Woman with a Camera (Diptych), 2008, is one of the works you first encounter as you enter Anne Collier’s first major museum exhibition, which encompasses ten years of powerful didactic photography. The illustrious diptych succinctly embodies Collier’s enthusiasm for iconic image-making and conveys her photographic authority and commanding appropriation. Lifted from Irvin Kershner’s film Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), the work’s black-and-white print on the left depicts a 35-mm camera pressed against film star Faye Dunaway’s eye. The work’s second image, on the right, is printed in color and pictures Dunaway staring directly at her subject over the camera’s body, not through its viewfinder. As with all the works that make up Collier’s extensive “Woman with a Camera” series (2006–), there is an obvious inversion of female objectification evoked historically by the entitlement of the male gaze. Yet the exertion of gender politics that acts as a thread throughout her work is a mere subtext to the cultural power afforded to blunt and emblematic image-making, an authority Collier wields with aplomb.
The same can be said of First Person, 2009, Introduction, Fear, Anger, Despair, Guilt, Hope, Joy, Love, Conclusion, 2002–2014, My Goals for One Year, 2007, and Spiritual Warfare, 2006, all centrally composed images of found self-help artifacts: audio tapes, questionnaires, worksheets, and personality checklists. Although each item that Collier documents was designed to address messy emotional states, the photographs are undemonstrative. Taking as a model the contrivances of the Pictures Generation, Collier’s appropriation strategies are dispassionate but never disinterested. Always clinical in their formal presentation, the prints can range in temper from witty to cruel. Yet pleasingly Collier’s authoritative aesthetic stands in static opposition to a post-Internet aesthetic and its colloquial speed of production. Unlike Laura Mars, Collier’s photographic aptitude comes from the fact that the artist never holds a camera up to her eye.
Prominent in “Gone South,” Simone Leigh’s solo institutional debut, is my work, my dreams, must wait until after hell, 2012. The video loop, made with Chitra Ganesh under the collaborative moniker Girl, presents a woman’s back as it almost imperceptibly rises and falls with her breath, her head abbreviated beneath a mound of rocks. Unique among the works on viewwhich are chiefly ceramic or otherwise sculpturalthe video nonetheless participates in the exhibition's emphasis on materiality, wherein human form and culture are engaged in dialogue with the raw elements of the earth.
This corporeal approach is mediated through Jug, 2014, an unfired vessel created on site from local Lizella clay. This, Leigh suggests in a sound bite, is a “face jug,” referencing a spiritually potent style of pottery developed in the antebellum American South. Jug has gradually contracted while drying since the exhibition’s opening—evidence of a “slow” dynamism resonant with the region’s swampy natural landscapes and heavy historical atmosphere.
The intelligently sparse selection of works on view is punctuated with blue hues of porcelain: Stashed in a corner is wedgewood bucket, 2009, replete with jasperware bananas; nearby, Cupboard, 2014, includes a suspended bunch of oversized cowrie shells, one of them a striking cobalt blue. Used in French and English porcelain, this color is, ostensibly, a colonial shade, registering a flash of the Old World in an oeuvre where a new one triumphs and pressing an industrial hand upon an organic palette of beach-glass browns and grays. The cowries are, remarkably, made from watermelon molds, salt fired and glazed to yield unpredictable finishes. Crossing this shell—a hoodoo charm and symbol of feminine power—with the fraught iconographic legacy of the watermelon, Leigh claims a visual language from the Southeast then expands its vocabulary.
This exhibition, curated by Craig Drennen, features four painters who reconceive abstraction’s relationship to the structure of the pictorial plane. Here the surface appears as a flattened spatial arena, a digital transparent layer, a supporting material structure, and finally as an obstacle to be overcome.
Lauren Silva’s works stay closest to a traditional understanding of the pictorial veneer as defining a space to be explored. Her larger canvases boil surrealist landscapes down to their elements, while her smaller works on paper center on Microsoft Paint–like scrawls rendered in meticulous liquid strokes of bright pink and green. Rather than working within the frame, Bonnie Maygarden strives to fuse real surfaces with virtual ones. Her perfectly shadowed expanses of folded and crumpled materials feel solidly three-dimensional, as if their shapes were impressed on the canvas itself. Their transparent facades echo digital visualization: Works like Grid I, 2013, probe the limits of the screen’s resolution by cramming each pixel-like square with an impossibly dense arrangement of details.
Surfaces exist primarily as supports in Eleanor Aldrich’s quasi-sculptural paintings, which bulge with crude simulacra of real objects, such as lawn chairs made from gloopy strings of epoxy. Her Fat Boxes, 2012, protrude like strange invaders that can find a home neither inside nor outside the frame. These failed objects are simultaneously queasy, comic, and slightly ominous. Finally, the pictorial exterior is punctured, torn, and cut in Jane Fox Hipple’s works, which exhibit various forms of penetration and erasure. Their purple and gray palette recalls the color of old bruises. Abstraction manifests as violence in Positive Thought / Negative Thought, 2014, a black canvas with an excised rectangle in its center surrounded by ragged wounds. Mounted with its face to the wall in a pose of shame or contempt, it leaves whatever provoked its mutilation a mystery. When the potential of surfaces is exhausted, all that is left is their destruction.
“Painter’s painter” is a term of praise for artists who forcefully push the medium to generate new expressive possibilities. This exhibition, assembled over the span of three years, thanks to a gift from the Alex Katz Foundation, gathers works by thirteen contemporary painters plus several by Katz himself. These include skillful imitations of surfaces and materials (Jan de Vliegher, Man with Gigantic Bee, 2012), reimaginings of pop-culture images (Joyce Pensato, Daisy, 2007), and private visions bordering on psychological puzzles (Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled, 2012). Also noteworthy is one of Ronald Bladen’s rarely seen impastoed paintings, the gritty and chthonic Space Landscape, 1955.
Among the strongest works is Laura Owens’s Untitled, 2013, which illustrates the possibilities of a simple black-and-white palette. Two large-scale grids overlap like Photoshop layers, scribbled across with thick lines rendered perfectly three-dimensional by drop shadows. Her precise control of line and shading makes the occasional blob of raised paint look like material intrusions into a realm of digital brushstrokes. Charline von Heyl’s symbolically charged Idolores, 2011, is dominated by an enigmatic figure that wavers between a stone totem and a blinded skull topped with a black spiky crown. The figure seems trapped between the woven grating that covers it and the background of pale bars, but at times it reverses itself, becoming part of a larger underpainted pattern that is only partially revealed. Spencer Sweeney’s Untitled, 2011, draws on Grace Jones’s iconic Island Life cover, portraying her as the ghostly shadow of a painter’s model, a barely outlined form seemingly dissolving under the lascivious red-eared artist’s gaze. The work’s multiple lines of sight depict the painted subject as not quite a person, but rather something between an object and an idea.
Curated by Katy Siegel as the first of three exhibitions to focus on artists who eschew the academic binary of abstraction and figuration, “The Matter That Surrounds Us” pairs Wols (born Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) and Charline von Heyl. That von Heyl would be an exemplary case in this model of aesthetic tropism is perhaps unsurprising, given her willful avoidance of a signature style. In the course of their becoming material, her garish, high-key, color-filled compositions might tend toward the biomorphic, even the representational, in producing a face or corporeal form, or might instead exist as a field of nonobjective relationships. Irrespectively, von Heyl’s canvases propose that recognition need not be a precondition for knowing, and anyway, that categories exist relatively, on a continuum.
Interspersed amidst small, achingly lovely and gnomic works by Wols, in an intimate installation in a low-ceilinged, gray-washed, subterranean gallery—Siegel took her cues for the spotlights, dark walls, and close hang from the 1945 and ’47 Drouin exhibitions of Wols in Paris—von Heyl’s comparatively massive canvases strikingly gain in immediacy. As Wols’s diminutive and highly ornate watercolor and inks demand a form of attention at near range, the show prompts a closer look at von Heyl’s modes of effecting paradoxical spaces, as well as the textures of her surfaces, from which such depths both recede and project in elaborately staged optical non sequiturs. Continuities between the two artists’ approaches to picturing preclude a curatorial recourse to simple formal analogues among specific works, and the hang is stronger for its avoidance of both didacticism and literal one-to-one comparisons.
Still, an intergenerational connection is very much the point. Wols’s Blue Phantom, 1951, on view here, is the first oil painting that made a strong impact on von Heyl (she recalls seeing it as a child in Cologne’s Ludwig Museum). An apparition, it foreshadows von Heyl’s Medusas and apotropaic pictures. Wols inhabited a near alchemical and imperfectly sublimatory practice, whereby art was wrested from the baseness of a liminal life. This seems far from von Heyl, for whom such biographical circumstances (to say nothing of conceptual strategies) are anathema. But the present context made me think that the refusal of an intended image might in both cases register the experiential as its very substance.
From 1972 through 1991, Eleanor Antin invented personas of different races, genders, and professions to destabilize any single identity. Her role-playing was then documented in photographs and videos, which are displayed here alongside various props, notably large-scale flattened paper dolls, the companions with whom Antin enacted her performances. The exhibition, guest-curated by Emily Liebert, begins with perhaps the most discomforting of these personas: Eleanora Antinova, an African American ballerina who Antin claims was once a dancer in Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballet Russes, and is now lost to history. While Antin had an African American dancer perform the role in the 2013 film version of the project, she herself played the part in 1979 in heavy makeup, creating a character that Huey Copeland in his catalogue essay locates “between blackface and passing, those two poles of racialized performance in the Americas.”
Even more than race, Antin undermines constructions of gender, as exemplified by the photographic series “Portrait of the King,” 1972, a kind of drag performance wherein Antin wanders through a San Diego beach town dressed to resemble a seventeenth-century baron, browsing the drug store and entering the men’s room, highlighting the disconnect between the costumed figure and his mundane activities. Videos such as The King, 1972, for which Antin carefully applies a mustache, and Representational Painting, 1971, in which she painstakingly applies makeup, underscore this point, emphasizing the tedium of prolonged spectatorship and exaggerating the artificiality of any identity, particularly that of a desired femininity.
Antin’s interest in gender here culminates in her investigation of the nurse, a figure at once celebrated as altruistic and highly sexualized, which she examines using the characters Little Nurse Eleanor and Eleanor Nightingale, the artist’s version of Florence Nightingale. In the series “The Angel of Mercy: My Tour of Duty in the Crimea,” 1977, photos with fake vintage patina made in the wake of anti–Vietnam War protests, Antin stages the life of the nurse on the front lines and her contradictory obligation to save those who might then go on to kill others. Posing with furrowed brow in period costume in photos like Myself, 1854, 1977, Antin reinforces the notion that identity and history alike are mediated, while wielding a sense of humor that guides our reception of these critiques.
Matthew Girson contemplates the Jewish American experience in his solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. “The Painter’s Other Library” comprises sixty-eight oil paintings and one video that portray three primary subjects: a library bookshelf, a blackout curtain, and a Nazi bonfire. All the painted images are depicted either in hushed, dark hues or as black monochromes. Although Girson has not included titles on any of the book spines, the lighting in his virtual library would be too dim for reading, anyway. The artist provides a perceptual experience—adjusting the eyes to see in the dark—as a metaphor of consciousness and its motives.
An anxious appreciator of Martin Heidegger’s writings despite the philosopher’s Nazi sympathies, Girson alters the German thinker’s spoken word to exclude his words, leaving an audio artifact of only breaths to accompany a one-second loop from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film of a bonfire, Triumph of the Will. The bonfire image is replicated in Allegory, Allegory, Part 1, 2014, twenty-four slick-black oil paintings (the same number of film frames per second). The black fire rages but illuminates nothing.
That several of the black paintings have already been defaced attests to their power. A funerary shroud, a silent library: The paintings are witness to an uncomfortable antinomy—that world conflict, Nazism, and genocide prompted the global diaspora of the Jewish intelligentsia (from Einstein to Freud) and birthed academic freedom, in which Girson participates. The artist seeks to locate and to transmit painterly enlightenment via vessels of history—namely, visual art.
Nothing plain is simple. This apparent paradox encapsulates some of the mercurial magic found in Nairy Baghramian’s first foray into the Midwestern United States. Curated by Susanne Ghez, the exhibition demonstrates Baghramian’s particular deftness with sculptural form and savvy in an engaging exhibition context.
Take the large low-lying sculpture French Curve (all works 2014), which occupies the Art Institute’s terrace. Opting not to battle with the Chicago skyline, the artist created a work that, from the initial approach, conjures up associations of a scooped-out corporality—linking the human body’s internal grossness to industrial manufacture. Viewed from another vantage point, it evokes a line of concrete barriers with a nod to Minimalist sculpture. If the piece is modest in it’s verticality, it remains elegant and spare. French Curve is made all the more striking for it’s odd use of color, a blanched yellow, which is dull and flaccid. This might be misconstrued as a shortcoming. Yet it is precisely this quality that causes the work to linger.
In a slightly jangling (and rather immediate) shift in context to the museum’s upscale restaurant is a series of seven sculptures titled Slip of the Tongue, which press up against their vitrines and appear as waxy, bandaged, and bruised limbs—not phantoms, but haunting. The odd is in the particular and the banal is often equated with generality; the two together in this exhibition are, for a lack of a better term, beautiful.
“Someday is Now” surveys the work of artist, teacher, and nun Corita Kent (1918–1986), emphasizing her both as prolific artist and inventive educator. Kent taught at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles from 1947 until ’68, and her Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, 1967, includes pedagogical edicts such as NOTHING IS A MISTAKE. THERE'S NO WIN AND NO FAIL. THERE'S ONLY MAKE. and THE ONLY RULE IS WORK. Beyond the classroom, Kent courted serious international interest during her lifetime, gracing the cover of Newsweek in 1967 and connecting with such figures as John Cage, who, along with Merce Cunningham, much admired and promoted her dictums.
This exhaustive survey brings together documentary ephemera as well as films such as We Have No Art, 1967, which shows Kent leading participatory Happenings. Kent embraced silkscreen serigraphic printing alongside Warhol, Rauschenberg, and others, a noteworthy example being The lord is with thee, 1952, depicts biblical figures in a blocky style of German Expressionism. By the mid-1960s, this content ceded to appropriative remixes of found text and graphic design, such as that they may have life, 1964, which mixes the palette, polka dots, and promises of Wonderbread (“enriched bread”) with a Gandhi quotation. Likewise in song about the greatness, 1964, the text of Psalm 98 is harmonized with the slogan MAKES MEATBAL SING. Part commodity critique, part secular humanist optimism, these cropped citations put pressure on the disembodied voice, using literature, religion, and advertising against each other to challenge their respective premises.
“Comic Future,” curated by Ballroom Marfa’s Fairfax Dorn, assembles drawings by Sigmar Polke and Walead Beshty, sculptures by Liz Craft, a video by Paul McCarthy, and paintings by Lari Pittman, among other works, to plumb the formal and conceptual plasticity of comics and cartoons within contemporary art. The works on view tease out the cartoon body, a ready-made form implicated as a sign of globalized capital and identity, and as such a tool for spirited social critique. In this context, it's not surprising that Walt Disney’s various characters abound along with superheroes and other robust characters gestured at in the work of Dana Schutz, Peter Saul, Aaron Curry, and Carroll Dunham.
One will notice the profile of Snow White’s dwarves in Arturo Herrera’s mesmerizing graphite drawing Untitled, 2001, and then see them reappear in Rapt, 2011, a layered collage of cut felt that enlarges and abstracts their familiar visages. From here, it is easy—even comfortable—to see the characters in Mike Kelley’s Untitled (Allegorical Drawing), 1976/2011, or in Schutz’s Feelings, 2003, as cousins of Dopey and Doc. Likewise, Kelley’s “City” sculptures and videos suggest not only depictions of Superman’s Kandor, as Kelley intended, but also another magical kingdom, where Erik Parker’s psychedelic vegetation and Sue Williams’s humanoid blobs might call home. As much as these works may withdraw into “comic abstraction,” they also speculate on and engage another world, a posthuman future evolving and devolving into forms not so different from our own.
Constantin Brancusi’s Kiss, 1907–1908, is the first work to greet visitors of German-Iranian artist Bettina Pousttchi’s solo exhibition “Drive Thru Museum.” To further the theme of the exhibition’s title, directional road signage has been applied to the floor, and the windows on both sides of the gallery have been appliquéd with a photographic pattern resembling scissor security gates. In addition, distinguished works from the Nasher’s permanent collection dot the exhibition space, including those by Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso and of course, John Chamberlain, in effect creating avenues to move through a variety of sculptural movements from art history. The artist also includes her Double Monument for Flavin and Tatlin, 2010. The monument twists everyday street barriers to resemble Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1919–20, while the fluorescent-light tubes act as both the spine of the monument and Dan Flavin’s own ode to Tatlin. With this work, Pousttchi gracefully adds herself to the historical conversation.
Pousttchi’s research led her to discover that the center’s location was previously a parking lot on a street that was nicknamed “Automobile Row” for its numerous flanking car dealerships and auto-body shops. Though her previous work has dealt with elements of surveillance and control, here her concerns regarding Americana led her to the drive-thru. The easy access and entertainment of the drive-thru is truly an American tradition, and Pousttchi utilizes this, aiming to create the first drive-thru museum. While the act of driving through the Nasher building is, unfortunately, quite impossible, Pousttchi makes attempts to create the automotive atmosphere.
Otis Jones and Bret Slater each make spare, nearly monochromatic paintings that are injected with basic shapes of opposing colors. Both artists toy with oddly shaped canvases and an elementary language of marks and forms. Nominally, their work seems primed to elicit a correspondence, which is the occasion for their latest exhibition together, but upon closer inspection Jones and Slater are making very different paintings.
Slater’s art tends toward the miniature and the raucous. He frequently slathers garish paint on tiny canvases with a comically crude irreverence, which sometimes succeeds with boldness but can also occasionally falter with a lack of nuance. Humboldt, 2013, is Slater’s most deftly crafted painting in this exhibition; its poured, creamy surface holds two irregular craters of milky-white circles that glow with a muffled seductive haze. This standout painting is buttressed by a restrained color choice, which serves to highlight the delicate patina of the painterly surface.
Jones, in turn, confidently and consistently embeds intricacies within his formal vocabulary. In all of his works, including Pink with 3 Circles, 2014, Jones creates constructed objects as much as painted flat surfaces. Each painting has rounded corners and includes stacked glued layers of plywood anchored behind the canvas. The artist casually and excessively staples the canvas to the wood frame, making each seemingly slapdash construction decision one of aesthetic import. The dots and lines in the elegantly spare Two Lines One Moved, 2014, resemble the iconic symbols of Tantric painting or the 1980s Atari video game Breakout. These references enliven Jones’s art and tether an associative richness to an already distinctive physical presence.
In “Yes Captain,” the surfaces of Genieve Figgis’s paintings resonate with fetishistic effect—they are charged with erotic force and replete with lascivious, decadent content. An implied narrative permeates these intimately scaled works. In the exhibition’s eponymous piece, a dominant figure seems to be in a Peter the Great–era costume: In a rich crimson velvet ruched coat, he is caught in flagrante delicto with a woman bent at the waist and daubed with fleshy pigments. The imperiousness of power is revealed in the quivering surfaces of these paintings, where faint wisps of color are like distortions at dusk, haunted by ambiguity. He is truncated, painted without a head, while she is corporally whole, yet in the submissive position. The fluid profile of the woman is slightly averted and echoed in the treatment of the paint, which is marbleized like endpapers in old books. Blots of paint create abstractions within the figuration, at one moment suggesting a garter on the woman’s slender thigh. Ultimately, it is the viewer who is conquered by Figgis; her amorphous intrigues and painterly surfaces of orgasmic indulgence entice one to look deeper into these mesmerizing works.
Other paintings expose more hesitant gestures and postures. The figures in People from the Village, 2014, look like the mentally ill subjects in Diane Arbus’s photographs; they appear as heavy bodies lurking in a landscape of color fields, in which lurid green from below and clean blue from above merge like indiscrete arrangements. A thick crest of hair from one figure drifts to blend with the swaths of color, while dense brushstrokes portray clutching hands. Populated by exquisite personalities that commingle in suggestive iterations, these paintings provoke thoughtful investigations into the dynamics of image production.
Chaotic frenzy might be the phrase that comes to mind when walking into Trenton Doyle Hancock’s twenty-year survey of his drawing practice. Loosely divided into five sections with more than two hundred individual works, this exhibition enjoys a deep foray into the mind of the artist, and even includes very early drawings by the ten-year-old Hancock of his alter ego character, Torpedoboy.
Almost every inch of the main gallery is covered with Hancock’s fantastical and often grotesque imagery. The main section, titled Moundish, includes drawings and collages associated with the artist’s recurring subject of a mythological world inhabited by the compassionate Mounds and the ill-hearted Vegans. In Family Portrait (Mound Half and Ape Half), 2003, for example, Hancock depicts the ancestry of his fictional characters, who were birthed by an ape-man masturbating in a field of flowers 50,000 years ago.
In the section titled the Studio Floor, ten drawings from 2002 are exhibited that mark the start of the cartoon and graphic narrative in Hancock’s work. Five panels present Torpedoboy battling the Vegans while the final five find him encountering a prostitute. In the second panel Studio Floor: Encounter with the Vegans 2, which is split into four sections, we witness Torpedoboy swiping all of the Vegans’ cubed tofu and heading toward a ladder back to street level, fooling the Vegans into thinking he would return the food. In the end, we are able to see an immense growth in the artist’s work, while not losing the spontaneous fun that comes with drawing in the margins of notebooks.
Commissioned by the museum, and conceived of as a tongue-in-cheek “collaboration” with the museum’s architect, Zaha Hadid, Mithu Sen’s playful but unsettling Border Unseen, 2014, opposes the brutally rigid and abstract geometry of Hadid’s building by tracing a soft, fleshy line in the space. Rising up gradually from the floor, the eighty-foot-long hanging sculpture consists of a narrow ridge made from carefully poured pink dental polymer that is topped with a seemingly unending row of false teeth, which are held in place by drips of gooey, hot glue, and sits atop a thin metal beam. In a quintessential feminist gesture, the abject interior of the human body is transfigured into both architecture and landscape.
Though the arrested fluidity of Sen’s materials recalls Lynda Benglis’s famous poured-latex sculptures from the 1970s, here the scale and effect is more intimate than sublime. The sculpture simultaneously evokes various body parts—spine, tongue, tail—in addition to an impossibly long and straight gingiva. Firmly anchored high on a far corner wall, it also resembles a parasitic worm more than it does a discrete external threat.
Interspersed among the fake teeth, which are occasionally arranged in circles or ellipses to possibly suggest vagina dentata, are other similarly sized objects: pointy shark teeth, tiny cartoon skulls, and miniature train set figurines. These details encourage close looking along the sculpture’s length and introduce the possibility of narrative. Transforming the materials used to build oral prostheses into a floating fantasy landscape, Sen’s sculpture manages to combine the sensibilities of two distinct periods of our lives—the young and the old—incorporating childlike play to take the edge off our impending mortality.
Each of the five works installed in the front room of Russell Maltz’s first solo exhibition in Miami is composed of stacked rectangular and square plywood plates suspended in the air by a single steel-post bracket. Their self-reflexive but coded titles refer to materials used and basic production details: “S. P.” in S. P./R#113 (all works 2013) is shorthand for “suspended”; “R” stands for red, the color of the acrylic, enamel, or Day-Glo paint applied to each plate; “#1,” the chronological order in which the work of the series was made in a year; and “13,” the year in which the work was completed.
At first glance, Maltz’s now-decade-long “S. P.” series could be mistaken for the sort of experimentation of color, shape, and size typically associated with Greenbergian formalism. However, the use of industrial polyurethane enamel paint, which has a glossy effect and thereby does not emphasis flatness but depth—as in S. P./BK #113—suggests an interest beyond pure form.
This is even more palpable in the gallery’s rear room, where yellow Day-Glo paint often used in construction is applied to the “S. P.” works. In this room are also loosely organized stacks of cement blocks on the floor, unpainted plywood plates leaning on walls, and aluminum beams standing upright in a corner. Interestingly, all three elements have been left off the exhibition checklist, and intentionally so. It is not that they are not deemed art; they are closer to being more like what Donald Judd referred to as “specific objects.” The exception, though, is that temporality rather than medium specificity is at stake: These raw materials could be incorporated into a future series, or perhaps were even once a part of one.
This survey of Miami-based Antonia Wright’s recent work includes a dozen videos; however, the body is the true medium she explores and pushes to the limit. For instance, Wright forces her own eye to register the sensation of touch in creating Lick of the Eye, 2012. The single-channel video is a close-up of her naked eye subjected first to blue eyedrops and then a brush applying wet yellow paint until her eye’s tissues turn green. As the title of another single-channel video Wet Tongue on the Dusty Floor, 2012, also underscores, the visual is deeply connected to the other senses—in that work’s case, taste.
Both these works uncannily recall Janine Antoni’s photograph of herself licking her husband’s eye, Mortar and Pestle, 1999. To be sure, there are compelling parallels between the two artists’ work, but Wright’s is preoccupied with sensation rather than gender per se. The latter is evident in the single-channel video Be, 2013, which invokes the titular word and its homonym. It depicts her practicing the graceful offensive and defensive positions of tai chi while covered by thousands of honeybees. Wright invokes a state somewhere between calmness and fear, passivity and aggression, and stillness and movement.
The two-channel video Are You Okay?, 2009, best exemplifies what might be the core concern of Wright’s works: empathy. The work shows her standing and weeping on the corner of busy urban intersections; most passersby ignore her but a few do stop to speak with her. Indeed, each of her works evokes strong bodily reactions—from pain and disgust to fear and even fearlessness—but in varying degrees what ties them together is that they all elicit in the viewer a concern for the other.
Polly Apfelbaum and Dan Cole’s exhibition carries on the legacy of its muse: a monumental expanse of colorful stripes by Gene Davis, painted on a parking lot next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A 1972 commission by the museum’s department of urban outreach, Davis’s Franklin’s Footpath established the spatialization of painting—or the painting of public space—as a Philadelphia tradition. (The Mural Arts Program was subsequently established in 1984 and, to date, Philadelphia boasts more murals than any city in the United States.)
In Apfelbaum’s tribute to Footpath, concrete cedes to carpet. Four custom-woven rugs produced in Oaxaca line the floor with luxurious woolen stripes. Although two yellow lines running down the center of the room directly reference a city street, the carpet is invitingly soft. (Shoes must be removed before entering.) Apfelbaum’s work has often teased viewers’ desire to touch, but this piece gives us permission. Thus, what began in 1990 with Carpet of Color, a rug cobbled together with felt and safety pins, has culminated here in the embrace of virtuoso craftsmanship over the DIY aesthetic of her earlier works. The flat sheen of the digitally printed wallpaper which covers Apfelbaum’s gallery serves to reinforce the point.
While walls and floors are familiar territory for Apfelbaum, the combination of out-sourcing, direct audience engagement, and collaboration is rarer. Her partnership with Cole, a recent Tyler grad, is the product of a mentoring program at the school. Cole’s work offers a winking nod to the intergenerational pairing. In his gallery, an animated scene from Harold and Maude (1971) plays over an expanse of military gravestones juxtaposed with stripes that subtly shift colors over the course of the looped projection. Cole’s arch social commentary pairs well with Apfelbaum’s exuberant forms. Together, they give us Gene Davis of a different stripe.
At a time when the video loop is still a convention in moving-image presentation, it’s refreshing to see Philadelphia-based duo Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib demand more of it than sheer utility. Their six new video works pair masterfully written voice-overs with digital and documentary footage for an exploration of the loop as both time-saver and time traveler.
The Continuous Moment Part 1, 2014, imagines a dystopia in which the proposal for a “continuous monument” by a 1960s radical Italian architectural collective has been realized on a global scale. The result is disastrous: Corporate-style glass walls stretch around the world, perverting a critical idea into a hegemonic structure. An adjacent video, Routine Maintenance, 2014, shows a lone window-washer cleaning the monument’s mirrored surface. Thanks to the internal mechanism of the video loop, he toils under the sun of a workday that is only ever just getting started.
Circulating in a different direction, the loop in Exploded View, 2014, revisits the past. The multichannel projection emits a revolving hunk of pyrite glittering in an otherwise darkened room. A man’s voice reads a letter. He raves about speculation, a forest, minerals. Outside the room, a 16-mm projector plays an HD loop of the digitally composited rock. The rock, in its grainy transfer, has now been contextualized in an ancient forest similar to the one the narrator describes. Here, as elsewhere in the exhibition, the virtual is anchored to the political, historical, and material real—but never too firmly.
Leave it to Kara Walker to fuse early-1990s hip-hop with the early-twentieth-century avant-garde in her most recent curatorial effort, “Ruffneck Constructivists.” Walker’s title references the song “Ruffneck” by protofeminist rapper MC Lyte, which affirms the rakish street fixture as one who “goes hard,” unafraid to take action, upending societal strictures in the process. Simultaneously, Walker invokes the Russian Constructivists, suggesting revisions to their modernist legacy. Reimagining the idealism of utilitarian form as social ideology, “Ruffneck Constructivists” recuperates a vitality that too often slips into the crack between modernist transcendence and urban redevelopment. Without explicitly engaging a political agenda, the show articulates a realm of architecture’s intersection with urbanism that is at once radically new and very, very old: the formation of spaces that both repress and are defined by blackness. Aptly exemplified by Kendell Geers’s freestanding sculpture Stripped Bare, 2009—a window delicately cracked by the traces of bullets—the works’ undermining of architecture’s pretensions to stability and security defy the exploitative realities of late-capitalist surveillance, spectacle, and consumption.
Probing the abject forces behind the quantification of personhood, in Claim, 2014, William Pope.L pins 688 fragrant slices of bologna to a wall. Onto each slice is pasted an image of a randomly photographed resident of Philadelphia, and they all together represent 1 percent of the city’s Jewish population. Equally poetic in its mining of material affect, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s art stages fluttering detritus, tiny film projections, and mirrors as a self-reflexive web of remembrance and posterity. While these installations imply the traces of lived presence, Kahlil Joseph’s videos, already beloved by many hip-hop enthusiasts, present urban life as a dreamy entropy, picturing city dwellers as the architects of their own fate. Similarly, Deana Lawson’s Untitled Snapshots, 2013, capture a woman posing with her incarcerated boyfriend and her familytheir varying arrangements, clothing, and hairstyles evidencing the passing of time. Lawson taps a spirited refusal of futile social tautologies—one paralleled in the exhibition’s own insistence on troubling who shapes and authorizes urban environments.
Portland-based animator and performer Laura Heit’s solo debut is a deceptively charming and cinematic menagerie in which drawn and shadow-formed images of catastrophe, death, and rebirth are cast adrift throughout a darkened space. The unpretentious mechanism at the heart of this specter is a group of revolving platforms that support paper dioramas depicting natural disasters as well as a projector that throws animated drawings amid the shadows. The animation refracts through a grove of freestanding clear-glass shapes.
Starkly lit by little spotlights, the natural disasters depicted in each model drift and intermingle around the room: Floods, blizzards, and mudslides tangle in a whimsical dream made all the more ominous by their varying scale and focal depth. Their transformation from object to image speaks to platonic illusionism and puppetry, and evokes the experimental nostalgia of early film technologies. The overlaid animation runs in a five-minute cycle, beginning with a conflagration, out of which skulls and floating heads emerge that transform into body parts and strange hybrid creatures, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s anatomical abominations in The Garden of Earthly Delights. The animation ends where it began—in flames. Heit has studied Dante’s cartography of the underworld and medieval maps of hell, and has crafted her own eerily playful vision of calamity and renewal. One can image Heit’s floating world on a far larger scale, as the stage set for an opera or a dance performancebut her masterful drawings seem most significant as the alacrity of Heit’s line softens the chaos and unpredictability that she depicts.
Ethical metalworking, sustainability, and recycled detritus figure prominently in Richmond-based Susie Ganch’s two-part exhibition. “Susie Ganch: Tied” offers independent work while the Radical Jewelry Makeover project, founded by Ganch in 2007 as an outreach program of the nonprofit Ethical Metalsmiths, presents a collaborative endeavor that repurposes unwanted jewelry.
Although separate practices, both allow Ganch to highlight the discarded and unwanted, ranging from everyday things to gold and diamonds. For her own work, she achieves this by magnifying scale through accumulation and using impeccable precision to elevate waste into aesthetic objects. Drag, 2013, for example, is a dialogue of found materials: plastic cups and hair barrettes to faux feathers and glass beads. As a series of gradually expanding, interconnected links, the deceptively elegant pile of garbage hooks into the wall, thereby creating an indelible tension between growth and restriction. Pile: Starbucks on Robinson, April–December 2012, 2013, a sea of undulating white Starbucks tops arranged to mimic a three-dimensional hanging tapestry, and Bale, 2014, a stockpile of white garbage rolled up to resemble a life-size hay bale, use similar materials but abandon metalworking techniques for sculptural installation.
With these works, Ganch undermines the viewer’s reaction; this is not just well-composed garbage. Rather, she reframes the three-dimensional objects with photographs or suggestive titles, directly alluding to questions about consumerism, ethical standards of global retailers, and mass production. Bale reappears in a Photoshopped print, with one white garbage bale after another dotting a nondescript pastoral landscape. Drag, both sculpture and bracelet, stymies the wearer when it becomes a weighted chain. In each installation, Ganch places implication equally on buyer and producer as the innumerable individual parts are held together to form a gestalt. Ultimately, Ganch—the artist and the activist—is most successful when she straddles the in-between spaces, changing our perception of the permissible and polemically probing our assumptions.
Beatrice Wood is best known for her lusterware pottery, so this exhibition of nearly fifty works on paper, made over the course of a staggering eighty-seven years, is surprising and also gratifying. Despite drawing on styles that veer from commercial illustration to delicate abstraction and Cubist figuration, Wood’s distinct visual stamp and sensibility persist through changing influences and decades. The drawings have the combined openness and intimacy of a daily diary, revealing the wit and humor, pathos and joie de vivre for which Wood’s so well known. For example, works from “Touching Certain Things,” 1932–33, depict sexually tinged interactions between women with a directness and sweetness that remains, despite a quaint illustrative style, radical for our times. Though less overtly sexual than the other works in that series, . . . how lucky men are!, 1932, suggests closeness and comfort between the two women depicted, here propped in bed on fluffy pillows and clad in filmy negligee, leaning in towards each other.
A number of drawings explore dream and emotional states through abstract figuration. The outlined figures in Meeting of four women who hated each other, 1983, sway to and fro as if in a dance, surrounded and connected by a rush of red lines. Organic shapes in shades of pink make up the fleshy bodies that encircle the woman in black at the center of Nun’s Dream, 1996. Amid the drama and caricature, narrative and humor, several figurations of a more minimal bent provide quiet moments, including Untitled (intertwined legs), 1977, in which a thigh, pointed toe, and rounded rear hover gracefully in the center of a page torn from a sketch pad.
In their installation Sparrow Come Back Home, 2014, Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris investigate processes of recollection. The British duo accomplishes this through translations of Trinidadian calypso singer-songwriter Mighty Sparrow’s album covers into digital ceramic decals fired onto 270 twelve-by-twelve-inch tiles. At a time when artists are showing a renewed interest in performing as archivists, Buckley and Harris distinguish themselves not only by presenting evidence of their research but also through their craft of ceramic simulations. Sparrow is not solely a send up to one of calypso’s suave and earnest agitators; it also considers the means by which cultural materials become historicized.
Lined up along shelves that wrap around the gallery space, these memorabilia-like objects are grouped into an impressive monument. Scanning from cover to cover, one notices shifts in designs when independently released records have been reissued by globally reaching labels like RCA. Working with scales both intimately personal and enormously institutional, the installation takes a form that recalls Mighty Sparrow’s lyrical blends of personal experiences with frank accounts of larger issues of political injustice expressed through the adopted tongue of Trinidad’s English colonizers.
The effects of colonialism and diaspora in the West Indies have been traced in the circulation of calypso to audiences beyond their local communities. The music itself, while lively and danceable, has served as a platform to voice complaints about local government, the particulars of which are perhaps opaque and hermetic when heard outside Trinidad. This tension is well served in the silence of the Sparrow installation, where the sounds of the music under consideration are displaced, putting the onus on the viewers to seek out Mighty Sparrow’s music for themselves.
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is not so much a book to be read as it is to be experienced. This is a key thought to hold on to when viewing Spanish artist Dora Garcia’s The Joycean Society, 2013, one of three large-scale video projections with accompanying sculptural elements gathered by curator Chantal Pontbriand for the exhibition “Of Crimes and Dreams.” Shot in a documentary style, the film hovers around members of a reading group in Zurich as they decode a single page in Joyce’s masterpiece. As the complex, ciphered text is unpacked word by word, spontaneous tangents emerge across literary cues and personal anecdotes. It’s a durational performance of sorts (keeping in mind that it takes the group eleven years to work through the entire book), and the longer one watches the more it becomes clear that, for Garcia, the essential value of language, no matter how irrational or obscure, is the parallel social dynamic that it reveals.
Similarly, for her video Désordre, 2013, Garcia invited residents at a French psychiatric hospital to read Finnegans Wake as well as Félix Guattari’s Soixante-cinq rêves de Franz Kafka (Sixty-Five Dreams of Franz Kafka) (2007), this time prompting a free-association discussion on daydreaming, anxiety, and betrayal. There is a candid synergy to this group of marginalized “others,” and the results are pointedly lucid: “I think it’s important to dream because it’s proof of life,” says one patient. It all comes together in a pair of large chalkboards from Garcia’s ongoing series “Mad Marginal Charts,” 2009–. Here, Garcia has devised a kind of spiraling linguistic calculus based on research on Joyce, Freud, Lacan, and Antonin Artaud to anti-psychiatry and deinstitutionalization. Impenetrable at a glance, this mapping of abstract symbols and equations demands complete absorption, in time opening a coded gateway that at once confounds and creates meaning beyond the conscious limits of language and society.
Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero’s solo exhibition “Letters and Volumes” is a refreshingly light read on the subject of painting—a light read that is, however, not devoid of a solid measure of complexity. For the artist’s first show at this gallery, he has occupied both levels of the space—the main gallery and the basement below. The space above features five of the large-scale abstractions the artist is known for alongside a selection of basic wood and concrete sculptures, which the artist sees more as supports. These include a miniature Ping-Pong table, a concrete floor-bound plane, and a U-shaped table whose surface has been partially animated with strips of blue and green paint.
The paintings themselves, particularly Amansalva and Zipacná, both 2014, are characterized by a predominance of flat, uninflected integers of bright, luminescent color, which stack up and accrue, like so many uneven shingles, with the daydreamy logic of a baroque doodle. Despite all the crowded activity, which seems more analogous to unchecked urban growth than anything pastoral, the dominance of blues and greens renders the works more evocative of a rural setting. They could be improbable cartoon landscapes seen from a plane window.
Contrary to the antic mood here, the atmosphere in the basement is more serene and seductive. The artist has bathed the entire floor and the base of the walls with a sky-blue paint. Leaning along the walls are smaller, sparer works made out of linoleum and canvas on stretchers. Untitled, 2009–2014, full of smudges and splotches, was fashioned out of Herrero’s studio floor, while Letras y numerous (Letters and Numbers), 2014, is the result of an attempt to approximate the accidents of the former. But it is the blue floor that most thoroughly enchants, gently hammering home Herrero’s project: An earnest if rigorously playful investigation of support, asking and cheerfully problematizing where, not to mention how, painting begins and ends.
Made of sensitive materials such as tape, cardboard, and clay, the majority of the work in Theo Michael’s latest solo exhibition, “Reptile Dialectics,” will not survive for posterity. However, this extinction allows for opportunities unique to their condition as well as allows the artist to produce a body of work simply for creation's sake.
The exhibition is divided into two distinct galleries. In the first, a multitude of smaller sculptures sit on short pedestals made of Styrofoam, and are complemented by graphite drawings, paintings, and hanging sculptures—most of which have been defaced by the artist—that line the walls of the space. The painting Relax, It’s Just an Artwork, 2014, for example, is scribbled with statements such as WHY HAVE AN OPINION and THERE WAS NO BUDGET. In the drawing Too Much Career Strategy and Now You Look Like This, 2013, four crudely drawn figures in blue ink float in a meticulously drawn graphite ocean, with penned speech bubbles filling the sky above their heads. The dialogue includes an indulgent theoretical art discussion in which each figure insults the opinions of the others and together they go as far as to insult the artist himself for defacing the perfectly rendered drawing with their forms and quarrels.
In the second space, ceremonial masks made of other perishable found objects, such as water bottles, are clustered high up on tall wooden stilts, which are situated atop a gargantuan pedestal that fills the entire space. Titled Fuck You I’m Civilized, 2013–14, the piece is playful and whimsical in appearance: The masks exhibit wandering eyes, pouty lips, and short chins, and make no visual reference to a specific culture but appear to be fabrications of the artist’s own made-up references. Coupled with their fleeting, existential nature, the masks, as well as Michael’s drawings and paintings, serve as lighthearted justifications in a world that takes itself too seriously.