A box containing a small Walkman-like plastic device emerges from a computer screen and into the hands of Shana Moulton’s anxious alter ego, Cynthia, in the video MindPlace ThoughtStream, 2014. This machine is the central element in the artist’s comical multipart exhibition “Picture Puzzle Pattern Door,” which includes recurring images of Cynthia by the Pacific Ocean, audio clips from TED talks testifying to life-changing experiences, and videos of multiple Shakiras gyrating in an Activia yogurt commercial—symbols of Cynthia’s quest for spiritual enlightenment and a flawless appearance. Outside the main gallery, collages of images advertising women’s products hang above a display of gaudy props from the videos and other garish relaxation objects. Items such as battery-operated glow candles and neon plastic massage implements indicate a hapless embrace of consumer culture. Elsewhere, in a faux doctor’s office waiting room, visitors are invited to try out the actual MindPlace ThoughtStream biofeedback machine, which claims proficiency at stress management through mind control.
Here, Moulton’s ongoing engagement with superficial spirituality extends to include technology, a particularly apt angle for the California-raised, New York–based artist’s first major exhibition on the West Coast. Unlikely as it may seem, the origins of cyber culture were closely aligned with the hippie ethos of the 1960s, yet both digital technology and the New Age movement have since mutated into capitalist industries. Cynthia’s faith in kitschy purchases now expands to interactive electronic devices, yet despite its grandiose promise, even technology cannot help this satirized American suburbanite find the inner peace and outer beauty she so desperately seeks.
Bruce Davidson has repudiated labeling his work as street photography, documentary, or photojournalism, identifying himself as “just a humanist” who prefers to evoke a mood rather than narrate or proselytize. This exhibition brings together early black-and-white images from 1959 with a selection of color images from 1965 to 1993, representing just a fraction of the eight hundred pictures in his three-volume collection Outside Inside, published by Steidl in 2011, but they exemplify his gift for capturing subjects in moments of transition through often precarious circumstances.
Since many of those pictured were lost to drug addictions or suicide, the images in the series “The Brooklyn Gang,” 1959, can seem presciently elegiac, but the photographs are more tender than tragic: young men and women lean against doorways, walls, and one another in gestures of comfort and support. Apprehension suffuses Davidson’s color photographs of children in South Wales, who are foregrounded alone against backdrops of factories and empty streets or playing on a green hillside. Their juxtaposition with other images of weary, coal-smeared miners emerging from black pits beneath those same hills foreshadows the uncertain arc of the children’s future.
Davidson’s prickliest shots are of passengers riding vividly grimy, graffiti-scrawled subway cars in lurid 1980s New York. In Subway (Woman in Fur Coat), 1980, the central figure pauses to offer a wary and self-contained gaze over the collar of her fur coat. The brief encounter is opaque, but Davidson’s humanism consists of striving for such halting, imperfect moments of connection in the chaotic motion of life in transit.
Performance is now practically ubiquitous in exhibitions, and this can make it difficult for artists to leverage bodies to startling ends. Yet Janine Antoni and choreographer Stephen Petronio achieve this in their latest effort, a small show of mostly jointly made photographs, sculptures, and a video, all but the video dated 2015. The exhibition unfolds around testsite’s foyer and living room, which is installed with photographs featuring the creators. In a diptych titled Bound, Antoni’s and Petronio’s heads are wrapped in rope, while in Tongue Tied, printed on wallpaper, their tongues are yoked by gauze. These pictures evoke a history of performative inquiries into human connection, yet it’s two other artworks that steal the show. One of these is a mesmerizing video playing on a flat screen above a fireplace, Honey Baby, 2013, in which a naked man glistens with sticky liquid and contorts inside a darkened cylinder backlit by an amber glow. The footage, accompanied by a primordial sound track of heavy breathing and shifting fluid, effectively summons beginnings.
Off the living area is the show’s most arresting piece: a pair of doors that are sealed shut at the handles with rope and melted wax and outfitted with two large metal safe dials at the top and two holes at the bottom. Titled Reach and attributed to Petronio, this anthropomorphic intervention—dials become eyes, handles become midriff—invites interaction. Feet slip through holes, hands grasp for dials, and pelvises press against rope. Balancing thus on the threshold is disorienting, at once making the body vulnerable and the mind acutely aware of the frisson of touching and creating meaningful connection.
Having recently relocated to Southern California, Edie Fake returns to Chicago with “Grey Area,” a solo exhibition of ten ink and gouache drawings on paper. Each work describes a different geometrical space: The Blood Bank, 2015, features an ornate green-and-gold-tiled, roofless bathhouse. Behind three arched columns, one glimpses the inside of this building, where there is a rich red pool. As the warmest mass of color, the pool vibrates in powerful juxtaposition to the drawing’s otherwise cool, angular lines. As with many of Fake's compositions, the space is foreshortened, and the building presents itself in the manner of a stage model, tilted down, creating a false illusion of depth. This compressed spatial experience is elaborated in The Fitting Room, 2015, a labyrinth of vertical parallelograms and hexagons that read at once as a diagram of reflecting mirrors and as a lush geometric pattern. The constant refraction of each nonreflective silver surface induces a sickening but beautiful claustrophobia.
Though still resonant with his series of “Memory Palaces,” 2012–13—highly ornate drawings of building facades from historical or imaginary queer and feminist spaces—Fake takes greater risks inscribing dimensional space in this latest body of work. The resulting compositions are less literal in most cases and stray farther into abstraction. His pleasure in pattern remains consistent, congealing in the ecstatic parade-float composition of Sugar in the Tank, 2015, which reappropriates homophobic slang, and Sue, 2015, an entirely abstract work. By producing these illusory and structural interventions in the two-dimensional picture plane, Fake asserts the need for a radical, transformative space.
Filling two galleries are nine blurred photographs of national parks interspersed among thirty-four sharply focused chiaroscuro portraits. In a conversation with the writer, Catherine Opie explained that these groups are complementary: the claustrophobia of the studio portraits, whose subjects often press up against the edges of the picture plane, are tempered by the breathing space of the luminous outdoor scenes. Usually twenty-four to fifty inches high, the photographs of authors, artists, and Opie’s close friends (including Ron Athey and Idexa Stern, memorable subjects of earlier portraits) smolder within black-framed ovals and rectangles of impenetrably dark backgrounds, readily evoking the Renaissance models she so admires.
References to blood occur frequently, recalling Opie’s early cutting self-portraits. Miranda July and Hamza Walker wear red, as does Opie’s son, with a mouse in his breast pocket and assuming the pose of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. In Friends, 2012, Pig Pen feeds a needle and thread through Julie Tolentino’s bleeding lips, while the naked man in David, 2012, looks down tenderly at his penis, which bleeds without evident cause as he cradles it in his hands. Opie details how the two decades of advances beyond the culture wars that paralleled her early work, and contributed to its intensification, allow these images to be less confrontational. Moreover, her newfound experience of menopause has induced in her work a more rueful representation of blood.
Invariably gazing off-camera, spotlighted and in shadow, Opie’s sitters appear deeply introspective. She unflinchingly scrutinizes the effects of age and experience on skin and tissue to invite a deeper reflection on temporality and a more intimate encounter between the viewer and the subject.
While once thought unusual, sculpture constructed from unpretentious, everyday objects is now deeply familiar to art viewers. Sarah Sze, Jessica Stockholder, and Thomas Hirschhorn are just some of the recognizable names of this ubiquitous genre. Phyllida Barlow, as senior stateswoman, belongs at the head of this list. In her playful installation at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Barlow describes her approach as being analogous to a ship in a bottle—the proverbial bottle in this case being Renzo Piano’s graciously elegant architecture. Yet unlike a delicate model ship encased in glass, Barlow’s sculptural interventions prove unruly, with their raucous and unwieldy forms that demarcate the constraints of the light-filled space.
For the series “Untitled:stiltedcrates2015,” Barlow has constructed polyurethane foam and polystyrene-encased container boxes held aloft with wood and steel to create abstract, animal-like edifices that suggest nonsensical building construction sites. With the works gathered at the entrance, one is forced to walk under these heavy and seemingly precarious structures in order to enter the larger space of the exhibition. Highlighting a basic property of large-scale sculpture, this work uses its imposing presence to create a powerful link between person, object, and building. In the most dramatic work of the show, taxonomically named Untitled:100banners2015, the artist deploys a forest of flags or quasi-protest banners lacking slogans in the single downstairs room. As one descends the wide staircase, a coppice of cheap lumber that’s paint splattered and held upright by sandbags raises contrasting colored fabric and beckons one to enter, or perhaps threatens with riot and complaint.
When America sneezes, the world catches cold. In this show of five new bodies of painting and sculpture by Nate Lowman, that cliché of superpower economics summons the spirit of the American working class. For instance, front and center is Untitled, 2013–15, a colossal installation of a map of the United States with each state made out of a bit of soiled drop cloth wrapped around a shaped stretcher. Excepting Alaska and Hawaii, all are installed on a wall inclined away from the viewer. The best seats in the house for this work are atop a set of found bleachers that Lowman chose for their ubiquity in Texas.
Moving through, Lowman’s air-freshener paintings—canvases shaped after the rearview mirror’s best friend—playfully introduce modernism’s nonrectilinear substrates to the zingy forms of cartoons. Accompanying these are seven works with titles such as Mellow Yellow and Ghost of Indiana, both 2014, for which the artist stitched together the scraps of canvas leftover from the air-freshener works using unscented dental floss.
Eight paintings of Lowman’s studio’s ceiling flank the final gallery’s walls. Made by filling in areas traced from projected photos with dapples of latex, these works—all titled after his studio’s address—pair with the drop-cloth pieces to represent the upper and lower boundaries of an artist’s workplace. They radiate in the light cast by the central installation of makeshift lamps, Rave the Painforest Again, 2015, which fuses blue-collar materials such as construction boots filled with cement, Gatorade coolers, and coffee cans stuck with leprous Garbage Pail Kid decals with vintage lightbulbs containing hand-wound tungsten thread, illuminating once again the artist’s déclassé alchemy.
The spacious, light-drenched galleries of the School in Kinderhook, New York, provide an ideal setting for El Anatsui’s current retrospective surveying his prolific fifty-year-long career. One senses an increasing self-reflexivity in his latest output, which is perhaps most apparent in works such as Generation Mix, 2014, wherein the shimmering metal fragments used in his most celebrated series of the last decade are affixed to wooden assemblages that recall his “Old Cloth” series of the 1990s, examples of which are also on view.
Anatsui’s “Broken Pots” series, first shown in 1979 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, reflects on cultural fragmentation and resilience. Inspired in part by Nok terra-cotta sculpture, works such as Chambers of Memory, 1977, and Gbeze, 1979, invoke the chaos of colonization and affirmed the promise of independence for new African nations. Thirty-five years later, echoes of this series are legible in the artist’s metal constructions. One such sculpture appears as a giant suspended orb punctured with gaping holes, marking a departure from his flattened wall hangings. Titled Womb of Time, 2014, it also links the global unrest felt during the postwar era to that of our present day.
While only a small number of works are directly figurative, many of the artist’s most abstract sculptures are treated as bodies that may be wounded or healed. Stressed World, 2011, one of the largest works on view, appears worn and neglected, as if embodying the strain placed on our natural environment. Anatsui’s handling of found materials is both violent and conscientious, consistently evoking themes of disorder and reinvention while inviting an awareness of the consequences of ecological and cultural destruction.
While Kelly O’Brien aims to achieve a frisson by integrating oil portraits of cats with minimalist sculpture in her show “Kulture High,” the exhibition’s real pleasure comes less from that unexpected pairing than from O’Brien’s exuberant use of her materials and her confident sense of design. With fifteen recently made pieces comprising this installation that occupies a single long gallery of the newly relocated Soo Visual Arts Center, the Minneapolis-based artist’s primary palette here involves shades you might find in a pack of highlighters: bright yellow, pink, and orange. The traditional rectangular canvas is a theme on which O’Brien works wild variations, incorporating multimedia sculptural elements such as balls of aluminum tape and duct tape. In See-Through Bulge, 2014, for instance, an orange-and-green tape ball is trapped behind a nylon screen stretched over a wooden frame. In Metallic Aggression, 2014, silver spandex is stretched over a tall frame while another clump of metallic fabric seems to be worming its way out. In Hierarchical Stereotypes, 2015, an unseen material bulges ominously from inside a frame wrapped in yellow spandex.
In every piece, cats are either seen—often painted scowling or yowling on their own canvases—or suggested, as in the pieces accompanied by lumps of brightly painted duct tape fashioned in about the same size and shape as a house cat on its haunches. The cats’ unheeded indignation might mirror that of any gallerygoer who would think to judge the artist for having such shameless fun.
Full of productive juxtapositions and sight lines that bring together Conceptual, Fluxus, Neo-concrete, and classic Pop works from four continents, “International Pop” presents a complex interpretation of postwar art. The works exhibited are surprisingly heterogeneous, with one common denominator: a desire to reimagine everyday life in an era transformed by consumerism, media, and new forms of political domination and liberation.
Viewers first encounter Shinohara Ushio’s Oiran, 1968, a portrait of a courtesan whose face has been left blank. Hanging nearby are a few dozen plastic coats on Thomas Bayrle’s Clothes Rack 1 and Clothes Rack 2, both 1968–70. In each, the model is missing. This might seem like an odd, ghostly overture for an exhibition bursting with flesh, from Marjorie Strider’s pinups and Jana Želibská’s veiled nudes to David Hockney’s prone lover. But even in the lustiest, most corporeal works something’s absent. They reduce the human figure to a silhouette, a caricature, or a fragment. Expressions are hard to read, and skin extends into the commodities that surround it, as in Richard Hamilton’s Hers is a Lush Situation, 1958, whose painted curves simultaneously outline a car and a woman’s body. By showing us half-present collaged and appropriated bodies, these works reveal that the true subjects of Pop art were ways of life that hadn’t yet fully coalesced and that pointed beyond their present toward the beginnings of something stranger.
Funneled into a serpentine corridor of temporary walls hung with black-and-white printed imagery, visitors immediately confront their own images reflected in the dot-matrix-like patterns of Willem Oorebeek’s DIMEX ROOM, “VERSAILLES,” 2015. This hall of mirrors constructed from black rubber mats covered in glass panes announces the exhibition as a machine for the processing and circulation of images. Among these are the members of his Vertical Club, 1994–present, large-scale lithograph prints of standing figures snatched from the pages of magazines, arranged facing the viewer. These life-size enlargements wave, smile, or otherwise solicit the gaze of the beholder in absurd displays of familiarity. Some of the images are reproduced from a catalogue of the artist's own work, where they are overlaid with interpretative texts ranging from displays of art-historical erudition to glib trend-forecasting platitudes.
The exhibition design provides little room to roam, instead steering one to works depicting figures or sites of authority such as the Tower of Babel, Sigmund Freud’s couch, and local communist leaders in China. Each receives Oorebeek’s “BLACKOUT” treatment for a series of works from 1999–present, in which found printed materials are overprinted and obscured with black lithographic ink, pushing the mass-produced images to the threshold of illegibility. Still, the raking light in the gallery reveals the obscured pictures. Like paper daguerreotypes, they almost flicker. These not-quite-iconoclastic abstractions are another kind of upright, solitary figure (or “monolith,” in the artist’s punning terminology) that here serve as objects of identification, desire, and power, probing print media as a persistent matrix of our era. But Oorebeek does all this with something of the jester’s cant, as he dances between the modernist twin peaks of mechanical reproduction and monochrome.
Well before her death, the Pacific Northwest-based painter Mary Henry was canonized as a “matriarch of modernism,” yet the introspective artist had little interest in the distractions of categorization. Henry was a painter’s painter—devoted to daily practice and the slow development of visual concepts over time. This focused exhibition of seven paintings mostly from the late 1980s contains some of the artist’s finest abstractions. Deceptively simple in appearance due to their reductive compositions, they’re electrified by bright, saturated colors that are limned and punctuated by black and white forms. Henry studied with Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy in Chicago in the 1940s, and his influence is present, but Henry’s abstractions are more idiosyncratic and humorous.
In Option, 1989, a sequence of vertical black bars at the painting’s right edge activates the work with movement. This energy is carried across the canvas by a black zigzag outlining a white rectangle that is mirrored by an identical shape in red and black. Bisecting the two is a thick band of cerulean blue that cuts across the painting and extends upward into a right angle. The center of the piece is nearly impossible to locate, and this asymmetry makes the work appear as diagrammatic as a circuit board.
Henry described the aspirations of her paintings in relationship to organic energies, stating that their focus was “getting rid of all the things that aren’t important, to get to the essence of life.” She eschewed taping her canvases, instead drawing by hand and laying her colors with traceless sable brushes. This labor-intensive process imbued Henry’s geometric abstractions with an uncommon softness and intimacy.
“Social,” a group exhibition of Charlotte Potter’s glass cameos, Ariel Brice’s ceramics, and Lucy Louise Derickson’s repurposed pewter, asks the viewer to reconsider communication and relationships in the digital world. For example, Potter’s wall installation Message Received, 2015, is a series of cameo lockets and pendants that each open to reveal a text or a Facebook message between the artist and a former boyfriend, all connected by a looping metal-chain. The narrative follows the rise and fall of most romantic relationships, first stilted and formal, becoming more candid, followed by miscommunication, and finally, an uncertain future. A pile of necklace chain gathers on the floor after the last pendant marked with “. . .” While Potter critiques the so-called immediacy of digital communication, the installation’s appeal lies more in its ability to evoke voyeurism and the sentimentality of historical ephemera.
Derickson’s I Look Forward to Seeing You Again, or for the First Time, 2015, consisting of 606 pocket-size pewter vessels—each corresponding to a specific Facebook friend of the artist—placed on individual wooden mountings, addresses object fetishism. She invites her friends to take an object—housing a personalized note from the artist, only retrievable after destroying the work—and pose for a picture with her. The picture is then posted online, available to viewers through a QR code. Together, these pieces poignantly consider the traps, benefits, and emotional investment of any community—IRL or digital—to provoke a reckoning with the value of the people in our lives.
Boots, slippers, sweaters, skirts . . . Erica Stocking’s latest exhibition is a fashion show of sorts yet confounds in its absence of a model. Instead, unassuming articles of clothing themselves seem to walk, rendering the everyday in a collection of seventeen ghostlike sculptural volumes.
Suspended stiffly over soft cylindrical plinths, colorful garments are replicated meticulously in painted canvas. It becomes apparent that the show is equally an exhibition of paintings. Stocking’s work continually forces this double take, superimposing a material strangeness onto the familiar. Whether in the bend of a sleeve or the fold of a skirt, the properties of the items are accurately depicted, yet they fail to pass as real. Using her family’s home videos as source material, the artist reproduces objects from this documentation, retaining aspects of their surfaces without their essence. Just as memory often vividly recalls patterns, shapes, and gestures but confuses relational qualities of scale or weight, Stocking’s hollow forms surprise in their autonomy and structural integrity, becoming animated, flamboyant, garish, even grotesque.
The works’ titles speak to personal histories that are merely hinted at. In Christmas Morning (all works 2015), for instance, a pair of turquoise underpants is inflated, crotch-side up, revealing its careful stitching and the blankness of its canvas insides. Peruvian Blanket Honeymoon Souvenir / Never to Return / A Hole shows a rolled rug poised with its tassels frozen in a rigid defiance of gravity, as if caught while spinning. Quivering ever so slightly in these moments of seeming stillness, the sculptures capture something of the mystery that is an object’s ultimate unknowability, its long-winded journeys through use and disuse.