Anthony Discenza’s meta-exhibition takes up the literary trope of framing devices and translates it into a problem of material information. The conceit of the show is an artist named Anthony Discenza attempting to curate an exhibition based on an unrealized exhibition by another artist with the same name. To add an additional layer of complexity and uncanniness, the unrealized exhibition was, according to the catalogue essay, based on a novel called The Disappointments that does not in fact exist.
The works in the show are suggestive of the documentation of an artistic practice as it stalls out—either being literally blocked, as in Floor Study: Impedance, a floor installation of wheel chocks used to prevent movement, or remaining hypothetical, as in the vinyl wall text Materials List for an Unrealized Artwork No 2, both 2015. The convoluted heft of the exhibition concept, in contrast with the ontological flimsiness of the actual work, generates surprising pathos around the real and the fictional Anthony Discenza, who seem to be drowning under its weight.
What pushes this show beyond an exploration of fictional identity is the way that the artist grafts these motifs onto his long-standing interest in the flow of information. Here, the focus is on its decay and degradation, literalized in the form of fading found posters of lost cats, as in the 2015 “Lost Cats” series and washed-out ink-jet prints in Composition 010, 2016. Even the exhibition catalogue is printed on newsprint, a dissipating medium that makes the disappearance of the artist’s half-realized ideas seem like a foregone conclusion.
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s plastic tapestries bring to light one of the paradoxes of environmental intervention: creating a new problem while attempting to fix an old one. To address the drought in Clottey’s native Ghana in the early 2000s, then-president John Kufuor had water dispersed across the country in brightly colored jugs that came to be known as Kufuor gallons. Since discarded, thousands of these plastic containers now pollute the Ghanaian landscape and serve as the artist’s primary sculptural material. After cutting the jugs into rectangles and arranging the pieces into a kind of patchwork quilt threaded with wire, the artist draws on Ghanaian folk aesthetics for his compositions—floating simple white, red, and blue shapes in a mostly yellow field. With ten of these works on view here, their similarities are broken up only by marks in paint or ink on the surface of some. In American Lottery, 2015, scrawled phrases such as “We Trust” and “Yes We Can” provide a social dimension to these mostly abstract works. Simultaneously optimistic, and ironic, with these words, Clottey underscores the complicated symbiotic relationship between people and their environment.
The artist amplifies this political message with works from his series “Common Man,” 2014–16. For these, he has taken the tops from the plastic containers and mounted them on supports made from traditional Ghanaian textiles. With the handle of each flask now resembling a nose and the spout a mouth, the objects read as portraits, or African masks. Some of the mouths are distorted, gaping holes that, when paired with a lack of eyes and the roughed up surface of the plastic, convey anguish and suffering. In this way, these works become totems of both salvation and devastation.
Approach and peer down into an abyss. Wreathed in matte white—a tech-world fetish color—the parapet begs to be bent over. Do so and dive into an aerial view of eighteen chambers, neatly parceled into three rows of six. Each chamber contains a rectangular couch oriented toward a large window—or is it a screen?
This compressed, airless cosmos is Samara Golden’s A Trap in Soft Division, 2016. For her largest installation to date, the artist showcases the antiseptic, adolescent bravado of minimalist lifestyle porn. The first row of rooms is punctuated by blouses shrugged off, laptops abandoned, and red cups knocked over; the third adds frilly curtains, laundry baskets, and a stray blue afghan. Nestled in the middle of the lineup are scenes distinctly more saturated—faux stained glass made of lighting gels and black caulk, Tiffany lamps, more afghans, more cups, more stuff. Though familiar, their occupancy here is that of invaders in an inhospitable land. Likewise, this center aisle is overgrown with houseplants, mostly Epipremnum aureum, also known as devil’s ivy. Something sinister is indeed afoot: That cavernous maw is not an orifice, but a mirror; the rooms are not below, but above and upside down; those windows are not even screens, but skylights, flushing the gallery with rosy light, then edging it in blue.
Golden’s notion of a “sixth dimension,” in which past, present, and future inhabit the same space, can perhaps be likened to the archives of a digital backup. Yet what she captures best is the desperation for those files, the sense that the bits of life they contain are constantly under threat. To protect them, from a fire for instance, one protocol is Halon suppression, an extinguishing agent that leaves no residue. The result is a room with the oxygen sucked out.
Alex Chitty, The Sun-Drenched Neutral That Goes with Everything (Unit 1), 2015–16, powder-coated steel, blackened steel, walnut, oak, mahogany, glass, bronze, Marine worm shells, DuraCal, brass, paper towel roll, lucite frame, photograph, porcelain, glassware, twine, cotton ribbon, 80 x 49 1/2 x 31 1/2".
As the term “intelligent design” already has a use, we should appropriate it for art. It could describe the way artists assign consciousness to designed objects and the way consumers implant personae into mass-produced items. Alex Chitty’s still-life sculptures are sprinkled with this kind of metaphysical power, animating ceramic jugs, mugs, tools, trinkets, and other artifacts. Common and rare, old and new, and natural and faux objects are mounted on shelving in Chitty’s museum of material history—domestically scaled but conceptually aiming to tickle the fourth dimension.
Six modular sculptures were born out of one, the mother object, titled The Sun-Drenched Neutral That Goes with Everything (Unit 1), 2015–16, which gives shape, proportion, and suggested function to a set of furniture—their compositions accumulate into clever riddles. It is initially unclear what is handmade and what was found in the desert, but the question—and the visual quest—is part of the installation’s charm. It turns out the metal shelves were welded by the artist, who carved their walnut and oak drawers in a mimicry of high-end furniture and cast in concrete, brass, and bronze the flower stamens and coral. The material reversals have a kind of delightful irony sans cynicism. Some broken things, like a mug’s handle, are repaired while others, such as a splintered wood skateboard in The Sun-Drenched Neutral That Goes with Everything (Unit 6), 2016, are displayed like souvenirs. These curated displays weave a modern folklore about why certain objects come into our lives and how we preserve them with stories.
The furniture and knickknacks here reference lifestyle catalogues, where things insist they have a role in your life, re-coded by Chitty in an algorithm of intention and taste we might call intelligent design.
A showcase of twenty-five intensive studio-based practices, “Present Standard” casts welcome light on a core of Latin American and Latinx artists who have coalesced in Chicago over the past decade or so. Curators Edra Soto and Josué Pellot invoke the perennial question of identity—embodied by the normalizing measure of a “standard”—as a double-edged sword: a wellspring of distinctive content that risks becoming an essentializing, market-friendly limitation.
Expanded abstraction predominates, thanks in part to Cándida Alvarez and José Lerma, local professors and polar opposite in their approaches. Alvarez’s camouflage-like painting A Man Waved, 2004, conceals a newspaper photograph of the Iraq War, while Lerma flies a giant private-school shirt from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, as a middle-class flag. Younger artists follow their lead: Melissa Leandro’s heat-fused industrial found materials produce dazzlingly patterned wall-based works, while Diana Gabriel’s Flecos, 2015, refigures Jesús Rafael Soto’s series “Penetrable,” 1969–2014, as a cubic quipu. The exceptions to this common ground address politics more directly: Ivan Lozano tapes strips of texts and photographs documenting Guadalajara’s drug violence in a circular form on a clear vinyl sheet stretched taut by copper wire for Narcomantas (Hanged Men II), 2015; Alejandro Figueredo Díaz-Perera’s bobbing microphone repeatedly bangs into a wall, referencing surveillance in contemporary Cuba; and Sofía Moreno, a mainstay of the city’s trans scene, is represented by Untitled I & II, both 2006, mixed-media works on paper that are equally viscerally damaged and strangely delicate.
On display concurrently at the venue is Pablo Helguera’s Librería Donceles (Donceles Bookstore), 2013, a Spanish-language bookstore perfectly illustrating what is missing in “Present Standard”: social practice’s reliance on communities. In its place is something like an inward turn, for which Latin America’s now canonical abstraction gets worked and reworked in perpetuity.
The conventions of mapping that organize Courttney Cooper’s immense ink drawings of Cincinnati, Ohio, provide a structure for his more cognitive cartographies. An array of landmarks punctuate dark congestions of scribbled grids and city blocks on collaged sheets of paper portraying the psychology of these spaces where the mood contradicts revelry with riot. These works—which mostly span the past decade—depict a city, perhaps an alternate reality called “Zinzinnati,” per the exhibition’s title, that is perpetually in celebration, evinced by the balloons and banners decorating some of the maps for the city’s Germanic Oktoberfest.
But the party above belies the social tensions below: Gradually, one notices scrawled writing layered underneath Cooper’s landscapes, the text erupting in the blank passages of the streets. In one drawing from 2015 (all works are untitled), visitors see the phrase “The bitch, you fucking bitch” echo across a neighborhood, and in another, the capitalized word police drifts at the horizon line between an amusement park and a street festival. The metropolis is portrayed in a more modestly scaled 2007 drawing with agitated districts extending in all directions from three prominent buildings labeled “Hamilton County Court House,” “Hamilton County,” and “Justice Center” across their broad rooftops.
Given Cincinnati’s history of police violence toward black men—the shooting of unarmed nineteen-year-old Timothy Thomas provoked riots in 2001, and in 2015, unarmed Samuel DuBose was shot dead during a routine traffic stop, to name a few—Cooper’s maps uneasily juxtapose the city’s jubilation and social unrest simultaneously. Each street conjured here questions and fantasizes how men of color like him can survive and thrive in these public, urban spaces.
It’s daring that this venerable arts nonprofit—which came under new leadership at the beginning of the year, announced deficits and staff layoffs, then moved out of its premises of over a decade—would resume programming with Lise Haller Baggesen’s dystopian exhibition “HATORADE RETROGRADE.” As if the world had fallen apart but the party persisted, this moody boutique peddles a survivalist feminism that cuts across styles, layering glam with grunge, pop with punk. A cast of characters represented as dress forms donned in recycled fashions caked in glitter glue plays host to a set of sound tracks that Baggesen commissioned from a community of women artists, curators, and activists. For EUROMANCER (all works cited 2016), a glittery black-attired figure befitting a Kim Gordon installation is voiced by curator Allison Glenn—her speech echoes like propaganda issuing from speakers in The Hunger Games as she theorizes problems of history, time, and colonization. Ranging from melodic funk jams to monologues addressing reproductive rights, the audio for the nine other works emerges from the gathering darkness of our current political discourse.
While the show begins with MS. PEACE IN THE US 2033, a red-white-and-blue-clad, pregnant beauty queen, that palette with its accompanying weight is gradually blended into a rich and troublesome purple-black—wherein not only lurid parodies of a fully capitalized and bankrupt future churn, but also the recuperative potential of a matriarchal revision of art history’s canon. Baggesen’s heroines also look upon a salon of ravishing paintings that remix Sonia Delaunay’s curvaceous geometries into velvet piecework and shimmering impasto, becoming manifestos for restyling our roles within corrupt systems of power.
Whether or not the sixteen artists known as the “Monster Roster” liked their moniker is ultimately not up to them, given that this first serious survey of their work canonizes their collective mood into a movement. The name is fitting, as corpses, golems, and ghouls abound, along with dismembered arms, legs, and faces of scraped paint that resemble melting skin. Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, H. C. Westermann, and June Leaf are the most well-known of this Chicago-bred cohort, but some of its best artists were isolated by their decision to live and work outside of New York. They include Theodore Halkin, Evelyn Statsinger, Seymour Rosofsky, and George Cohen, whose paintings are visual revelations that speak with familiarity to today’s concerns of speed and doubt. Fans of Jean Dubuffet, Cobra, and German Expressionism will no doubt immediately understand the importance of these artists in the 1950s era.
There may be thirty scarred faces and half as many clay-charred bodies in this exhibition. If this is an army of cadavers, then its state flag is Cohen’s 1954 painting Emblem for an Unknown Nation, a collage of unidentified limbs. Although the show taps the trauma of WWII as an artistic wellspring, the “Monster Roster”—which never had a meeting or a manifesto and was named by the critic and artist Franz Schulze, who is also included here—is more indebted to frequent visits to sketch at the Field Museum’s collection of ethnographic arts. Whether borne out of the Midwestern Gothic myth or on the cusp of Postmodernism, this group forged a singular dirge from sixteen distinct voices.
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.
“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.
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.
In Xavier Cha’s film abduct, 2015, the footage follows, frames, and cuts together close-ups of actors performing an unsentimental, discordant series of engrossing gestures and facial expressions. Seven slick-muscled virtuosos in stylish white underwear and undershirts appear interchangeably one at a time in front of the kind of plastic curtain used in places such as slaughterhouses to modulate temperature or block noxious sprays. Heavy static and intermittent droning vibrations fill the room. The actors perform apparently purposeless but ultimately unnerving wide-eyed stares. They’re like aliens practicing facial calisthenics. They spurt exhalations, body wriggles, and unsatisfying sighs. One delivers a silent insult; another receives a phantom slap then curls her tongue. Eyebrows beckon or leer. Confrontation melts into surprise come-ons. A raptor-like chomp is followed by brief and unpredictable shifts between acute expressions of wonder, anger, nausea, horror, and quick-feigned bliss. Watching abduct is like watching the faces of actors during all of the climaxes from Hitchcock’s filmography back to back and without the aid of pacing, plot, dialogue, character, or romance. It’s terrifying.
Perhaps because of its effect—the performers are intense but lack personality or purpose—abduct, when first viewed, might seem to spur its audience to sermonize about the loss of humanity in the digital age. Yet the productive shock delivered by Cha’s film is, in large part, due to its ability to resist moralizing. Instead, the point of view of the film might be summed up like this: The aliens are here. They might destroy us and our way of life. So what?
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.
Amplification, absorption, reverberation, tone, displacement, diffusion—any encounter with the work of Jennie C. Jones demands that a viewer repeatedly wrestle with transmutation, the vocabulary from the science of sound doing double duty in the service of ekphrasis. And the rabbit hole goes deeper, as those keywords also describe the dynamics of social change and race. Indeed, Jones encourages such readings with her punning titles, Solo, Vertical, into Crescendo (Light), 2013, or Score for Sustained Blackness Set 2, 2014. Such is the sparkling noise of the artist’s first mid-career survey, as curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver.
For all the sound, and talk about sound, though, it’s a quiet show—a concerted, almost hermetic succession of series and suites. Jones’s ongoing 2011 series “Acoustic Paintings,” constructed with acoustic paneling, are well represented. Much is gained in viewing the artist’s conceptually ambitious works in the context of a broad retrospective, as their sum total deftly knits together an array of sometimes convergent, but more often divergent, social histories of avant-garde musical and visual traditions. Like the fabric used for pop filters and speaker grills, Jones’s works sieve out particularly resonant sounds and materials. The effect is often a shimmy shake between critique and adoration. For example, the staccato scatting of Ella Fitzgerald is stretched to a high tone and capped with an almost campy canned sound of breaking glass in the audio collage Ella, Scat, Shatter (Short Version), 2008. It references an almost certainly campy 1972 commercial for Memorex audio cassette tapes, wherein Fitzgerald hits a glass-shattering note at the end. Add fidelity to that list of words. Also: rarefaction (or what an artist does for a payday).
Shatter the glass again, Ella; play me out, Jennie.
Made while Edgar Leciejewski was in residence at Fogo Island Arts in Newfoundland, Canada, the work on display in his exhibition “distant past / distant future” is cerebral in approaching sublimity. Of course, landscape is the overdetermined genre through which discussions of the sublime are usually circulated, but Leciejewski offers some novel escape hatches that don’t sacrifice topography’s potential for abstraction.
Most of the pieces here are from a single series called “Rough Form,” 2014, in which black-and-white, matte photographs are concentrically collaged on top of glossy color photographs. Photocollage is nothing new, and artists who have historically made such work have tended to stress that photographs are not so much taken as made. Still, in Leciejewski’s hands, the effect is dizzying, especially when lichen-covered rocks in the color photographs sometimes dip into the black and white, confusing the boundaries between the constituent prints. Rough Form #09, 2014 (Everyday struggles in the downstairs department), for example, reorients the colored landscape of an underlying print a full 180 degrees, while the black-and-white print on top retains its original orientation. Place and formal photographic choices fold in on each other; the sky running along the bottom edge is thrown off its chromatic axis and appears silvery due to its proximity to the black-and-white image, instead of the bright blue that, in fact, it is.
Horizon two lines, 2015, and A Scene in a Library, 2013–15, provide the only deviations from the series. In the former, color photographs of sun-dimmed horizons—each housed in an impossibly perfect custom frame—are tipped on their sides so as to appear as digital color gradients, until one notices a lone contrail, its shape easily mistaken for a terrible tear in the photograph. In a sense, perhaps it is.
For her debut solo exhibition in the US, Andrea Büttner presents works—be it video, philosophy book illustrations, growing moss, prints, or a fabric-based installation—that highlight her willingness to follow an idea to whatever medium it needs to take. Large walls mostly covered in vibrant blue cotton fabric—typically used for British service workers’ uniforms—radiate in the gallery, providing a richness that contrasts with the cold white of the rest of the space. Indeed, Büttner’s work can feel as if it is all about contrasts and opposing ends: The lofty philosophical concerns taken up in eleven large panels of images that illustrate Kant’s 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment are counterbalanced here by two large woodcuts of a huddled panhandler in Beggar, 2015, with his hands reaching down, demonstrating the lowly vow of Franciscan servitude.
Büttner’s art, in fact, occurs between two extremes—through tension, certainly, but also through meandering in the poetic space of contemplation that is left open between the edges of high and low. In the video installation Piano Destructions, 2014, watching and listening to nine women play grand pianos, projected on one wall, while mostly male avant-garde performers violently bash the instruments with axes and sledgehammers on four screens on an adjacent wall feels brutally gendered and unjust. Though the piece was commissioned by the Walter Phillips Gallery and Banff Centre in Canada, this exhibition adds another layer of profound dissonance, as every male artist—from George Maciunas to Nam June Paik—in the destruction performances has work in the Walker’s permanent collection. The stellar departure in this show is Büttner’s series “Phone Etchings,” 2015, wherein the intimate brush of a fingertip on her phone in search of something is recorded, enlarged, and etched to become expansive gestural strokes in search of expression.
Andrzej Zieliński’s totemic paintings and sculptures mostly elide the pitfalls of a slew of recent work glorifying the kitsch vestiges of tech’s recent past, and instead imbue their subjects with a psychic (and literal) weight. In “Open Sourced,” two galleries—one with paintings depicting Mars rovers and the other filled with (earlier) canvases of technological devices just past their moment of ubiquity and soon to be scrapped, such as paper shredders, scanners, early aughts laptops—accompany a standout array of sculptures. Loosely modeled after desktops, Razr phones, and boxy keyboards, the sculptures display a subtler virtuosity than the artist’s effervescently facile paintings; the three-dimensional forms are seemingly haphazardly formed but in fact meticulously crafted from hewn rock, cast and welded bronze, sculpted marble, alabaster, and a variety of specialty woods. (While the paintings will be taken down on January 17, Zielinski’s sculptures are on view through March 20.)
As objects’ windows of utility grow ever narrower amid constant updates and overhauls, a gray zone has emerged for apparatuses that are still kind of useful—the Blackberries, dongles, and mice no longer in daily rotation, which fill our bottom drawers and closets until we toss them in a burst of KonMari purging. For the moment they linger, subsumed in what Walter Benjamin described as the utopian glow afforded to technological devices in their final hours, freed from the constraints of commodity value—at leisure and ready to have their portraits taken.
Jennifer Levonian’s short, surreal cut-paper animation Xylophone, 2015, muses on the everyday clichés and complexities of gender, gentrification, and creative living in transitional urban spaces. Wryly referencing Philadelphia’s rapidly changing neighborhoods and rendered in swift, fluid watercolor marks, Levonian’s leafy farmers’ markets, tastefully rehabbed row homes, and yoga-studio lofts adorned with “Breathe in love, breathe out peace” posters glow—uncomfortably brightly, perhaps—alongside shuttered payday-loan places on derelict blocks. Seemingly trapped within this environment, a sleep-deprived, voluptuously pregnant quilter stitches swatches of fabric, exercises awkwardly with other moms, and entertains a rambunctious daughter—whose antics eventually lead her and her mother to climb atop a street-corner billboard platform where, wind coursing through their hair, they escape into a kind of psychic freedom. Three quilts by Levonian, hung directly outside Xylophone’s screening room, echo both her protagonist’s practice and mental state, as well as the repetitive labor of animation. One, Jewelry Box, 2016, features a grid of linear drawings of exaggeratedly confused and despairing faces surrounded by cursive phrases that indicate either disappointment or frantic explanation, such as “I’m not mad . . . it’s just that . . .”
The textiles share gallery space with a second solo presentation of Sarah Gamble’s densely layered mixed-media paintings. These semiabstract works also foreground powerful mental and emotional states, but they do so by evoking murky inner worlds. Central to Untitled, 2015, a small, square work, is a rough, black oval whose thick, matte paint stands in relief against the canvas over a starburst of muddy pinks, oranges, and yellows. Many other works, such as Grief House, 2016, feature multiple pairs of eyes integrated into their backgrounds. Like Levonian’s faces, they appear to watch the viewer watching them, provoking thorny self-reflection.
In the essay accompanying this exhibition, curator Kelsey Halliday Johnson quotes Ian MacKaye, founder of the DIY label Dischord Records: “Playing music is like handwriting; if you play a song over and over, it starts to evolve.” “Repeater,” named after a 1990 album by Fugazi, includes drawing, sculpture, and video by three artists who translate the formal properties of sound, color, texture, and line across mediums for eccentric abstractions that bring to mind the flamboyant post-Minimalism of Frank Stella, Yayoi Kusama, and Claes Oldenburg. More intimately scaled than these art-historical antecedents and installed in close quarters at this tiny artist-run gallery, twelve brightly colored, highly patterned works by Lee Arnold, Mark Brosseau, and Meg Lipke reverberate in a visual conversation reminiscent of the sonic repartee between layered tracks of a song.
Arnold’s animation Signals, 2012, converts a single note’s subtle microtonal layers into rectangles of saturated color—red, green, yellow, blue—that tessellate on a square vintage television monitor. Mounted on a wall next to this work is Lipke’s Fingered Fragment, 2014, a fist-shaped stuffed textile piece approximately the size of a couch cushion. Thick, unevenly dyed batik cross-hatching traces the soft sculpture’s contours; chocolate brown, forest green, and golden yellow block its surface into larger sections. Nearby are “Selection of Tablet Drawings,” 2016, and “Twenty Panels,” 2014–16, collections of Brosseau’s eight-by-ten-inch drawings made using digital and analog means, respectively. With the first displayed serially on a digital photo frame and the latter on slim wooden mantels, their domestic presentation confirms the sense that this exhibition addresses human creative relationships as much as it does rigorous, rehearsed formal experimentation.
For his exhibition “Light Grammar/Grammar Light,” the Eugene-based artist Mike Bray pushes the generally out-of-frame mechanisms of image production into the spotlight, recasting camera optics, scrims, and cutter flags as sculptural materials and formal touchstones, rather than tools. Yet these functional objects aren’t used in the service of puncturing film and photography’s capacities for artifice. Instead, Bray’s sleek and minimal works produce mesmerizing illusions of their own.
The video Angles of Refraction (all works 2016) is based on an Eadweard Muybridge motion study in which a pair of hands alternate gripping a baseball. In Bray’s take, the ball is replaced by a sculptural replica of a pentaprism—a five-sided prism that directs the light path in a camera’s viewfinder. As hands enter the frame and slowly twist the object to reveal all sides, it glitters like a jewel in a depthless black expanse, bringing to mind both a magician’s sleight of hand and a product close-up on TV shopping channels. But our ability to see the object is continually thwarted, since it absorbs and reflects the hands’ skin tone, hot whites lights, and the studio’s rafters overhead.
In Day for Night, Bray arranges a quartet of light stands in a tight cluster, so that three circular mesh scrims and two partial ones collide, conjuring phases of the moon. Instead of filtering projected light, the shapes become subjects themselves. This plain display of equipment produces another unexpected effect: When a viewer circles the sculpture, the scrims overlap to create restlessly flexing moiré patterns. It suggests these functional devices aren’t merely illusory images but contain some magic themselves.
For more than thirty years, a treasure trove of photographs and videos lay dormant in the nooks and crannies of the home of native Portlander Paige Powell, a former publisher at Interview magazine, Andy Warhol’s confidante, and girlfriend of Jean-Michel Basquiat. This two-part installation is Powell’s first museum show displaying the intimate archive she created of the 1980s New York art world. As part of Warhol’s circle, she was surrounded by spectacular personalities. Yet many of her images in the exhibition depict quotidian reflective moments—conversations over dinner, workplace diversions, and artmaking—suggesting that Powell was more interested in her subjects’ inner lives than in their public status.
The largest work in the show—The Ride, 2015—presents three newly unearthed videos that include footage of both Warhol and Keith Haring. Each video is projected onto one of three identical, and abutting wall-covering images of Basquiat sitting in the back of a limo watching television. The videos are aimed to make it appear as though they are what Basquiat is watching, though in the original photograph he’s watching the movie Goldfinger. Framing these within the limo speaks to the explosion of home videos and cable television during the 1980s and references Warhol’s ever-prescient vision of America’s narcissistic media obsession. The most compelling of the videos depicts Haring painting black designs on a large white sculpture of an elephant. It’s mesmerizing to watch Haring work, his brush gracefully arcing across the surface of the sculpture without spilling a drop of paint. His elegant gestures are a stinging reminder of all that would soon be lost.
With its 300 works, “Franz Erhard Walther: The Body Draws”—the first American survey of the pioneering German artist—offers an interesting reassessment of his work. As the title suggests, the show is intended to consider the extent to which drawing—broadly speaking—has always been at the core of the artist’s practice. Focusing on works on paper, the extensive exhibition foregrounds the importance of the line, in a body of work at the crossroads of painting, sculpture, architecture, the conceptual, and the performative.
In the main room, Walther’s cornerstone piece, 1. Werksatz (1. Work Set, 1963–69), sits in the same state it occupied while in storage, letting viewers imagine what lies within canvas bags, within folds. Along the wall, videos show the unfolded fabric pieces being “activated”—a term Walther uses to describe the moments when these works are brought to life by being solemnly held or worn. Daily, volunteers activate some of these elements as well, as when a duo formed a line with the help of one of Walther’s long strips of fabric connecting the tops of their heads, or when four people quietly unfolded a cruciform piece of fabric. These activations remind viewers the work should be experienced with their participation.
In the 1970s, the artist revisited this iconic piece, through very realistic renderings of these activations, which are presented in the same room. Be it abstract or realistic, drawing is Walther’s way to remember, revisit, plan, or re-embody a work—and to expand a practice where the conceptual is absolutely incarnate. Through the exhibition’s seven rooms, the works on paper constantly dialogue with the sculptural elements, allowing viewers to sense—and take part in—Walther’s practice at its closest, to witness what the artist calls his “inner modeling” and be reminded that, as Michel Foucault put it in 1966, “the body is the zero point of the world.”
Filiation and legacy both symbolic and tangible are pervasive in “Young Blood,” a title derived from a greeting Kahlil Joseph used for his younger brother, Noah Davis. The exhibition of the two siblings’ work is a rigorous yet tender examination of their individual practices. Not a retrospective, it is rather an intimate tribute, curated by their longtime friend and Seattle-based artist Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, that reveals the interconnectivity and shared experiences of the two artists.
At the heart of their practices is the depiction of humans: Sharing concise visual vocabularies, Joseph and Davis both convey the imaginative worlds of their subjects. Their overlapping interests in the lives of others and in communities, mythologies, and histories are unequivocal and embedded throughout. In 1984, 2009, Davis represents his wife, artist Karon Davis, as a child dressed for Halloween, a powerful image that calls out to our collective consciousness. Convergences between each other’s mediums are revealed, such as the cinematic sensibilities in Davis’s paintings and Joseph’s painterly approach to film. In Alice™ (you don’t have to think about it), 2015, Joseph films the singer Alice Smith at close range and using a strong chiaroscuro. Sounding at times like an incantation, the film instills the entire exhibition with a ritualistic tone, amplifying its overall sacral ambiance.
A homage to the artists’ family and their political and community engagement unfolds in the exhibition’s collaborative work, The Sacred Garden, 2016, an ephemeral extension of the Purple Garden installed at the Underground Museum, Los Angeles, in 2012. Photos of father Keven Davis (1958–2011) and son Noah Davis (1983–2015), Senufo statues and Mbete figures, crystals, “inhabit” the garden with their ashes. The scene invites contemplation and reverence while evoking a grave. The strength of this show lies as much in its sense of fraternity as in the profound meditative experience that it induces.
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.
At no point in Leslie Hewitt’s “Collective Stance” does the artist allow us the full picture. She instead gives incongruous pieces to assemble. One first encounters a series of screens perched on jagged walls forming a dark passage. Each plays a film of borrowed 1970s leader footage, for which Hewitt collaborated with cinematographer Bradford Young. This simple, structural installation, Stills, 2015, introduces an exhibition in which political residue slowly emerges through sober and at times abstract works.
Hewitt’s sculpture series “Untitled,” 2012, lies on the main gallery’s floor with white swaths of coated sheet metal, bent at angles, interrupting the pathway. Four tiny lithographs hang around the room, reproducing fragments of Hewitt’s source material. Only one pair names its origin, though: Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again (Distilled moment from over 73 hours of viewing the Civil Rights era archive at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas), 2012. Adding further nuance is Hewitt and Young’s Untitled (Structures), 2012, a film installation of long takes depicting buildings in Memphis and Chicago that were significant to the civil rights movement.
The artist is known for integrating sculpture and photography—as well as private and public stories—and all kinds of contrasts are palpable here. There is no dominant interpretive key, though. Hewitt repurposes space, mediums, and historical material in such a way that unanticipated negotiations unfold. The greatest impact, however, comes from her unsentimental presentation of two parallel histories—the Minimalist movement and civil rights actions in the 1960s. Viewing her subtle precision, one is forced to ask who is implicated in which line of history and who has a choice about facing it.
This gallery inaugurates its expansion with a show by German artist Manfred Pernice. His first solo exhibition in Mexico City is rife with bright colors, found objects, and construction materials, which together result in ambiguous spatial constructions evoking Mesoamerican architecture with a modernist flavor. This manifests best in Cassette Lumex, 2016, an installation that recalls an ancient ball court with four trapezoid-shaped MDF bench-like structures—some trimmed with images of the artist’s works—that frame three rubber balls and the floor. This piece, which avoids the neatness of the white cube, given the marks of previous shows left around it, induces the feeling of being immersed in a playground but also in one of the artist’s signature “Cassette” works. Hung in the foyer of the gallery, one of them, Cassette # 55 (Green), 2016, consists of metal mounts with a glass covering containing printed material such as a German newspaper clipping and Mexican art postcards—all loosely pasted.
In the second and newest room of the gallery, the four-particleboard sculptures of the series “Vita Activa,” 2016, have a fuzzy function: Some act as display cases, others as trash cans, but all are full of surprising secondhand items. Their forms bring to mind the Giants of Tula—monumental figures built by the Toltec culture in Mexico during the tenth to the twelfth centuries. Besides these containers, found immediately after walking through the gallery’s entrance, there is nothing in the rest of the room, fostering a link between the street and the exhibition space. Pernice’s droll and unfussy exhibition continues his ongoing explorations of vernacular architecture and display design, assembling a chain of associations and confrontations between place, history, and objects.
Mario García Torres’s exhibition “Caminar Juntos” (Let’s Walk Together) is held at four different locations across Mexico City but all within the parameters of the artist’s Museo de Arte Sacramento, a “museum without walls” in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, conceived by the artist between 2002 and 2004. Theoretically, all of this show is included in the geographic space of Torres’s museum. The work Redrawing the Exhibition Space or Museo de Arte Sacramento in Mexico City, 2004–15, presents the floor plan of his institution, which is nearly 200,000 square feet, superimposed over a section of the city. The Tamayo Museum, one of the exhibition’s galleries, hosts the largest cross section of the artist’s work. Opening with a printed version of his floor plan, Torres’s installation suggests a dislocating play between time and space.
His museum is a self-determined space for conceptualizing ideas within the context of physical geography, but Torres also allows for disruptions therein. The ongoing series “Prometo . . .” (I Promise . . .), 2004–, is a continuous thread throughout the installation here and comprises a simple set of twelve sheets of his writing on the letterhead of hotels he resided in while researching and producing this show. While the letters provide suggested finish dates for his works, also embedded in them is a promise—that he’ll be a better artist—and by their proximity to works realized based on ideas formulated in the correspondence, they serve as a documentation of artistic thought and production. Within this fantastically complex exhibition, Torres blurs any standards regarding linear time or functional space, ultimately offering an opportunity to reconsider our understanding of reality.
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.