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.
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 à 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.
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.
“You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams,” the imprisoned Cleopatra, longing for Antony’s face to appear in her sleep, tells the guard Dolabella in Shakespeare’s play. Taking its title from this scene, Mary Simpson’s latest exhibition, “Boys or Women,” explores a tension between ungovernable dreams and the forces that police or discredit them. In photo collages and oil paintings she pits the sensual and instinctive against reason––probing an interplay between narrative and abstraction, control and impulse, geometric and amorphous primal shapes.
A standout is Tiger and Goat, 2015, a diptych in which chalklike markings, reminiscent of cave paintings, stretch across two inky green panels, each bordered by yellow frames. In juxtaposing the rigid frame with expressive, inchoate form, Simpson gestures toward the unruliness of images and our attempts to incorporate them into ordered systems of meaning.
Simpson often employs repetitive actions: drawing a squeegee back and forth, applying adhesive tape and scraping it away. Through these mad reiterations she implies a mastery of the image is achieved. “Any chimp can fling paint,” she writes in an imagined conversation with a man named Gerhard (presumably Richter) that functions as the show’s press release. “What if control is just the cycle of doing something over and over again? You reach for the image and it is there for you.” Hers is the same subliminal logic of the sleepwalker plodding along set paths each night—it is one that disinherits the rational, conscious mind to access deeper truths.
Thirty-six paintings by Noé Jimenez hang in clusters around the salon of this Vaudeville theater. Sporting irregular, petal-shaped manes of striped wood that seem to expand and contract from their centers, the works suggest a capacity for life. Such potential is also communicated by their onomatopoeic and animated titles, including Achoo Not Atchu and Red Smushes Green, both 2015. Adding to their liveliness, they read as paintings then sculptures in the same breath.
Jimenez begins each work by cutting and reassembling stacks of old family photographs taken from the 1960s to the present, with the oldest shot in the Dominican Republic, where parts of his family still live. He assembles the scraps into one rectangular form, adding semitranslucent glazes of acrylic paint to create the effect of a topcoat. In the end, the photographs are completely obscured by this painting process, yet they retain the spirited Day-Glo palette typical of Dominican textiles and landscapes.
These works’ interdisciplinary construction resonates with the profoundly sculptural quality of Stan Brakhage’s experimental films, where images exist as a physical layer of matter resting atop naked celluloid strips. Given Jimenez’s disinterest in starting with a white canvas, it makes sense that he sought this renovated parlor with its salmon-pink walls for his show. Just as his paintings are vessels for family stories, this venue houses a century of antiques salvaged from sites around New Haven that no longer exist. Clearly then, renovation and revival is the business here.
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,” Tancons writes, “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.
New York–based artist Amy Feldman’s exhibition “Mirror Cool” features four large paintings in two colors: cool gray pigment against stark white canvas. Each work is a 6.5-foot square canvas, but the painted images—bubbling rectangles in Mock Zero or cartoonish biomorphic shapes in I Is for Idiot, both 2015—emphasize verticality. Feldman, who works from preparatory sketches, quickly completes each painting in one sitting: the gestural brushstrokes, dripping paint, and swooping lines that compose the simple subjects underscore the sense of motion and speed.
Although these are new works, Feldman has returned to previously used subject matter. For example, Former Future, 2015, a massive rectangle composed of large circles overlapping one another, is nearly identical to Holy Over, 2014, and very similar to O, 2014, and Owed, 2011 (the earlier works are not included here). With this repetition, Feldman seems less concerned with the image, resigned instead to highlight the act of painting itself.
Indeed, these works are smart and intentionally elusive. Feldman claims influence from semiotics and wordplay, irony and stand-up comedy, and Robert Ryman’s monochrome. Really, these works rely on much more: the history of painting from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. If irony is at play, it at first seems disingenuously aligned with the exploitation of the viewer. On closer inspection, perhaps irony and repetition are tools for reconsidering the proliferation of images. But, then, to what end? While Feldman offers visually straightforward images, subversion and critique linger just beneath the surface.
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.
On the evening of July 5, 2013, a freight train carrying two million gallons of crude oil escaped from its overnight resting station, and after traveling unguided for seven miles, it derailed at the town center of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. Forty-seven locals, some sleeping comfortably, unaware in their homes, tragically lost their lives in what would become the deadliest non-passenger train derailment in Canadian history.
That same night, photographer Benoit Aquin traveled to the site and began documenting the aftermath. Despite the ensuing chaos, his pictures, which are now on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, show a perspective that’s pensive and reserved—an approach that avoids the shock-and-awe orthodoxy of contemporary photojournalism and instead taps into the deeper psychosomatic impact felt upon observing the damaged community of Lac-Mégantic.
Photographs such as Exclusion Zone, 2013, do this powerfully: the camera’s harsh flash exposes evidence of the catastrophe—a hastily assembled fence that was erected to separate civilians from the disaster site. Or in Rebuilding Track, 2013, where that same piercing flash cuts through the darkness to illuminate thousands of falling snowflakes and two neon-clad rail workers. In the museum’s gallery space, the pictures are hung frame to frame in a single unadulterated row, as if to mimic the formation of aligned rail cars. And with each passing car, a new article of evidence is revealed to the viewer, like disparate scenes of an ongoing nightmare from which you cannot wake.