Los Angeles–based artist Kathleen Ryan’s sculptures are big and bold—seemingly hypertrophied in the life-altering California sun. She uses functional, everyday items salvaged from thrift stores and junkyards—curtain panels, railings—and reconfigures them with slick and subtle gestures. For example, Lipstick Rail (all works 2016) is a bent, upended, fire-engine-red railing, which resembles a giant line of the titular makeup, drawn in three dimensions.
In Bacchante (Tall White), countless concrete spheres, like an oversize cluster of grapes, tumble from atop a pristine marble column, ready to burst. Their smoothly polished surfaces, mottled in varying tones of gray, from pale pebble to rich slate, glimmer. Fecund and sensuous, they summon forth the Greco-Roman deity of wine, madness, ecstasy, and fertility.
Further classical references appear in Untitled. Ivy is cast in pewter, complete with delicate capillaries, and woven to form a huge metallic wreath. And Caprice recalls Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, ca. 1486: a pale pink clamshell opening to reveal a pearlescent bowling ball that’s replaced the serene goddess being blown to shore.
Ryan’s materials can be hard, shiny, and cold. But with the artist’s playful and charming tweaks, they go beyond Minimalist aesthetics. The ways Ryan transforms the strange beauty of junk reminds the viewer that common objects can become scintillatingly uncommon if you consider them thoughtfully and for long enough.
Emerging from the combative tribalism of 1970s Italian art, a time of pitched street battles between radical activist movements in Milan and Rome, the term Pittura Analitica (Analytical Painting) classified a new rigor with which a loose grouping of artists overcame enervated and repetitive modes of abstraction. In this show, it’s clear that choices about actions and materials should be understood as painting concepts rather than evidence of self-expression.
Enzo Cacciola’s 11-05-1975, 1975, is made up of cement dragged across canvas. Paolo Cotani’s Benda (Bandage), 1975, features the titular material soaked in dun paint and wrapped around a stretcher. Paolo Masi’s Tessitura (Weaving), 1974, is a grid of red and gray thread sewn into a khaki ground. Carmengloria Morales’s Dittico (Diptych) R 75-11-1, 1975, is an unpainted canvas alongside one of diagonal pewter-colored brushstrokes, with the feel of torrential rain. Vincenzo Cecchini’s stack of washed-out gray squares, Untitled, 1972, looks like a skyscraper lost in fog. Is such doleful color coincidental, given that this era of convulsive political turmoil in Italy came to be known as Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead)?
Even where Giorgio Griffa’s Linee orizzontali (Horizontal Lines), 1975, introduces stronger hues, the pink bands have been systematically drawn across a piece of unstretched, creased linen to much the same severe effect. This collection of straightforward, unsentimental painting suggests Pittura Analitica had an indirectly critical relationship to the murky politics of the period, as if artists committed to making irrevocable decisions about working processes might exemplify a clarity and probity absent from the public sphere.
A beaded curtain that spells out “VIVA LA MUERTE,” (Sans Titre [Untitled],1995), hangs on the far wall from the entrance to this South London gallery. Alas, this is the final exhibition before the venue closes forever. The show—a sprawling display of ornaments, vessels, and fetishes—features glassware made and collected by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, as well as a group of works by Bruno Pélassy. It is Pélassy’s untitled sculptures, such as the aforementioned hanging, that truly stand out. The artist, who died in 2002 due to AIDS-related illnesses, is known for his bejeweled assemblages, objets that seem to take after Robert Rauschenberg’s Scatole Personali (Personal Boxes), ca. 1952. Pélassy’s sculptures, in look and ethos, are kitsch things, numinously queered.
One sculpture in particular confounds all categories—Sans Titre (Untitled), 2000, a simple construction made of a white kidskin glove and a piece of synthetic stone. Pélassy’s strange figurine assumes the appearance of a generic religious statuette placed in churches or personal altars. But his effigy is smothered by an amorphous, parasitic mass, as if a starfish had engulfed its entire body. It is sensual and suffocating.
Pélassy’s exquisite sense of mal suffuses the exhibition’s centerpiece: a jellyfish-like creature, crafted from black lace, pearls, satiny fabric, and little glass hemispheres, floating within an immaculately minimalist aquarium (Sans Titre [Untitled], 2000). Pélassy’s bijou monster requires no food to survive as it hovers all by itself, zombified. Indeed, this funereal artwork strikes a fitting tone for the end of this remarkable space—long live the dead.
At the very end of a dimly lit room full of phantasmagoric antique textiles and artifacts from northeastern India is a video titled Invocation, 2015. It is trancelike and dreamily romantic; a subjective collection of images from the natural world imbued with ideas from the spiritual one, pieced together by an unreliable narrator behind a camera lens that occasionally blurs.
Invocation, which amplifies the numinous aspects of all the mysterious objects surrounding it, is given to us by Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya, aka Desire Machine Collective. This work evokes the spirit of Assam, India—from which the artists hail—through visions of the Brahmaputra River and the sundry myths that surround it. A roughly fourteen-minute montage, it blinks at you with a panoply of colors, symbols, and situations: a pulsating blue that suddenly transmogrifies into flashes of butterfly wings and fish scales, which then become a boat ride on light-dappled water, then lines on the palm of a hand, mustard fields, and slow-motion masked dancers in a forest. Time slips, lags. Though the piece is silent, you hear music, or birdsong, or just the quiet breath of your thoughts. The camera sways and disorients, leaving you lost at sea, hallucinating, longing for something beyond the horizon. So many of the things we witness in Invocation are steeped in animistic traditions. You become the camera, an outsider peering in, at the intersection of fiction, the occult, and the ethnographic. Nothing is linear—space expands and contracts. Invocation does what art should: It summons the faraway and demands that your critical voice hush or else dance along.
Who watches the watchers? It’s an interesting question in the context of Brooklyn-based Italian duo Eva & Franco Mattes’s investigation into the seedier side of the Internet. Their current exhibition takes on the darknet, the so-called Wild West of the digital realm, where all manner of illicitness and nightmare hide. In the video series “Dark Content,” 2016, the artists interview workers who spend their days as gatekeepers, scrubbing the Internet in a Sisyphean effort to remove beheadings, cat killings—you know the score. Rendered anonymous through voice-altering software and stock images, their harrowing tales are relayed in jarringly emotionless tones. These people mostly work alone, with little to no psychological support. The majority of these pieces, displayed in the front gallery, broadcasting from the undersides of overturned office furniture, resemble the aftermath of one big desk flip. It is an awesome wasteland, depicting what could happen should any of these invisible sentinels be pushed over the edge by all the poison they’re forced to absorb endlessly.
There is, however, playfulness: “Image Search Result,” 2014–, provides us with screenshots from the artists’ browsing histories, emblazoned onto cheap novelty products. And nearby, we encounter a group of screens (“By Everyone for No One Everyday [BEFNOED],” 2013–15) showing people performing random tasks requested by the artists, such as feeding fish strapped to their naked torsos. You laugh at these fools, huh? Well, with the works placed or angled oddly, the artists have you performing, too: gamboling around on your tiptoes, or belly up, back against the gallery floor. The Matteses have created a bracing display—clever, witty, and wholly disturbing. If you dare enter this cave of twenty-first-century wonders, just remember: Ceiling cat sees everything.
Can there be a sadder museum experience than visiting a former foundling hospital? From 1742 to 1755, lotteries determined the hospital’s adoption of illegitimate and impoverished children from desperate mothers. Dickensian London seems paradisiacal compared with William Hogarth’s gin-soaked, disease-ridden antecedent. Concluding her 2014 Hogarth fellowship at the Foundling Museum, Cornelia Parker has invited more than sixty participants to respond to the word “found.” Distributed among the museum’s historical exhibits, on-target pieces forgive the missteps that issue from an overly generous curatorial plan, for there are numerous personally significant objet trouvés here that have to do with being a self-centered artist rather than a selfless child.
My favorite among this entertaining treasure hunt is Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s barely audible sampling of Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman’s 1958 recording Music for Children. Plaintive melodies drifting down the stairwell only to falter, fragment, and vanish are apt for a museum dedicated to abandoned waifs. I also love John Smith’s Dad’s Stick, ca. 1950–2010, a video reflecting on his father’s incessant house decorating, exemplified by a wooden stirrer and teacup showing decades of accumulated layers of paint. Of the several pieces by Parker, the most haunting image is of two children’s featureless faces in Unfinished painting attributed to Alfred Munnings (date unknown), an oil sketch found in an antique market. Even more startling is Gavin Turk’s hyperrealist Nomad, 2002, a life-size painted bronze of a grimy, well-inhabited sleeping bag, perfectly incongruous as the only contemporary work in the museum’s Court Room, its most lavishly appointed salon. A show of surprises, then, and not least its impeccable timing, given Britain’s recent referendum achievement that has orphaned an entire country.
The institution of the museum has relied on object-led narratives since its establishment, employing a show-and-tell apparatus in order to bolster citizenship and project ideology. “The Science of Imaginary Solutions,” a wide-ranging group exhibition, queries the foundation of this knowledge. By monopolizing on the line that rests between factual and fictional narratives, this presentation disrupts the notion of the past as static, homogeneous, and reliable, as it offers up a series of objects that form an incomplete history from today to the eighth millennium BCE. Fittingly, the title is derived from the absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry’s nonsensical philosophy of “imaginary solutions.”
Historical artifacts (a Neolithic stone basin and pestle; brooches from the first to sixth centuries AD) and works from sixteen modern and contemporary artists are given equal weight. Stephen Thompson’s Antiquities of Britain, 1872, and Albert Renger-Patzsch’s prints from 1925 to 1939 chart the shift in perceiving photography as not just pure documentary but also an art form. Pieces by Barry Flanagan, Lucio Fontana, and Yayoi Kusama represent the expansive diversity of artistic positions in the postwar period. Marcel Broodthaers’s Les Animaux de la ferme (The Farm Animals), 1974, stands out due to his engagement with institutional critique and interest in parodying the museum. The politics of craft and design informs Ian Hamilton Finlay’s and Katie Schwab’s respective uses of slate and ceramics. Other contemporary artists, such as Ruth Ewan and Andy Holden, take social history as their subject, presenting a shifting analysis of how art objects operate in our understanding of material culture. By subverting the archival impulse and creating an element of museological fantasy, this unusual and interesting show also tests the limits of what an exhibition should look and feel like in the twenty-first century.
This is a big, museum-survey-style exhibition, long overdue. Lukas Duwenhögger is of course best known for his oil paintings, rendered in mustardy, muted pastels that never overstate, exercises in high kitsch that simultaneously operate as postcolonial takes on Firbankian faggotry, with cultural references to Duwenhögger’s adopted homeland of Turkey often woven in. In Garten am See (Lakeside Garden), 1995, a smartly dressed man leans against a tree on a hill, staring seductively outward at the viewer. Coming up the path behind him is a mustachioed man, who cruises him with a languishing stare. On the water, a man in a red bathing suit standing in a boat can be discerned pondering this scene on the shore. Cruise and/or be cruised: For Duwenhögger, it is looking—that is, the desirous glances men inadvertently exchange when they pass each other in banal situations—that ultimately conceals queerness, and is thus the most heavily sexual act of all.
Many of the artist’s excursions into other media are represented here as well, such as a model of his proposal for the homo holocaust memorial in Berlin, The Celestial Teapot, 2007—an endless wraparound viewing tower, from which visitors could presumably observe all the action in the notorious cottaging zone of the Tiergarten, culminating in a teapot with a limp human wrist for a handle—a typically Duwenhöggerian gesture—dementedly queer and queerly demented.
In 1951, the Pleasure Garden Fountains opened in Battersea Park, London, as part of the Festival of Britain to celebrate a brighter postwar future for the country. Arranged on both sides of the Grand Vista, leading down some stairs and toward the dancing fountains, is a pair of symmetrical mirror pools, in which Samara Scott has installed her site-specific work Developer, 2016.
In the eastern pool, which she has dyed blue, lengths of orange, yellow, and red netting are unfurled underwater and, from above, appear green and blue. Shards of white plastic sheeting are caught underneath, prevented from floating upward. In the opposite pool, dyed a rusty bronze, silver tarpaulins have been sliced into large, curving shapes and joined back together again, making a massive sheet. Where it rises to the surface and catches the sunlight, it flashes silver like a leaping fish, but where it falls away in underwater valleys, it turns a dirty-toilet brown.
In Scott’s hands, the mirror pools have been transformed into a diptych of abstract water paintings, their surfaces like undulating canvases. Scott has shown these sorts of works before, cut into the floors of an art fair or a gallery—but in those indoor environments, the liquids and objects stand eerily still. Here, they are animated by nature: a confetti of fallen leaves and seeds, buzzing dragonflies, and reflections of blowing clouds and rustling trees. Strolling along the Grand Vista today, it looks as though hundreds of pieces of Matisse’s gouache decoupages have been peeled off their canvases and thrown into the water, embellished by the weather and open air.
This group exhibition explores the disjunction between the simultaneous visibility and vulnerability of black men in contemporary society. Curators Ekow Eshun and Karen McQuaid express that while black men may be lauded as globally influential and cultural trendsetters, the disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration in both the UK and the US tell another story. In order to eschew the misrepresentations and stereotypes associated with the hypervisibility, or, indeed, hyperinvisibility of black masculinity—a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has been stenciled on the wall—the curators have selected work that investigates the dandy, a figure of subversive politics as well as chic who destabilizes, in this instance, the subjugating white gaze, with sartorial exuberance and provocation.
The earliest work, from around 1904, collected by the Larry Dunstan archive, is unattributed. Depicting young Senegalese men in sharp suits with bow ties and boaters, these photographs appear to have been taken in deliberate resistance to archetypal colonial imagery. Similarly, Malick Sidibé’s iconic black-and-white images, capturing his native Bamako following Mali’s independence from French colonialism in the 1960s, offer insights into a dynamic and transformed society through their representation of individual and collective style. Self-portraits by a young Samuel Fosso, taken after hours in the photography studio he founded at the age of thirteen—wearing such things as platform shoes and cropped fringed trousers (from the series “‘70s Lifestyle,” 1973–77)—were intended to weaken the dictatorship of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, as these items of disco effervescence and gender play were banned during his reign. The show also features photography from Liz Johnson Artur, Hassan Hajjaj, Colin Jones, Isaac Julien, Kristin-Lee Moolman, and Jeffrey Henson Scales. The diverse selection of international portraiture and street photography shows men claiming and defining their image on their own terms.
An artist’s final works invariably provoke morbid speculation—think of Philip Guston’s The Line, 1978, in which a monumental hand stretches from the heavens to score the earth. It’s trickier with Dorothea Tanning’s flower paintings, her very last works, because she was anything but melancholic about them: “In painting these flowers my reward, then, was the simple delight that came with making them happen.” Apparently, in 1997, having stopped painting some years before, Tanning found a dozen unused canvases and worked on them in intense bursts of energy . . . then nothing more until her death in 2012. Six of these midsize pieces are shown here, along with preparatory drawings.
Tanning’s delight notwithstanding, these are nightmarish plants, filled with malevolent languor—their widening orifices and fetid colorings of drained mauve, pink, and orange suggest carnivorous intentions. In five of these pictures’ backgrounds are stretched female nudes, mimicking landscape forms, in putrefying gray green, the bodies obscured (or perhaps consumed?) by the huge flowers. The dry and inexpressive brushwork annuls any reassuring painterly sensuality. Clearly, rules of predation and sexual satisfaction are rewritten in this realm; the paintings could easily refer to some of Charles Baudelaire’s bleaker poems from Flowers of Evil (1857). Fittingly, Tanning invited poet friends to name the flowers and contribute verse for each painting. For Convolotus alchemelia (Quiet-willow window), 1998, Brenda Shaughnessy, to describe an image of gray flesh dissolving into a bed of sharp blue petals, writes, “edges smudged to blur / the violetly-loved body.” Such effective artist-poet collaborations intensify these paintings’ troubling reflections on sex and time.
The late painter Maria Lassnig’s rigorous, febrile, decades-long project in self-portraiture takes the viewer on a remarkable journey. In this retrospective—Lassnig’s first in the UK—we encounter forty of the artist’s mostly large-scale works, along with several of her irresistibly beautiful and witty animations. One of these, a 35-mm film titled The Ballad of Maria Lassnig (Maria Lassnig Kantate), 1992, features the artist, glamorously dressed, singing about the vicissitudes of her life and career. It is very much in the spirit of her paintings—humorous, ironic, yet unflinchingly honest. At certain points it goes from a kind of hyperrealism to full-on science fiction.
Perhaps the most striking pieces in the show are those in the section labeled “Kitchen/War” (which borrows its title from a 1991 Lassnig painting). This grouping of pictures addresses the experience of war through television, from the titular domestic space, or from a chair into which she sank regularly while being pummeled by the news. (Lassnig once remarked that the only time she relinquished her commitment to the rendering of her interior life was when the events of the external world were more powerful than she.) She also depicts herself merged with things in this area, as if she’s trying to expand some aspect of her sentience. With Kitchen Bride, 1988, she’s a fleshy, mutant cheese grater; while in Armchair Self-Portrait I, 1963, she’s become one with her sitting-room furniture. The object-body fusion, however, gently comes undone in Untitled, 2005. Here, Lassnig’s on crutches: One supports her back; the other, her legs. With her eyes shut she looks vulnerable, and totally at peace.