Thirty-two years ago, the Bauhaus-schooled artist and textile designer Anni Albers made Study for DO II, (1973), a shimmering mélange of small parallelograms and triangles. Colored in with shades of either silver or yellow gouache on blueprint paper, the work seems preparatory, almost casual: lines appear unruled, and shapes vary in size and skew. Brushstrokes haphazardly emerge and recede into flat color. One year later, Albers refined this pattern and christened it Eclat, which was subsequently manufactured and sold as an upholstery fabric by the design firm Knoll.
In 2009, Ellen Lesperance painted 1921, Annie Fleischmann Demonstrates Simultaneous Contrast Herself with the Help of a Knitted I-Cord Necklace: It Would Be a Year Before Even Meeting Josef Albers, a rendering of a knitting pattern that corresponds to a sweater she saw Albers wearing in an old photograph. This work and Albers’ Study for DO II are neighbors in this group exhibition, “Common Thread,” and they accompany fifteen contemporary paintings—all made by women—that employ pigment to imitate fabric. Sarah Harrison paints an intricate, pointillist detail of a Persian rug; Summer Wheat’s Twin Bed, 2015, drizzles loopy acrylic daisies atop a black canvas in a perfect evocation of a knotty yarn blanket. Angela Teng and Leslie Wayne venture further into the physical realm: The former crochets dried acrylic paint into a rigid cloth the size of a hand towel, and the latter molds oil-painted panels into the shapes of hanging rags, their ripples and curls eternally frozen into topographic simulacra.
By adapting properties of textile design to the conventions of painting, the works in “Common Thread” expose the restrictive power of our categories for artistic production. For many artists, it is an important theme; for others—the countless women who have been relegated to the domain of arts and crafts—it is the center of their practice.
Tom Phillips’s approach to creating the strikingly luminous images in A Humument is by now a familiar one: He takes each page from W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document (a long-dead Victorian novel) and via collage, painting, and drawing, he turns them into voluminously embellished Concrete- or Language-inspired poems. When he happened upon the book nearly fifty years ago on a bargain rack in a London warehouse, he bet his rummaging companion that day, R. B. Kitaj, that he could turn it into “a serious long-term project.” And, indeed, with five different editions of A Humument printed and published, in addition to sundry objects and even an opera, Irma, 1969, all inspired by the artist’s transformation of the original text, it has become its own universe—endlessly generative, mysterious, and immersive.
Though color copies from different versions of A Humument frustratingly make up too much of this exhibition, twenty-six actual collages spun off from the project appear, using scores from Irma as well as tiny square- and diamond-shaped pieces that the artist refers to as “Fragments,” 2010–13. The copies tell us what the images “look like” in various permutations, but it’s in the originals where we can truly locate the weird and complex decision making that goes into the construction of every single collage (so tidy and Protestant in facture, yet numinously perverse in nature).
“She seized the gun. Shot through the air wreathes of smoke from her shining silver rifle as a rosy gold bullet with bitter ejaculation struck shooting him to sleep the big sleep,” reads one hard-boiled excerpt from an Irma score, tightly kerned and placed next to a square with a neatly burned-out center that says “bang.” Phillips’s imagery, wit, and considered sense of play call to mind the works of William Burroughs, Lewis Carroll, John Dee, or Syd Barrett, other dark and psychedelic fabulists whose imaginations have transformed our collective one for the better.
In “Mon Ame,” 1897, an early poem celebrating his own genius, Raymond Roussel declares: “My soul is a strange machine.” It certainly produced some of the twentieth century’s most peculiar novels and plays: word-game phantasmagorias that prized fantasy over reality. Much to Roussel’s surprise, they were critical and commercial flops (he felt destined to outshine Victor Hugo). But the eccentric writer became a cult hero to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who even brawled defending his works. This sophisticated and transporting exhibition assembles a wealth of rare and previously unseen archival materials, charting Roussel’s work and those it continues to inspire.
The show opens with images of Roussel as a young boy dressed in costumes that augur his later, scandal-sparking theater productions, as well as a vitrine of early influences, including volumes by Jules Verne and the astronomer Camille Flammarion. A photograph of Roussel and the woman his mother hired as a public companion for her homosexual son hangs nearby. When the poet John Ashbery was researching Roussel, she cut herself out of the picture and sent him the half with Roussel. (Ashbery eventually reassembled the image and introduced Roussel to the US in the 1960s.) This idea of a ruptured, enigmatic record, pieced together by a passionate few devoted to Roussel, resonates throughout this scholarly show. The torn photograph is visually echoed in Joseph Cornell’s collages, which complement the ephemera, along with artworks by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marcel Broodthaers that riff on themes including dreams, exoticism, and travel. That this gallery, with its roster of contemporary contenders, has chosen to inaugurate its New York space with such a resurrection is a telling gesture, one that feels like a foil for Roussel’s fate. Discouraged and financially ruined by his lack of acclaim, the artist killed himself in 1933 at the age of fifty-six.
The island is a premier existential metaphor, and the works in “onthisisland,” Jack Pierson’s exhibition of some sixty-plus ephemeral oil and watercolor paintings, graphite drawings, and driftwood assemblages, offer new and fluid insight into the artist psyche. Pierson created the series during a four-month stay on the Floridian island of North Captiva, and the works, mostly small in scale, expose the poetics of process. Pierson practices his own variation on automatic drawing—he’s dubbed the results “Anagogic Paintings”—based on the Surrealist method. At once lushly abstract and confidently nonspecific, the works convey the topographical patterning of subliminal urges: Impasto belts of sand-thickened oil paint in acid-washed hues gently whirl around small canvases, taking forms alternately sexual (such as the pinkish, roselike form at the center of Nativity, 2015) and playful (the more staccato Deluges of Lethe, 2015), while dusky watercolors (all Untitled, 2014–15) sensuously pack together repetitive marks that look as though they’re still wet.
Pierson is known for his wistful, sensual photographic portraits and word sculptures composed of found sign parts—works that channel nostalgia and romance while accentuating the pathos evoked by gaze, body, and relic. In distinction, these new works directly take on the internal world, at once foregrounding the artist himself and forcing a Rorschach-like response of psychic and physical identity.
Adam Golfer spent much of the last decade working commercially, taking pictures for magazines and newspapers. His current exhibition centers around A House Without a Roof, 2011-, his new monograph and the half decade worth of research and travel through which it was envisioned. It includes a 2014 film, Router, but the show’s core is a series of ten large-scale digital C-prints culled from Golfer’s four years of travel and interviews in Israel and Palestine. Although the artist is a careful reader of spatial theory (especially Goldsmiths’ Eyal Weizman), here the pictures elide didacticism, yielding a body of work that oscillates between the panoramic and talismanic.
These pictures radiate desert light but convey a desolated surrealism: One shows a scale-model “museum” into which one enters standing on a plastic chair. Elsewhere, David Ben-Gurion’s library is brought into stark relief with the aid of a well-deployed flash. The medium-format photographs in A House Without a Roof are formally stirring—even beautiful—but their true strength is their capacity to cut through the rational layers of a contested history, visualizing it in small moments and sidelong glances. Some have argued, of course, that aura can create a gulf between viewer and object. But here, Golfer uses it to draw us nearer to a topography that thrums in minds of many but so often seems beyond our grasp.
As suggested in the exhibition’s title, “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997” launches a conversation between two discrete time periods. Curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the presentation begins with paintings from the era following India’s independence from Britain, primarily by those involved in the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group that jumpstarted modernism in India. These artists’ interest in diverse media beyond painting—output that is rarely exhibited—is worth noting. See F. N. Souza, who used diluted printer’s ink and magazine paper to create what he dubbed “chemical paintings” in 1969, and Tyeb Mehta, who produced the sixteen-minute black-and-white film Koodal (“Meeting Place”) in 1970.
Two standout contemporary artworks that marry material experimentation with social commentary are Asim Waqif’s By-Construction and Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice, (both 2003). Exploring art-world consumption, the former is an ingeniously built sprawling structure composed entirely of trash generated by the exhibition itself, such as shipping crates. The latter is inspired by the inaugural speech of the newly formed and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Kallat transcribed each letter of the address with rubber adhesive that he then set aflame. Given that the work was constructed a year after the sectarian riots in Gujarat, the charred letters and the buckling of the mirror from the heat powerfully suggest that Nehru’s wishes for India were unfulfilled. Overall, the highlighting of experimentation with materials throughout the exhibition prevents the show from being weighed down by context—a chronic problem for display of “Indian” art —while not eschewing it either.
Here is an artist happiest in the graveyard we call Google Images, promiscuous in his desire to absorb everything: stupid and brilliant, sickening and funny, banal and beautiful. Lots of people do this kind of looking now—gluttonous, glazed over, staring—and try making it into something. But few have the chops or intelligence to metabolize this modern habit into such febrile and gorgeously unhinged art.
Chason Matthams can paint like a motherfucker. Or a fatherfucker—he doesn’t care. His pictures look like a synthesis of Ingres, Ub Iwerks, and Norman Rockwell, fed on a steady diet of GHB and Nickelodeon. They radiate a sinister, fraudulent light. Though fussed over and finessed within an inch of their lives, these paintings act out—they are nasty, irritating, visceral. It must have something to do with the temporal space one’s shunted into while in their thrall. The sweat equity involved in his careful and tender rendering of so much mass-cultural excreta—by his hand and no other—mesmerizes.
Behold the cyclopean head of Miss Montag—Heidi, 2010,—orange as a new Birkin, scraped out of a Malibu afternoon and pasted onto a dead field of bluish gray, every bead of moisture around her collagen-enhanced lips flashing like little knives on a face that got lifted beyond reason at twenty-three. She is weird, “sexy,” and hopelessly broken, a casualty of reality television and more than a little self hatred. Let’s blame it on Large Warm Playback, 2015, a creepy, sensuously detailed portrait of a high-definition studio camera aimed into a nethersphere of seedy purple light. It’s dead and alive simultaneously, as good paintings are, and exactly like us as we sit there, camera-like, vacant and watching.
A collective imaginary exists surrounding Los Angeles that is characterized by its contradictions: arcadian but synthetic, decadent yet arid—an impossible paradise for the far-flung West. “Villa Aurora Revisited,” organized by the Los Angeles gallery Park View, makes a dissociated, retrospective musing of California’s sprawling metropolis through works by artists who spent time at Villa Aurora, a residency program housed in its Spanish-style mansion overlooking the Pacific coast.
“The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” Steven Warwick recites Joan Didion’s 1977 essay “Holy Water” in his work of the same name (all works 2015), which encompasses two supine flat-panel monitors soporifically displaying the twilight horizon of inland Salton Sea and its washed up garbage. Benjamin Carlson’s untitled work made of oil, wax, and gesso on canvas begs a second glance, appearing at first as a wall-mounted trompe l’oeil cardboard plane. With its craggy topology, the painting also resembles a barren lakebed. Hiker, an expansive chromogenic print by Buck Ellison, seductively depicts a shirtless, ruggedly styled fellow crouched neighborly amid wildflowers and sprouting greenery. Its casual air is problematized by the scene’s self-conscious fashioning and implores the question: What is there to be said when representations of social intimacy resemble stock photography? Across the gallery, an unassuming work poetically sums up the exhibition’s fanciful, impressionistic spirit: Elif Erkan’s painting Terroir (Trees and Ground), in which a chalky beige spans across the work’s Victorian frame, nearly blanketing its underlying image. The concealed pigments (daubs of green, orange, and blue) evoke vegetation against a placid sky, a glimpse toward a memory washed over in sand.
Abigail DeVille’s Haarlem Tower of Babel, 2012, is a steel tower that has had the top lopped off. It’s in two pieces, both of them choked by rusting metals, broken branches, and bits of cloth and paper that seem to shed like snakeskin. Babel is the centerpiece of a group show curated by Jane Ursula Harris, and DeVille's motifs—assemblage, foliage, the growl of defunct technologies—seep outward like nuclear waste until each piece glows with green-grey apocalypticism. Doom registers in the punch-click of Luther Price’s Light Fracture, 2013, an old-school slide projector casting images of smashed insects and bubbling paints on the wall, and each slide change marking time slowly, methodically. Foreboding, too, is Julie Schenkelberg’s Hearsay, 2013, a booth composed of bashed doors and household objects that slumps in the corner like a battered fort—home, destroyed.
So perhaps what’s being worked out here is how to shove the question of environmental collapse into the dainty vase of Art. Miniatures and models abound, like Christain Holstad’s Flotsam, 2012-2013, a fabric and metal work that reproduces, in microscopic scale, the vast island of trash floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. But for all the fantasy and bricolage, the works that seem boldest, the most regal in their mourning even as they traffic in chaos and dread, are LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The shots are a grid of perpendiculars, buildings propped up like stage sets but still settling into dust. Braddock is a steel town that was swallowed by the Rust Belt, and these photographs, less “contemporary” than current, sum up the show’s sensibility: they’re about memory and relics and ruin, and yet they carry with them a portent, some chilling prophecy of a future of pitted landscapes and empty space.
Laurie Simmons recalled encountering a trove of unfinished work in Sarah Charlesworth’s studio shortly after her death: “There was more green than I had ever seen in one art project . . . and that was how Sarah left us, with this beautiful—the green of springtime, the green of promise, and the idea that things weren’t ending, that there was a new beginning.” That verdant sense of imagination suffuses “Doubleworld,” Charlesworth’s first major survey in this city, and quite unlikely her last. Immersing oneself in more than forty years of this artist’s strange and searching eye, one is witness to a dexterous mind that could combine the seductiveness of the photographic surface and space with an inexorably Conceptualist rigor.
Elegantly and quite frequently, Charlesworth used photomontage as an illusion-breaking device to interrogate the junkyard of overlapping imagery and meanings within the histories of art, photography, and popular culture, culminating in tableaux that could look like hybrids of outdoor advertising, fashion spreads, and National Geographic. One sees this most pointedly in Gold, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1983–88, which reads like a flowchart of conspicuous consumption throughout history, a survey of this precious metal’s various incarnations and perversions, from pre-Columbian death masks and medieval tchotchkes to 1980s designer wristwatches and a gold lamé swimsuit.
But the didacticism of a lot of these dyed-in-the-wool Pictures-era works utterly melts away when we come to later series such as “0+1,” 2000, and “Available Light,” 2012, spacious and metaphysical bodies of work that are studies in the colors blue and white as luminous, palpably physical experiences. Make no mistake—these aren’t sentimental, late-in-life studio dalliances. Charlesworth’s meticulousness, even ruthlessness, as a thinker and maker is in high gear throughout these images. After all, unrepentant beauty is rarely for the weak of heart.
Countering Richard Serra’s famous Verb List of 1967–68, Anne Wilson’s To Weave, to Wind, to Knot, to Twist, to Push, to Pack, to Press, 2010—a light box of tools used for “women’s work” and reconfigured in glass—stresses the action embedded in this exhibition’s title. “Pathmakers” assembles more than one hundred objects by forty-two artists in a broad survey of historical and current practice. The show is divided into two floors: The “midcentury” galleries open with a cluster of Ruth Asawa’s dangling wire sculptures, ca. 1950–72, dramatically lit so that their shadows appear like the transparent fabric tapestries in their company. A floor below, “today” is anchored by projects from 2014: Michelle Grabner’s bright paper weavings and enamel paintings, and Polly Apfelbaum’s exuberant marker-on-silk pendants.
Curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales have chosen nine lesser-known figures for longer explanatory labels, including Alice Kagawa Parrott. Her unisex Hanten Jacket, ca. 1960, was a favorite of artists such as Agnes Martin, whose own version is on display. (I would have loved to see some connection to Gabriel Ann Maher’s Garment and accompanying video _Design, both 2014, which explore the role of gender in how we dress.) One emergent theme is the shaping of space. Textile pioneer Dorothy Liebes’s subtly luminous Room Divider for United Nations Delegates Dining Room, ca. 1952, finds its contemporary parallel in Hella Jongerius’s Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates Lounge, ca. 2012. Like Eva Zeisel’s whimsical Belly Button Room Divider, 1957, Jongerius’s curtain carves our environment and filters how we see it.
If certain historical and geographic contexts go unexplored—with everything from showerheads to gravy boats on hand, how could they not?—“Pathmakers” charts a postwar trajectory for women artists that includes corporate collaborations and individual experimentation, without hierarchy of genre. The show celebrates making as discovery. There’s no better illustration than Zeisel, whose work we surprisingly encounter again on the contemporary floor: In 2008, at the age of 102, she decided to try her hand at lighting.
If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.
When Rosemarie Castoro appears in art history, it’s often as a footnote to Carl Andre, her husband for six years in the 1960s. This installation in her former loft, where she lived and worked from 1964 until her death this May, challenges Castoro’s preterition in boy’s-club accounts of minimalism. Culled largely from the '60s and '70s, the selection maps her movement from large-scale, pencil-scored canvases to raw materials, sourced from the hardware store and disposed in three dimensions.
Castoro conceived gray as an achromatic color, its austerity palliative of Pop’s syrupy, synthetic palette. Her art emerges as a study in its qualities: the sheen of aluminum, the density of graphite, or the bulk of stainless steel. Spine on its Side, 1970, consists of six hinged Masonite panels coated with gesso and modeling paste. Brushed with a broom when wet, then rubbed with graphite when dry, its surface is sinewy and dense, like roughage run through the digestive system. Part of the series, “Free-Standing Walls,” 1970, the piece posits painting as a function of sculpture, using the process of preparing a canvas—priming and underdrawing—to build a structure in low relief. Grisaille in hue and hatched in texture, it is a crusty chiaroscuro, extruded into sculptural space.
For Castoro, paint figured not as a medium of transformation but as a muck to be pushed through. The broom’s tracks through pigment in Spine on its Side register as incisions, heightening the title’s relay to the vertebrate body. Nearby, five black-and-white photographs image the artist as she drags a roll of aluminum through the streets of SoHo. The performance, Gates of Troy, 1969, analogizes the unfurling of metal to the parading of Hector’s corpse, with Castoro cast as a vengeful Achilles. Its conceit invites us to imagine other of Castoro’s objects as ravaged bodies, scabby and sutured.
There is a scene toward the end of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) in which a lantern on a solitary table rolls and falls into the grass, and though we hear a constant sound of leaves, the fall is silent. In Trisha Baga’s latest solo outing, the subtle drama of that unexpected sensual loss receives a strangely maximalist reincarnation. One scene of the 3-D video installation MS Orlando (all works 2015) depicts a group dance lesson in a mall, led by a head-miked, corporately poloed instructor, who becomes devoiced midscene, as if she’d switched to speaking with the silence of galactic voids. This beyond-sensical, post-Trecartin, post-Henrot, weirdly Tarkovskian mess couldn’t be more welcome at a moment when 3-D cinema often seems a glorified extrusion of the 2-D filmic surface. AbEx gestures float groundless between the viewer’s body and the screen, their casual ephemerality seeming to negate contemporary abstract painting’s earnest efforts, while footage taken from inside a carwash plays beyond. A snatch of Terminator dialogue bubbles over at the top: “Time isn’t linear, we just perceive it that way.” Yes, one thinks, and neither is space anymore.
The gallery is dominated by Baga’s ceramics, mostly depicting banal objects such as Crocs (Untitled) and one Purell dispenser. These works, formed and glazed with a careless virtuosity that self-consciously exceeds their subject matter, are numerous and crowded in display. Why give us this aggressive panoply? The answer is in the air above, where a 3-D peacock pecks at a portrait made of seeds (Peacock Museum The Department of Education). It’s pecking at plastic form itself.
The walls are covered in pearlescent satin drapes; the floor is unfixed, made up of porous tiles that shift and crackle underfoot. “Two Suns,” Argentinean artist Adrián Villar Rojas’s solo debut in New York is an iteration of the site-specific investigations into antimonumentality for which he is known. Unlike his previous output, however, which includes sculptures that deteriorate naturally over time, Villar Rojas here dismantles the institution of the white cube.
The first gallery, empty and dark, first introduces exhibition as a space that is missing. Tiles in bone white, pewter and charcoal, Aegean and slate blue checker the floor with a square of dark gray at the center, which evokes the base of an outdoor sculpture—one that might have been placed in a busy fourteenth-century Italian piazza. The monument does not exist, yet it equally confronts the viewer in the symbolist manner of suggestion. As if counteracting absence, iPods, plastic bags, and coins are caught between the surrounding tiles like weeds, disrupting the regularity of the flattened geometry.
Villar Rojas’s maximalist approach, if at first only felt in scale and detrital happenstance, extends to the gallery’s south room, which is connected by a curtained hallway. Light pours from windows parted by thick gray curtains, onto a vast sculpture of a reclining nude, modeled after Michelangelo’s David. Positioned horizontally on two supporting pylons, Rojas’s contemporary version seems to sink precariously in its own largesse. Fissures run through its surface and gather at weak points like a network of dry veins that will eventually cannibalize the giant’s form and the work’s covetous ownership. This anti-David is not waiting coolly for predestined glory; dreary, he sleeps through the days in which his ashes are still stone and his display only temporary.
Barbara Hammer’s work in experimental film has incalculably shaped the collective memory of lesbian and feminist experience. But, before she came to the medium—and before she came out, leaving her marriage “on a motorcycle with a super-8 camera” and shooting some of the first lesbian films in history, Dyketactics (1974) and Women I Love (1976)—Hammer made drawings. Her first-ever solo gallery exhibition presents sixteen of these works.
Hammer’s popularity and visibility in the art field has ebbed and flowed over the course of four decades—largely synchronous with vogues for and backlashes against identity politics. The works in this exhibition sidestep those trajectories altogether, veering into a surreal and at times psychedelic style that jibes with Hammer’s filmic eye. Not unlike the conditions within which queers existed in the ’70s, Hammer’s drawings oscillate between deep-seated political dread and shades of dreamy possibility. In two gouache, ink, and watercolor works (Untitled 4 and Untitled 5, ca 1970), a drowsy head rests on a tiny rural landscape, alongside gargantuan (and seemingly dead) flies, snails, and small rodents. Ink outlines ooze with rich greens, yellows, reds, and pinks, but there are conspicuous areas left uncolored, wanting for interpretation. Many of Hammer’s figures wear sly sidelong glances, bright faces peering out of the planar picture frames.
Lesbian Whale, the lone new work in the exhibition, is a video animation of Hammer’s early notebook drawings set to a sound track of commentary by the artist’s friends and peers. The script is composed of fragments and stray thoughts—“as a feminist I’m very skeptical”; “not necessarily physical time but emotional time”—and it’s not quite clear whether it’s spontaneous, planned, composed by the speakers, or read from Hammer’s notebooks. If Hammer’s artistic influence is well documented, this slippage between voices, authors, and images suggests an ethos of collaboration and conviviality that may prove to be her greatest legacy.
Cameron never wanted another gallery show. After Wallace Berman was arrested in 1957 at the Ferus Gallery for showing an “obscene” reproduction of her Untitled (Peyote Vision), 1955—an ink drawing of a fantastical couple copulating—Cameron quit the commercial art scene. Then, as now, rejection is chic. A version of career suicide, Cameron’s bewitching no persisted until her death in 1995. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, opened her debut museum retrospective, and a sizable version of it has now traveled with the institution’s former director, Jeffrey Deitch, to his newly reopened gallery. Worries about insider trading aside, it’s high time Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, a so-called mystic, claims her rightful spot in art history. These bicoastal shows serve as overdue correctives.
In studies of mysticism, as in art history, the question of what’s canonical always nags. Cameron has long been primed for rebirth: her drawings, paintings, and poems were vital contributions to the 1950s and ’60s Los Angeles milieu, and these largely autobiographical pieces network to other (canonized, mostly male) artists, including George Herms, whose somber 1967 portrait is one of the first works viewers encounter in the exhibition. It’s also one of Cameron’s least gothic and sphinx-like takes, which occupy the majority of the show—from Untitled (Peyote Vision) to the undated ink-on-paper illustrations for Songs of the Witch Woman (made for a book of poems penned by her husband, rocket scientist and Thelemite occultist Jack Parsons) to 1966’s Holy Guardian Angel According to Aleister Crowley. These cult classics, as well as her spellbinding late-career abstractions for Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House, 1978–86, telegraph visualizations from one of Southern California’s, but also American art’s, most shrewd and beguiling heretics.
In his latest output, Federico Solmi scans hand-painted imagery and applies it to digital three-dimensional models of world leaders. He then imports each into a video-game platform and records their movements as if they were on a movie set. Titled “The Brotherhood” 2015, this series includes “video-paintings” of mostly infamous leaders with works that indict the viewer and society as much as the leaders themselves, as they flamboyantly posture like shallow celebrities. For example, The Invader (Christopher Columbus – Italy) (all works 2015), in which the titular figure struts, laughs, and salutes in front of an abstract landscape of shifting colors, resembles a Hollywood screen test
In group scenes such as The Waltz, Solmi emphasizes the pomp and circumstance that accompanies state functions, in this case manifesting in a ballroom dance where leaders from different eras, such as Ramses II and Mussolini, move in close embrace. The scratchy lines of Solmi’s distinctive, cartoonish, garishly hued renderings of the leaders and their surroundings thankfully don’t resemble the polished, rounded forms of mainstream digital animation, with its cloying, interchangeable characters.
The artist has painted ornamental details on the Plexiglas surface of the works, which covers each video monitor, further intensifying its theatricality. In The Brotherhood Triptych, Napoleon, Mussolini, and Marie Antoinette among others arrive at a red-carpet event, proceed down a grand staircase, and depart on a spaceship amid a cheering throng of spectators, evoking the idea that such leaders are mainly entertainers wielding unearned power. The audio tracks of individual works, including distorted national anthems and carousel music, combine to heighten the forced pageantry to comedic levels. Solmi has also painted the walls a deep reddish orange, so as to mimic the manufactured splendor of government-sponsored events—propaganda to maintain the status quo.
La Estrella, [P]y[X]i[S], oRiOn: We’re caught up in the jumbled syntax of the heavens in Keltie Ferris’s dazzling show of ten paintings and six body prints, all from 2015. The constellations that lend their name to some of these canvases trace distinct forms but are composed of flickering stars whose boundaries are less clear to us down on Earth. And this is a central aspect of Ferris’s paintings, whose thin airbushed oil layers and dragged acrylic strokes build a rich color space (here, moving beyond the loose neon graffiti of her 2012–13 gallery show into deep purples, reds, ochers) that shifts in and out of focus. Are these shapes or are they impressions?
This, of course, is also a key query for Ferris’s body prints, which for the first time are shown alongside her paintings. In these prints, the artist, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, like Elvis in Warhol’s screen prints, pressed her oiled figure against paper and then sprinkled powdered pigment over its ground, revealing a wrinkled, indexical presence. Yves Klein, Jasper Johns, and David Hammons come to mind. Their complicated relationships to body and identity are not lost on Ferris.
The mix of prints and paintings on view underscores the surface-to-air oscillations in her deft touch. On one wall, a particularly strong progression of material and atmosphere moves from the obscured, wildfire landscape narrative of Story to Marksman, which looks like a pixelated Pollock or Brice Marden made with the airbrush tool in Photoshop, to an untitled work that appears to be a collection of Ferris’s toes melting into a Gustonesque abstract field. These are followed by two body prints, with boxy lines painted around their impressions as if marking new astrological forms.
Barton Lidicé Beneš’s artistic practice was among the most incisive to address HIV/AIDS at the end of the twentieth century. On display here are five works from his “Lethal Weapons” series, 1992–97, refashioned objects behind wired safety glass containing Beneš’s HIV-positive blood. Blood was and continues to be a central source of the stigma surrounding the transmission of HIV. The sculptures present Beneš’s own, in vessels such as a perfume bottle (Lethal Weapons: Essence, 1994), a children’s airplane with a syringe as its cockpit (Lethal Weapons: Flying Missile, 1996), and a water gun with blow darts attached to its muzzle (Lethal Weapons: Silencer, 1993). These works at once animate and expose the hysteria around HIV-positive blood, with Beneš’s wry juxtaposition of cosmetics and toys with medical and artillery paraphernalia, simultaneously provoking and making light of the insinuated threat of this bodily substance.
The exhibition also marks the first time that examples of Beneš’s remarkable “Museum” works are on display in New York City. For this series, Beneš amassed hundreds of small-scale trinkets touched by notorious circumstances and gridded them into obsessive cabinets of curiosity. The works stand as time capsules of the fascinations and fetishes of contemporary society. The most moving of these pieces is Reliquarium, 1999, which contains a range of objects that reflect on the material culture of the AIDS crisis: pink tape from AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) actions, cotton used to wipe fluid from Beneš’s partner’s nose before his death, a condom signed by John Waters in Provincetown, and a box full of a variety of pills labeled “AIDS medication,” among many other items of interest. Drawing so heavily upon physical evidence for artistic purpose allows Beneš’s work to speak to both the personal effects and the widespread ramifications of AIDS. As the long-awaited large-scale group exhibition “ART AIDS AMERICA” opens this month at the Tacoma Museum of Art, Beneš’s work is notably absent from the checklist; this exhibition provides a corrective.
Sarah Sze’s sculptures usually involve a lengthy list of ready-made objects, seemingly purchased from every shop in the neighborhood: the pharmacy, the hardware store, the bodega. A number of works in this show, however, are unified not by the incorporation of commodities, but of torn photographs depicting celestial visions. These ink-jet scraps provide literal atmospherics: billowing, Turner-esque clouds; fiery sunsets that radiate an it's-all-coming-to-an-end melancholy; and views of Earth as seen from space, wreathed in darkness. The cobalt hues in the planetary images are echoed throughout the exhibition, in the form of string, tape, dried paint, and even the snapped lines of builder's chalk, marking regular intervals along the walls. Sze has a gift for invoking dimensions both prosaic and galactic.
In the tabletop sculpture Measuring Stick (all works 2015), a video projection combines a digital counter of the ever-increasing distance between Earth and the Voyager I spacecraft with slow-motion films of bullets shredding various materials into smithereens—an egg, an apple—many of which have intact physical instantiations nearby. Ecologically, we’re blowing it, Sze seems to suggest. This idea recurs, somewhat hammily, in the installation Seconds Clipped, which includes a plastic Smart Water bottle holding a wan arrangement of withered grasses. But that work also provides one of the most exquisite moments of the entire show—a clip of a flying bird of prey projected onto a photo scrap of a stormy sky. Sze’s brilliance lies in her insanely inventive eye, which allows her to create similarly sublime visions ex nihilo: Nearby, she has focused a small work lamp on a piece of black fine-grit sandpaper, revealing the glittering constellations dotting its surface—the universe in mere grains of sand.
If art and wildlife have any correlation, a lover of both might evoke their propinquity to the sublime. “Terrapin,” organized by Magnus Schaefer, takes a direct, albeit frisky point of departure: Each work—save for one—features representations of animals, often conjured through differing levels of anthropomorphic adjustment. So the question could be posed, What is the sublime to an animal, and how do humans represent such? The answer, it would appear here, lies in absurdity and sex.
We might first examine the grouping’s exception: Bethenny, 2015, a swirling oil-on-canvas work by Lise Soskolne. Smiling, contorted daisies and gawky lavender spirals decorate its lower half. A crescent moon suspends above these forms, centering the composition with an enigmatic grin. Inside its lanky arc floats a logo—that of the horrorcore hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. This psychotropic quasi-firmament, while lacking in bodily creatures, emblematizes a screwy spirit carried forth in other works, such as Trevor Shimizu’s oil-on-canvas Licking Cat’s Penis, 2014, in which a human is seen giving a cat oral sex, or Sergej Jensen’s gracefully severe Sketch for Leda, 2014, an acrylic-on-linen composition that adapts the Greek myth wherein Zeus (materializing as a swan) rapes Leda.
Other photographic works are more serene, such as Roman Schramm’s Turtles, 2014, showing two piled-up turtles set within a border of a shadowy, digitally rendered space. In Heji Shin’s The Great Penetrator 2, 2012, a pensive horse gazes down from the camera, its mane windswept to one side and styled like bangs, stirring human empathy through unadorned representation of a nonhuman subject. And together, in their very production as images, this farcical array forms a metanarrative: one implicating humanity, witnessed as projecting its follies across the larger animal kingdom, and caught in its own pursuit of transcendence.
Senga Nengudi trained as both an artist and a dancer in the 1960s and continues to work across a variety of mediums: sculpture, performance, photography, and more. As is evident in her current presentation, her practice abstracts and dematerializes bodily form while referencing its kinetic energy and elastic potential. Nengudi’s most moving group of works is her nylon mesh sculptures fashioned out of used pantyhose, three examples of which are included here. Untitled, 2011, features four of the leggings stretched tightly to the floor and weighted gracefully with sand. The ready-made garments are secured to a pole fastened in the gallery’s corner, evoking ballet dancers in tights in the midst of barre work. An adjacent photograph, Performance Piece, 1978, pictures artist Maren Hassinger performing within one of the twisted weaves of Nengudi’s pantyhose pieces, activating Nengudi’s sculptures and embodying them with a dynamic dancer’s presence.
Nengudi’s 1978 performance Ceremony for Freeway Fets is also chronicled, in eleven vivid photographs. At the time of its creation Nengudi was involved with Studio Z, a loose affiliation of artists in Los Angeles, including Hassinger, David Hammons, Barbara McCullough, and others who experimented collaboratively with discarded materials and abandoned spaces. Set under a nondescript freeway overpass in the car-bound metropolis, Nengudi wrapped the supporting columns in her sculptural nylon mesh forms and outfitted her performers in these customary creations as headdresses and drapery. Bodies bound across the images in flitting festivity, sculpture and performance creatively enmeshed. Nengudi’s work, as an antecedent example of the current commingling of the plastic and the performative, remains pioneering for our contemporary moment.
In Matthew Brannon’s latest output, candy-colored arrangements of objects and text—a wedding cake, a pack of Lucky Strikes, a bottle of vanilla extract—address the Vietnam War with a decorative aestheticism. This strategy may feel absurd, but Brannon deliberately avoids picturing scenes of violence, instead focusing on commodities, from a shuttlecock to a bottle of Heinz ketchup. These assemblages suppress violence almost to the point of invisibility, evoking a wartime America proceeding as if in an unaltered peacetime. In First Base (all works 2015), what initially seems a straightforward still life comprised of recreational equipment—a playing card, a World’s Fair souvenir, a record—is complicated by the fact that the record is a single of Barry McGuire’s 1965 protest song Eve of Destruction.
Leisure time and conflict are threaded through each other, and war mostly comes through indirect signifiers—world maps and international brand names that place the particularly “American” iconography within a larger context of global politics—or through civic imagery that has been so diluted as to be almost meaningless, as in an advertisement-like view of Washington’s monuments (Camelot). Clues to this latent violence abound. In Ready or Not, Brannon places a historically accurate draft notice, carefully reproduced via letterpress, among comparatively carefree detritus (a Peanuts greeting card, a box of Corn Flakes).
Concentrating on the conflict at home rather than on scenes of violence means that the images can also be funny. Three pictures of 1960s interiors, for example, are so pitch-perfectly bourgeois it’s easy to laugh: a rubber duck in the corner of a doctor’s office, a modish Braun radio. This comedic, almost satirical aspect offsets some of the nostalgia that underlies the abundance of domestically coded objects: If history is experienced through sentimental recollection in Brannon’s spare montages, farce can also subject that sentiment to critical reevaluation.
The exhibition “Two Serious Ladies” is a film program that plays on repeat. Short works by experimental filmmakers Peggy Ahwesh and Jennifer Montgomery are shown on opposite walls. (Not at the same time, though. There are two comfortable couches to move back and forth between when the projectors switch.) The show’s title, taken from Jane Bowles’s 1943 novel of the same name—a work as remarkable for its terse, hallucinatory dialogue as for the sexual adventures of its female protagonists—underscores the distinct but cross-pollinating practices of the two artists, who are also old friends. From films spanning three decades, shared themes emerge, such as mother-daughter relationships and psychoanalytic theory. Both use found footage, the performance of texts, and the home-movie pathos of Super-8 film in their dynamic conceptual-amateur constructions.
In Ahwesh’s classic Martina’s Playhouse, 1989, a little girl plays with stuffed animals, describes the scenarios depicted on torn-out magazine pages, pretends to diaper her mom, and (mis)reads Lacan aloud. These passages are intercut with shots of flowers and an attention-hungry Montgomery playfully provoking the camerawoman. Laughing, she pulls down her jeans and threatens to fuck herself with a slender microphone. Montgomery’s own film, Transitional Objects, 2000, similarly exploits essayistic juxtapositions and the astute, unpredictable narration of a child. A woman struggles to position film on a splicer with her feet; she carefully butchers stuffed animals with a razor before grafting fantastical combinations together with needle and thread. She makes her poetic parallel between the “transitional objects” of early childhood and her own anxious move to digital editing technology explicit with an adults-eye view of a toddler trying to insert a VHS tape into a laptop.
I sat in the darkened gallery watching the continuous screening of these beautiful, jarring films the morning I learned of Chantal Akerman’s tragic passing, and it seemed a serendipitous opportunity to contemplate her radical legacy. Ahwesh and Montgomery, like Akerman in groundbreaking works such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975, insist that “women’s work” and the domestic sphere are crucial subjects of avant-garde film as well as sites of formal innovation.
Let’s begin with the allegory of Superman and the way the cultural icon pushes the conventions of heroics (alien on Earth and alienated from Kandor), all expressed within the concision of a comic strip. Beyond the habit of metaphor, the story of Superman, his displacement between here and elsewhere, haunts the exhibition—where the artist is definitively not present.
In his absence, models of the vigilante’s home planet—an assembly of many sculptures—litter the floor, while a series of lenticular light boxes limn their presence. The skylines of these cities mutate from elongated twisting spires to lumbering geometric blocks. Constructed of glistening stalagmites (sunstone crystals, perhaps?) and cast in colorful resins, these metropolises are portable and preserved by containment fields. Glass bell jars pump them with a cloying gas that spills off and over the citys’ surfaces. Each reduced, bottled-up world an eerie and cautionary reminder, for Kandor was infamous for indecision, inaction, and conservatism. Superman saved his home anyway, clutching to a memento and an unstable image, one altered by time and fans and memory.
But isn’t it too easy to collapse the struggle of our antihero into the romantic artist’s myth? Yet, this exhibition sells us the following equations: collector to Brainiac, institution to Kandor, white cube to comic strip. The recursive chain of similes builds spatially and raises the question: What was this artist’s kryptonite? Answer: The inability to reconcile a utopian vision in the stifling atmosphere of expanding gas.
Scouring Google Earth for satellite images of oil fields and feedlots, Mishka Henner uses surveillance as camera and canvas, producing images that question the place and relevance of the photographic machine. The photographs on view are products of digitally stitched images that on the surface look like gleeful color assortments: green pastures, earth tones, organic red shapes, aerial shots of oil fields evocative of shimmering motherboards. Belying the aesthetic prowess is the account of the nefarious consequences of human intervention on the planet. This is best exemplified by Coronado Feeders, Dalhart Texas, 2013, in which cows can be seen roaming in their own excrement inside a gridded plot of land, at the bottom of which is a red lagoon where waste is collected and chemically processed.
Henner’s dystopian accounts take on another form with I’m not the only one, 2015, a single-channel video where various YouTubers seek their fifteen minutes of fame by performing a cover of the renowned song. The mosaic formed by these faces singing in unison—each in its own setting—is telling of a world where the increasingly broken down communities into isolated cells where the screen is the only space left to come together.
A broadly accepted metonym for claustrophobia and unwanted social confrontation, the elevator receives top billing in Dana Schutz’s new series, “Fight in an Elevator,” 2015 (a title to which one could aptly add “and Variations on a Theme”). In energetic, large-scale paintings and smaller black-and-white (though no less vibrant) drawings, the artist trains her acerbic eye on the phenomenon of tight spaces and how people—specifically, Schutz’s misshapen, often deranged characters—deal with them. Where Schutz’s past works have long explored various surreal state-of-being narratives, these new pictures capture the melancholy and innate humor of daily life and its small dramas as they are often perceived by individuals—that is, magnified to cinematic proportions. Compressed within tight, straight-line spacial boundaries, the characters push against their surroundings. In Slow Motion Shower (all works cited, 2015), a woman’s bathtub, shower curtain, and rigid tiles become a comical trap: her oversize limbs amble around the small space as she struggles to wipe soap from her eyes. Meanwhile, the single woman in As Normal as Possible gives a goofy grimace through the circular spotlight of a police car’s headlamp, besieged by the light. And there are two elevator fights (Fight in an Elevator and Fight in an Elevator 2), each buttressed by half-open elevator doors revealing a crowded quagmire inside.
Painted with swift, wet-on-wet brushstrokes in bold, principally primary colors, Schutz’s new works convey the turn-of-the-century vigor of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, while her compositions combine the rigid architectural lines and animated physicality of Mexican muralism with Red Grooms’s sense of ambling caricature. The quintessential weirdness of Schutz’s usual characters gives way here to a more homogenized tribe. While this series lacks the liquid, fishbowl-like denseness and shimmering figure-ground dynamics that make her previous output so satisfying, the works on view succeed as investigative accounts of the banal gone awry—as if Schutz has stepped from the psychological toward the situational.
For Polish-born painter Jack Tworkov, the 1960s were a cul-de-sac for the autographic gesture. AbEx had tipped from an earnest style into a mode of stylization, and the question was how to continue painting, if at all. Spanning five decades, Tworkov’s latest hang cleaves to the contours of this now familiar narrative. De Kooning’s influence looms large—the ligament-like impasto of Departure, 1951, is an obvious homage—as does Cézanne’s. Note, 1968, presents as a field of stubby, separative marks, sloped in the manner of cursive script or the latter’s “constructive stroke.” Spaced in quivering horizontals, they achieve a hazy grisaille.
The 1970s and ’80s reveal a Tworkov of late style and less anxious mien. The canvas now figures not as a void to be confronted but as a constraint with which to contend. Ruled lines define forms that vector from the perimeter in, yielding works that beat between drawing and painting. In Alternative IX (OC-Q1-78 #5), 1978, the tousled diagonals of Note unsquiggle into a straightedge algebra. Organized by the Fibonacci sequence, the canvas is a study in dynamic symmetry, its interior shapes—triangles, rhomboids, and irregular pentagons—syllogized with its frame.
Tworkov’s final work, Compression and Expansion of a Square (Q3-82 #2), 1982, takes the rectangle as its subject. Likewise established in a scheme of 3:5:8, its iterated forms progressively dilate and dilute in hue, as if literalizing the distortions produced by an angled view. Brushstrokes build in wilted green and yolky yellow, tempering the canvas’s otherwise rigorous plan. The result, for all its stringency, feels vaguely organic: a sense reinforced by the Fibonacci sequence’s relay to patterns in nature. Tworkov’s oeuvre softens in spite of itself, an archaeology of life animating his abstractions, a vestige of gesture loosening his geometries.
A fiber-optic cable snakes along the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, strangled by algae. This is one of four photographs in Trevor Paglen’s show, which swirls around the recent NSA scandal and our clicking, buzzing surveillance state. The picture’s title tells us that this cable has been tapped.
There are four images of the cable and three landscape photographs, all opaquely picturesque. The city seen from the harbor in NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States, 2014, is a quaint little skyline scrawled upon the dimming horizon. A map of that same area hangs next to the C-print, lashed with arrows and numbers, pocked with telegraphic messages punched onto the blank abstraction of this cartographic dream. Inset photographs of Brutalist architecture and a nineteenth-century political cartoon force a sense of inevitability, of pounding domination, to the map, and we see the photograph anew: a dense grid of data to be harvested by the state.
Paglen was the cinematographer for Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour (2014): His Eighty-Nine Landscapes, 2015, is a kind of ennobled “extra features” section on the DVD, as a two-channel video shows cities, facilities, hills, barbed-wire fences, clip-clopping policemen, a whole wordless montage of scenes and settings starkly composed. But all of these were material for Poitras’s film; they all tell the story of hypocritical agencies and whirring conspiracies. We come to understand that these neatly laid pictures—waves lapping in California, sheep working their way up a hill—have been stuck in the net of high-speed communications, images to be archived, perhaps turned against us. A grid of lit-up apartments glows warmly in the night; they twinkle like pixels.
Katherine Bernhardt first gained notice for her drippy portraits of supermodels, which, like the paintings of some of her contemporaries in figuration—Sophie von Hellermann and Chantal Joffe, say—ply aggressively unfussy paint. Bernhardt has lately been forgoing cover girls for eye candy of a different sort: brightly colored patterns and funky groupings of foodstuffs and commodities, with Doritos, toilet-paper rolls, cigarettes, and tube socks making repeated appearances. In this exhibition, that Kmart cartful of items gets mixed up with fluorescent-hued flora and fauna of the Caribbean, specifically Puerto Rico, where she recently completed a residency. Bernhardt’s acrylic-and-spray-paint palette conjures all the colors of a bowl of Froot Loops, contrasting with the drab burlap overlay on the gallery floor—emptied coffee sacks containing a few stray beans, which occasionally crunch underfoot—that rounds out the tropical ambience and aroma.
Shunning linear perspective, Bernhardt paints her strange aggregations (of sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, and toucans, among others) in nonoverlapping, allover compositions in schematic profile view, suggesting an exuberantly garbled page of botanical illustrations or natural curiosities. But unlike carefully limned scientific representations, Bernhardt’s paintings feature sloppy, luminous strokes in service of a highly pleasurable visual nuttiness. In Sharks, Plantains, and Cigarettes (all works 2015), for example, the ash topping the cigarettes billows out laterally, forming demented, windblown toupees, and bunches of hanging plantains look like menacing Day-Glo claws. While most of the canvases are vast in scale, one of the smallest works, Cantaloupe and Toilet Paper, Café Mallorca, distills Bernhardt’s sprezzatura nicely: The fruit-juice puddles of orange paint in the background nearly camouflage the magisterial bronze spray paint outlining the abject rolls of toilet paper—a perfectly lyrical crudeness. Bernhardt knows just when to put the brush down, laugh, and call it a day.
A major pleasure of reading is the stream of images that comes bidden into one’s head over the course of a book, produced by the exchange of one’s memory and the author’s imagination and occasionally syncing with, but always illuminating, the words. In Sue de Beer’s work since the early 2000s, we get to see—the way we don’t see our own—her personal image-streams on a wall, excellently crystallized into a series of lucid and fey film installations: Disappear Here, 2004, with a title from Bret Easton Ellis and a monologue from an untitled (and so far unreleased) novel by Alissa Bennett; Black Sun, 2005, with a title from Julia Kristeva and texts from two Dennis Cooper novels; The Quickening, which was based on writings by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Jonathan Edwards. Her latest, The Blue Lenses, 2015, relies again on Suspiria-type style and At Land–ish narrative, not plot, to give us horror in its truest form: life. It also gets its strangeness too easily. It questions what we read as “foreign” while making “foreignness” the reason to look.
The Blue Lenses is a noir transposition from London to Abu Dhabi of Daphne du Maurier’s blackly magic story by that name. Du Maurier’s heroine is cured of blindness only to see humans with animal heads; de Beer’s lead is watchful and silent, following an older male swindler to trip-hop parties and huge deserted malls, letting us see humans in the Middle East who are basically like humans in the Middle West. If that recognition is supposed to be a twist, it’s unacceptable: It’s the opposite of what de Beer has done best, which is to make viewers feel like tourists at home. (At Boesky East, the cobalt windows and plush rugs evoke a school trip to Islam.) Yet she is also doing film better than she has before, better than almost anyone in contemporary art, with an offhand control over an ever-wilder array of cinematic tricks for true beauty.
German artist Mario Pfeifer’s films explore cultural types in order to extend beyond the limits and privilege of a specific ethnography. For his debut exhibition in the United States and commissioned by the MINI/Goethe-Institut, Pfeifer spent half a year collaborating with director Drew Arnold and Beast Coast rap trio the Flatbush Zombies to produce a video work and EP for their latest single, “Blacktivist.” Borrowing from this title is #blacktivist, 2015, Pfeifer’s two-channel installation, which melds a music video, interviews with the Zombies, and other documentary footage. The result is a critical glimpse into the persistent and pervasive gun violence defended since time immemorial as culture in America.
The beats and testo of the Zombies sound throughout, shedding light on the victims of a society inert and negligent when it comes to gun control: “Second amendment, nigga, grab your gun. / Invest in a vest when you’re from these slums.” The accompanying video flashes footage from television crime dramas, the Black Lives Matter movement, and egregiously familiar images of white-on-black police brutality among a chroma key–set narrative that portrays the rap trio as psychedelic, pacifist resistance fighters. Sobering is the sulfurous documentation of production at Defense Distributed, a pending nonprofit manufacturer of firearms in Austin that cites constitutional rights in order to circumvent the legal and economic regulation of weapons distribution. Codirected by Pfeifer and Arnold (whose role as a founding member of the Tea Party is significant), #blacktivist perforates America’s claims to civil liberty and portrays the escalating, public conflict as crucial, gridlocked, and subject to the crossfire of inconstancy.
The star of Emily Mae Smith’s imaginative exhibition of hyperstylized paintings is the broom from Disney’s Fantasia (1940). At once an instrument of domestic labor and a tool of sorcery, the broom is a thinly disguised symbol that Smith calls upon to address sexual politics. In The Mirror, 2015, an oversize Lichtensteinesque hand mirror is surrounded by nine brooms. Each is posed seductively, parodying the clichéd and all too familiar representation of the female nude in western art (think of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque, 1814).
Central to Smith’s thinking is scopophilia, and it is no coincidence that nearly all of her paintings play with but ultimately deny the gaze. Vaguely reminiscent of an Absolut Vodka advertisement, Still Life, 2015, for instance, depicts a sunglasses-wearing, full-lipped babe. Where her eye should be—that is, inside the contours of her lens—we find instead suggestive imagery, a melting ice cube and a ruby-red cherry, rendered in a photorealist style.
The most striking work in the exhibition takes as its subject the mythological figure of Medusa. Set against a brilliant red background that gradates to fuchsia, Medusa’s mane of serpents emerges from the phallic, open-mouthed head of Smith’s broom. Historically a symbol of the dark power of female beauty and sensuality, Medusa was appropriated and rebranded by second-wave feminists (such as French literary critic Hélène Cixous and British film theorist Laura Mulvey) as an icon of the female gaze, making her a perfect heroine for Smith’s comically disruptive critique of patriarchy.
Light is a fundamental agent in Scott Lyall’s output, acting as both material and subject matter. The series “Black Glass,” 2014–15, includes twelve nearly seamless monochrome panels, each measuring some sixty-seven by forty-seven inches. The somber works are composed of pairs of glass panes, which Lyall has adhered with an ink-infused glue. They are coated with thick black ink on the reverse of the back pane and printed with a color gradient of diaphanous ink on the surface. These treatments ignite a reaction that recalls photographic development (some ambient light passes through the front pane, reflects off the back, and meets the front surface again). Lyall’s conceptual project is trapped between these panes: The light that comes back through the glass is neither reproduction, reflection, or representation, but material reaction.
Lyall’s process-oriented work functions as a compelling analogy for the material agency of images. By engaging light as both a subject and active medium, he points to otherwise-imperceptible aspects of image production—namely, the movement of light and its particle decomposition. It’s striking that this trick is deployed through works that are so serene and seductive, with surfaces so slick and seemingly empty. But this dissonance between elaborate theoretical demonstration and polished art object seems integral to Lyall’s practice.
Tyler Dobson’s paintings and cotton tapestries smile maddeningly with an uncanny blink—what are they? Each made on portrait-painting.com and personalthrows.com, Dobson—at a safe distance and with the help of invisible labor—has converted digital images into physical objets d’art, pinned like Lepidoptera for the bland contemporary gaze.
These confected pieces curdle into kitsch, and that’s part of the point. A huge cloth tapestry (Big Baby [all works 2015]) has the word “BABY” inscribed in its center, true to the formal infantilism of its geometry and cloying colors. Folksiness puffs and flakes like pie crust, but Dobson’s mastery lies in his utter refusal to tell us what to do when we look at these things. Slack-jawed guffaw or leftist snicker? Surrender to the Americana tchotchke or summon up the ironic erudition we polished at school? Big Baby doesn’t care, gurgling away with ruddy-cheeked indifference.
Another tapestry, The Graveyard, renders its subject with a series of pointed-star designs you might find on a sweater. And hanging in the corner of the gallery, painted on an old headboard, is Lana Del Rey, whose persona—smeared, bedraggled camp—dredges up every bit of fated glamour and sloppy lust we are tempted to laugh at but can’t quite. Held aloft in her pretty hands is the American flag. She is wearing an expression of beatific simplicity, her eyes and mouth three lovely slits in the milky bauble of her face—a pink-lipped fantasy of aesthetic belonging. A rough picket fence lines the gallery walls, a caricature of suburbia, yes, and a grim token of all that it shuts out—and in.
The vibrant weaves and prisms of splintering, bundled lines in Mark Grotjahn’s well-known “Butterfly” and “Face” paintings are matched in complexity only by their art-historical lineages. In the artist’s latest sculptures, finger-painting, drips and throws of paint, and hole-punched visages tease at Grotjahn’s indelible formal awareness, as does the long, skinny tube that he has pierced into a nose’s position in each work, evoking breath, death, erection, and deception alike. While earlier exhibitions presented more varied shapes, here the artist prefers repeated forms: tall, slender bronze slabs, with proportions near that of the monolith in2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), cast from cardboard boxes. If the African and Oceanic masks that have long inspired Grotjahn still come to mind, so do stelae, megaliths, and dual-sided altarpiece panels. These hand-hewn monuments feel both contrarian and pleasingly familiar, not least owing to their echo of smartphone silhouettes.
Besides multiplying paintable planes, the works in this exhibition up the ante for Grotjahn’s preoccupation with the face. Sculpture’s specialties of forgoing frontality and reciprocating presence dramatize what the artist’s paintings already allegorized: Anything in the world can be understood to have a face, requiting our gaze. In so bluntly marking the frontal view, and lavishing attention on flat surfaces, Grotjahn may be curious to see what happens when sculptures are pulled toward painting rather than the well-rehearsed reverse. Many slabs here are scrawled just like walls; others could pass for 3D sections of splashy light and color sliced from Impressionist landscapes or postwar abstractions. The sculptures’ bronze base intensifies their pigments’ faintly oxidized look of museified Modernism—Van Gogh blues, Guston pinks—even as it cherishes cardboard’s original traits of ribbed corrugation and skirting flaps.
In the 1980s, he traveled to Nicaragua to make work with a group of artists. The accident happened so quickly, the bullet piercing the skin in advance of reflex. One photograph foregrounds this accident in his latest exhibition: We see Luther Price in a hospital bed. We see the wound. This image inscribes itself in light on the surface. We see the lesion travelling from subject to object, one formally opening onto the other through the now-thirty-year-old puncture in the photograph.
The wound appears on 16-mm film, on 35-mm slides. With each press of the celluloid, each splice of the film, and each strip of the collage, the hurt is transposed to surface, as icon and index. It is made effigy, dressed in paper, resin, and plaster cast; buried in the dirt and hollowed out. It’s a repeated injury, and in each piece (slideshows of found footage, collages of meat, a collection of film, and slides with accreted matter) there are cuts, rot, and bits of celluloid. Price applies salt, soil, and, recently, sugar to the celluloid surfaces, facilitating decay with an organic kind of care—so that the fecundity or preservatives of one might rub up against the blight of the other.
Despite this attentiveness to treatment, despite the fastidious detail, the process only accelerates a breakdown. What is the meaning of flesh repeatedly incised, a wound made manifest? That the body of work might envelop the body in the incident, that the former might become bigger than the latter. With the repetition of images and action, with the accumulation of matter, we are able to feel, hear, and make sensate the structure of abjection: dirty, pretty, mortal things.
For Wu Tsang, dialogue is the primary actor by which subjectivities are accorded representation. In the artist’s latest outing, her voice musingly floods the gallery, in dissonance with that of writer and theorist Fred Moten. This audio track, playing independently from the images on display, forms half of Miss Communication and Mr: Re, 2014, a two-channel work that pays homage to a fortnight when Moten and Tsang delivered each other lengthy voicemails. Both their countenances play respectively over HD screens, which the artist has positioned like portraits. Tsang and Moten silently drift in thought and expression as the audio plays their overlapping associative ruminations—a diptych of simultaneous soliloquys. At times, Moten wears a grin with coral lipstick; occasionally Tsang’s eyes appear glazed with tears. Moten’s voice is once heard in self-retort: “Being meant for somebody means that they incomplete you.”
Across the gallery, Girl Talk, 2015, shows Moten in a garden, adorned in velvet and crystal, circling amid lens flares in an ecstatic state of spiritual harmony. The work’s sound track is a soulful a cappella rendition of Betty Carter’s song of the same name, performed by JosiahWise. Two eerie nearby sculptures, both Untitled, 2015, are drapes of beige mesh fabric and crystals over metal supports, seemingly given volume by invisible bodies.
Severing speech from image, Tsang evasively transmits representation. Given that the act of representing identity is often accompanied by expectations and diminished expressive autonomy, perhaps such splintered voices pose a service to their speakers: Their speech flows unchecked by the body. Concluding Miss Communication and Mr: Re, Moten talks over Tsang’s farewell message: “My messages were meant for your messages. . . . We were meant for one another, Wu.”
An ecological jamboree of life and death, Agnes Denes’s The Living Pyramid, 2015, gently slopes up to thirty feet high from a thirty-square-foot base. Thousands of seeds harvested in May have resulted in various grasses, plants, and wildflowers now brimming from the wooden structure, defying any marshaling of order. Soon the shambolic pyramid with its several tons of dirt and florae will be recycled back into the park’s grounds. Yet it’s not an end to the pyramid’s eternal form, which Denes has incorporated into various drawings and sculptures in her free-spirited, genre-defying output over nearly fifty years (prime examples were exhibited this past spring in her solo show at Leslie Tonkonow Gallery). The archetypal Egyptian edifice is “undeconstructable,” as Derrida might put it: an architectural wonder that evokes the look of something after collapse. Or, as Denes says in the show’s accompanying catalogue, “The pyramid renews itself.”
Her first public commission in New York since Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982, an intervention that entailed planting a golden meadow over two acres of a lost version of Battery Park City, the pyramid is also a provocation. It reminds us what public art used to be, what it could mean—environmentally, culturally, and politically. It dupes, bemuses, and antagonizes an East River panorama increasingly speckled with phallic high rises and luxury condos. Long Island City’s mounting upright and uncluttered verticality has nothing on the pyramid’s enduring, viral entropy. Indeed, Denes’s latest piece signals a regenerative living tomb, an anti-monument against what those ubiquitous and inflated erections will ultimately become: mere rubble.
With each new show of small gorgeous landscapes by Maureen Gallace, it’s natural to look for what is different from last time, noting incremental shifts in technique or subject matter. (For example, there are more paintings of the sea in this group.) But the more important point seems to be that, after more than two decades, her paintings remain very much the same. In her vistas of usually rural New England, bluntly elegant, or maybe confidently awkward, brushstrokes make up sand, snow, flowers, foliage, and sky. Often, there’s a house, shack, or barn at the picture’s dead center, and often she reduces its structure to bare geometry. In the striking red, white, and blue Ice Storm, Easton (with Robert), 2015, two brick-red buildings are rendered as blocks without windows or doors. Their roofs are crisp white trapezoids broken up by mushy lines (sticklike winter trees and their shadows).
Gallace’s filtering of detail doesn’t follow an Impressionist’s logic of light and distance; it’s a product of her own compelling algorithm. Western art history is internalized, surfacing in a mysterious but coherent haze rather than as a collision of references. But she does exploit a collision of some kind. The uncanny effect of simultaneous naïveté and knowing in her small oils (Ice Storm is among the biggest in the show, at ten by thirteen inches) derives from the merging of incongruous qualities: the sincerity of the regional landscape genre or the plein-air hobbyist, the speed and sophistication of her wet-on-wet brushwork, and the studious aura of conceptualism around a more recent tradition—painting from photographs. While many artists devote a lifetime to the potentially breathtaking project of minor variation within sharp constraints, the enduring, unpinpointable coolness of Gallace’s work always makes one wonder if there is not an element of durational performance in her persistence.
The color purple is a motif in artist and “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms’s work. It’s the background of both her spare, utilitarian website and her video Notes on Gesture, 2015, the arresting centerpiece of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” her first solo gallery show. Of course, you can’t say or write “the color purple” without invoking The Color Purple—Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of it, and the cultural omnipresence of Oprah Winfrey ever since. Syms uses this rich chain of associations to orient her concerns, such as pop culture’s production of blackness and its mediation of radicalism, and maybe to introduce her sense of humor as well.
A kind of index, Notes resembles a series of jerking GIFS: A black woman’s movements—contemporary vernacular gestures as well as those taken from a seventeenth-century book about “the language of the hand”—are isolated and looped. As the actor clasps her hands together, pats her head, or wags a warning finger, meme-ish title cards of white text, such as a series that spells out “It ain’t about the money,” and audio snippets of speech (e.g., “Check yourself”) provide the hypothetical social contexts for these distilled signs.
The piece, shown on a monitor mounted away from the wall, commands viewers to make sense of the objects Syms has carefully scattered in its orbit. Two neo–Art Deco panthers coated with black flocking stand toward the front of the space, and C-stands display an array of found photos featuring hands and gestures. The show’s serene anchor is Belief Strategy VIII, 2015, an eight-by-sixteen-foot uniformly painted matte monochrome and presumably the purple background used for Notes. The overall effect of the installation is that of a paused or abandoned video shoot—totally stylish, with the added allure of something in process.
The scene is twilight, the leaves are turning, and a girl logs practice time on her acoustic guitar in an animated world shot within the 2009 PC game The Sims 3. Tear-like droplets ambiguously fall from characters’ limbs throughout. Living in a house upstate with a smaller, surlier missy in Jack Skellington logo apparel, no one speaks, but they do bake calzones in their living room and have an ice-skating rink in the picturesque backyard. Jacky Connolly’s two videos—articulating this rustique mise-en-scène of lonely utopia—Hudson Valley Rock Chick and Forever Alone Calzone (all works 2015), are mirrored by Flannery Silva’s sculptures of a ready-loaded doll and American Girl brand accessories. The show is a tag-team adoration of materials and references straight out of the attic-stored pasts of artists who spent some crucially formative years far from IRL, burrowing deep by turns into commercial and intimate fantasies.
To wit, see Silva’s Chloé Doll, whose titular figure is nestled in a similar Jack Skellington sweatshirt to that seen in Hudson Valley Rock Chick and sits frozen in the act of needlepointing an anarchist A onto a quilted satin blanket on the edge of an autumn-leaf patterned tablecloth from Rite Aid sporting finessed (and fake) cigarette burns. The personal pastoral as commercially inflected ready-made: Just plug in your own memories, and the work will get to work on you. A constant wind blows throughout Connolly’s videos of roughly rendered characters uneasily coexisting each evening, while Silva’s woven Valley Basket sits empty on the aforementioned seasonal spread—these pieces are cold. But the show’s lighting bathes the floor-bound sculptures and ceiling-suspended, wing-shaped mirrors in a warm, lilac twilight. A liminal mood for those not bound on forgetting the waning textures of yesteryear.
Abounaddara is an anonymous collective of Syrian filmmakers, practitioners of “emergency cinema” who release a new short video via social media every Friday. They’ve maintained this impressive schedule since the start of the Syrian revolution in April 2011, through the initial mass protests and the Assad regime’s brutal crackdowns, the devastating civil war, and the resulting refugee crisis. The radical group’s remarkable, stylistically heterogeneous films—which range in length from about thirty seconds to five minutes—struggle to make visible what is obscured by war as well as by war reporting. Repudiating the international media’s focus on spectacular violence and suffering, Abounaddara produces counterimages, including many portraits of Syrian citizens. In elliptical micronarratives and beautifully composed static shots, violence is often represented by its aftermath or anticipation.
This exhibition, pointedly titled “The Right to the Image,” showcases the collective’s filmmaking strategies in three installations, each on view for one week. The focus of the first week was appropriation—Abounaddara’s savvy use of propaganda films, news footage, and found photography as well as sound. In this remix of their own work, three channels of video, projected on different walls, competed for attention, played in unison, or fell silent. Family snapshots, informational title cards, a fluttering Syrian flag shot off a television screen, and briefly displayed images of a massacre added up to an alarming montage.
In the hallway past the gallery’s entrance, a monitor screens the filmmakers’ most recent release, while a row of iPads allows visitors to peruse the Aboundarra online archive. On another wall, the collective’s “concept paper” is presented as a striking slideshow. Here, the critical conundrum of their project—that of truthfully portraying a humanitarian disaster while respecting the dignity of individual subjects caught in the frame—is addressed explicitly. In an inspiring short text, Abounaddara parlays their commitment to citizen reporting and experimental documentary into a call for a transformative new interpretation of international human-rights law.
With charm and concision, “It’s All About Me” captures former Warhol superstar and high-society black sheep Brigid Berlin’s spirit of obsession and excess—as an artist, a documenter, and a personality. A vitrine of archival material in the center of the space situates her as a major figure of Factory lore. In addition to some absorbing typewritten correspondence and a group of her gold-embossed photobooks from 1970 (one is titled DRELLA, and the one beside it is called ROAST BEEF AND BRUSSEL SPROUT), there’s a case of carefully labeled cassette tapes, her recorded conversations with Warhol and the art-world luminaries in his extended circle. There’s also a sexy and telling photo of Berlin photographing herself. Unsmiling, a couple of Marilyn screen prints on the wall behind her, she holds a Polaroid camera up as a fur shrug or throw exposes most of one breast.
She appears topless frequently in her work, and the unframed cluster of Tit Prints, 1995–96, on the gallery’s west wall celebrates this. Funny, colorful, and crafty in a good way, they are just what they sound like—her inky or paint-covered tits pressed against paper in pairs or patterns. The main event here, though, is the wonderful selection of Berlin’s Polaroid self-portraits, including many of her dreamy double-exposure works. In one of my favorites, Untitled (Self-Portrait Double-Exposure with Refrigerator), 1971–73, her serious face floats among European dairy products and cans of mandarin oranges. These proto-selfies—sorry—are devoid of the banal if understandable desire to make oneself look “good.” Vanity is secondary or nonexistent here, sacrificed for the thrill of her unpredictable technical trick and the suspenseful magic minutes as the self-developing film gradually delivers ghostly silhouettes, then a rush of detail. In spite of this, or probably because of it, Berlin does look really good, with her chubby, freckled face and limp hair, pointing her jaw slightly up into the lens with blank panache.
Jordan Casteel’s eight new oil paintings collectively titled “Brothers” are double (or triple) portraits of black men and boys—brothers, cousins, fathers and sons, including the artist’s own nephews and twin. Casteel portrays them tenderly, in casual dress, sitting close together, touching. And she gives their surroundings the same attention: The canvases are windows into vibrant, detailed interiors. She achieves their diorama-like magnetism with subtle perspectival distortions and a synergy of textures. Casteel renders the tapestry prints of upholstery fluidly, and high-pile carpet with gummy little brushstrokes. Objects in the background are also represented carefully, such as the cover of the Marvin Gaye album What’s Going On displayed in Three Lions (all works cited 2015), or the college pennants on a wall behind the young man streaked with Venetian-blind sunlight in Marcus and Jace, his arm around a sleeping toddler.
Casteel’s work points to an activist’s impulse to depict black men, with their particular vulnerability to state violence, intimately and individually. There’s nothing ingratiating about their poses; she paints them with direct, confrontational gazes, invoking the historical provocation of Manet’s 1865 Olympia. Casteel’s solo show last year at Sargent’s Daughters featured portraits of black men, too. But they were solitary, and nude, making a more explicit reference to Manet’s radical depiction of prostitute Victorine Meurent. Of course, Meurent, unlike Casteel’s nudes, isn’t alone—she’s attended by a flower-bearing black maid nearly absorbed by the studio’s dark draped backdrop.
The absence of black women in Casteel’s work raises another urgent representational question, one addressed less plainly in her paintings than the dehumanization of black men. You could say the “invisible” black woman of “Brothers” is actually visible—culturally—by virtue of her position outside the frame (as the artist herself). But maybe Casteel is doing something trickier than just that. Reviewing the show’s images, I thought—wait—isn’t that a woman, wearing Uggs and a pink beret or processing cap, a baby on her knee, in Barbershop?
In Ralph Lemon’s performance How Can You Stay In The House All Day And Not Go Anywhere?, 2010, he whispered, “love without rage is powerless.” In the more current work Scaffold Room, 2014-2015, love and rage are interrogated via readings, sculptures, and a lecture/performance/musical. Through the performances—which ended as of November 10—we experience the fullness of Lemon’s vision, a place where a vast catalogue of legibly dramatized gestures interact with unintelligible and visceral sounds, found film, and an assortment of ostensibly uncalculated movements.
For the exhibition period, Lemon invited a series of readers into a claustrophobic white room. On November 4, Fred Moten read Iceberg Slim’s sickening roman à clef Pimp (1967), focusing on the author’s scenes of dawn and of waking and sleeping. The corybantic lyricism of Slim’s language is heartrendingly inseparable from the abjectness of its depraved protagonist. Indeed, the audience becomes equally repulsed and complicit as Moten reads scenes of the pimp’s flagitious relationship with women.
Outside the white cube in the exhibition space, the spectral image of a real giraffe in the sculpture/video The Giraffe Dog House, 2015, echoes video footage of a child wearing a plush giraffe head from the performance. The choreographed actions within the white cube and black box spaces transmute the non-choreographed ones, much in the way that love and rage do throughout the varying temperatures of Lemon’s dizzyingly potent project.
In an art world glutted with gratuitously large abstract painting, a compact canvas can say more than those the size of billboards. Of the twenty pieces in Andrew Masullo’s exuberant exhibition “Recent Paintings,” none measures more than three feet tall, and most are two or less. Their high-keyed Crayola colors and lobed, undulating shapes evoke Matisse cut-outs, but Masullo’s works are deeply concerned with oil paint. His investigation of texture, translucency, and the intimate complexities within a nonobjective realm of loose geometry recalls certain works by Stanley Whitney and Mary Heilmann.
Dark, palimpsestic shapes lurk beneath the yellow and green rectangles in opposite corners of 5811 (all works cited, 2013): shadows of the painting’s metamorphosis. A third corner rectangle is red, matte, and opaque, while a fourth is blue, glossy, sheer, and buzzing with brushwork. These distinctions in viscosity and finish become oddly monumental, given the work’s restrained palette and scale. The boundaries separating colors begin to vibrate as one lingers with Masullo’s paintings. A frayed border between white and blue reveals a pink underpainting whispering through the crack. When the paintings flop (few do), it is because they lack this internal alchemy. Too slick and they can feel slightly patronizing. 5809, a blandly cheerful gathering of wavy blobs, could decorate a pediatrician’s office.
All the works, however, exude a serene self-possession, born of the artist’s intuitive process. Masullo will spend years reinventing a single canvas, and each piece contains many paintings. These former selves—glimmering through a semitransparent surface or buried away completely—make Masullo’s work feel unexpectedly human.
Simon Hantaï’s “Blancs,” created between 1973 and ’74 and on view for the first time in New York, are paragons of AbEx virtue. The six-, seven-, and eight-foot-tall paintings exemplify the Hungarian-born painter’s pliage method, which consisted of applying layers of paint to an variously folded and scrunched canvas, then unfurling it to reveal a messy arrangement of colorful polygons and untouched primer. After losing interest in Surrealism—his first adoptive camp—and its attachment to figuration and the psyche, Hantaï committed the majority of his career to pliage. Emphatic about its reliance on process, he rejoiced at the paint’s secret activity, unguided by the artist’s hand and depicting only itself.
While many of the painter’s pliage paintings are monochrome, shards of tropical hues scatter across the “Blancs”’ expanses of canvas. The fragments are superimposed onto layers of creamy, off-white primer, which also bear the marks of the pliage process—faint ridges and creases stretch in every direction, creating another field on an entirely different plane. There are even fewer traces of the artist’s intention at this altitude. Time seems frozen.
Despite the abundance of aleatory elements, Hantaï has shepherded them into masterful compositions of shape and color. The “Blancs”’ geography of positive space is either dense and chaotic or decidedly bare. These configurations seem to abide by the physics of three-dimensional objects, like pieces of broken dishware scattered across a floor. Several other resemblances appear and disappear (jungle foliage, a South Pacific archipelago, your child’s summer-camp tie-dye T-shirt) and wink at intelligent design.
While a recent museum retrospective has brought international attention at last to Alina Szapocznikow, this condensed estate show of her figurative sculpture provides a must-see coda. A fascinating artist of the post-WWII avant-garde, Szapocnikow is known for her distressed corporeal forms, but there’s a playful aspect to her oeuvre, too, evident in the group of remarkable lamps that fill the gallery’s second room.
The lumpy phallic base of Sculpture-Lampe, 1970, holds up an enchanting—and unsettling—cobbled-together head. A breast with a red nipple forms the back; in front, a mouth and chin are affixed to a single, oversized blue iris (no pupil). Made from tinted polyester resin, the glowing head houses a light bulb. It’s capped by a peach umbrella-shape that resembles both the roughly excised skin of a human knee and a mod interpretation of a Tiffany lampshade. Sculpture-Lampe VI, from the same year, also features a mouth-breast graft—this one emerges from a curved stem that sprouts from a pair of leaves the shape of Tinker Bell’s wings and the color of her dress.
Though Szapocznikow’s work is more expressive and less light-hearted than our stereotypic image of Pop, she was a kind of post-Surrealist Pop artist, using industrial methods and materials (expanding polyurethane foam as well as the aforementioned resin) to reflect and critique the fetishistic tropes of advertising and consumer display. But, as a Polish Jew who survived a childhood in concentration camps working alongside her physician mother, Szapocznikow made work that is as much about mass extermination as it is mass production.
This intriguing five-artist show feels like a séance, with its cosmic geometric imagery, apparition-like figurative sculptures, and magickal overtones. Actually, it’s a six-artist show if you count Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: Her seventeenth-century text—considered to be the first work of science fiction—provides the exhibition’s title and has been photocopied for visitors. The protofeminist, antique futurism of Cavendish’s strange story prefigures the show’s cyborgian themes and accentuates its time warp-y mise-en-scène.
Betty Tompkins’s small psychedelic Pop colored-pencil drawings from 1970–71 feature disembodied mouths, targets, a garter, and one sketchy cock. Tompkins is best known for her brilliant, closely cropped photorealist depictions of heterosexual penetration, so these weird drawings, made at the onset of her “fuck painting” practice, are cool surprises. Other highlights are the ethereal, architectural abstractions of Magalie Comeau’s oil paintings; Tillman Kaiser’s wall-mounted sculpture Fever, 2012, which has a vulval Dinner Party vibe with its central diamond-shaped orifice and cut-crystal patterning; and Cajsa von Zeipel’s Blind Man’s Bluff, 2014, a towering white statue of nearly nude, androgynous teen waifs where a girl in a T-shirt and a thong rides piggyback on another girl, both shod in super-high platform boots.
There’s another thong—or demi thong?—on display in Anna Uddenberg’s life-size sculpture Jealous Jasmine, 2014. It’s the show’s scariest piece. In it, a female robo-mannequin in a Mad Max–style warrior/stripper outfit (plus Uggs and a warm jacket) is contorted, trying to climb head first into a stroller. Has she eaten the baby? Peer in and find out.
For Jean Tinguely, art was a transitive proposition, meant to clatter, clank, and clunk its way to the trash. Tracing the four-decade arc of Tinguely’s career, the kinetic objects on display insist on being both seen and heard. Cobbled from disused mechanica, they perform a machine-age scherzo of hiccups, heaves, and hums. Together, they court anachronism, figuring time as a dual matter of patina and motion. Their installation assumes an excavatory feel, like an outlay of industrial relics, mounted on plinths and outfitted with extension cords.
When Tinguely first engaged kineticism in the mid-1950s, it was with a sense of historical urgency. As steam power ceded to circuitry, Tinguely’s contraptions, sourced from Parisian junkyards and secondhand stores, indexed the anxieties of automatization. Hewing to an antiquated logic of axle, wheel, and pulley, they declared their disposability, culminating, at their most extreme, in aestheticized frenzies of destruction. Study for an End of the World, no. 2, 1962, found Tinguely immolating one of his signature assemblages near a Nevada nuclear test site. Broadcast on NBC, the piece offered an iconography for the atomic age, wherein viewers could pleasure in the sight of their self-annihilation.
Arranged in the gallery space, Tinguely’s constructions lose their apocalyptic edge. A composite of gears and scrap metal, Vergiss mein nicht (Forget me not), 1983-91, puns on its titular flora, which line its rightmost edge in plastic, potted form. Obsolescence becomes poetic: melancholy, whimsical, and pleasantly vague, like a latter-day Richard Stankiewicz, stripped of its initial actuality. One wants for cataclysm and meltdown, the smells of singeing and chemical spill. Instead, one finds a display of functioning machines prefaced by Tinguely’s trademark red foot switches, now less the dials of a doomsday device than the “Easy Buttons” of Staples. Press them, but not for too long: you might break the art.
This exhibition of Hollis Frampton’s last major series of photographs, “ADSVMVS ABSVMVS,” 1982, an austere portfolio of fourteen color pictures of desiccated animal and plant remains, represents a belated debut of sorts for the artist. Frampton, a creative polymath whose achievements in film tend to overshadow his writing and photography, has never been the subject of a solo exhibition in New York. “I felt he was someone who was in but uniquely apart from the working art world,” wrote his friend Michael Snow in 1984, shortly after Frampton’s death. Snow, who famously narrated Frampton’s autobiographical film about his early photography, (nostalgia), 1971, has characterized this melancholic late-career work as a “beautiful, stop-time, memento mori.”
Frampton’s subject matter here ranges from flattened roadkill to dehydrated seafood and plant matter, all photographed with the same dispassionate formality against a black backdrop. A note of mourning undergirds the series as well: XIV. ROSE (rosa damascene) depicts a flower taken from his father’s funeral wreath. A Frampton-designed handout offers textual addenda to each photograph. The artist’s absorption with the sensate world of food and nature is palpable in his descriptions (as is his good humor—Constantin Brancusi’s elevation of toads above Michelangelo’s sculptures is mentioned in relation to IX. GARDEN TOAD (Bufo americanus)). Various textual ephemera related to the portfolio’s production are displayed in the basement gallery; they reveal the arc of Frampton’s impish conceptualism. While abstractly interested in photography’s “symmetry with natural processes of mummification,” as Frampton writes in a funding proposal, his project is, as he reminds a colleague in a letter, “a serious parody of a nineteenth-century scientific treatise of a certain kind.”
In 2014, Cynthia Daignault packed her bags, gassed up her car, and drove. For one year she traveled throughout the United States, stopping every twenty-five miles to paint the landscape. The result is “Light Atlas,” 2015, a series of more than three hundred modestly sized works, hung edge to edge in a tidy line in the main room of the gallery. The installation produces a crazy-quilt gradient field of blues, greens, and browns, culled from oceans, farmers’ fields, and arid deserts.
Daignault’s intimate approach undermines the macho grandiosity of American landscape painting. And a gooey optimism oozes out of these oils, as she manages to make America’s poisoned landscape of fracking sites or an image of an abandoned building with graffiti spelling out the word “safe” on its walls feel seductive.
In the adjacent gallery is Somewhere Someone Is Traveling Furiously Toward You, 2015: You are startled awake. Projected floor to ceiling, 160 black-and-white photographs appear in rapid succession on a twenty-minute loop from two analog projectors. The slideshows, with a score by William Morisey Slater, flash through Daignault’s and photographer Curran Hatleberg’s separate road trip photos simultaneously on opposite walls. The whirlwind pacing of the images—and the kink in your neck from attempting to absorb all of them—imprints you with a stark portrait of this country. The projectors manage to be in sync only once, when two photos of paved paths stretching out infinitely into the horizon leave you to wonder: Is either direction safe?
“Credibility equals reality,” begins a typewritten text in Martha Wilson’s work SELFPORTRAIT, 2014, “so that ‘self’ depends not on who you think you are, but on who others think you appear to be.” This aphorism lays a conceptual foundation for the artist’s instruction to viewers: “Write your impressions of me.” Wilson invests this invitation with authorial power, yielding her would-be self-representation, via multiple photographic approaches, to external perspectives: “In so doing, you are creating me.”
For over forty years Wilson has plumbed the sociocultural mechanisms that construct and contour notions of identity, beauty, success, and visibility, often playing on latent tendencies to judge, assume, and categorize. This exhibition of mostly new works testifies to the continued relevance and urgency of Wilson’s practice, paying particular attention to the consequences of aging. Beauty is in the eye, 2014, shows a close crop of the artist’s eyes, the left fully made up and the right au naturel, with the work’s deadpan title printed under the left. The conspicuous absence of the words “of the beholder” suggests the limit of the self’s constitution by the other, wryly locating beauty in the eye’s physical attributes rather than its gaze.
Works in the exhibition employ formats and strategies Wilson has been using since the 1970s: instructions, combinations of text and image, costume drag, all infused with a humorous didacticism. They also bear a refreshing inclination to revisit old positions, as is the case with two other self-portraits: Martha meets Michelle halfway, 2014, riffs on Tipper Gore’s Advice for the 90s, 1994, broaching a more ambivalent and less satirical relation to female authority figures while doubling down on provocation. This work is emblematic of Wilson’s knack for producing uncomfortable images with deep political resonance, and bringing viewers into close contact with unquestioned and tricky prejudices.
Tom Burr’s new sculptures inject autobiography and eroticism into their rigid, industrial supports. Every work is composed of one or two metallic planes. They are lined up serially along the walls of the gallery, each a slight variation on the one previous. These gray forms are called “grips,” 2015, evoking bodily touch. Some are made reflective by the addition of glass sheets or polished slabs visibly bolted to the steel ground. Hovering a foot above the floor on a specially built shelf, this subtle architectural intervention alters the viewing experience just enough to call attention to the context of the gallery. Questioning the use of space and its division into public and private has long propelled Burr’s practice. One sees this most strikingly in a superb selection of earlier works from 1994–99. The grandest, Circa ’77, 1995, is a giant patch of rough landscape. Trees and shrubs are planted in a large wooden box with some errant bits of litter—signs of human presence. This work contests the governmental purification of the Platzspitz, a former needle park and cruising ground in Zurich that had been made sterile by the 1990s.
In the “grips,” snapshots that look as if they came from an iPhone camera are sometimes printed onto steel, making the cool Minimalist vocabulary at play seem intimate. When Burr repeatedly deploys a photo of a glove left on a sidewalk, as in grip five, one feels more Minor White than Minimalism. Burr is a master of sensualizing geometric shapes: grip two’s twin circles are at once glory holes, manholes, record sleeves, and eyes.
In grip one and grip six, we see the artist’s own feet, snapped from a standing position and then printed onto the vertical plane of the support. These dimensional shifts open up the bodily experience of the work, producing a rigorous sense of what it’s like to stand inside someone else’s skin.
Chicago Imagist Barbara Rossi had formal rules for drawing and painting. Like a latter-day Surrealist, her drawings eschewed planned composition. She rendered forms individually with colored pencil and graphite, isolating a single object in her mind and executing it fully before moving on. Through this method, she created interior landscapes populated by common objects—staircases, bows, an umbrella, a leaky nostril—woven into dreamlike, mischievous squiggles. In the drawing Untitled, 1967, something snap-pea-like with strings of lightbulbs evokes lips and cheekbones on what loosely resembles a flattened-out face.
Rossi’s paintings were more methodically planned than the drawings, produced by painting on the backs of Plexiglas panels—a technique that allows little room for error. The opposite sides received attention, too—usually patterned with small beads of paint in ordered and ecstatic groupings. Rossi’s commingling of systematic and chaotic forms yields sensations that are strange, ethereal.
Rossi stands out for her ability to establish artworks as passages between conscious and unconscious realms. In Rose Rock, 1972, a thick field of ambiguous forms feels culled from an estuary of dreams: Fingers on a clasped hand are coffee beans; sea anemones are a network of intestines; a jacket lapel is just a jagged line. Encountering human hair in two of the paintings—3-D Do, 1973, and Brr’d and Baa’d, 1972—is a pleasant shock, lifting the works out of their hermetic vernacular and enmeshing them into a palpably physical realm.
“Lichen! Libido! Chastity!” Anthea Hamilton’s debut solo museum exhibition in the US is an arrangement replete with ostensibly handcrafted objects that engage desire and fetish. Such discrete works include suites of knobby eating utensils, precarious chastity belts, and flamboyant knee-high boots. Here, parts of everyday life are taken as whole—that is, as whole worlds of their own—in which marketing, pleasure, design, and biology influence the objects’ composition and comprehension.
Of the five boot sculptures on view, Natural Livin’ Boot (all works 2015) is a droll pastiche of earthy-chic media that befits its gimmicky title: Crusted, peeling leather and flaky lichen clusters decorate this chunky-heel platform shoe, and its knee-high shaft is permeated with pebbles. Two works of a similar silhouette, Holistic Towel Platform Boot A/W and Holistic Towel Platform Boot S/S, embody a slightly more fab aesthetic that adheres printed terry cloth to towering leather shafts stuffed with silk scarves. Hamilton juxtaposes recognizable goods with extravagant flourishes of design and construction, trading codes of functionality for an aura that engages viewer desireunder scrutiny, these objects stir an unresolved, immiscible tension of attraction and repulsion.
Mutation is a unifying thread across the artist’s output, whether it references the material shifts her objects embody, the stream of appropriation between pop and counterculture, or the transformative nature of lichen. Three chastity belts are hung with chain link from the ceiling, resembling perverse swing sets. 1st Guimard Chastity Belt (Leather Twist) fuses elegant lavender leather against the belt’s stainless steel frame. 2nd Guimard Chastity Belt (Metal Twist) showcases a subtle but piercing steel talon jutting from the girdle’s nether regions. This exhibition’s press release remarks on how the works installed are seen as “intimately binding the body to products and things.” But perhaps the reverse is true: Hamilton sportively flings off these objects from their instrumental roles in life to create wild forms that appear, in some cases, as protean as desire itself.
Gritty and glorious, the Lower East Side of the 1980s and ’90s blazes with bricks and stars in the paintings of Martin Wong. Night skies tattooed with constellations form the backdrops for calico patchworks of tenement buildings rendered in ruddy ochers, browns, grays, gold, and black. Hercules and Hydra arc above the everyday heroes and monsters of the city streets: lovers, junkies, prisoners, poets, fighters, and firemen. Lavishing countless layers of acrylic on every brick that forms this lawless, desperate world, Wong renders each mottled facade in almost carnal detail. The arresting contrast between these intensely corporeal structures and the astral planes above them suggests the key dualities coursing through Wong’s oeuvre: body and spirit, reality and fantasy, the sordid and the divine.
Wong died from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, at the age of fifty-three, and this elegant retrospective is the first to trace his too brief career. Battered walls and closed storefronts may dominate the show, but Wong also crafted intimate interior moments. Firemen were an erotic fixation for Wong, but My Fire Guy, 1988, is neither explicit nor conventionally fetishistic. Completely clothed, the fireman is chastely tucked into bed, his resting figure limned in saintly gold. Cradling a puppy, he is a child’s cherished hero more than a sex object. This tenderness is lacking in Wong’s later, slicker paintings of Chinatown, which revel more superficially in the gaudy ads and architecture along Canal Street. Wong’s Lower East Side paintings are his strongest, in full, magnificent force.
Zhang Hongtu’s survey at the Queens Museum reveals a conflicted portrait of a Chinese-American personality, one that has personally rejected Mao but revels artistically in the Chairman’s influence and memory. Across multiple rooms, an abundance of Maos—cross-eyed Mao, smiling Mao, frowning Mao—is juxtaposed with Zhang’s hybridizations of Eastern and Western imagery and aesthetic movements.
The collection presents Zhang’s work from the 1950s through today, and his range—materially and conceptually—is impressive. Guo Xi–Van Gogh, 1998, depicts the mountainous ranges of Guo Xi’s shan shui scrolls rendered in Vincent van Gogh’s post-Impressionist brush strokes. Front Door, 1995, is a door with a peephole through which one can view old footage of the leader, while The Big Red Door, 2015, is a hulking gateway dotted with phallic knobs. And a giant photographic print, Great Wall with Gates II, 2015, wraps almost entirely around the exhibition space. The show also documents the changes in Zhang’s work after he moved to America; since leaving China, his interests in the East have intensified. The humble drawings of his Chinese peers back home feel very different from the kitschy soy-sauce workers’ leaflets, glazed zodiac figures, and Chinese blue-and-white-patterned Coca-Cola bottles he made in the States.
Visitors are also encouraged to test out Ping-Pong Mao, 2015, a tennis table featuring two Chairman-shaped holes on either side. The sport seems frivolous, but it references the infamous Ping-Pong Diplomacy, a Chinese political tactic in the early 1970s where Mao invited the US table tennis team to China. This trip initiated early Sino-American relations and Zhang’s fruitful explorations of Chinese culture through an American lens.
London-based Shezad Dawood’s first solo exhibition in the US pivots on his latest film, the titular It was a time that was a time. Commissioned by Pioneer Works, the collaborative experiment was filmed in New York on devices that might have survived a postapocalyptic disaster, in this case, a flood. The effect is one of woozy images reflecting a looser, freer new society. It is accompanied by a fragrance—a persistent scent that includes notes of ambergris and algae. This dual effect is one that has come to characterize Dawood’s work.
The exhibition simultaneously acts as a mini-retrospective of Dawood’s practice over the past five years. Neon light pieces such as The Black Sun and Villa Urbaine (both 2010) illustrate his ability to articulate complex ideas in sparing yet deft strokes: Where the former captures the drama of an eclipse in a single circle of white light, the latter’s geometric rainbow lines render Le Corbusier’s famous master plan for the Indian city of Chandigarh. These in turn contrast neatly with Dawood’s textile works, including the expansive Ship of Dreams, 2012, a series of panels arranged to resemble a galleon in full sail.
Eleven works are arranged with the Spartan precision required for an artist whose practice is this conceptually dense: His multifaceted oeuvre also explores a complex matrix of spirituality, circularity, and Sufism. A Mystery Play, 2010, one of two other films on display, is a standout, glowing with the luminosity of the Golden Age of silent movies. Dawood plays the lead, weaving together vaudeville, Harry Houdini, and Buster Keaton. He is a dream in white cowboy gear, a kohl-lined explorer, haplessly caught in an Eyes Wide Shut–style romp. Never was eyeliner so delicious.