The goofy and mystical qualities of Ray Yoshida’s works aren’t at odds. In his fastidious, otherworldly works, made primarily between 1969 and 1974, the Chicago Imagist builds both figures and abstract landscapes from wormy stripes, like cartoon veins or brainwaves. His surreal forms resemble two-dimensional renderings of wonky sculptural objects, and there’s a vintage-Marimekko-slash-Flintstones feel to his trippy patterning. Some of his untitled felt-tipped pen drawings, circa 1972, show women with hourglass figures, orderly spaghetti hair, and nominal or distorted faces. In another drawing, a beefy guy with a mummy or basket face wears a vest and tie while standing in front of a curtain. And then there’s one in which striped curtains are parted to show more parted striped curtains that in turn reveal a pile of . . . stripes. The drawings are funny and casual-seeming, but as representations or invocations of the Infinite, they also inspire seriousness.
Four early collages on view are small and their tiny elements—hands, limbs, and other things mined from comic books—are concentrated in the center of the paper. Telling whole superhero stories in dynamic clusters, they function as distilled celebrations of the narrative and visual excitement of their sources. Yoshida’s unslick, scaled-down version of Pop was characterized by sly erosions of the high/low cultural divide and, importantly, influenced by his fascination with thrift-store paintings and folk art. With inimitable style, he embraced unschooled aesthetics and questioned official art’s hierarchies. This show, aptly titled “Mystery and Wit,” is an introduction to Yoshida’s long practice of meticulous, charming, cosmic, and subtly perverse explorations.
When Toyin Ojih Odutola began consistently showing work in New York five years ago, one could not but be struck by the maturity of her approach—portrait drawing at the scale of painting and with the tonal density of a photograph. Her figures are on the surface black, but she depicts them on a sub- or extradermal level, as a sinewy interlacing of hair or musculature. This show demonstrates new possibilities within this framework, as Ojih Odutola continues to expand her scale, materials, and emotional register.
A grid of modestly sized portraits at the front of the gallery will appeal to many, but the real gems here are pieces that intensify Ojih Odutola’s play of tonal contrast. The drawings Study of Aldo I and Study of Aldo II, both 2015, play with inverted value by making routine figural sketches into rich studies in tone and density, electrified by her use of white charcoal. Similarly, the smaller portrait The Guilt of Looking, 2014, uses an extreme economy of means—pencil—and produces not just verisimilitude but an uncanny aura around the figure’s coiffure and cashmere sweater. Viewing it conjures the strange light of a photogram or X-ray.
Elsewhere, the beauty typical of the artist’s figures gives way to a more menacing and spectral cast: With their piercing kaolin tones, the subject’s eyes in Soil Erosion, 2015, are at once transfixing and wraithlike; similarly, in Quality Control, also 2015, musculature is rendered gelid and orphic, as luminescent washes of cool blues and purples. Race seems suspended here, but that may be incidental—Ojih Odutola’s stunning formalism transports the viewer to invisible somatic topographies beneath and beyond the flesh.
This holiday season, the art world’s best Father Christmas is feathery and vibrant, roughly vertically symmetrical (wearing a pom-pommed hat at both top and bottom), and Buddhist. Guo Fengyi’s Santa Claus, 2007, looks like a vaporous rust-colored ghost from a distance. Up close, he’s mesmerizing, his airy Chewbacca texture composed of rhythmic, multicolored ink strokes. Santa’s top face has an electric-green muzzle and eyebrows, and there are about five more faces of various sizes and personalities tucked into his elongated form. Some of Guo’s intricate, many-faced drawings are so tall they’re installed spilling onto the floor, bent to continue off the wall onto white platforms. The artist, who died in 2010, drew at a small table, unscrolling lengths of rice paper or cloth to work a section at a time, a process that lends the pieces an exquisite-corpse quality even as it’s unified by her signature meditative mark-making.
Born in 1942 in China’s Shaanxi province, Guo began making art in her late forties. After severe arthritic pain forced her from her manufacturing job, she devoted herself to the spiritual healing practice of qigong, which, through its techniques of breathing and movement, eased her suffering. Qigong also informed her subsequent drawing methods and imagery: Her oeuvre includes bright, instructive representations of the body’s meridians, as well as wild, intuitive depictions—like process-art portraits or mapped energy fields—of subjects ranging from the aforementioned Santa to the Statue of Liberty to ancient Chinese mythological figures and personal acquaintances. Towering together in the small gallery, the drawings have a talismanic calming effect that’s amplified by their grouping, forming a beautiful and awe-inspiring contemplative architectural space.
When does a revolution die? Can bits of its carcass be found in the crevices of empty squares? Taking Cuba and its silenced dissidents as her case study, Coco Fusco explores these questions in a survey that covers two decades of work via eight videos and an installation.
The exhibition starts with C O N F I D E N C I A L, Autores Firmantes, 2015, which highlights the archive as a means to author—and alter—history. Twenty-one facsimiles of files that were penned by Cuban authorities in 1971 are displayed in vitrines on the ground floor of the gallery, where we find that Jean-Paul Sartre and Marguerite Duras, among countless others, were deemed “anti-Cuban” and therefore blacklisted. These preeminent writers and intellectuals paid the price for standing in solidarity with Heberto Padilla, a poet who was imprisoned for turning against Fidel Castro.
Silenced minds lead to silenced streets, where the effervescence of revolution has been replaced by the banality of daily routine. The Empty Plaza, 2012, is a twelve-minute video depicting Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución—formerly called the Plaza Cívica then renamed after the 1959 Revolution—where images of tourists posing for pictures are interspersed with archival footage of revolutionaries. The piece is a melancholic reverie on urban spaces that go from stages for uprisings to ambivalent, discarded relics. Tourists snap pictures on their cell phones as cars drive by, under the omniscient eyes of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, whose steel faces hang from surrounding buildings. The piece brings to mind so many other squares, such as Tahrir in Cairo—that were once electric with a profound need for radical change and are today quietly plagued by an uncanny ordinary.
For users of the online virtual-reality platform Second Life, “low prim” signifies an object or room that contains little graphic information. While a strict economy of detail frees up three-dimensional real estate, it also amplifies a pervasive, unsettling quality of virtual spaces and, as Sara Ludy dramatizes in her work, of contemporary life in general—that of the “digital uncanny.” As we kill lots of people in first-person shooter games or make floor plans for new furniture on our phones, we embrace the unheimlich as a necessary discomfort. Ludy provocatively applies the ancient philosophical principles of feng shui as a possible remedy.
The prevailing mood in the gallery is one of uneasy quiet. Low Prim Room, 2012–16, is a spare, shrine-like installation at the exhibition’s start. A grid of twelve images—material from Ludy’s ongoing archive of the Internet’s uncanny—is projected on a wall recessed behind an empty sand garden and a ledge displaying a ball of twiggy rosewood entangled with a little red tassel and coins. The piece is blankly mesmerizing: aesthetically calculated but symbolically cryptic. In the more beautiful Rose, 2015, a feather flower and a zigzagging path of iridescent beads lead to a hypnotic animation of a milky, constantly morphing orb on the black wall behind them. Whether such disconcerting, elegant arrangements improve the flow of chi is perhaps beside the point: Ludy’s striking work asks what feng shui could mean now, when physical space is haunted by its virtual original and life online is simply life.
In the late 1970s, Frank Stella’s foray into spectacular wall-mounted painted reliefs left many admirers at a loss. Thinking of his work from this period in what Robert Slifkin has termed a theory of “badness” in 1970s music and art is fruitful. There is a tackiness that is integral to the work, not merely as a rejection of aesthetic notions of composition but also as a renunciation of ties to minimal nuance. Yet, today, his tackiness also seems to predate the Photoshop aesthetic that is regaled in work by artists such as Trudy Benson and Keltie Ferris. We assume digital mediation to be deterministic of appearance; but what if Stella’s early bombastic compositions inflected digital aesthetics?
For instance, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler), 1985, is a tawdry bas-relief of cone-shaped and rectangular masses. In these works, the complex method of configuration led Stella to paint the sections in parts before they were assembled akin to a “paint fill” option. Looking back, one sees the artist alighting on some of the hallmarks of contemporary painting: a wickedly carefree dispensation of nonlocalized color, sketch-up areas competing with heavy finish, illogical scalar shifts, and a confounding disregard for tastefulness. Perhaps Stella’s motley aesthetic suggests how “badness” and tackiness could relate to a greater postmodern crisis with amalgamation in form and color. As early as the 1980s, after his wacky “Exotic Bird” series, 1976–80, Stella started using digital rendering technology to achieve polarization in pictorial space. When acrylic paintings such as Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3] (The Earthquake in Chile), 1999, were planned with these tools, the derivation of their compositional dexterity and spatially challenging elasticity originated in Stella’s rich pool of “bad” maneuvers.
Tauba Auerbach’s art, cerebrally and seductively, marries system theory and aesthetic acuity. The paintings, sculptures, and publishing projects within this exhibition engage the ideas and writings of architect and theosophist Claude Bragdon, whose 1915 treatise Projective Ornament expounds architecture’s transcendent possibilities. For the show, Auerbach has gorgeously republished Bragdon’s century-old text through Diagonal Press, her imprint, and given us objects that revel in the elemental dynamism and beauty of geometry and nature.
Four of Auerbach’s woven canvases reveal her interests in structures and their supports. Chiral Fret (Meander)/Extrusion/Ghost, 2015, consists of unpainted canvas woven into a composition that references both the right angles and continuous lines of Greek fret as well as the shapes of chiral molecules. The decorative motifs highlighting natural structures in these canvases use base forms to exquisite effect—her patterns simply vibrate throughout the work.
Auerbach’s sculptures similarly visualize the organic as ornamental. Altar/Engine, 2015, consists of a blue tabletop display of nearly one hundred black, gold, and white 3-D-printed objects derived from the helix. Auerbach has extruded and rotated the helix’s form into a wide array of mutations that bend, braid, coil, curve, and extend the essential structure of our DNA. The result is a geometry that transforms elemental configurations and shows us the kind of vivid and embedded ornamentation that undergirds life itself.
In a suite of eight paintings, Lari Pittman’s “NUEVOS CAPRICHOS” depict familiar, shadowy figures on the giving and receiving ends of a world of hurt. The show’s title comes from Francisco de Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” 1797–98, a set of etchings where the court artist laid bare his withering observations on human folly and savagery. Pittman’s homage probes the same ugly impulses and similarly uses animal/man imagery as well as interiorized dialogue, voiced here in word swirls and banners that contain verses from Emily Dickinson’s poems.
Pittman’s jam-packed orchestration of supergraphic decorative patterns and motifs seem ready to bleed out of their frames. Though we’re witness to a great deal of action and violence in these pictures, a deeper sense of dread comes from the terrors suggested beyond the works’ boundaries. Where Goya’s illustrations present humanity’s nastier urges as the root of societal ills, Pittman’s pieces reveal a labyrinthine inner state as a deeply felt response to trauma. His reactions are emotional—compassionate, even—which is a marked contrast from Goya’s more accusatory tone. In Capricho #7, 2015, a skeletal crowned figure holding a plumed rod, perhaps a scepter or an axe, stomps and dances on a prostrate man’s bony back. The carefully placed words absence and disembodies shift the focus from blame to affect, captioning the internal condition and finality of both aggressor and victim. The prevalence of the word pain in these works makes one throw up a psychic shield, as it’s apparent that you, the watcher, are being pummeled. A walk around the room allows for a recalibration to a higher frequency: With each numbered capricho building on the last, this unified assembly of paintings offers a free fall into a hyperkinetic morass where each blow is felt and remembered.
There are a lot of works in Robert Melee’s show, and various kinds of it are mounted on the walls, or, it almost seems, pushed against them by the explosion of Bower Pool, 2016, an overturned above-ground swimming pool that hangs from the gallery’s ceiling, hemorrhaging decorations. The glittery trappings of Christmas, Mardi Gras, birthdays, graduations, and Pride cascade from the backyard tub like a piñata frozen in time at its climax. Or, as per the title, it’s a nest: Bowerbirds decorate with natural baubles and bright garbage to attract mates.
In hotels, restaurants, and sometimes homes, ornamental panels with aesthetic purpose waver in status between artwork, decoration, and fixture. Much of Melee’s attractive work has that ambiguous presence. His “Inter Guilded Semi-Quasi Substitution” pieces (all works 2015) have a high-end modern-décor, puzzle-piece feel (“Polynesian” in a Brady Bunch way); the “Untitled Bower Curtain” paintings are bubblegummy, confetti-based takes on drippy high modernism with a dash of your mom’s friend’s fiber art; and the “Atlantic City” wall-mounted photosculptures, made from images of hotel lobbies and casinos, actually incorporate light fixtures. The latter are the least friendly pieces, with the hardware and glass of chandeliers jutting out from the folded space of angular photocollages. Portrait of Debs with Fans is similarly disorienting, featuring two cheap ceiling fans. As the only portrait, it’s a revealing wildcard. In a storyboard-like collage, fashion designer David Quinn, in boudoir maquillage and various states of undress, appears haphazardly wielding a paintbrush. Like a lonely bowerbird working to seduce with what he can find, he manages to pull things together—or rather, Melee does, perfectly, matching Quinn’s tinsel garland to the fans’ fake-fancy gold accents.
The press release for Em Rooney’s exhibition at this gallery is written in first person and ends with a list: “Future words for forest: apple, brazil, empire, expro, exxon, gate, gates, grass, fire, loneliness, love, sand, seed, sunrise, rattlesnake, rock.” Almost alphabetical, the list is imperfect, personal—much like the artist’s photographs. Rooney, no Luddite, nonetheless worries about the ephemeral textures and qualities of material—and memories—that are imperiled by transitions to digital storage and circulation.
Rooney’s hand colored silver gelatin prints depict views of loft apartments and squats, some woods in Maine, and a melancholy zoo. They are images from a personal archive that dates back to her high-school years. Their pastel-tinged, black-and-white aesthetic imparts a de facto nostalgia, but these are not exactly resurrected snapshots. Subtle traces of manipulation abound. One can detect double exposures, bits of collage, and a wry intermingling of digital and analog processes, especially in The End of Oil (all works 2015), an image that is crowned with a Preview edit toolbar, marking its trajectory from film to digital archive to print. The “hand colored silver gelatin print in artist’s frame” description for this piece is deceptively twee and simple.
“Artist’s frame”—what a nebulous triangulation of medium, material, and display device that term is. Rooney says her frames contain “thatch, ash, fruit and stone,” but we can’t see them. However, three larger wall-mounted panels, shaped like frames or mats with empty centers, make good on the insinuation, as their exterior portions are studded with three-dimensional objects. In Outer frame for Elliot (The Sawdust Ring), a fake orange and three spooning ceramic figures are suspended in the hand-dyed canvas and leather surface. As its title suggests, this work is “for” a framed photograph called Elliot. What of the redundancy? For one thing, the “extra” frame proffers a strange opportunity to stash things away—a playful paean to imperiled marginalia.
Fifteen archival prints of photographs of sunlight streaming into Grand Central Station, watermarked with their sources—sites such as Art.com, Easy Art, Picasso.com—greet visitors to Penelope Umbrico’s latest exhibition, playfully drawing attention to her process of appropriation while offering the prosaic material a more profound afterlife. Adjacent is a video of all the variations of the four source photographs of Grand Central that Umbrico found online, demonstrating slight differences in contrast and graininess. Interested in the way images circulate and are valued, Umbrico previously culled photographs of sunsets from Flickr and TVs for sale from Craigslist, transforming them into meditations on our relationship with file sharing and originality.
In addition to her Grand Central project, Umbrico offers photographs of the moon. For her installation Everyone’s Photos Any License (654 of 1,146,034 Full Moons on Flickr, November 2015) (all works 2015), Umbrico printed approximately six hundred of the million-plus images she found on the site and then taped them together to cover a wall of the gallery. The moons range in size and color from cloudy green to fiery red to grayish white, and the fact that many are nearly identical destabilizes their tenuous link to authorship. Umbrico further contests their singular status in works like Screenshot 2015-11-07 18.34.11 / Pink Filter and Screenshot 2015-11-24 18.14.32 / Blue Filter by arranging the images chromatically, yielding grids of pinkish-orange or white-ish blue moons, which almost become abstract motifs. Emphasizing the collective nature of this archive, Umbrico includes a scroll of screenshots of the moon, rolled out lengthwise on the gallery floor. Its discarded, sculptural presence contrasts with her loftier presentations of the full moons, revealing both the ubiquity and elusiveness of her subject.
The exhibition “700 Nimes Road” is named for the address of Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel Air home, which Catherine Opie—who shared an accountant with the star—gained access to in November of 2010 and photographed over a six-month period beginning that December. The project took on new significance when Taylor, who had fallen ill, died: Opie’s fifty-print portfolio shows the contours and eccentricities of a life she never directly observed. The works also subtly chart the transition of the house from a home to something else—a memorial, an archive, or a complicated asset—as, for example, Taylor’s jewelry collection is aired and inventoried. The Emeralds, 2010–11, shows her famous Bulgari “green set,” a gift from Richard Burton. Shot in the sun, maybe by the pool, it’s out of focus, like Opie’s seductively generalized landscapes on view across town at the gallery’s Chelsea space.
Opie cites William Eggleston’s “Graceland” suite from 1984 as a precedent for this work, and it does echo his bold compositions. But, while Elvis Presley’s ostentatious taste becomes a somewhat impersonal artifact of Americana in Eggleston’s photos, Taylor’s hand and history are felt everywhere in Opie’s. Cropped views make captivating tableaux of the legend’s tchotchkes: perfume diffusers, Oscars, Maltese-terrier statuettes, and snapshots of Michael Jackson in cheap-looking frames. Wider shots reveal a worn fairy-tale land of pastel carpeting that one wants to wander in a dressing gown. In the detailed and mysterious photos of this cumulative portrait, Opie includes traces of both heartbreak and quotidian routine. And though such allusions give the work its voyeuristic edge, we’re satisfied by Opie’s discretion—the impressions relayed by an astute but unobtrusive guest.
In these sassy, severe works from the 1970s, Jürgen Klauke transforms his body through low-tech effects. In the first photo of his black-and-white triptych Illusion, 1972, he uses a mirror to produce a bilaterally symmetrical image of himself without a penis. In the next two, he’s wearing pantyhose, and the angled mirror turns his crotch into a diamond-shaped void. It’s a great use of nude nylons—at once exploiting their functional properties (to constrain flesh and efface detail), their potency as a symbol of feminine conformity, and their fetishy charge. Ich & Ich (I & I), 1970, depicts an expressionless Klauke with an Eno-ish pageboy and a handlebar moustache in incremental stages of makeup application. His charted metamorphosis is reminiscent of Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, 1972, a serial photographic documentation of her thirty-seven-day weight-loss performance. As Klauke’s bearded face is contoured, it becomes more feminine, but also gaunt, even malevolent. His is not a straightforward, or strictly playful, makeover.
While his work from this period engages with the ideas of his feminist contemporaries and body-art forbears, it also merges the aesthetics of queer Surrealists—such as Claude Cahun and especially Pierre Molinier—with glam rock’s androgyny and artifice. In the full-color “Transformer ” pictures from 1973, Klauke wears a red leather outfit with platform boots and long, upwardly curved nipple extensions, one of which he kittenishly licks. There’s also a hand-sewn garment in the Rot photos from 1974: A fascinating hermaphroditic genital apron that can be worn casually like a sweatshirt tied around the waist or fastened up, over pants, to give the impression one has a lipped fissure extending from tailbone to pubis, with an almost navel-high, pinky-like dick.
It’s been stamped on the collective retina: a reclining Susan Sontag, 1975, sheathed in a turtleneck, her hands stuffed in her hair, her face crowned with that smirk of effortless intellection. She looks like a sleek, belletristic otter floating on its back. This is Sontag as we’ve always thought of her—sly, a little wistful, possessed of a dark, delicate intelligence that pitches its gaze at something just beyond the frame. Embalmed in her persona, served like some pickled exotic fruit.
But that embalmment—the aspect that has haunted both the practice and the theory of photography—gathers a darkly literal force in this exhibition, “Lost Downtown” (which is being presented collaboratively with Pace/MacGill). What, precisely, has been lost? An entire way of life made possible by low rents, a pre-Giuliani tolerance for urban desuetude, and a lingering ethos—now melted in the furnace of capital—of antibourgeois insouciance. Fran Lebowitz [at Home in Morristown], 1974, scowls from her teenage bedroom in New Jersey—the wallpaper is goofily suburban, with a pattern that looks like little pustules bursting with bad taste. Divine, 1975, the plump, lovely muse of John Waters, is depicted here as some high-Romantic heroine, her ample belly swelling at the buttons and soaking up the feathery shades of Hujar’s lighting. It’s poignant, but yes, a bit camp—a bomb lobbed at our notions of respectability and grace. Waters himself smiles from across the room (John Waters (I), 1975).
But lost, too, are individual figures of the so-called downtown scene, picked off by cancer and AIDS—the latter greeted by the establishment with criminal indifference. David Wojnarowicz, 1981, gawky and boyish, gazes spectrally from a bed, his nose and temples carved starkly from the dark—years before he was infected. And after Hujar’s death, Wojnarowicz would take a photo of his corpse. That photograph isn’t included here, but the spooky echo resounds: another talisman, a memento mori, a furtive ritual of an extinct tribe.
This four-woman photo exhibition sifts through the cavernous world of love in the time of screens and does some subtle paradigm shifting by exploring romantic relationships through the female gaze. Natasha Caruana’s “Married Man” series reveals some bleak insights regarding monogamy. Snapshots taken with disposable cameras narrate stories of the artist’s dates with married men found through a matchmaking website that caters exclusively to a wedded clientele. Sheepish hand-holding gestures are mixed in with images of half-empty glasses, faceless guys, and empty ring fingers. Her book on the series is filled with details about these rendezvous, which are riddled with secrecy and shallow affection. There’s so much desperation to be found within the bonds of marriage.
Pixy Liao invites us to peep into the intimacy of her coupling via self-portraits that upend traditional Chinese ideas in regard to romance. The belief that a woman should be in the care of an older male companion is shattered by Liao’s epicurean representations of a relationship where she indisputably has the upper hand. For instance, Hush, Baby, 2010 depicts her thumb firmly positioned over her lover’s lips—her red lacquered nail like a powerful and sensuous stop sign.
Romance is a complex and—ironically—isolating game. The “real thing,” at least here, may just be the loneliness brought on by the endless negotiation of shifting boundaries in a hypermediated world.
A column protruding from the gallery’s plate-glass storefront is papered with reproductions of 1930s to 1970s posters and graphic design from East and West Germany. Inside, the varied products of Klaus Wittkugel, a central figure in Eastern European graphic design little documented in Anglophone histories of the subject, are arrayed. Though the exhibition focuses on one designer, it more generally serves as an imagining of the curious nature of the profession in the Eastern Bloc, where the state was the client and propaganda the principal product.
A vitrine contains artifacts of East German material culture: Wittkugel’s designs cover packaging, glassware, and paperbacks, including the Jim Crow–shaming Auch ich bin Amerika: Dichtungen amerikanischer Neger (I Too Am America: Poetry of American Negros) (1948). A self-awareness runs through the works but is most apparent in the posters: In Das Plakat (The Poster), 1954, a ladder is propped against a column with an advertisement for an exhibition of posters. This nesting is characteristic of the sleight of hand with which Wittkugel stages the interaction with the image, suggesting a spatial relationship between the viewer and abstract subjects, such as electrification, Lenin’s political philosophy, or manufacturing quality.
The exhibition itself has reflexive touches as well, signaled by the poster column spilling onto the street, bearing the image of a poster column. The curator, Prem Krishnamurthy, foregrounds the nature of the presentation by embedding contextual texts among the objects, including record sleeves, stamps, and a slideshow that cycles through the artist’s exhibition designs, which are punctuated with slides of layouts using 3-D modeling software or Facebook screen grabs. A parallel show at OSMOS Address displays the designs of Anton Stankowski, Wittkugel’s contemporary and maybe West German double. The two designers’ points of intersection and ways of differing illuminate the contours of the histories being peddled (or taken for granted) on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.
Zhang Hongtu’s survey at the Queens Museum reveals a conflicted portrait of a Chinese-American personality, one that has personally rejected Mao but revels artistically in the Chairman’s influence and memory. Across multiple rooms, an abundance of Maos—cross-eyed Mao, smiling Mao, frowning Mao—is juxtaposed with Zhang’s hybridizations of Eastern and Western imagery and aesthetic movements.
The collection presents Zhang’s work from the 1950s through today, and his range—materially and conceptually—is impressive. Guo Xi–Van Gogh, 1998, depicts the mountainous ranges of Guo Xi’s shan shui scrolls rendered in Vincent van Gogh’s post-Impressionist brush strokes. Front Door, 1995, is a door with a peephole through which one can view old footage of the leader, while The Big Red Door, 2015, is a hulking gateway dotted with phallic knobs. And a giant photographic print, Great Wall with Gates II, 2015, wraps almost entirely around the exhibition space. The show also documents the changes in Zhang’s work after he moved to America; since leaving China, his interests in the East have intensified. The humble drawings of his Chinese peers back home feel very different from the kitschy soy-sauce workers’ leaflets, glazed zodiac figures, and Chinese blue-and-white-patterned Coca-Cola bottles he made in the States.
Visitors are also encouraged to test out Ping-Pong Mao, 2015, a tennis table featuring two Chairman-shaped holes on either side. The sport seems frivolous, but it references the infamous Ping-Pong Diplomacy, a Chinese political tactic in the early 1970s where Mao invited the US table tennis team to China. This trip initiated early Sino-American relations and Zhang’s fruitful explorations of Chinese culture through an American lens.
James Hampton, a janitor, built a tinfoil throne room for Christ’s return in a Washington, DC, rental garage; Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain is an adobe edifice in California made in honor of God’s enduring love; Laure Pigeon’s densely worked ink drawings are faithfully recorded transmissions from beyond the veil. Painter Jeni Spota C. unabashedly joins this lineage of ecstatic visionaries for whom art is a gateway into the divine.
One doesn’t just look at Spota’s paintings; one feels them. Their thickly encrusted oil surfaces warp—or rather, masticate—the orderly and elaborate geometry of the compositions. The textures read as hammered tin, disintegrating brocades, or even mortified flesh, and their eerily wan colors—acrid yellows, arid blues, and desiccated-looking greens, whites, and reds—are culled from another century. These images pulsate with religious patterns and insignias, along with the reverent faces of communicants, kings, saints, and queens. The most resplendent illustration of this, Venetian Victory, 2015, includes a pair of ossified cherubim flanking a sculptural crimson flower wreathed in ribbons, like an offering. And so we are transported: to Babylon and Lascaux; seventeenth-century Protestant graveyards; dusty monastery attics and basements; heaven.
Let it be clear: Despite the “outsider” appearance of her work, Spota is anything but. There is nothing willfully naive about her approach. She is a maker of sophisticated objects with a sophisticated art education to match. She knows her history and her aesthetic kin, and how she wants to place herself in the spectrum of contemporary thinking and making. But, like Sabato “Simon” Rodia, the architect of Watts Towers in Los Angeles—and a blood relative of Spota’s—she does as obsession, or the heart, commands.
As its title, “A Constellation,” suggests, this show draws together a range of seemingly disparate practices by black artists and invites the viewer to connect the dots. This is a loose curatorial rubric, but its strength is in pairing now-canonical artists with their emerging peers, initiating a cross-generational conversation about materiality, gesture, and political ambition.
It is worth seeing this exhibition for the opportunity to immerse oneself in the glow of work from a firmament that the Studio Museum itself fostered in the 1970s. Jack Whitten’s Psychic Intersection, 1979-80, evokes the modernist black square and grid with a nod to the interstellar, while Al Loving’s incandescent Variations on a Six Sided Object, 1967, leaves one wondering why it is not he, rather than Frank Stella, who is remembered as the post-painterly heavyweight of the modernist era. Across the gallery, one delights in poring over the dense materiality and sly wit of work by Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Adrian Piper.
But, as the show makes clear, the mantle of these greats has been taken on in knowing ways by a younger generation. Cameron Rowland plays on post-Minimalist form and the vernacular spaces of the inner city with his mordant plastic cube, Pass-Thru, 2014. Canadian artist Talwst creates subtle juxtapositions of the precious and the pressing with Por qué, 2014, a miniature depiction of the Eric Garner killing. And Baltimore-born Kandis Williams contributes the quietly show-stealing multimedia painting paralysis II, 2014—a grainy play of abstraction and photographic reproduction. If these are the Studio Museum’s new stars, the future looks bright indeed.
Shara Hughes’s imagination yields rich, weird stuff. In earlier works, sundry abstract and natural forms are pushed through open-ended narratives within vibrant domestic spaces. In these dozen or so newer paintings, her psyche decides to peer out the living room window so that we can be made privy to an assortment of breezy and prismatic landscapes that plumb the depths of her idiosyncratic interior and exterior world views.
Hughes deftly combines the richly saturated palettes of the early Impressionists with the darker psychological tones of more recent picture-makers such as Forrest Bess, Philip Guston, and Dana Schutz. The artist divides a number of her canvases into compartments, making the images she foregrounds contrast quite sharply with the illusionistic depths of their backgrounds. A beautiful example of this is the hot-hued Split Ends, 2016, which is cut through the center by a tree trunk whose russet- and ocher-striped roots and branches create two windows that lead us down a path of bold red and orange fields illuminated by a blue-dappled sky. In Eye of the Swell, 2016, tall waves lap surrealistically around three central oases; and in Mushroom Hunt, 2015, a sun-soaked beach is viewed through a brown and sap-green forest. Like a byway through fractured layers of consciousness, Hughes’s vivid paintings marry apperception with fictional time and space—a rabbit hole that, truth be told, one is extraordinarily reluctant to escape.
Tracing Otto Piene’s rhythmic oeuvre, this poetically curated survey draws the viewer upward, elevating us from the earthly to the celestial, body to soul. Smoldering red paintings alive with molten hues flaring against tar-black clouds fill the first room: soot left by solvent set alight. The elemental love of color evident in these blazing crimson canvases distinguishes Piene from the other members of ZERO, the avant-garde group he cofounded in Düsseldorf in 1957. But like his peers, Piene famously pursued means of nontraditional mark-making, from using fire (in the tradition of his mentor Yves Klein) to pressing oil paint through screens onto canvas. A selection of “Rasterbilder” (Screen Pictures), also on the ground floor, are seductively tactile. Rows of white puckered bumps stud the mustard ground of Untitled, 1957/1967, like an army of barnacles.
Piene’s ethereal “Lichtballete” (Light Ballets) send dazzling patterns soaring across the third floor’s walls and ceiling. Golden anemones trail corrugated tendrils around the darkened room, lazily drifting through shifting planes of rosy bubbles and stars that morph into prismatic chrysanthemums. These projections, cast by kinetic lights whirring inside several perforated sculptures (hollow spheres and boxes comprising repurposed “Rasterbilder” screens), are at once hypnotic and stimulating. Created between 1963 and 2013, they testify to Piene’s tendency to revisit different chapters of his practice. These works will be familiar to those who saw the recent ZERO exhibition at the Guggenheim, but they assume new transcendent heights here as a coda to Piene’s mercurial career.
Mika Tajima’s work probes the tension between the rationalism of modernist aesthetics and the fragmentary—if not destructive—quality of modern life. Since the early 2000s, she has been creating noise music with her band New Humans and installations based on architecture that molds the activity of its inhabitants. Cinema sets, factory assembly lines, and Herman Miller’s Action Office of modular furniture are among her references.
Recently, Tajima has explored the symbiotic relationship between design and human affect, aided by data-scraping technology. “Embody” (all works 2015–16), her exhibition here, picks up where her 2014 Art in General commission, “Total Body Conditioning,” leaves off. Like “Total Body Conditioning,” this show includes new selections from her sleek “Negative Entropy” and “Furniture Art” series. The “Negative Entropy” textiles—woven paintings created on a Jacquard loom and stretched over sound-muffling panels—translate recordings of Japanese curator Kazue Kobata and the sounds from a Jacquard card cutter into patterned abstractions. The straightforward concept of data-as-portrait is enlivened with Tajima’s subjective color choices (magenta, chartreuse, and plum, in the case of Kobata’s panel). The “Furniture Art” works, composed of cloudy sprays of enamel barely visible from behind dark sheets of thermoformed acrylic, seem to mock painting as decoration (or speculative asset).
Tajima’s three brand-new “Meridian” mood-light sculptures deploy live data from social-media feeds and the stock market. The light sculptures house LED bulbs in vertebrae-like skeletons, made up of ergonomic chair parts wrapped with gauzy layers of cocoon resin. The colors of the lights represent two sets of data. In the front gallery, two bulbs flicker on a spectrum from red (positive) to blue (negative) based on the moods of social-media followers in London and Cairo, respectively. In the back, a light tracking the gold market vacillates from warm to cool tones, illuminating the shiny, hollow surfaces of the “Furniture Art” series: a mirror for our hyperdesigned lives.
You may think, standing in the empty, bleached space of Bea Schlingelhoff’s latest solo show, that it’s 1984 instead of 2016. From four small black speakers installed in each corner comes: “They made it clear from the start that the slightest deviation from the norm would be punished. They turned everything into prisons, even our own bodies.” This rhetoric, reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopic book, is read from Abigail Bray’s more recent novel Misogyny Re-loaded.
Winston Smith, Orwell’s central character, is referred to in Bray’s text, as is his torture in the infamous Room 101. The aim: Destroy your captive’s resistance by subjecting him or her to their worst fears. The method: Gaslighting, or using information to manipulate the victim by inciting doubt and, ultimately, insanity. The critique: Feminism has failed. Misogyny is alive and well, its insidiousness facilitated by capitalism and the patriarchy it supports.
It took Essex Street’s proprietors Maxwell Graham and Neal Curley a long time to record Bray’s book, which runs on a 270-minute loop. Schlingelhoff paid for Curley’s and Graham’s hours in an attempt to subvert the relationship between dealer and artist, institution and individual, male and female. Your body is the only thing on display in the starkness of this space as you listen to a woman’s fatalistic words, read by two men. It seems that what’s broken down is not feminism but a kind of humanism, the remains of which we experience in Schlingelhoff’s barren box and, of course, Orwell’s Room 101. “Now repeat after me,” Bray/Graham/Curley implores. “I am free.”
Few artists in recent memory have put more at stake so early in their careers than Cameron Rowland. His institutional debut here concerns itself with nothing less fraught than the persistent legacy of slavery within a thoroughly neoliberal twenty-first-century America. In the exhibition, Rowland presents a series of sculptures in the form of isolated, unmodified consumer and industrial goods whose histories of use, production, and acquisition are documented in their titles’ captions and a takeaway text available to visitors. A portion of the goods were sourced from Corcraft, a division of the New York State Department of Corrections that sometimes conscripts inmates into prison labor and sells the goods they produce for wages as low as one-fiftieth of the legal minimum to other government agencies and nonprofits. In his selection and presentation, Rowland identifies lodestones of US economic power and bureaucratic self-reflexivity—a tactic he has previously deployed to harrowing effect.
Armatures of government administration, such as New York State Unified Court System and Attica Series Desk (all works 2016), take the form of courtroom benches and an office desk. Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings are aluminum leveler rings for manhole hatches that obliquely reference the importance of convict road-building in the post–Civil War, preindustrial South. Insurance’s container-lashing bars and Lloyd’s register certificates evoke the maritime transport of property foundational both to the historical slave trade and to contemporary, globalized manufacturing. And a pair of flame-retardant firefighters’ suits from Corcraft’s West Coast equivalent CALPIA (the California Prison Industry Authority)—1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011—bring together the criminalized body and the body-at-risk in a single, collapsed figure.
If the work’s rigid, austere program reveals any weakness at all, it may be its aesthetic dimension, which occasionally veers into Minimalist sublimity. Such moments are redeemed, however, by an artist whose political commitments can never find complete resolution solely in the realm of the visual.
Gritty and glorious, the Lower East Side of the 1980s and ’90s blazes with bricks and stars in the paintings of Martin Wong. Night skies tattooed with constellations form the backdrops for calico patchworks of tenement buildings rendered in ruddy ochers, browns, grays, gold, and black. Hercules and Hydra arc above the everyday heroes and monsters of the city streets: lovers, junkies, prisoners, poets, fighters, and firemen. Lavishing countless layers of acrylic on every brick that forms this lawless, desperate world, Wong renders each mottled facade in almost carnal detail. The arresting contrast between these intensely corporeal structures and the astral planes above them suggests the key dualities coursing through Wong’s oeuvre: body and spirit, reality and fantasy, the sordid and the divine.
Wong died from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, at the age of fifty-three, and this elegant retrospective is the first to trace his too brief career. Battered walls and closed storefronts may dominate the show, but Wong also crafted intimate interior moments. Firemen were an erotic fixation for Wong, but My Fire Guy, 1988, is neither explicit nor conventionally fetishistic. Completely clothed, the fireman is chastely tucked into bed, his resting figure limned in saintly gold. Cradling a puppy, he is a child’s cherished hero more than a sex object. This tenderness is lacking in Wong’s later, slicker paintings of Chinatown, which revel more superficially in the gaudy ads and architecture along Canal Street. Wong’s Lower East Side paintings are his strongest, in full, magnificent force.
In the early 1970s, Indian photographer Bhupendra Karia set out to travel across his home country and depict its surging population rate. The grimly beautiful photographs on display here, all shot in Mumbai, were culled from the resulting project, “Population Crisis.” The decision to focus on one city makes sense, as Mumbai is not just India’s most populated city, it is India’s most visibly populated city. “Bombay is a crowd,” wrote V. S. Naipaul.
As a student at the Tokyo University of Fine Art, Karia studied wood-block printmaking, and this method of making images informed his photographic work. Whether shooting people, cars, or clothes hanging on a line, Karia arranged his subjects into neat rhythmic patterns. The result is a poignant paradox: extremely ordered photographs of disorder. The front of a ramshackle building, for example, is neatly divided into a grid of twelve squares, or apartments (Old Bombay Dwellings, 1970). But, as in a ragged patchwork tapestry, each block contains touching details—the missing window, the crumbling flowerpot—that remind us there’s nothing uniform about poverty.
Also on view is a quieter grouping of pictures from an unnamed portfolio dating to 1968–71: seventy-four photographs that Karia called the “meager harvest of my first twenty years in photography.” These works, shot throughout India, often feature common objects—umbrellas, lamps, guns, pots—hanging on white walls or against plain backdrops. Again, the influence of woodprint is palpable: Like a ukiyo-e artist, Karia used sharp contrasts and space to imbue everyday objects with a gentle, delightful mystery.
“The California Years: 1967–1975” documents a momentous shift in Miriam Schapiro’s practice, from the wry, abstract feminist-futurism of her hard-edge paintings to the busy decadence of her mixed-media “femmages.” For her handsomely mod paintings in the former category, she used computer software to model and manipulate three-dimensional geometric structures. While the exhibition’s press release notes that these images are often “coded depictions of yonic forms,” we’re not talking about seashells and split melons here. In the pristinely painted Keyhole, 1971, a fiery red-orange and rose-colored mother ship approaches from a cloudless blue sky. The chic all-blue Horizontal Woman No. 2 from the same year slyly references a reclining nude with its blank virtual architecture. A kind of landscape, the painting depicts something resembling a compound of modernist bungalows built into a featureless hilltop.
Just two years later, Schapiro produced the unapologetically pink and decorated Voyage, 1973. Panels of floral-print fabric run along the top and bottom of the vertical painting, while lace curtains were used as spray-paint stencils on the sides, making the canvas a homey portal that opens into a void of dripping sunshine. Another stunning piece, Flying Carpet, 1972, with its quilt-like collage of patterned fabric and paper, anticipates the gynarchic density of her later, fan- and heart-shaped canvases. Schapiro’s passionate, activist-minded engagement with the craft traditions of women’s domestic labor made her an influential figure in the overlapping Pattern and Decoration and Women’s Art Movements, both of which fueled decades of innovative work. Luckily, these transporting, visually exuberant offerings are just the tip of the iceberg—she also has a survey show at the National Academy Museum through May 8.
“A heartfelt seduction lasts a lifetime,” says the archly camp English band Black Box Recorder. And, no joke, they’re right, especially when it comes to Meret Oppenheim, whose sexy, Surrealist works balance nightmare and Eros with sinister aplomb. Beverly Semmes’s exhibition here, “Rabbit Hole,” is a love letter dropped into the abyss—an homage to Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, spoon, and saucer from 1936, Object.
Semmes’s colorful fabric “Ghost” sculptures, made between 1996 and 2016, are T-pinned to the walls of gallery, and all six of them wear little sewn-on skirts. Two carry patterns of dots and ladybug spots, while the rest have small emblems attached to their centers: black-and-white diagrams from Erle Loran’s Cezanne’s Compositions (1943), a picture of a single hand from Oppenheim’s Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers, 1936, and something that looks like a turquoise navel or asshole. Though they bear some resemblance to Semmes’s early iconic dress sculptures, these works are more abstract and formally simple. They call to mind so many things: mittens, rocket ships, cartoon fish, shrouds, or even Haitian Vodou flags—sacred objects meant to hypnotize you into realms otherworldly and divine.
In the center of the main space is Cups, 2015, a group of gnarly-looking ceramic teacups sitting atop bits of Day-Glo yellow fleece and squat, rough-hewn ceramic plinths. They’re kind of homely, rather lovely, and somehow vulnerable: things that seem a little afraid of getting too close to the object they cherish the most.
“Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015,” featuring the work of nineteen artists and artist collectives, invades sundry realms outside of the strictly photographic, such as sculpture, installation, and performance. The exhibition places a strong emphasis on the networks of communication that connect us all, while highlighting themes of image ownership, branding, and visual syntax.
Using tactics that feel satirical but border on the freakily earnest is DIS, whose installation Related by Contour, 2015, exists as an enormous stock image of a “multiculti” family, plastered to the gallery wall and watermarked with the official Museum of Modern Art logo. David Horvitz’s quasi-performance piece Mood Disorder, 2015, traces the flow of images through “click-bait” websites. Katja Novitskova’s freestanding cutouts of recently discovered species of spiders, Approximation (peacock spider), 2015, which were openly sourced from image-sharing websites, transform these miniscule organisms into alarming creatures of gargantuan scale.
Ilit Azoulay’s amorphously taxonomic Shifting Degrees of Certainty, 2014, expands the parameters of documentary photography by creating a mosaic of objects from Germanic culture, while Lieko Shiga’s phenomenally eerie installation Rasen Kaigan, 2010–12, captures the sights and damaged spirits surrounding the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan. Elsewhere, an exact replica of Lele Saveri’s underground storefront, The Newsstand, 2013–14, which once stood in a bustling Brooklyn subway station selling posters, editions, and zines, is a loud reminder that even underground and without Wi-Fi, the future of photography is still as bright as it’s ever been.
“I want to feel free and do things as I please . . . normal human things . . . as normal human beings want to,” says a paranoid young woman in Zoe Beloff’s film The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff, 2011. Fulfilling this desire is a part of the utopian ideal, and the efficient use of time and technology can be a means to that end. Beloff presents this argument as an archaeological display of workaday paraphernalia staged on an industrial movie set. Her film, however, is the exhibit’s centerpiece, a study of solutions broken up over three channels (the other two show archival industrial films) that present a well-intentioned system of problem-solving.
The problem, of course, is labor, and the means necessary to work effectively for the benefit of humankind. In the industrial films, we are shown faster, more comfortable ways of filling a container and shuffling papers, with an actress performing each movement. This is supposed to help name the issues that need to be “fixed,” and every motion made is synchronized with the advancing seconds of a stopwatch.
Film is an apt medium to teach efficiency through mimicry and repetition. A properly “mechanized” body can produce more in less time and can live happily with whatever hours remain. Mutt and Jeff on Strike, an animated short from 1920 shown separately, tells us how the two famous comic-strip characters quit their jobs, work on their own animated film that flops, then beg to return to their jobs without pay. Beloff confirms that the problem of labor can’t be solved by focusing on how to improve or expedite procedural steps—that existential struggle, woefully, cannot be ironed out with an “automatized” formula. Scrutinizing the production time of a cog is worthless: Just get off the wheel.
When Google debuted its new, sans-serif logo this past September, the tech giant tempered public disdain for its streamlined appearance by calling attention to one unassailable feature: The new design is just 305 bytes in size—tiny—and can be rendered from only a handful of lines and circles. In “Unhappy Users,” Luke Murphy’s paintings and digital animations adhere to a similar visual economy. Thin lines and irreducible symbols cover his milky-white and gray canvases, all huddled on a single wall of the gallery’s front room. Rectangles and arrows collide with dollar signs, capital letters, and aborted tic-tac-toe games. Wobbly circles atop arched lines represent a person’s head and shoulders—a provisional human avatar, in colors straight from a set of dry-erase markers.
Nearby, old PC keyboards cover the floor, ceiling, and walls of a freestanding passageway, Conversation Funnel, which leads to a darkened space (all works cited, 2016). Each step forward requires crunching their plastic, brittle keys. It feels like a desecration, but it’s perfectly in line with Murphy’s treatment of technology—and symbolic output—as pure substance. In the next room, several LED panels flash a variety of primitive animations on loops. The head-and-shoulders figure reappears, shifting colors in rapid sequence, and a stream of smiley emoticons floats across a marquee.
As with most retro technologies, the LED panels’ graphics appear quaint, allowing their materiality to come to the fore. Murphy’s Bad Pixel is a brilliantly self-reflexive illustration of this—a screen that displays a circle and arrow pointing out a few of its own busted LEDs. What Color animates one of the Internet’s oldest memes: the words “ORANGE,” “YELLOW,” “GREEN,” and so on, gliding across the display in colors different from those they signify. Do all symbols, no matter how elemental, eventually drift apart from their meanings?
Louise Despont’s “Energy Scaffolds and Information Architecture” has a religious atmosphere. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entering the museum. Despont’s installation, an alternate universe containing two wooden chambers, is accompanied by a soft, live soundscape, courtesy of artist and musician Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Hung on the walls, Kuffner’s robotic gongs, drums, chimes, and bells—collectively titled The Gamelatron Roh Ageng, 2013—play continuously to mimic the gamelan, orchestral music traditional to Despont’s new home in Bali.
Despont’s sacred spaces serve as elaborate framing devices for her drawings—explorations of the subtle energy that moves between human, plant, and various other animate and inanimate forms. In the second enclosure after the main entrance is the most striking display: four highly stylized drawings of the human body in meditative poses, each meticulously cross-sectioned as if they were anatomical drawings from another world. Despont has rendered these figures almost life-size on sheets of antique ledger paper, which contain faded names, numbers, and dates scribbled between stenciled lattices. The energy centers thought to lie along the spinal cord and head, according to traditional Indonesian metaphysics, are exposed by Despont’s circular, compass-based lines and colored in with pastel hues of chartreuse, indigo, violet, and blood orange. Each piece gives insight into the transcendental, prompting soul-seekers to ponder their peripheries. What really inhabits the space between skin, air, and other beings? In this instance, it is the sound waves from Kuffner’s machines, certainly, among other elements reflecting the nature of existence as Despont imagines it: a mélange of beautifully formulated and evanescent Frankenstein beings who usually remain unseen.
Mountain ranges and female bodies, with their slopes and crevices, precipitous peaks and valleys, are recurring motifs in Jeanette Mundt’s work, and they anchor this succinct, alluring show, appearing in the two most striking paintings. The Matterhorn, beloved by centuries of artists, is rendered in radioactive shades of cobalt, coral, and teal in Another Double Mountain and the Modern Sofa (all works 2016). And in Climbing, Mundt nods to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, copying the nude figure from his painting Crouching Woman with Red Hair, 1897. Both of Mundt’s works are painted on large, upright wooden panels supported by pipes. The artist’s treatment of their edges is deliberately rough. In Climbing, the perimeter veers wide in places, exaggerating the woman’s ample derriere, yet cuts closely elsewhere, carving a jagged notch out of her breast.
These raw, irregular borders and Mundt’s loose, expressive brushwork pose a wry answer to slicker forms of appropriation, such as the flawlessly excised knights and angels in Sarah Charlesworth’s “Renaissance Paintings,” 1991. But Mundt shares Charlesworth’s incisive fascination with how images shape the way we see. Hacking these iconic subjects from their original contexts, Mundt evokes the brutal process of memory and cultural learning. By looking, we cut these images out of art history and install them in our own psyches, where they inform our perception of women and nature. Neither nudes nor mountains would exist the same way in the absence of a culture that fetishizes them. Mundt’s aforementioned redhead wears an ambiguous expression, gazing down at a point beyond the bed. She appears quietly prepared (her pose suggests an impending penetration) or possibly resigned: ready for viewers and critics to plot their opinions onto her body.
Titled “Sirens,” Carrie Moyer’s new show of vibrant abstract paintings evokes the winged women of Greek mythology who caused shipwrecks with their beautiful singing, luring hapless sailors to their island’s rocky reefs. The work has a loud allure, pairing psychedelic tide pools—complex layered areas of stains, washes, gauzy patterns, and marbleized ooze—with the graphic blare of ultrasaturated, solid matte forms and wavy armatures. The jewel-toned Conflagration with Bangs, 2015, features a drippy take on a fiery O’Keeffian close-up, framed by a structure with green-gold Gumby legs, or, as its title suggests, a geometric hairstyle with blunt fringe. Moyer sometimes accents her decidedly acrylic looks with glitter. In Intergalactic Emoji Factory, 2015, it’s applied to a blob-like edifice, twinkling against a blue and fuchsia sunset; in Red Hot Plot Hole, 2016, it forms a scabby crust on a watery crimson shape that looks like a heart-shaped keyhole surrounded by dark velvet.
Her compositions are rich with allusions to abstractionist herstory, especially Helen Frankenthaler’s pour paintings and the central-core imagists of 1970s, while also reflecting Pop and countercultural styles. One sees tie-dyed fabric, blown glass, the illuminated depths of lava lamps, and Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster here, as well as more recent digital design aesthetics. Moyer founded the queer-activist public-art duo Dyke Action Machine! with photographer Sue Schaffner in the ’90s, plastering New York City streets with lesbian riffs on familiar ad campaigns—it’s fun to look at this group of paintings in light of those ingenious interventions. Moyer’s fluid synthesis of idiosyncratic references makes for a kind of deep agitprop, critical menace roiling beneath its varied gorgeous surfaces.
“When Wayne Went Away,” Sue Tompkins’s first solo gallery show in the United States, requires close viewing. Her small, textured canvases of rich, dried-out paint don’t read from a distance or online. Neither do her typewritten fluorescent paper pieces “New Trances,” 2016, where pressed letters and carriage returns output textual shapes on a field (e.g., an orange page where the phrase “FEEL SO ALIVE” levitates over a tidy square of backslashes). With these forms, Tompkins shows a sincere urge to vocalize. They instantiate a moment when thought looks for language as a means of expression, or as a way to materialize a visual sound, part nonsensical and part lyrical, for more rhythmic intentions.
The front room installation gives plenty of breathing space for Tompkins’s conversational airiness. The painting Come on, 2016, exemplifies her eloquently brass tacks approach to image making. In it, a smearing of dark green is punctuated with daubs of glitter and blotches of metallic paint; just southwest of center, the canvas has been poked through, leaving a lipsticky red mark around the hole. The many surface surprises throughout the show—punctured canvases, glued-on wooden dowels, over-poured paint—make visible the maker’s hand and process. Her voice has an indelible pictorial presence, which must have something to do with her experience as a spoken word performer. Tompkins’s paintings and typed paper pieces fill the silent space with a clatter of sounds, none quite fully articulated but all wanting to connect.
Berlinde De Bruyckere is an artist whose work has made me cry in public. It’s remarkable when art makes you cry, unlike when you cry at a movie or listening to music, since hot tears are fine in the dark, yet unerotic and, at best, often disgusting in a white space. De Bruyckere is a master manipulator who doesn’t care how you feel. There is no other explanation for the horses she shows dead and hog-tied, one at a time or three together, piled in a mahogany armoire like the victims of a massacre.
Before you get to the great roan bodies in “No Life Lost,” you have to encounter them flayed out and drawn in pencil and tremulous watercolors—cloud black, dirty sunset pink—as if to resemble vaginas. The relationship between human and horse is the only one in nature that rivals that of a man and a woman for sheer struggling power and the mortal frustration that results. A horse, after all, must be broken. As a child, the painter Francis Bacon, a perennial analogue for De Bruyckere’s more cruciformal tendencies, was whipped by his father’s grooms the same way they whipped his father’s racehorses. His father was likely afraid of the young boy’s grace.
I can’t say whether it is crueler to treat a human like a horse or a horse like a human, as De Bruyckere does. I can say that the show’s final work, Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, 2012–13, a giant red elm meant to embody both the old woman in J. M. Coetzee’s story “The Old Woman and the Cats” and the forever-young martyr Saint Sebastian, is a resting place, generative after excess decay. Think of the coffins that could be made from it, the armoires, the plinths, and the pyres. Think of the bedframes. We live to burn another day and one day not to suffer, or be sorry, at all.
Curator Lynn Gumpert has dug into the Grey Art Gallery’s thousand-work-strong collection of Iranian art, and she deftly unpicks, then obliterates, the constraints so often present in the fraught categorization of most non-Western art. It is all too often pegged, states Gumpert, as “either too international (read: derivative) or too provincial (read: not of interest).”
Gumpert gives us sixty works by six artists, spanning three generations and two floors. Paintings and sculptures by older-generation artists Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram start off the exhibition. The gold and silver of Pilaram’s 1960s paintings have the richness of illuminated manuscripts through a geometric prism, yet adjacent installations from Barbad Golshiri and Chohreh Feyzdjou are dark, claustrophobic, and heavy. Golshiri deals with the markers of death, as evident in Memorial for Anonymous Martyrs, 2015, a leaning tombstone juxtaposing government text with poetry by Rumi and Nezami. Feyzdjou, who died of a genetic disorder in 1996, created 403 copies of a mystico-poetic book as an attempt to reach enlightenment (Série K [Series K], 1992).
This darkness does give way to visual lightness—though not without razor-sharp bite—in works by younger artists Shiva Ahmadi and Shahpour Pouyan. Exploring the relics of conflict, Pouyan’s military-inspired works include the vibrant Unthinkable Thoughts, 2014, a series of ceramic domes from various religious buildings—a nod to the use of making ceramics as therapy to treat PTSD. Even for those familiar with Iranian art, there are new discoveries. Tanavoli, for example, better-known for his “Heech” sculptures, here has delightfully nuanced reworkings of old folio lithographs. There’s a lot to see, but this show encourages you to dig a little deeper—read the labels, look at the work, then read the labels again. Are these works “global”? “Local”? It matters not—they just, powerfully, are.
Lining the vaulted halls and nestled in the bays, chapels, and gardens of Saint John the Divine, a Gothic and Romanesque cathedral with a long history of interfaith services and social justice activism, is a bounty of visual art focused on issues of food security, sustainability, and accessibility. Curated by Kirby Gookin and Robin Kahn, and organized into seven sections—Water, Soil, Seed, Farm, Market, Meal, and Waste—the show reflects the cycle of food production. The mixture of well-known with lesser-known artists, and installations with documentation of past works, reflects the intermingling of art-world visitors with parishioners, pastors, and acolytes.
One will immediately notice the more canonical works in the show—a photograph of Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, 1977, a downtown apartment filled with 280,000 pounds of earth, or documentation of Alison Knowles’s 2008 version of Fluxus Event Score: Make a Salad at Tate Modern, in which Knowles poured a cascade of balsamic vinegar into a giant salad mixed in a green tarpaulin by a team of interns, for whomever dared to partake. Such pieces, however, seem ornamental beside more poignant works on display, such as Eating in Public’s Share Seeds Station, 2015, a multitude of seed sharing stations offered free of charge to anyone interested in promoting the time-honored practice of seed saving and sharing, circulating heirloom seeds anarchically through the commons.
Near the entrance is Claire Pentecost’s Soil-erg, 2015, an imposing, enormous black-and-white tapestry of a skeleton dancing under a layer of topsoil, flanked by soil ingots on wooden tables. It is surrounded by plant roots and saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi, or “neurons of the earth.” In the drawing are banners—one reads “Compost is alchemy” and another, “Death is the food of life.” Anyone who has plunged their hands into fresh compost, just weeks after turning food scraps over to ravenous worms, knows that this is true. One wonders how many New Yorkers have ever done that.
In the center of a large star-spangled podium is a yellow phonograph, its title painted out in black letters across the front: “Jack Early’s Life Story in Just Under 20 Minutes!” The tune that plays from this 2014 work is a slapstick jazz number, spoken by the artist, about growing up gay during the Nixon administration in Raleigh, North Carolina. Early’s solo exhibition here is an autobiographical, Technicolor-drenched journey into a childhood that was a little bit sweet and a little bit saccharine, with a whole lot of sexy roiling just beneath.
In Jack, Mr. Early and Friends, 2016, thirty canvas gerbils surround a soft sculptural self-portrait of the artist as a nine-year-old, watching a plush television beside his pets, a fish and a cat (the kitty’s name: Mr. Early). Nearby are the paintings Push Up and Yellow Popsicle (both 2015), depicting the titular summertime treats shiny and dripping, in electric tones of canary and tangerine. Behind each pop is the toy-soldier wallpaper that covered the walls of the artist’s late-’60s, early-’70s bedroom. One feature, however, has been changed—Early altered the pattern to depict two male soldiers holding hands, transforming banal suburban decor into maps of prepubescent wish fulfillment and desire.
But then Jack takes a turn toward the nasty! In the paintings Hog Rider and Tubes and Pubes (both 2015), respectively, a man in assless leather chaps straddles a vintage motorbike, while another man in stripy white tube socks fiddles with his underwear to give us a show. Early’s returned to his youth—erotically, wistfully, hilariously—to claim what he couldn’t the first time around.
Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders’s 1984 character study, opens as Travis Henderson (played by the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton), a rugged yet troubled loner in a desert landscape, and is on, and seemingly appears from, the road to nowhere. Taking this film as a departure, Koen van den Broek’s exhibition “The Light We Live In” dives into the same desolate atmosphere. Van den Broek is known for his steep, highly pronounced pictorial planes that depict the magisterial loneliness of unpopulated highway lanes, cityscapes, and curbside detritus––the kind of non-lieux that one may encounter en route to total isolation or escape. The twelve paintings on view here hint at ominous narratives that are part fictional, part autobiographical, while the figures that occasionally manifest in these tableaux feel like intruders.
A roughly delineated figure peers from a small field of traffic-light green into the gloam of Sunset (all works 2015). The shadow of a crawler tractor in Requiem brings to mind the dramatic, fluid lines of Franz Kline or the fathomless blacks of Léon Spilliaert. The mint-colored bushes of Vanishing Point and the terra-cotta-red highway in Furnace Creek Washington Rd surprise and hold the eye, especially with their eerie passages of dry brush that, at certain moments, become precipitous fields of limitless, abstract space. Van den Broek’s casual yet deliberate handling of paint is masterful and mesmerizing—his colors, deeply cinematic. Looking at the arid and claustrophobic environments he creates, one can’t help but return to Wenders’s antihero and his wish to move as far as possible from the constraints of modern life until, to paraphrase the character, every sign of man disappears.
The first photograph was made in 1825. It is attributed to Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor who originally dubbed it a “heliograph,” a direct index of the sun. This formulation proved popular into the 1850s, though Charles Baudelaire famously derided photographers as failed painters and “sun worshippers.” In “Direct Positive,” Bay Area–based artist Chris McCaw embraces Baudelaire’s vilification with an array of large-scale works made with handmade view cameras, military-grade optics, and vintage paper found on Craigslist and eBay or donated by friends.
At first glance, many of the works, such as Heliograph #98, 2015, appear to be painterly indeed, with gestural marks or cuts into a monochromatic surface, à la Lucio Fontana. But on closer inspection, topographies emerge in the lower register of the frame, and the paper appears to be singed and irradiated. These traces are not from McCaw’s hand but from the sun, to which the positive prints are given over in ultralong exposures amplified by the focal power of an industrial lens. These photographs do not merely capture photons but register the activity of the sun itself, as it makes its way through its varied arcs from latitude to latitude. In the “Heliograph” series, this yields delicate, surreal objects; in “Sunburn,” sublime landscapes. Sunburned GSP#850, 2015, draws together twenty-one negatives and a thirty-six-hour shot, marking the sinuous movement of an arctic sphere. It is a majestic composition, and one that extrudes new horizons from unrepentant medium-specificity.
“Answer Me,” the titular command of Anri Sala’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States, falls urgently on the ear. Teeming with possibility, this aurally immersive show, which presents nearly two decades of video installations as well as sculptures, photographs, and drawings, scintillates and reverberates. From documentary accounts detailing loss and disaffection, such as Intervista (Finding the Words), 1998, and Nocturnes, 1999, or the relationships between disused, politically charged architecture and the present, such as Dammi i colori (Give Me the Colors), 2003, and Answer Me, 2008, Sala synthesizes imagery with verbal and nonverbal communication into a syntactically elegant exploration of collective memory.
In Ravel Ravel, 2013, two disembodied left hands—which belong to pianists Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Louis Lortie—reinterpret the French composer’s sinister Piano Concerto in G. Their exquisite movements correspond and clash across two channels, which creates a riveting pas de deux. In the work’s pendant, Unravel, 2013, a DJ, Chloé Thévenin, tries synchronizing Bavouzet’s and Lortie’s recorded arrangements on a pair of turntables, distorting our emotional perceptions of time through her sonic experimentations.
In 3-2-1, 2011/16, saxophonist André Vida riffs off a video installation, Long Sorrow, 2005, featuring musician Jemeel Moondoc, improvising out of a window of the Langer Jammer that gives the work its title, a decrepit-looking modernist housing project in West Berlin. They create an elegiac duet for a corroding edifice—and the “good intentions” whence it came. Here as elsewhere in this exhibition, Sala’s appeal to the void of time and history finds gravity in the sound of its own echo.
One encounters a table and chair from the now defunct Café ‘Ino. They sit there like relics, memorializing a place that exists only in unassuming photographs, fissuring the linearity of time. With no regard to chronology, this exhibition echoes the modus operandi of human memory, navigating different episodes of history—personal and public—in no specific order. Each image is a signpost for the many interlacing narratives that make up Patti Smith’s life and travels.
Beds, statues, rivers, open roads, and tombstones, which bear the names of figures who’ve shaped our culture, form a visual diary. Jean Genet, Frida Kahlo, and Paul Verlaine are resurrected through pictures of their belongings or their final resting place. It’s morbid, but it is essentially a desire to embrace mortality, and one’s heroes. Smith’s photographs create a rich web of elusive moments—much like the language of her books and songs. “Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory,” writes Smith in M Train (2015), her latest memoir, which functions as a kind of script for this show.
Smith is a nostalgist, and though her assessments of the past may look “pretty,” they are far from treacly sentimentality. She is an unrepentant romantic, a troubadour who can only follow where her heart takes her—places and moments that are beautiful, sad, and rich with longing.
The parade of mysterious photographic works on view in Eileen Quinlan’s new show fills both of this gallery’s Lower East Side spaces, but also leaves them feeling strangely empty. The pieces are large but not grand, spaced farther apart than what’s customary, and, altogether, have an unmooring effect. The potential significance or emotional resonance of any individual image—there’s a regal fox, brambly woods, shattered glass, a sexty crotch shot, and many abstractions—is undercut by its puzzling, seemingly random (but clearly calculated) relationship to the others. In the unsettling search for Quinlan’s subject matter among these quasi-placeholders, one guesses there’s some stock photography in the mix—indeed, the press release confirms it. The shattered glass in Paris Shot, 2016, for example, is an image of a restaurant window damaged in November’s terrorist attacks that the artist licensed from an agency and rephotographed. She adds her touch during the developing process with a chemical drip, cleaving the spider-webbed form in half.
This is one of many such spattered, flecked, or dripped-on black-and-white prints, left unframed, pinned to the wall like work for an art-school crit. As Quinlan puts contemporary photography—high, low, amateur, user-generated, corporate-controlled—through its paces, she employs the happy accidents of the increasingly unused darkroom. In contrast, the bigger color prints on view, mounted on Dibond and in metal frames, are portraits of the process of digitization itself: streaky nonpatterns made by sliding a mirror across a flatbed scanner at work. While their artifactual, glitchy qualities feel familiar, they’re not friendly objects. Quinlan’s tough formalism denies us most of what we want from photos, but, in upending rote reactions, she helps us parse the deluge.
There’s something spectral bouncing around the various pieces installed in this gallery. It’s left behind a flurry of questions that all lead to one very particular origin: Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous Baroque work Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca. 1620, which Anna Ostoya has cleverly dissected through an eclectic assortment of hard-edged paintings and ink-jet prints.
Ostoya’s display is akin to a detective’s evidence wall. She dismantles the Italian artist’s painting and reimagines alternative scenarios for the gruesome biblical story we can see, which has merged with the real-life rape of Gentileschi we can only imagine. Ostoya begins with allusions to Picasso—one of modernism’s more famous misogynists—in the geometric patterning of her paintings, such as Holofernes Slaying Holofernes (all works 2016). In the adjacent room are primarily photomontages, some of which seem to be tributes to Georgia O’Keeffe, the one most obvious being Sheets and a Hand, where the titular elements dissolve into each other, creating elegant curves that look like flowers and female genitalia. Two Faces, Judith and a Robot, however, is punctuated with dark humor, as it features a robot’s head superimposed on a woman’s face, resulting in a disturbing hybrid creature.
Two Faces, A Model and an Actress unravels the complex duality of human nature. The actress’s arresting gasp blends into the model’s serene porcelain face, resulting in a two-faced, one-headed monster. And it seems we’ve come to the core of the show: The demon that haunts the space from the moment we walk in spins well out of control, and points to the Holofernes inside all of us.
While the subjects in Nicola Tyson’s exhibition closely resemble women, winged creatures, and flowers, her most consistent visual (or for lack of a better term, thing) is a weird dancing figure that feels somehow familiar. Tyson’s drawings elide pat definitions, and the forms we encounter are polymorphously perverse—daffodils become faces and then turn into freaks, feathers, and sex organs, pictures from and made specifically for the subconscious. A rounded jigsaw puzzle–shaped nub serves as both head and arm for a lean, confidently drawn female humanoid in Standing Figure #7, 2016. The artist’s graphic economy conveys so much, and the cartographically drawn groin in this piece is, embarrassingly, difficult to ignore.
But, in Tyson’s universe, a malformed leg, too big foot, or absent nose contributes to a strangeness that is more than just grotesque—it’s tender, otherworldly. In Untitled (sketch book page) #34, 2005, dense colored pencil and graphite lines make up an animal-like head (or a lugubrious-looking mask) that possesses a creepy fairytale vibe—it fits in beautifully with the artist’s other renderings of witchy superheroes and some children’s-book landscapes. In the life-size Pencil Stub, 2016, private parts are conspicuously unconcealed: A dominatrix’s pupillary nipples stare out of a cutout top, while her pelvis, which looks like a shield or inverted jock strap, appears outside a short skirt. In her hands she brandishes a pencil and a switch. Tyson’s show is an immersive Rorschach test, authored by an imagination that doesn’t just blur but melts the lines between representation and abstraction.
“Are you a feminist artist?” is a dogged refrain, running like an earworm through Mira Schor’s new exhibition of oil paintings and delicate works on paper. Rendered in the artist’s fluid, unfussy script—the hallmark of her painterly conceptualism and long-standing investigations of language as image—the text fills small boxy speech bubbles at eye-level with a repeated figure, ostensibly the feminist artist in question. She’s depicted as a playfully morbid diagram, reduced to a set of signs, a sparsely accessorized stick figure with breasts and a skull. Schor’s distilled figuration is not a dry semiotic exercise, though. Schor’s very into her materials, and employs an edge of angry wit.
Drawn with ink, pencil, gesso, and charcoal on vertical sheets of tracing paper tacked to the walls, her “‘Power’ Figure” series, 2015–16, which fills the gallery’s large main room, is composed of two dozen or so iterations of this symbol/woman. In a number of them, rust-colored lines connect their crotches or nipples to open books, as if the figures—or their organs—write telekinetically with menstrual blood or milk. Schor, with this weird archetypal imagery, provocatively confuses tropes of female reproduction with concerns of feminist representation. “Power” Figure #7: Still Too Young, Not Dead Enough, 2015, is a stark picture of the woman artist whose dead career will merit discovery or resurrection at her life’s end. In it, a dead alien head floats above a scribbly, sexed body and the show’s dominant query is countered with another pervasive contemporary demand: “Can you help once a month?” It’s a subtle time stamp embedded in this timeless-looking show, which, taken all together, forms a complex and energetic portrait of feminist fatigue.
Over the past two decades, photography, like film, has suffered an identity crisis in the face of proliferating digital technologies. The situation has led to a rise in self-reflexive practices—photography about darkroom processing, for instance. This impulse, however, is waning, and photography seems ripe for experiments with narrative that fly in the face of objectivity and indexicality. Willa Nasatir is a young artist who steers away from the strictness of medium-specificity and embraces psychological subject matter in her work.
Nasatir’s four glossy C-prints feel as though they’ve come out of an earlier group of works about crime photography—a “neutral” genre that is, at its core, anything but. Nasatir’s characters here are things, not bodies: a singed fan, bloodred candles, a pair of open shears, and a crown made of wire. They function as items plucked from some violent, satanic rite, symbols we project all manner of visceral horror upon. Nasatir photographs her objects in front of disorienting mirrors and subjects her shadowy prints to various manipulations, including burning. To add a sense of temporal disjuncture, she rephotographs her original prints through cobwebby skeins of Plexiglas and acrylic. Her moody aesthetic seems indebted to the theatrical, prop-centric performance art of the 1970s seen in the 2013–14 Whitney Museum exhibition “Rituals of Rented Island,” featuring artists such as Jack Smith, Stuart Sherman, and Sylvia Palacios Whitman. The images also recall the quasi-Surrealistic scenarios of Jan Groover and, of course, Goth music videos of the 1980s and ’90s.
The word apocalypse means revelation: a kind of unveiling to expose some higher power’s purpose (through mass destruction, of course). In Greg Parma Smith’s epically scaled six-panel painting titled Last Judgment (Selfless, Deathless, No World), 2015–16, the end of days is visualized through layers of canvas that literally peel off the picture plane, revealing a number of stylistically disjunctive images beneath. In the center is a deceptively kitschy, postcard-perfect sunset. Split in half across two panels, this dark star suggests that it increasingly takes away more than it gives—a vital source of life that simultaneously destroys it, as we have witnessed in all the havoc wrought by climate change.
On the leftmost panel of this giant work, two pelicans swoop across a seascape, their eyes rendered like marble. On the opposite end, another pelican—belonging to a different visual system—is psychedelically melting away in a triangular field of blues and browns. A composite of a woman, who seems like a holy deity, emerges from a portal of unfurled canvas, her body seemingly made up of other women from different worlds or dimensions. The fissures in her being are painted gold, like the tenderly mended cracks in Kintsugi pottery.
In an adjacent gallery there are a few small ink drawings (each titled At the mouth of a cave and respectively subtitled selfless; deathless; and no world, all 2016), which relate directly to the larger work. They call to mind the Victorian passion for collecting and drawing butterflies. One can locate Charles Burchfield’s hallucinatory formal influence in these works as well—another artist with a taste for the menacing and ecstatic.
Strawberry-flavored Dippin’ Dots, Sobranie Slims, Himalayan salt lamps, the ombré hem of Gwen Stefani’s wedding dress, the drunk tank at Santa Clara County, carnations on Mother’s Day, orchids, a love stone, Cam’ron in mink, Sissy Spacek as Pinky in 3 Women (1977), a Juicy Couture velour tracksuit, a Jem doll’s hair, Bazooka gum, an inflatable flamingo, Pucci lingerie from the 1960s, Wet n Wild 901B in a black plastic tube: These are the shadings of pink in Sojourner Truth Parsons’s new paintings that involve, variously, a Dalmatian, flowers, cigarettes, acrylic nails, and a temporary tattoo dispenser’s worth of butterflies. Many of these works seem to be of the artist’s best friend, Julia, whose face is never seen. She’s always turned around—perhaps blushing.
Hung large in the narrow rooms of this Lower East Side gallery, the five canvases on view are done in a real naïf style that owes a few things, directly or indirectly, to the Royal Art Lodge of fin-de-siècle Winnipeg. Outside Canada, where Parsons grew up and went to art school, the trend is obtained from the works and ethos of Paul Klee, or of Albert Oehlen, and it too often manifests, among newer painters, as badness, for a simple lack—or premature refusal—of taste. Parsons is better than that. And sweeter. Hers are no Sunday paintings, but paintings in which every day is Sunday, with a Sunday’s sense that a private self must be indulged. Hence the delicate pleasures here, the coordinated languor, and the attendant deep blues.
In the intimate exhibition space of Billy Sullivan’s flirty paintings and drawings, the air is charged with a tinge of the erotic. The room is a vibrating chamber of rumors, memories: We are privy to the artist’s interior world, his tender relationships and various loves, both living and lost. Re-created from Sullivan’s personal cache of photos, seven of the ten works on display are titled after their subjects, including Cookie Mueller (Cookie, 2016) and the artist’s husband, Klaus Kertess (Klaus and Klaus, 2015–16). Sullivan’s brushstrokes are gentle and effortless—details are hazy, contours contrast and blend. Lightly discordant color pairings like emerald and magenta, or sapphire and ocher, are sprinkled throughout—tones that call to mind Brooks Brothers’ plaids, a strawberry ice cream in Provincetown, or the look of an East Hampton hedge while coming off a tab of ecstasy.
The pleasure of Sullivan’s works comes in two distinct waves: first, from simply falling into their luscious, exquisite surfaces, and then bearing witness to all of the artist’s posh friends from his haute milieu—this is a privileged gaze, full of scopophilic desire. This entwined sensation seems most palpable in Klaus in Tulum, 2003, where the titular curator is lying naked behind a sheer veil. Hypnotic pinky purples and lemon yellows embellish surrounding tiles and walls as if the atmosphere itself were painted, and this quality bleeds into the exhibition itself. Sullivan’s show pulsates like a circuit of gossip at a party, sexy and pleasurable.
Crisscrossing Italy in the 1970s and ’80s, the photographer Luigi Ghirri did for his homeland what notable New Color artists were doing for the US during those same decades—namely, capturing the country’s social, cultural, and actual landscapes in vivid hues. Ghirri died in 1992, but the work in this exhibition, despite its occasionally dated subjects and slightly color-shifted prints, feels current, and not just because much of contemporary photography revels in nostalgia. Long before today’s de rigueur interest in de- and rematerialized images and mania for rephotographed printed matter, Ghirri observed how the image world abuts and interrupts the real one: A poster of a lemon tree peels away from a stucco wall below its flowering three-dimensional analogue; a billboard blowup of a reclining beauty is caressed by the green bough of a nearby maple.
Like his transatlantic counterparts, Ghirri seemed to view the world slightly askance, defamiliarizing the ordinary so that, as he wrote, “even objects that might seem to be entirely described by sight can, in their representation, prove to be like the blank pages of a book yet to be written.” In Roma, 1979, a view of the Colosseum and a too-blue sky echo a vintage postcard; yet the image centers not on the iconic monument but on the back of an anonymous brown-suited man in the middle distance, as if the camera had been mistakenly jostled sideways just before the shutter opened, revealing a sightseer idling among the hedges. Printed at snapshot size, the details are ultrasharp; here, and in several deadpan images of topiary from his series “Colazione sull’erba” (Lunch on the Lawn), 1972–74, the foliage evokes the stippled trees that pattern the vistas of Flemish paintings, whose meticulousness Ghirri revered. A proper viewing of Ghirri’s own precision requires that you genuflect twice: first in scrutiny, then again in wonder.
In Maggie Lee’s solo debut here, a teen mausoleum crawling with early-to-mid-aughts moods and references, the artist presents a suite of dioramas centered on the Jenny doll, a fantasy avatar the artist dresses and entombs in, mostly, glass tanks. Each takes on the logic of the miniature world, inviting viewers to lean in at different angles, as all but one work rest on custom stands of various heights. With a decisive but sometimes frenetic hand, Lee revisits transitional periods in her life. Her exhibition re-creates many familiar coming-of-age experiences and sites: bedrooms, vintage shops, nightclubs, acid trips, and at least one hangover.
In I Want to Believe (all works 2016), a Genzken-ish raver stomps across a reflective discotheque floor, indifferent to her own image caught in a shard of broken mirror as well as to the discarded Oi Oicha tea bottles and records—Comus, Peaches—lining the corners of her room. We witness other signs of 2000s adolescence: among them, tiny Orangina bottles, Keroppi stickers, shrunken Comme des Garçons ads, the Erowid logo, rhinestones, and trendy outfits for Jenny/Maggie, made with Hanna Törnudd. In Psycho, a club-ready Jenny is surrounded by spare notes of giallo glamour—a Dario Argento poster hangs behind the shiny chrome of a BDSM-looking hamster wheel near a furry black divan, close to a scrap of magic mushroom and an empty Adderall capsule. As if setting booby traps, she fills her installations with visual refrains—hamster bedding, salt licks—imbuing the works with arch self-awareness and twee humor.
Buried in Ward Shelley’s Extended Narrative, v. 1, 2014—a chronological taxonomy of Western art since the Enlightenment—is a reference to its forebear: Alfred Barr’s famous 1936 diagram of the evolution of abstraction. While expressing modernism’s penchant for positivist, even teleological narratives, the comically swerving arrows of Barr’s history also point toward the absurd oversimplifications and elisions on which they are premised. This same ambivalence informs all the charts here, painted on Mylar and gathered under the exhibition title “The Felicific Calculus.” Named after Jeremy Bentham’s proposed algorithm for happiness, the works graph the history of our culture, ranging from art to the automobile, politics to pornography. Though meticulously researched, they suggest that information is not neutral, as their bright colors and allusions to natural forms—including a dissected frog—posit that data is the object of both cultural discourse and subjective judgments, aesthetic and otherwise. Furthermore, each chart is presented as the first of three possible versions, acknowledging that they’re merely iterations of a mutable truth.
The same open-endedness informs the other series on view, “The Last Library,” 2015–16, which riffs on Borges’s fantasy of a library containing all imaginable books. A collaboration with Douglas Paulson, these bookcases of titles that have not yet been written (e.g., Master a Fearful Rhetoric, by Newt Gingrich) are organized by whimsical criteria such as “books written at sea level” and are decorated with Carol K. Brown’s hand-painted knick-knacks and complemented by purpose-built wainscoting. Whereas the charts open up the past, the bookcases, like science fiction, open up the present by imagining an uncanny future. If the flip side of Bentham’s dream of better living through programming is the nightmare of total control (emblematized by his “Panopticon”), understanding that both the future and the past are up for grabs is a precursor of resistance.
For “Feather Belly,” Carlos Reyes’s solo exhibition here, the peephole in the gallery’s door has been reversed, allowing visitors to peek into the space before entering. What you witness gazing through it is a fisheye perspective on an ominous scene: An enormous, spiky deathtrap occupies the entire entrance floor. In a corner, an orb, colored black and blue like a bruise, shines a beam of white light in the direction of the peephole, signaling the work’s menacing presence to any potential voyeur. An anxiety-inducing sight, to say the least.
The scene unravels, however, once one is inside the gallery. What at first looked like a prop from the Saw franchise of torture-porn films is actually Feather Belly #1 (all works 2016), a sculpture composed of a smooth sheet of luminous steel (formerly the floor panel of a large utility van), pierced by spikes made of walnut. The emotional and intellectual trajectory of this work’s unfolding—from behind the door, then through it—is eerie, mesmerizing. It is a formally beautiful landscape that’s weirdly familiar and utterly foreboding.
The same uncanny transition happens with Feather Belly #2, the aforementioned round, light-emitting sentinel. In actuality, it’s a bowling ball with a small LED shining from one of its finger holes. Hanging on the gallery walls are Feather Belly #3 and #4, two unfired clay works resembling charred wood. The surfaces of these pieces—in deep, inky tones of purple, black, and blue—resemble reptile skin. Their psychedelic patina is derived from ordinary desktop-printer ink. Again, Reyes manages to successfully pervert the boundaries between the mundane and the otherworldly.
Lionel Maunz’s fourth solo show with this gallery, “Fealty,” pushes creepiness outside of a general, and easily commodified, aesthetic experience. The title refers to, among other things, the bonds of family, and all the torturous shit that comes with it. Blood relationships—poisonous, petty, and horrifying—come to dramatic life with Maunz’s realistic graphite drawings of early twentieth-century incubators designed to keep newborns free of germs from filthy mommies in Obligation 1–3 (all works 2016). Vertical Chamber gives us an image from Harry Harlow’s “pit of despair,” one of the notorious behavioral researcher’s controversial apparatuses, used to cruelly isolate and observe infant monkeys.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Maunz comes from a dysfunctional family unit himself, having grown up in a religious cult somewhere in rural Montana. Whatever doomsday bunker mentality was imposed upon him as a child, he’s certainly exorcised it with the exhibition’s centerpiece, Mother My Body Disgusts Me, a grouping of poured-concrete boxes/tombs that display steel bars and funereal, mutilated-looking cast-iron figures. Maunz’s brutish metal sculptures viscerally detail all manner of physical trauma and decay—the artist uses an assortment of queasy images from medical texts as reference. As one can imagine, all the runny “mistakes” that occur during the making of these pieces only serve to amplify the gore.
A video, an empty stage, and you: These are the things that make Ed Atkins’s show go. For this sparest of installations—which feels radical next to the overbearing clusterfuck exhibitions so au courant these days (Mike Kelley they ain’t)—the artist puts the sprawl where his mouth is and delivers a rollicking, multipronged poem. The video, titled Performance Capture, 2015–16, is a CGI anthology of more than one hundred people tag-teaming parts of a sharply enunciated monologue delivered by a single head and a pair of detached forearms, all floating against a white background. Ostensibly male, the face and hands fade in and out of focus, gesticulating with the flow of the video’s language and changing its facial expression with the subtle intelligence of a true thespian. The face isn’t anyone’s—it’s a composite of all those tensely articulating actors thinking aloud, far and wide, which, again and again, returns to human bodies, animals, digital images, fat, and the rendering they are subjected to.
They exclaim: “My body is precisely NOT here,” and their face looms large, grimacing. They murmur, “if marrow were a grammatical device or a literary mode,” and tiredly remember “getting the feathery cross-hatching around the face bone bits.” We need to make “animals into more useful stuff,” through “a rendering process yield[ing] a fat commodity.” A factory farm renders animals into fatty edibles, or other things we want that can’t bite back. Artists, too, can render any extra fifteen pounds—or minutes—they find lying around into another kind of excess, which can be traded for capital or sent for gutting on the art market’s slaughterhouse floor. But, to paraphrase the video, true rendering is concerned primarily with the look of love.
Beauty has often been in the eye of the patriarchal beholder. Frequently, where the male gaze is concerned, women are weak—their delicate (and delectable) bodies meant to fuel desire and consumerism. A “beautiful” woman, by Western standards, is defined by the Aryan trifecta: blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. She is soft, fragile, helpless. And her tearful face divulges a constant need to be saved and cared for.
With imagery sourced from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Anne Collier’s photographs of women remind us that misogyny is not just found in the fine print of policy, or within a GOP debate. It is a deep-seated cultural phenomenon that pervades everything. The restaging of these found photographs—tricks of advertising that manufacture counterfeit emotions—is a scathing critique of imposed standards of beauty and femininity.
For instance, take the photograph Woman Crying #8, 2016. It depicts a “sincere” tear at the start of a sinuous journey down a woman’s cheek. This tender scene, however, is shattered by the reflection of the photographer’s beauty dish in her iris that no amount of mascara or fake lashes can hide. Hanging nearby is Quality Control, 2016, a magazine advertisement that pairs a camera lens with a picture of a seductive-looking nude woman, poolside, with her ass in the air.
Collier’s work is more than a clinical survey of visual language. It’s a reminder that while scores of women in the past century have made great strides for their rights, the battle for gender equality is far from over.
The small earthenware objects arranged on plinths in Guðmundur Thoroddsen’s show “Dismantled Spirits” evoke a garbled ancientness, a mishmash of Paleolithic, Sumerian, and Greco-Roman styles united by a scatological and phallic throughline. Pinocchio noses and double-headed dildo forms emerge from lumpy, daubed-together urns placed next to what look like rough-hewn tools and obelisk-type things. Hot Dog Mask, 2015, is a mini-monument to grossness: an imperfect green-glazed Doric-like column, interrupted by a diarrheaish cloud of Caucasian-colored clay just above its base and topped with a turd-cock (in the same fake flesh hues), reaching for the heavens. The “dismantled spirits” of the exhibition’s title are the loose ends of a transhistorical patriarchy in crisis.
Airy and magnetic works on paper elaborate this pregnant, semifictional scenario, depicting fragmented narratives of antisocial behavior—destruction, conflict, racist violence, and explosions—through rudimentary depictions of male figures in profile, often with their dicks out. In most of them, a featureless (but carefully shaded) sausage shape floats above the action like a numb deity. However, in Angry God, 2016, it grins on the floor while a giant ghoul drawn in graphite pops out of a trapezoid like a jack-in-the-box. While this work, with its Captain Caveman humor, engages in a patrilineal tradition of patheticism , it also refreshingly brings to mind other, more scathingly crude work. One thinks of Carol Rama’s brilliantly lewd drawings of snakes, tongues, shoes, and shit, and senses an homage to Nancy Spero’s urgent Vietnam War–era drawings, which deploy both ancient and childlike representational techniques to protest military atrocity and technologized male violence. Thoroddsen, in a similar style, celebrates the spectacular dissolution of all that horror ’s symbolic bedrock.
Displacement, dismantlement, and mirroring are at the heart of Oakland-based Zarouhie Abdalian’s first solo show in New York, “A Betrayal.” Despite a spare, poetic visual vocabulary, Abdalian’s site-responsive work reverberates with frustration and anger toward a failing political system and the violence of gentrification.
Close of Winter (all works 2016), a window gate taken apart into four sections that stand as spindly floor-bound sculptures, testifies to the broken nature of “broken windows” policing. The works, with their delicate, organic motifs—a contemporary response to Giacometti’s attenuated, existential figures?—call to mind the steel or wrought-iron fences one associates with dangerous urban neighborhoods. In one of the gallery’s windows flutters Interregnum, a sepia-colored print on mesh fabric that duplicates the view: Images of an old water tower and an ever-rising skyline blur with the real ones just beyond the sill, causing a subtle visual and psychic disjuncture. In One into two, plaster busts of the Roman god Janus face each other, eyes wide open. Rather than representing the past and future, these two heads illustrate an ahistorical echo chamber of clear-sighted—and closed-circuit—myopia.
Abdalian deploys sound as a type of psychogeographic material, much in the vein of Susan Philipsz or Susan Hiller. In 2013, she created Occasional Music, a sound installation of ringing bells that resonated across Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza (which was unofficially renamed the Oscar Grant Plaza by local Occupy protestors to memorialize Grant’s death at the hands of police officers in 2009). Here, the quiet of the space is punctured by Openings, a mortise lock embedded in the wall that clicks at irregular intervals. While not as politically specific as the Oakland work, this insertion of an interior fitting more often seen in sleek condos casts a mood of uncertainty over the gallery—one of the few midcentury art loft spaces still located on SoHo’s Broadway shopping corridor.
At Yve Laris Cohen’s opening, people milled about carefully, minding the edges of the movers’ blankets on the floor. Like protective islands, they marked off space for their storied cargo—the disassembled set for Martha Graham’s 1958 dance Embattled Garden (which is this show’s title, too). The striking biomorphic décor—a floating harlequin-patterned platform and a stylized twelve-foot-tall tree, designed by Isamu Noguchi—was displayed with forensic elegance, like puzzle pieces. Or like wreckage: When the Hudson River flooded the far West Village during Hurricane Sandy, the Martha Graham Dance Company’s theatrical property, housed in the basement of the historic Westbeth complex, was among its art-world casualties. For his “Embattled Garden,” Laris Cohen, an artist with a background in dance and a part-time job as a production assistant for the company, is replicating the water-damaged set. Each day the gallery is open, for five weeks, he’ll clock in to construct a sanctioned knock-off.
This poetic, unfolding gesture of institutional critique—or something like it—collapses the role of the artist who renews the institution through a torch-bearing of ideology and craft with that of the wage laborer who rebuilds and maintains it materially. The collapse isn’t contrived, though; it’s one that occurs in real life all the time. Hooking viewers with the mystique of local avant-garde history, and the fascinating unofficial provenances of its beautiful artifacts, Laris Cohen makes visible the complicated tradition of artists daylighting in the arts—as installers, stagehands, studio assistants, and gallery attendants.
A few days after the opening, I found the artist working at a long table, laptop open and a delivery of fresh wood leaning against the wall. Things had shifted only slightly in the gallery as a result of his low-key ongoing performance, but perhaps, in the spirit of Graham, there will be moments of dramatic tension. (Like when, as per Noguchi, he skewers the charming structures with colored rattan rods?) I’ll check back.
From afar, Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s works look like big glossy Shrinky Dinks pressed against the walls. And up close, too, with their wavy, irregular Plexiglas edges and splotchy colored areas—especially the ones that evoke paper-doll clothes, such as the disembodied form in Dress (all works 2016), with its rainbow popsicle geometry, or Wolford Shapewear and Various Objects, which draws you in with its painterly lingerie curves in “nude” and a picture from a monograph on Chardin. But, unlike Dinks, Rafferty’s objects have an ethereal depth, achieved with layers of ink-jet printing and acrylic polymer paint. Screwed into the walls, these seductive collage-like pieces mix industrial processes and materials with office supplies. In FM FM 1990, a washy silhouette in a fuchsia shirtdress—maybe a mannequin torso—resembles a laminated ghost divided into a grid of wrinkled letter-size acetate sheets, the Hewlett Packard label still visible. Faintly printed, backwards text is hard to make out. The MOSCH of MOSCHINO, however, is unmistakable.
Brands, luxury and otherwise, are important here and appear as they might in dreams—internalized, filtered, and distorted, mixed with memories, aspirations, or notes-to-self. The show, titled “Dresses and Books,” literalizes how exteriors (covers, cases, clothes, and screens) can be both transparent and reflective, refracting their contents while mirroring their environs. It also captures the curious way apparel floats in blank space on webpages and in virtual shopping carts, awaiting our final decision.
At the end of the catalogue for “The Responsive Eye”—the infamous survey of contemporary Op art that opened at MoMA in February 1965, marking the movement’s simultaneous debut and apogee—curator William Seitz asked, “What are the potentialities of a visual art capable of affecting perception so physically and directly? Can an advanced understanding and application of functional images open a new path from retinal excitation to emotions and ideas?”
These fifty-year-old questions, which Seitz did not venture to answer, have been taken up anew by “The Illusive Eye.” On its face, the show aims to expand the geographic and historical purview of Op, giving greater emphasis to the Latin American artists who developed a dizzying language of geometric abstraction from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many of these have since become critical and/or commercial darlings, including Julio Le Parc, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Carlos Cruz-Diez. But the show also has its surprises, exemplified by Norberto Gómez’s Untitled, 1967, a white grid of closed and open rectangular volumes that are stacked vertically but almost seem to cascade diagonally.
In a brief text, Jorge Daniel Veneciano, El Museo’s director, foregrounds a second, more philosophical aim of the show. As if replying to Seitz, he argues that Op’s abstraction is not an end unto itself but a vehicle for mystical experience, generated by groundless space, geometric patterns, repetitive movement, and the esoteric belief in mathematics as universal truth. The premise is provocative, and not only because of Op’s deliberate embrace of scientific principles and industrial forms and materials (a topic explored most recently by the art historian Pamela Lee). Though these terms may seem irreconcilable, the small number of kinetic machines in the show—which notably were excluded from “The Responsive Eye”—suggest that works such as Martha Boto’s Optique Helicoidial (Mouvement), 1967, offer an encounter with the technological sublime.
If photography is said to provoke factual recollection, painting aids memory’s embellished tales. John Houck’s recent photographs are made at the dizzying intersection between remembering and retelling. The secrets of their construction slip under the darkened edges of archival prints and the thick lines of paint they depict, where the flatness of each photograph’s surface betrays the layers hinted at within. The works take root in Houck’s “History of Graph Paper” series from 2013, in which photographic still lifes of personal relics serve as backdrops for those same physical objects, placed atop their printed reproductions, then photographed again. Now he’s introduced paint into his works as a quiet intervention—sometimes quite directly, on the surfaces of his prints, but mostly as rephotographed bits of trompe l’oeil. His “brushstrokes” snicker throughout the distorted layers of space and depictions of studio equipment such as sponges, tape, and a spray bottle. A cube painted on the cover of a book, depicted three times, twice open and once closed , seems to carve holes into its pages (Petals and Interleaves, 2016). The pale-blue cuff of a dress shirt is painted onto a mold of the artist’s hand, completing the illusion of an arm (Family Crest, 2016). Clear jars are smeared with red and positioned near the apparent culprit—an outline of a paint tube, also in red (Incidental and Intentional, 2015).
The exhibition is titled “Playing and Reality,” which is a way of saying the works are about the tumultuous process of creation. As the artist writes on a folded sheet of newsprint that accompanies the show, “Don’t ask what it means so much as where does it go. Drawn lines are sometimes representations, but they also lead somewhere.”
Of the many delights in this survey, my favorite is Der Raupen wunderbare Verwunderlung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars) from 1679 by Maria Sibylla Merian—an ambitious volume as lovely to see as it is fun to say. Open to a single spread of text and illustration, the book contains fifty such copperplates depicting the life cycle of caterpillars in great scientific detail, along with, according to the work’s caption, “the fruits and flowers on which they feasted.”
The exhibition, curated by Madeleine Viljoen, is a wunderbar feast, celebrating the extraordinary efforts of generations of women (from creators to collectors to curators) without glossing over the adversity and sexism etched in acid bite onto the most bucolic landscapes. The works were originally assembled by Henrietta Louisa Koenen between 1848 and 1861 and are part of a collection at the library that has not been shown since 1901. Koenen’s husband was director of the print room at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and she quietly began her own personal collection, buying works by amateur and professional female artists from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.
Viljoen gathers a broad array of styles, skills, and subject matter: Here are prints by the first woman to sign her work in the sixteenth century and women signing their work simply “his wife,” women copying famous artists’ compositions (a common printmaking practice), and women depicting themselves in frank self-portraits (Angelica Kauffman’s casual pose is breathtaking, as is the scale of Thérèse Holbein’s image of her sketching in Alpine scenery). There are botany studies, calligraphy, and abstract lace designs particularly suited to the exacting lines of engraving. There’s a garlanded portrait of a woman who was earning her doctorate in 1680 (though we know that it was never bestowed).
Cutting history open, the wall labels have just the right amount of juicy detail. Look for references to heterodox ménages; the story of a print depicting a lounging lion and putti in the woods, given as a “suggestive gift” to Thomas Jefferson by its maker, Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway; delightful doodles of heads and horses by a seventeen-year-old princess practicing how to write her name backward to accommodate the etching’s printing; and the first female student at the University of Utrecht, who made the commanding Self-Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman, Aged 33, 1640. This, in short, is a banquet you will leave hungry for more.
In the catalogue that accompanies this show, there is a photo of the artist David Hammons in Harlem in 1980. From behind a pair of sunglasses, he is reading Tales of Power (1974), a volume in Carlos Castaneda’s account of the teachings of an indigenous Mexican shaman. Though presented without comment, the photo is a winking nod to Hammons’s reputation as a kind of art-world sorcerer and also to his own anthropological interests: For five decades he has deployed conceptual jokes and everyday materials to reflect on the paradoxes and complexities of African American life. Although by no means exhaustive, this exhibition offers an important opportunity to survey the artist’s career, including his early “body print” Spade (Power for the Spade), 1969, and his sardonic riff on Minimalism, Untitled, 1989, a sculpture of fortified-wine bottles.
Inevitably reframed by the discourse around the Black Lives Matter movement, the show hits hardest with In the Hood, 1993, a severed hood of a black cotton hoodie—the supposedly “hood” garment that Trayvon Martin dared to wear while walking in a Florida suburb. Hung high on a wall, it connects contemporary black bodies to the histories of both lynching and trophy hunting, and suggests that art collecting itself is a blood sport. Though no stranger to success, Hammons remains elusive, and his work is marked by a similar resistance to being visually mastered: Veiling, hiding, and obscuring are rampant here, and the tension between presence and absence in works like In the Hood speaks to the dangers of both visibility and invisibility, in life as in art.
Created by Dor Guez in 2009, “The Christian Palestinian Archive” invited the titular community to scan their family photographs, in an attempt to trace their histories and journeys. As part of this project, fourteen black-and-white photos tell the family story of Samira Monayer, the artist’s grandmother. These images, from a series titled “Scanogram #1,” 2010, were scanned multiple times and reassembled using a variety of digital programs to accentuate the original photos’ rips and tears. Guez, the inventor of the scanogram technique, seeks to emphasize the creases of time and convey the natural decay of these pictures as objects. In doing so, he deconstructs the images and therefore the past.
Nearby are five large scanograms of broken and vandalized Christian Palestinian graves from a cemetery in Israel (40 Days, 2012). The photos, shot by Guez’s grandfather, have been affected by time and humidity, and in the process have become colorful abstractions full of ghostlike forms, as if to indicate the instability of this dispersed populace.
In the back of the gallery is Sabir, 2010, a twenty-minute video about Samira’s life and journey. Raised in Jaffa, Samira and her family fled their home in 1948 and moved to al-Lydd, known today as Lod. Samira reveals her fascinating story in Arabic and Hebrew, generating a document of what today is considered a “controversial” history. In the video (Sa)Mira, 2009, Guez’s young cousin, named after their grandmother, shares how her Israeli boss asked her to change her Arabic name to the more common Israeli name Mira. By repeating this story over and over again, Samira gradually realizes the racist reality she lives in, and how it feels to be an Arab in Israel today.
In her landmark essay on the grid, Rosalind Krauss outlined the form’s reductive modernist ontology, and its exemplary capacity to align the work of art with its material support. In several diaries presented in Nasreen Mohamedi’s inaugural exhibition here, some of the artist’s supports are commercial notebooks, whose ready-made matrices she used to create linear inked compositions sometimes interwoven with strings of words that read like poetry.
The strong showing of Mohamedi’s signature drawings, which have been steadily gaining international attention, however, departs from Krauss’s reading. In these works, created with architectural drawing instruments that delicately distributed ink or graphite in millimeter-thin lines, the grid is deployed repeatedly, but in ways that resolutely resist the flatness of the picture plane. Instead, gridded lines tilt inward or are interrupted by geometric voids. The resulting optical effect is not one of illusionistic volume, exactly—it is more an intimation of unbounded space that the grid, in its strictest iterations, does not provide.
The survey also includes photographs in which, again, the line roams free of its supporting context: The separation of the beach and the ocean seem to be of gestural intention (Untitled, ca. 1960), while the markings on pavement appear to relieve the ground of its horizontality (Untitled, ca. 1970).
The curatorial narrative emphasizes Mohamedi’s suffering from the debilitating shakes of Huntington’s disease to mark a division between her landscape-based freehand abstractions of the 1960s and the rigorously precise works of the 1980s. Wall didactics and the show’s catalogue also note influences from Islamic, Sufi, and Bhakti traditions’ of geometric nonrepresentation and notions of emptiness. These contextual determinants are important for considering Mohamedi apart from other Minimalists with whom she is often cursorily lumped in. Each work’s obstinate space for attentive reflection simultaneously causes such cadres to recede toward an indeterminate horizon.
“Life is not a dream / Beware! Beware! Beware!” So wrote Federico García Lorca after a night of fitful walking through Manhattan. But life is a dream, especially for Chicago-based photographer Kenneth Josephson, and a lovely one at that.
Multiple exposures, collages, time lapses, and doctored colors: Since he began working in the late 1950s–early ’60s, Josephson has used just about every available technique to question our accepted notions of reality. Which is to say that in his best work—much of which is on display at this greatest hits–style exhibition—formal experiments are really metaphysical provocations.
In Chicago, 1960, for example, pedestrians walk down a sun-drenched sidewalk, followed by a tangle of eerie, diaphanous humanoid shapes. Josephson exposed the photograph more than once, certainly, and somewhere along the line, shifted the frame. What we’re actually seeing, then, is the same group of people in different places. In another artist’s hands, this could be a pedantic effect. But by combining it with an exquisite gossamer texture, and conjuring a mood of ethereal solitude, Josephson persuades us that spirits are floating past the street. Similar otherworldly beings appear throughout his work.
Josephson often includes photographs within his photographs. Held in a free hand, lying in the grass, tacked on the frame as in a montage—their self-reflexive presence unsettles us like an LSD revelation. A revelation of what? Of the fact that our world, so intimate and heavy, might well be little more than a greater someone’s photo album.
With only twenty-two paintings produced over six decades, this Robert Ryman exhibition is a summa of the artist’s process, via the reduction and synthesis of the fundamental elements of painting. Different mediums, textures, and supports—canvas, paper, aluminum, fiberglass, Plexiglas—are used to investigate the luminous frequency of white in all its possible gradations. The artist has chosen to exhibit the paintings under natural light, and he is right to do so. I viewed the show when the sky was clear, then when it was cloudy, and then under artificial light. The last condition was decisively the worst, since it imbued the works with a very disturbing pinkish tone. Under natural light, however, the gradations of white appear in all their shimmering, pulsating richness, with vibrations of gray, blue, or black, on surfaces that are highly tactile or smooth, absorbent or polished.
Ryman has been investigating methods and structures of painting since the 1960s. Carrying out an operation of progressive subtraction, he eliminates the stretcher frame and instead attaches sheets of paper or canvases directly to the wall or subverts the axis of vision by propping works, supported on the floor with metal rods, against the wall. He also experiments with the potential of industrial materials by contrasting shiny aluminum surfaces with matte white paint or by using steel bolts on the paintings’ surfaces. And the abatement of tones to the minimum degree of whiteness provides Ryman with a limitless field of freedom. Varying the paint’s density and methods of its application, he regulates the absorbency or the refraction of light, sometimes applying a variety of colors beneath the white to instill the deceptively monochrome surfaces with warmth or acidity. The result is an articulate and complex symphony of minimal tones, much like Brian Eno’s compositions of ambient music. This show, a place of reflection and expansion, uses essential examples to describe Ryman’s research. With a kind of magic and rigor that few can match, Ryman catalyzes perceptual processes, remaining attuned to the objective properties of materials and to the pure evidence of paint and light.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
In the photographic diptych How to Look at Mexican Art, 1995, Silvia Gruner displays a punctured molcajete, or Mexican grinding mortar, atop bright-red plastic. Her hand grips the object from above in the first image and playfully penetrates it from below in the second. Not only does she juxtapose something typically associated with indigenous Mexican culture with a strictly contemporary material, but Gruner also inserts her body into her work to challenge assumptions about her artistic heritage. Similarly, in the adjacent film Centinela (Sentinel), 2007, the artist, her head shaved due to her recent cancer treatment, stares into the churning waters of a modernist fountain designed by Mathias Goeritz, Ricardo Legorreta, and Isamu Noguchi, a set of male modernist masters that the artist is confronting as much as she faces the imposing abyss.
Her early film pieces also centralize her body, poised between stasis and movement. In Arena (Sand), 1986, Gruner, naked, covers herself with a mixture of mud and pigment and repeatedly climbs up and tumbles down a dune on Cape Cod, in a Sisyphean loop that marks the surface of the sand. Cyclical repetition is also made visible in Re-Start, 2014, a brief stop-motion animation of the artist’s hands threading a knitting needle, yielding a kinetic set of tangled lines while subtly alluding to women’s association with craft. This more abstract engagement with feminist concerns is manifest in the show’s centerpiece, the two-channel video Hemisferios (Hemispheres), 2014, whose title conflates the artist’s psychic and physical spaces. Here we see Gruner’s assistant undoing two sets of yarn labyrinths that the artist set up in the front and back gardens of her home. One consists of a neat grid, laid out in thickly knitted red lines, while the other is a tangle of the same wool wrapped messily around tree limbs and stray objects. We watch as the two sets of fibers are respooled in real time, staging the tension between material permanence and ephemerality that permeates Gruner’s work, suggesting that artistic labor is always a process of doing and undoing.
Hilton Als’s “One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie, and the Rest” is strung together loosely, just like the celebrated New Yorker critic’s personal essays. Voice is structure; memory comes in vivid rushes; friendship is a seismic force. This, the first phase of the artist’s six-month season at the Artist’s Institute (also the inaugural project of the Institute’s new UES address), is a dreamy paean to, as the artist writes, “various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world.” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, the figures named in Als’s title, were trans Warhol Superstars; but Bobbie, we learn, was not famous—just a luminous friend, represented here by a small image in a corner of this elegantly makeshift installation. In Bobbie, 2016, an old-fashioned projector shows vintage slides of an angelic blond, a gender-indeterminate young person. In one picture, they are standing in the sun on the street, almost smiling, gazing at a point slightly above an unknown photographer.
The gallery is kept dim, lit by all manner of budget mood lighting. In one room, colored bulbs with messy, exposed cords accent Judy Linn’s striking black-and-white portraits of drag legend Ethyl Eichelberger from 1990, while a loop of louche art films plays on an adjacent wall, as a disco mix made by Als pumps from little computer speakers. Elsewhere, a handful of flickering liquid tea lights sit on the floor, not too far from the piece Stormé, Bobbie and the Rest, 2016, in which a classroom overhead projector throws a faint image of Bobbie onto the wall—and onto Diane Arbus’s 1961 portrait of butch dreamboat and Stonewall hero Stormé DeLarverie.
This is not a photography show, though photos anchor it; and it’s not a group show, though many artists haunt it. This is curating as artistic practice, as shrine-making—a “one-man” exhibition that engenders so much more.