The curators of “Unedited History: Iran 1960–2014” claim “not to construct a definitive history but to recreate the major social and political ‘sequences’ that shaped the country’s visual culture between the 1960s and the present day.” The exhibition-as-documentary’s discrete, clean, and indeed, highly edited presentations include individuals’ works and collated material (one section traces the history of the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of the Arts). Following the circuit of the museum’s top floor, temporary walls positioned at offset angles demarcate and divide artists’ works into three chapters: before, after, and during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 through 1988. Camera-based mediums dominate, and the selection is tightly orchestrated with the aim of informing viewers about a history of cultural aspirations fueled by an agenda to be modern. Shown interrupted—indeed, placed on hold—by the revolution, the country’s previously pursued and imposed modernist legacy is represented by a quiet, small presentation of graphic posters and vitrined publications. Certain modernist figures’ works are given fresh attention—the collages of Bahman Mohassess and the journalistic photographs of Kaveh Golestan, for example—although a shortage of interaction between the works strips down the vividness of their original context. Similarly, the conditions of the contemporary postrevolution are framed in relation to a modernism in Western terms, and viewers come to question whether this approach is generative or an unsupported framing that leads to misinterpretation.
The exhibition, again according to the curators, puts forth an intriguing sampling of “the basic components of Iranian visual culture” that, in its focus on “the sometimes less obvious continuities between successive periods,” only makes viewers curious for further context. Bahman Kiarostami’s standout video Flowers, 2013, which sampled TV reports from April 1, 1979, the day the revolution was announced, acts as a portal to the feverish on-air, off-the-cuff experience of a particular time and place, and knowingly hints at implications of mediating history through the unavoidable act of editing.
Neither retrospective nor commercial display, “Dries Van Noten – Inspirations” is the rare design exhibition that contextualizes fashion as merely one aspect of visual culture. An interlacing of the Belgian fashion designer’s most recognizable collections with a multitude of his influences fills two levels, from floor to wallpapered ceiling, of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Arranged both chronologically and thematically—and interrupted by a film installation by David Michalek that animates several recent designs—the show highlights the Antwerp Six designer’s collections, from pieces marking his graduation show at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts in 1981 to his spring/summer 2014 collections, inspired by the museum’s wares and the making of this exhibition.
The constellation of visual style pairs a grid of David Bowie and Grace Jones album covers that fills a nearby wall with jackets and blazers featuring the bold shoulders that marked the 1980s, sharply cut in dyed leather. Meanwhile, mannequin clusters positioned against backdrops with faraway imagined landscapes, including Mexico and the “Orient,” accumulate as notes of wanderlust and exoticism in the designer’s archive. Moving along obliquely, conceptual groupings such as “Uniforms” are presented, with military-style suits and their inspirations—film stills from Francis Alÿs’s The Guards, 2005, and Michaël Borremans’s oil portrait of a soldier, Lakei, 2010; “Butterflies” introduces a Damien Hirst canvas to a 1937 Elsa Schiaparelli gown covered in the titular insects, netting to match; the concept of gold is epitomized exultantly—glamorously—by a 1978 Thierry Mugler lamé dress, a 1967 Chanel suit, and an early twentieth-century Balkan costume, all kept safe in glass vitrines.
The friction between moods is a productive one. Complicating the rich anthropological aspects of the show, the ontology of textures, both tactile and visual, tempers “Inspirations” into a complex, entangled arrangement.
At the center of Mickalene Thomas’s new body of paintings, drawings, and video work, a stately portrait reprises the artist’s depictions of one of her longtime models, Marie (Marie Femme Noire Nue Couchee 2, 2014). Building on Thomas’s challenge to the machismo innate in the Western canon, Thomas has endowed Marie with a single large eye, integrating a theme of seeing and being seen that reaches back to Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The motif replays throughout this new series of portraits, which are richly constructed by Thomas’s uniquely styled applications of paint. Translucent glosses layered over one another imitate plaid, while Thomas staggers impasto swatches with her signature rhinestones in order to suggest the luminosity of a window or swath of fabric. She has snuck patchwork pieces of photographs seemingly cut from her source materials (personal photographs and scanned images of the eighteen volumes of The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement, 1971) over the face of each woman, spooling together quasi-autobiographical references. These play off of materials like textured paper that the artist collected during her residency in Paris, also collaged into the works, heightening the historical and personal breadth of this project.
Thomas is known for her glittering, discoesque portraits of women that throw a cool focus on the tug-of-war of gender, race, and societal identity. In these new works, the women she depicts even more powerfully claim their autonomy. Willfully exposed, they also appear to dictate their own narratives: In a quiet four-part black-and-white video installation, we watch four women with varying levels of intimacy; occasionally they look straight into the camera—their heightened awareness neutering voyeurism.
Seven colorful American Apparel sweatshirts, arms splayed on bamboo sticks like hipster scarecrows, greet visitors to Louidgi Beltrame’s latest exhibition. Reminiscent of Hélio Oiticica’s “Penetrável” series, this circular cluster, Bizarre Innovation Style, 2014, invites the viewer to weave through and appreciate the sweatshirts’ silk-screened photographs of Peruvian ceramic vessels once used by Nazca shamans to mix psychotropic concoctions. This unexpected mash-up of contemporary and ancient cultures is equal parts Pop art and anthropological display. Curiously, this work, as well as Second Summer of Love, 1989, a 35-mm slide show flashing found images from a 1980s outdoor rave in Britain, is credited not to Beltrame but to René García Atuq. Ostensibly an artist, and the author of the exhibition’s first-person press release, Atuq was actually invented by the curator Elfi Turpin and Beltrame—an alter ego whose manifestation raises issues of authenticity and authorship.
A real artist whose presence is felt throughout this show is Robert Morris. Across several works, Beltrame invokes Morris’s Earthwork Observatory, 1971–77, and his seminal text “Aligned with Nazca,” published in Artforum in 1975. Morris’s site-specific piece, located on the outskirts of Lelystad, the Netherlands, first appears in a black-and-white photograph juxtaposed with a close-up of a Nazca line drawing. Both images suggest mysterious, forgotten ruins. Elsewhere, Beltrame’s thirty-eight-minute color video, Nosotros tambien somos extraterrestres (We Are Also Extraterrestrials), 2014, intercuts footage of Observatory during solstices and equinoxes with scenes of the artist Victor Costales reciting excerpts from Morris’s essay that links the Nazca desert’s ancient geoglyphs, known as the Nazca Lines, to his own generation’s Land art. Effectively collapsing a thousand years and many more miles, Beltrame’s elegiac images of the dusty landscape and an overgrown Observatory emphasize the shared otherworldliness of both sites.
To visit Katinka Bock’s “Populonia” is to enter a complex conceptual geography. A pair of parallel hoses—one containing brackish and the other fresh water—courses through the gallery, each diverted from the same faucet. Before spilling onto the sidewalk, the tracks wend through configurations of ceramic, bronze, steel rebar, glass panels, and textiles that evoke or mirror city plans, the architecture of the gallery, anthropomorphic statuary, and archaeological digs. An aperture incised by the artist in a gallery wall frames a normally private viewing room in which additional works are installed.
Bock has a predilection for what she calls “receptacles,” forms that can give and receive but also store. There is a sociability to these objects, both in terms of their potential function and the manner in which individual elements in the exhibition overlap and communicate. Horizontal Alphabet (all works 2014) is composed of unglazed ceramic blocks layered with panes of glass and fabric across two levels of the tiered gallery floor. Each block is scaled to the anatomy—hands, heads, arms, etc.—of people the artist knows. Linguistic, architectural, and corporeal systems of description converge, typical of Bock’s procedures of abstraction and measurement keyed to the human body.
Individual pieces highlight binary oppositions: inside and outside, marked and unmarked, on and off. In the mobile Balance of O and I, a collar-like band and a spindly tree branch, each cast in ashen patinated bronze, are suspended by strips of blue fabric from opposite ends of a steel bar. Here as elsewhere, Bock plots the psychic dynamics of self and other. Calibrating voids and structures, circulation and stasis, collection and expenditure, “Populonia” achieves a dramatic equilibrium.
Letha Wilson’s blend of photography and sculpture speaks to the entanglement of human and natural histories as we come to terms with the Anthropocene. In her latest solo exhibition, Wilson offers new composites of the natural and the architectonic, in an array of aleatory techniques that fuse cement and concrete with C-prints as well as with emulsion transfers of abstract phenomena rendered in high-saturation hues. Photographs are not mere images here but can also serve as printing matrix or casting mold.
Categorical ambiguity reigns throughout the show, and it’s difficult to find a unified perspective from which to establish a stable subject position in relation to these wall-based works: The “view” is no longer operative for understanding landscape. Figure and ground constantly oscillate, while the works challenge our propensity to privilege either optic or haptic apprehension. Images are literally slashed and punched out as though by a machine, yielding to stone-cold béton brut. Consider Iao Valley Concrete Bend, 2014, which looks like a thin sectional cut from a larger block of igneous flows. The dense agglomeration of pictures depicts fragments of the lush, vertiginous slopes around a Hawaiian valley. Discrete concrete pours break off into swales and crevasses lined by C-prints. Atop the flattened front plane of concrete, another layer of violet-tinted imagery appears, applied directly to the surface through emulsion transfer from a photographic print. Upon close inspection, the two types of printing reproduce the same things, only distinguished by lateral inversion and chromatic differences. Blanched bands striate the surfaces of this and several other works like floating girders. Masked as if in a photogram during darkroom exposure, these elements figure noise in the transmission of images. There’s no untouched Eden to be seen here.
Spanning two floors of galleries at the Grand Palais, this overdue comprehensive survey of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work begins with the French artist’s early “assemblages” of the late 1950s and ’60s, in which she packed together dolls, trinkets, and other domestic objects into densely textured sculptures of brides on horses, as in Horse and Bride, 1964, and of gigantic women giving birth, as in Bénédicte, 1965. The show is organized thematically, showing the evolution from these pieces to her iconic Gaudi-meets-Botero “Nanas” series from the mid-1960s, three of which rotate below spotlights on a glittering auto show–like platform in a dark room. They are surrounded by her loopy lithographs, tactile tridimensional paintings, and footage of Saint Phalle herself from interviews and performances, including a film of one of her famous “Shooting Pictures,” Daddy, 1972, in which she fires a gun at paint-loaded panels while shouting indictments of male oppression and inviting her audience to do the same.
Only occasionally highlighting Saint Phalle’s role among New Realist artists, this exhibition notably positions the artist as a larger-than-life figure. We are reminded time and again of her great physical beauty—a wall of her modeling shots includes an early ’60s Vogue cover—as well as of the strident social and political beliefs that thread through her work. The “Nanas,” named after the French word for “chick,” are buoyant, lithe, and joyous, contrasting with the darker frustrations evident in her “Shooting Pictures.” Though Saint Phalle’s brand of unruly second-wave feminism may seem quaint today, she was ultimately a daring, even revolutionary, pioneer who always insisted on the autonomy of her voice.
The Day-Glo figures gamboling through Aaron Curry’s retrospective “Bad Brain” seem like an answer to Wallace Stevens’s lament for modern imagination, written exactly a century ago. For the poet of “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” all marvelous fancies have abandoned the middle-class mind, haunted henceforth only by the soberest ghosts.
Curry's exhibition is haunted, too, but with the exuberant nightgowns that Stevens was missing: “purple with green rings/ or green with yellow rings/ or yellow with blue rings.../ with socks of lace/ and beaded ceintures” — or, say, Picasso with H.C. Westerman, Calder with Heehaw, with nods to corporate plaza art and underground comics. But this pile-up of citations produces its own kind of disillusionment, its own late-hour malaise. Curry’s sculptures, whose volumes are built out from slats of painted wood and aluminum, approach cultural “flattening” with flat-footed literalness. For this critic, it is almost impossible to say whether they rescue the composite of cultural reference from this flattening through formal panache, or surrender to its senseless accumulation. Curry gamely suspends this ambivalence by presenting an anachronic retrospective, without a speck of narrative resolution in sight. Eighty works produced since 2003 are distributed through the CAPC’s central nave and the corridor encircling it, where Curry’s collages, including an uncanny series of Greco-Roman busts masked and/or/also disfigured by his intervention, footnote his more monumental figures.
The exhibition, along with two smaller but equally impressive shows by Los Angeles–based artists Carter Mull and Dan Finsel, fêtes fifty years of cultural diplomacy between Bordeaux and LA, which became sister-cities in 1964. What emerges, however, is the age difference. If Bordeaux has more years to its name, LA has a worldly sense of a future subjectivity brokered almost entirely to an image-world. A “bad brain,” perhaps, but one inhabited by some fantastic specters.
Since the 1980s, French sculptor Anita Molinero has worked almost exclusively with domestic and often toxic materials, cauterizing, deforming, and smelting chemically fabricated, factory-produced objects. Her current solo exhibition, “Oreo,” appraises the material and conceptual consistency of manufactured products intended to control circulation––traffic signs, road barriers, speed bumps, various packaging materials, etc.––as well as their status as industrially made, environmentally hazardous commodities designed for the public domain.
Take, for example, an untitled series of five large-scale, plastic water tanks that have undergone various degrees of violent compression. Here, flow and circulation congest as these transportable receptacles––meant to contain and regulate the issue of their liquid contents––are left crushed, desiccated, and detached from their intended courses of distribution. More subversive is a new series of modestly sized concrete bricks that the artist took from Paris’s peripheral ring and used here as wall-fixed supports for scraps of litter such as plastic bags or fast-food restaurant containers. Coated in layers of graffiti, these hijacked slabs testify to their former station as demarcations between an insulated cultural capital and the hot, ethnically diverse banlieues, which encircle and chafe the city’s perimeter.
Containment is imported as a power-driven form of regulation in this exhibition, as in Untitled, 2014, an incinerated, monumental block of insulated polystyrene squares suspended from the ceiling. Here, containers become the contained as defective packaging products converted to effective artwork in a rapid recycling of fungible currency. This well-oiled slippage between art and industry, public asset and public onus, is at the crux of Molinero’s sculptural practice.
Dividing its broad conceit across seventeen thematic subsections, “Formes Simples” (Simple Shapes) juxtaposes artworks and artifacts whose provenances span approximately five thousand years and thirty countries based on their formal similarities. The first room of the exhibition, however, showcases works related by their formlessness. Diverse examples of art informel, to use French art critic Michel Tapié’s 1952 coinage, include a gloppy cement sculpture by Anish Kapoor (untitled, 2013), a barely figurative terra-cotta study for Auguste Rodin’s famous portrait-sculpture of Balzac (Balzac, robe de chambre [Balzac, Dressing Gown], 1897), an anonymous sixteenth-century Italian drapery study in oil, and a trio of Hiroshi Sugimoto waterscape photographs from the 1990s. Presented under the heading “Before Shape,” this motley mélange of two- and three-dimensional objects attunes the viewer to how each artwork’s physical presence is defined, to a certain extent, by its medium.
Another section, titled “Who Could Better This Propeller?” (a quote attributed to Marcel Duchamp in a conversation with Fernand Léger in 1912, the year of the fourth International Exposition of Aerial Locomotion in Paris), draws somewhat obvious formal comparisons between modern masterpieces such as Constantin Brâncuși’s Bird in Space, 1936, and elegant feats of twentieth-century engineering. Elsewhere in the exhibition, geometric abstractions by Ellsworth Kelly and Tony Smith are likened to scientific and quotidian implements ranging from an ancient Egyptian eye-shadow palette to an eighteenth-century set of terra-cotta crystallographic models (which, given their context here, could easily be mistaken for part of Allan McCollum’s series of unique silhouette-like forms, “The SHAPES Projects”). The most surprising links are in the “Shapes-Forces” section, which features a curved moldboard designed by Thomas Jefferson to make plows turn over sod more efficiently and a photograph of modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller during a signature spinning performance at the Folies-Bergère.