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.
“Jasper Johns: Picture Puzzles” presents a focused look at the artist’s output from between 1960 and 2010, pointing to a sense of inwardness not generally associated with his practice. It is immediately clear that something more complex is occurring in this group of prints. Johns harkens back to the ethos of “A Name for All,” a poem by his frequent inspiration Hart Crane: “Moonmoth and grasshopper that flee our page / and still wing on untarnished of the name / we pinion to your bodies to assuage / our envy of your freedom.” The lithograph Pinion, 1963–66, exhibits a similar urge to come up for air, to find a means of self-expression. Impressions of Johns’s body are submerged under the flotsam and jetsam of color—a simultaneous aesthetic and physical drowning. The same exploration of something underneath both the medium and the body occurs in Johns’s prints of layered crosshatches or overlapping numbers. Johns invests in his work’s capacity for unveiling and erasure, an operation akin to our own daily self-fashioning of gender and sexuality.
Like Glenn Ligon, who uses text to emphasize the erasure of bodies and legacies, Johns stacks digits on top of each other and makes allusions to a queer voice taken far too soon—all in an effort to illustrate the multiplicity of meanings that can be derived from work that could be described unitarily as quintessential Pop imagery. It could be, in fact, that the “puzzle” has nothing to do with images or numbers or disembodied limbs. Rather, this exhibition considers the puzzle of identity, a constantly shifting process of legibility and illegibility, mutability and fixity.
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.
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.
Kate Newby’s latest solo exhibition features a modest and contemplative sculptural installation that playfully exploits the conventions of the physical gallery and extends her ongoing investigation of linking different spaces in nuanced ways. Two components of I feel like a truck on a wet highway, 2014, manifest this idea. The first is a sculpture of bulbous silver bells hanging in the gallery’s entryway. The bells have a precious quality, which is heightened by the artist’s subtle fingerprints on the metal. They are suspended individually by thin, multicolored strings, the other end of which swoops up connecting them to a neighboring roof.
The second is a sculpture of ceramic wind chimes arranged from light to dark—white, creams, blues, then blacks—on a thin, white string in the gallery’s small main space. The pieces are long and narrow, but each is unique in shape and incorporates signs of process, such as air bubbles and fingerprints, while hanging from the same string as the bells. The chimes’ string loops through the bells’ knot before it passes through a door into a private bedroom and out to a patio space. With this gesture, Newby’s work becomes reliant on the walls of the gallery as much as it is dependent on an outside context for its meaning to be legible.
The installation as a single work highlights the mundane and commonplace, and much like works by artists such as Michael Asher and Francis Alÿs, Newby’s work examines where place becomes as much a part of art’s content as objects.
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.