What better example is there of the corrupted flesh of the contemporary art object than a resplendent sculpture, its gleaming surface polished within an inch of its life, stuffed with rotting garbage? Darren Bader’s exhibition, “such are promises,” delights in this cunning play. A number of Bader’s pieces are teeming with refuse culled from the waste stream. From the derivative sheen of a John McCracken–like plinth to twelve metal pétanque boules, Bader conceals his waste in glossy shells. Placed in the middle of the gallery is a pétanque court, titled Sculpture #2 (all works undated). Bader’s boules are suffused with a witches’ brew of grease and detritus from a pub. Shake one of boules and the interior swooshes to and fro as if adrift at sea. One is confronted with the question: What happens when the shell cracks?
A text work by the artist, fear of unguents, declares the exhibition’s trepidation about viscous materials, à la Ed Ruscha. An unguent is a substance used as ointment or lubricant—in Bader’s case, the unguent is repressed, buried deep in the belly of his boules. When one is thrown in a swooping arc downward to the ground, you wait for it to shatter in a calamitous encounter. Perhaps here is an elaborated model of an artwork today: a thing tossed into the air, its interior spinning with junk, while we watch for a fateful collision. When it breaks, the inside becomes outside, and vice versa. Bader’s aesthetic is not one that revels in the fetid sewer of commerce but instead conceals that revolting stream within its core. These objects sour our palette.
Building on Tate Modern’s recent “EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop,” Brazilian artist Claudio Tozzi’s works from 1967–71 are surveyed at this gallery in collaboration with the Sao Paulo–based Almeida e Dale. Bright colors are framed by bold outlines in the artist’s stylized figurative paintings—a formal approach similar to those of many of his Pop contemporaries, such as Roy Lichtenstein or Allan D’Arcangelo, among countless others.
Tozzi’s work covered a wide range of subjects, from the popular to the political—legendary footballer Pelé, a man’s lingering gaze upon a woman at a bar, a helmet-clad astronaut during the Space Race, and Che Guevara’s corpse following his assassination by the CIA in Bolivia. The artist made provocative works that confronted authoritarian ideology; living in Brazil during its military dictatorship (which lasted from the coup d’état in 1964 until ’85), he witnessed much of Latin America falling prey to the spread of fascism.
Multidão (Crowd), 1968, depicts bodies in black and white industrial paint over Duratex, derived from newspaper photographs of agitators and demonstrators against the regime. Parafuso (Screw), 1971, and Cinturão (Belt), 1970, depict these objects as stark metaphors of oppression and suffocation, while the readymade sculpture Catraca (Turnstile), 1968, consists of the titular gate, padlocked and immovable. Tozzi’s paintings reflect a world in aggravated flux—the rise of consumerism and popular culture offset by Cold War politics. His imagery—flat forms upon flat surfaces—reflect the richly layered history of a deeply complicated world.
What can describe our astonishment at those contortionist feats by Chinese acrobats? Bodies and objects just weren’t made for that! How do we account for what occurs between limbs, glass, and gravity as pyramids of stemware levitate over arms and legs? Ten years in the making, Rose English’s “A Premonition of the Act”—an installation of videos, glass vessels, photographs, text, and an opera sound track—suggests answers through a meditation on the polysemic capacities of language, written and sung, when experienced alongside photographs of unbelievable physical exploits.
In a blacked-out gallery, beam-shaped lights illuminate twenty groupings of prints, photocopies, and texts from STORYBOARD, 2011. Images of mind-boggling balancing acts are juxtaposed with cryptic notations in idiosyncratic handwriting and type. For example, the phrases “[filigree thought accrued by repetition] [somnambulant impulse] . . . synaptic circus revealed [inside the music]” cast the acrobat in the adjacent image as more of a multimedia philosopher than mass entertainer, as she balances glass bowls on her head while conducting a handstand. The brittle and lissome singing of the accompanying opera, Lost in Music, 2015, a riveting composition by Luke Stoneham with a libretto that English derived from her STORYBOARD notes, immerses us even deeper in a reflection on the enigmatic physics of acrobatics.
Elsewhere are the videos Flagrant Wisdom, 2009, showing Chinese performers in a glass foundry conducting yet more miracles with custom-blown objects, and Ornamental Happiness, 2006, a glass-balancing performance of staggering complexity. English’s intelligence is embedded in a historically rooted and bodily practice, with flamboyance as its unlikely herald.
This group exhibition curated by New York–based artist Jesse Hlebo, titled “people sometimes, die,” opens with Denzel Russell’s The Legislator, 2015, a gun-shaped tube of glass filled with blood, which partially exploded some time after it was hung. The piece is violent and seductive, much like Rihanna’s paean to revenge, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” a remix of which serves as the sound track for E. Jane’s video GetThaMoney.irl.mp4, 2015. Jane’s video offers us a clip from the notorious film Set It Off (1996), a story about four black women turned bank robbers who are, in the words of Vivica Fox’s character in the film, “just taking away from [a] system that’s fucked us all anyway, y’know?”
Alongside this piece is Yulan Grant’s DIS/PLACE, 2016, scored by Marco Gomez and featuring scenes from dancehall parties in Jamaica and New York that play out as ritualized performances of gender, power, and sexuality. Both films are projected on a wall covered in black body bags, next to Devin Kenny’s Anonymous Interview with J, 2012. The interlocutor in this film has his face obscured by shadows. He gives us a conspiracy theory about the marketing of gangsta rap: that it’s meant to promote criminal behavior in order to fill private prisons, from which the music industry can profit. Truth or fiction? It’s difficult to tell, and the question is utterly compelling.
Interrupting the view from the entrance of Cornelia Baltes’s show is a large suspended canvas. On it, a bright blue fade and two U shapes are contained by a wobbling matte black background. Initially, these forms register as a strange alien creature with closed eyes, but quickly they reconfigure into the rear of a pair of jeans. The title: Steve (all works 2015–16). Steve turns out to be bum-to-bum with Monika, a set of raw canvas legs outlined in more black with horizontal bands of red and blue, suggesting sport socks or anklets. Nearby, Fin is set at an angle, just off the wall, while Greg leans back. The two hang little more than ten centimeters apart and are flirting like mad. Cindy wrings her fingers in the corner . . . Perhaps she likes Greg, too. Hendrik’s loitering in the back of the gallery with Twinkle. Untitled (Electrolytes) consists of two inverted swoops of bright yellow set over a pure white surface, while Feathers has three gradating orange-to-white ovals straddling a naive-looking E routed into the MDF support. These two works are spaced between but away from the two main clusters of their anthropomorphic counterparts; ornaments in the backdrop of this hip gathering.
Baltes’s titles are suggestive yet elusive, just like her imagery. Their mostly mono-word format aptly echoes the reductive and quirky qualities of her approach. Real-world observations inform but fall away from her stylized works. Though the artist’s clean and unabashedly chic graphic sensibility suffuses this exhibition, the occasional scuff or rough drag of paint satisfyingly upsets the status quo of tidy lines, flat colors, and expertly graduated shades. Baltes’s ability to imbue rigorously conceived form with playfulness and humor is impressive. And though her “cool kids” look decidedly “in,” their visible, kooky neuroses manage to charm and utterly endear.
It’s hard to imagine the kid who’d be thrilled by this collection of nine weirdly disparate and outsize dolls’ houses. The Tyrolean lodge, Miami villa, Japanese tea house, Georgian mansion, and clapboard hippy hangout are too clunky and melancholic for lasting fun and games, especially displayed atop so many secondhand tables. Moreover, they’ve been plastered with large mug shots of Bill Murray and are placed a good distance apart—as if embarrassed to be at a fancy dress party in similar costumes. Outside BALTIC, there’s a fifty-three-foot-tall image of Murray in a plaid jacket pointing a miniature camera at us as we cross the river to the gallery.
Brian Griffiths’s screwball exhibition “BILL MURRAY: a story of distance, size and sincerity,” wonders what might happen if the same Murray who drops in uninvited at your party were to take over your show mid-installation. Griffiths surrenders control of his minihomes to the actor, who wraps his expressive face around walls and roofs and, like a colonizing alien, seems to wind his cerebral cortex through the rooms, filling them with a mess of real-world props, such as a digital alarm clock, electric fan, table lamp, cocktail bar, cafetiere, and a mini guitar case. The lights are turned up bright—one of them literally in the center of Murray’s forehead—but the rooms are mostly empty and logic is out the window.
From a higher floor we can peer through a telescope at this architectural hodgepodge of Murrays, the most absurd of them a sci-fi dome with helipad hat. We might laugh at Murray’s bemused stare, but one of Griffiths’s subversions is to situate us as the object of the actor’s merriment.