Matthew Girson contemplates the Jewish American experience in his solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. “The Painter’s Other Library” comprises sixty-eight oil paintings and one video that portray three primary subjects: a library bookshelf, a blackout curtain, and a Nazi bonfire. All the painted images are depicted either in hushed, dark hues or as black monochromes. Although Girson has not included titles on any of the book spines, the lighting in his virtual library would be too dim for reading, anyway. The artist provides a perceptual experience—adjusting the eyes to see in the dark—as a metaphor of consciousness and its motives.
An anxious appreciator of Martin Heidegger’s writings despite the philosopher’s Nazi sympathies, Girson alters the German thinker’s spoken word to exclude his words, leaving an audio artifact of only breaths to accompany a one-second loop from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film of a bonfire, Triumph of the Will. The bonfire image is replicated in Allegory, Allegory, Part 1, 2014, twenty-four slick-black oil paintings (the same number of film frames per second). The black fire rages but illuminates nothing.
That several of the black paintings have already been defaced attests to their power. A funerary shroud, a silent library: The paintings are witness to an uncomfortable antinomy—that world conflict, Nazism, and genocide prompted the global diaspora of the Jewish intelligentsia (from Einstein to Freud) and birthed academic freedom, in which Girson participates. The artist seeks to locate and to transmit painterly enlightenment via vessels of history—namely, visual art.
“Comic Future,” curated by Ballroom Marfa’s Fairfax Dorn, assembles drawings by Sigmar Polke and Walead Beshty, sculptures by Liz Craft, a video by Paul McCarthy, and paintings by Lari Pittman, among other works, to plumb the formal and conceptual plasticity of comics and cartoons within contemporary art. The works on view tease out the cartoon body, a ready-made form implicated as a sign of globalized capital and identity, and as such a tool for spirited social critique. In this context, it's not surprising that Walt Disney’s various characters abound along with superheroes and other robust characters gestured at in the work of Dana Schutz, Peter Saul, Aaron Curry, and Carroll Dunham.
One will notice the profile of Snow White’s dwarves in Arturo Herrera’s mesmerizing graphite drawing Untitled, 2001, and then see them reappear in Rapt, 2011, a layered collage of cut felt that enlarges and abstracts their familiar visages. From here, it is easy—even comfortable—to see the characters in Mike Kelley’s Untitled (Allegorical Drawing), 1976/2011, or in Schutz’s Feelings, 2003, as cousins of Dopey and Doc. Likewise, Kelley’s “City” sculptures and videos suggest not only depictions of Superman’s Kandor, as Kelley intended, but also another magical kingdom, where Erik Parker’s psychedelic vegetation and Sue Williams’s humanoid blobs might call home. As much as these works may withdraw into “comic abstraction,” they also speculate on and engage another world, a posthuman future evolving and devolving into forms not so different from our own.
In “Yes Captain,” the surfaces of Genieve Figgis’s paintings resonate with fetishistic effect—they are charged with erotic force and replete with lascivious, decadent content. An implied narrative permeates these intimately scaled works. In the exhibition’s eponymous piece, a dominant figure seems to be in a Peter the Great–era costume: In a rich crimson velvet ruched coat, he is caught in flagrante delicto with a woman bent at the waist and daubed with fleshy pigments. The imperiousness of power is revealed in the quivering surfaces of these paintings, where faint wisps of color are like distortions at dusk, haunted by ambiguity. He is truncated, painted without a head, while she is corporally whole, yet in the submissive position. The fluid profile of the woman is slightly averted and echoed in the treatment of the paint, which is marbleized like endpapers in old books. Blots of paint create abstractions within the figuration, at one moment suggesting a garter on the woman’s slender thigh. Ultimately, it is the viewer who is conquered by Figgis; her amorphous intrigues and painterly surfaces of orgasmic indulgence entice one to look deeper into these mesmerizing works.
Other paintings expose more hesitant gestures and postures. The figures in People from the Village, 2014, look like the mentally ill subjects in Diane Arbus’s photographs; they appear as heavy bodies lurking in a landscape of color fields, in which lurid green from below and clean blue from above merge like indiscrete arrangements. A thick crest of hair from one figure drifts to blend with the swaths of color, while dense brushstrokes portray clutching hands. Populated by exquisite personalities that commingle in suggestive iterations, these paintings provoke thoughtful investigations into the dynamics of image production.
Commissioned by the museum, and conceived of as a tongue-in-cheek “collaboration” with the museum’s architect, Zaha Hadid, Mithu Sen’s playful but unsettling Border Unseen, 2014, opposes the brutally rigid and abstract geometry of Hadid’s building by tracing a soft, fleshy line in the space. Rising up gradually from the floor, the eighty-foot-long hanging sculpture consists of a narrow ridge made from carefully poured pink dental polymer that is topped with a seemingly unending row of false teeth, which are held in place by drips of gooey, hot glue, and sits atop a thin metal beam. In a quintessential feminist gesture, the abject interior of the human body is transfigured into both architecture and landscape.
Though the arrested fluidity of Sen’s materials recalls Lynda Benglis’s famous poured-latex sculptures from the 1970s, here the scale and effect is more intimate than sublime. The sculpture simultaneously evokes various body parts—spine, tongue, tail—in addition to an impossibly long and straight gingiva. Firmly anchored high on a far corner wall, it also resembles a parasitic worm more than it does a discrete external threat.
Interspersed among the fake teeth, which are occasionally arranged in circles or ellipses to possibly suggest vagina dentata, are other similarly sized objects: pointy shark teeth, tiny cartoon skulls, and miniature train set figurines. These details encourage close looking along the sculpture’s length and introduce the possibility of narrative. Transforming the materials used to build oral prostheses into a floating fantasy landscape, Sen’s sculpture manages to combine the sensibilities of two distinct periods of our lives—the young and the old—incorporating childlike play to take the edge off our impending mortality.
Leave it to Kara Walker to fuse early-1990s hip-hop with the early-twentieth-century avant-garde in her most recent curatorial effort, “Ruffneck Constructivists.” Walker’s title references the song “Ruffneck” by protofeminist rapper MC Lyte, which affirms the rakish street fixture as one who “goes hard,” unafraid to take action, upending societal strictures in the process. Simultaneously, Walker invokes the Russian Constructivists, suggesting revisions to their modernist legacy. Reimagining the idealism of utilitarian form as social ideology, “Ruffneck Constructivists” recuperates a vitality that too often slips into the crack between modernist transcendence and urban redevelopment. Without explicitly engaging a political agenda, the show articulates a realm of architecture’s intersection with urbanism that is at once radically new and very, very old: the formation of spaces that both repress and are defined by blackness. Aptly exemplified by Kendell Geers’s freestanding sculpture Stripped Bare, 2009—a window delicately cracked by the traces of bullets—the works’ undermining of architecture’s pretensions to stability and security defy the exploitative realities of late-capitalist surveillance, spectacle, and consumption.
Probing the abject forces behind the quantification of personhood, in Claim, 2014, William Pope.L pins 688 fragrant slices of bologna to a wall. Onto each slice is pasted an image of a randomly photographed resident of Philadelphia, and they all together represent 1 percent of the city’s Jewish population. Equally poetic in its mining of material affect, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s art stages fluttering detritus, tiny film projections, and mirrors as a self-reflexive web of remembrance and posterity. While these installations imply the traces of lived presence, Kahlil Joseph’s videos, already beloved by many hip-hop enthusiasts, present urban life as a dreamy entropy, picturing city dwellers as the architects of their own fate. Similarly, Deana Lawson’s Untitled Snapshots, 2013, capture a woman posing with her incarcerated boyfriend and her familytheir varying arrangements, clothing, and hairstyles evidencing the passing of time. Lawson taps a spirited refusal of futile social tautologies—one paralleled in the exhibition’s own insistence on troubling who shapes and authorizes urban environments.
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is not so much a book to be read as it is to be experienced. This is a key thought to hold on to when viewing Spanish artist Dora Garcia’s The Joycean Society, 2013, one of three large-scale video projections with accompanying sculptural elements gathered by curator Chantal Pontbriand for the exhibition “Of Crimes and Dreams.” Shot in a documentary style, the film hovers around members of a reading group in Zurich as they decode a single page in Joyce’s masterpiece. As the complex, ciphered text is unpacked word by word, spontaneous tangents emerge across literary cues and personal anecdotes. It’s a durational performance of sorts (keeping in mind that it takes the group eleven years to work through the entire book), and the longer one watches the more it becomes clear that, for Garcia, the essential value of language, no matter how irrational or obscure, is the parallel social dynamic that it reveals.
Similarly, for her video Désordre, 2013, Garcia invited residents at a French psychiatric hospital to read Finnegans Wake as well as Félix Guattari’s Soixante-cinq rêves de Franz Kafka (Sixty-Five Dreams of Franz Kafka) (2007), this time prompting a free-association discussion on daydreaming, anxiety, and betrayal. There is a candid synergy to this group of marginalized “others,” and the results are pointedly lucid: “I think it’s important to dream because it’s proof of life,” says one patient. It all comes together in a pair of large chalkboards from Garcia’s ongoing series “Mad Marginal Charts,” 2009–. Here, Garcia has devised a kind of spiraling linguistic calculus based on research on Joyce, Freud, Lacan, and Antonin Artaud to anti-psychiatry and deinstitutionalization. Impenetrable at a glance, this mapping of abstract symbols and equations demands complete absorption, in time opening a coded gateway that at once confounds and creates meaning beyond the conscious limits of language and society.