“Spirit Landscapes,” Tracey Moffatt’s latest exhibition, could be considered a collective artwork in itself, one that probes the inexorable qualities of nostalgia. Inspired by Moffatt’s return to her native Australia after years of living abroad, she presents six distinct installations of photographs, all of which she has digitally manipulated to take on spectral proportions. The works plumb boundaries between the artist’s personal narrative and her Aboriginal heritage, getting at the ways in which individual and collective experiences can entwine to invest specific places with symbolism. In “Suburban Landscapes,” 2013, black-and-white photographs of suburban sites, such as fenced-in backyards and strip malls, are juxtaposed with brightly colored text detailing events from the artist’s childhood that occurred in those places. The captions are remarkably personal—from “bullying” to “guitar lessons”—investing emotional force in the otherwise banal images. As in the greater exhibition, these layers of content force the viewer to choose between word and image—and, ultimately, between subjective experience and objective information.
This tension is a constant motif: Moffat calls upon it to reconcile the specificity of personal history, connections to ancestry, and the resonant connection to place by virtue of the past. Another series, “As I Lay on My Ancestral Land,” 2013, pointedly emphasizes such blurring of boundaries. These digital prints capture and formally transform the panorama of sky and trees taken in by the artist while she lies on the soil. Within the images, cloud formations veer toward abstraction, allowing the artist to subtly superimpose female nudes upon and within them. This unity is enhanced by a monochromatic filter that blends the two in varying shades of color, rendering neither fully identifiable. Again, technical manipulation mirrors the contextual blurring between body and land: This series is a deeply vulnerable portrait and timeless landscape—the makings of nostalgia made inexplicably visual.
Elaine Reichek’s work proceeds through semantic slippage and an incessant collapse of high art into craft. Spanning from 1972 to 1995, this modest retrospective plumbs those structures—mediumistic, discursive, and otherwise—whose constraints condition meaning. The works’ sharp feminist bent, if subtle, resists Conceptualism’s self-reflexive remove, opening onto larger questions of gender, obsolescence, and the camera’s gaze.
Four raw canvas paintings, all untitled and dating from 1971 to 1973, scour the remains of the modernist grid. Read in dialogue with nearby knit works, the penciled parallels and perpendiculars of Untitled, 1972, figure modernism’s emblem as a decorative pattern. Punctured by slight slashes of thread, the canvas rehearses its status as a woven surface whose formal logics strangely parallel those of knitting, defined, as both are, by a winnowing of gesture to a narrow menu of maneuvers. Reichek’s hand-drawn lines, straight-edged and hemmed by the grid’s coordinates, shuttle between the expressive and the mechanical, their ambivalence recalling Agnes Martin’s forays in graphite and gesso.
Reichek’s later works elaborate such concerns with iteration and facture. The triptych, Bikini, 1982, finds its titular garment stitched in metallic yarn and mounted on a black ground. In the adjoining frame, a two-dimensional scheme of the bathing suit spreads across graph paper. Each cell is matched, by way of color, to an operation in typeset font—“cast on,” “purl,” “bind off,” “increase,” and so forth—that parrots Richard Serra’s Verb List, 1967, in the vernacular of “women’s work.” A gelatin silver print of the artist’s torso, clad in an identical though chromatically inverted bikini, fills the final frame. Soft and speckled, Reichek’s flesh raises questions of touch implicit in both the woven object and the analog photograph, with its claim to directly impress reality. Such translations among object, text, and photograph are standard Conceptual moves; one thinks of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965. Yet if Kosuth’s idiom, like that of modernism and its grid, is implicitly male, Reichek genders these premises, revealing the absences that enable its hermeticism.
This exhibition continues the revival of Peter Young, whose intricate abstractions were shown at MoMA PS1 and Mitchell Algus Gallery in 2007, and at Algus Greenspon in 2012. While his 2012 exhibition featured paintings of looping gestural grounds interwoven with elliptical lattices of white produced between 1995 and 2004, this show mines a tightly controlled linear series from 1980–83 called “Linear Weave (Vertical Fold)” that wrestles the viewer’s attention into a state of absorptive transfixion. Indeed, it is difficult to pry oneself from each painting yet spontaneous elements and changes in pattern force one to react and readjust.
17-1980, for instance, departs from the same vertical bilateral division seen in the other works on view, yet along the centerline areas of a woven color pattern that ranges from umber to aqua, beige, pink, and green prove inconsistent with the general symmetry and upset our expectation. These barely perceptible irregularities heighten the organic, tactile feel of the weave, and at the bottom and top ends the pattern seems to dissolve like the frayed ends of a Navajo textile on the loom or a pixelated image.
Young has maintained an ambivalent stance toward the New York art world since the late 1960s, when he rebuffed attempts by Leo Castelli and others to promote him as a post-Minimalist art star. Indeed his work has continually challenged routinized viewing by coextending reductivist systems-based art, psychedelia, and native craft. Straddling different contexts and temporalities, this exhibition puts pressure on current speculations about abstraction in the digital era by weaving us into variations on a singular perceptual state.
Borrowing its title from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” (“What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”), this exhibition, deftly curated by Zoe Stillpass, argues that symmetry—a metonym for beauty in Western culture since classical antiquity—is less interesting than the unpredictable, asymmetrical forms released by its dissolution. The key to this thesis is Gabriel Orozco’s small photo From Roof to Roof, 1993, which watches over the show’s main room. The photo offers an oblique aerial view of a pool of water that has collected on the rooftop of a low, flat building; the water reflects a clouded sky and a few barren trees, but is disturbed by two overlapping sets of circular ripples. If Orozco’s work in general is preoccupied with bilateral symmetry (a form of which appears here in the correspondence between sky and water), the photo’s ripples point toward the show’s own preoccupation with those “fearful” moments in which symmetry is breached, unleashing new forms.
Beneath Orozco’s photo is Chadwick Rantanen’s Bins, 2013, a collection of four plastic storage bins half-filled with water that has been coated with a wispy film of red ink. Transferred from a camouflage print, the ink dissipates over time, obscuring the pattern that was its source. In subjecting a pictorial field to the material forces of entropy, Rantanen’s work suggests that alongside Orozco, Robert Smithson may also preside over this exhibition. That said, natural phenomena are not the only forces shattering symmetry here. We also see calculated formal manipulations, as in Joel Otterson’s The Garden Floor, 2012, which shows what a floor piece by Carl Andre would look like through the lens of 1970s Pattern and Decoration (and craft): a four-by-four square grid that dissolves into pottery shards of myriad colors and shapes. Either way, this show insists on the formal dividends—even pleasures—that result from the corrosion of rigid forms.
Each painting in David Malek’s latest exhibition is composed of enamel in two colors applied with either a roller or a brush. These limitations in palette and texture echo familiar strategies of painting from the last century, but Malek also makes canny use of quasi-subliminal iconographic motifs culled from various ancient and contemporary sources. Some of his paintings, which appear at first glance to be Op art–esque abstractions, use images directly from pop culture: Mainframe (all works 2013), for example, displays the artist’s penchant for sci-fi refulgence as it visually mimics a backdrop from Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The works’ titles act as touchstones for interpretation: Blue Lozenge (Eric Roehmer) is an homage to the French filmmaker’s production company Les Films du losange (“Lozenge Films”) and straightforwardly appropriates its blue diamond-shaped logo. Less obvious is the source of Perspective, which was inspired by the schematic drawings for André Le Nôtre’s landscape architecture for Versailles and Chantilly and mimics their dramatic vanishing points and vibrant green hues, as if the work were seen from above.
Many of the artists whom Malek cites as influences, like Barnett Newman and Peter Halley, were and are frequent contributors to written art discourse. But rather than leaning on written theory or philosophy as a support for esoteric formalism, Malek’s new works take up the immediacy of their symbolic referents as visual phenomena, resulting in abstractions of what are already abstract forms. This trick stems, in part, from Malek’s personal status as a recent émigré to Paris. Orbit, based partially on tantric drawings used for meditation, includes an ellipse shape that appears frequently in Parisian architecture, and Ra, which references the venerated sun disk of ancient Egyptian theology, was also partially inspired by the city’s famous, unique light. These paintings are the direct result of the artist, with the eyes of a cultural novice, training his gaze not just on the surrounding landscape but also on our entire iconographic vocabulary. To paraphrase Marcel Proust, whom Malek perhaps owes a debt of gratitude for his understanding of the subliminal power of aesthetic symbols: The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to behold the universe through another’s eyes.
Ours is no doubt an age of privatization as increasingly anything can become subject to private purchase. This transfer of ownership does not only entail the object of sale but also involves ever more elaborate ways of limiting access to its abstract manifestations. Jill Magid has often probed the amorphous definitions of public and private and the liminal zone where they intersect. Her most recent exhibition takes on the legacy of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán, celebrated for his colorful rendition of modernism.
While Barragán’s personal archive is freely available at Casa Barragán in Mexico City, his architectural holdings were acquired by the Swiss furniture company Vitra. The acquisition was largely due to the passion of Federica Zanco, the wife of the Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum, who has made it her personal mission to collect and study Barragán’s architectural oevre. This incorporation into a corporation, meanwhile, has resulted in severe copyright restrictions on the architect’s work, which even extend to photographic representations.
Magid has made these interdictions the subject of her exhibition at Art in General. Skirting copyright limits, and resulting from the rejection of a request to borrow Barragán’s Butaca chair for the show, the artist photographed a miniature of the seat produced by Vitra and blew the image up to the original chair’s actual size. Speaking to how private acquisition concerns not only the desire of the purchaser but also that of an amorphous public who is denied access to a prior commons, a slideshow that features the artist seemingly speaking to the architect functions as a romantically charged ode to Barragán: The architect is here as much a lost object as the structures he dreamed up. Books on his work have been spread open and hung on the wall. Within these texts, Magid has mounted frames around images of Barragán buildings, which, in some cases, exceed the boundaries of the books themselves. Here, the exhibition perhaps makes its point: that ideas and fantasies provoked by an object are stubbornly capable of transcending even private enclosures.
Eschewing any media-specific appellation for her practice, Brooklyn-based artist Yamini Nayar constructs intricate, abstract architectural still lifes, photographing the tabletop assemblages from various angles before ultimately discarding them. Questions as to whether the dozen or so photographs exhibited are the final phase of Nayar’s latest project or merely documentation of her process come off a ponderous circumlocution that detracts from the dynamic effect of the images themselves.
As with the large color photograph Chrysalis, 2013, Nayar deftly plays with the planar distortion and ambiguous perspective that results from the flattened dimensionality of photography. In the image—a frenzied architectural mise-en-scène constructed from found and raw materials—a honeycombed structure projects into a disparate field of angular, paint-streaked cutouts. Elsewhere, in Head over Heels, 2013, a bifurcated interior scene evades easy spatial apprehension. Bounded by sloping floors and angled walls, the work calls to mind a tripped-out version of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s seventeenth-century perspective boxes. The five smaller black-and-white unframed images that compose the series “On Form and Growth,” 2013, highlight a painstaking attention to detail that belies any sense of chaos found in Nayar’s other final compositions. Throughout, architectural forms, first sketched in felt-tip pen, transform into densely layered photocollages, which then become tableaux’s themselves—there is, no doubt, a method to her madness.
Included in the exhibition, Akhet, 2013—a jagged accretion of streaked, subdued-hued scraps—makes titular reference to the ancient Egyptian concept for both horizon and the season of inundation when the Nile flooded. The threshold of vision for the pharaonic set was tied to periods of destruction and regeneration. Indeed, despite an aesthetic that favors ruin, Nayar looks to be less concerned with razing media-based boundaries than with expanding them.
What’s most surprising about Liam Gillick and Louise Lawler’s first collaboration—for which both artists created separate installations dealing with modernist ideals—is how distinct their work is from the other. Lawler has taken over the walls with a narrow photographic relief that that spans the perimeter of the gallery while Gillick has engaged the ceiling, hanging aluminum cutouts of texts abstracted from his hypothetical account of labor relations after the shutdown of a factory. Lawler’s friezes are photographs she took of works by Edgar Degas, Gerhard Richter, and Carl Andre at various institutions and then stretched into pure abstractions, printing a narrow band that bisects the center of the gallery’s walls.
An awkward but exhilarating spatial parallelism emerges between Gillick’s chunks of text and Lawler’s rush of colors. With their alternating elements of technical introversion, revision, and crisis, both works trace a spectral history of modernism, from themes of industrial revolution to high modernism, institutional critique, and portents of postmodernism. Where Gillick points to the material and organizational conditions of labor, Lawler looks at the way surplus value extends from the rarified art objects she depicts. Her photographs, removed of representational function, shift the focus from the objects’ material existence to their symbolic significance. Formally and conceptually, Lawler’s relief demonstrates plasticity and reflexivity, while Gillick’s subjects are self-actualized in manifestly readable objects by text itself. The sense of compression created by the heavy narrative and dizzying walls provokes the impulse to draw relational readings between the two. At the same time, their incisive dislocation from each other represses this inclination and suggests that the exhibition—or, what appears as two discrete installations sharing the same space—creates equal opportunity to consider the meaning of production, as it does the production of meaning.
Sam Anderson’s sculptures are displayed in multitude, relating to one another as much as they invite viewers into their unresolved connective logic. This effect is particularly strong at “Flowers and Money,” Anderson’s current exhibition, where her aggressively diminutive sculptures are spread over the very limited floor space of Chapter NY, a new gallery situated in a tiny storefront on Henry Street (formerly Bureau). In both scale and arrangement, each resembles figurines in a board game—some, like two pairs of red and black horseshoes, smaller than a child’s fingernail.
Among the thirty-nine sculptures on view here are posturing animal skeletons, degenerated musical instruments, a stack of newspapers, and a mock public sculpture, all which come together to form mise-en-scènes. The artist renders her fabulist vision with surgical-strike deployments of craft, always opting for an touch of expressive gesture over tedious realism—she creates a harp out of dried orange peels and draws a vaguely anthropomorphic figure out of cherry stems. Her renderings don’t hide their constituting materials, but incorporate them stylishly, like designer garments hanging loosely over lithe, unexpressive bodies.
Anderson’s creations have been spread amid a grid of towering wooden cylinders, punctuating the space between the sculptures. The rods evoke the vertiginous edifices of an urban metropolis, pleasantly contrasting with the installation’s otherwise folklorish themes. Further, they organize space in such a way as to limit free ocular movement around each scene’s elements, offering instead a number of discrete but considered “views.” Looking down one column of rods, for example, you might see the posterior of a bird skeleton, withdrawing along a path of strewn flowers. Walk to another edge of the installation and take in the view from the perpendicular row, and suddenly the same bird seems oddly stilled, foregrounding a second animal skeleton in the form of a frog scaling a suggestively lupine rock. This loose coupling of elements invites projection, and this may be key for the artist, who seems to prefer empowering her audience to construct their own narratives rather then simply relating her own.
A single work by Barbara Probst may contain as many as a dozen perspectives of a single subject, captured simultaneously by triggering a radio-controlled release system. Her latest exhibition expands upon her two-plus-decade practice, during which she has confronted the limitations of the photograph—specifically as an isolated incident inherently flawed in its singular perspective of reality—calling upon the capacities of the photographic machine to create a more omnipotent if objective eye.
See one of the largest works here, a grid of twelve photographs that tile one wall from floor to ceiling. While the formal clarity and structure of the images recall the serial tendencies of her once-professors, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Probst’s work is staked in more medium-specific concerns. In one frame, a woman casually gestures toward an apple within the comfort of her Manhattan loft, while another depicts a taxicab rushing past on the busy streets below. These images appear to have nothing to do with each other and yet they are tethered to the same moment in time by Probst’s photographic method. The woman and the taxi are imaged from an additional five perspectives, and these lush shots supplement the few descriptive details that await discovery in the work’s title, N.Y.C., Broome & Crosby Streets, 04.17.13, 2:29 p.m., 2013. Where the grid may allow narrative, Probst’s use of it negates a traditionally linear structure, instead privileging each image as a visual clue, nudging toward a more holistic view of reality.
Similarly the triptych Exposure #94: N.Y.C., Washington & Watts Streets, 10.18.11, 1:02 p.m., 2011, images the same subject from three deliberate perspectives. Each camera is positioned on opposite street corners to cross the other’s gaze, converging upon a solitary woman and catching her in a casual stroll. Exposing themselves through a shroud of thick photographic grain are the indistinct interiors of the surrounding condominiums; the windows provide an additional possibility of surveillance. If the photograph innately establishes a spatial relationship to a specific space and time, Probst fractures this bond but widens the scope of a second in time as caught on film.
When São Paulo’s ban on outdoor advertising went into effect in 2007, it left the city’s billboards looking something like Jessica Mein’s paintings: sun-blanched color fields with the scaffolds showing through, like perspective grids held up to the sky. In Mein’s case, the scaffolds are canvas stretchers, exposed not by progressive urban policy but by X-Acto knives and unthreaded hemp. The urgency of these destructive gestures is, at first blush, no clearer in Mein’s work than in any other contemporary canvas-vandal, punishing a medium without caring to indict it for anything in particular. Yet her latest exhibition, “Obras,” sidesteps much of the preciousness and vacuity of this vogue by turning it toward a history of blanked-out spaces.
Obra means both artwork and construction site, and Mein intends both senses here—telescoping urban and pictorial space in what appear to be modest abstractions on distressed canvas. Their geometric motifs, in fact, come from sections of now-disused billboards. In the transfer to the stretcher, these graphic fragments assume a waxy, spectral quality, alternatively hovering over the surface of the canvas and sinking some inches below it, as the slashes and unwoven sections compete to occupy the foreground. This oscillation might be an old trick—and indeed the exhibition is almost mobbed with references, from Barnett Newman’s zips to Ellsworth Kelly’s shaped canvases to Agnes Martin’s parallels—but at their best moments Mein’s paintings are as oblique as the exhibition’s architectural intervention: a vertical slipshod slice through one of the gallery’s walls, aligned with a weftless “zip” that runs through a cantaloupe-colored canvas. As many commentators noted, when the billboards came down in São Paulo, the favelas beneath them came to attention. Mein’s excised canvases might not have that degree of social potency, but they’re admirable for seeking contact with a history beyond painting’s false endgames.
Cable first came to SoHo in 1976—by 1979 Jaime Davidovich had created The Live! Show as its avant-garde antidote, or “the television of the future” as the artist describes it. “Yeah I’d like to see art on television,” says a woman in one of his on-the-street interviews. “I have a color TV set, so I can see the color.” At first glance, Davidovich’s mix of cheeky art lessons, artist interviews, and news reports did pioneer art on television, but the body of work as presented in this exhibition foreshadows a deeper, more permanent meshing of art and audience.
The title bills this historic institutional critique as a museum within a gallery, which could seem like cheaply earned irony, but it’s a compelling premise given that the exhibition resembles a museum about as much as The Live! Show did an actual variety show. A small installation called Museum of Television Culture, 1982, greets viewers with a shelf of “videokitsch” souvenirs such as tiny plastic televisions and “TV Sharpeners” that Davidovich actually sold during a home-shopping segment. But the bulk of the exhibition plays out on four monitors, with one playing full episodes of The Live! Show while the other three highlight segments from the show: “Art Lessons” instructed by Davidovich, “The Gap,” in which Davidovich asks California mall-goers about the future of art and television, and “Portrait of Best Artist.” The latter is a 1982 interview with Davidovich and a humorously delusional artist who tagged a SoHo building proclaiming, “I AM THE BEST ARTIST.” It would be an easy joke for Davidovich if not for some surprisingly profound moments. “Some people believe that everything is art,” says the “best artist” in a bored tone, “but I believe that nothing is art.”
In “Art Lessons,” Davidovich dresses up in clichéd “artist” clothing, a barrette included, hocking lessons the way one might sell stain remover. “You don’t have any problems,” he coos as he shades the Kewpie eyes of what becomes a pleasant-looking puppy dog. “Nice and easy.” We’re reminded that Davidovich’s eerily premonitory methods of disseminating his work made art “nice and easy” to consume for the masses, without actually making concessions to them. It’s an art lesson that feels especially pertinent.
To follow the subtle spatial logic of El Museo del Barrio’s current exhibition, the seventh edition of a biennial formerly known as “The (S) Files,” one begins with a bombastic gold-leaf portrait of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and ends with an impressive pile of paint chips. Alex Nuñez’s ODB, 2012, creates a playful tension between fine art and popular culture, Byzantine icons and hip-hop bravura. For Pavel Acosta’s Wallscape, 2013, the artist stripped the paint from a wall in the museum’s permanent-collection galleries, then meticulously rearranged the refuse to create a mirror image of Manuel Macarulla’s Goat Song #5: Tumult on George Washington Avenue, 1988, about the United States’ meddling in the troubled politics of the Dominican Republic.
Like Nuñez’s piece, Acosta’s white-on-neutral drywall collage fools around in the space between lionhearted tribute and astringent critique. Wallscape builds on an earlier series that Acosta made from piles of paint chips stolen over time from the streets of Havana. It also enacts what the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called “the unspoken gratitude between opposites that dualism inspires,” which, were it not for the title “Here Is Where We Jump” taken from the tale of a boaster in Aesop’s Fables, could have been the show’s unifying theme.
Doubles, opposites, and duals run throughout the exhibition, usefully complicating the discourse of the biennial and of the museum itself on issues of identity, authenticity, exoticism, exile, migration, and ever-more malleable geography. As viewers, we are repeatedly encouraged to look twice—not only by New York City’s friendliest museum guards, who speak of the art here from a place of real passion, but also by the works themselves, from Sean Paul Gallegos’s Ethnoportrait, 2013, a feathered headdress made from sneakers and shirt collars, to Ignacio González-Lang’s haunting Khinatown, 2011, a uniform tailored specifically for a Ku Klux Klan security guard and later embroidered by illegal immigrants, who stitched in some of their own ideas, including CULTURAL RELICS ARE IRRETRIEVABLE, PLEASE BE CAREFUL WHEN VIEWING THEM.
For her most recent exhibition, Malerie Marder presents a series of photographs depicting prostitutes in brothels in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, places where sex work is both legal and normalized, affording those within it greater dignity than other places. Marder’s photographs visually reaffirm this: Each of her images shows her subjectsall womenrelating to their own bodies in moments that are at once intimate and blunt. The women are pictured lying on beds, while bottles of cheap lotion and boxes of tissues are neatly displayed against wall-length mirrors and painted murals of island paradises. The prostitutes pose like pinups inside black chiffon tents and lie like Goya’s La maja desnuda on red velveteen sofas. But beyond documenting these prosaic site-specific details, the “Anatomy” series, which she created over five years, from 2008 to 2013, and is the sole subject of this show, exhibits a tender and forgiving aura of human sexual desire.
The women’s bodies exude not sex or even beauty but rather comfort, acceptance, and intimacy. Their featurestheir heavy, natural breasts, rolls of flesh, and aging skinpose questions about the economics of sex as well as standards of beauty that are often tied to pay-for-pleasure situations. Age, radical weight-loss, childbirth, and excessive eating have touched each of Marder’s subjects and present them as individuals, even when some coyly cover their faces with cloth. By imaging these women shaped by life experiences unrelated to their profession, Marder widens the scope of their identity to reach beyond their work (which, in the case of prostitution, is often considered less an occupation than an identity), while still depicting them within their sites of employment. One middle-aged woman’s meaty thigh bears the delicate imprint of an embroidered pillow daintily displayed on the bed where she works. That tiny detail is the only evident mark distinguishing Marder’s models from any other woman, seen anywhere.
“Drawing Time, Reading Time” alternates between the temporal condition of text, which is read in sequence, and that of the image, which is apprehended more or less all at once. Included in this exhibitionwhich is felicitously paired with “Pencil Sketches,” a parallel and archly titled show of manuscripts by Emily Dickinson and Robert Walserare works by Carl Andre, Pavel Büchler, Guy de Cointet, Mirtha Dermisache, Sean Landers, Allen Ruppersberg, Nina Papaconstantinou, Deb Sokolow, and Molly Springfield.
Take Ruppersberg’s and Springfield’s drawings of books, where the writing is often illegible and acts as a source purely for visual order and pattern. Likewise, Landers’s 1993 [Sic], in which 451 yellow ruled journal sheets hang in an enormous grid across the west wall, shows his handwriting unspooling across the pages in a rambling verbal cascade that becomes abstract in scale. In a prefatory text, curator Claire Gilman contrasts these approaches to language with those of a more explicitly Conceptual turn, such as Mel Bochner’s, Hanne Darboven’s, and Lawrence Weiner’s, who she writes “submitted the written word to verbal and visual manipulation in order to evacuate the conventional meaning and uncover the materiality of language.”
If the works on view here at times engage in a similar manipulation, it isn’t so much in an effort to evacuate preexisting meaning as it is to heighten the interplay of overlapping ambiguities. Andre’s typewritten concrete poems, composed of red and black letters arranged across letter paper, have an architecture of interruption similar to that of the paintings of Christopher Wool, in which enjambment and disjuncture unseat and recode the words of which they’re made. De Cointet’s ink and pencil drawings from the 1970s and 1980s reimagine the conventions of letter formation, forcing phrases into systems of pulsing forty-five-degree angles or jittery, seemingly inverted calligraphy. The sign is arbitrary and so is its mode of presentation.
Virtual reality, and its fraught utopian promise, looms large in Tabor Robak’s debut solo show, “Next-Gen Open Beta,” which sees the New York–based digital artist and commercial designer harnessing programs like Unity, After Effects, Photoshop, and Cinema 4D to visualize four imaginary worlds. That one might use these widely available graphic tools to create a secondary reality of one’s own—abetted, of course, by the internet and its endless store of reusable imagery—would appear to be the driving premise behind the dazzling city skyline we encounter in 20XX (all works 2013) a single-channel work bringing together a composite of the artist’s “favorite skyscrapers.” It’s also there in the impossible roller-coaster scenario of Algos, a two-channel work that guides us through a series of geographically far-flung interiors and exteriors, luxuriating in the three-dimensional conceit of the panoramic photograph.
Among the many productive ironies of “Next-Gen Open Beta,” these visually breathtaking, painstakingly detailed environments make as strong a case for technological accelerationism as they do for the somewhat old-world values of craftsmanship and painterly illusionism. And yet, the hand-hewn utopias Robak presents are ultimately as alienating as they are immersive. Just as each “scene” within Algos ends at the pixelated edge of the ocean view or domestic living space in question, 20XX is ultimately a testament to its own implausibility, reminding the viewer, with its endless succession of billboards for Game Boy Color and Atari, of its nature as a game world within a game world (and one, no doubt, that has nevertheless been corrupted by the all-too-real logic of capital). As with Free-to-Play, a self-playing, emoji-based spoof on games like Candy Crush and Bejeweled, our ultimate impression of these scenes is one of decorative flatness and impenetrability, the collapse of lived, sensible reality into a hyperreality that one can dream up, but cannot enter. It’s not a very comfortable place to be.
Though Diane Simpson’s work has been frequently exhibited in her hometown of Chicago, her last solo exhibition in New York was more than thirty years ago. Her debut at this gallerywhich presents an acute selection of sculptures made between 1992 and 2013brings an urgency for a broader recognition of her oeuvre. Simpson begins with a specific clothing garment, like an Amish bonnet or Japanese armor, creating an isometric drawing to plot out the composition for the final structure. While this may sound like standard procedure for fabricating sculpture, she complicates our predictable relationship with perspective by applying the rules of two-dimensional rendering to three-dimensional forms.
Formal Wear, 1998, for example, is a refined standout with two sleeves of spunbonded polyester resting on a poplar bar, which hangs from two long cotton bands. In Vest (Scalloped), 2010, patterned linoleum is backed with copper and draped over an ornamental mint-green support. The combination of materials is admirably raucous, at once industrial and domestic. Each require careful inspection from all sides; spaces that you expect to be open are solid, materials that typically flow are rigid. Similar to clothing’s construction, Simpson makes the seams of her works visible and the display becomes equally significant as the “garment” itself.
The isometric drawings are intended to be integral to the comprehension of the work—ideally, they’re to be sold together with her sculptures. Few artists seem enthusiastic to share such specifics of their process, but Simpson generously allows the drawings to act as inordinately complex clothing patterns, which can be replicated by an ambitious collector. Despite the possibility that these details would dispel the spatial illusions that Simpson is so adept at pulling off, they further prove that the sculptures must be experienced to be believed.
Though their scale and amorphous, explosive forms resemble those of Abstract Expressionist paintings, Katherine Bauer’s “Eye-O-Grams,” (all works 2013)—like Man Ray’s Rayograms—are black-and-white photos produced by shadows and materials acting upon photosensitive paper. Part of a larger project called “Seduction of the Eye,” these works are photograms of an actionist–cum–expanded cinema performance that occurred in the same gallery. Opening with blackness and cacophony, the event featured four women simultaneously citing passages from the dissident Surrealist Georges Bataille’s 1928 erotic novel, Story of the Eye. Standing in for Bataille’s four perverse protagonists, they poured and smeared fluids mentioned in the text (egg, milk, urine, champagne) over their bodies and the paper. Each of the women were illuminated only by the flickering light of a hand-processed 16-mm film, which depicted their own eyes. Their performance is represented by the “Eye-O-Grams” as well as an audiocassette recording of the proceedings (Eye-O-Gram Track) and a mixed-media object combining the projected 16-mm film with a champagne saucer of urine (Wide Eyes/White Eggs).
By turning testicle-shaped eyeballs and eggs into sex toys, Bataille’s text suggests the erotic power of metaphor; Bauer’s project is less interested in metaphor than in correspondences of a more concrete nature—even if, or especially when, those correspondences have been rendered obscure. The third in a series on the rituals of female adolescence, “The Seduction of the Eye” investigates the traces things leave, from lightwaves to obsolete technologies to dirty novels read by impressionable young minds. At the same time, it warns us to not be seduced by the realm of the visible as a source of meaning: Hunting for evidence of abjection and degradation in the sensual, ink-wash tones of the “Eye-O-Grams” reminds that a search for connections that may or may not exist can be as perverse as it is pleasurable.
O que é arte? Para que serve? (What is art? What is it for?), is printed on a sign slung around the neck of Brazilian artist Paulo Bruscky, who is imaged in a 1978 series of photographs that introduce this somber retrospective. Comprised of surrealist objects, films, and documentation of interventions and happenings that cast the Fluxus artist as a globalizing presence, “Art Is Our Last Hope” presents an expansive archive framed by the repressive regime that presided over Brazil until 1985. In a climate of extraordinary censorship, Bruscky may have been brave just to ask, let alone answer his own question.
Although the show is quick to describe Bruscky as a lifelong resident of Recife, Brazil, the objects exhibited—from his naughty copy-machine self-portraits (Xeroperformance, 1980, commissioned by Xerox and made in a New York City office) to his altered books Parlarva (Word/Worm), 1992, which recall Cornell, to his mail art such as Untitled (Today Art is the Communiqué),1990—clearly engage various Duchampian practices of postwar neo-Dada. Bruscky’s work significantly highlights a specific locality in the otherwise generalizing discussions of “international” Fluxus that often leave somewhere notably north of the equator as its implied center. Even when Bruscky acted from home, his work speaks transatlantically, whether as Fluxus paperwork, Situationist self-mapping, or Beuysian action.
Bruscky’s work also takes the form of conceptual poetry, and puns whenever possible. The contrast between objects that verge on artistic slapstick, as in a jar filled with a photo of Bruscky (I’m Pickling Myself, 1974) or in elegiac postcards (For Our Missing Ones, 1977), all submerged in the maudlin nostalgia of the overstuffed archive, suggests a bleak sense of humor, possibly a distinguishing leitmotif that carries throughout his work. Even at work in the valley of death, Bruscky manages levity.
On one small screen in this concise and revelatory survey of performance art in Manhattan in the 1970s, Laurie Anderson is standing on a street corner, dressed in white. Although the scene speaks of summer, she is perched on an incongruous pair of ice skates. The blades of those skates are plunged into blocks of ice, which are melting away as she plays the violin. On another screen, Jill Kroesen is describing a phenomenon known as “abnormal love,” impossible and unrequited, while sitting on the floor among white pyramids, tugging on the front of an elegant black evening gown. On another screen still, Julia Heyward is playing a drum, speaking in tongues, and emulating the fire-and-brimstone style of a southern preacher.
“Rituals of Rented Island” relies heavily, perhaps inevitably, on videos, props, and sets. Named for Jack Smith’s wild adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, 1881, and described by curator Jay Sanders as “a crisscross of secret histories,” the exhibition features twenty artists and collectives whose works prove surprisingly conducive to curatorial salvage and museological display. Subtitled “Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama,” the show is an amalgamation of traces, a flash of insight, and a surge of the nervous and fitful energies that define a lost decade of experimental theater.
Sanders’s articulation of that era is most brilliant in the restaging of Theodora Skipitares’s Skysaver from 1980, a performance about the lives and works of the insane, which here consists of the original set, animated to follow an archival video in real time. The exhibition fires the imaginationthe only critical faculty that could possibly call upon and recreate a rambunctious set of performances that few viewers will have experienced firsthand. With its emphasis on the alchemy of private drama and public ritual, the show conjures up a number of totally forgotten figures and at the same time acknowledges a slew of contradictions. Some of the most radical works on view were supported by government subsidies and feted by uptown institutions, including, not coincidentally, the Whitney, back in 1976. But some of the artists never wholly trusted the art world and defected; others were always more interested in music, dance, stand-up comedy, and the promise of fame held out by television. Clearly, the history of performance has a lot of knots to untangle. This one is nicely done.
The most arresting tableau in “Between the Lines,” a group show devoted to text-based work of seventeen artists, sets Mark Dion’s installation Slide Spill, 2014, against Haim Steinbach’s wall text Hello. Again., 2013. In Dion’s piece, slides of Picassos, Klees, and ancient pottery from the collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts pour out from a large canister; the images—barely visible on the slides—can only be identified by their titles. Inversely, Steinbach’s graphic wall work blows text up into image. But the more time one spends with it, the more Hello. Again. feels like a stasis rather than a beginning, greeting us again and again in a looped circuit. Placing Steinbach’s work behind Dion’s makes the takeaway for both especially potent, the obsolete slides paling in the face of the overwhelming text behind them.
The show casts a wide range, from the poetic narratives in Mark Manders’s installation to Charles Long’s car medallions cast into a clay rock formation. Some works, however, seem too concerned with the syntaxes of actual reading, a safe move given the show’s title. The strongest works share a dark comic streak, calling upon text to reveal a foreboding future. Agnieszka Kurant’s pieces assume the role of modern oracle bones; for Future Anterior, 2008, she created eight pages of a 2020 issue of the New York Times based on the predictions of a clairvoyant. But the ink, foretelling a disastrous Los Angeles earthquake and a Russian invasion of China, disappears depending on the temperature of the room. For Study for Gravestone Writing 1980–, 2013, Analia Saban engraved her birth year into a marble slab and then scribbled the same date all over its surface. The text itself is irrelevant—the far more haunting subject is Saban’s own easily erasable attempts at inscribing her name into history. Kurant and Saban are two of three artists under the age of forty included in “Between the Lines” and, as such, it is no coincidence that their works are among the most provocative on display: For this generation, using language to do a kind black magic—in a landscape where words pour from monitors, screens, and devices—is familiar territory.
Jessica Stoller’s sensual ceramic works illustrate how harmony can be found through opposing extremes, pairing saccharine gluttony with the sadomasochistic tug of bondage and allusions to death’s possibility. The works—which showcase Stoller’s expert hand at manipulating porcelain using antique ceramic techniques such as German lace dripping—are fetishistic celebrations of Rococo ebullience: grotesquely decadent, with richly layered textures, and a delicate, grandmotherly aesthetic. A centerpiece, Still Life, 2013, packs together an opulent spread of pastel Thiebaud piped cakes layered with blooming roses and hydrangeas as well as tiers of pastries and fruits—a grand couvert of Meissen-like porcelain. On double take, the macarons become pink nipples; the sweet rolls are tan breasts; and chains, buggy skulls, and long, curled fingernails invade the display.
The show’s title, “Spoil,” alludes to a smug reveling in flesh and kink, as well as to decay. Two busts, Untitled (Balance) and Untitled (Frosted Bust), both 2013, vivify this duality: Untitled (Frosted Bust) depicts a woman fortressed in layers of feminine confectionery materials and winding chains that fasten at the sides of her open, gasping mouth. In Untitled (Balance), a basket of ripe fruit rests on a ghostlike bust covered by a white sheet; a fat slug hangs to the side of an apple. The effect is ghoulish, and the work stands out: It is a macabre memento mori that helps guide the show’s gothic undercurrent. Stoller’s works often feel narrative, with the gendered allegorical figuration seen in works by Kiki Smith or Amy Cutler. And yet the salty-sweet surrender of Stoller’s nutant, fleshy objects to punitive play yields an existential balance.
Informed by the surging piracy off the Somalian coast in 2013, during which ransoms drove profit margins for pirates, Liz Glynn’s New York debut showcases an economy of precariously assembled objects. A suspended, partially wrecked boat hull, Vessel (Ravaged, Looted, & Burned) (all works 2013), takes over the back gallery. Its wood-plank midsection has been ransacked and untidily reassembled, functioning purely to connect the boat’s undamaged front and rear. As an artwork, the wooden agglomeration gestures toward its functionality beyond material appearance—it won’t traverse bodies of water, but could still ride the market—speaking to the way trade exchanges are enabled by speculative, reputation-based values.
Introducing the ship are thirteen papier-mâché sculptures, some of which rest on painted wooden boxes or forklift pallets, which bestrew the first gallery. Each recalls “treasured” objects from various historical eras. Ming Porcelain (Wrecked, Looted, and Confiscated, South China Sea) is a grouping of more than one hundred assorted plates and bowls decorated with flat reductive tribal patterns in indigo ink; some appear shattered. The papier-mâché—an inexpensive, popular medium—contrasts with each of their titles’ references to rarefied collectibles, adding an air of material impoverishment. Other works are installed within encasements, forsaking outright display. Julius Caesar’s Purple Robes (Seized and Released, Aegean Sea) is a violet-painted papier-mâché pleated robe positioned in a box with the cover removed. Vessels from the Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario (Wrecked and Recovered, Florida Keys) is an array of gray and pastel pitchers that are stored on shelves within a cavernous green crate, while others are displayed on the box top’s surface. Are these items goods for trade or goods held captive? This indeterminacy begets intrigue, and by titling the exhibition “On the Possibility of Salvage”, Glynn gestures at how modern piracy and art recover value through abstract economies. Replicas, fakes, or a shipwreck too can be worth its weight in gold.
Michael Fullerton’s latest exhibition describes a network of corporate and state powerwhich the artist associates with statements of aesthetic formalismby presenting oil portraits interspersed with wall texts, lasers, and large-scale screen prints. The show departs from a picture of MGM founder Samuel Goldwyn and his famous lion emblemits credo Ars gratia artis (Art for art’s sake) appears in a nearby wall text. Subjects range from Cary Grant, who is depicted on acid with the CBS logo floating nearby, to Gordon Jarvie, an ex member of the British Special Forces as well as founder of Megaupload, Kim Dotcom, who is juxtaposed with two headshots of 1930s MGM leading lady Jean Harlow. The portraits are rendered in a style that the artist notes was inspired by Thomas Gainsborough, whose paintings promoted secular Enlightenment ideals.
Elsewhere are two light installations: Two Stars, Two Magnitudes (Polaris Due North. The traversal of Regulus, Due East Between 2001 hrs and 0302 hrs), 2013, includes lasers that simulate Polarisas a pointand the traversal of Regulusas a lineon the walls of the gallery and a cube of flashing police strobes on the floor titled Working Maquette for a Sculpture Entitled Formalism - Sucking Corporate Cock Since 1968, 2013. By conflating stars (those in the media with those of the sky), and by associating formalism with state and corporate control, Fullerton responds to MGM’s motto and celebrity machine. Coupled with the portraits, all which are accompanied by extensive if shallow biographical wall texts, these works also elucidate the artist’s embrace of heterogeneous images and mediums. “Meaning Inc.” channels Gainsborough’s Enlightenment individual through corporatization and media spectacle—whether an anachronic painting style can illuminate without reinscribing these subjugating systems seems Fullerton’s gambit.
Lynda Benglis’s balletic clay tabletop sculptures (all works Untitled, 2013) read like tridimensional impasto brushstrokes: Folded, crushed, sloping, and unwittingly balanced, each piece conveys the mass and plasticity of its material in an energetic pose. A brassy application of glazes enhances the autonomous strength of each object. Often, the artist leaves portions of the clay unglazed or brushes matte pigment over its surface, which amplifies the works’ bold colors and mercury-like raku surfaces. One work assumes the shape of a bowing, fiery X—its crumpled, concave crease bleeds from a deep red-orange center to yellow edges. Like the show’s other sculptures, its balanced solidness is supported by gravity, yet towering, dimpled edges throw a spotlight on the precarious pliancy of clay.
Embodying Benglis’s term “frozen gesture,” the ceramics draw a clear progression from the artist’s globular poured and space-invasive works that she created in reaction to the calculated sterility of 1960s Minimalism and its gender-attributed aesthetics. In this series, flat and curved planes and appendages fuse together at critical junctures, generating robust moments of sexual impact where the forms intersect, rendering each singularly erotic. Most exterior planes are smooth, adopting a Chamberlain-like surface tension that also luxuriates in the medium’s liquidity. This fluidness is counterbalanced by rough torn-clay edges between interior and exterior spaces, creating a play between elegance and violence that brings to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut interventions. Likewise, the idea of sculpture as the byproduct of performance is key to Benglis’s ceramics: Their human scale and rhythmic, handmade quality is in many ways also a cathartic insistence on connecting with a material and letting its true nature sing.
“Actualize,” a group exhibition of seven artists, explores boundaries between thought and action, mining the various means by which meditation can be translated from an abstract method of self-reflection to a means of artistic practice. The act of prolonged contemplation is evoked through a range of media and extends to the gallery space itself, which invites various degrees of interaction with the works on display, from bound texts that require concentrated perusal to a sound installation that is understood through durational experience. Taken as a group, the works reinforce the significance of meditation as an innovative way of both producing and experiencing art.
While several pieces reference the actualization process through narrative—such as Rachel Cohn’s figurative sculpture that shows, in miniature, participants in a religious séance—others more elliptically suggest progressive mental transformation. The exhibition includes two drawings by Mónica Palma that are based on the artist’s experience with patternsfrom television episodes to crochet patternswhich are translated through repeated mark-making on sheets primed with color fields. The result are large-scale negative drawings wholly composed from intricate, spidery lines. The repetition seen in the two drawings recalls several important historical precedents—namely, the graphite works of Agnes Martin and the subconscious facture of Surrealist automatism—and updates them through a subtle reference to the banality of current technology.
Other works illuminate the process, rather than the product, of actualization. A collaborative video and sound piece between Kianna Alarid and Ben Kinsley, Calling Occupants, 2013, shows Alarid, cloaked in a white robe, standing in the middle of an empty stage and chanting mantras of energy transformation. The film is grainy in the way a surveillance video, which contributes to a sense of voyeurism that enhances the viewer’s outsider status and suggests the personal nature of meditative transformation. Simultaneously, the repetitive, musical chants—projected throughout the gallery space, with a force that contrasts with the video monitor’s diminutive size—envelop and draw in the spectator. This unexpected, jarring, and, eventually, hypnotic synthesis experientially reinforces the exhibition’s emphasis on sustained concentration as a means of formal, contextual, and, ultimately, personal transformation.
It is easy to see how Mark Morrisroe’s tempestuous biography—teenage hustler; bohemian bad boy in Boston’s punk and artistic circles of the early 1980s; boyfriend to a young Jack Pierson—has often overshadowed the formal resonance of the photographer’s work. Yet overshadowed might serve as an operative word, as Morrisroe’s practice revels in darkened traces, hazy atmospheres, and grainy scenes. “Hello from Bertha” provides a lens into the impressive range and processes of Morrisroe’s too-short career (he died of AIDS-related complications at the age of thirty). Charting work made between 1981 and 1989, the exhibition brings together Polaroids, photogravure, cyanotypes, lithography, and transferred Super 8 film, among multiple other mediums.
Prominently displayed in the gallery’s main room are five of Morrisroe’s “negative sandwich” C-prints. With these, he printed from a color negative original and a black-and-white negative copy mounted on top of each other, resulting in a vintage, filtered effect. For example, in Figure Study, 1985, Morrisroe’s meticulous darkroom manipulations tint the picture of a lone curled figure—both vulnerable and sensuous—in a muted pink registration. Morrisroe then highlights scratches, dust, and dotted specks on the negative with spot toner, and scrawls the title, date, and his signature onto the mat margins of the print. Approaching photography with the attitude and grit for which he is known, Morrisroe textured his images through an irreverent stance toward an “immaculate” finished print.
For the photogram Double Male Nude in Grass (Negative), c. 1987, Morrisroe introduces a page of male pornography as the “negative” to the enlarger. The outcome is an overlaid image that conflates the nude figures from the verso and recto of the single titillating tear-out. Rather than a clear commingling, however, the landscape becomes an obfuscated and darkened depiction, whose individual features are hard to distinguish. Morrisroe’s accomplishment lies in this photographic play with the provocative tension between clarity and obscurity, light and shadow.
Alex Kvares creates drawings whose delicate pencil strokes and ebullient colors belie the depraved scenes they depict. His representational works examine the slippery status of legacy, particularly of male political figures as he depicts them in a range of compromised positions. Hussars’ Picnic 1, 2014, for example, depicts pale European men in teal-and-mauve military dress engaged in sordid acts. A drummer watches as his comrades are decapitated or lie in puddles of their own vomit, while a triumphant general stands unmoved by the scene. The bright colors and cheerful quality of the figurative images upend their most gruesome aspects, rendering them as comical and enjoyable despite their depravity. While the scenes might illicit reactions of disgust and pity, aesthetically speaking the illustrative quality is alluring, which sets a pendulum of moral issues pertaining to schadenfreude into motion.
Other drawings in this show register more clearly as depictions of abject figures. In one work from the series “Mondegreen,” 2011, which includes twenty drawings, a nude man rendered in psychedelic hues sits with his knees drawn up, sucking his finger childishly, on a Frank Stella–esque pinstriped geometric plane. The man’s hair pattern resembles that of a younger Karl Marx, yet his deadened eyes and infantile posture posit him as helpless. The title—which refers to confusion by homophone—here works visually to undermine perception with the implication that an image, especially that of this doppelganger, can produce the same confused effect. This disconnect comes to a head with The Day I Became Men, 2011. In this artwork, a group of men wearing Communist medals gathers at a campsite and engages in a ritual that seems both pagan and erotic (though the men dressed in khakis and loafers seem anything but). The central figure has been beheaded and places one hand upon his own skull while raising his other in a thumbs-up gesture. A phallic white structure protrudes from his neck, which the other men eagerly notice—here and throughout presenting political figures as savages seems less critique than catharsis.
Whitney Claflin dresses her deadstock prestretched canvases with a flip attitude that borrows as much from 1980s painting out of Cologne as it does from the craft of the makeup artist. For “Crows,” her second solo exhibition at Real Fine Arts, Claflin returns brushstrokes to her abstractions for the first time in several years—her recent shows have presented works in which paint was applied by less conventional means, such as by squeegee, transfer via paper, or sticks. Here, she uses carefully mixed oil colors alongside gouache, melted candle wax, red wine, and cosmetic products to create complex, extroverted abstractions.
Many of the paintings are nebulas of alluring, sparsely applied colors, which take an explicitly seductive approach to draw viewers into the works’ deeper logic. The glossy teen lipstick hues in Untitled, 2013, for example, bring us into a work that evokes a broken typography with its incomplete glyphs and curvilinear strokes. This lipstick-traces-on-the-wall narrative is quickly derailed by a larger form near the bottom right that suggests something more corporeal—an internal organ, perhaps. Other works such as Fice Fice Fice Fice and C. F., both 2013, create similar tensions, evoking a hospital bed with their clean white base and messy, unpredictable spills of color. These pools of pigment contrast with floral palettes that seem lifted from nature while possessing a post-Photoshop intensification of affect.
The key to “Crows” might be a murdered-out matte-black display case (that Claflin also designed) with typewritten poems and drawings on paper on top of it, all of which constitutes a single piece. Here, typeset and hand-rendered text is depicted alongside drawings of more fleshed-out elementsthings that we may sense, if not fully see, in the paintings that encircle the display case, which is positioned in the center of the gallery. In one drawing, a woman masturbates on her knees; in another, a candle burns. Words such as fuck, scar, divine flow, and vibrato quiver in faded ink printed by an antique typewriter. Emotionally laden half-sentences that could have been excerpted from late-night e-mails add a denser center to an exhibition that exists as a cloudy mass of moods and whispers.
If modernism’s knell announced medium’s loosening into an infinite elasticity, it never quite consigned the latter to anachronism. Medium, that middling condition between subject and world, lingered like some slouching, sallow houseguest: necessary (in-law, relative), if unwanted. Julien Bismuth’s pensive show, his second with the gallery, takes art’s structural remove from the immediacy of intention, its contingency on some intermediary (verbal, visual, or otherwise) to communicate, as its subject. Limning the deformations and slippages that result from art’s essential belatedness, the exhibition’s contents—an audio recording, two single-channel videos, and seven silk screens of candied-pink emulsion, variously hung on the walls or propped against them—resolve in the infrathin beat between utterance and image, ideation and realization.
Reader , 2014, finds the artist seated in a shallow space, his back turned to the viewer. His body, like the camera’s frame, is fixed, its form folded over the book that he silently reads: Raymond Roussel’s ekphrastic text Le Vue, 1904. A video on the opposing wall, Perroquet (Parakeet), 2013, trains in close-up on a woman similarly stilled, her face lit by the Technicolor glow of The Wizard of Oz, which we watch her watch. Between the two, a pair of pendent headphones plays a litany of anaphoric phrases (“I want . . .”; “I desire . . .”; “I am interested in . . .”) voiced by a female narrator. Clipped from art-world press releases, artists’ proposals, and corporate statements of intent, the audio collapses expressive and inexpressive language, at times parodying art- and business-speak as verbose pabulum. Lulled by its cadenced inventory, the listener of Bismuth’s Monologue for the Highest and Lowest Points of the Room cedes to a state of absorption analogous to that of the onscreen personae who flank her. Communication empties into redundancy, the inevitable mediation of experience by words, images, and things forestalling the possibility of thoughts truly shared.
Group shows curated by artists have a grand history—think of the 1863 Salon des Refusés, the 1913 Armory Show, Duchamp’s Surrealism exhibition of 1938—but nowadays are too often hazy exercises that jauntily wear their lack of curatorial structure as an unwarranted badge of honor. All credit, therefore, to the artist John Miller, who has organized this cohesive, if bitter, exhibition on sin, estrangement, and struggle in life and art. Several of the fifteen artists here have collaborated with Miller before; others are his former students; one, Aura Rosenberg, is his wife.
The forthright, sometimes nasty imagery in this tightly hung show (sixty-five works) testifies to a unity across generations, as if for Miller alienation and addiction are built into the artistic temperament. You see that in Frank Lutz’s series of paintings of sprawling drunk women and Leigh Ledare’s perverse photographs of his mother in lingerie, one of which has been defaced by a child’s colored squiggles. Lyle Ashton Harris captures the show’s tone of inexorable depravity with a photo of what looks like a list of New Year’s resolutions: “No unsafe sex,” “No substances,” “More yoga,” it reads, but the paper is torn and frayed, suggesting that none of those promises were kept.
In and among these biting works are restrained, sensitive figurative paintings by two elder figures, cunningly leavening the exhibition’s general vice. Marilyn Minter, now best known for her color-drenched, fashion-driven compositions, contributes five paintings from the 1970s depicting a linoleum floor or curving scraps of paper with stunning frankness. And Walter Robinson, a Pictures generation champion who’s still one of the most underrated artists in town, ties the show together with both disquieting early paintings of stuffed animals and newer ones whose subject matter is unwholesome in its own way: an oozing Whopper from Burger King, say, or bottles of Johnny Walker lined up like soldiers.
In a kind of homecoming for the artist George Grosz—who lived and taught in New York City for two decades until his death in 1955—Miller Updegraff’s latest solo show lends new life to the exiled German’s most salient motifs: bourgeois pigs and prostitutes, military officials and disaffected city denizens. Adapting tropes from Grosz’s drawings of the 1920s, Updegraff’s paintings form at once a palimpsest and a compendium of his work: withering X-rays of Weimar Germany’s social and political angst, rendered in caricatural line. Interestingly, in several instances Updegraff does not use pigment to delineate his forms, but rather extracts his lines from the gesso applied directly onto the canvas’s surface. The imagery is thus subtractive rather than additive; the painting’s (usually invisible) support becomes its medium.
The homage to Grosz’s menagerie of interwar decadence is as deft as it is compelling. The overlapping and interruption of forms—a woman’s exposed, swollen flanks next to a dapper gentleman in Hunky Dori (all works 2013); a bloated, bow-tied bourgeois intersected by a flapper in Whisky Frisky—both invokes and exaggerates Grosz’s own pictorial strategies, especially those of cinematic montage and post-Cubist pictorial space. The silver acrylic of Pitching Woo features numerous figures superimposed in the same plane, all of which manage to retain their own humanity—indeed, each seems to exist only as an individual alienated from another. Enlivened with glitter, Cuckold makes striking use of its black arcylic and comparatively spare imagery, just as Pink Cigarette and In Like Flynn distill their subject matter to a few isolated figures, further revealing Updegraff’s adroit channeling of Grosz’s aesthetic—one which, a century later, still has much to say about the malaise of (post)modern urban living.
Oh, to be gay in San Francisco. With HBO’s seemingly ersatz appropriation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” it’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, being fey in the City by the Bay was less about fitting in than it was about, well, sticking out. One of two exhibitions currently featuring the work of Jess Collins—or simply, Jess—in New York (the other at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery), “Looking Past Seeing Through” offers a mordant, abbreviated survey of works by the Bay Area magus of all things queer and fantastical.
Several oil paintings included evince the artist’s deep-seated affinity for classical Greek mythology. Among them, Hyakinthos-Apollon, 1962, rendered somewhat crudely and with a tendency toward the impasto, takes its cue from a revenge-driven triangle of desire, in which Apollo and Zephyrus fight over the Spartan prince Hyakinthos. Jealousy and death ensue, and the slain prince is transformed into a blossoming hyacinth. On the painting’s verso, a text by Jess’s lover, the poet Robert Duncan, reads in part, “Thou too has loved / and borne / mortality’s bourne.” Williams Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) had nothing on the ancients.
Jess was a prolific producer of collages—he termed them “paste-ups”—and the dozen on view here showcase his bent for the witty and the absurd. Tricky Cad (Case II), 1954, reflects Jess’s early surrealist tendencies. Appropriating Dick Tracy comics, he would rearrange the texts and alter the images within to produce nonsensical narratives. Elsewhere, the series of seven circle-shaped collages, “Emblems for Robert Duncan II,” 1989, comes off as a totemic eulogy to his lover of forty years, who died in 1988. In 3 (They Were There for They Are Here), 1989, the spherical form is crammed with cutouts of literary giants (Joyce, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Pound), while in 5 (To Open Night’s Eye That Sleeps in What We Know by Day), 1989, a discombobulated Duncan himself appears in a Bosch-like garden of delights, clutching a translucent orb, on top of which rests a cutout of Stonehenge. For Jess and his fellow San Francisco castaways, dwelling in mythical worlds was the only option in response to the one that had forsaken them.
In Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013, a six-hour-and-one-minute video, Stan Douglas revisits some of the major ideas that have informed his work to date: the video loop as a mechanism of the Freudian uncanny; the past as a construction of the present; imagined and failed utopias; and the discursive and historical nature of media technologies. Continuing his long-standing involvement with music—seen most recently in Disco Angola, 2012—Luanda-Kinshasa purportedly documents a 1970s-era recording session at the legendary Columbia Records studio in Manhattan, which closed in 1981. But if Disco Angola explicitly connected the popular and the political, here music seemingly takes center stage. With a visual and aural crispness that belies its documentary pretense, the video seduces with an intimate (if coolly objective) view of an interracial band laying down hypnotically rhythmic tracks with a Benetton ad’s worth of instruments. But when viewed long enough, it becomes apparent that each new track soon finds its way back to a familiar beat: In fact, the total length comprises improvised variations of only two songs, which are named in the work’s hyphenated title (and reference the capitals of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectively).
The resulting tension between variation and repetition returns us to the question of politics, if only elliptically: These poles align with the imperatives associated with musical self-expression (a synecdoche for art in toto) and with the imperatives of the recording industry (that is, capitalism). More broadly, by presenting a disciplined, even monotonous musical performance bracketed by a closed circuit of microphones and headsets, Luanda-Kinshasa underlines Douglas’s interest in the cultural and technological contours of the self. The challenge is to not view the improvisations and displays of emotional feeling (especially as manifested by the only female member of the band, drummer Kimberly Thompson, who steals the show) as moments of resistance or “authenticity” but as an effect of a thoroughly situated subjectivity.
Shit is death but also life—the stuff of waste and resurrection. Georges Bataille quite acutely understood this material’s deeply mortal qualities. So does Allison Schulnik. In “Eager,” her second solo exhibition at this space, the artist gives us ceramic sculptures, paintings, and a breathtaking new stop-motion puppet video that seems extracted from an imagination preoccupied by the numinous characteristics of nature’s various cycles, rife with sunshine and scat.
Schulnik’s ceramics have a careless, expressionistic facture that one sees plenty of in contemporary clay artworks. But her energy is decidedly different, as the objects feel more masticated rather than handmade. Pieces such as Boneless Horse, a tiny gelding perched atop a hideous dun table, its tumescent penis stunted forever by rigor mortis, and Alizarin Flower, both 2013, an efflorescent posy luscious with a nectar that is very likely pus, seem caught up in a grinding state somewhere between bloom and decay.
Eager, 2014, the titular work of this show, not to mention its stunning centerpiece, is the fourth stop-motion animation Schulnik has created—she debuted her first fourteen years ago. It is also, at eight minutes and thirty seconds, her longest to date (and no wonder, as each elaborately constructed doll within the video—there are more than sixty-five of them—was made by hand solely by the artist). In it, phantomlike creatures move about with the halting grace of Martha Graham dancers or dying birds. And then there are pale men and carnal flowers that disembowel and consume one another with a casual sort of cruelty, while more flowers turn into bleeding eyes that become attenuated faces with fathomless maws full of tentacles and teeth. But the most amazing transformation? Schulnik’s ability to spin the nastiness of this world—its bloodiness, barbarism, and utter indifference to our petty needs or comforts—into pure enchantment.
“Late Stick Style,” Dustin Hodges’s solo New York debut, deploys the language of painting as a device for hoax. The exhibition responds loosely to an imagined “late” phase of Stick style, a nineteenth-century American architectural genre that emphasized structural transparency through rectilinear patterns. The fiction is a minor one, since the style is in fact recognized as a movement, but it’s enough to open up a larger conversation about transparency as it pertains not only to painting and architecture but also to exhibition narratives. It follows, then, that the show feels less invested in elaborating its fictional context, which it openly declares, than in examining painting’s ability to generate, reveal, and obscure it.
All nine works of painting and drawing on view have been made by hand, usually with a brush, running the gamut from the immediacy of the gestural mark to the measured precision of the schematic. In this case, mark-making has ramifications both within and beyond the frame, since each mark that alters the surface of the linen or paper serves to articulate the fiction that underlies the project. But exactly how that happens isn’t overly determined or even rational: In fact, several of the works on display bear only an oblique relation to architecture, especially the “Oyster Style” drawings (all works 2013), which are abstract, loopy, and quite beautiful. Notably, Elevation (Nickel Yellow), a small architectural model on a low pedestal, coated in a thick layer of gesso and yellow oil, and the only ostensible artifact of the artist’s imagined style in the room, is perceived through paint—literally.
Even taken outside of the show’s conceptual framework, many moments are wonderful: a “kiosk” built from “observational” paintings of potted plants (Kiosk (Cobalt Violet)); a smear of shiny bronze paint poking out from an oil-on-denim piece (Oyster Style Drawing 19); or two watery black and tan blobs set behind a spray of purple paint (Oyster Style Drawing 43). Positioned in a web of fictional relationships, some of the medium’s most basic capabilities suddenly surprise.
For her second exhibition at this space, Park McArthur has laid out an arrangement of twenty wheelchair ramps on the gallery floor, from the weatherworn and homemade to the high tech and telescoping. Vinyl lettering on the wall points visitors to the URL for the Wikipedia page on disability activist Marta Russell, who wrote extensively on the political economy of ableist prejudice; a copy of Russell’s book Beyond Ramps (2002) sits on the gallery’s office desk.
McArthur, who uses a wheelchair, has borrowed the ramps from institutions where she has worked as an artist. Each readymade sculpture is titled after what the press release refers to as its “lending organization”: Team, 2013, comes from Team Gallery; AVA, 2012, from Audio Visual Arts; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Medium), 2012, from the Skowhegan residency program, and so on. Because many of the ramps were installed specifically for McArthur’s use, the artist’s gesture goes beyond Duchampian recuperation: These ramps, in a sense, already belonged to her. Each marks her experience in a network of respected institutions while simultaneously belying the heterogeneity of those institutions’ resources. Laid bare, these sclerotized products of a highly contingent economy illustrate the melding of public and private property and space that facilitates McArthur’s existence as an artist.
McArthur’s work also instrumentalizes the patronage of the gallery’s clients. While the ramps are on view in the gallery, blue aluminum signs have been posted at McArthur’s behest (but also as required by law) at each ramp’s original location to explain its absence, functioning like the notices that museums hang when paintings are removed for restoration. Five blank examples are hung, like Yves Klein monochromes, high on the gallery wall. The entire exhibition is considered one work and by purchasing the ramps, a collector is removing each from public use—obtaining ownership over it as an artwork—while also instigating the removal of the sign from the lending institution by replacing it with a new ramp (the replacement cost is included in the price of the artwork). Patronage of the gallery, then, is implicated in a greater reshuffling of subjective experience, institutional access, and the work of art as an object of exchange.
The strongest artwork in this three-artist exhibition on pedagogy, perception, and the deceptions of each comes from Jenny Perlin, a New York–based filmmaker with a gift for examining collective questions without recourse to documentary. In her 16-mm silent film A Thousand Sentences, 2012, the image frame is bisected by handpainted fields of watercolor; in a succession of monochromatic washes, gray gives way to yellow and dark blue to sky blue. Each color corresponds to an English-language phoneme, either a vowel or a consonant, in a system devised by the Egyptian-born pedagogue Caleb Gattegno. A forgotten pioneer of language instruction, Gattegno averred that teaching should be subordinated to learning and that the instructor should let the student take charge; he titled this method the Silent Way, after which this exhibition is named. Perlin’s film soon cuts to sentences from Gattegno’s courses, which are more mystical and utopian than the usual hello-my-name-is Berlitz claptrap: “The conquest of deserts, the depollution of the whole planet, the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy, and applied sciences are in the process of transforming one’s vision of oneself and the world.”
Perlin’s film, privileging experience and intuition over rote learning, finds an analog in the 1954 film Form Phases IV—also on view—by the late Robert Breer, a forerunner of animation. The stop-motion silent, whose shapes are borrowed from his earlier paintings, exhibits a debt to Russian Constructivism and also to Dada. But when displayed alongside Perlin’s film, Breer’s takes on a more philosophical character. It feels less like a formal experiment and more like an object lesson in the temporal nature of perception, the uncertainty inherent in looking, and the impossibility of fixing observation or meaning beyond individual experience.
The third artist here, Matthew Buckingham, has installed a blackboard in the front gallery that states the amount of time, down to the second, that the daylight illuminating the work has traveled from the sun. It lacks the complex joy of the other art here, but one can forgive that: In a world where language and meaning have long been divorced, even the simplest statement can be mind-boggling.
For his first solo exhibition in the United States in some four years, Thomas Struth debuts a collection of photographs that depicts sites of fantastic technological innovation. Of the fourteen works on view, which include an image of the medical facilities at Charité in Berlin and a lab at Georgia Tech, nearly half were taken at the Anaheim, California, theme park, Disneyland. A choice subject considering Struth’s rebus of lateto depict what the artist describes as “the processes of imagination and fantasy.”
As is typical of the artist’s repertoire, several photographs occupy a gallery wall in its entirety, and the sheer scale of the works grant easy access to the magnitude of captured details. In Measuring, Helmholtz-Zentrum, Berlin, 2012, the laboratory of a Berlin-based research center is rendered in absolute photographic clarity. The crisp legibility of the photograph prompts an attempt to derive function from the lab experiment, but the viewer is ultimately left tangled within the complex visual of electrical cords and foils—a circuitous paradox that underscores the photograph not as a tool for information but for the mind and its wanderings.
Despite the plethora of details found within his images, Struth continues to maintain a disciplined aesthetic restraint, rendering the most chaotic scenes placid—and the images of Disneyland are notably serene. In Mountain, Anaheim, California, 2013, two yellow submarines surface from a lagoon paradise at the foot of the Swiss Matterhorn as a Jetsonsesque monorail glides through the frame’s periphery—a landscape of complete fantasy that has arguably influenced generations. When this work is seen parallel to the other documented sites, a holistic image of the crucial role imagination and fantasy play in progress begins to emerge—or so Struth wagers.
The sculptures and paintings in G. T. Pellizzi’s latest exhibition, “Financial Times,” cast the global economic system as a ubiquitous and disembodied mythology, able to be manipulated by those few—financial analysts, gurus, stockbrokers, and pundits—who claim a special kind of mantic money power. In the center of the gallery are three sculptures, all jungle gyms of steel pipes rested atop stacks of finance-guru books, including classics like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Taken together, the sculptures connote buzzwords like “networks,” “team building,” and “pipe dream,” as well as the exposed steel pipes of loft spaces of yore, now recapitulated into aesthetic objects nestled into a commercial gallery space.
All the works in the show are made from construction materials. Constellation(s) in Red/Yellow/Blue (Figures 1–3) (all works 2013) is a series of three light fixtures, made of long crisscrossing steel poles, each of which has a colored lightbulb attached to its end. Pellizzi has selected colors that allude to those found at construction sites: The bulbs of the first fixture are scaffolding-blue, the next yellow to reference temporary flooring, and the third connote red painted steel pipes. These Mondrianesque structures recall diagrams of constellations tracked for the purposes of divination, as one now tracks the movement of a line through a financial graph.
Another tool of divination is referenced on the far wall: In Financial Times (I Ching, Hexagram 61) six canvases—two blue, two yellow, two red—are arranged into the I Ching hexagram of “Inner Truth.” The artist has snapped a chalk string against the surface of each canvas; this tactic references snap lines, which are used in construction to delineate a straight line in a space before building. A chalk line horizontally bisects the picture plane of each canvas, reinforcing the geometry of the hexagram and, by consequence, the peace and stability that the shape embodies. Its darker twin, the similarly-sized Financial Times (Graph, Figure 1), rests alongside: a red, blue, and yellow bar graph, snap lines zigzagging throughout like the graphs of the stock market.
Luke Stettner’s current exhibition, “this single monument,” includes ten discrete works. Their austere aesthetic (they look almost clinical) belies the emotional heft of their makings—the bodily and baroque made sterile. Each piece also shares the same name as the exhibition, which has been taken from John Ashbery’s 1962 poem “These Lacustrine Cities.” The existential themes that are at the backbone of the poem are condensed within the works. this single monument (all works cited, 2014) combines sentences excerpted from letters penned by William Carlos Williams over some five decades. Stettner has presented the sentences he selected as a single letter across nineteen individually framed sheets, which together chart his correspondence and reflections. The work is especially poignant at a time when handwriting seems a dying craft—language no longer transmitted by an inky pen on parchment but by virtual letters on a LED screen.
Hanging on a nearby wall is a curious stain of dried liquid on paper, this single monument (impression), which was formed by dropping a placenta onto the paper. On the floor is a Plexiglas shelf, which has been covered with an even layer of gray powder—the triturated remains of an urn that previously held Stettner’s father’s ashes. Elsewhere are eleven framed drawings this single monument (circles): Presented in a grid, each contains a circle that was formed by attaching the paper on cardboard to a potter’s wheel and applying clay slip. The process evokes the artist’s hand in the act of making, while the rings convey Ashbery’s notion of the “eternal cycle” of history—but like the aforementioned works, it looks almost antiseptic, if poetically so.
David Altmejd, The Flux and the Puddle, 2014, Plexiglas, quartz, polystyrene, expandable foam, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, resin, synthetic hair, clothing, leather shoes, thread, mirror, plaster, acrylic paint, latex paint, metal wire, glass eyes, sequin, ceramic, synthetic flowers, synthetic branches, glue, gold, feathers, steel, coconuts, aqua resin, burlap, lighting system including fluorescent lights, Sharpie ink, wood, 10' 3/4“ x 21' x 23' 1/2”.
Aesop’s arboretum meets laboratory in “Juices,” David Altmejd’s latest exhibition, where three monumental works show life expanded by metamorphosis. The show’s centerpiece, The Flux and the Puddle, 2014, is a layered vitrine-like installation that spans more than twenty-four feet across the gallery and reaches nearly eleven feet into the air. It reads like an abstracted hologram that twists into focus as one approaches: Walls of mirrors surround and weave through the towering Plexiglas grid that outlines a seemingly alive terrarium-like ecosystem coursing with parades of insects, fruits, and fauna. Though often grotesque, Altmejd’s figures are tenderly embellished with quartz crystals where their skin, modeled in clay with the dimpled surfaces of Medardo Rosso sculptures, has split open. Transformation is shown through sequential progressions: From dark, abstracted human forms emerge businessmen, birds of prey, and apes. Hardened murky liquids in semenal white and black and light-fluorescent chemical hues drip and pool around the environment; this movement is repeated in cotton-candy-like looms of pastel threads that draw contours through the space.
The cosmic brilliance of The Flux and the Puddle contrasts with The Eve, 2014, a smaller, sparser vitrine: Like an inverted crucifixion of Rodin’s The Thinker, a single bisected male figure is suspended upside-down at an invisible table, his head carved out in small holes as if it were burrowed into by moths. A pair of hands pushes through the small of his back like a hatching larva. In a third room, Untitled, 2014, vertically reflects the same sculpted face twice over an axis of deep-set glass eyesan isolated motif of symmetry and rebirth that unlocks the larger presentation.
“Juices” tells a story of metamorphosis, but also of reincarnation: The double face in Untitled implies both an ending and another, fated, beginning. Mirrors blocking and reflecting one’s views through The Flux and the Puddle render a fractured-infinity effect, suggesting a Hellenistic inevitability that carries through the show. As creatures transform and multiply, the Plexi cage grows around them like a tridimensional graph, asserting the mathematical interconnectedness of each living thingtheir shared juices, categorized like science projectswhile protecting and celebrating a delicate process of material and biological evolution.
An unlikely art-historical accident anchors Sreshta Rit Premnath’s mind-bending exhibition. On a pair of windows of an apartment turned gallery and then studio in Warsaw two artistic signatures—Daniel Buren’s 8.7-centimeter painted vertical stripe and Edward Krasinski’s 20-millimeter horizontal band of blue Scotch tape—overlapped. Both artists envisioned their interventions as conceptual gestures and not artistic objects, pointing to the surrounding architecture while maintaining their own material and semantic neutrality. But what happens to the simple equation between gesture and object when two gestures coincide? Do both remain gestures or become objects? Or do they oscillate incessantly between these two ontological conditions?
In lieu of definite answers Premnath rehearses this encounter, documented in a somewhat unexceptional archival photograph, using strategies of entanglement, negation, abstraction, and substitution, all wittily encapsulated in the show’s homophone-laden title, “Knot Not Nought.” And he adds his own artistic signature, introducing materials and motifs that remain resolutely liminal. True to Krasinski, blue tape circumscribes the walls, but it is painted over in white, a ghostly horizon line, ever present but not always visible. The dimensions of the original window are echoed in Performance # 25 and Gradient, both 2014. In the former, a black linen tarp is carefully bleached to recreate Buren’s alternating vertical stripes. In the latter, nine clear Plexiglas strips lean against a wall, their lower halves painted in a gradient that shifts from chroma-key blue to chroma-key green, colors commonly used as backdrops in the television and film industry to create screens of absence that enable the projection of infinite presences. Set off by a sprayed black outline, the tape links this arrangement to an enlargement of the original photograph on the adjacent wall, the abstract gesture invading the print.
Elsewhere, perched atop this invisible horizon are two groups of selections from “Zettel,” 2014, a series of loopy, wormy doodles—whose title and size are borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book of philosophical maxims—created by dropping bleached twine onto black C-prints. Each is a variation on the mathematical form of the “zero knot”—a continuous loop that appears as infinite entanglements that all resolve to zero—and the red and yellow tints the bleach reveals introduce endless complexity into the absolute of black and white.
In 1966, Marie Cosindas became the first artist who worked exclusively with color photography to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art—it was also her first-ever exhibition. The forty four-by-five-inch Polaroid prints displayed then and on view here look less like photographs than miniature seventeenth-century Baroque still-life paintings. Each features dense arrangements of food piled in abundant arrays in gleaming ornate bowls, which rest on heavily patterned tablecloths next to glassware that is barely visible, save for highlights on rim and chalice and stem—all suffused with an amber glow against a background of shadows.
Also on view are a number of similarly baroque photographs that have never been seen before as well as portraits of people who appear painted into their surroundings. Most remarkable is the quality of light and color that Cosindas achieved with filters and temperature manipulation. In Floral with Peter’s Brass Vase, Boston, 1965, the nearly black background is warm umber; highlights suggest the vase more than describe it. The effect simultaneously flattens the composition and creates extraordinary depth and gradation of color.
It’s notable that in 1962 the Polaroid Corporation asked Cosindas to test their new Polacolor sheet film. That request and her exhibition at MoMA are remarkable benchmarks for any photographer, let alone a female practitioner. Since the 1980s she has fallen from public view: Her brand of pictorialism—with its references to bygone styles of European painting—waned with the rise of the Pictures generation and then digital photography. It makes sense that her work is being revisited: Cosindas’s interest in the physical capacities of the photographic machine is shared by a number of younger artists—Talia Chetrit, Walead Beshty, and Michele Abeles, among others—who are less interested in the medium’s social function than in its technical possibilities.
In this small show, titled “Condition Report: Deregulation,” Sean Micka’s dense, cerebral paintings depict complex changes in three landscapes: the Antarctic Ocean, the Amazon River Basin, and a Saudi Arabian desert. Micka based his work on images from Landsat, a NASA spacecraft program that since 1972 has obtained millions of highly detailed satellite imagery of Earth. Launched just as government deregulation initiatives were gaining momentum, Landsat has historically alerted scientists to changes in natural resources, demographics, and landscapes through specific visualizations of landmasses. Micka has used the same information to create his own visualizations, translated through paint and nearly forty years of perspective.
Though the paintings in fact correspond to archival images from the 1970s and ’80s—which foreshadow breaking ice, rainforest destruction, and expanding deserts—they can also be read as abstractions: Each gives a representation of phenomenological effects beyond human sight. Micka’s color-coding imitates the false color of multispectral photography used by these satellites. But his palette of red, yellow, and blue calls close attention to the building blocks of color and painting. The parallelogram canvases mimic the shape of Landsat images, and, arranged in a row, they feed into and off one another in the gallery setting.
Each canvas is accompanied by a “condition report” on matching colored paper, detailing where and when the image was captured and five to six scientific conclusions drawn from it. These points each have three corresponding coordinates, which can be located on color-coded grids painted onto the adjacent walls; the colors can then be found in the painting. The grids, which explain how to look at the paintings, act much like a wall text; the reports, too, play at a kind of provenance or press material. Through such simulations, Micka’s tiny exhibition not only deals with environmental, political, and surveillance issues, but also suggests the ways that deciphering scientific data can be much like looking at art.
A pair of solid wooden doors with small brass knobs acts as the physical portal into “Snow,” Kon Trubkovich’s latest show. Opening them feels illicit, like entering a home without knocking. This intimacy is the base layer that connects the works inside: A film assembled from home-video footage and a series of eight oil paintings and mixed-media works visually layer the pixelation of CRT screens with feathered imagery of memories. Trubkovich has said that in his work, “the pause is the abstract gesture.” In “Snow,” the cinematographic paused moment is isolated and transmitted through the hand-worked processes of painting and drawing, rendering freeze-frame images that both celebrate and obliterate the nature of gesture, recalling a lineage of Gerhard Richter.
The film—Snow, 2014—begins and ends with quiet footage of snow falling through trees. This drifting, soft visual brackets ephemeral parcels of imagery: Snow White in the magic kingdom; a family gathering; an urban street blurrily viewed through a windshield. Over the music of slow, low-octave piano notes, each sharpens into focus and then fades out of view. Trubkovich drew directly onto the film with paint, rendering a shape-shifting texture of New Age–y color splats that dance across the surface of each moving image.
This collapsing of layers—suspended individual moments, film, and the viewed surface—creates a sense of delayed déjà vu as one regards the image through seemingly multiple exposures and planes. The camera’s lens becomes fused with the picture plane in canvases and mixed-media works such as Aeroport and Koltsevaya, both 2014. Diligently reproduced from film stills, the paintings capture each pixel in a staccato brushstroke, and the images feel intensely personal. And yet this intimacy is obscured by the flutter of TV fuzz—the snow, as it were, or static—in silent stasis: memory, elusively captured, a gesture in time.
For his debut at this gallery, Ken Okiishi has painted brushy abstractions over the surfaces of eleven high-definition flat-screen monitors. The Samsung screens have been rotated ninety degrees and mounted on the walls; on each, recordings of television broadcasts play in loops, tinted and obscured by Okiishi’s energetic paintings. The videos deliver glimpses of a bygone era of television: a smiling Barbara Bush, or the endlessly scrolling listings and cosmetics ads of the TV Guide Network. Staticky passages, a result of degraded VHS source tapes, interrupt and abstract the footage, intertwining with the streaky and often translucent paint scattered overtop. The paint of choice is primarily Olio HD, a recently released line of thirty oil colors by the Italian paint manufacturer Maimeri that was inspired by hues produced by backlit images on digital screens (names include “Hacker Black” and “Reset Green”).
The paint marks both obscure and respond to the onscreen movement and partly for this reason, the objects need to be considered individually, and in-person: Though predicated on digital-screen technology, these artworks don’t translate easily into .jpegs. Throughout this exhibition the weightiness of the history of painting (the press release points out references in Okiishi’s facture all the way from Monet to AbEx) is joined with the fleeting contemporariness of the HD monitor in an unstable bond. What will these objects look like next season? In ten years?
For a precedent to this kind of mash-up of gestural painting and time-based media, one might turn to Rauschenberg, who memorably concealed three live radios beneath the surface of the Combine painting Broadcast, 1959. When the radios were first switched on in the studio, “the painting went dead,” Rauschenberg recalled—the liveliness of the sound had made the painting feel static by comparison. The opposite is true of Okiishi’s screens, where the looped recordings over-stimulate the paint splayed on top: The greasy brushwork, which jerks back and forth horizontally across the plastic exteriors, twisting in and out of opacity, stroked and strobed by the video underneath, feels ill at ease in foreign quarters, but definitely not dead.
That just one artist produced the five decades’ worth of graphic art that constitutes Art Spiegelman’s first retrospective is baffling. Beginning with depictions of geeky guys and pinup babes that he created as a preteen and concluding with Open Me . . . I Am a Dog, 1997, a book he created for his children about a book that believes it is a puppy, his oeuvre can seem ideologically irreconcilable. Formally, too: The spiky geometric lines in his early comix are at odds with the soft curvy characters that pervade his later work. Greater gulfs loom between the smorgasbord of boogers and barf in the cult-childhood “Garbage Pail Kids,” a series of collectable cards the artist began in 1985, and the harrow of Maus 19811990. The affect of this masterpiece memoir is only fortified by Spiegelman’s puckish and socially critical satire. See his collection of New Yorker covers, which mainly share the theme of intergenerational failure; an especially great cover from 1966 shows a family portrait of an elderly beatnik couple with their graying hippie kids along with a punk progeny, and, finally, an infant awaiting a counterculture vocabulary.
While Spiegelman might mock the hubris of youthful rebellion, his work is driven by a coherent set of tensions, which might be best understood through questions: Is he an ideologist or a nihilist? Does he embrace hedonism in its most classic sense—sex, drugs, and misanthropy—or are these motifs a guise for a fight for a gentler and fairer society? These unresolved contradictions are at the fulcrum of his practice and act as its unifying force. This expansive retrospective does everything to confirm Spiegelman as one the most significant commentators on the history-shaping events of the twentieth century. Ultimately, however, it is an intimate portrait of a man who has spent a life grappling with the cosmic by creating a visual record that is as torturous as it is humorous and is, above all, human.
“Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism” reminds us of the moral balance required when retroactively documenting the AIDS activist movement: how to historicize the activist community’s inventive spirit while simultaneously accounting for the expanse of desperation that incited political action. Making this more challenging is that much of this struggle was never recorded. The exhibition draws heavily on the attractive, graphic tactics of groups such as Gran Fury and ACT UP. The latter’s parodic “Wizard of Oz” poster series from the 1990s is on display, which teases politicians by comparing them to imperfect characters from the film. Rudy Giuliani, redrawn as the Tin Man, laments, “I’d fight AIDS if I only had a heart.” James Wentzy/DIVA TV’s video footage of “Day of Desperation,” on January 23, 1991, shows the wild demonstrations against the government’s funding of the Gulf War rather than AIDS relief. Thousands of protesters flooded Grand Central Station; especially emblematic is the moment in which activists attached a large banner emblazoned with the text MONEY FOR AIDS NOT FOR WAR to a mass of helium balloons. When the balloons were released, the banner rose, floating beneath the Main Concourse’s vaulted ceilings.
Amid the gallery’s gaudy hot-pink displays and carpeting are more sobering accounts of the crisis. Late 1980s health records from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an early AIDS prevention center and counseling hotline, painstakingly document an AIDS victim as “model client,” exhibiting optimism and strength. Handwritten records on the victim from seven months later report, “The dying process has begun.” Excerpts from Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993) reveal Reverend Charles Angel’s reaction to his HIV-positive status: “I’m shocked. I’m scared. I’m numb.” Such moments demonstrate the fear that accompanied rousing political action, and suggest the other innumerable voices that were never recorded. For this community—which saw demands for justice as a social obligation—hope and grievance occupy the same space.
Though in her heyday she was more prominent than fellow bronze sculptor Alberto Giacometti, Germaine Richier has not had an exhibition in New York since 1957. This two-gallery retrospective rectifies that lapse in decisive fashion, reestablishing Richier (1902–1959) as one of the most pivotal figures in avant-garde European sculpture in the decade following World War II. The forty-six works here, from early nudes to strange late polychrome experiments, foreshadow a whole postwar generation:: the Nouveau Réalisme of Niki de Saint Phalle, the melancholy humanoids of Lynn Chadwick and Hans Josephsohn, and the body-centered work of Alina Szapocznikow. Yet even as Richier’s sculptures scream their influence, they also stand utterly autonomous, with a force and gravity that belie their age.
Richier, classically trained when such education was not easy for women, left wartime France for Switzerland in 1939. She began creating patinated bronze figures of humans and insects—ants, grasshoppers, cicadas—whose rough surfaces bear scars and indentations, and whose bodies often have bloated stomachs or stand tangled in linear webs. Often read as an index of wartime trauma, the brutalized, pockmarked surfaces also destroy expectations of female delicacy and beauty. They testify to a European civilization at its frailest, and evoke not only the existential impressions of Jean-Paul Sartre (a Giacometti advocate) but also a more general Christian “man of sorrows,” whose scars bespeak an unbridgeable division between body and soul.
Richier’s art is less elegant and far more disquieting than Giacometti’s sculptures, and her works don’t fit into the easy categories of textbooks and permanent collections. Her obliteration, however, of the borders between academic and modern or sacred and profane has not lost any of its power in these intervening decades. And while her continued relevance should be read as an artistic achievement, it’s also an indictment of our failure, seventy years later, to build a society any more virtuous than the one that ground Richier’s Europe to dust.
“For Forgetting,” Laure Prouvost’s solo museum debut in the United States, is a messy, cacophonic installation that latches onto the visitor’s subconscious ambitions and desires only to rashly relinquish hold moments later. The artist affirms her dark-horse win of last year’s Turner Prize by creating a dense sensorial experience, turning the New Museum’s ground-floor gallery into a three-room maze plastered with sculptures, videos, drawings, paintings, office furniture, printed e-mails, knockoff handbags, and crumpled dollar bills, among other items.
The installation can be read through a web of art-historical references: The artist’s well-known interest in Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau 1923–37 is apparent in the chaotic collaged mural encircling the gallery; in several videos, Prouvost’s face is concealed behind a mask reminiscent of those made by Marcel Janco for the Zurich Dada; and the peephole through which visitors peer into a beachscape video montage can only allude to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés 1946–66. Yet perhaps the best way to approach Prouvost’s confounding practice is as a form of aesthetic homeopathy—she treats our cultural afflictions by inserting a diluted form of its cause into her work. It’s pop-culture self-help modus operandi with a twist. Before we even enter the packed space, we face the words IDEALLY THIS SIGN WOULD REMEMBER YOU. The affirmative paired with the conditional and the askew marked here is replicated throughout the exhibition, particularly in the interspersed videos that mock seemingly magical acts of will.
The centerpiece of the installation is the film How to Make Money Religiously, 2014. It histrionically directs us to remember a series of increasingly frenetic images with grandiose enticements of wealth and station. JUST HOLD ON TO THE IMAGES, the artist proclaims, knowing full well the inherent impossibility of such a command. With these words, Prouvost taps into a cultural chord much greater than the illusionary promises of an ever-hustling popular culture.
Many of the artists in this expansive exhibition place an emphasis on the physicality—or lack thereof—of photography rather than on its capacity to represent the outside world. As a whole, “What Is a Photograph?” might be taken as a diagnostic inquiry, with the title reading as a rhetorical question. Curated by Carol Squiers, the exhibition includes twenty-one artists, ranging from Gerhard Richter and James Welling to Liz Deschenes and Eileen Quinlan, and has tasked itself with surveying the medium since the 1970s.
The work of both Matthew Brandt and Letha Wilson exhume a long-standing tradition of American landscape photography with fresh invigoration. In Brandt’s large-scale Grays Lake, ID 7, 2013, Technicolor abstractions stem from an actual processing bath in the depicted lake waters, while Wilson’s monolith Grand Tetons Concrete Column, 2012, employs industrial concrete to sculpturally engage her iconic views of the American West. Draped through the gallery’s foyer is Mariah Robertson’s 154, 2010. This single photograph measures one hundred feet in length and has been meticulously hand-processed by the artist in a highly toxic photochemical environment. The remarkable result validates its production, as every inch of this dangling photograph reveals a labyrinth of glowing hues and pictorial intricacies.
Parallel to romanticizing the darkroom are the several artists who wholeheartedly embrace the more conventional, digitalized avenues associated with the medium. Travess Smalley’s Capture Physical Presence #15, 2011, exploits the imaging systems of a flatbed scanner to manipulate his collages into what he describes as mind-numbing “feedback loops.” Kate Steciw’s approach in Apply, 2012, takes advantage of a Google-based research method, purchased stock imagery, and sculptural tack-ons that recall the slick advertisements of commercial photography. Elsewhere in the gallery, a wall text accompanying Jon Rafman’s eerie and unadorned busts reads, “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, Something for the modern stage / Not, at any rate, an attic grace.”
Here today, gone tomorrow. If last year’s overnight whitewashing of graffiti haven 5Pointz in Queens revealed anything, its that the fleeting form of graffiti tags is as susceptible as ever to the whims of property owners and real estate speculation. All the more prescient, then, was artist Martin Wong’s vision to amass his extensive collection of graffiti works on canvas, wood, Masonite, doors, and any other conceivable writing surface. Aspiring to be the “Albert Barnes of graffiti,” Wong donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York in 1994—“City as Canvas” is the first selected display of these materials.
One of the earliest items exhibited is Wicked Gary’s Tag Collection from 1970–72. Compiled during the nascent years of graffiti’s ubiquity, the gridded display features the distinct signatures of almost one hundred pioneering writers. Among the more legible signatures indexed are Super Strut and Flint, For Those Who Dare; the posturing and bravado of both are a staple of the spirit of graffiti tagging. By 1981, the Metropolitan Transit Authority heightened police measures and installed razor-wire fences and guard dogs in train yards as initial efforts to “clean up” the city. Lady Pink, notable as one of the few female graffiti writers, foreshadowed the eventual effects of these developments in her 1982 self-portrait, The Death of Graffiti. The artist stands nude atop a mountain of spray cans pointing mournfully to a whited train as a graffiti-marked train passes behind it, the stark contrast emphasizing what has been covered in the first; a stifling feeling of inevitable gentrification pervades the scene.
Indeed, in 1989, New York City mayor Ed Koch declared the subway “graffiti-free” as a result of the cleanup efforts. That same year, Wong founded the Museum of American Graffiti in the East Village to bring archival attention to what he deemed his “aerosol hieroglyphics.” The project proved short-lived, closing within a year due to financial pressures. Yet the museum—the first of its kind in the United States—provides a lens into Wong’s sustained preservation efforts. An original vitrine from the museum’s inaugural exhibition is on display here. Covered in chain-link fences and signature scrawls, the case provides an appropriately urban, idiosyncratic display for a similarly alternative collection from a nearly bygone era.