiction of queer people and sexualities rubbed up against church, state, and individual bigotry, resulting in physically and psychologically violent acts of censorship. Curated by Jennifer Tyburczy, "Irreverent” importantly includes many previously censored works and brings them renewed exposure. Additionally, through the creative incorporation of diverse ephemera, including installation photographs of censored artwork as well as documentary footage and signs from activist responses, the exhibition deftly contextualizes the sociocultural arenas in which censorship and its ramifications have played out.
Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, and Andres Serrano loom large, the past and more recent censorship of their art acting as lightning rods, to which “standards of decency” (in the words of Jesse Helms) continue to be applied. On view are three Serrano works from “The History of Sex,” 1995, which were vandalized with axes and crowbars in Lund, Sweden, in 2010 by alleged neo-Nazis. The damaged prints themselves are on display, their shattered frames and ravaged images showing where Serrano’s lush, large-scale photos of bestiality and interracial gay fellatio were virulently attacked.
As the world’s only gay and lesbian art museum, this institution is uniquely positioned to “celebrate” censorship in a tongue-in-cheek manner that recuperates these works from a once-criticized position. For instance, an initial display of Alma López’s Our Lady, 1999, a flower-clad Virgin of Guadalupe interpretation supported by a bare-breasted female angel, incited protests from religious communities in Santa Fe for its queering of sacred iconography. López’s image now graces the museum’s entranceway and the cover of its quarterly scholarly publication, a fitting resurrection for this “irreverent apparition.”
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.
Lutz Bacher’s current solo exhibition, “For the People of New York City,” feels a lot like a Frank O’Hara poem: clever, buoyant, wistful, and utterly enthralled by all the garbage and loveliness of city existence. Her ability to resuscitate amateur videos, industrial throwaways, or bodega tchotchkes into numinously charged tableaux aligns her with urban visionaries such as Jess or Joseph Cornell, makers seemingly preordained to make even the stupidest of ready-made things exquisite.
Bacher’s Empire (all works 2014) has nothing of the dead-eyed, steely glamour of Andy’s: Hers swings, blurs, and bobs in space on multiple surfaces, translucent and opaque, woozy with luscious, lurid color from a pair of precariously balanced digital projectors. Like a disarrayed Stonehenge, larger-than-life-size windshields made of Plexiglas are scattered throughout the main area of the ground floor, kept upright in metal stands weighted down with sandbags. Images of this famous edifice reflect into and onto one another, all over and at once, creating an atmosphere that’s like a touristy phantasmagoria by way of a boozy Midtown cab ride.
How Will I Find You is perhaps the most funereal experience of the show. What seem to be hundreds of dirty plaster molds and broken figurines of bunnies, bowling pins, and a beheaded Pillsbury Doughboy are collected into a vast heap in the middle of a room, all gathered around two columns. Is it a Canal Street junkyard? A 9/11 elegy? Heavy-handed, homely, and immanently heartbreaking—just like this terrible city that is so dearly loved.
Fragments, ciphers, mirroring, and a whisper about lineage are hung as five oil paintings in Caitlin MacBride’s New York debut. Presenting a mysterious array of oblong forms severed from discernable context, MacBride’s works slink around the alleys of representation but have clearly inhaled the vapors of abstraction and had more than a few liaisons with “Pictures.” Orphaned from any alliances, they look like they’re searching for where they might fit in, as if wandering down art history’s halls, querying David Salle: “Are you my father?”
The two largest works pull the heavier weight of ideas. The first is mysteriously titled Wry Proportion of Its Begetting, 2015, and is predominantly painted a night-colored black and centered by an olive-green display containing three amorphous, articulately rendered blobs all in a line and individually posted on rods or a shelf. They resemble nothing so much as 3-D printed tchotchkes living in a flat monochrome realm cut off from any world except that of race-to-the-black-square minimal painting.
The second, Neck for the Worm Arm, 2015, functions less as a unified composition and more like a layering of competing visions for contemporary painting. A rocky indigo-blue shape in the top center opens a window onto a ghostly white folkloric scene of a deer and a shadowed figure holding out a sword. This interruption in the otherwise color-blocked painting feels cinematic, like an oblique zoom into an intimate scene or a rip in the veil of abstraction. To say that this gentle, even pretty, sight is the painting’s true face emerging from the coded gestures around it, though, would be too trusting given the pieces’ evidently wily nature. Spend the night with them, yes, but in the morning you might not recognize them.
In the photographs that compose Martin Beck’s Flowers (set 4) and Flowers (set 5) (both 2015), a bouquet sits in various states of completion, quite corporate in its prim pose, housed in a clear vase and floating in a field of black: This is the empty dream-space of stock photography, where portraits twinkle like Platonic ideals. At first, the arrangement is a bustle of white blooms (the better to slice against the black), while later stages burst into yellow, bloodred, and pink. These are not pictures of flowers but of cleanliness, of bureaucratic pleasantness, of the sanitized cheer kept up by those manicured hands that crane delicately from beyond the frame to fondle the petals and stems. Here at last is the utopia dreamt up by HR manuals and company retreats, a no-place of smiling industriousness and aseptic bliss.
This show sparkles with a glassy politesse that reaches its apex in Strategy Notebook, a video installation in which words such as “question,” “recall,” “reduce,” and “hold back” fade on and off a screen of alternating colors—the terms themselves were lifted from a 1970s “problem-solving” manual. Spliced with the limpid C-prints, the scene is one of workplace bubbliness, bourgeois incentives, and the hardening of entire states of mind (“memorize”) into techniques to be launched at the vaporous challenges that face a whole droning class of white-collar meaninglessness. The words—“chart,” “simulate,” “search”—dissolve and materialize on the cheerful flatness of digitized space, bobbing so gently there that it’s easy to forget what they are: commands.
Jamian Juliano-Villani’s new canvases are huge, bulging, and flat. They panel up the walls and leave almost no empty space. In addition to seeming unmannered, they’re rude. Fly Kama Sutra (all works 2015) swipes through frames of at least three different, disjointed, and frankly unhinged scenarios. To see it in its entirety, you have to step outside the doors and look in through glass. Have you ever been to a tiny, shitty apartment with no real furniture, no food in the cupboards, but then a seventy-two-inch brand-name TV? Juliano-Villani’s third solo exhibition feels a lot like that, inviting judgment from an inner classy mom: This artist is irresponsible; this artist is not spending wisely.
Nor is hers an easy, happy profligacy, as her brushes with cartoon airiness and billboard surrealism suggest. The best painting is the one that looks you square in the eyes, but its own eyes are scratched right out: Penny’s Change is a smear-up of a puffer-jacketed graffiti artist’s selfie and Peter Saul’s Mona Lisa Throws Up Pizza, 1995, with the kind of teeth—big but mostly missing—that appear to you in nightmares about money. If you can bear to zoom in on it, you’ll notice that its surface is greasy, like a screen that’s been touched or spilled on, as if the painting has been handled without any care or maybe with far too much.
Erin Shirreff’s art beats between objects and images. Her latest show, “Arm’s Length,” consists of four bodies of work: large-scale cyanotypes, lush pigment-print diptychs, plinth-bound arrangements of plaster geometries, and layered compositions of steel. Its structure is syntactic, defined through a vocabulary of forms that recur across materials and media. Here tapered to a line, there fixed as a photograph, Shirreff’s shapes resist self-containment, meeting in shifting constellations that fail to congeal.
Drop (no. 14) (all works 2015) began as a catalog of curves—the stock stuff of art-school figure drawing—that Shirreff sketched in her studio. Resized to the ready-made parameters of sheets of hot- and cold-rolled steel, the curves coexist as template and cutout, the bend of a semicircle hedging the rectangle from which it was clipped. Isolable and absent jointing, each leans against the gallery wall in mime of the pictorial logic of figure against ground. Cobbled with a sort of calculated casualness, the array seems primed for reconfiguration. A nearby cyanotype, Four strings, literalizes Drop’s insistence on a frontal (and, hence, imagistic) encounter with form. Created through the exposure of sculptural elements to light-sensitive fabric, the image indexes an object that no longer exists. Stretched to a scale typical of postwar abstract painting, its effect is at once factual and vague, the blunt aniconism of its forms contravening the lyricism of its rheumy scale of blues.
Such slippages between photographic, pictorial, and sculptural space organize the installation. Images sidle into objects; objects are percussed into images. In each case, Shirreff’s work appears other to us, close enough to touch yet poised at asymptotic remove: the not-quite nearness of an arm’s length.
Hank Willis Thomas’s latest exhibition presents a century’s worth—one per year since 1915— of magazine advertisements featuring white women. Each have been enlarged to poster size and all traces of branding have been erased, making it near impossible to identify the products being advertised, forcing us to interpret the images on their own terms. An enigmatic slogan-like title inspired by each advertisement's original text accompanies the corresponding works.
Thomas’s series functions as a pictorial history of mainstream femininity in America, tracing shifts in the societal roles occupied by and assigned to white women. Sadly but unsurprisingly, images of sexism and violence toward women, both overt and subtle, abound. Regardless of the decade, their bodies are frequently on display, served up in a state of undress considered risqué at the time, docile objects of desire for the eager male consumer. They appear caged, shackled, tied up, and straightjacketed. One smiles obliviously while being dragged by her hair; another smirks playfully despite a black eye, a lit cigarette in her hand. There are some notable exceptions: A 1920 image shows a woman driving, firmly in control of her own destiny, while another from 2014 shows a lesbian couple being intimate mid-selfie. However, progress toward equality is always halting: Wartime images of women aiding the military effort are followed by a postwar return to domestic order. Somewhat uncannily, doubles and masks reappear throughout, seemingly confirming British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s 1929 assertion that “womanliness” was never an essence but a masquerade.
Enthralled by these details, it is easy to forget that the author of this history is a black man. Through more than half of the twentieth century a black man could be lynched simply for looking at a white woman, and a strange image from 2001, tellingly titled The Gaze, encapsulates this fraught past. A blond woman squats on a bed in a dingy room, staring out at us assuredly. On the television behind her is the face of a black man who appears to be watching her. He looks anxious, uncertain exactly of what the consequences of his act will be.
Squashed under glass like butterflies, a pink down jacket, five Hermès ties, and a human-hair wig lie inside a frame. Peanuts & Turtles & Hunters & Chains & Potted Plants, 2015—named for the items cheerfully printed on the ties—encapsulates the keen wit pervading Nina Beier’s first solo show in New York. The materials are whimsical, but their humor is undercut with horror. The flattened jackets and sleeping bags in this series suggest crushed bodies; the sinuous ties swirling around them become viscera spilled on impact. Flattening the ties allows us to examine them as though they were drops of viral blood viewed through a microscope. The jaunty prints become bizarre and a little sickening. Beier’s interest in exposing the perversity of everyday commodities recalls Mike Kelley’s unnerving arrangements of soiled stuffed animals and yard-sale relics.
In a second series, Beier creates giant glasses that Goliath might use to sip a cosmo. Each one contains objects extracted from photographs—hand sanitizer, scissors, bone—encased in translucent, blue-tinted resin. By placing these items in stemware, Beier points to how we consume ready-made images and to their power to alter our minds, moods, and behavior. The still lifes themselves conjure a tension between preservation and decay. Hair spray and Band-Aids as well as the substrate in which they’re embalmed contrast with fragile, transient tokens of the natural world: dismembered beetles, the shards of a shattered emu egg. These exquisitely cryptic sculptures play on the biblical conversion of water into wine. Metamorphosis lies at the heart of Beier’s work, which so effectively transforms prosaic materials, exploding their contexts and stretching their meanings to startling proportions.
In Sanskrit, samsara denotes the endlessly repeating cycle of birth, life, and death, the quality that is, according to Buddhist philosophy, determined by individuals’ actions. Max Greis illustrates this concept in an impressive exhibition of eighteen mixed-media artworks. He packs myriad scenes and tiny details into apocalyptic panoramas that evoke history, war, conquest, development, and environmental devastation.
While from a distance the compositions appear as moody landscapes that evoke Constable or Turner, close viewing reveals the influence of Bosch and Breugel. Where the Buffalo Roamed, 2015, depicts a surreal palimpsest of North America’s occupants: Native Americans and herds of bison, teepees and Conestoga wagons, give way to soldiers, cars, and military barracks. Terraced fields and industrial installations give rise to piles of garbage and the leisurely bourgeoisie. Nearby is the Oklahoma Land Office, a launching rocket, and a satellite dish, deftly evoking a century and a half of exploration and expansion. Above it all fly small planes, fighter jets, and birds of prey. Heaven, hell, animals, humans, titans, and hungry ghosts—the six realms of existence described in Buddhism—are all here.
In several works, Greis projects video footage onto the panels, perfectly matched to the landscapes in scale and perspective, adding yet more layers of time and history. And on a shelf, a row of dioramas set into vintage books extends the exhibition’s themes, with book titles providing ironic commentary: The Future as History, Outside In, Strange Animals I Have Known, Carved in Sand, Only in America, Beyond the Summit.
If barbarism is shoved deep into art, it sits snug as a gun in its holster. Let’s call Hito Steyerl’s work an epistemology of the holster. This survey of her videos since 2004 betrays a preoccupation with casings, coverings, capsules: that is, the thin membrane of criticality stretched taut over so much art discourse. Steyerl’s filmed lectures tickle the art world’s left-ish pieties, as we see her—speaking with pedagogical placidity as she gets all political—deliver the eagerly anticipated theoretical assault. And the artist lecture is itself a kind of casing or effluvium, a foam that forms on top, as the art world’s stony concerns—selling, buying, selling again—churn beneath.
Is a Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, a two-channel video installation, presents a theory that dances along by Steyerl’s bracing, associative logic: It knots together the storming of the Hermitage by Russian revolutionaries; the commingling of arms manufacturers and the culture industry; and the technological imaging systems that make possible both the steel flexion of a Frank Gehry structure and of a fighter helicopter. The museum doesn’t simply “reflect” violence but is itself a site of contestation, destruction, and—we hope—retaliation (which is why the seating in the gallery is made of piled sandbags, perfect for ducking enemy fire). The theme is more poignant in the film Guards, 2012, for which Steyerl interviewed museum guards that have served in the armed forces at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her gesture scuffs the polished halls of culture with the mark of state violence.
It’s difficult these days to imagine any work that can’t simply be looped back into capitalism’s cynical embrace like a prodigal son. Not so here: With her pixelated images, her ironic truth-telling, and the coy fluttering of her dialectics, Steyerl dares to see agency in complicity, cunning in crime.
For his second solo exhibition at this gallery, Arthur Ou took fourteen portraits of artists who work primarily within the realm of the photographic—people such as Uta Barth, James Welling, and Moyra Davey—reading parts of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous treatise on the limits of perception and language, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in settings both public and domestic all over the world. Also on view are two R. M. Schindler–inspired chairs on which viewers are encouraged to dally and pore over pocket-size volumes of Wittgenstein’s book, republished in three variations—World, Picture, and Fact—where instances of these three words in the text have been replaced by the artist with the word photograph.
There is a nineteenth-century strain of quiet in this suite of small black-and-white images by Ou. It is a temperament that seems to honor interiority, solitude, and a sort of tender pictorial loveliness—qualities that run counter to the extroverted supergraphic shininess of much contemporary photography. The artist doesn’t seem persuaded by the idea that Photoshop has killed the photograph, either. On the contrary, his exquisitely produced gelatin silver prints seem to announce that analogue photographs, as documents of representation, intention, technology, and time, are more intractable and mysterious than ever, and have a power far stranger than any digitally over-manipulated mutation floating across a screen. Ou’s modest works are as subjectively and materially rich as paintings, a medium we once foolishly thought died from modernity, too.
To reach the main gallery of Pam Lins’s “Model Model Model,” the viewer must first pass through a gauntlet of hand-built ceramic phones, calling to mind less the art-historical corridor of Pop art than the hall of a community center. Along with their pedestals, priority mail boxes sloshed with paint, the works are as homely and economical as the notion of a model itself: dummy, replica, didactic—in short, not quite sculpture. Beyond the telephones, five tables built from Enzo Mari’s 1974 open-source designs host some thirty earthenware constructions, which Lins has rendered from photographs of Nikolai Ladovskii’s architecture workshop at VKhUTEMAS, the state art and technical school founded in Moscow in 1920. These three sets of models, or rather, models of models of telephones, utopian constructions, and tables, demonstrate the elasticity of the term: models as prototypes and paragons, simplifications and propositions, explanations and projections, the start of the production line and the objects that produce lines of relation. By virtue of its slippery semantics, the model shrugs off its not quite–ness to become the crux of sculpture’s social and critical potential.
The exhibition’s real reveal, however, is (literally) retrospective: the backsides of the austere student models have been glazed with colorful geometric motifs that animate their volume (The experiments continue upstairs, with a spirited group show organized by the artist around her color theory reading group.) The limitation is photography, a medium that shares with models both their indeterminate scale and their unstable liaisons with the material and historical world. Yet the kaleidoscopic object lesson goes deeper, to what historical documents must necessarily fail to show. Lins’s work as a teacher as well an artist seems pertinent, and poignant, here: Perhaps the only way to wholly see the model of an avant-garde education—or of radical industrialism, or even simply communication—is to model the model ourselves.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.