The wall sculptures and photographs that comprise Matt Keegan’s “And” seem deceptively soft and disarmingly modest. Large C-prints of found machine-made shapes, such as a scrap of rusted and twisted industrial metal in Was (all works 2014) or the repeated squares of a car speaker in Speaker, are lit gently, creating velvety layers of shadows. The predominant steel wall sculptures, laser cut and modeled after paper cutouts, are painted in improbable pastels, sometimes powder-coated hues of blush and muted mauves and oranges. Several utilize the same shape repeated in different colors (as in the “Crossed w/ Strips” series). Against a built-in panel of pale-salmon sheetrock that extends across the gallery walls, Keegan’s work at first reads as serene and surprisingly mild given the formal, sharp geometry of its objects.
But upon closer inspection, a subtle but carefully hatched grid is carved into this pink layer of drywall, which loosens the effect of each individual wall piece as a stable body in space. Against this lattice, the sculptures create the impression that they are models for nonexistent objects, or hypermagnified fragments of manufactured materials, and photographs of grates and other found grids lose their sense of proportion. The driving concern of “And” is that of scale and how it affects what we perceive as pattern, texture, and shape. At what point do we interpret a figure as being part of a larger pattern or as its own autonomous presence? Ultimately, Keegan disturbs the ways that we interpret the warp and weft of the things that hold our manufactured world together.
The voice of Tibetan singer Lolo, who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for his pro–Tibetan independence songs, eases through the grate of a tiny, dilapidated cell in the prison’s “A Block,” which once housed conscientious objectors during World War I and now resounds with the voices of dissident poets and artists imprisoned around the world. The sound installation Stay Tuned, 2014, is part of Ai Weiwei’s staggering feat of public art currently occupying Alcatraz. Spanning multiple locations in the former penitentiary, the show features a multilayered relationship to site—complicated by the fact that China has restricted Ai’s travels since his detainment in 2011. (He was unable to journey to Alcatraz and worked from floorplans and photographs.)
In With Wind, 2014, statements about freedom and its fragility by Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and others are handpainted on a large dragon kite, one of many tethered to the ceiling of a bunker where inmates once worked difficult jobs, which were nevertheless coveted as a reprieve from their usual confinement. This and other compelling works, such as a vast carpet comprising a million Legos that depicts 176 prisoners of conscience around the globe (to whom visitors can send pre-addressed postcards by participating in another of Ai’s pieces), educate the audience—many of them unaware they would encounter an art exhibition during a visit to the island—encouraging them to contemplate the state of international human rights. One quote on the dragon is from Ai himself: “Every one of us is a potential convict.” The statement hits home in the United States, where the incarceration rate is higher than any other nation on Earth.
In its first several rooms, “Secondhand” appears to embody a diligent curatorial argument about notable trends in contemporary photographic practices surrounding found images, with by canonical work from Richard Prince and John Baldessari, as well as Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence (1977), the groundbreaking conceptual book culled from massive police and science archives. The show quickly moves to a noteworthy group of recent photographers working with Photoshopped, decontextualized, vernacular images—in particular Matt Lipps’s collaged archive from the now-extinct magazine Horizons and Erik Kessels’s inexhaustible compilations of found snapshots, which have gone beyond his famous Flickr repositories into more intimate documentations of personal lives, the work’s sentiment and sheer volume both anchoring the show.
But what makes “Secondhand” remarkable is the range of vernacular photographs from numerous other collections and archives: shrewd counterpoints to the more manifest practices on display. The first show at Pier 24 to feature a majority of works on loan, “Secondhand” includes grease-marked minor-league baseball pictures (showing crop-marks, pre-Photoshop) and lowbrow postcards, exquisitely embroidered by hand. Perhaps most moving of all are the deeply subtle interventions by Melissa Catanese, who has arranged a series of found snapshots into a free-associative timeline along one wall. In contrast to these quieter creations of narrative order out of chaos, the wild abundance of the more dramatic work feels impersonal by comparison.
History is always partial, fragmentary. Remnants and details rise to the surface, but the rest has to be reconstituted by observers in the present—doubly so for queer history, which often has other layers of obfuscation to deal with. Some of the components of “Friendship and Freedom” read like a historical exhibit awaiting queer rebirth. Leah DeVun’s vitrine of punk-rock friendship books culled from her personal archive, for instance, is installed beneath three tape recorders playing gravelly, decaying mixtapes. DeVun’s accompanying photos of the fey and fanciful little books serve to “queer” an already subaltern history: Punk is raucous and loud; the objects in the gallery point to a community of lonely dreamers.
Edie Fake’s ink drawings of long-closed Chicago gay bars (from a larger body of work that investigates the city’s historic gay publications and organizations as well) another way to create queer relationships with history. Fake began these pieces with only the names and addresses of the bars, advertised covertly in gay magazines. The drawings, based on the absence of these spaces, are unapologetically fantastic: Each building is composed of ornamental inked patterns shattered across the page like disco quilts. For Fake, the ghosts of these spaces generate strange opportunities for friendship—an opportunity echoed in Nightmare City’s video DAISIES, 2011, projected on a corner wall. The work parodies Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film of the same name, in which two young women in bathing suits run amok, grotesquely eating everything in their path. In Nightmare City’s rendition, the characters sit on a beach towel wearing cheap bikinis, true to contemporary fantasies of bad-girl sisterhood. Films, cities, strangers—in this show, everything becomes a friend through visions reborn.
Dario Robleto, Setlists for a Setting Sun (Dark Was the Night), 2014, cyanotypes, prints, watercolor paper, butterflies, butterfly antennae made from stretched audiotape of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, various cave minerals and crystals, homemade crystals, coral, nickel plated sea urchin shells, sea urchin teeth, various seashells, beetle wings, ocean water, pigments, cut paper, mica flakes, feathers, mirrors, plastic and glass domes, digital player, headphones, wood, polyurethane, sound, 61 x 45 x 45”.
Looking like a cabinet of sea curiosities and feeling like a ballad, Dario Robleto’s exhibition reveals a burning heart. The packed gallery displays photographs, collages, and sculptural amalgamations made with materials like black swan vertebrae, glitter, semiprecious stones, and whale ear fossils. One of these works, Melancholy Matters Because of You, 2012, is composed of three cast and carved hands that resemble bones but are actually a mingling of bone calcium, resin, dust, pigment, and melted vinyl record collections that belonged to three generations of Robleto’s family.
For Setlists for a Setting Sun (Dark Was the Night), 2014, Robleto has assembled earthly, oceanographic, invented, and cosmic references in a museum case containing a butterfly with antennae made from stretched audiotape that once held bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s plaintive guitar thrum; seashells that seem to have been patiently trimmed with a diamond cutter; sea urchin teeth; and small cyanotype cards with images of Johnson, satellites, and musicologists conducting recording sessions with phonographs. Johnson’s lonely song Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground plays on headphones attached to a stand next to the case, the same recording that NASA sent to space as one of the selections for the Voyager Golden Record time capsule, designed as an attempt to communicate life on earth to extraterrestrials. Encountering Robleto’s work is like reading an aching Valentine written in Morse code. It connects seemingly disparate and vulnerable technologies and forms of expression out of a desire to discover and validate an unquantifiable bliss shared by humans, a feeling which can be lost across space and between cultures and generations.
Cinematic stardom, cultural diffusion, and the need for approval collide in Candice Breitz’s exhibition “The Woods.” Three video installations depict actors from three epicenters of contemporary cinematic production: Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood, located in California, India, and Nigeria, respectively. One installation, The Audition (all works 2012), depicts twenty-five American children, who are struggling for a persona, as they are informed by authoritarian entertainment industry professionals that they lack charisma and optimism. In this metadiegetic audition, shown on six vertical video panels, children stand solitarily decontextualized before a white backdrop as the boundary between script and reality is intentionally confused. The artist filmed each of these auditions for more than an hour, focusing on the intermediate moments of manifest discomfort in the children’s repetitive gestures, such as grabbing at a shirt, continuously sipping water, or irregularly moving their hands. In splicing together recited monologues, dances, singing, and awkward passages of standing, the kids display the uniformity of their aspirations instead of the uniqueness they crave as Hollywood aspirants.
In The Rehearsal, six mildly famous Bollywood preteens confidently quote from interviews with the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan. They tout a strong work ethic and endorse, above all, normality. American signifiers such as brand-name clothing and vocabulary influence their portrayal of glamour and stardom. Throughout is a diametric opposition between aspiring Americans searching for individualism and the staged naturalism of Indian performers proclaiming the banality of stardom.
In the last video, The Interview, two Nigerian actors named Aki and Pawpaw, who are known for playing children, discuss their previous roles, as references to Gary Coleman abound. Within these works, Breitz analyzes the movie business and its murky attachment to an ideal persona that is less realized than produced through a strange and indoctrinating culture industry.
Bay Area artist Desirée Holman mashes 1960s sci-fi, nineties New Age ideology, and posthuman technology in her solo show “Sophont.” The first room of the gallery features two air-brushed portraits of auras, titled Aura, Annie Besant and Aura, Buckminster Fuller, both 2014, for the historic figures depicted. A large pencil-and-gouache drawing of a man wearing an ad hoc colander-cum-telepathic-hat, titled Time Traveler, 2013, hangs nearby. These strange portraits set the stage for Holman’s two-channel video installation Close Contact, 2013, in the next room.
Beginning with a flat screen tilted slightly above the ground beside a viewing bench, this small digital interface changes smoothly and imperceptibly from gray to orange to green. Overhead, a soundscape by Angel Deradoorian of the band Dirty Projectors accompanies the video with a mix of human voices that phase into more mechanistic repetitions of various and vaguely recognizable electronic machines. Another large screen on the facing wall is consumed by a tumultuous Rorschach of painterly, saturated colors that shift continuously. It’s beautiful, but not quite benevolent—discrete patches of pixels shudder with every change of color like rapidly growing bacteria, as the sound and video engulf the viewer in a dreamlike sequence. It seems as if a face might appear in the large video, just as a seated Buddha almost congeals in the muddle of color until suddenly—hilariously—a carefully drawn bug-eyed alien emerges, fulfilling for a moment the desire to see something coherent only for it to vanish again.
Curated by Zachary Cahill and Katherine Harvath, “Lands End” updates the enduring genre of landscape art with new critical, conceptual, and even romantic perspectives on mytho-geography, featuring works by thirteen artists, including Susan Hiller, Hans Haacke, and Andreas Siqueland. Since landscape artists create the world, or worlds, “Lands End” is unafraid of dipping into extant pastoral fantasies—from the tourist destination at Land’s End in Cornwall to the outdoorsy clothier Land’s End—and the show itself is an object essay with a sentimental mood about nature. For instance, Winter Journey/American Dream, 2014, a rose-hued, mural-like painting of a mountainscape by Norway’s Siqueland, is a gorgeous utopian antidote to Haacke’s West Bank. Valley Near Abu Dis, 2010–2014, a scenic vinyl poster of the rocky border between Israel and Palestine.
At the exhibition’s heart is a quiet yellow bird. This canary resides in a rustic wooden cage, part of Claire Pentecost’s for the body without organs to sense, 2014. It is a cheap but effective emotional trick—is there nothing sadder than a bird in a cage? (Yes: one that lives in a gallery.) The installation is supposed to reference a coal miner’s warning and the looming apocalypse. It works; the artist also smartly lines the birdcage with personal stationary.
Another standout artwork is Oliver Lutz’s Stella at the playground, 2015. A CCTV transposes the image of a child onto a giant black monochrome painting, which (because of an infrared surveillance camera), is also accompanied by you, the viewer, in a quick act of augmented reality. It’s instantly uplifting—even more so because the world is about to end.
“In We Trust: Art and Money” is a sprawling survey, resonant where the collective spirit of the work is a churning mishmash of the absurd, earnest, sharp, and self-defeating. Curator Tyler Cann includes twenty-six artists and collectives. Leaving a blank space in the exhibition title where the word God might appear, Cann doesn’t so much criticize belief in God as show money godless and unbridled. The collective Claire Fontaine’s Gateway to Freedom, 2005, for example, makes common currency into pocket weaponry; two US quarters come equipped with small scythe blades, looking like somber militia recruits.
For Detours (Celebrating the simple things in life), 2014, Ester Partegàs lovingly drew what nearly resembles a printed receipt. Imagining the exact expense of celebrating the simple things in life, she itemized the phrase word by word: “celebrating” costs $10.00; “simple” costs $6.00; “life” costs $2.00. With Color Coordinated Currency, 2012, William E. Jones photographed various international banknotes grouped by color, using the similarity to foreground the perversely persistent economic diversity and economic inequality tied up with the banknotes.
At the end of the exhibit, there is evidence of hope for humanity in the form of a grand, expansive working proposal named Time/Bank, initiated in 2010 by Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle. The project suggests a world bank without money, based on labor-backed units of currency. Cheery multilingual floor-to-ceiling posters advertise services that help with the simple things: gardening in exchange for moving a piano, perhaps, or giving a tour, or hair braiding. All is not monetized. All is not lost. Maybe.
When Kent State shut down after the 1970 shootings, art students Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were locked out of their studios and made music at home. They later named their band DEVO, short for “de-evolution,” their term for all the ways the world was falling apart. In collages from the ’70s displayed here, like those in his artist’s book My Struggle, Booji Boy, 1977, Mothersbaugh appropriates and disfigures bodies and texts from scientific illustrations, bra ads, and cult screeds. They all seem to be saying the same thing: “This is America, and it is strange!”
Installed across three floors, this exhibition documents Mothersbaugh’s perverse productivity as a writer, draftsman, sculptor, performer, and composer, starting with his avant-garde origins—DEVO’s first performance on a program with Stan Brakhage—and ending with his musical compositions for Wes Anderson’s films and for Peewee’s Playhouse. After seven galleries of works in every imaginable medium, the show ends on a surprisingly focused note with a dimly lit gallery full of photo albums, where visitors can flip through the thirty thousand postcards that Mothersbaugh has covered with text and images over the past forty years. One is a simple vintage photo postcard, Untitled, 2006, depicting a young girl. The artist used a marker to partially cover her head with what looks like inner tubes or a snake. It’s silly, touching, and elegant. Browsing through the albums, one might wonder where this prolific talent fits in art history or whether this even matters. As opposed to the other rooms, where music videos and concert footage provide constant background noise, the only sound here is that of album pages turning. It’s a hushed, archival conclusion to a thrilling and exuberant show.
If the viewing of photography and sculpture—picture planes and three-dimensional objects—requires distinct sets of perceptual habits, “Picture/Thing” offers a complex investigation that merges them. Curators Sasha Rudensky and Jeffrey Schiff present works by ten artists who employ a variety of approaches to question both media, but all share a certain nostalgia for the physical encounter between subject and object.
Addressing notions of display and memory, Erin Shirreff’s Monograph (no. 4), 2014, comprises photographs capturing digitally modified images of maquettes inspired by catalogue reproductions of midcentury artworks. Folded in half, the images reference the folios of the original books that served as sources and immediately provoke the impulse to touch. Books also appear in Leslie Hewitt’s “Still Life Series,” 2013. Leaning against the wall, her arrangements of assembled ordinary objects reflect the act of making sculpture but also encode references to specific versions of human history (like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time).
Immediate interactions with materiality characterize Mariah Robertson’s sculptural installation 113, 2012, which the artist created by pouring chemicals directly onto the surface of a 164-foot cascade of photographic paper to generate multicolored, abstract patterns, beautifully dismantling the predictability and reproducibility of photography. Meanwhile, Anouk Kruithof’s photographic sculpture Facade, 2014, examines the psychology of corporate New York: Photo stickers, bricks, and polystyrene blocks accompany anonymous, sometimes illegible imagery of walls, men, and suits. Multilayered and with shifting views of color and content, the piece—like much of the exhibition overall—denies a definitive perspective yet searches for the moment in which facades might crack.