Car parks, Sam’s Club, mom’s house, Target. At Panera Bread with your sister-in-law. Driving to Home Depot for shower hooks, a towel rack, new batteries. Take some more Tylenol, and you’ll still feel like shit. This stripe of existential cauterization sits at the heart of Libby Rothfeld’s solo show—her first in New York—titled “Good To Think With, Good To Think Against.” Rothfeld’s work acts as a sort of excavation of selfhood from suburban life, an attempt to find distinction within a landscape of mediocre vistas and big-box desolation.
Rothfeld’s three floor sculptures, all 2015, are mainly composed of distressed photographs depicting automobile interiors, adhered to planks of MDF with resin, which are mounted on tombstone-like cement slabs. Each work is skirted by sand embedded with small pieces of junk, such as old rubber bands and cracked bits of plastic. In Car #3, ceramic hands with pointed fingers on metal rods rise heavenward from a cluster of Subaru stars, while Car #2 has a row of three demure, bunny-eared fetish figures nestled atop a close-up picture of a grimy dashboard vent. Rothfeld is trying to imbue these banal images and materials with a mythology, a spiritual life—attempting to forge a haunted heart amid some sham ruins.
Warner Communications, 2014, is an oil painting of a floating monolith with the Saul Bass–designed Warner Bros. logo levitating before it. It sits on the back wall of the gallery’s closet, the floor within it littered with empty water bottles, cheap wire shelves, and flimsy sheets of painted wood. The painting feels like something pulled from a secret portfolio that could’ve belonged to Jack Goldstein—funny, smart, and in love with a dumb world that barely deserves it.
Villa Design Group’s first exhibition in New York, “One Blow In Anger (Evidence 2011–2014),” sinisterly flirts with the porous, parasitically connected lifestyles and aspirations of bohemia and the bourgeoisie. Here, aristocratic values shape the blueprint for a restless social circle’s ambitions, and in turn isolate these young bohemians as they strive for la dolce vita. The thread connecting the exhibition’s framed array of fine sketches and collages on graph paper is Evidence of Childhood I–XIX, 2015, a nineteen-part tale etched on aluminum plaques that are positioned individually below the framed works. This noir fiction recounts the murderous exploits of some few arriviste minded bohemians, punctuated by self-fashioning, vengeful greed, episodic betrayal, and pools of blood. Posh, albeit sterile, symbols of luxury and taste act as ready-mades and are bestrewed about the gallery space, including reproduction Barcelona chair frames and atavistic Calvin Klein Collection sweatshirts emblazoned with the label’s hallmark fragrances (Obsession, Eternity, Escape).
It is very difficult not to take the cynical exchanges described between the parable’s figures, Master Jays, Master Clark, and Master Connick, as an allegory for Villa Design Group’s own perspective toward collaboration and artistic communities—indeed, the exhibition’s press text confirms this. The narrative, coupled with the group’s use of fetishy, aspirational luxury design objects as raw material for their practice, outlines a harsh critique of hegemonic bourgeois values and yearning social climbers. What’s unclear—and detrimental to the project—is how, if at all, the artists situate any concern toward their own function as fabricators of taste and material goods directly marketed to an aristocratic clientele. Leaving this unsettled, “One Blow In Anger (Evidence 2011–2014)” appears to subscribe to a myopic, particularly late-capitalist logic: that subversive politics can be somehow made while working with steady materialist cravings and latent yearnings for accumulated wealth.
In 1684, a hall of mirrors was erected in Versailles as an immersive stage that would send countless reflections of a single expression into the world. If today the screen fulfills the function of the mirror, we’re left with a troubling question: Is the digital image more complete than a reflection? It’s an anxious proposition and one occupying Calvin Marcus, though the Los Angeles–based artist doesn’t make digital images. He favors clay and sticks of oil, tempered hardboard and corrugated cardboard, creating small sculptures—a sleeping ceramic shark, a crib-like wooden cage, doll-sized houses lit with purple LEDs—unique worlds brimming with angst and desire, works that deal in the poetics of nostalgia and repression.
For his New York debut, he presents one series, “Green Calvin,” 2014, which consists of ten monochrome green paintings, each with a ceramic green chicken fixed to its center. The color evokes a greenroom—the space where actors wait before performing—which spotlights our current liberty to put our lives on camera, to personally sculpt public identity. The clay, pulled and pushed to create a cadaver of a plucked fowl, looks soft and creepy. Marcus has carved out a face, his own, in the center, and each expression is very different, as if he has caught and sculpted various reflections. It’s all a bit nightmarish—finding one’s visage in raw flesh, being forced to pace in an infinity of selves—evoking the delirious level of upkeep our digital bodies require, the burden of manipulating reflection into image.
At the back of the gallery, there is one departure from Marcus’s labyrinth of green souls: a door that has been installed in the wall. It does not open. A broken clock has been adhered over its glass window—it’s the only image in the show.
Six sex-soaked abstract paintings from the 1960s make up Duane Zaloudek’s first New York exhibition in twenty years, and they fulfill a promise of art that is not always met: to move past beauty to desire, and to imbue form with the hot, sticky breath of life. Unlike his later, sparer paintings, which stamp down on sensory pleasure, these early works, painted in Portland and rhyming somewhat with the West Coast abstraction of Billy Al Bengston or Paul Jenkins, use circuitously erotic forms—solid shafts and bifurcated ovals, whose erogenous charge is compounded by a palette of cadmium red and rich, organic green. You’ll leave like Pygmalion: unhealthily in love, and desperate to join body to image.
The four paintings on canvas here are each called Milarepa, after a beloved eleventh-century Tibetan master—and advocate of karmamudrā, a disciplined sexual practice—whom Constantin Brancusi, a touchstone for Zaloudek, idolized. (At times, Brancusi imagined himself as Milarepa’s reincarnation.) Three of the works, from around 1965, feature pairs of large, drooping ovoids in the upper ground, bisected by firm vertical tubes that are themselves affixed with smaller ellipses. If the anatomical resonance in the first three canvases is unavoidable, the fourth one, from the end of the decade, joins the ovoids and the transversal shaft into a single tantric form. What’s more, Zaloudek introduces a stranger, more jagged black element that pushes the paintings beyond representation and into the realm of the senses. They pulsate, they shudder, they seduce and exhaust; they turn the riddle of abstraction into a carnival of pictophilia.
Given the current acme of self-referencing Buzzfeed culture—the phrase 90s nostalgia is a nearly ubiquitous descriptor for the millennials’ tics—Devin Troy Strother’s new works are a timely celebration of the cannibalizing nature of this generation’s zeitgeist. Here, Strother gives the 1990s Warner Bros. flick Space Jam top billing as an aesthetic jumping-off point for his lively installations, paving two of three rooms with basketball-court-inspired flooring and the third with loopy, space-themed carpet. Though three life-size cartoon-cutout Knicks introduce the show, Michael Jordan is center stage. Small cutouts of cartoon Jordan animate Strother’s lush paintings, which cheekily direct visual (and titular) references to Lynda Benglis, Cory Arcangel, and Rob Pruitt, among others. Five massive, shellacked black boxes stand Stonehenge-like around a basketball court hung with marble-and-bronze baskets; individually named for iconic b-ball stars (Who’s that big nigga in the room over there [TERRANCE]; Who’s that big nigga in the room over there [SHAQUILLE], both 2014), each structure is a McCracken-like homage to Kubrick’s monolith in that other space-themed movie.
Strother’s titles—a bronzed deflated basketball is called “fly like an eagle” (LeBronze), 2014; tactile paintings composed of pennants have names such as “we won nigga we won” (nigga, we never even scored), 2014—act as self-aware punch lines for each work, commenting not only on art history but basketball culture and its place in racial identity in America. With imagery that layers his stylistic and intellectual tribute to artists such as Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall over the glossy hologram aesthetic of the NBA, Strother boldly merges the inquisitive exploration of fine art with the bright-lights appeal of popular culture, flattening a hierarchy of cultural stigma.
The stage is a medium in itself for Ryan McNamara. While this has been gestured at in McNamara’s earlier output—including his 2012 show “Still” at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, which considered the production and circulation of performance images—his latest exhibition uses theatrical accouterments, specifically the spotlight, as formal devices, expanding the breadth of how the gallery can frame art as performative. A cluster of moving-head LEDs stand like antic sentinels at the center of the gallery, highlighting—and sometimes black-lighting—the show’s sculptures, “performance plaques,” and wall-bound reliefs in timed intervals.
The exhibition, curated by Piper Marshall, is titled “Gently Used,” referring to the worn materiality of the objects on display. Taken from McNamara’s performances, previously donned costumes—invariably a mix of futuristic flair and camp comedy—are repurposed through sculptural means, providing a second aesthetic life to the indexes of McNamara’s ephemeral live art. For instance, in Misty Malarky Ying Yang, 2014, fabric outfits from McNamara’s recent High Line performance are encased in colored Plexiglas in a freestanding swinging panel display. And in Unitard Stretch (Purple), 2014, seven unitards are pulled across wooden stretcher bars, producing an interlaced, entwined composition. Statically installed in the gallery, these works and others stand as tongue-in-cheek follow-ups to McNamara’s sprawling performances.
Images from McNamara’s productions make their way into many of the works as well, including the decoupage MEƎM (Silver), 2014, whose titular palindrome reflects back on itself and references the narcissism of the Internet age. Invoking the choreographed spectacle of McNamara’s award-winning performance MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet, 2013, an overload of photographs of figures from the dance float atop the canvas’s Factory silver background. More posed than poised, the gestures captured range from Thriller-esque hand claws to awkward, twirling bends. Every seven minutes the exhibition’s spotlight hits MEƎM with a black light, soaking the work and its immediate surroundings in an ultraviolet glow. For McNamara, even the white-walled gallery is a platform for shifting, immersive effect.
“What do you call a feminine top?” John Waters posed to a captive audience one summer night on New York’s very own gay Xanadu, Fire Island. Smirking, he replied, “Why, a blouse, of course.” Having both written and directed such cult-classic movies as A Dirty Shame, Pink Flamingos, and Hairspray, the “Prince of Puke” has made a name for himself skewering contemporary culture and celebrating society’s misfits while gleefully offending conservative tastes along the way. And for his current show, “Beverly Hills John,” Waters once again turns his caustic eye toward the twin, rock-hard pillars upon which celebrity rests: mortality and eroticism.
Waters’s Fellini’s 8 1/2, 2014—an oversized wooden ruler with the titular text pressed into it in bold black letters—is an empirical bon mot to the Italian director’s, well, achievements. Meanwhile, in the black-and-white photostrip, Shoulda!, 2014, a lineup of five fatal femmes (Whitney Houston and Anna Nicole Smith among them) follow a film-still caption that proclaims, “SHE SHOULD’A SAID ‘NO’!,” a not-so-subtle meditation upon the darker side of fame. Elsewhere, three large-scale color headshots depict pop-culture icons post cosmetic surgery (Beibs, Lassie, and Waters himself). With plumped lips and augmented cheekbones that just scream Jocelyn Wildenstein, Waters’s digitally altered self-portrait, Beverly Hills John, 2012, mordantly places under the knife the entertainment industry’s obsession with aging and appearances.
But not all of Waters’s works are so playfully tongue in cheek. Among them, the black-and-white photograph Separate But Equal, 2014, appropriates Elliot Erwitt’s iconic image Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina, 1950, depicting the racial prejudices that imbued the Jim Crow South. By swapping the terms “Whites” and “Colored” for “Gay Married” and “Gay Single,” Water emphasizes the growing alienation segments of the LGBT community feel from more assimilated members, which is anything but a one-liner.
Something is wrong with the centurions. They’re struggling beneath the royal box seating’s canopy. So why are the attendants still fanning the throne with peacock feathers? And have none of them seen the giant wheel the rest of the coliseum’s audience is fleeing—belonging, it seems, to a divine chariot crashing the mortals’ race? There are no explanations here for this or any of the other narratives implied in Peter Wächtler’s watercolors on display at Reena Spaulings. Neither for the row of plaster busts depicting unnamed people at the rear wall of the gallery (all works untitled, 2014). The insight that this show exploits is that the monument itself invents the story.
Go watch the video dominating the gallery—or rather, listen to it, since it is just a monologue voiced over banal landscape footage (as with the entire show, the elliptical connection between formal elements comically abstracts the viewer’s tendency to fill in the blanks)—and you will see what is so excellent about this artist. Wächtler is a narrative virtuoso, but his use of virtuosity is conceptually deliberate. He initiates a moment then disavows it, an antimodernist lesson in how to charm with silence—none of the lonely-partygoer, cornering real talk of an artist who insists on attenuating one idea into a series (or a novel—don’t neglect the collection of hyperabbreviated short stories that accompanies the exhibition: it’s the funniest book of 2014).
For her first solo exhibition at this gallery, Saira McLaren shows nine paintings and three porcelain ceramic pieces that evince a keen empathy for materiality, color, and the mutability of form. The sculptures, all untitled and produced in 2014, are craggy lumps glazed in mint green and patched with gold, and sport alternating pockmarked or scaled surfaces like a coral fished from the deep.
The paintings are wildly colorful yet somewhat ghostly due to how they’re less painted than stained with dye and pigment. Gestural marks are marshaled into a focused flow, evoking fantasy landscapes or the flat, dense style of graffiti signatures. The colors—turquoise, hot pink, apricot, gold, and lime—dance around and through one another, here as a bold puddle or there as a wispy, worming line. Each element holds the hand of the other, as in the three smaller paintings displayed in the front room. One of these, Birds in Spring, 2015, features soft lines that coil and swarm around one another in a pattern that would look equally at home printed on silk as on a city’s brick wall. The jettisoned perspectives and lack of representational anchoring in these three works feel less encumbered than the larger paintings in the back of the gallery, which hint at psychedelic expanses of nature. However, Untitled (Reflection), 2014, is the exception within these larger works, featuring a row of three teal trunks exploding with gold and pink dots and forest-green streams that echo below in a reflection dripped over the lower part of the canvas. It looks washed away, as if a rain had come and dissolved its structure, leaving the picture to cry itself into a smeared abstraction. Ruined, but free.
In “Speaking of People,” artists cut, collage, and repurpose Ebony and Jet—two magazines launched in the mid–twentieth century for black audiences—to draw attention to representations of race in print. In her inventive sixty-piece grid, DeLuxe, 2004–2005, Ellen Gallagher has added googly eyes, Plasticine, and paint to models’ faces in magazine ads to distort and transform the figures, as well as the promises that they advertise. Lorna Simpson further points to the fantasy of mutability inherent in such images in Riunite & Ice, 2014, a series featuring a floating female head on which she has collaged and painted different hair styles and accessories, a seriality that underscores both potential self-reinvention and the nature of the magazine as a medium.
Other artists isolate images of products advertised in these magazines, as Glenn Ligon does in his 1985 series. By pairing handpainted images of African American male hair products, such as Nu-Nile, Dax pomade, and Afro Sheen, with depictions of Giacometti and Brancusi sculptures that were shown in MoMA’s 1984 “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” exhibition, Ligon draws attention to how notions of blackness are disseminated, usurped, and remade in both high and low culture. Hank Willis Thomas also spotlights the circulation and representation of blackness in Black Is Beautiful (1953–2014), which features every woman in Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” column from the magazine’s print run, creating a compendium of changing approaches to black female beauty. Such work transforms isolated individuals into a single, monumental installation, demonstrating how print culture permeates our everyday world and serves as a material to be mined and defamiliarized by artistic intervention.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, the narrator recounts testing grown-ups by presenting them with a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Most adults recognize it as a hat, causing the drawing’s maker to never again discuss “boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars” with them, but instead “bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties.”
Judith Scott’s sculptures give a sense of shape-shifting between things like hats and processes like boa constrictors swallowing elephants. They are typically amorphous forms—mostly large yet small enough that they could still be cradled by an adult—that were produced by tightly binding and weaving fibers, generally multicolored yarn and fabric, around clusters of common objects. In a few instances, the underlying, often industrial materials—plastic tubing, wooden sticks, and clothing, for instance—poke out. More commonly, however, different things come to constitute a unified entity that is completely strange, but perhaps all the more so because it retains a sense that there is something we know very well hiding inside.
Scott was born with Down syndrome; she spent her life nearly deaf and was unable to speak. In her forties, Scott joined the Creative Growth Art Center, an art studio in Oakland for artists with developmental and physical disabilities, and her entire body of work was produced during the following eighteen years. Rather than pathologizing the artist, or divorcing these astounding artworks from their maker, this posthumous retrospective at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art prompts a reading of her work that is informed by ideas shared by feminism and the growing field of disability studies: that an art object is both connected to and dependent upon not just the lived experience of its producer but also a surrounding network of equally embodied subjects that are an integral, albeit frequently unrecognized, part of both making and the making of meaning.
This vest-pocket exhibition of two dozen photographs offers a valuable opportunity to see how quickly the terms of image perception are changing: how the period eye must now be measured not in centuries but in years. See the artist’s early, excellent black-and-white New York photographs—a predesecration 2 Columbus Circle (58th Street at 7th Avenue, Midtown, New York, 1978) and then West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York, 1978, which depicts a pre-gallery neighborhood full of low-slung Chevrolets. During the Met’s last outing of Struth in 2003, you still might have been happy to see the grit go, believing New York’s best days still lay ahead. In post-Bloomberg New York, where the crime-gripped 1970s city can seem a prelapsarian Eden, Struth’s unpopulated photographs feel closer to Eugène Atget’s images of pre-Haussmann Paris than to the typologies of his professors Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Struth’s most enduring and difficult works remain his museum photographs, whose depictions of dedicated art lovers or aimless tourists in Europe’s palaces of culture waver between faith in and doubt of aesthetic experience. A more contemporary reading of them might begin with a simpler observation: not one of the tourists is holding a camera or a phone. In the 2003 retrospective, these photographs offered a sly view of an ossified European culture. Ossification: We should be so lucky. Earlier this month, the Met’s newly appointed chief digital officer told the Wall Street Journal that the museum plans to track visitors’ movement throughout its exhibitions and permanent collection; if you pause for a moment in front of Madame X or the Etruscan chariot, your smartphone will ping with “an instant coupon for the catalog, or a meal being sold at the cafeteria that’s based on it.” Even the encyclopedic institution now treats its holdings as data in the service of profit, while the mass tourism Struth photographed decades ago looks bewitchingly unsullied: a last gasp before art’s pitiful reduction to shareable content.
As Congress considers a bill that would introduce artists’ resale rights, also known as droit de suite, to the United States, the timely group show “The Contract” promotes the bill’s underlying notion that artists should benefit from the price appreciation of their work. By requiring all sales of work on view here be subject to the 1971 Projansky contract—which stipulates that artists receive resale royalties—this exhibition suggests that, given the frenzied pitch of the contemporary art market (in which access is highly coveted), artists may now have sufficient power to demand resale royalties as part of their sales contracts.
Hans Haacke, the contract’s most famous adherent, and Maria Eichhorn, who interviewed Haacke and the contract’s authors, Bob Projansky and Seth Siegelaub, for her project The Artist’s Contract, 1996–2005, are grouped with Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda, Wade Guyton, Park McArthur, R. H. Quaytman, Carissa Rodriguez, and Cameron Rowland. McArthur’s Social Security, 2014, a desktop computer tower used by the artist from 2008 to 2013 and still replete with her personal files (of which no backups or copies were made), alludes to the relationship between artist and collector, characterized by vulnerability and trust (for the artist) and responsibility (for the collector).
Likewise referencing the complex and often compromised power dynamic between author and owner, Quaytman’s painting depicts a still from Andrea Fraser’s Untitled—the infamous 2003 surveillance video of Fraser’s sexual encounter with a collector—where the sales contract generated the work itself. Rowland's 49–51 Chambers Street—Basement, New York, NY 10007, 2014, a circular wooden table purchased at an auction of government property, evidences the endemic trend of privatization. Only by making the conditions of exchange central, even intrinsic, to the artwork itself, “The Contract” argues, can artists wrestle control.
Any account of Chris Ofili’s career will invoke the scandal around his rise to prominence in the 1990s, when he merged large-scale figuration with old-fashioned base materialism. His Holy Virgin Mary, 1997, was nearly banned when it debuted at the Brooklyn Museum, but his “afro lovers” and resin-coated elephant dung would reappear, including at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where he turned the British pavilion into a nocturnal redoubt.
Ofili’s American retrospective highlights his play of light and contrast and showcases a decade of new work, including forays into sculpture and theatrical design and refinements of earlier interests in drawing and portraiture. Many ’90s-era paintings are on display, and they are worth the price of admission. Widely circulated in reproduction, those paintings take on new power when encountered here. Larger than life, drizzled with resin, and festooned with map pins and glitter, their psychedelic landscapes are revealed as an intricate network of color and line. Curators now, as they have done in the past, try to read politics into the work, but Ofili’s skill as formalist is contribution enough.
Two galleries show the artist in maximalist mode: He flaunts his influences (Matisse, Bacon, Douglas, Warhol) but synthesizes them fluidly, aided by soft lighting that produces an ethereal experience of immersive looking. Nine oil paintings (2006–2014) nearly occlude their content, rendered in deep blues and hung like Rothkos; a garish suite of more narrative scenes hang on walls reimagined as the textile work of a scene shop. They blur the line between work and display, and utterly transfigure the New Museum’s blank surfaces. Ofili is off in new directions, and seemingly in grand modernist fashion.