This group show curated by Petra Collins, explicitly organized around the theme of domestic transience, is perfectly sited in a new, raw project space. Juxtaposed with crude fiberboard floors, the work recalls first attempts at personalizing an adolescent bedroom. A large, white, fleece cotton sheet by Collins, bordered with cute stickers and filled with the text of letters written to the artist, I Hope This Helps You Sleep at Night 2, 2015, hangs loosely like a curtain next to another screen-printed sheet. Nearby, large C-prints by Nguan of young schoolgirls in uniform and unaccompanied children, both untitled and from the 2012 series “How Loneliness Goes,” read simultaneously as vernacular family portraits and anonymous street photography.
But the sweetly mournful, teen-girl-Tumblr aesthetic of the show offers only a thin candy coating over vigorous, challenging feminist messages that have a kinship with the diaristic work of Tracey Emin. The colorful hand-drawn wallpaper on which Collins and Claire Milbrath collaborated, Was Never Okay, 2015, papering one wall of the space, is littered with an iconography of interrupted childhood, including teddy bears, makeup, sad emoticons, and drawings of slim-hipped girls in their underwear. Finally, there’s a sculpture of pill bottles by Collins titled Bandaid For My Life, 2015—which contain wilted flowers, suggesting both neglect and trauma—and a red, raw-edged cloth on the floor with a drawn female nude serving as almost a literal doormat. The vision in “Comforter,” then, is one of a domesticity that is cozy at only the most superficial of levels, obstructing any misplaced nostalgia for the safety of home.
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.
The late comedian Gilda Radner once referred to life as the “delicious ambiguity.” Such inexactness and Radner’s legacy of laughs act as a benevolent guiding spirit for “Pratfall Tramps,” an exhibition curated by Rachel Reese that features the work of four female artists who uncover the nuances of comedic tropes. From the embarrassment of a joke that bombs, to the elasticity of the vaudevillian romp, to the gestures of a late-night host, this show elucidates the literary qualities of jokes. Jamie Isenstein’s looping video Infinite Disco Soft-Shoe, 2002–2004, features the artist in a top hat and tails, cane in hand, matching the jerky dance moves of an animatronic skeleton, while offscreen a piano plays a rickety version of the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive. Funny, sure, but rather than simply going for the gag, the artists here unpack the gag in a kind of semiotics of the ha-ha.
The signifiers of stand-up, such as a microphone, a red-brick wall, and a spotlight, are prevalent across several works. For instance, another looping video, Tammy Rae Carland’s Live from Somewhere, 2013, riffs on the prolonged opening sequence of Gilda Radner’s 1979 one-woman show, where a spotlight scanned a red-velvet curtain looking for the star until she finally emerged. Carland’s spotlight searches forever, though, heightening the relationship between the anxiety of the performer and the anticipation of the audience. Also running concurrently in a programming space is the Gilda Radner Research and Translation Center, a didactic reading room of all things Radner. While the humorous nature of life might remain ambiguous, her influence on the female artists featured in this smartly conceived exhibition certainly is not.
A large neon hand beckons from a glass window in Victoria Fu’s latest exhibition, endlessly repeating a simple gesture: index finger and thumb together, then apart, then lights out. To anyone familiar with touch-screen devices, the movement reads as the command for enlarging an image. Yet, rather than a hand manipulating pixels, Pinch-Zoom (all works 2015) suggests a physical world beholden to virtual operations; we too may be pinched or zoomed.
Fu’s multimedia installation, staged in a Brutalist building, limns points of contact and slippage between physical and virtual, flesh and screen. In the video Bubble Over Green, shown on a flat-screen monitor, hands tearing through and painting over sheets of paper meet a digitally altered overlay of the same, producing perceptual confusion between surface and depth or pre- and postproduction. The video installation Velvet Peel 1, projected high along one wall like an entablature, combines appropriated stock imagery and audio without narrative or even sensory coherence—we hear water, but the figures onscreen remain dry. This surreal or perhaps hyperreal environment of lush sounds and images is inhabited by the dancers Polina Akhmetzyanova and Matilda Lidberg, choreographed and filmed by Fu. Occasionally, these would-be protagonists try to engage their green-screen world, at one point swaying their butts as if to swipe an image aside but to no avail. The works were commissioned for this space, and footage of the building connects the video’s realm to our own. Rather than a utopian celebration of interactivity, this show illuminates the ways in which our sensorium shapes, and is shaped by, our daily engagement with technologies.
Curating a show to posit the idea of artists following in another’s footsteps is always a difficult feat that runs the risk of facile didacticism. Yet Katy Siegel steers clear of such a fate here, tracing a legacy of Helen Frankenthaler that is consistently surprising. Anchored by her 1962 canvas Hommage ŕ M. L., the show divides into a variety of media and styles. Ulrike Müller’s miniature paintings–turned-jewelry, from 2011 to 2014, are wonderfully unexpected, as is Cheryl Donegan’s classic video Head, 1993; they seamlessly enter the conversation and amplify Frankenthaler’s voice rather than distracting from it. Marilyn Minter and Andy Warhol collide with Judy Chicago, and the result is a visual treat.
The most striking addition to the show, however, is one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s trademark beaded curtains. Untitled (Beginning), 1994, is installed at the entrance to what Siegel deems the “Men’s Room,” which also includes contributions from Carroll Dunham, Christopher Wool, and Mike Kelley. This green membrane that one must pass through to enter the room bisects the exhibition; it acts as a threshold. Industrially produced, glittering, and cold on the skin, Gonzalez-Torres’s work is far from the warm exuberance of Frankenthaler’s painting. Yet both artists point to a productively tenuous life, a shifting between presence and absence: The penetrating, stained, vertical blue hues of Hommage are reminiscent of the capacity of Untitled (Beginning) to surround and invade the body. These surprising and aptly observed affiliations expand our understanding of the legacy of the ever-multivalent Frankenthaler and inspire unexpected curatorial possibilities in a time of increasingly univocal exhibitions.
Ten major series of sculptures by Doris Salcedo fill the museum galleries like a labyrinthine graveyard for the artist’s first retrospective. Clumps of human-scaled objects summon an atmosphere of collective mourning, similarly provoked by her large-scale public interventions, the latter of which are represented here only by a documentary video. Twenty-nine years of sculpture by the Colombian artist commemorate the inglorious deaths and traumas of victims of gang violence in Los Angeles or a banana-plantation massacre in Colombia, among other atrocities. Survivor testimonies conducted by Salcedo are metaphorically absorbed into materials like cast concrete and busted metal bound with animal guts throughout untitled artworks dating to 1986. A haunted feeling pervades.
Salcedo emerged in the 1980s amid the rise of post-trauma studies as an academic discipline, but her work strums a power chord on the heartstrings. For instance, A flor de piel (Heart On Your Sleeve), 2014, is made of thousands of rose petals preserved and sewn into a giant shroud the color of spilled blood, filling an entire gallery. It’s a place to empty your emotions.
This artist knows that museum guests invariably become mourners at her global memorial. In this call to act, we can see the seeds of today’s social practices that focus on research, activism, and justice. For instance, Salcedo’s pioneering work using reclaimed wood and concrete is a material legacy carried on by artists such as Theaster Gates, who lectures on Salcedo at the museum on May 16.
This installation of Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-channel video The Visitors evinces that rare ability to render an enveloping realm while highlighting the character of the space in which it is exhibited. Ambiance, so central to the work itself, is also deeply contingent on the architecture of the venue in which The Visitors is shown. A gleaming and impressive new space just three years old, MoCA sports a sleek, mirrored gunmetal exterior and clean, modular galleries. These contrast evocatively with the views of Rokeby farm, the lavishly dilapidated nineteenth-century estate in upstate New York where The Visitors was shot.
Over the video’s sixty-four minutes, eight performers—an all-star conglomerate of contemporary Icelandic musicians including Kjartansson himself (the artist was formerly a member of the band Trabant) alongside members of múm and Sigur Rós—occupy single rooms within the historic farmhouse. Connected to each other via headphones, the performers move compellingly in and out of sync, seemingly straining to hear the delicate aural entrances and exits of their collaborators—the resulting slight disruptions, missed cues, and elusively wandering downbeats produce the work’s deeply melancholic core. The video, whose excessively labor-intensive production echoes the baroque grandeur of the house they play in, is a triumphant effort of careful construction that is slowly and inevitably disarticulated, recalling the weathering effects of cyclical time and culminating in the song’s repeated lyrics: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways. [. . .] There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing you can do.” (The lyrics come from a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife, while the work’s title is taken from Swedish supergroup ABBA’s eighth and final studio album, made amid spousal tensions among band members.)
Kjartansson’s effort falls within an expressive tradition of musical performance that delights in the expansive, surprising range of mood that can emerge from the simple experiment of selecting and embodying a specific environment. Without knowing exactly what occurred or how the mood overcame you, by minute sixty you will be yearning for an old house, a hot summer, and friends to make something beautiful with, while aware, too, of your own distance from all of the above.
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.
An aspect of Mel Chin’s work and personality crystallized for me as I watched him give a lecture at the Houston opening of his survey exhibition “Rematch”—the guy has a knack for dad jokes. Groaners, but nonetheless endearing, such as when Chin casually says “art hysterical” instead of “art historical” or suddenly stops his lecture to play guitar and sing. This ethos suffuses his work, as in the nightstick-cum-microphone Night Rap, 1994, displayed at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), which cunningly plays on the two popular definitions of rap: to speak in syncopation or to hit.
Spread out over four venues throughout the city, each institution gets the Mel Chin they want and deserve: the avant-garde and political progeny of Duchamp and Joseph Cornell (CAMH); the interpreter of various political and mythological pan-Asian realities (Asia Society Texas Center); the instigator of large-scale projects that express social relevance (Blaffer Art Museum); and the new media innovator (Station Museum of Contemporary Arts).
Encountering the greatest hits of Chin’s output is satisfyingly compelling—the diorama-like studies for Revival Field, 1991–, for example, or the wickedly brilliant video montage of In the Name of the Place, 1995–1997, wherein the artist collaboratively placed handmade props into the sets of ’90s prime-time soap Melrose Place (both shown at the Blaffer). But the greatest rewards are to be reaped in Chin’s lesser known symbolic gestures—a book that becomes an axe, a tongue opening out onto a mess of gonadal organs, or a fancy piece of jewelry arranged to mimic a gun wound. To be sure, these are jokes too, but ones that reveal a pacifist’s discontent with the world.
The centerpiece of Tameka Norris’s solo exhibition is the eighty-minute-film Meka Jean: How She Got Good, 2014. In it, Norris plays the eponymous character, an African American woman who hopes to become a singer and painter, against the backdrop of a similarly aspirational post-Katrina New Orleans. Based on Norris’s own life, the film is less a linear narrative than a series of vignettes, in which her alter ego embodies an array of characters: the confident artist, the overtly sexualized woman, the hip-hop groupie, and the hysterical victim, to name a few.
Also on view, her short video Recovery, 2015, features interviews in which Norris describes Meka Jean’s origins in the way the music industry, academia, and the art world exploited Norris’s authorship, image, and body. The creation of the character and exaggeration, then, are modes through which Norris asserts her own representation and explores the artifice of knowable identity. As she poignantly explains, the person with whom she collaborated on Meka Jean made an unauthorized film based on their footage. Through Recovery, she reasserts her empowerment.
The exhibition also includes beanbags of various sizes, made from tablecloths and other fabric provided by her family. Painted on their surfaces with soft acrylic washes are images of dilapidated homes and states in which Norris has lived. Indeed, Norris implicates her viewers in her exploitation: It is difficult, sitting on these objects, not to feel complicit in the diminishment of the artist’s subjectivity by larger forces—over which, via the work, she’s ultimately exerting control.
This expansively ambitious show curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson is based on a fresh postulate for history and an apt query for today. The exhibition proposes that carnival—that great tradition of pre-Lenten partying in public, endemic to former slave societies in the Caribbean basin—has played a crucial role in shaping modern culture everywhere. It’s not only people in Trinidad and Rio and New Orleans, these days, who build stylized lives around Fat Tuesday’s “farewell to flesh”; Caribbean-style carnivals are also New York and London’s biggest and best-attended yearly public events.
That’s the postulate. The question is trickier: How might carnival’s attendant forms of aesthetic practice and ritual modes of masquerade—the performative arts that Trinidadians call mas’—be synthesized with the larger contemporary discourse of performance art, with its genealogy presumed to originate in the bodily economies not of chattel slavery but of Europe’s avant-gardes?
To find out, the curators commissioned nine artists from the Caribbean and its diasporas to create performance pieces for their respective islands’ main carnival streets (or, in the case of London-based Hew Locke, for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall). The exhibition here gathers both photographic documents of and materials used in the resulting pieces—decorative coffins from Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson; Locke’s faux riot-cop shields, riffing on carnival’s contradictions in now-gentrified Notting Hill—to at once refigure the artists’ work and ask “how carnival might be critically re-inserted,” more broadly, “within the history of the exhibitionary complex.”
The answer to that, on evidence here, remains fuzzy. It is telling that the two strongest pieces in the gallery context are films, by Cauleen Smith and Christophe Chassol, which were conceived as such. But one leaves the show convinced of both its guiding questions’ import and of the key role that its revitalized host institution—sited in a city that has both sprouted a real restive art scene, ten years from Katrina, and retains the country’s richest well of folk performance tradition—can play in the asking.
Rodrigo Valenzuela is obsessed with ruins, or more specifically, with the ghosts of decay and displacement that lurk within urban renewal. A Chilean-born immigrant, Valenzuela spent years working under-the-table construction and janitorial jobs while navigating his way through art school and to permanent residency in the US. His large-scale photographs and documentary video works address these experiences both literally, as in Maria TV, 2014, a video exploring the lives of Latina maids, and imaginatively, as in “Hedonic Reversal,” 2014–15. This series of seventeen black-and-white photographs, nine of which are on display here, depict processes of material construction and destruction in the artist’s studio.
The term “hedonic reversal” refers to a psychological phenomenon in which one actively pursues pain and sadness. In Valenzuela’s work, it speaks to both first-world workaholism and the entrapment of low-wage survival. The photographs in the series are taken from a fixed vantage point, framing a vertical rectangle that is the stage of action. Working on a black background, Valenzuela constructs eccentric geometric forms using chalk, spray paint, wood, packing foam, drywall, and other commercial detritus. With the exception of the spray paint, the materials are all white, and within the monochrome environment of the photographs, their forms become graphically linear, creating broken perspectives at every turn. Chalk is everywhere, revealing the artist’s presence in foot- and handprints. Valenzuela photographs each work in progress, printing and incorporating these moments back into the scenes. This results in images of mesmerizing interiority and ambiguity, with time and labor refracting like bodies in a house of mirrors. The ruination enacted in the works’ hermetic chamber is transformed into landscapes of dynamic repose.
Sculpture is only a sliver of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s practice. It’s a shame there isn’t more of it: This project show finds the Japanese artist tabbing effortlessly between dimensions. A trio, no, a trinity of sculptural works in machined aluminum dwells on the same sense of arrested time that Sugimoto captures in his photographs. “Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models,” a sampling of his sculpture and related photography, is a satellite of a larger survey also at the Phillips on Man Ray’s “Shakespearean Equations” paintings. Both shows revolve around nineteenth-century mathematical models (a fascination shared by the artists). Sugimoto’s photographs of Peaucellier’s Inversor and Hart’s Inversor—mechanical devices for showing how rotary motion can be converted into linear motion—are depictions of sculptures, in a sense. The original artifacts typically look like contraptions, but Sugimoto obscures that resemblance in the way he shoots the photographs, which restore their source material, functioning as abstractions of concrete models.
Sugimoto’s sculptures, meanwhile, are closer in concept to the physical models. For example, Surface of Revolution with Constant Negative Curvature (Mathematical Model 009), 2006, is precisely what it claims to be: A cone rising asymptotically from a sizeable mirrored base to a point over the viewer’s head. The equations that inform the titles to all three sculptures are bound to escape most viewers: no matter. The concepts of infinity, of singularity, of horizonlessness—of the possibility of finding truth in the laws of nature—are as achingly beautiful in Sugimoto’s steely curves as they are in his photographs of the sea.
“Espectador en el vacio” (Spectator in the Void) is a highly technical, minimal, and potentially difficult exhibition to grasp. This, however, is just what artist Daniel Monroy Cuevas intended, and from the title, it’s clear the audience will operate in a void or vacuum, allowing for a mysterious narrative to evolve into a space of wonder.
Six works occupy the three spaces of the gallery, including Spectator in the Void (all works cited 2015), a grouping of balls of various sizes made from wrapping VHS tape around itself so precisely that it’s nearly impossible to see the seams of the individual layers, which adhere to themselves by the material’s electromagnetic pull. Upstairs, Spectator in the Void (subtitles) is an LED light ticker that streams phrases from Guy Debord, Derek Jarman, Chris Marker, and Isidore Isou while emitting a yellowy-orange glow that fills the gallery. Analog video technology is utilized once again in the final series, “Floaters Trap 1-6,” for which the artist took short sections of tape, equivalent to one second of video, and marked them by adding then tearing off scotch-tape, or by applying different chemicals and scanning and printing the results. They bear a remarkable resemblance to landscape drawings in ink.
Each of these pieces plays with the extraction and reapplication of light via technology, and Monroy Cuevas’s viewer operates within an abyss of appropriation. The materials employed in the works act as an elusive connecting thread connecting, holding the audience on the precipice of understanding.