How can one render the invisible visible? This question stands out in this group exhibition that preserves the leftovers of show preparation. In it, a minor collection of unattributed works fills a small gallery set aside for the Bay Area Art Workers Alliance: a yellow-and-gray moving blanket hangs from a wall as a flimsy monochrome; a lensless projector fades in and out during a color test; drill holes from the previous month’s exhibition await drywall spackle. The twenty-three works on display extend the parameters of an exhibition’s “work” to include both the preparator’s labor and the support structures involved in the work’s installation.
By emphasizing these elements of show preparation, the exhibition is suspended in a state of potentiality. For instance, the color test is projected at a frame rate that is unsynchronized with its recorded image. A CCTV camera records and feeds a CCTV CRT monitor at a different rate than the projected image. In a sense, the image appears as an aura of its own failure. Likewise, in another part of the exhibition, a video fades through all the possible hues and tones used to smooth images over the course of an exhibition. These tests serve as necessary experiments during preparation and maintenance, but in this particular iteration they are noninstrumentalized—excessive and unfinished.
Woman with a Camera (Diptych), 2008, is one of the works you first encounter as you enter Anne Collier’s first major museum exhibition, which encompasses ten years of powerful didactic photography. The illustrious diptych succinctly embodies Collier’s enthusiasm for iconic image-making and conveys her photographic authority and commanding appropriation. Lifted from Irvin Kershner’s film Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), the work’s black-and-white print on the left depicts a 35-mm camera pressed against film star Faye Dunaway’s eye. The work’s second image, on the right, is printed in color and pictures Dunaway staring directly at her subject over the camera’s body, not through its viewfinder. As with all the works that make up Collier’s extensive “Woman with a Camera” series (2006–), there is an obvious inversion of female objectification evoked historically by the entitlement of the male gaze. Yet the exertion of gender politics that acts as a thread throughout her work is a mere subtext to the cultural power afforded to blunt and emblematic image-making, an authority Collier wields with aplomb.
The same can be said of First Person, 2009, Introduction, Fear, Anger, Despair, Guilt, Hope, Joy, Love, Conclusion, 2002–2014, My Goals for One Year, 2007, and Spiritual Warfare, 2006, all centrally composed images of found self-help artifacts: audio tapes, questionnaires, worksheets, and personality checklists. Although each item that Collier documents was designed to address messy emotional states, the photographs are undemonstrative. Taking as a model the contrivances of the Pictures Generation, Collier’s appropriation strategies are dispassionate but never disinterested. Always clinical in their formal presentation, the prints can range in temper from witty to cruel. Yet pleasingly Collier’s authoritative aesthetic stands in static opposition to a post-Internet aesthetic and its colloquial speed of production. Unlike Laura Mars, Collier’s photographic aptitude comes from the fact that the artist never holds a camera up to her eye.
“Painter’s painter” is a term of praise for artists who forcefully push the medium to generate new expressive possibilities. This exhibition, assembled over the span of three years, thanks to a gift from the Alex Katz Foundation, gathers works by thirteen contemporary painters plus several by Katz himself. These include skillful imitations of surfaces and materials (Jan de Vliegher, Man with Gigantic Bee, 2012), reimaginings of pop-culture images (Joyce Pensato, Daisy, 2007), and private visions bordering on psychological puzzles (Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled, 2012). Also noteworthy is one of Ronald Bladen’s rarely seen impastoed paintings, the gritty and chthonic Space Landscape, 1955.
Among the strongest works is Laura Owens’s Untitled, 2013, which illustrates the possibilities of a simple black-and-white palette. Two large-scale grids overlap like Photoshop layers, scribbled across with thick lines rendered perfectly three-dimensional by drop shadows. Her precise control of line and shading makes the occasional blob of raised paint look like material intrusions into a realm of digital brushstrokes. Charline von Heyl’s symbolically charged Idolores, 2011, is dominated by an enigmatic figure that wavers between a stone totem and a blinded skull topped with a black spiky crown. The figure seems trapped between the woven grating that covers it and the background of pale bars, but at times it reverses itself, becoming part of a larger underpainted pattern that is only partially revealed. Spencer Sweeney’s Untitled, 2011, draws on Grace Jones’s iconic Island Life cover, portraying her as the ghostly shadow of a painter’s model, a barely outlined form seemingly dissolving under the lascivious red-eared artist’s gaze. The work’s multiple lines of sight depict the painted subject as not quite a person, but rather something between an object and an idea.
Nothing plain is simple. This apparent paradox encapsulates some of the mercurial magic found in Nairy Baghramian’s first foray into the Midwestern United States. Curated by Susanne Ghez, the exhibition demonstrates Baghramian’s particular deftness with sculptural form and savvy in an engaging exhibition context.
Take the large low-lying sculpture French Curve (all works 2014), which occupies the Art Institute’s terrace. Opting not to battle with the Chicago skyline, the artist created a work that, from the initial approach, conjures up associations of a scooped-out corporality—linking the human body’s internal grossness to industrial manufacture. Viewed from another vantage point, it evokes a line of concrete barriers with a nod to Minimalist sculpture. If the piece is modest in it’s verticality, it remains elegant and spare. French Curve is made all the more striking for it’s odd use of color, a blanched yellow, which is dull and flaccid. This might be misconstrued as a shortcoming. Yet it is precisely this quality that causes the work to linger.
In a slightly jangling (and rather immediate) shift in context to the museum’s upscale restaurant is a series of seven sculptures titled Slip of the Tongue, which press up against their vitrines and appear as waxy, bandaged, and bruised limbs—not phantoms, but haunting. The odd is in the particular and the banal is often equated with generality; the two together in this exhibition are, for a lack of a better term, beautiful.
“Someday is Now” surveys the work of artist, teacher, and nun Corita Kent (1918–1986), emphasizing her both as prolific artist and inventive educator. Kent taught at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles from 1947 until ’68, and her Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, 1967, includes pedagogical edicts such as NOTHING IS A MISTAKE. THERE'S NO WIN AND NO FAIL. THERE'S ONLY MAKE. and THE ONLY RULE IS WORK. Beyond the classroom, Kent courted serious international interest during her lifetime, gracing the cover of Newsweek in 1967 and connecting with such figures as John Cage, who, along with Merce Cunningham, much admired and promoted her dictums.
This exhaustive survey brings together documentary ephemera as well as films such as We Have No Art, 1967, which shows Kent leading participatory Happenings. Kent embraced silkscreen serigraphic printing alongside Warhol, Rauschenberg, and others, a noteworthy example being The lord is with thee, 1952, depicts biblical figures in a blocky style of German Expressionism. By the mid-1960s, this content ceded to appropriative remixes of found text and graphic design, such as that they may have life, 1964, which mixes the palette, polka dots, and promises of Wonderbread (“enriched bread”) with a Gandhi quotation. Likewise in song about the greatness, 1964, the text of Psalm 98 is harmonized with the slogan MAKES MEATBAL SING. Part commodity critique, part secular humanist optimism, these cropped citations put pressure on the disembodied voice, using literature, religion, and advertising against each other to challenge their respective premises.
Commissioned by the museum, and conceived of as a tongue-in-cheek “collaboration” with the museum’s architect, Zaha Hadid, Mithu Sen’s playful but unsettling Border Unseen, 2014, opposes the brutally rigid and abstract geometry of Hadid’s building by tracing a soft, fleshy line in the space. Rising up gradually from the floor, the eighty-foot-long hanging sculpture consists of a narrow ridge made from carefully poured pink dental polymer that is topped with a seemingly unending row of false teeth, which are held in place by drips of gooey, hot glue, and sits atop a thin metal beam. In a quintessential feminist gesture, the abject interior of the human body is transfigured into both architecture and landscape.
Though the arrested fluidity of Sen’s materials recalls Lynda Benglis’s famous poured-latex sculptures from the 1970s, here the scale and effect is more intimate than sublime. The sculpture simultaneously evokes various body parts—spine, tongue, tail—in addition to an impossibly long and straight gingiva. Firmly anchored high on a far corner wall, it also resembles a parasitic worm more than it does a discrete external threat.
Interspersed among the fake teeth, which are occasionally arranged in circles or ellipses to possibly suggest vagina dentata, are other similarly sized objects: pointy shark teeth, tiny cartoon skulls, and miniature train set figurines. These details encourage close looking along the sculpture’s length and introduce the possibility of narrative. Transforming the materials used to build oral prostheses into a floating fantasy landscape, Sen’s sculpture manages to combine the sensibilities of two distinct periods of our lives—the young and the old—incorporating childlike play to take the edge off our impending mortality.
Beatrice Wood is best known for her lusterware pottery, so this exhibition of nearly fifty works on paper, made over the course of a staggering eighty-seven years, is surprising and also gratifying. Despite drawing on styles that veer from commercial illustration to delicate abstraction and Cubist figuration, Wood’s distinct visual stamp and sensibility persist through changing influences and decades. The drawings have the combined openness and intimacy of a daily diary, revealing the wit and humor, pathos and joie de vivre for which Wood’s so well known. For example, works from “Touching Certain Things,” 1932–33, depict sexually tinged interactions between women with a directness and sweetness that remains, despite a quaint illustrative style, radical for our times. Though less overtly sexual than the other works in that series, . . . how lucky men are!, 1932, suggests closeness and comfort between the two women depicted, here propped in bed on fluffy pillows and clad in filmy negligee, leaning in towards each other.
A number of drawings explore dream and emotional states through abstract figuration. The outlined figures in Meeting of four women who hated each other, 1983, sway to and fro as if in a dance, surrounded and connected by a rush of red lines. Organic shapes in shades of pink make up the fleshy bodies that encircle the woman in black at the center of Nun’s Dream, 1996. Amid the drama and caricature, narrative and humor, several figurations of a more minimal bent provide quiet moments, including Untitled (intertwined legs), 1977, in which a thigh, pointed toe, and rounded rear hover gracefully in the center of a page torn from a sketch pad.
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is not so much a book to be read as it is to be experienced. This is a key thought to hold on to when viewing Spanish artist Dora Garcia’s The Joycean Society, 2013, one of three large-scale video projections with accompanying sculptural elements gathered by curator Chantal Pontbriand for the exhibition “Of Crimes and Dreams.” Shot in a documentary style, the film hovers around members of a reading group in Zurich as they decode a single page in Joyce’s masterpiece. As the complex, ciphered text is unpacked word by word, spontaneous tangents emerge across literary cues and personal anecdotes. It’s a durational performance of sorts (keeping in mind that it takes the group eleven years to work through the entire book), and the longer one watches the more it becomes clear that, for Garcia, the essential value of language, no matter how irrational or obscure, is the parallel social dynamic that it reveals.
Similarly, for her video Désordre, 2013, Garcia invited residents at a French psychiatric hospital to read Finnegans Wake as well as Félix Guattari’s Soixante-cinq rêves de Franz Kafka (Sixty-Five Dreams of Franz Kafka) (2007), this time prompting a free-association discussion on daydreaming, anxiety, and betrayal. There is a candid synergy to this group of marginalized “others,” and the results are pointedly lucid: “I think it’s important to dream because it’s proof of life,” says one patient. It all comes together in a pair of large chalkboards from Garcia’s ongoing series “Mad Marginal Charts,” 2009–. Here, Garcia has devised a kind of spiraling linguistic calculus based on research on Joyce, Freud, Lacan, and Antonin Artaud to anti-psychiatry and deinstitutionalization. Impenetrable at a glance, this mapping of abstract symbols and equations demands complete absorption, in time opening a coded gateway that at once confounds and creates meaning beyond the conscious limits of language and society.
In Vida Yovanovich’s latest exhibition, “Grita en silencio/Memoria que se borra” (Shout in Silence/Memory That Vanishes), eight video-and-sound installations deal with the atrocious fate of the victims at Mauthausen, one of the deadliest concentration camps of World War II. Within a muted landscape and seemingly inhospitable architecture, Yovanovich creates a view into a dense yet empty context. Certain that we can only intend to approach the unfathomable if experienced as temporal duration, her almost deathly still films hold watch, capturing a place beyond any possible narrative.
Over the course of four years, the artist explored the site’s devastating past, producing, among other impressive works, Sálix babilónica (Salix Babylonic), 2010–14, a video installation that captures a lone willow tree throughout the seasons. Four nearly floor-to-ceiling projections of the peacefully undaunted tree surround the viewer in the gallery, conveying the cyclical passage of time in nature. This changes, however, upon realizing that on the floor at the center of the gallery is an outlined square that measures approximately 172 square feet—the dimensions of gas chambers used in concentration camps. Synergistically, our bodies unwittingly occupy the symbolic core of the genocide.
Yet, Yovanovich’s almost motionless visions retain hope for the still latent meaning of life. In one instance, a bird flies down from the autumnal willow, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. With this simple gesture, Yovanovich offers us a past that is palpable, yet in motion.
Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.