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.
Todd Hido’s current exhibition, “Excerpts from Silver Meadow,” pursues a disjointed narrative about midwestern suburbia in the 1960s and ’70s. From the puzzle pieces—nearly one hundred photographs, pulp novels, and ephemera—we discover an anxiously normal boy with a dark side. The uneven sizing and hanging of the images augment this collage effect, with the works by turns manifesting fear, banality, and lust. Many of the blurred landscapes taken from inside a car bleakly outline a particular upbringing—Hido’s own. In fact, the show as a whole productively commingles the tale of a fictionalized character and a re-creation of the artist’s upbringing in Kent, Ohio.
In one grouping, a reproduction of a torn and taped photo of a woman with her dress yanked up is positioned between a photo of a handwritten notecard showing the measurements of a young man’s body, and a black-and-white photo of two boys playing in front of a suburban house. In another cluster, the viewer finds a decomposing, yellowing home; a fallen red tricycle (in a tribute to Eggleston); a lushly wallpapered interior desolate of objects aside from an off-the-hook telephone; and a final, fading memory from a fragment of a party banner: COME HOME.
Hido also has a propensity for voyeuristic night imagery. In #7373, 2009, tire treads in light snow lead up to a darkened home in which only a room on the second floor is illuminated. This image also appears on the cover of a Vintage reissue edition of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories (1989), which is displayed in a vitrine alongside novels such as Sin Drenched and Driven Desire. Throughout, the small-town vernacular of Hido’s American landscapes becomes charged with a compelling friction.
“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.
Photography is dead, or so “Phantoms in the Dirt” might suggest. After nearly two centuries, photography finds itself in a predicament similar to what it inflicted on painting—questioning its significance in light of changing technology and the escalating reproduction of images that are redefining the ontology of a picture. Photographic practices are foregrounding materiality more than ever in order to stand out from the wash of virtuality surrounding them.
Curated by Karsten Lund, this exhibition features artists whose work remedies this digital overdose. Bark, bronze, rust, and dirt are just some of the photographed and physical materials present here, creating an atmosphere of decay throughout the exhibition. A sculpture by Shane Ward, Barrel, 2014, includes a rusted oil container with a glossy spill of cast-aluminum, which speaks to the similarity between sculptural casting and photographic reproducibility as well as evokes war for natural resources. Upstairs, the viewer encounters two enigmatic C-prints by Shannon Ebner, Untitled, Blank No. 1 and Untitled, Blank No.2, both 2008, of a figure erasing himself from a landscape by holding a white board in front of himself. Harold Mendez’s compelling work Let the Shadows in to Play Their Part, 2012, is an ink-stained eucalyptus bark scrim that occupies an entire wall. In Beaucoups of Blues, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, November, 2012, Richard Mosse uses discontinued Cold War–era camouflage-detecting film to photograph Congolese landscapes haunted by war. Rendering the land an acidic pink inversion of a documentary photograph, this work, in concert with the others, testifies that through a rigorous examination of earthly substances and rerouting of traditional processes, photography may yet render the spirit visible.
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.
Harmony Hammond’s exhibition “Becoming/UnBecoming Monochrome” offers a sampling of the artist’s works, including fourteen large paintings from 2001–2014, fifteen smaller paintings from the mid 1970s, and Collection of Fragments, 1974–76, a display of baskets, shoes, and pottery. In some of the early paintings, such as the lozenge-shaped Ninja, 1976, Hammond created density, depth, and luminosity with oil paint and Dorland’s wax, working the viscous mass, perhaps with the butt end of the brush, into a honeycomb or spongelike pattern. Almost forty years later, the surface still seems wet and alive, as if the artist could dig in again to reshape it. For the near-monochrome Muffle, 2009, Hammond stretched mat covers from the dojo where she practiced and taught the Japanese martial art aikido for decades. Grommet-studded straps hold down the covers under thick layers of tactile black oil paint. The composition here, like the work’s title, suggests violence and restraint.
In her book Lesbian Art in America, Hammond writes that she has “always tried to work on the edge between abstract form and political content.” Being an artist and practicing aikido are inherently feminist pursuits for Hammond. Politics are manifest in the works’ controlled vehemence, the focused gestures of layering and wrapping that join art and craft, painting and self-defense. In a manifesto printed in this exhibition’s catalogue, she insists that her paintings “occupy some sort of fugitive or queer space,” even in their “refusal to ‘look’ queer.” Hammond doesn’t say what should be seen. She leaves us looking as she moves on, giving new forms to the embodied political tensions that have always motivated her work.
The urge to see the artist’s tools is as old as art itself; it reflects a fundamental though perhaps antiquated yearning to catch a glimpse of the magic of creation, the process by which an artist turns everyday materials into a masterpiece. In James Casebere’s exhibition “Scales and Dimensions,” we are afforded that opportunity by the inclusion of Casebere’s rarely shown scale models that serve as the basis for his photography. But rather than excitement, there is an overwhelming feeling of disappointment. Gone is the disturbing patina of the photographs, whose magnificent and haunting glamour could give Wes Anderson a run for his money, and in its place is a set of handmade buildings and boxes containing toy trees. Similar to Laurie Simmons, Casebere exploits the way miniatures can oscillate between representing reality or dreams. Why, then, exhibit the props whose presence roots the photographs firmly in mundane reality?
Exposing the construction of his tableaux provokes a fresh consideration of process, medium, and meaning in a much-needed revision of the ubiquitous psychological readings that cling to the Pictures generation. Besides highlighting Casebere’s deep knowledge of architecture, exhibiting the meticulously crafted models alongside his photographs frees us to consider the breadth of meanings—conceptual and formal—inherent in conceptual photography. One can see, for example, Dan Flavin’s “monument” 1 for V. Tatlin, 1964, embedded and repurposed in Casebere’s Two Bunk Cell, 1998, a visual reminder of the historical layers that produce meaning in Casebere’s unsettling interiors and landscapes. Disappointment, then, becomes grounds for new discoveries.
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 Al˙s, Newby’s work examines where place becomes as much a part of art’s content as objects.