Categorizing the titular ten works of Laura Owens’s current exhibition is an exercise in frustration—intentionally so. Blurring the boundaries between installation, mural, and painting, Owens covers the gallery walls with nonrepeating handmade wallpaper, layered with painterly and nonpainterly gestures referencing everything from blown-up bitmaps to newsprint text, trompe l’oeil, and illusionistic space: in other words, a brief history of two-dimensional representation itself. What appear to be wooden beams creating boundaries between the gridded works are a trick of paint as well; what the final ten will look like when they are cut from the wall panels is impossible to know on viewing now.
This new challenge to the conceit of a painting show can be read as part of Owens’s larger, restlessly inventive, and omnivorous practice, which partakes of the high and low references of classic postmodernism (for example, a grouping of framed embroidery by the artist’s grandmother, in the back room) while making a constant play between painterly antipodes such as grid and gesture. Here, the dominant tension is between information and noise—thematically and sometimes literally: Viewers can send text messages to numbers printed on the wallpaper, triggering recordings from hidden speakers. But this kind of playfulness serves a deadly serious purpose, which is nothing less than to short-circuit the overdetermination of painting itself.
Owens’s major accomplishment with this tactic of concealment and obstruction is to slow down, if not stall out completely, viewers’ tendencies to instantaneously read a square panel as a painting, and to jump immediately to aesthetic judgments. Instead, she extends moments of speculation and musing, keeping us floating long past the normal moment of obvious recognition and the hubris of thinking that we know, with a painting, just what we are looking at.
Pablo Dávila investigates our perceptions of space and time by translating the form of musical phasing across media. Phasing in music, which occurs when two instruments are played together at different tempos and so shift in and out of sync, is particularly associated with the minimalism of Steve Reich, whose score for “Piano Phase” Dávila visualizes in Ad libitum (piano phase) (all works 2016), a triptych of light boxes in which the notation itself blurs into and out of view. Dávila relates the theme of things growing more or less in focus in focus to ways we experience the passage of time—as in the nearly indiscernibly spinning sheet of black reflective acrylic, Prologue—also investigating three-dimensional space, as in the illusionistic volume created by a pane of glass and a projector in Oblique approach.
As an analysis of phenomenology and subjectivity, “Ladies & Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space” is astute and deeply meditative. But the show also harbors a subtle but powerful ideological critique (very much in the tradition of Latin American Conceptualism) of replacing our own sense perception with technological regulation. The most conspicuous and ambitious work on display, Living in time believing in the timeless, consists of a set of drumsticks and antique cymbals connected electronically to the UNIX timestamp code that drives digital clocks worldwide—and which is doomed to obsolesce in the coming decades. The percussion generated by this code is at first reminiscent of a singing bowl (Dávila references Tibetan Buddhism in another piece in the show), but visible at the back of the machine are wires and switches that feel feeble by comparison.
In 2002, Hasan Elahi became the subject of an FBI investigation. After six months, he was cleared. Since then, he has continued to share his activities with the FBI as well as the public, ostensibly working through the trauma of the investigation while, in the process, creating a continuous alibi and a prolonged satire of surveillance. In this solo exhibition, titled “Datamine,” tens of thousands of photographs document and abstract his choices of food and diet beverages; the toilets he’s used and the planes he’s boarded; the stairs he’s climbed and the plazas he’s visited. And so many photographed signs—one, for instance, that reads: “Do not use coat hook during take off and landing.”
The twenty-four-by-eight-foot Prism v2 (all works cited, 2016) incorporates thousands of these images, each one about a half inch square, stacked up in columns. The most effective part of the exhibition, though, is the grouping of Stay v3 and Peak v3. Stay v3 features a rumpled, unmade bed surrounded by grids of framed pictures depicting similar beds. It faces Peak v3, an arrangement of window-like monitors that show images of high-tech government tracking equipment rudely interrupting a Hawaiian vista. Elahi’s exhibition deconstructs routine experience and renders it absurd, while masochistically deriding a government that watches for the sake of watching, observing nothing.
Curated by Solveig Øvstebø, “Between the Ticks of the Watch” explores fault lines within conventional thought through the work of Kevin Beasley, Peter Downsbrough, Goutam Ghosh, Falke Pisano, and Martha Wilson. In Posturing, 1973/2008, one among a suite of self-portrait photographs on display here, Wilson traces her transformation from a woman to a man to man in drag. Text beneath the image reads: “Theoretically, the uninitiated audience sees only half of this process, from ‘male’ into ‘female.’” Downsbrough’s architectural intervention And as There, 2016, includes one thin pole hanging from the ceiling. By its base on the floor, “AND” is printed in vinyl letters in all caps, and the adjacent windows are inscribed with “AS” and “THERE,” printed backward. As though intended for an outside audience, “THERE” imposes the relativity of one’s linguistic position. Ghosh’s abstract paintings hang unstretched and furling on the wall and are composed alternately of delicate geometric lines that delineate the picture plane and earth-toned, curvilinear marks that read like incomplete notes from unrecognizable computations. In Beasley’s sculptural installation Your Face Is/Is Not Enough, 2016, gas masks embellished with feathers, cheetah prints, umbrellas, and baseball hats rest on microphone stands beside similarly adorned megaphones. Activated by performers during the opening, the objects seem to await further inhabitation; they invite resistance through the co-optation of police-issue riot gear. Finally, Pisano’s film The Value in Mathematics (Language), 2015, investigates the relationship between philosophy, religion, democracy, and geometry. The restrained intersections of these works puncture underlying assumptions about how accessible space, place, and logic might be.
In the installation Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter (all works 2016), a maze of curtains suspended throughout the gallery periodically opens upon tableau of stoneware ceramic sculptures set atop custom variations of bright turquoise Acapulco furniture. Tropes of domestic spaces give way to further explorations of interior headspaces, as Maria Gaspar explores the ways that a museum’s collection and archive might be incorporated into one’s inner life. The translucent curtains are digitally printed with collages that weave images owned by the museum with photographs of the artist’s family and from her personal life, resulting in grids of shifting gray tones out of which the occasional face peers. The ceramics glazed in brown interpret the institution’s holdings from across history, ranging from an ancient Mesoamerican head fragment to several references to Arturo Romo’s 2005 “Crystal Brilliance Manifesto.”
Mining the museum, in much the same fashion as Fred Wilson has done since 1992 in order to suggest alternatives to canonical histories, Gaspar works within a particular establishment that has, since its founding more than thirty years ago, taken as its mission an engagement with race, heritage, national identity, and social justice. Her responses to its objects and images—accompanied by a series of docent performances in which she has invited other artists and cultural workers to blend personal storytelling into historical accounts—serve as reminders that identity categories, such as Latino and Hispanic, are never monolithic, always veering into abstractions and productive problems of legibility.
“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” is more than a feast: It is a glut of information and artifacts—including ephemera, sound recordings, video, photography, and sculpture—re-animating Moorman’s archives in a thoroughly researched and thoughtfully organized exhibition whose focus is divided between her artistic practice as a musician and performer and her activities as a promoter and festival organizer. (She founded and ran the New York Avant Garde Festival from 1963 to 1980.)
As a cello prodigy who played in her hometown’s symphony orchestra at thirteen to a Julliard-trained classical musician under the spell of the avant-garde, she performed on the trapeze, submerged in a tank of water, and covered in melted chocolate and coconut shreds. Moorman also performed signature works by collaborators throughout her career, and micro-exhibitions throughout “Feast” capture the drama with which she adapted John Cage’s 26'1.1499'', 1955, and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1965—recontextualized by Moorman’s personal battle with breast cancer—and the authoritative agency with which she executed Nam June Paik’s TV Cello, 1976.
The show rehabilitates Moorman’s objectified memorialization as muse, living sculpture, and topless cellist—thanks to an arrest for indecent exposure after performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique, 1964, naked—emphasizing her role as autonomous artist and powerhouse administrator instead. Amid a generation of artists experimenting with the fusion of art and life, Moorman truly lived this ideal, and the main triumph of “A Feast of Astonishments” lies in demonstrating Moorman’s success at connecting the fringes of the avant-garde with the general public, and in doing so itself.
Satire, cleverness, and absurdity are at the core of Rebecca Warren’s art. Humorously undercutting platitudes from different sculptural genres, Warren both mocks and participates in the lineage of art-historical standards. In Reclining Figure, 2011, she toys with the monumental sculptures frequently installed in public spaces and outside corporate headquarters. Using steel, she miniaturizes an assembly of geometric forms that, at a colossal scale, would be a bombastic trope of public-art installations. Warren emasculates the sculpture further by including a pom-pom as a kind of ridiculous adornment. In part because of their diminution, the sculptures feel like elaborate mousetraps or fragments from an ineffectual Rube Goldberg machine.
In her bronze works, Warren harkens to precedents set by artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning, Franz West, and even Dr. Seuss. Pushing clay around, much like a gestural painter slops paint, Warren crafts skinny totems. These comic phallus shapes are also meant to be loosely defined figures. In Pas de Deux (Plaza Monument), 2016, a work not specifically part of the exhibition but a newly installed commissioned piece outside the entrance to the museum, Warren offers two dancers standing side by side. Interrupting the bronzes’ upward thrust are bulbous lumps that imply the curvature of hips, the flaps of ears, or the looping shapes of flared nostrils. Painted in splashy washes and pastel drips, these lumpy ballerinas are ornamented in a cartoon luster that adds to their whimsy and irreverence.
One’s first glimpse of this small yet powerful exhibition—an installation of eight life-size female fighters, a ceramic dog, an enormous Rorschach-like painting, and two oversize sculptural eyes—is through a glass wall that Mai-Thu Perret has smeared with petroleum jelly. Fittingly, and elegantly, the viscous salve on the manufactured surface initially makes the contents of “Sightings” an alluring mystery.
Once visitors pass through the glass to mingle among “Les guérillères” (The Guerillas), 2016—comprising the female figures and their dog, each subtitled I through IX and inspired by female Y.P.J. Kurdish resisters—an uncanny confusion occurs between the inanimate and living. The soldiers are convincing, and not: Their wigs and military garb show no signs of wear, guns are cast in candy-hued translucent resin, and body parts are made of varying materials. Les guérillères V, with ombre shoulder-length hair and endearing polka-dot socks, crouches realistically, though her gun is purple and her flesh is made of woven wicker. Les guérillères III sits wearily, head in hand, by the ceramic dog named VI—ears alert yet eye sockets empty—but her lumpy papier-mâché skin annuls any suspicions that she lives, as does the painted orange circle obscuring her face.
Les guérillères VIII’s silicone body stands tall in the center of the room, her raised hand a suggestion that she might be leading this army. However, what commands our attention is on the gallery’s back wall. There hangs the thirteen-by-ten-foot painting on carpet, titled Agoraphobia I, 2016. Blotches of blood red overshadow skeins of grays and yellows, saturating the fleshy fabric. Is this a splayed body, a torn flag? The work demonstrates Perret’s skill in using charged material to produce objects and environments that attract and repel, vibrating on the edge of life.
Susan Cianciolo’s miniretrospective, collecting over twenty years of personal ephemera, reference material, and fashion sampling, is about invitation at its core. Lavish in its clarity of form, this tactile, spaciously curated series of shrine-like installations includes an arena of chair and table skeletons modeling Cianciolo’s handmade clothing; three tiny houses showcasing videos that chronicle the artist’s history with runway fashion; and over fifty of her carefully assembled “kits,” arranged in a grid on the gallery floor—boxes, piles, and sewn arrangements that display the artist and designer’s personal and professional life in archival splendor.
Fans of her renowned RUN (an uncompromising and innovative DIY fashion label whose motto could have been “maintain the guidelines of your own design,” in the words of her video diadal, 1998) will enjoy spying her deconstructed sketchbooks, photos, journals, and international-travel souvenirs for behind-the-scenes creative insight and odes to friendship. But the meticulous, fragile quality of her sewn quilts and life-size effigies, which pad and guard kits like mummies in a tomb, point toward death and rebirth. The kits’ contents underpin ritualistic themes such as purging accumulated materials or disclosing secrets. One handwritten note sums up the artist’s Zen-like practice to achieve material freedom: “There is much feeling in nothing, accept there is stillness, silence, being oneness omnipresent.”
Casual yet fastidiously organized, some kits are as simple as a box of green glitter—Glitter and Love Kit, 2016—while others encapsulate single memories, such as OSAKA kit (Run 7 dress, toys, 2 girl dress, ribbon, painted stick, two fans), 2016, and LET’S TRY TO GET ALONG kit, 2015. It’s this kind of personalization and care that remind one that dress-up is rooted in, yes, fun and decadence, but also in locating material that makes humans feel comfortable in their skin.
The Vietnam War was the first to be televised, and though broadcasts of its carnage spurred many to antiwar activism, they also demonstrated modern media’s ability to compress images of violence behind screens and between commercials breaks. Online, banality mixes with atrocity with even greater ease. Pop-ups advertising resort getaways obscure environmental disaster reports. On our individual feeds, articles on war or terrorism pulled from the 24/7 news cycle are sandwiched between pet photos and brunch updates.
In this mini survey, Martha Rosler proves deft at dissecting and reconfiguring mass media to restore discomfort with such constellations. Her “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” montages, 1967–72, splice together Vietnam War–era photojournalism with spreads from House Beautiful magazine, the latter full of home and beauty tips for the upper-middle-class aspirant. In these works, war moves beyond the page and TV screen, encroaching upon 1960s and ’70s domestic bliss. Beauty Rest transplants a picture-perfect mattress ad’s family to a bombed-out bedroom. In Tron (Amputee), a Vietnamese woman balances on her good leg—the other severed and bandaged—inside a vast ranch-style living room. The series’ prescience is underscored through its display with the 2003–2008 reprisal “House Beautiful,” which sets photos of the Web 2.0–era Iraq War against images of affluence and consumption: Models catwalk next to a corpse; a Paris Hilton doppelgänger checks her cell phone while gunfire rages outside her glassed-in condo. Ripostes to advertising and its cousin, stock photography, have become something of a standard in contemporary art, but most lack the political bite of Rosler’s enduringly moving, unsettling hybrids.
The nine large-scale installations for this show prompt us to “wonder” at the alchemical transformation of fairly quotidian materials into art. Though the labor of producing these works leaves a few visible traces, the emphasis here is less on process than on the result: a conversion of the Renwick’s galleries into sensual environments.
It’s a fitting way to reopen this museum, which houses the Smithsonian’s craft and decorative arts collection, after a two-year renovation. In the first gallery, Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 (all works 2015)—two ethereal planes of rainbow-colored thread—hang between stark-white Corinthian columns. Nearby, Leo Villareal’s Volume (Renwick), a twinkling galaxy of 23,000 computer-controlled LED lights, illuminates the freshly gilded grand staircase. These approximations of natural phenomena are consistent with the show’s preoccupation with the anthropogenic environment. Further, Chakaia Booker offers a labyrinth of recycled rubber in Anonymous Donor, while Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, an installation of thousands of green fiberglass marbles, suggests the fragility of topographic forms.
The imbrication of the natural and the technological signals that for today’s artists craft is not a retreat from technology but a means to “live differently in the modern world,” as the show’s curator, Nicholas Bell, puts it. Judging by the works here, living differently means responding to even low-tech, handmade forms with the same sense of wonder that typically greets new technologies. But perhaps living differently might also mean wondering if our insatiable appetite for amazement is as innocent as it seems. At first glance, Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig, a room full of towering, nest-like forms of molded tree saplings, invites us to play; its vertiginous curves and arabesques exhilarate the eye (and elude the camera). But the work also is imbued with the tension of the struggle between man and nature, and its shadows are a nightmarish thicket. Like wonder itself, it entices but threatens entrapment.
“When you are two-to-one, then the work becomes easier,” a woman’s voice intones as a pair of hands gingerly places documentary photographs of political protest in front of the camera in one of the untitled videos (all works 2016) that make up Annie MacDonell’s exhibition “Holding Still // Holding Together.” Blending practical instructions from nonviolent civil disobedience training (“Stretch your body out to achieve maximum contact against the ground beneath you”) with meditations on the slippery nature of embodiment (“To be lifted by three men is to feel like an oversize object: a stuffed chair, or a rolled-up rug”), the video offers a taxonomy of possible encounters between police and protestors. Drawing on an archive of photographs that span 1940s-era labor demonstrations to recent antiglobalization movements, MacDonell’s multichannel installation examines the implicit violence that subtends these bodily configurations, proposing passive resistance as the only form of refusal possible in late capitalism.
Across the room, another video, projected life-size on a diagonal wall, elaborates on this paradox by documenting six dancers restaging scenarios from the same source imagery. In one scene, a couple sits with arms and legs tenderly wrapped around each other when two others arrive to drag them apart and away, tugging awkwardly on a single arm or leg. Multiple takes of the same choreography superimposed over one another produces a ghostly composite of limp bodies and contorted limbs, suggesting that the same gestures that foster intimacy in one scenario can dehumanize in another. Juxtaposed with the violence of the archival documents, MacDonell’s lyrical restagings raise questions about which kinds of bodies can perform nonviolent resistance and which can expect it from others in return. As movements like Black Lives Matter demonstrate, the protestor’s expectation of fair compliance continues to be dictated by the color line.
It’s 1893, and a crowd has gathered on the beach. They’re dressed in frumpy Victorian garb, sporting elaborate hats, fans, and binoculars as they look placidly out over the water. These might be the inhabitants of Isla Santa Maria—that mythic island that is said to have formed from the wreckage of a replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship, and which does not appear on any maps—or maybe they’re just out in their Sunday best, hoping to catch a glimpse of utopia. Visitors to the gallery put on 3-D glasses, plucking them from their resting places on an army of comically face-shaped holders. A blue, orange, or purple tassel hangs from each pair, transforming viewers into distinguished guests at a masquerade ball.
Commissioned by Gallery TPW and Images Festival in Toronto, the Vancouver debut of Oliver Husain’s Isla Santa Maria 3D, 2016, is a spectacle of the highest order. Miming familiar tropes from science-fiction films—The Hunger Games comes to mind—the artist’s first-ever foray into 3-D video fuses utopian imagery with aspirational technology. With this tongue-in-cheek comment on the broader apparatus of film, Husain implicates viewers by recasting them as participants in a problematic colonial narrative. As the narrative skips among 2294, 1893, and Columbus’s arrival at North America in 1492, a lone explorer dances with a horizon line against a backdrop of skyscrapers. Later on, a freakish, futuristic clan gathers around a hologram in a museum of model ships. History, the work suggests, does not simply unfold, on-screen or otherwise—rather, it is unraveled.
A discrete but elegant forty-nine-foot-tall slender and white-colored structure floats in the museum’s central gallery. It evokes the formal features of Siphonophora, a type of marine animal from the order of Hydrozoa composed of various physiologically integrated polypoid and medusoid zooids all with specialized survival functions. Like the sea creatures, Thomas Glassford’s Siphonophora, 2016, is a single body made up of an amalgamation of individual entities. Leaf-like protruding shapes, little stalks, or trailing tentacles form a rhythmic colony, resembling at once both an animal and a plant that, like an invisible jellyfish, merges with its surrounding space. This quality effectively turns the museum’s architecture into an essential part of the work, enhancing its condition as a container and conduit, as well as an environment and object. The piece also commingles the building’s dual histories—it now serves as an art space but was formerly a natural history museum.
Glassford, in a continuation of his exploration with everyday objects and construction materials, utilized white cement, polyurethane, and steel rods for this installation. The result is a delightfully contemplative exhibition that makes evident the artist’s enlightened understanding of the role that architecture plays in the perception of and reflection on artworks. Siphonophora itself also serves as metaphor for notions of self and community: Similar to ocean organisms, humans’ survival as an ecological entity is dependent on one another.