Takeshi Murata’s latest animation, OM Rider, 2013, is dark, funny, and perhaps one of the most bizarre works by the noted video artist. Inspired by Murata’s longtime interest in campy horror films—think Dawn of the Dead or films by Dario Argento—this eleven minute and thirty second video stars a synthesizer-playing, motor-scooter-riding, pot-smoking werewolf and a smartly dressed, haggard old man. The werewolf occupies a wide, bluish expanse dotted with coconut trees and mountains, where he rides his scooter and plays music, while his counterpart contemplatively sits in darkness at a wooden table, only briefly getting up to climb a suspended circular staircase to reach yet another table. Murata alternates between these two scenarios in order to increasingly build tension and suspense, a quality heightened by musician Robert Beatty’s skillful use of a Shepard tone on the sound track: At the video’s most suspenseful moment, fog and a bluish light waft through the old man’s chamber while he chops a banana. He pauses, lifts up his switchblade, and sees the werewolf’s reflection right as the beast reaches over and grabs hold of his neck. In the following and final scene, the werewolf clumsily plays “Taps,” a song played during military funerals, on a trumpet underneath a palm tree; the absence of any dialogue gives a mime-like quality to the video’s already playful clownishness.
Like Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley, Murata is an artist who addresses pop culture intuitively, mining its excesses by drawing attention to the capacities and restrictions of simulation. While McCarthy and Kelley were deeply responsive to the spectacle inherent in the golden age of television, Murata’s practice hints at what deranged, comical subversion might look like now that the mainstream is hypernetworked and crowd-sourced. If Ratio 3’s maximal treatment of OM Rider in a gigantic, IMAX-like screening room is any indication, the answer is to present the big, the bad, and the ugly of the American subconscious in HD.
The large-scale posters and elaborate architectural models that make up Tracey Snelling’s exhibition “Mystery Hour” depict imaginary B movies whose premises are as facetious as they are seductively lurid: “She was married to a walking dead man!” declares the oversize poster Forbidden (all works 2013) in LED lights against a bodice-ripper tableau. Using sculptural assemblages and miniature models, the artist creates archetypal worlds from middle- and lowbrow genre films, like the horror movie setting of Danger Mountain, complete with a run-down motel situated precariously atop a winding hill and a swing set perched over a deadly cliff.
The mesmerizing, sinister scenes here—creepy secluded gas stations, a barely visible something in a car trunk left ajar in a darkened alley—are wryly presented with winks to the viewer, such as dribbles of paint running down the sides of pieces. And in many ways the show is about the aesthetics of wicked pleasure. The scale models of ominous hotels and houses—all projecting clips from different, often unidentifiable, films in their windows on tiny LCD screens—encourage our basest instincts to peer into the lives of strangers. The overall effect alternates between uncanny Hitchcockian voyeurism and pure pastiche, as in Zombie Island, whose undead bathe in a lagoon with an LCD screen featuring shark-attack footage.
The thrill of looking in “Mystery Hour” at first seems merely cynical and cheaply erotic—a hard-boiled flick done up in a shocking pink palette—especially given the many sex scenes projected in film clips. But in addition to embodying the genres of thriller and horror into make-believe set pieces, Snelling has also captured their gendered underpinnings. Two neon signs in red and fuchsia which illuminate the rest of the show suggest distillations of the underlying messages in such films; Desire flickers between “desire” and “dire,” while She-Evil alternates with “she-devil.” Both suggest that the real horror in Snelling’s world of grown-up dollhouses is libido rather than the threat of physical harm.
There’s a moment in Stage Fright (1950), Alfred Hitchcock’s theater-inspired murder mystery, when the investigating detective played by Michael Wilding remarks, “I once had a cousin who had an ulcer and an extremely funny face, both at the same time.” Entertainment, it would seem, entails a necessary degree of anxiety. With her latest exhibition, artist Tammy Rae Carland returns to the subject of theatrical performance, once again evincing the heady charge of expectation and uncertainty that fuels the dramaturgical experience.
While her last show, “Funny Face I Love You” (2010), elicited spectator angst through the obfuscation of her models’ faces, Carland now elides the body of the actor altogether in favor of precariously staged mise-en-scenés that evoke a frisson of internalized disquietude. In the large color photograph Tipping Point (all works 2013), several interlocking ladders, some inverted, stand precariously balanced atop rolls of gaffer’s tape, while in Balancing Act, a stack of nineteen golden chairs, framed by a heavily draped proscenium, threatens to topple. The overriding sense is that of catastrophe waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, in the looped single-channel video installation Live from Somewhere, a pair of spotlights frenetically paces against a background of drawn red curtains. A row of theater chairs opposite the monitor invites viewers to sit in anticipation of a show that does not begin, echoing the futility of Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon.
Elsewhere, leaning against a wall, two polished acrylic ladders that make up the installation Pratfall Effect 1 & 2 appropriate their title from the psychological phenomenon in which perceptions of others’ attractiveness change based on mistakes they make. If several of Carland’s other works evoke the anxiety of suspended immanence, here there is a nod to thwarted beginnings. Indeed, “Ambition,” Oscar Wilde quipped, “is the last refuge of failure.”
If the concept of place in photography has shifted throughout history, “A Sense of Place” examines these shifts in rich detail through the work of more than forty artists from the past two centuries. Beginning in the 1840s, a scientific approach to the medium gave rise to photographic “documents” such as topographical ordinance survey studies—like the one on view here by Carleton E. Watkins, The Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, ca. 1883. Later, in the post–World War II period, photographers suggested metaphoric meaning embedded in photographed sites, such as the socially charged American landscapes of Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places,” 1973–81, an iconic series included in the exhibition. Another recent development has been the use of photographs to express place through material manifestations, as when a physical accumulation of images functions as a sculptural installation: For Erik Kessels’s 24-HRS in Photos, 2013, for example, he printed every digital image uploaded to Flickr during a twenty-four-hour period. Installed in floor-to-ceiling piles, as if sand dunes had been poured into the gallery, the prints of 1.4 million vernacular images reflect—both as individual images and as aggregate heaps—the overabundance and barrage of photographic reproduction we face in daily life.
Other series reflect on content through their modes of installation. Lee Friedlander’s “America by Car,” 1992–2009, is hung uniformly in three rows, but with tight irregular gaps between images, as if to echo the constricted space of the automobile that is used as a framing device in each image. In another gallery, nineteenth-century landscape photographs are installed along a single meandering horizontal line that undulates up and down as if re-creating, in the overall viewing experience, the rolling landscape seen by the photographers. Such unconventional hangs highlight sensibilities pertaining to place both historically and within the framework of contemporary display—sensibilities that are complicated by the digital nature of photographic imagery as it inescapably shapes our perceptions of place both inside and outside the gallery.
In 1990, the young artist Holt Quentel exhibited a group of twenty-one Herman Miller-produced Eames chairs, variously covered in Grateful Dead stickers, shrink-wrapped in plastic, and overlaid in yellow fur at Stux Gallery in New York. For this reunion show, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the museum’s director, has gathered seventeen of the sculptures, which are now beginning to arrive at the faux weariness the artist may have intended for them at the outset. The distressed chairs line the walls of two long galleries; one baseless cradle sits stationed in the middle of the walkway.
Quentel’s most successful objects remain her most crude and disfigured. White Plastic Side Chair Caster Base, Eames for Herman Miller/Foam with Duct Tape, 1990, for instance, is composed of thick foam duct-taped to the seat of a chair. Meanwhile, Fiberglass, Eames Seat, Patina, Hardware and Wood, 1992, is altogether de-legged. These chairs create an atmosphere at once droll and deadly solemn.
In the mid-1990s, Quentel removed herself from the art world and became largely untraceable. Twenty-three years later, her ongoing absence casts her sculptures, which were read in the ’90s as a conspicuous critique of modernist aesthetics and consumerism (Vik Muniz describes her in the accompanying catalogue essay as a “post-modern superhero”), in a different light. These elegant plastic and fiberglass objects, remade as soiled and threadbare readymades, have now become surrogates for Quentel’s own missing body. Their emptiness takes on a new, palpable resonance with the artist herself nowhere to be found.
Southerners—like most who live outside the centers of taste-making power—can be sensitive to the way they are portrayed. Artists David Burns and Austin Young are aware of this self-consciousness and are intrepid in addressing it in their latest exhibition, “Fallen Fruit of Atlanta,” which comprises an eclectic array of 274 found objects that the duo, known by the name Fallen Fruit, has collected. Organized into eleven salon-style groupings, or “portals,” the objects reflect stages in the development of human consciousness—from birth to self-awareness to death and the afterlife—and were procured from several sources, including Atlanta-based museums, churches, and public archives, as well as from private homes and hands-on art workshops held in conjunction with the exhibition.
One portal, titled “The Eight Forms of Mother,” features, among other items, a Harry Callahan photograph of a baby’s head, a child’s Minimalist marker drawing, and Lady in Pain, 1994, a contorted Thornton Dial sculpture from the William Arnett collection that combines a figure of a woman during childbirth with a head of gnarled branches. Other portals feature a tourist postcard, historical images of Jesse Jackson and Helen Keller, family snapshots, lawn jockeys, turn-of-the-century wedding portraits, and other artifacts that span from high to low origins, each in their own way retelling stories about Atlanta. Particularly compelling is “Portal #7: The Women of Society,” a group of naive oil paintings executed by Fanny Bird Jones, the mother of one of Atlanta’s leading art dealers. In the middle of the grouping of regal white women, five recent photographs of black women from the Antioch North Baptist Church stand out in bright colors. The juxtaposition of women of different eras and races, so aesthetically different and yet in such close proximity, points to Atlanta’s history of parallel, hermetically sealed social worlds divided along race and class lines. The worlds coexist, but little is exchanged between them.
“Fallen Fruit of Atlanta” marks a departure for the Los Angeles–based artists, who have previously explored social relationships to food. In this current show, however, they have pushed food to the background, allowing the city and its inhabitants to tell their own story.
In one of the two large-scale installations that make up Marianne Vitale’s striking exhibition, nine cast-steel railway joints used in train switches stand vertically in an outdoor riverside meadow, like a clan of marooned, rusty beings. Titled Common Crossings, 2013, the grouping exudes a vitality that belies the material’s industrial past and lineage of Minimalist, monumental, and masculine sculpture. The feat suggests that the young Vitale (born in East Rockaway, New York, in 1973) is a formidable match for such physical and conceptual heft. Each thousand-pound form is welded to a base from which it rises seven to thirteen feet in the air, shifted ninety degrees from the ground where it would normally lie. The alteration brings the metal alive, transforming formerly functional elements—bolts, joints—into anthropomorphic features such as faces and limbs. Though these creatures are not going anywhere, their humanness might make you think otherwise.
If Common Crossings conjures life, Vitale’s other exhibited sculpture, Burned Bridge Junction (Congress), 2013, summons death. For this work, the entire second floor of the museum’s downtown space is taken up by two intersecting bridges of charred wood. Here Vitale revisits a material and form—wood and nineteenth-century covered bridges—that she has worked with before in both sculpture and video. In this case, each bridge stands more than seven feet tall and spans more than twenty-eight feet, and though smaller than life-size, the bridges have enough presence to invoke the real thing, or rather their demise. The blackened beams, singed in places to such a degree that only flakes remain, muster the troubling Civil War–era that coincided with the heyday of such civic structures, and the many bodies that were branded, burned, and tarred as they were being built. Vitale skillfully manipulates material and form to link past with present, this world with another—a triumph that has a powerful effect on the body as well as on the mind.
This exhibition is also on view at the Contemporary Austin Jones Center, 700 Congress Avenue, until January 5, 2014.
Vishal Jugdeo’s installation A Weight Dangles Above Your Head / A Shaky Picture Has No Weight, 2014, is captivating and as elusive as its subject: the instability of representation and of arriving at truth. The project’s twenty-three-minute video, a version of which was presented at Performa 13, features the artist and his boyfriend performing a script loosely revolving around Guyana, where in the 1800s Jugdeo’s family was brought from India as indentured laborers. Slipping from staged scenes and dialogue between the couple in Los Angeles to footage and sound Jugdeo shot in Guyana, the project proves that this young artist, like Harun Farocki and Omer Fast, is capable of pushing cinematic tropes—self-reflexivity, documentary—to reflect on the impossibility of historical and personal certainty.
Jugdeo mixes the film’s diegesis with the viewer’s real-time existence to productive effect. The footage plays on a screen suspended above a platform dotted with symbolic objects (a video camera and globe among them). Painted like props, they extend the filmic artifice into physical reality, as when we first hear dialogue between the boyfriend, whose voice comes from a speaker in the globe, and Jugdeo, whose voice comes from one in the camera, while sound captured in Guyana plays from speakers visible at the bottom of the screen. Jugdeo is asked to describe what he sees, and he struggles: “An ocean trapped behind a wall.” Later in the video, Guyanese field workers preen as Jugdeo talks about his discomfort filming them. Often, the artist appears withdrawn behind closed eyes; this, along with the couple’s discussions about the difficulties of getting to the center—“What is at the core?” “I wish I could show you a clearer image”—make it clear that the project is about far more than Guyana. To his credit, Jugdeo does not push for resolution. In a final scene, a man and woman flirt at a bar while Jugdeo says: “The fastest route to empathy is just pressing your body against someone else’s…we are all just a field of undefined signs…waiting to wash ashore.”
I AM HOPING TO SEE THE DAY reads the text spelled out in fist-size, chalk-white rocks on the floor of Juan Capistran’s two-part exhibition “What We Want, What We Believe: Towards a Higher Fidelity” at the Visual Arts Center. Nearby, a tidy stack of offset prints of a craggily textured surface is available for viewers to take and crumple, forming an ad hoc rock. This replica, which intimates revolution but materially lacks the heft, is an apt summa of the thin line that Capistran walks with aplomb. How to suggest revolutionary potential without controlling the conversation? How to find a model that honors collective and individual contributions to social change?
Thoughtful about his archival material as well as the formal progression of his works, Capistran here caps off a few years’ worth of investigation on the subjects of insurrection, violence, and protest with a disarmingly quiet, monochromatic palette. Tellingly, Capistran’s archive is collaged from the existential texts of Albert Camus and the revolutionary rhetoric of Black Panther Huey P. Newton (with a note found in Timothy McVeigh’s car thrown in for good measure). These source materials appear here as photographs of isolated and redacted texts, and the artist’s renderings are bitingly open. One reads, MAYBE NOW, [REDACTED] LIBERTY!
Across the university campus at the ISESE Gallery, Capistran’s series of 2012 photographs featuring white revolutionary objects (a Molotov cocktail, a fist, a flag) photographed against a white studio background hang alongside the work of Austin-based photographer Ricky Yanas. Geographically split apart, Capistran’s two bodies of work are poetically distant even when their meanings are so intimately bound. Strains of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s white-on-white paintings and Black Panther marble works are present in both exhibitions of Capistran’s work, but in a generative rather than derivative sense. It was Martinez who once told a San Antonio blog, “I think we’re at the end of ideology. I think both the right and the left have failed. Utopian visions don’t work.” We’re hoping we never see the day, and we’re hoping Capistran doesn’t either.
At the tail end of volume seven of The O-G (2013), a handmade zine by artist Amy Sillman, a passage from Gertrude Stein’s masterwork The Making of Americans (1925) reads: “Each one is made of a substance common to their kind . . . thicker, thinner, harder, softer, all of one consistency, all of one lump, or little lumps stuck together.” The lumps in question in “Amy Sillman: One Lump or Two,” the Brooklyn-based artist’s first major museum retrospective, might be figuration and abstraction or the notion of dichotomies as a whole—whether natural or man-made. One point made clear by the exhibition is that the line is a key element in Sillman’s drawings turned paintings. No line is addressed more consistently or more exquisitely, however, than the one between the rendered and the sensed.
Sillman’s work doesn’t concern itself with meticulous representation. Rather, it conjures the emotive sensation of recognition—of seeing and having seen. New works such as # 841 (Painting from Print from Animated Drawing), 2012, are almost defiant in their insistence to be both abstract and figurative (or simultaneously neither). Chromatically rooted in an iPhone drawing app, the work might simply be a floating mass of colorful, curvilinear forms, until you discover that one of them has an eye. The painting’s depth accomplishes what can’t be done digitally, while the animation that fathered it unfurls a level of narrative the painting can’t achieve. They complete each other’s silly, rambling sentences.
As with Sillman’s practice, the exhibition teeters back and forth between different modes of depiction. Unwed to the precise chronology of her practice while remaining linear in the process, this presentation organized by Institute of Contemporary Art chief curator Helen Molesworth is markedly faithful to the work, a complicated endeavor given Sillman’s reluctance to define her oeuvre in a singular way.
In the group exhibition “Suicide Narcissus,” curator Hamza Walker untethers the trope of the vanitas from historical still life paintings and, politicizing death with visions of environmental apocalypse, uses human self-extinction as a conceptual thread uniting the works presented here. Anchoring the show through both its magnitude and its central mystery, Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan’s Edge, 2009—a whale skeleton only partially made visible through several narrow wall openings—at first appears to be an imaginary creature or perhaps a lesser-known dinosaur, revealing our paltry understanding of the order of things, and our tendency to read icons of death as belonging only to the distant past. The exhibition links the impermanence that pervades the natural world with acts of human intervention, whether subtle—as in Daniel Steegman Mangrané’s dreamy 16-mm video shot in a lush rainforest, in which a heavy cable guiding the camera as it hovers above the earth is only eventually noticeable—or violently active, as with a human figure hacking at a field of ice beneath his feet in Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch’s video Spatial Intervention I, 2002.
But despite its more ostensibly environmentalist themes, this is ultimately a show about time: specifically, how to come to terms with the orders of magnitude between human history and the scale of geologic time. The most rewarding pieces here forgo any outwardly ecological argument and focus on modes of anthropocentric thinking and ways of conceptualizing the (for us) nearly infinite: See, for instance, Katie Paterson’s laser etching of a map of dead stars (All the Dead Stars, 2009) and Thomas Baumann’s Tau Sling, 2008, a slack loop of rope pulled by a servo motor into ever-changing shapes against a mirror. A selection from Daniel Gustav Cramer and Haris Epaminonda’s 2007 project The Infinite Library displays some of the artists’ books they created by rebinding pages of images from found books together, evoking the melancholy of an infinitely expanding archive, useless in its inability to encompass any real meaning. The piece perhaps comes closer than any other in this exhibition to the archetypal Narcissus figure, trapped forever in inexhaustible images.
For her first solo exhibition in Chicago, Lauren Edwards has staged a subtle sculptural onslaught of photography’s indexical claims to reality. In so doing the artist scrambles our ontological categories of sculpture and photography with equal pith. By creating a sculpture installation that has the veneer of a contemporary photographic display, replete with all the tropes of the documentary and the fictive, the artist punctures the pretense of the oft-trodden discourse surrounding notions of reality construction. The two black-and-white photographs that make up The Baker and Apprentices (all works 2013) show women dressed in medieval garb making bread, themselves signaling a critique of photography’s (and even history’s) ability to present the past with an alluring aura. These are juxtaposed with two color photographs, Berlin, New England I and Berlin, New England II, which depict generic landscapes that are deliberately hard to place and made more inscrutable through their titles. Together these four photographs, which were originally sourced from the Internet, function somewhat like red herrings that simultaneously thematize the conceptual muddiness that can occur between photography’s evidentiary function and it’s ability to tell stories.
If, on the one hand, our conception of photography is thrown into deep disarray by the ever-growing pervasiveness of digital images and, on the other, sculpture’s ability to assert its resolute thingness, then it is through the gaps in the conventions of photographic display where this show really hits its stride. As one looks closely at the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the gallery walls double as photographic mats and the false walls that jut out reveal their construction and the way frames are hinged and floated. In “In the Turn,” it is these short-circuited display mechanisms that constitute a kind of sculptural facticity. Subtle, to be sure, these moments nevertheless reveal Edwards’s authorial gambit, which implies that in any construction of reality it is through the cracks where the real seeps in.
Regina Mamou’s latest architectural and landscape photographs depict bygone attempts to create utopian communities in America. Each work serves as a reminder that utopia literally means “no place.” Despite the large scale and clarity of the photographs, their evasive titles keep many of the depicted houses, monuments, and terrains teasingly unknown.
Even the compositions of the scenes formally contribute to this mysterious quality; most are angled upward, as in Site (Community Vineyard) (all works 2012), so that subjects (in this case, a barn overgrown with living and dead foliage) are partially cut out of the frame. Others are shot at night under the glare of artificial lights or on dreary, unsettlingly shadowless days, such as Lustgarten, which pictures mostly abandoned planter beds whose few remaining plants seem to be floating rather than rooted in the ground. The overall effect is one of approach rather than mere frontality. Particularly resonant is Mamou’s image of the Harmonist Cemetery, a mass-burial ground without headstones built by nineteenth-century esoteric Christians, situated on Native American burial mounds—simultaneously a rich cross-section of American spirituality and one not remembered as such a place at all. The mounds and trees in the photograph are positioned in the far distance, with an almost exaggerated expanse of flat lawn in the foreground, creating a sense of either arriving or departing rather than being at the site itself.
One way to read these studies is intimated in another set of exhibited photographs: three images titled Fieldwork taken in a fog so thick that only a few blurry hints of waves and trees around the edges make the watery shore comprehensible. The white fog becomes thickest at the center of each image, recalling divinatory crystal balls and Romantic landscape paintings. The formalism of overexposure in these images might also provide a general conceptual entry into the show. Certainly the visions that inspire attempts to create paradises on earth first appear powerful but they eventually die off in ephemeral flares that leave behind ruins still saturated with promise.
Over the past thirteen years, wounds and ruins (and ruined bodies) have occupied Dana DeGiulio’s paintings. With a similar gravitas, she is presenting new work at the Suburban, an exhibition space in the backyard of Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam’s home. DeGiulio is a former student of Grabner’s; to underwrite the expenses of her latest project, she sold a painting by Grabner that she’d received as a gift. DeGiulio consigned the work with James Cohan Gallery, which began representing Grabner recently. With the proceeds of the painting’s sale, DeGiulio purchased a 1996 Buick Le Sabre sedan. On November 17, she rear-ended the car into the gallery space. The building’s integrity has been compromised beyond repair, and whatever the future of the venerable venue, it will involve demolishing the current structure.
This would be institutional critique if it weren’t so personal. DeGiulio’s untitled intervention alludes to her relationship with Grabner, while it capitalizes on both of their shared social networks, taking the power relations often at work behind the scenes and rendering them visible in the resultant wreckage. Moreover, the work physicalizes a collision between Grabner’s roles as a teacher, a gallerist, a curator, and an artist with her own stakes in process and production. In some ways, it brings to mind Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing—only now the gesture is structural and systemic. Though DeGiulio shares in Rauschenberg’s contestation of authority, her objects of consideration are manifold: the resilience of her mentor, the assuredly destroyed Suburban, and a close-knit Chicago community that has reacted with a spectrum of shock, appreciation, dismissal, and betrayal.
A brochure that accompanies the wreck includes this passage from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Shattered Head”: “And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved who did this to us.” If the rationale of shattering the Suburban (as a figurehead in need of debasement?) is elusive, DeGiulio nonetheless presents her position by backing into the building: This is a process of letting go.
For “Apparatus,” Roxy Paine’s debut solo exhibition in Chicago, the artist presents two large-scale, meticulous reproductions of a fast food restaurant and control room–artworks that explore the viewer’s unconscious recognition of familiar forms by rendering them in natural materials and as static installations. These works—respectively Carcass and Control Room (both 2013)—portray, through subtle details, systematized, conveyer-belt spaces that one recognizes as hyperfunctional: machines that reprocess processed food, screens that display data, the mechanical din of fluorescent lights.
Control Room offers an ominous, towering panel of dials, screens, and switches carved out of maple and birch wood and painted in bleak, flat shades of taupe and oil-tanker gray. Carcass, also made of birch and maple, is left unpainted, and its title evokes the stripped-down naturalness of the installation, but also the smell of leftover meat. Fryers, baskets, registers, signsall are represented in the glowing purity of natural wood, while the clean orderliness of the materials clashes with the greasy, sticky reality of a White Castle.
Paine’s enchantment with the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the soft beauty and patina that can only be found in nature and which is activated by time, is a driving force behind these quiet, elegant iterations of banal, culturally dim environments. The historically objectifying mechanism of the diorama also relays a sense of private romance—a cinematic isolation that counteracts the sterility of both works. Viewers peering through large windows experience the rooms visually rather than physically, interpreting foreign, uninhabited versions of spaces we know to be powered by electricity and operated by people. Lifeless and nonfunctional, they exist as carbon copies of reality—an embodiment of Foucault’s dispositif that distinguishes what we know from what is real.
Rosalind Krauss once quoted Barnett Newman defining sculpture as “what you bump into when you back up to see a painting,” thereby describing its negative condition under modernism: One knows sculpture by what it is not—not architecture, not landscape, and, importantly, not painting. “My Crippled Friend,” curated by Michael Goodson and Patrick O’Rorke, is an expansive, rowdy exhibition of more than one hundred recent paintings determined to hold onto modernism’s investment in color, pigment, and nonobjective abstraction while also escaping its “negative condition.” These works insist on becoming something clearly definable and namable: things—painted things—that one might bump into or trip over while trying to understand them as paintings.
Cordy Ryman’s candy-colored Third Ghost Wave, 2010, unfurls an array of painted wooden beams between a swath of wall and floor in a graceful, undulating arc. The slats are spaced just far enough apart to create the illusion of a surface while also giving the viewer a broken glimpse of the empty volume beneath. At every angle a new image appears, rising in the sculptural swell. Matt Rich’s painted paper and tape collage Spiral, 2010, hovers loosely, weightlessly above the wall. Its thin shadow and cutout, empty center should emphasize its ephemerality; instead its centripetal structure bores an illusory hole through the wall that it seems to barely touch. Sarah Cain’s Santa Barbara 2, 2011, claims its territory on the wall as a traditional painting would, but a series of cut flaps in the painted canvas part to uncover an equally developed interior. The verso side, a grid of interior stretchers, and the backing surface are also equally articulated. Cain’s work holds open the fantasy that every picture plane might be plumbed to reveal its hidden, interior depth when taken as an object.
Before his death in 2003, Heimrad Bäcker was a little-known Austrian poet and artist. He was also, for about one year at the end of World War II, when he was in his late teens, an avid member of the Nazi party. On display in this exhibition are his small, black-and-white photographs, collected objects, and sheets of sparse, restrained poetry. Bäcker denounced his Nazi ideology in the wake of the Nuremburg trials and made many return trips to the Mauthausen-Gusen camp between 1968 and 2003 to photograph what he sterilely referred to as its “technological traces.” For instance, the undated Crematorium and Cooling System in Mauthausen [unfinished], pictures the tools used to rake up and dispose of incinerated human remains. Tunnel in St. Georgen, also undated, is an image of a tunnel beneath the concentration camp that prisoners were forced to dig in order to to store, and sometimes produce, Nazi arms. Nearby is a photocopy of a site plan of stairs cut into a cliff. Prisoners were forced to carry heavy stones up these steps, and many exhaustedly collapsed and were punished and killed. This image, which depicts a system of murderous torture, could pass for an abstract drawing. On the same documentary sojourns, Bäcker collected what he referred to as found objects that were scattered around the camp. These vestiges—frayed steel cable, and small pieces of porcelain and steel—are installed in neat arrangements on the floor between the modestly sized prints on the walls.
Across media, the pathos here is in the haunting, sparse remnants. In his photography, object collection, and poetry, Bäcker uniformly forsook the whole for the disembodied part, always electing to draw in closer rather than zoom out. This strategy manages to both avoid implicative horror and look directly in its face. It is profoundly troubling and powerful.
Fans of Willie Cole have had ample opportunities to see his prints, sculpture, drawings, and photography over the past ten years, as three consecutive survey exhibitions—“Afterburn” (2004–2006), “Anxious Objects: Willie Cole’s Favorite Brands” (2006–2008), and “Deep Impressions” (2010–12)—have traveled to museums and university galleries across the United States. Patterson Sims, the curator responsible for the last two shows, sustains his singular dedication to Cole’s work with “Complex Conversations,” which will land at three more institutions after its current stop at the Weatherspoon Art Museum. Such a ubiquitous presence courts overexposure, but the compelling ways in which Cole’s work responds to social, political, and historical intersections of race, family, labor, and art while remaining visually inventive mitigate such concerns.
Standout early works that use found consumer objects include Wind Mask, 1991, a small wall-hanging sculpture that resembles an African mask, which Cole assembled from vintage hair-dryer parts, and Collage 4, 1990, a large semifigurative arrangement of photocopies of similar hair dryers that evokes Mayan carvings or a South Asian deity. Another wall piece, With a Heart of Gold, 2005–2006, features beautifully organized concentric circles of white- and ivory-colored high-heeled shoes, with the inner core of tawdry yellow pumps radiating ebullient energy. The footwear becomes threatening in Throne, 2007/12, comprised of several hundred mostly black and red heels, their spiky stilettos pointing upward.
Two of Cole’s recurring motifs—the clothing iron and the ironing board—are found in Five Beauties Rising, 2012, a set of intaglio and relief prints depicting life-size impressions of the tops of ironing boards, and in Pressed Iron Blossom No. 1, 2005, a lithograph with seared iron imprints in blacks and grays, elegantly composed in a floral pattern. For the striking Gardening (Ozone Summer Series), 1991, Cole repeatedly scorched an unprimed canvas with a steam iron, creating patterns that might be found on a southern quilt or Islamic tapestry, introducing critical commentary on benign tropes of pattern and decoration.
In his well-known filmic series “Doppelganger Trilogy,” 2001–2004, Slater Bradley exhumed fallen heroes of pop culture. Bradley’s latest exhibition in the United States debuts his newest videos, Sequoia and She Was My la Jetée, both works 2013, which continue to explore haunting cultural presences by conjuring up idealized female figures. Shown on three screens, these women blur the boundaries between memory, fiction, and obsession, drawing the viewer in while they remain distant and unattainable.
In Sequoia, we see Vertigo’s Kim Novak showing Jimmy Stewart a giant sequoia tree, indicating this is where she was born and where she will die. In She Was My la Jeteé, Alina, Bradley’s muse, is seen up close in black and white; at one moment, she recalls a woman who “was my vertigo.” These two loops are projected on two separate screens in the space, yet their subjects seem to cross and coalesce into an impossible single female character before the viewer. Outside the screening area, Alina is depicted in photo-drawings that are surrounded in gold and black markings that resemble tree rings—unavoidable traces of linear time.
The theme of boundaries and their permeability is met with an additional overarching narrative introduced in another video in the show, My Conclusion/My Necessity, 2005–2006. This work depicts the reenactment of a mourning ritual and a cultural rite of passage: A mother paints the lips of her teenage daughter so that the young girl can kiss the tombstone belonging to Oscar Wilde, leaving a mark next to the dozens of other red and pink impressions. This act of replay underscores Bradley’s greater work, which observes cinematic relationships and undermines them.
A giant white gym sock covering a robotic arm that once functioned in a Detroit auto-manufacturing plant speaks in a deadening monotone to passersby. He talks about what it’s like to become useless and rambles about other topics as well: “My name is Mr. Weekend, and I am an artaholic. I am an infinite loop. I never rest, I only consume.” The installation, Mike Simi’s Mr. Weekend, 2010, hovers over curator Danny Orendorff’s group exhibition, which considers questions about the economic recession, underemployment, the working poor, gentrification, single motherhood, women’s rights, and the grim truths faced by culture workers who operate within an unsympathetic context of advanced capitalism.
Steve Lambert’s Give and Give and Give, 2012, a custom-made vintage neon sign fashioned with those three words and two ampersands, lights and dims in turn, numbing the mind. As alluring yet empty as the slick advertisements fashioned by Don Draper in Mad Men, it is simultaneously as cold, uninviting, and unforgiving as the steel plates in one of Donald Judd’s Stacks. In “Wall of Letters: Necessary Reminders from the Past for a Future of Choice,” 2006, Andrea Bowers takes real paper letters from the archives of a 1960s California women’s health activist group pre–Roe versus Wade, redrawing them to scale, in order to consider connections between the past and present of ongoing feminist activism.
Afro-feminist collective Honey Pot Performance’s video Price Point, 2013, is a documentation of the group’s energetic ethnographic theatrical performance, which uses humor and aplomb to discuss the realities of ordinary people living in an unstable economic system and asks what it means to work and to be valued. Google Google Apps Apps, 2013, a video by drag performer Persia featuring the performance group Daddies Plastik, offers glitchy, effectively useless Street View captures of San Francisco’s Mission District, which is in the midst of gentrification by Silicon Valley’s young tech elite. Theaster Gates’s engraved marble slab Bank Bond, 2013, one in an edition of one hundred custom-made works, was originally part of a now-derelict 1920s bank in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Retrieved and repurposed, it now sells for $5,000, providing proceeds that will build a thriving cultural hub that offers a vision for the future, rather than continuing to symbolize an assessment of the present day’s bleak economic circumstances.
For their latest exhibition, Aziz + Cucher present a video installation based on bombed-out buildings in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia. Originally commissioned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2012, this version of the work has been re-configured by curator Tami Katz-Freiman so that seven vertical flat-screen panels are suspended from the ceiling at eye level. The room is nearly entirely darkthe only light coming from the stark white background of the plasma screens, on which endless loops of digitally animated buildings rhythmically rise and fall. The work’s title, Time of the Empress, is partially an oblique reference to a passage in Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 fictionalized autobiography Memories of Hadrian, in which the dying emperor reflects broadly on cycles of progress and regression as well as on chaos and order in history.
The video installation is backed by nondescript electronic white noise composed by Larry Buksbaum that has a nearly physical reverberation—visitors can almost feel the pulse of frequency in their body. As such, the work takes on a multisensorial quality, amplifying the scope of a piece that might otherwise lean toward a disembodied Minimalism. Stripped down to modular forms, the black-and-white animations are reminiscent of modernist international style architecture.
Though Time of the Empress was inspired by the artists’ journey through the Middle East and the Balkans in 2009, Aziz + Cucher have carefully removed any sense of place. Robert Smithson’s 1967 description of ruins of a different kind—the dilapidated industrial buildings of the suburb of Passaic, New Jersey—seem appropriate to invoke here. Smithson writes that they “don’t fall into ruin after they are built, but rather rise into ruin after they are built.” As such, Aziz + Cucher present ruins with a sense of lost promise as much as the possibility for future reclamation.
Panning over a seductive canopy of tropical trees toward a dense metropolis, a sound track of helicopters provides a seismic calibration for the coming narrative. Focusing first on the gathering of a joyful crowd of intergenerational, multiracial celebrants at an altar, a tone of reverence descends, which before long is ruptured by an apocalyptic rapture. Demonstrating Yael Bartana’s recurrent interest in the concepts of return and belief, the exquisite ritual staged in Inferno, 2013, engages with the strange confluence of Evangelism and neo-Pentecostalism in present day Brazil and their connections to the Holy Land and Judaic traditions.
Commissioned by the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Israeli artist’s luscious and provocative eighteen-minute film addresses the current construction of the third Temple of Solomon by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in São Paulo. Based as much on fact as fiction, Bartana’s project emerged from a research residency initiated by curators Eyal Danon and Benjamin Seroussi devoted to considering the rise of “new religious movements.” Built to biblical specifications, this new temple includes material directly from Israel and intends to replicate the first temple in Jerusalem, the violent destruction of which signaled the first diaspora of the Jewish people in the sixth century BCE.
Displacement is of course another theme Bartana cyclically revisits. The characters in Inferno are anachronistically dressed in white linen tunics and fruit headdresses, conflating Biblical times with hippie bohemia and socialist uniforms. By the time the fire and brimstone begin, the sheer beauty of Bartana’s tableau has already mesmerized the viewer. At once ancient and futuristic, using an evocative combination of prophesy and imagination, Bartana’s “historical pre-enactment” echoes the epics of blockbuster cinema with a twist of tropical kitsch. The bizarre transposition of the Wailing Wall to Latin America as a site for pilgrims to worship as well as for tourists to sip from menorah-emblazoned coconuts exemplifies the insufficiency of concepts such as hybridity to address the complex intermixing of influences in either contemporary culture or religion.
The Abstract Expressionist-era haunt Cedar Street Tavern is enlivened with nearly two-dozen of its notorious patrons in Red Grooms’s Cedar Bar, 1986: Lee Krasner coolly holds court with Elaine de Kooning and Aristodimos Kaldis; further over, Norman Bluhm pins John Chamberlain to the floor. On view as part of “Red Grooms: Larger Than Life,” the work can be seen before one even enters the exhibition, which rollicks in scenery that the artist has observed over the past six decades and animated through his quintessentially comic style. Part parody yet largely reverential, Grooms’s works playfully beckon to his artistic ancestors, and the show, which consists of punchy large paintings and a series of crayon and pen studies, pictorializes their creative interplay.
The grand-scale and vibrant painting Picasso Goes to Heaven, 1973, was inspired by Picasso’s death that year. A bustling parade of Picasso’s literary and artistic influences welcomes him to the afterlife alongside clusters of Picassoan imagery: a portrait of Dora Maar, Cubist still-life spreads, a bacchanalian nude feeding herself grapes from a bowl wedged in her pelvis. Sketchily developed over a persimmon ground, the painting has the crowded, vibrating quality of Groom’s well-known tridimensional “sculpto-pictoramas.”
Despite the art-historical movements that have run parallel to his career, Grooms has maintained his distinctive style. The works here suggest that he envisions himself less as a participant and more as dedicated observer. The two bartenders in Cedar Bar are both self-portraits of Grooms at different agesa discrete witness to the raucous sceneand the towering pictures in “Larger than Life” are in ways works of satire: Meta portraits of cultural giants. At the same time, the visual immediacy and comic stylization of Grooms’s works concede a deeper earnestness—a celebratory incantation of his canonical heroes—while manifesting his own spot at the bar, as though fulfilling the Irish drinking toast, “May your home always be too small to host all of your friends.”
In the homemaker’s realm, hoarding is taboo, connoting disorder and grime. “HOARD,” Phyllida Barlow’s tactile exhibition at the Norton Museum, both embraces and subverts its title’s implications, overtaking three austere galleries with intrusive installations that celebrate their frequently recycled, cacophonous materials—inexpensive, industrial objects and composites—and vibrate with anti-Minimalist energy. Each work projects the threat of impermanence, hovering between titanic stability and temporal mortality: Barlow often entirely destroys her site-specific installations postexhibition, reusing the materials for later projects. untitled: eleven columns: standing, fallen, broken, 2011, a towering series of stout, gigantic drainpipe-like segments turned on their sides and stacked to the ceiling, evokes this precarious, handmade quality; the crudely sculpted hollow segments (cement, polystyrene, fabric, paint) are like modern totems to eccentric abstraction.
Despite the colossal presence of each work, nothing feels quite settled in its place, and the quick-tempoed, layered nature of Barlow’s semi-anti-form constructions visually recalls the expression of action painting. The work untitled: hoard, 2013, is a dynamic assemblage of raw and found materials most at home on a construction site; it piles wood scaffolding with elaborate tangles of snakelike, ribbon-wrapped coils and wrinkled tarps. untitled: holedmeshedlump. 2013, a black moon rock-like form fastened to the wall, is reprised in untitled: coalhanging. 2013, one of a series of weighty black masses hanging from the ceiling by heavy-duty steel coils. The objects are made of packed-together materials such as cement, scrim, and wire netting; their cratered, rough surfaces relay the physicality of their construction. Barlow’s athletic treatment of her materials—her collecting, laborious assembling, saving, reusing—seems in ways a nurturing embodiment of motherhood, and her Bourgeoisian rigor evokes both a freedom from the canon of monumental sculpture and a vital compounding of energy that transfers between objects within its own ecosystem.
“Jason Rhoades, Four Roads” covers a lot of ground without denying us necessary, numerous, and pleasurable pit stops. Conceived by senior curator Ingrid Schaffner as a road map for navigating Rhoades’s massively complex body of work in the wake of his accidental death in 2006, the artist’s first U.S. survey revolves around four major sculptures—conductors for the themes of Biography, Americana, Systems, and Taboo.
One of the chief feats of the exhibition is creating the impression that even works that aren’t there actually are. Beginning with Garage Renovation New York (Cherry Makita), 1993, the titular piece for his first solo show in New York at David Zwirner, Rhoades voraciously consumed and gleefully recycled imagery and materials from previous works in his search to hammer out a personal iconography. The silver pipes and wood-mounted garden photos in Sutter’s Mill, 2000, an Erector set ode to the legendary structure at the frontier of the California gold rush, originally came from Perfect World, 1999. Created for Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Perfect World was a massive installation of interlacing pipes supporting an upper platform–cum–private garden that Rhoades declared to be the biggest indoor sculpture ever made. In addition to the gleam of the pipes, Rhoades liked the glow of neon. Twenty-two of the 144 neon “pussy words” dangling in orderly rows from the ceiling in Untitled (From My Madinah: In Pursuit of My Ermitage . . .), 2004/2013, assumed a more chaotic scramble in his now legendary invitation-only “Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé” parties, which he held in his studio in Los Angeles in 2006.
Rhoades liked to say that everything he’d ever made was constitutive of one massive sculpture. It’s a testament to both the consistency of the work and the strength of Schaffner’s curatorial vision that, with only four large-scale sculptures and a shrewd selection of multiples, Rhoades’s entire practice seethes before us.
“Because we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings,” wrote Kathleen Hanna in a 1991 manifesto published in the second issue of the Bikini Kill zine. Her words are posted in the front gallery of “Alien She,” the first exhibition to explore the legacy of the Riot Grrrl punk feminist movement. Organized by Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss, two Riot Grrrls turned curators, the exhibition dynamically aggregates art and craft, video documentary, print ephemera, and music, concentrating on Riot Grrrl’s sphere of influence in North America from the early 1990s to the present.
Demand for autonomous networks of production and distribution was the impetus for Miranda July’s Big Miss Moviola (later renamed Joanie 4 Jackie), 1995–2003, an all-girl video chain letter meant to empower female filmmakers in a male-dominated field. Stephanie Syjuco explores unauthorized systems of knowledge distribution in FREE TEXTS, 2012, a wall of posters with tear-off tabs sharing links to free pirated downloads of seminal critical tomes. Meanwhile, Faythe Levine premieres Time Outside of Time, 2013, a photography series documenting communities living off the grid across the United States. Other projects deal with the conflicted ethics of Riot Grrrls gone professional; Allyson Mitchell’s T-shirt diptych Women’s Studies Professors Have Class Privilege / I’m With Problematic, 2012, explores Mitchell’s ambivalence as a punk and a professor at York University in Toronto. Perhaps the most striking work in the exhibition is Tammy Rae Carland’s photograph Vaguely Dedicated, 2008, a grid comprising dedication pages from feminist books. The range of inscriptions—from “For my mother” to “Dedicated to my tattooist”—registers the diversity of female influences and subjectivities.
Despite the curators’ personal history with the movement (a portion of the ephemera comes from the curators’ private collections), the exhibition never sinks into nostalgia—rather, its tone channels the unapologetically personal attitude of Riot Grrrl. Two Web-based elements further strengthen the overall curatorial approach: The Riot Grrrl Census and Riot Grrrl Chapters Map are open-source archives that chart the movement’s temporal and geographic evolution and expansion. It’s a new DIY feminism for the digital age.
The public’s perception of Land art is ruled by individual sites: a grid of steel poles in New Mexico, a curl of earth in a salt lake in Utah, saffron gates in Central Park, and so on. This exhibition, curated by Kelly Baum, successfully argues for a larger view that aggregates the work from a fixed period (between 1950 and 1975) and a single place (New Jersey) based on the confluence of influential artists and works created within the state. “New Jersey as Non-Site” celebrates the state’s gritty, desolate, and devastated aspects, staking a claim for a working-class Land art as opposed to that of a majestic, uninhabited landscape.
From the photographs of Dan Graham to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting, 1974, working-class homes become abstracted, linear objects—stark, cookie-cutter homes and abandoned structures, all material that could be freely appropriated. Likewise, the prevalence of construction sites off the New Jersey Turnpike made overturned soil and man-made pits a constant in the landscape, and an easy source for materials. Michelle Stuart acquired rose- and beige-hued soil samples from a quarry off the Turnpike in Sayreville and embedded the dirt onto paper with photographs of the quarry below, creating both a beautifully pigmented surface as well as a geological record of the man-made pit. In contrast, Charles Simonds’s films (1972–74) depicting the artist nude, rolling in the vibrant New Jersey dirt evoke a primal landscape in which the soil becomes a potent, ritualistic material.
“New Jersey as Non-Site” also emphasizes the importance of universities, which brought artists to the area as faculty. George Segal’s farm was a locus of this, acting as the site of happenings and performances including Robert Watts’s proto-Fluxus event Yam Festival (1962–63). Segal and Watts concurrently taught at Rutgers; these positions brought them into contact with Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, and John Cage, who would meet to discuss what they called an art form of the future, one that incorporated movement, scent, and sound. As the list of works grows, the impact of these Jersey-based artworks becomes undeniable, but the exhibition resists privileging site-specificity over personality, instead stressing the fertility of highways and suburbia as artistic media.
South African–born, US-based artist Siemon Allen’s current solo show, succinctly titled “Exhibition,” explores the mental space devoted to creating a work, the interlocution between the idea and the execution of a piece, and the transition between studio and exhibition site. By highlighting these concepts of the “in-between” and probing the mass-produced, Allen privileges the overlooked as he explores issues of identity through displacement.
Studio, 2014, a flatbed-scanned digital print of his studio floor, is placed on a slightly raised platform, with different elevations at various points, which covers the entire floor of one room of the show. Mimicking a painting, Studio also oscillates between compressed digital print, three-dimensional skin, and topographical map. The marred but aesthetically beautiful surface subtly raises notions of institutional critique by asking what happens to a studio floor when it becomes an object displayed in a gallery. Likewise, the work in progress Exhibition, 2014, a 3-D-scaled cardboard model of a three-story building, merges the gallery’s architecture on the first floor with scale models of the artist’s studio and his home on the second and third. Eventually this piece will include other exhibition layouts (past, future, and even fictitious) with the possibility of exponentially morphing into a labyrinth-like series of intersecting architectural planes both accessible and inaccessible to the viewer.
Rounding out the show are new works such as La Grande Illusion, 2014, Naglegioen II, 2004/2013, and Queen, 2014, which reinvestigate ideas that the artist has probed over the past two decades. La Grande Illusion features strips of woven 16-mm film stock while Queen showcases the artist’s personal collection of Machin stamps, each meticulously removed from the original envelope and pasted onto the canvas; Neglegioen II offers enlarged comic strips. These carefully chosen artifacts of consumerism similarly privilege the in-between through binary relationships: highbrow/lowbrow, trivial/relic, part/whole, and icon/concept. In all, “Exhibition” questions the reality of a globalized taxonomy that whitewashes differences; the show urges viewers to reconsider the seemingly insignificant.
In the first exhibition devoted to Donald Judd’s late-career focus on color, the Pulitzer Foundation gathers some twenty sculptures and thirty works on paper to showcase the artist’s notable departure from using no more than two hues per object. Working with his customary industrial forms and materials, Judd employed fabricators to bolt together open-faced aluminum boxes enameled in shades of yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green, gray, and brown, as well as in black and white. Judd said at the time that his goal was to create balance—to achieve color combinations neither too pleasing nor too jarring. The overall effect here is a Lego-like sense of fun.
Two sculptures (all but one are wall-hung rectangles), both from 1989, present monochrome fronts with different colors peeking from the sides, top, and bottom. Some form rhythms of repeated colors, similar values, and near-matching hues such as purple and brown, subtle pairings and patterns that the artist negotiated in number-scrawled sketches and paint-swatch collages. Other sculptures defy any hint of a system, reveling in the pleasure of sheer aesthetic arrangement. The show’s single floor piece, Untitled, 1989, seems to feature Judd’s entire palette: Nearly twenty-five feet long, it dominates the Pulitzer’s vast main gallery like a behemoth toy box.
Inevitably, the union of the work on view by the late Minimalist artist and the foundation’s architecture by Tadao Ando heightens considerations of site. For his wall pieces, Judd assembled the boxes to create interior openings: Those at eye level have horizontal corridors and those above have vertical channels. All allow the viewer to peer through in some manner, visually connecting the objects to their environment. Here, that includes the Pulitzer’s permanent Ellsworth Kelly wall sculpture, Blue Black, 2001. Guest curator Marianne Stockebrand smartly confronts the imposing twenty-eight-foot-tall Kelly with a long Judd that incorporates, among other colors, similar tones of blue and black. The juxtaposition marks the generational connection between the two artists and inspires a satisfying game of close observation.
The term “red giant” refers to the approaching death of a celestial body. This cosmic evolutionary phase is the organizing principle behind Jordan Eagles’s latest exhibition, where the artist continues to investigate his medium of choice: blood collected from slaughterhouses. Eagles began experimenting with animal plasma as a student at New York University in 1998 in his search for a vibrant substitute for red paint. Unlike Phil Hansen, who created Kim Jong Il’s portrait using his own blood, or Marc Quinn, who bled for his self-portrait, Eagles strides away from self-sacrifice.
Within the quiet space of the gallery, the assuredly violent, loud, and chaotic environment from which the blood was originally collected is contrasted by a seductive quality that emerges from the artist’s large-scale works: the arrest of the flow of blood through its preservation in Plexiglas and UV resin panels. UR23, 2008, for example, consists of heated blood that has formed layers of bursting gradations of the sanguine color. Similarly, BDLF1, 2012, depicts an explosion created by the patterns in the panel, where blood dust and copper amplify the biological matter in varying hues. These abstract crimson shapes point to organs, perhaps dead, perhaps barely alive, as well as to the astronomic phenomenon that once determined our existence and might embody future rebirth, such as through meteorites and supernova. Though frozen, these works are continually in the midst of battle.
In another room, the installation Blood Illuminations, 2013, envelops the visitor in an analog projection of magnified red blood cells, which covers each wall. These visceral experiences, as well as the turn to Minimalist practices, may echo artistic responses to the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the late twentieth century. Removed from a pandemic sense of urgency, the bloody panels navigate temporal tensions, corporal demise, and the imagined possibility of regenerating life.
For her solo debut, “Legal Tender,” painter Emily Erb directs attention toward some of the United States’ most difficult historical passages by presenting dollar bills as surrogate American flags. Erb began working with U.S. currency as a motif after noticing the Occupy movement’s activist use of blown-up bills on protest banners. Her first works were hung in public parks and markets around Philadelphia, where she is based. Unlike Dan Tague’s poster-like scans of folded U.S. currency that spell out political aphorisms or Chad Person’s intricate, cut-bill collages depicting contemporary military scenes, Erb’s dramatically enlarged historical currency urges a close, critical look at each bill’s original imagery and text.
Curated by Maiza Hixson, this exhibition features twelve silk flags, each six feet long. Dollar bills dating from 1862 to the present have been traced from photocopies and then painted onto the gauzy fabric at nearly eighteen times their standard size. The billowing silks are equally fragile and imperious: Hanging procession-like on golden American bald eagle–capped flagpoles that are uniformly spaced and perpendicular to their respective walls, the flags recall a military color guard and gesture at the inexorable qualities of history.
Erb’s selections of imagery, pulled from a currency collectors guide, focus on gender and race inequalities. Baptism of Pocahontas, 2013, depicts an American Indian woman’s entirely mythical conversion to Christianity. America Presents Electricity to the World, 2013, features a winged woman surrounded by cherubs and draped in voluminous folds like a religious icon; she proudly holds a light bulb—a mere mannequin for the achievements of a male workforce. See also In Memoriam, 2013, which presents a confederate $500 bill with the titular poem lamenting the currency’s worthlessness inscribed in smudged black ink on its verso, frequently stamped on post–Civil War confederate money. These inflated dollars can’t help but refer to the current economic situation as much as to this nation’s past.
Befitting its dyadic title, Sarah Pierce’s exhibition “Lost Illusions/Illusions Perdue” prompts two possible interpretations: one based in denotation and the other in connotation—although trying to untangle one from the other is not so simple. Forming something akin to an institutional memory-based scatter piece, Pierce’s recent work taps into the Banff Center’s varied history, with its assortment of ceramics from former artists-in-residence, kept by instructor Ed Bamiling, and a four-channel video displaying students participating in Brecht-like learning plays. Meanwhile, copies of archival material, placed casually throughout the space, track correspondences between artist Mark Lewis and the institution following the vandalization of his photograph in 1989. The unearthing of the imbroglio over Lewis’s piece, which was allegedly attacked by a group of women because of its perceived pornographic contact, is almost institutional critique; it implicates the center in political discourse, countering its image as an idyllic alpine retreat, removed from the art world.
While looking at the exhibition as a literal portrait of an institution raises rewarding questions, this perspective alone hazards reducing the show to a litany of overt references while failing to account for its aesthetic presence. It might be precisely what Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” deemed “the revenge of the intellect upon art.” More rewarding is when viewers take in the exhibition as a mixture of seemingly unrelated materials, discourses, and ambiences. The totality becomes an ephemeral landscape of form and content that provides space for viewers to experience place in its rich complexity, where meaning is not prescribed by the artist, but becomes an active agent—unsettled and unsettling.
“Are we really civilized? Yes or no? Who are we to judge?” The existential edge of these questions posed by Kenneth Clark in Civilisation, his 1969 omnibus broadcast-television journey through Western thought and culture, seems to have only gained momentum in the years following. Indeed, Clark’s thesis that the world as we know it sits perpetually balanced on a knife’s edge between the chaos of barbarism and reasoned refinement still carries a lot of weight when it comes to the accelerated uncertainties of our own time.
The centerpiece in Vancouver-based artist Geoffrey Farmer’s latest exhibition, “A Light in the Moon,” offers something of an extension to Clark’s rhetorical challenge. The installation, titled Boneyard, 2013, gathers a rambling menagerie of sculptural imagery, from Greco-Roman statuary and medieval reliquaries to works by Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, and Jacob Epstein, all painstakingly clipped from the pages of discarded art-history textbooks. More than five hundred cutout images stand atop a circular plinth, which could well hint at the titular moon (taken from a passage in Gertrude Stein’s 1914 prose poem “Tender Buttons”) or perhaps the face of a monumental timepiece, though it makes the most sense as a kind of theater in the round. Farmer is a wry prop master and storyteller, and there’s both a formal cohesion and an abstract tension—as seen in absurd tangents by a free-association “script” for forty-two of the images—that plays out across the differing scales and deft staging of his fragile dramatis personae.
Civilization is also depicted at the brink in the accompanying video projection Look in My Face; My Name Is Might-Have-Been; I Am Also Called No-More, Too-Late, Farewell, 2013, though this time with cues to the work of experimental filmmakers Bruce Conner, Arthur Lipsett, and Stan Vanderbeek. In an ever-shifting sequence of random archival images—battlefields, celebrities, snake charmers, glaciers—and sounds ranging from a speech given by Winston Churchill to gunshots and wind chimes, repeated ad infinitum by a computer algorithm, Farmer reshuffles the historical deck to an often frenetic, traumatizing effect. As with Boneyard, there is neither a beginning nor an end. What the cumulative furor adds up to remains a pointedly open question.
One of the largest works in this group exhibition, Abbas Akhavan’s Study for Blue Shield, 2011, is only visible by aerial surveillance. A piece of the gallery’s drywall has been cut out and painted in a pattern of blue and white diamonds. Located on the roof of the gallery, the shield, which replicates a crest designed by UNESCO to identify and protect sites of cultural heritage during armed conflict, is invisible to viewers but is on display for passing helicopters or drones.
Akhavan’s gesture—an incisive commentary on the threats posed by, and to, art in a surveillance state—is a fitting introduction to this show, organized by artist Charles Stankievech, which brings together nearly one hundred objects that examine the confluence of artistic and military intelligences: from Vorticist Edward Wadsworth’s invention of “Razzle Dazzle” camouflage for World War I warships in A Ship Being Painted with Dazzle Camouflage, 1918; to Fluxus artist Tamás St. Turba’s fake-brick “radio” (used by Czech residents as a symbol of protest against Soviet censorship), Czechoslovakian Radio 1968, 1968–2014; to Sang Mun’s ZXX Typeface, 2012, a “disruptive” font that is unreadable by text-scanning software, which Stankievech cunningly adopts for his didactic panels. While many of these projects are direct responses to government protocols, other works—such as Bill Burns’s Guard Tower Plans, Prison Cell Plans and the Songs of Guantanamo Bay, 2010, which includes a limited-edition vinyl record of songs used for torture—use appropriation to demonstrate how readily innocuous objects, such as a copy of the Sesame Street theme song, can be transformed into tools of state violence.
Though the premise of the exhibition sounds like it could devolve into an episode of the 1960s television show Get Smart, Stankievech’s careful archival research prevents it from succumbing to comedic shtick. Instead, the exhibition encourages viewers to wander among the competing visual codes as they try to discern which are products of insidious government surveillance and which are merely artworks. Confusing the two has provocative implications, suggesting both the complicity of artists in acts of state deception and the possibility they are double agents, performing political subterfuge from within.
Nina Canell’s four-piece exhibition charges this one-room gallery with the kind of ionic imbalance sensed seconds before static electricity discharges—a phenomenon often only recognized after the fact. Canell’s aim, it seems, is not in release or neutralization, but rather in the suspension within this tension. In this sense, the exhibition echoes the semantic structure of its title, “(Near Here),” which floats its core within uncertain parentheses.
Near Here, 2014, offers a small clear acrylic cube, embedded with a cross section of a thick cable wire, the silver pearls of its innards splayed in beautiful ruin. The surprising prettiness of the object (it could be mistaken for a Venetian glass paperweight) hardly acknowledges the violence necessary to cleave the cable. It rests like a trophy atop a weathered wooden pedestal in the center of the room. In contrast to this gesture toward monumentality, Forgotten Curve, 2014, consists of little more than a single thread, whose few inches are delineated by a gradation in color: from lime-green to lemon, orange, and, finally, a soft sour cherry. One end is unraveled into a yawning Y, which is pressed in place between two sheets of glass and framed. On a similar scale, Another Mender, 2014, presents a chain of calcified nails, dangling end to end in deference to the pull of a magnet planted behind the wall. The pale, slender stick of Halfway Between Opposite Ends, 2010, is scarred with dark capillaries, seemingly seared into its surface. The almost inconceivable delicacy of this “drawing” is the product of an impossibly brutal act: The artist has doused the wood in salt water and then shot 5,000 volts of electricity from one end to the other.
In the exhibition text, Canell quotes Steven Connor: “Infinite force moving through near infinite littleness.” It is this nod toward the infinite that transforms these objects into exquisite monsters, rather than just precious souvenirs.
Centered within the grounds of the Jumex juice factory, Superflex’s retrospective is broken into two parts, one of which encompasses a number of public presentations set for the exhibition’s closing weekend, including discussion panels on emerging economies and economical speculation as well as the unveiling of a prototype system for biogas-based energy production called Supergas.
Grounding the public program is the work presented within the factory. Titled “The Corrupt Show,” the exhibition acts as a career survey, highlighting the Danish collective’s seductive, commercially spirited critique of late-capitalist corporatism in which bankruptcy, corruption, and facsimile are colored with strategically glossy design. Within the museum’s central gallery, Copy Light/Factory, 2008, provides materials for copying designer lamp designs without permission from the objects’ respective copyright holders. Viewers are invited to assemble cube-shaped lamps from wood, glue, and papers that are printed with motifs copied from familiar lamp designs, and to use a large copy machine and desktop PC for scanning and printing various patterns. As today’s cognitive laborers briefly join a physical assembly line, their output originates from work of the creative class itself.
Opposite the workstations, a row of large cotton banners successively drapes outward from the wall (“Bankrupt Banks,” 2012). The series renders large-scale logos of bankrupt or acquired banks from around the world, visually charting the failure and collapse of financial institutions. More than a vivid tribute to failed economic policies, the banners evince the flat abstraction of contemporary corporate logo design: Polygonal home roofs float within negative white cloud space (Fanny Mae), a white palm tree outlined against orange and blue visualizes a coastal sunset (BankUnited FSB). The imagery, more subtly than Superflex’s own projects, often centers on motifs within a consumer’s daily life. This critical connection marks the core of the collective’s logic: to extract the insidious from a corporatized everyday, with a playful activism that engages invention and appropriation harmoniously.
For “A Place in Two Dimensions”—the inaugural exhibition at the institution’s new space—Patrick Charpenel has juxtaposed fifty works from the collection of Eugenio López Alonso with eight works by Fred Sandback. The topics that run through the exhibition bind the works in an elusive yet unwavering fashion. In Francis Alÿs’s drawings “In a Given Situation,” 2010, geometric forms and language rendered in soft colors evoke displacement and fragmentation, while Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s series “Equilibres,” 1984–86, probe issues of balance and time. Other topics that are addressed include how intentions can, surprisingly, be akin despite the “corporal condition” of the work (for example, the relationship between works such as John McCracken’s Shadow, 2002, and Rosemarie Trockel’s Untitled (What If Could Be), 1990); as well as how traces of individual existence can constitute a shared memory within their own solitude (Teresa Margolles’s Debris, 2008).
The show brings to mind the saying “life hangs by a thread.” Its acrobatic displacement of ideas and genres conveys temporality as a palpable process of spatialization–a condition evoked especially in Sandback’s work. What ultimately holds the show together is the viewers corporeal experience: each visitor is an intermittent and vital recipient of a series of phenomenological, conceptual, and figurative situations that are manifested via the artworks when posited in relationship to one another. As we circulate through the show, these brief and essential instants are triggered, allowing us to grasp our own duration between various dimensions and states.
Sandback’s architectural interventions set the hopeful pace of the exhibition, a latent and eternal rhythm that is as capable of being materialized as it is incorporeal. In real and imaginary physical spaces, the body engages in a one-on-one dialogue with the works, which, as if summoned by Sandback’s deliberate voids, epitomizes the (in)visibility of their own matter, now shifted into a shared state of being.
Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.