While Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the scope of global surveillance have been met with every imaginable response, the least common seems to have been humor. In Sadie Benning’s “Patterns,” images of that peeping police state—metadata, found photographs, weaponry—are woven, often playfully, into wall-based works, suggesting less the ominous tone of the panoptical regime tracing our lives than the comedy of (military-industrialized) errors those lives have produced. Benning first cues the comedic point with a sedate green shag carpet the artist installed in the gallery, a sly evocation of cheesy, pre-PRISM suburban living rooms.
Benning tweaks a culture defined by compulsory gender normativity, impulsory gun mania, and the consumption of toxic materials (cigarettes and oil), reducing its signs to warped tokens of an everyday that increasingly makes very little sense. In Bathroom People (all works 2014), the near universal (and outmoded) symbols for male and female restrooms are paired and patterned across a medite board, with each tiny avatar torqued slightly to alter their familiar shape until they sort of dance, sort of lose their gender. In Mask, a found photograph of a driveway wall comprising anarchic tessellations of bricks sits below a Zorro mask spying on the scene. While sometimes abstract, Benning’s patterns occasionally take nervous shape—as mysterious signals or, more ominously, as guns, as in Gun Blanket. It’s a subtle comedy keyed to the network-y atmosphere of our dark times. And without a gallows present, perhaps we could call it systems-management humor.
A paradox: Art history seems to have slowed down and sped up at once. On the one hand, the 1990s are already the distant past, surveyed in exhibitions such as the New Museum’s “NYC 1993” or the Montclair Art Museum’s “Come As You Are,” opening this February. On the other, that decade has never ended, everyone is still reading Relational Aesthetics, the social turn will never die. Walking into this essential exhibition of the late Jason Rhoades, you instantly feel its dual time signature. His PeaRoeFoam project of 2002, reconstituted here, reads a bit like a last gasp of crashed-and-burned “scatter art” of the late ’90s (though Rhoades, as his drawings reveal, was a far more rigorous contrapuntist than his sloppier buddies). But it’s also an economic and ecological collision course that feels wholly and disturbingly contemporary.
What distinguishes this project from later work, such as his id-above-all Black Pussy, 2006, is its economic dimension: A factory clock ticks away, while a work station for Rhoades’s assistants (or “factory workers”) sits in the center of the gallery, covered in PeaRoeFoam: a commoditized sculptural material Rhoades created by colliding two organic elements—gray-green dried peas and blood-red salmon eggs—with glue and eco-unfriendly white Styrofoam beads. The artist let his workers sing karaoke during production, and for its 2002 presentation at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna, he imported the workstation wholesale then invited viewers to serenade other museumgoers. These days, though, no singing is permitted. A decade ago, Rhoades’s mock-Fordist gunge factory was still a place to party—but with the posthumous sacralization of this artist and others from the ’90s, PeaRoeFoam is no longer a disposable commodity but something much more valuable, in both aesthetic and economic terms.
In “Rebels Are Reasonable,” Fend brings a spirit of understated subversion to three interrelated projects—a deadpan video documenting the ebb and flow of the sea, sets of panels, and a series of redrawings of flags from around the world. In an effort to unseat traditional orientations of countries in the global South to those in the North, Fend exposes the flag as nothing more than an empty symbol often bearing the legacy of imperialist violence.
Flags, 2014, consists of ten aluminum panels over which abstractions of national flags have been printed. Fend illustrates ten distinct regions, including the paragon of colonial history, the United Kingdom, whose flag becomes a distorted, abstract mess that is a far cry from the respectability for which it affectedly strives. Printed with inkjet, the images are marked by horizontal lines, and are revealed to be as flimsy as national borders themselves, or, by extension, the artist’s authorial role. As a white man from the United States, Fend could be thought of as representative of the imperialist project in his well-researched but nevertheless self-aggrandizing reformulation of the borders and cultures of others.
That said, Fend uses the impersonal kitsch of the printer cartridge to take on very serious issues of public space; this method paradoxically effaces the artist’s presence from his self-admittedly personal activist work. We must contend therefore with a productive absence of answers that emerges from Fend’s irreverent and self-critical relationship to materials. By folding criticisms of his own political views into the show, Fend makes a punk-inspired intervention that opens his work to multivalent critique.
For all his achievements, for all his mastery, for all the support he has given younger sculptors, Mark di Suvero remains an infuriatingly undervalued American artist—and this despite the fact that the youthful eighty-one-year-old is the author of not one but two of perhaps the most visible artworks of the past decade. One is his remade Peace Tower, done in collaboration with Rirkrit Tiravanija and presented at the 2006 Whitney Biennial, in the trough of the Bush nightmare. The other is Joie de Vivre, 1998, the seventy-foot steel totem that formed the axis of Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park encampment.
Luney Breakout, 2013, the tour de force of his latest exhibition, climbs twenty-two feet, grazing the gallery’s vaulted ceiling, and, although it’s not painted, in many places its steel components have rusted to the artist’s beloved orange. Facing the sculpture frontally, the swooping curves supported by orthogonal legs seem anthropomorphic. Forty-five degrees away, the struts and curves resolve into a tangle of lines and planes. The plural forms of Luney Breakout shouldn’t surprise as for di Suvero, artmaking entails not purgation or disjunction but the synthesis of industrial rigor and winningly candid playfulness, of three-dimensional heft and lighter painting-in-space (the show also features two zippy paintings, as joyful as anything by Matisse), and indeed, of humanistic universality and unambiguous political antagonism—the last worn very publicly.
In an earlier moment of exclusionary judgment about sculpture, di Suvero’s open and promiscuous approach made him hard to pin down on one of Rosalind Krauss’s proscriptive diagrams. In our more capacious moment, it is easier to see such plurality for the triumph that it is—and at last to start to repay an artist we all owe so much.
A lambent quality suffuses Bill Lynch’s mostly untitled and undated paintings on scavenged plywood, executed during the last thirty years of his life. A furtive incandescence hovers inside them. Euphorically ambiguous, in the same breath they celebrate Chinese Ming dynasty flower-and-bird compositions, which hold complex symbolization and interior resonance, and Mesoa-American shamanistic burial textiles. In the former case, heavy impasto eclipses the lyricism that we associate with the genre, likening them more to the Chinese modernist tradition of Zhao Shaoang, whom Lynch admired. Floral and vegetal forms hang next to spiderwebs; lurking monkeys, twisted trees, and blue-and-white porcelain flirt with both aesthetics and affliction. Puzzling clues like the grave marker in Untitled (Marker), 2010, suggest but ultimately withhold any definitive last word.
Lynch’s exuberant pursuit of banal beauty leaves monstrous moments of congealed paint surface in its wake, not to mention perceptual disparities. In Untitled (Red Goblet with Deer), n.d., as we look down upon a tabletop with plates, we simultaneously look out onto a vignette of a figure gazing into a far-off seascape. Lynch employed this rückenfigur alongside other traditional devices, but his perspective is tremendously invigorating and unusual. In his renditions, the rectilinear surface becomes a place of close-looking at paint, at the uncompleted stroke, and of considering spiritual meaning in a contemporary world. A book of Zhao’s artwork and correspondence can be found in Lynch’s estatethe artist passed away in 2013 after suffering from schizophrenia for many years, and this show was curated by his friend and fellow artist, Verne Dawson.
On December 1, 1961, Claes Oldenburg’s Store opened on Manhattan’s East Second Street. For sale were replicas of banal objects—a plate of meat, a fur coat—made lumpy and lascivious. Each came as a burlesque of the commodity it represented, an enactment of its status as a fetish: lurid, slutty, and psychotic.
Gina Beavers’s latest paintings (all works 2014) preserve Oldenburg’s morbid obscenity, taking up the genre of the still life in its French inflection as nature morte. Derived from images posted on social-media platforms, their subjects—a “smokey eye” tutorial, junky nail art, a smile girded by braces—conflate the animate and the inanimate, figuring flesh as something lifeless and flaccid. Depicted straight on and close-up, several are serially composed, reflecting the use of online “collage apps” that mime the structure of desktop display. As in Oldenburg’s Store objects, questions of morphology are at stake here. Small in scale, Beavers’s canvases consist of sedimented layers of palette-knifed acrylic built up with modeling paste. Less pictorial than topographic, each positions paint’s materiality as a metonym for that of the body’s, making the latter seem cadaverous by comparison.
Crotch Shots from the Getty Villa, a five-part display of depictions of Greco-Roman genitalia snapped from statuary at the titular museum, is the show’s highlight. Riffing on the age-old equation of paintbrush and phallus, the work collapses the logic of the polyptych, a favored format for Renaissance devotional imagery, onto that of the lewd selfie. Color is vivid and at moments tenuously mimetic: in the lower right, a spectrum of moist mauves; in the upper center, a gluey gray, like day-old oatmeal. The resulting forms are equal parts comic and repulsive, factual and abstract. In Beavers’s hand, a sculptural afterthought becomes swollen and larval, recalling to us the strangeness of our enclosure by sweat glands and skin.
With few exceptions, the artists in “The Material Image,” curated by Debra Singer, eschew straight photography, favoring instead sculptural, painterly, and collagist approaches to the medium. Process—not narrative or documentation—is foregrounded, and the results are oftentimes carefully constructed, seemingly hermetic, self-referential compositions. While some, including Amy Granat and Nick Mauss, employ nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century procedures such as the cliché verre and the photogram, others, such as Lucas Blalock and Marina Pinsky, combine analog and digital techniques to achieve fantastical, multilayered worlds. For many, the studio (with its attendant tools) is not only the site of production but also the subject of their work. This is true of both Michele Abeles and John Houck, who upend wonted figure-ground relations to create uncanny staged still lifes.
At the center of this abstract, intermedia turn in contemporary photography is Barbara Kasten, a champion of László Moholy-Nagy who since the 1970s has produced quasi-constructivist photochemical abstractions. Of her four works on view (one for nearly every decade of her career), Architectural Site 3, June 14, 1986, 1986, an electric, unmanipulated photograph for which she used color gels and mirrors to turn New York’s postmodernist Equitable Building topsy-turvy, is a standout. One can’t help but see the pictured Benday dots of a still-discernible Roy Lichtenstein mural as auguring the imminent arrival of the digital pixel—the miniscule dot responsible for the unchecked proliferation of images and, some might argue, end point of photographic novelty. The stakes have been set for the artists at task.
Seven abstract monochrome canvases are displayed between unframed black-and-white photographs in Joshua Smith’s solo exhibition “The Blue Album,” some of which document a day trip to the beach that the artist took with two friends. Liz at the Beach, 2014, depicts one of his companions sunbathing along a calm ocean shore as she scrutinizes the screen of an iPhone. A large untitled arched canvas painted bubblegum-pink is positioned to the image’s right—its vertical orientation conjures a malformed Roman letter. The intimate proximity of Smith’s camera to his leisurely subject adds a tender air against the stark, sharply executed color field paintings that recall the abstractions of Ellsworth Kelly. Other untitled acrylic works assume forms that range from a crooked greater-than sign to a serif-like cane in maroon and jet-black, respectively. Upstairs, mounted within the flower shop above this artist-run basement gallery, is a cluster encompassing napkin drawings, old party photos, scenic snapshots, and monochrome studies with canvas shreds or Polaroid film exposure.
The insertion of tender, youthful, or domestic scenes amidst the historically onerous tradition of color-field painting suggests the artist holds minimalism as a space not solely for material rigor, but also for humor and affection. Only two untitled canvases adopt a customary rectangular form and, mounted beside each other, they evoke the scale of Felix Gonzalez Torres’s 1988 monochrome quadrytpic Forbidden Colors. With that work, the late artist sought to challenge the “divine dogma of modernism” and stressed the response to his abstractions would be factored by political contexts and biases. Smith might agree here, adding nostalgia and intimacy to the mix.
The current, malign vogue for wearable gadgets could have panned out so much better if Nam June Paik were still around, there to remind us to interrogate, to laugh at, or to disrupt technology rather than accept it wholesale. His TV Bra for Living Sculpture, 1975, a pair of screens sported by a nude Charlotte Moorman, or TV Penis, 1972, a sort of television condom worn during a performance at The Kitchen, imbricated technology and the human body, but not into some cyborg third term. Even with his TV Cello, 1971, which Moorman played in a kind of carnal embrace, new media was used to enable new forms of human eroticism and potentialities, rather than to subordinate bodies to machines, or worse, corporations.
In this way, Paik—trained as a composer—might be much closer to Richard Wagner, the original tech-obsessed erotic mastermind of “the artwork of the future,” than to his alleged successors using tech for tech’s sake. This selective exhibition, the first in New York since Paik’s death in 2006, revalorizes Paik's sculptural works (notably the early radio-controlled assemblage Robot K-456, 1964) and reemphasizes his views of new media, which were, like Wagner’s, prescient but ultimately too romantic. Long before the rise of the Web, Paik saw television as not a one-to-many transmission, but a more plural affair in which individuals could intercede and reconstitute the mechanisms of broadcasting. Younger artists or anyone still naively confusing technology with progress would do well to heed Paik’s words from 1965: “Cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important.”
Urgent and metaphysical, Fred Wilson’s latest exhibition is an elegantly rendered meditation on the African diaspora. His sculpture The Mete of the Muse, 2006, occupies the center of the main room. An ancient Egyptian figure made of bronze with black patina stands beside the figure of a woman, also made of bronze but painted white, sculpted and posed in the Greco-Roman style. Across the room and facing that centerpiece is Ota Benga, 2008, a bronze cast of a young man stolen from Congo and exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair and Bronx Zoo; a delicately tied white scarf suggestively drapes the base of the sculpture.
Surrounding these is a series of paintings of flags from African and Caribbean nations, including The People and M, both 2010. Only the black parts of each flag are painted—the rest is left blank. Juxtaposing this series is Untitled, 2009, an installation of sixty-three wooden plaques describing the color symbolism of the flags on display. Don’t, 2010, also a work of black acrylic on canvas, strikes a different note by presenting various versions of American flags layered one on top of the another. Meanwhile, carefully arranged on the wall of the second room, Wilson uses black and reflective tear-shaped blown glass for the works Cadence and Whether or Not, both 2014. On either side of these works are three Venetian-style works whose titles echo Othello: Act V. Scene II—Exeunt Omnes, 2014, I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind, 2013, and No Way But This, 2012—less a literary allusion than a gesture toward a new form of empathy.
On encountering the empty wall-mounted tubing of Agnieszka Kurant’s End of the Signature, 2014, it is possible to miss the mere seconds it takes for dark neon to shoot through the twisting structureas if suddenly scrawled by an invisible handand materialize into a sign. For this work in the artist’s current exhibition, “Variables,” Kurant collected more than one hundred signatures and used specially designed software to merge them into a single, collective one, which a nearby machine writes and rewrites with a pen. Maps of phantom islands, one topographical, one color-coded for national territories, appear in a side gallery. The room is empty save for a soccer ball on the floor, an animatronic object that inches away, its movements so slight as to be almost imperceptible.
Not seeing becomes as important as seeing: Kurant’s works, often automated like mechanical Turks, conjure art even with blind participation, influenced by economies in which play gets converted into labor. For A.A.I 1-6, 2014, the artist collaborated with a lab in Florida to deploy termites to build six mounds out of glitter, gold, and jewel-colored sand, echoing the Kurant’s stake in collective intelligence, a theme that pervades the exhibition. Placed on a pedestal in the gallery, the structures take on the authority of ruins and press at a democratization of mark-making. In a more minimal gesture, a U-shaped conveyer belt leads into a mirror, and our gaze completes the path of this fiction-generating device, forever feeding into itself with our gaze. Nearby, in Air Rights 1, 2014, a rock floats electromagnetically just above its plinth: Suspended between our world and one just beyond it, Kurant points to that exact location where understanding yields to astonishment.
Imagine a sexual identity outside of the tedious LGBTQ-whatever-whatever-whatever acronym, one that doesn’t fall into the rank and file of stultifying political positioning or compartmentalization. Imagine bodies who’d balk at the notion of belonging to anything other than themselves, their ideologies indefatigably linked to the viscerally erotic—getting you off while scaring you shitless. Welcome to the savagely erogenous theatre of Genesis BREYER P-ORRIDGE and Pierre Molinier, two beacons of glittering black light amid a pallid sea of dumdum process-based abstraction by fuckwit, twenty-something straight boys.
Remember the better part of the 1990s, when being labeled a pervert, à la Pat Califia, Ron Athey, or Annie Sprinkle was a badge of honor? Experiencing this exhibition reminds me of what we see so little of in the art world anymore: risk. Money talks a lot today, and it’s bred an infinity of banality. Molinier’s photomontages are the stuff of magnificent obsession: jewels of pain, desire, and horror scrupulously built from the atom up. Nearly every costume, mask, and prop featured in his photographs were either created or altered by him, much in the way he “created” and altered his own flesh—transmogrifying the pat sexiness of lingerie, stiletto heels, or an erect cock into symbols and sensations infinitely more hallucinatory, majestic, and satanic.
BREYER P-ORRIDGE’s Polaroids document the surgeries and sex positions s/he shared with he/r departed other half, Lady Jaye, with whom s/he embarked—and continues to embark—on the project of Pandrogeny, a rigorous and metaphysical interrogation of gender and identity’s fallibility and mutability. What Molinier tried to do with his own body, BREYER P-ORRIDGE has done quite literally, undergoing a wide range of procedures to look like and become one with Lady Jaye. What s/he’s created manages to go beyond art—it’s a rebus of divine possibility—and a revived hope that real strangeness and beauty haven't entirely vanished.
At a moment when social-media fatigue may be finally tempering the ebullient narcissism of practically a decade of “status updates,” Brian Calvin’s new works crystallize the inevitable malaise of an acutely self-aware population. His clever and luminous paintings—rendered in the Day-Glo colors of overexposed photographs—depict hyperexposed pretty young things casually mugging for an unseen observer, their faces flattened (visually and figuratively) with the stylized ennui of Modigliani’s oblong portraits. In Reflect, 2014, a nude woman gazes at herself in a makeup mirror, and alongside her we study her mildly uneven breasts. In other works, he zeroes in even further: the same pair of sensually parted glossed lips reappear throughout the show, and he often tightens the frame to reveal gap teeth and a dormant tongue.
Emotionally distant and elusively cool, Calvin’s characters convey the banality of selfie culture, and, like selfies, they evade any narrative arc. A California-raised artist, Calvin is occasionally compared to David Hockney, whose colors and subject matter equally evoke the ominously easy life of a sun-bleached suburbia, and to the New Yorker Alex Katz, whose graphic, flat compositions are visual siblings of Calvin’s, but whose paintings tend to suggest backstories and aftermath. Calvin takes a more existential approach to portraiture, treating the human face or body as a self-contained landscape, and in these new pictures he has both tightened and expanded his focus. Where his earlier works tend to portray the awkwardness of casual interactions between people, these breviloquent scenes close in on an epidemic of self-awareness: The objective filter of a close-up may magnify the physical, but it also protectively hides the soul.
This salon-style hanging of David Benjamin Sherry’s work is made up of a profusion of paradoxes—campy landscapes manipulated in the darkroom, punk-inspired portraiture, and an enormous sculpture of a Kelvin thermometer—that require an investment in slowness, a willingness to consider how potent social commentary can emerge from the meandering crevices of a mountain. It is as if Jimmy DeSana and David Lynch met on the road and decided to mine the gung-ho American idealism of Edward Weston and Frederick Sommer for its previously unconsidered potential.
Sherry’s insertion of queer themes into the trajectory of modernist photography gives us space to stop and consider the erotic body of the image itself. Crisply rendered and awash in flamboyant colors, Sherry’s landscapes, shown concurrently at Danziger Gallery, are in a perpetual process of unity and visual decomposition akin to that of the human body. In Deep Blue Sea Rising, Oregon, 2014, for example, Sherry’s vision of the American landscape breaks down into the tactile skin of the sea, only to be brought back together by swaths of pigment. It is a similar operation to Amy Sillman’s rendering of her friends as quasi-abstract figures, as in her painting N & O, v3, 2006.
It is no mistake, then, that presiding over the exhibition is a self-portrait of Sherry in drag, an image that sets in motion a new understanding of photography as an embodied medium, even in the impersonal haze of the digital age. Through a distinct intimacy with the land, the body, and the darkroom, Sherry’s photographs strive to be as supple and complex as skin itself, and in so doing, they call into question the passé one-dimensionality of formalist photography and Romanticism.
In “Made by Whites for Whites,” a sister exhibition to “Rescue” at Jack Shainman's Twenty-fourth Street gallery, Nick Cave abandons his signature Soundsuits—flamboyant and playful bodysuits fashioned out of everything from fabric, beads and buttons to metal, wood, and even human hair—for artifacts of a dark period in American history: blackface memorabilia. Circulating widely through the past two centuries these common household objects—featuring caricatures with jet-black skin, bulging white eyes, thick red lips, and wide toothy grins—surreptitiously domesticated and reinforced racist stereotypes. Cave rehabilitates these grotesqueries by placing them at the center of object arrays made from a variety of found garage sale kitsch, creating new contexts that suggest alternative reads.
A ceramic jar featuring a scowling face is the focus of Sea Sick (all works 2014). Placed high on a shelf, it is flanked by a pair of golden hands, thumbs facing outwards and fingers pointed up. Framed by repeated maritime scenes, the distortions of caricature read as an anguished primal scream against atrocities suffered during the Middle Passage, revealing the horrors hidden in and by the picturesque. Sacrifice features another, more curious head; made of painted wood and attached to the end of a pole, it resembles a club but was most likely used as a target in a carnival game. Cradled by a pair of wall mounted bronze hands, this uncanny assemblage evokes both the tender gesture featured in paintings of Christ’s lamentation and the barbarity of a beheading.
Through poignant but simple, almost homely gestures—raising some up onto pedestals, using casts of his hands to present others with care, enshrining still others in sheltering halos of exuberant kitsch—Cave redeems these abjections by transforming each into an altarpiece where we may begin to exorcise the lingering demons of racism.
In the rear gallery, a film documents a young, naked woman with a billowy 1980s hairdo and slip-on heels who reclines stiffly, her back arched, on a small stage. She has pillows below and around her, but they don’t provide support. Photographers and assistants dart around the platform, adjusting her body parts and the pillows while providing running commentary of the scene. The edges of the platform are rough and unpainted; at its periphery are big lights and a camera, tools, other people, and a dog. After the shoot, the girl has trouble standing again as the lights are shut off. The film is Harun Farocki’s 1983 Ein Bild (An Image), which patiently observes the creation of a centerfold for German Playboy. The outsize interest in bland visual production is characteristic of the artist who passed away in July. Here, too, the staging works as an ideological microcosm, reproducing perfectly the priorities of a much larger system that cannot be seen.
The exhibition also includes Farocki’s most recent, and sadly last, body of work. Titled Parallel I–IV, 2012-14, four video pieces systematically unpack the world as rendered by computer games. Twenty years after Ein Bild, the subject is still the constructedness of the visual field. The videos combine a player’s typical vantage on the game with screen views of what programmers see when building the game, as well as footage of the latter at work, while a stolid voice-over provides commentary. Yet a lot has changed. In Parallel I for instance, simulated movement in trees, clouds, and waves gives rise to reflections on perpetual effects without stimulus. In sharp contrast to the aforementioned photographic subject, Parallel IV approaches a female character in a game. Described by the narrator as “between person and prop,” she inheres at the margins of the game’s universe, incapable of interaction, bobbing slightly with a permanent smile. Farocki was clearly attentive to the unsettling societal implications of an action-motivated aesthetic framework arising in response to singleplayer attention, carefully scripted yet appearing to have no limits nor end.
For her latest exhibition, Lily van der Stokker has assembled a fiercely united front of matte, Pepto-Bismol-pink painted wooden boxes, furniture, panels, and walls bordered with ribbons of fuchsia and the occasional dollop of creamy yellow for a daisy’s center. The artist—a purveyor of margin-style doodles blown up to mural scale—begins the show with Yelling Women (all works 2014), a sculptural speech bubble protruding off the wall like an advertisement, proclaiming, “only yelling older Women in here Nothing to Sell.” It’s a preemptively dismissive gesture, and critical in turn for how it winks at the invisibility in which established women artists continue to labor, especially within the market (nothing to sell, nothing to see?).
Throughout the installation, text blurbs with polite phrases and small chat sayings such as “nice” or “best regards” pepper the corners of paintings or lie in cut vinyl, cloud-shaped puddles around the base of sculptures, as in Huh 2. A stack of painted boxes over nine feet tall, draped with flat, thin vinyl cartoon drips and crowned with toilet paper rolls epitomizes the artist’s wayward translation of banal commercial design and products into an individual vocabulary. Over the past three decades, Van der Stokker has displayed an impulse towards totalizing ornamentation and a curious commitment to sentimentality bordering on mawkishness, as deep and light as the flat, pink puddles here. But it’s this very lightness, combined with a generous consideration for beauty, which renders her gestures radical when art is dominated by sparsity and political grandstanding.
Allan McCollum’s “The Shapes Project,” which began in 2005, was designed to create a unique sculpture for every person in the world, with an objective of producing over thirty-one billion different shapes. His latest iteration presents an explosion of color and dissimilarity that evoke ethnographic associations, emphasizing the impossibility of containing the profusion of difference that exists in American society.
McCollum presents pairings of multicolored shapes: Each has been attached to its own discrete wood panel and stacked with the others on the gallery wall. The result are several large grids that have been assembled for this exhibition; while the shapes are hung in specific compositions, later iterations can be organized in a variety of ways. While the arrangements invoke critiques of the grid and the monochrome, more crucial is the way the color and cut of the wood forms comment on gender and sexuality. With each unique twosome, always amorphous but oddly complimentary, there is a resistance to categorization and a deliberate rejection of the categorizing impulse of the eye. For McCollum, vision’s role as the foundation of difference is unseated and open to queer reformulations.
And yet it is melancholy that overruns the exhibition: Each couple is caught in time, forever sealed within a single, immobilizing box. If McCollum’s project seems initially about unity, his appeal here seems driven by anxiety: What would it take to fully break the normative ties that visually and culturally bind these figures together?
Find. Fold. Photograph. These actions form one of the basic strategies of Erica Baum’s exquisite practice, for which she mines outmoded, moribund printed material, such as library card catalogues and yellowed dime-store paperbacks from the 1960s and ’70s, to create simple yet infinitely engrossing “found collages.” For “The Paper Nautilus,” this bibliophilic artist has brought together new works from three distinct series: “Stills,” “Viewmasters,” and “Naked Eye,” which capture the halftone, molecular blueprint of their subjects.
Though her well-known concrete poetry constructions are not on view, text (and the literary pleasures associated with it) remains instrumental to her recent pictures. The exhibition itself, for instance, takes its name from a 1940 poem by modernist writer Marianne Moore (1887–1972), who, like Baum, is known for having recycled and explicitly recontextualized the words of others. Meanwhile, despite the oftentimes abstract and elusive quality of Baum’s imagery, her redolent titles, such as The Warren Commission, which is coupled with a grisaille Josef Albers lookalike, and Kent State, which accompanies a more conspicuously bifurcated image (one half of which pictures silhouetted soldiers against leafless trees), not only color her mostly black-and-white compositions, but also allude to their sources.
Whether image- or text-based, Baum’s pieces are replete with references both familiar and obscure—the Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich, the graphite grids of Minimalist Agnes Martin, and the rule-based Conceptual work of Sol LeWitt are but some of the most frequently cited. However, the very richness of her production resides in the considerable space it leaves viewers to fill in the gaps, to free associate visuals and narratives of their own making, and, most of all, to engage in such intimate ways with material on its way—or perhaps already—out the door.
Including several series which have never before been on public display, “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1979–1989” takes a rare glimpse into the early work of the Los Angeles–based artist’s forty-year career. The exhibition fills a crucial gap in understanding his development: In the formative years of Conceptualism, Gaines—a longtime colleague of Sol Lewitt—created a complex, rule-based approach to his two-dimensional gridwork, which consisted of numerical sequences in pencil or ink on large sheets of gridded paper. Those familiar with Gaines’s more recent work may be surprised by the lack of any visible mention of the politics behind this seeming painstakingly developed methodology, epitomized by the nonrepresentational numerical sequence “Regression,” 1973–74.
Gaines’s foundational interest in systems-based abstraction as an implicit ideological critique over explicit political sentiment is showcased through these early works. In each work in his twenty-six part series “Walnut Tree Orchard,” 1975–2014, Gaines represents a barren walnut tree three ways: as a black-and-white photograph, a drawn outline of the tree, and a numerical sequence mapping the distance of the tree in relation to all the trees represented before it, in effect creating a numerical orchard. Here, impartial mathematical sequences provide an alternate logic for viewing the world. At the same time, the outline of the tree bears traces of the artist’s hand, which lends a touch of the spontaneous in an otherwise orderly mathematical formality. Finally, the mapped tree orchard is indicative of Gaines’s stake in both duration and the effect of time on perception. His commitment to revealing systems of representation is repeated in other series—including portraiture in “Faces,” 1978, and the human body in “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance,” 1981—each deploying systems that skirt politics to land on identity.