At least three exhibitions on view this fall on the Upper East Side telegraph, in divergent ways, historical instances of statelessness. These include Zoe Leonard’s affecting pictures at Hauser & Wirth, incorporating aged snapshots of her family who fled Poland in the wake of World War II; Phil Collins’s mesmerizing video How to Make a Refugee, 1999, at the Met, which was shot during the Kosovo War; and Karin Schneider’s show at Dominique Lévy, with its recent Artforum advertisement placed on the floor presenting a child in a refugee camp in Serbia. Of these, Collins’s short work is the sleeper hit. Tucked in a back corner of the museum, it is a quiet triumph that aptly scrutinizes what we mean when we say refugee crisis—a term that should be credited to political, hegemonic powers and not to displaced human beings.
The video commences with a photo shoot centering around a boy in Macedonian refugee camp. He removes his shirt to show a scar on his stomach, while a reporter parlays questions to him via a translator, ostensibly about his wound. Providing little information and no subtitles—though a nearby wall text informs that the boy is a Kosovar-Albanian refugee—the work is suffused with emotive detail, particularly when his family joins him at the end for a portrait. Throughout, Collins’s roaming shots, as if captured by a spy camera, contrast sharply with what he describes as the “rational or sensational standards of journalism,” offering a contemplative moment away from the noise to look and think about statelessness—a phenomenon that may be at its worst today but, as Hannah Arendt argued, that has been the result of every significant political event since the end of World War I.
Five unhinged doors, standing upright in space, look more like shields than portals. Each one is titled Entryways (all works 2016). A baseball bat leans on every one of the uniquely worn, deadbolt-adorned rectangles stationed around the dim gallery, evoking the violence and vigilance of everyday life. While these unfriendly readymade and pre-owned doors are the most immediately commanding element of Diamond Stingily’s show, a looping video is the centerpiece. Facing the entrance, on the far wall, is a large projection of vintage black-and-white footage—taken from folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes’s short 1967 documentary Pizza Pizza Daddy-O—that shows African American girls playing in a schoolyard. A chain link fence, installed just in front of the wall, casts its ubiquitous, carceral lattice shadow on the scene. Though the girls appear to be safe and mostly having fun as they run through their repertoire of playground songs, Stingily teases out a haunting refrain. The video’s title, How Did He Die, is taken from a strangely morbid call-and-response chant the girls perform.
The woven construction of the fence echoes in other elements, such as the looping telephone cords that form the artist’s simple, poetic Double Dutch Rope sculptures, as well as in the hardware and braids of Elephant Memory. The latter work, which looks like an airy tapestry from afar, is composed of pairs of long steel chains, each cold stripe hanging from a metal hook. The lengths are accessorized with various colors of plaited synthetic hair—black, gray, brown, auburn, blond—that end in frayed, brushy bursts. One thinks of jewelry as well as shackles. A complicated nostalgia colors Stingily’s powerfully restrained and formally smart show. An Arte Povera artist for our time, she reflects on the normalization and replication of brutal scripts and systems using perfect, pervasive materials.
Caitlin Keogh’s current show, “Loose Ankles,” an antique term for a ligament injury exacerbated by high heels—and the title of a 1930 precode romcom—destabilizes conventional female constructs with demure criticism. Keogh, a sure-footed painter, renders mechanomorphic ladies into easy-on-the-eyes pictographs, though their innards are often exteriorized, severed. For Interiors (all works 2016), an invisible, tasseled sash slices delectably through a beheaded mannequin. We also have the distinct pleasure of eyeing a vacant suit of armor modeling female hormonal glands in Renaissance Painting. A looping intestine, or a snake, penetrates another headless torso in Correspondences. Disturbingly diagrammatic, alluringly mannered, and tantalizingly inhuman—Keogh’s femme fatales are, to quote a fellow viewer, “so wrong, but so right.”
These cheeky but twisted representations (part death drive, part sexual attraction) have increased in art-historical specificity, too: Ad Reinhardt’s sepulchral blue sneaks into the background of Wuthering Nephron; P&D permeates everything; and agreeable pastels restrained by precise lines, with notes of Warhol, John Wesley, and de Chirico, traffic in a darker subplot. The “Dior Fragments” series, on mirrors and glass, features excerpts from the fashion mogul’s autobiography. The paintings, however, are the more convincing mirrors, refracting disfigured selves across pools of warped allusions.
An ambivalence toward art history as “lifestyle” fodder is a source of rich, generative texture in this perverse pageant, and the exhibition seems to subtly indict the art world for synchronizing itself with fashion’s clock. Attention can waver, but Keogh exposes something steadfast lurking in all her tender arabesques and deliberately polished surfaces.
The title of Rashid Johnson’s current exhibition, “Fly Away,” refers to a musical standard performed over the past century by gospel singers as well as sampled by Kanye West. For this show, the song was also played in the gallery by the pianist Audio BLK. While the inclusion of live music adds a new sensory layer to a career that, for years, has drawn from from a vast archive of signifiers of blackness, the work on display will seem familiar to many. The exhibition is largely given over to two series of paintings: “Untitled Anxious Audience,” 2016, featuring smears of black soap and wax on Johnson’s signature grids of tile; and “Falling Man,” 2015, which references the artist’s earlier assemblages of mirrors, spray paint, and oak flooring. In both, Johnson wears his influences on his sleeve—David Hammons, Chris Ofili, Nari Ward—and, of course, himself, with reprinted and collaged scenes from his own photographs.
But this exhibition allows Johnson to work out his play with materials and referents on a massive scale, especially in the room-size sculpture Antoine’s Organ, 2016—a modular structure that’s fused to its conceptual lattice with an Africana reading room. The work invites you to look inward but keeps you at a distance with an overgrowth of houseplants, small video stations, and stacked books, including Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015). The latter is a knowing jab at Johnson’s own absorption into the global gallery system. Whether the show constitutes the sort of ambivalent critique from within of his forebears or a more solipsistic deployment of his personal history isn’t entirely clear, and, for that reason, it is an important provocation in pressing conversations about identity, memory, and power in contemporary art.
Alex Webb has been working in Mexico for three decades now. His is the lonely traveler’s aria that’s been diffused into a symphony of saturnine colors—colors found in the small-town streets of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Tijuana, Cuernavaca—in a Mexico that’s not Mexico City, but also not rural, let alone pastoral.
The dramatic texture of these shots is omnivorous, ruthless. They are formally controlled but emotionally unmoored, extraordinarily dramatic but decidedly indecisive, tightly framed but pointing elsewhere. Webb has expressed his desire to capture how, in his words, “multiple states, multiple situations, and multiple moments can coexist.” He achieves this by presenting several unrelated human dramas in the same frame. Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985, for example, shows four strangers against a sky-blue alley wall. A red blur of a young woman walks past us in the foreground. Two men—one in a cattleman hat, impassive, wearing a dirty shirt, the other so tired his eyes are closed—lean, like indifferent sentries, on either end of the frame. And amid this, totally ignored like uncollected garbage, is a homeless man lying asleep on the ground.
This is the bitter, Bruegelesque glory of Webb’s street photography. He registers the normalization of pitilessness that results when capitalism conquers an underdeveloped backwater overnight. Doing this, he also achieves something more. The four people in Tehuntapec may remain indifferent to one another, but seeing them, we grow aware of the strangers around us, of the ambient social noise that defines urban life.
Joe Fyfe is uninterested in the line between art and life, and this isn’t immediately apparent in his work. But his thinking about what he calls the dichotomy of “art and stuff”—his art being made from discarded products and advertising materials—elucidates that seeming indifference. The paintings and sculptures in Fyfe’s exhibition here—many of which incorporate found materials, such as kites and weathered fabrics used for advertising in Korea, which are then repurposed in Cambodia for tarpaulins and umbrellas—are hardly apolitical things. Fyfe himself says he deploys these materials to speak to the contradictions of global capitalism. But the appropriation and unpacking of stuff as such suggests a more reflexive question about what art can really say, or ask, while beholden to these markets. By incorporating his own consumerism in Southeast Asia, the artist preempts his work’s absorption into a market that subsequently churns it out as commodity, or more stuff, leaving art’s political capacity effectively neutralized, to paraphrase critic Peter Bürger.
Fyfe’s found objects convey more than just lessons about Orientalism, or the ironies of increased mobility of goods alongside the ever-tightening mobility of people. Two 2015 works, both titled Untitled floor sculpture, variously made up of, among other things, auto parts, a plastic tool container, fake bricks, and lead, showcase both the labor of manufacturing and the politics of culture-making. More to the point, these sculptures underscore how the culture industry and the consumer alike see—or erase—the realities and politics of cheap global labor. “Kiss the Sky” can be read as a show taking aim at the reduction of an avant-garde mindset to stuffdom, revealing the mechanics of its own production, and completing itself once we’ve stepped into the gallery space.
The mirrors in Jonathan Gardner’s paintings elude faces. They’re clouded by gray light, like pools of mercury. For Gardner, making his solo New York debut here, surrealism happens in the background. Bather with Yellow Towel (all works 2016) shows a woman lifting her arm to reveal a snowflake of armpit hair—she’s bounded by a drop shadow, like some uncanny digital artifact. Gardner’s figures bend with plastic dexterity. The reader in Salmon Sofa strikes a chaste, Balthus-like pose, allowing patterns to vibrate around her: Blue lines cross a yellow field and clash against orange matchstick grooves. A vase of flowers sits nearby like a fat pink molar. Another nude woman reclines in Waves, her lower body curving over a divan’s flat surface. Is she touching her stomach out of anxiety or idleness?
Dark Mirror, with its isometric potted plant, brings to mind 1980s restaurant murals; it’s a trompe l’oeil playing the same tricks as a screen saver. The Model finds irony at Gardner’s expense: An artist obscured by Cousin It hair displays her latest canvas to her subject, whose legs bulge out impossibly. The painting within a painting is even more simplified and reduced than Gardner’s own forms; the model looks either satisfied or amused. A picture of a desert landscape, pinned by a copper moon, is visible in the distance. The faces in Gardner’s work could sometimes pass for René Magritte’s, but Gardner never implies a narrative, as the Belgian does in The Menaced Assassin, 1927—he only hints at secret jokes.
The free downloadable PDF is the contemporary form most suited to the manic conspiracy theorist. Appropriately, a number of them make up the offsite key to “Norogachi: Ceramics After Artaud,” Richard Hawkins’s show of impressively hideous works—glazed tablets that incorporate disturbing, scatological vignettes of a hellish metaphysical realm. The artworks—a speculative merging of Antonin Artaud’s paranoid lexicon of psychic attack with the symbolic imagery of the Tarahumara, an indigenous people of northwestern Mexico—are based on Artaud’s 1936 trip to Norogachi, a remote village in the Sierra Madre, while he was withdrawing from heroin. Artaud’s neocolonial romance with ceremonial psychedelics there became the subject for subsequent writings and—Hawkins proposes—a powerful influence on the drawings Artaud executed during the same period, in a psychiatric hospital.
Turd Plug to Prevent Nocturnal Insemination (all works 2016) presents what looks like a small blood-spattered length of striated shit on a pale ragged rectangle affixed to a pleasant enough background of interlocking multicolored blobs. Shamanic Abortion of the Divine Parasite After Being Raped by the Holy Spirit is rough and childlike yet also a clear, even didactic depiction of the titular scenario. Those familiar with Artaud’s visual invectives will recognize the signature themes of his works on paper. But Hawkins makes Artaudian strangeness even stranger—by inscribing the dramatist’s visions in clay, he unmoors them from their place in time. And while his arresting ceramic pieces are often comically revolting, they maintain an aura of surprising gravitas. Without delving too far into the artist’s hovering digital text-pastiche, one gleans that Hawkins’s scholarship regarding this iconography is deep, detailed, and earnest. His unconcealed desire to be understood is charming; it imbues his ugly art with the excitement of obsessive investigation and a rare sense of vulnerability.
Skin, with all of its imperfections, wraps itself around the core of Aneta Grzeszykowska’s two-venue exhibition, “No/Body.” At 11R Gallery, a series of macabre photographs, “Selfie,” 2014–15, depicts bizarre lumps of stylized flesh—pigskin that’s been realistically modeled after (mostly female) body parts. Each sickening, deftly produced picture offers up a mongrel kind of beauty, straight from the cinematic annals of horror and science fiction. A hypnotic video, Bolimorfia, 2008–2010, shows the artist, nude, engaged in a surreal ballet, choreographed to a score by Maurice Ravel. Additional dancers, very much like doppelgängers, also nude, join Grzeszykowska—their collective motions are fluid, like a sinister gang of synchronized swimmers.
At Lyles & King, another video, Negative Process, 2014, provides crucial context for the thirteen black-and-white photographs from the series “Negative Book,” 2012–13, displayed nearby. In the video, Grzeszykowska stands naked before the camera, meticulously applying deep-black paint to her body. It’s an old photography trick—when Grzeszykowska’s black-and-white portrait is solarized, she appears illuminated, apparitional. In the center of the gallery floor sits the physical manifestation of this battle between light and dark: two life-size dolls—Franciszka 2024, 2015–16, a speculative portrait of the artist’s daughter in the titular year, sheathed in white wool; and Untitled (Skin Doll), 2016, a figure in black fetish leather.
Grzeszykowska doesn’t address the racial implications of making her white skin black. Nonetheless, her perverse pictures do succeed in expressing an undeniable feeling of otherness and apprehension. Each photograph from “Negative Book” should be joyous—a family dinner, a day at the beach, tender moments between mother and daughter. But Grzeszykowska is the glowing opposite of her family and friends, a radioactive vision of discomfort and anxiety.
Allison Schulnik’s previous exhibitions employed theatrical settings to display her stop-motion animations, ceramics, paintings, and drawings. Here, she narrows the focus to her two-dimensional output. Her heavily impastoed narrative paintings, which possess the same physicality and rawness of her works in clay, warrant the attention.
The exhibition’s title, “Hoof II,” alludes to Schulnik’s training as a dancer, as well as to the central role unicorns and centaurs occupy in the show. With their suggestive horns and erections, Schulnik’s unicorns are decidedly male, though their eyes are depicted as vaginal forms, perhaps reflecting their carnal desire. Developed from a group of small gouaches made in 2015, her female centaurs are dubbed “centaurettes,” a term likely borrowed from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, a clear touchstone for Schulnik’s subversive and darkly erotic vision. Two of the show’s largest paintings—despite their bucolic settings and creamy, pastel palettes—are violent, salacious . . . qualities patently un-unicorn-like. In Two Long Unicorns, 2016, a pair of these battle-scarred creatures are entwined in vicious combat; while in Centaurette and Unicorn (both 2016), the latter poses victoriously over the defeated former, who is prostrated across a lush forest floor, with an uneasy crowd of plants and critters taking in the scene.
Gin #13 and Lady (both 2016), two bewitching self-portraits painted so thickly that the figures physically emerge from their nocturnal backgrounds, cast the artist as conjurer of these tableaux. If the spotlit drama of Schulnik’s prior installations immersed the viewer within her mythic realm, here we are spectators, like the sylvan gawkers—frightened, but enchanted.
At Yany’s Beauty Salon on Rivington Street, a handful of mostly Hispanic workers can be seen spraying hair products and administering heating regimens over casual chatter, while a distinct trace of aerosol and burnt keratin wafts outside. Next door, beside Yany’s magenta street signage, a work by Sam Lipp, Do You Smell Fumes? (all works 2016), displays its inquisitive title in electric green neon. Inside the gallery, the same thought becomes an aesthetic motif, interrogating notions of purity as they extend to common understandings of wellness, security, and normalized social relations. But, in doing so, the project seems to gloss over another important consideration: How are these ideas socially positioned?
Most of the other works on view, foamcore surfaces painted many times over in acrylic with brushes and steel wool, resemble, in equal parts, bokeh and pixelated grain. One composition echoes its probing question along with some scrawled text reading, “Are you allergic to the 21st century? Do you have trouble breathing?” These lines nod to Todd Haynes’s 1995 drama Safe, in which the life of an affluent San Fernando Valley housewife, played by Julianne Moore, unravels as she develops MCS—multiple chemical sensitivity—a debilitating psychosomatic aversion to many everyday chemicals distributed through global capitalism.
In another acrylic work, Paris Is Paris, a male with his torso, cock, and balls exposed rests in bed next to another body—a moment of serene, banal affection. While Lipp importantly investigates the tenuousness of social binaries and their regulatory functions, the project would benefit from acknowledging how these forces serve class relations. An external menace, the cry of fumes, and the formation of conventional partnerships all conjure up ruling-class attitudes toward the working class—after all, doesn’t hegemony’s very conception suggest power is always under threat?
New York’s Carroll Musical Instrument Rentals, LLC answers the phone when you call the number emblazoned upon Total Piano & Organ (all works cited, 2016), a large canvas work on which the title is spelled out. The telephone is a motif throughout Nick Relph’s solo exhibition here, a symbol that functions as a conduit between absence and presence.
Flaming Frontier, which cuts through the gallery space diagonally, is made up of nineteen double-sided wooden panels, some of which bear C-prints. Pictures of telephones, as well as construction permits, disappear and reappear, phantomlike, through images of architectural renderings and diagrams. One gets the sense that we are looking at some kind of junkyard organism slowly building itself, piece by rough-hewn piece.
Ridicule is a pair of neatly arranged white cotton shirt collars placed on a pedestal. Another piece, with the same title, is a set of smaller, copper-colored prints, glittery and enigmatic. Many of the works in the show appear in pairs and are serialized. But what is the tissue that binds all these objects and images together? Maybe it’s something like that invisible sinew that connects the caller to the called—akin to the musculature that holds a city together. It goes beyond bricks, mortar, steel, satellites, and wires—perhaps a consciousness all its own. Relph indulges in a subtle poetry that marries cybernetic systems to the metaphysical.
“Imagine a world where trust is guaranteed—a world without borders.” These words, spoken in the confident, masculine voice of authority, open Simon Denny’s video What Is Blockchain?, 2016. With slick graphics and soaring music, this infomercial-cum–TED talk promotes decentralized network technology (which serves as the basis for Bitcoin) as a high-tech solution to social problems ranging from the loss of privacy to geopolitical conflict. Projected onto the gallery’s back wall, the video bookends the show’s first room, which introduces us to Bitcoin’s pioneers, embodied by Plexiglas cases screen-printed with their names, portraits, and techno-utopian quotations. (There’s also an achingly of-the-moment invocation of Pokémon, relating to a play on words involving the name of the mythic founder of Bitcoin, whose real identity remains contested.) Next comes a series of rooms in which we learn about three financial companies capitalizing on blockchain—Digital Asset, 21 Inc., and Ethereum—representing the technology’s most visible proponents: venture capitalists, bankers, and libertarians. The ethos of each company is communicated through a variety of objects, including a diagram of ideas, hand-drawn in colorful markers on the surface of a globe-shaped whiteboard; a life-size cutout of its leader; a customized, hypertrophied edition of the board game Risk; and a series of modified computer cases and “deal toys.”
The smooth and glossy materials of these components (mostly Plexiglas and aluminum) invoke the frictionless world conjured by blockchain’s evangelists. But instead of inspiring confidence in this panacea, the show encourages paranoid visions of confidence men, marketing their wares in successive booths at a trade show. And we aren’t the only ones with doubts. Adjacent to What Is Blockchain?, an outer layer of the wall has been removed, revealing a painted sign that reads, in part, “A safe decentralized software platform,” but the word “safe” has been crossed out. Nearby, the voice of authority rejoins: “Blockchain is the truth.”
In two concurrent solo exhibitions at the gallery’s Twentieth and Twenty-Fourth Street spaces, Meleko Mokgosi presents the latest “chapters” in an ongoing series titled “Democratic Intuition,” 2014–. His monumental paintings give us African subjects in compositions derived from vernacular photography, film, and European history paintings, but the project is far more complex than a mere blending of African and Western influences. Mokgosi examines the construction of historical narratives and questions of representation—both visual and political—through a process of continuous becoming: Precise, photorealist renderings are juxtaposed with raw and unfinished swaths of canvas, while multipanel paintings unfold like cinematic storyboards. Several text-based works transcribe, but do not translate, dinaane (Setswana for “folk stories”), addressing the temporality of storytelling and the complexity of cultural translation.
In “Lerato,” on Twentieth Street, Mokgosi reimagines canonical works by the French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose career was contemporaneous with the Berlin Conference and European imperialism in Africa. In Democratic Intuition, Lerato: Agape I (all works cited, 2016), the artist restages Bouguereau’s Alma Parens (The Motherland), 1883, which depicts a maternal France nurturing her young dependents; Mokgosi’s African protagonist, conversely, embodies France’s colonial exploitation of both land and labor abroad.
On Twenty-Fourth Street, “Comrades II” turns to the legacy of liberation struggles and the notion of democracy in postcolonial Africa. In Democratic Intuition, Lex I, stoic figures inhabit an enigmatic, modernist interior that is adorned with masks and ethnographic photographs. Framed for display and pressed to the picture’s surface, these images highlight the cultural and temporal dislocations that sometimes characterize postcolonial experiences. Here, Mokgosi seems to marshal a Steinbergian “flatbed” aesthetic—also legible in Democratic Intuition, Comrades: Addendum, that features various photographs of African women, done with silk-screen and pigment transfer, that prompt reflection on the mediating role of images in public and political life.
Charles LeDray’s miniatures are as enchanting and magnetic as panoramic Easter eggs or the Stettheimer dollhouse, but without the whimsy or windows to peer into. Though, actually, there is an austere glass case displaying treasure among the mysterious objects in this spare, dimly lit installation of his work. Chic little vases or urns—made on a doll-size potter’s wheel, one imagines—fill the glass shelves of the vertical vitrine. There are fourteen hundred black porcelain vessels in Throwing Shadows, 2008–16, each one unique. LeDray meticulously fabricates his work without assistants, and the time necessary to complete this intriguing sculpture is palpable.
Other works are skillfully and laboriously carved or hand-stitched. Daisy Chain, 2013–14, has a whiff of the macabre about it, even before you learn that the brittle white flower crown, laid out on a creased black fabric square, is made from human bone. Mourning Coat, 1991, is a beautifully tailored Lilliputian garment displayed like a pressed flower or pinned butterfly. Overcoat, 2004—a handsome doll’s trench shown upright and open to reveal a cascade, or “body,” of even smaller clothing—is charming, and a little horrifying. Shrunken menswear, buttons, the tiniest teacups, and stuffed bears are recurring ingredients in LeDray’s condensed, ambiguously antique arrangements. Like the realm of child’s play, the almost narrative world of his art does not conform to a uniform scale. Decontextualized elements, rendered in varying degrees of smallness, all make believe together. The fey, particular behemoth who painstakingly created and arranged these objects into fantastical situations feels strangely absent, far away in space and time. But LeDray’s commitment to his queer vision suffuses the show. Its quietly strident handmadeness is simultaneously invisible and overwhelming, a totally magical effect.
Paintings, drawings, purses—if one of these things does not belong, then who really wants to be in that club? Suellen Rocca’s show of twenty-five works from 1965 to 1969, featuring that happy trio, blithely goes its own way, giving pointers to younger artists who incorporate the bold outlines and bright colors of comics, animation, and traditional illustration in their paintings. Mind you, this isn’t some wiseass appropriationist’s high/low move—Rocca’s pictures are resolutely hieroglyphic, and what they take from the ancients gets made up into wiggly modern forms with funky, plastic colors. A pinup-posed figure shrinks away in Bare Shouldered Beauty, 1965, while stuttering scenarios wallpaper the background. Its language is a cipher, but this doesn’t date it, as the scattered focus has the frequency of now.
The title for the drawing Easy to Handle, 1968, announces itself in the picture with cursive relish. In it, a faceless figure gingerly holds up a bag that promises her ease and deference. Her loins sport lovers doing a bland smooch surrounded by an aura of “ahs” and a “kiss me.” Beneath the scene the artist pays herself a compliment: “This is a lovely picture.” Against a black ground, drooping fingers, or dicks, point to hovering flicks of cotton fuzz, which set Our Lady of the Lovely Picture in bright relief. Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature, 1965, seems to be the anchor of the show. The oil-on-canvas diptych is predominately pink, with accents of lime green and chocolate brown. Organized with a rough symmetry, it sends the eye bopping around like a pinball. You can try counting the bottles, sofas, and ice-cream cones for clues, but in the end, Rocca’s world might just be out of your league.
Handcrafted wooden torpedoes, suspended from the ceiling by wires, and souped up with American kitsch—a cow, a car, and camo—mark an intriguing detour, if not a new direction, in Marianne Vitale’s art. If the big, handsome sculptures made from salvaged lumber for which she is best known are strong, silent types, How’m-I-Doin’, 2016, her new installation of ten hand-painted projectiles, is comic, even a little snarky. Here, the splintery romance that characterized Vitale’s countrified totems of postindustrial wreckage is jettisoned for colorful, willfully naive Pop and playful satire. A bovine missile, decked out in Holstein black and white, is authenticated with the imprimatur “USDA Prime,” the summa cum laude of American beef. Another pirates the allover gestural drips of heroic American painter and Cold War cultural weapon Jackson Pollock.
Some works—one emblazoned with Nascar checkers, hot-rod flames, and a quotation from Revelations 20:15 (warning of the fiery lake awaiting the damned); another with the American flag and Uncle Sam’s notorious conscription slogan, “I Want You”—read as genial jokes about contemporary God-’n’-guns–style cultural politics and US adventurism abroad. Others invoke the visual culture of World War II GIs, who decorated warplanes with puerile jokes and randy cartoons as a method of psychic insulation from death. The phallic insinuations of Vitale’s torpedoes become more explicit in a steel-gray projectile decorated with a bikini-clad cutie-pie straddling a priapic missile—a burlesque of the cheesecake pinups that once sexed up the noses of Allied bombers.
Spanning 1951 to ’99, this survey of paintings and drawings by West Coast artist Ed Moses presents a pleasurable mismatch of gestures and techniques. Working horizontally so as to be able to approach his support from all sides, Moses variously sponged, mopped, squeegeed, and rolled paint across canvas, wood, and Mylar. Here, disclosed through an aluminum-colored wash, there, veiled by an accretion of acrylic, these supports treat paint as both a stain and a sheath. Colors and textures mix—soft and matte next to mineral and slick—yielding compositions that seem at odds with themselves. Wall Layuca #4, 1989, outfits unprimed cotton in soggy skeins of black and silvery gray. The work is premised on the irreducibly liquid nature of paint, while Montirr-Aix, 1999, congeals the same in a gummy skin, freckled with bits of bluish glitter. Such incongruities are typical of Moses’s work, which withholds the closure of a signature style.
One of the original Ferus Gallery “studs,” Moses stuck stubbornly to two dimensions. While others in the “cool school” dispatched with painting for plastics and the etherealities of Light and Space, Moses remained committed to the medium, however serious its identity crisis. From 1961 to ’68, he turned to drawing as a way to work through the problems of his paintings. First shown at Ferus, Rose #6, 1963, surrounds stenciled blossoms with serried patches of graphite that resemble Cubist passage. Line serves not to figure but to anxiously fill, as if each mark were motivated by a need to erase the emptiness of its ground. Small stretches of blank chipboard interrupt the densely wrought surface, proposing edges and limits as sites of concern. Two-odd decades later, Ranken #3, 1992, configures line in purling, pneumatic contours. The resulting image, best described as one floating head engulfing another, offers paint as something grotesque and bodily, its material agency threatening to subsume its maker.
Jesse Chun’s “Blueprints” series, 2016, comprises twenty-three framed pigment prints, several of which are layered, and covered in dark-blue rectangles and lines. What are these strange schematics, one might ask? Machine diagrams? Alien communiqués? The answer is far more banal. Chun photographed immigration forms and digitally purged them of text, removing their national and linguistic markers. Only the uniform fill-in bubbles and answer grids remain, floating unmoored across the page in geometric patterns that point to a widespread visual language of global transit and expatriation.
Immigration’s paper trail is the medium of choice throughout Chun’s aptly titled “On Paper,” and proves to be an unlikely source of poetry and beauty—terms rarely associated with bureaucracy. “Landscapes,” 2013–15, is a suite of large-format photographs that isolate and hone in on the background images of passport pages—a tree, a waterfall, a mountain range—so heavily watermarked that they almost look pixelated. These nondescript nature pictures could represent any number of countries, recasting passport holders as global citizens rather than affiliates of any single state. For “Forms,” 2016, Chun, a South Korean expat, turned to her personal collection of visa applications to create erasure poems. Some of the resulting verses are abstract, but the most memorable one, from Form #4, provides a manifesto for the exhibition at large: “Mother. Father. ALL sons and daughters, regardless of age or place.” This expression of humankind’s interconnectedness is especially powerful, considering it was wrestled from paperwork intended to classify and divide populations.
Xu Zhen’s artworks seem to unambiguously—yet problematically—embrace consumer desire. In the first room of the artist’s current exhibition, we encounter Eternity - Aphrodite of Knidos, Tang Dynasty Sitting Buddha, 2014, a Brobdingnagian sculpture in which the body of an ancient Greek statue seems to be devouring a Chinese Buddha headfirst—a figure of the Western imagination (and, historically, bourgeois aspiration) decimating Eastern spirituality. Paintings from the series “Under Heaven,” 2014–16, occupy the gallery’s main space. They look like monstrous wedding cakes, their surfaces engorged with masticated-looking frosting flowers in greasy pinks, crimsons, and violets. The series’ title, a loose translation of a Chinese word that literally means “the whole world,” heightens the uneasiness one feels while gazing at these simultaneously luscious and lurid pictures.
In 2009, Xu initiated an “art creation company” called MadeIn. Since then, all of his artworks have been made under this entity. In 2013, MadeIn launched the “Xu Zhen,” line, which flattened the artist into a kind of brand—or perhaps even a phantom of late capitalism. Throughout his career, Xu has made many clever, slippery plays on the art-as-commodity idea, attracting a great deal of attention and (ironically?) money. The artist recklessly and humorously poses all manner of question about creativity’s relationship to capital, without leaving much room for comforting answers.
The technofuturist aesthetic needs an update: Our visions of tomorrow still seem firmly tied to Jetsons-era stylings of burnished-metal robots and aerospace machines. For Drill (all works cited, 2016), Madeline Hollander shrewdly nods to these clichés. In the gallery’s expansive first room, the artist has deployed three aircraft-evacuation slides—those plump, inflatable ramps only ever witnessed on airplane-safety diagrams. They hang from the ceiling, each one a mass of gray and black nylon, more 1980s LaGuardia than current-day JFK. Below them, performers synchronously pace the floor, following invisible footpaths that Hollander adapted from assorted emergency-evacuation plans. They make swift turns and clean, angular flourishes, keeping step with one another on their prescribed course.
In the next room, Aidan Koch’s subjects have been given much less instruction. On one wall, a series of drawings, “A Game I-IV,” depicts several outlined figures dwelling in spare, schematic realms. In one drawing, a nude woman, standing in profile next to a gridded block, wonders aloud: “A game?” Nearby, another woman crouches over a mysterious black game piece and asks, “Will I know if I win?” Elsewhere, someone ominously replies from out of the frame: “You’ll know if you lose.”
Medieval and classical motifs bestow Koch’s works with a dense aura of mystery. The Library Door is a thin gold chain, hung from two nails. On one end dangles a hand-wrought brass key; on the other, a spider. A ceramic doorknob, Open Me, is affixed to one of the gallery’s doors, nearly six feet up. Other works—two masks, two miniature wooden ladders, twin candleholders, a centipede—rest upon a three-foot-high labyrinth in the center of the room. Hollander’s strict trajectories reveal a modern concern for order and efficiency, while Koch invokes an ancient world of folklore and myth. Maybe time is a wide, flat circle, and the past and future are merely different aesthetics.
Since 1978, genius cartoonist Roz Chast has graced the pages of the New Yorker more than twelve hundred times, delivering spot-on vignettes of normal, neurotic people interacting—or keeping their anxious, philosophical thoughts to themselves—in cluttered apartments and wallpapered middle-class living rooms, on busy Manhattan streets, and, sometimes, on the roads of the larger tristate area. Brooklyn-born Chast’s outer-borough antiaesthetic is founded on her famous understated drawing style. Her lines evoke the cat hair likely embedded in the upholstery of the worn sofas she frequently depicts, and her dumpy, frazzled characters are brought to life with virtuosic, unsplashy brevity. The watercolor Doris K. Elston, 2008 (an earlier version appeared in the magazine in 1987), shows the unassuming Doris as a stone monument in the park. The plaque at her feet reads “Brain Surgeon – Professional Model – Artist – Lawyer Plus Mother of Four,” and a woman in a lumpy yellow sweater stands alone before it, experiencing the horror of her own inadequacy. Chast, one of the first women cartoonists to publish regularly in the New Yorker, handily destroyed the old-boy monopoly on urbane wit with her messier strain of sardonic feminist humor.
This lovely exhibition serves as an introduction to Chast’s life-affirming oeuvre but also focuses on her turn, in recent years, to memoir. Drawings from her graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014), which chronicles her hilarious and difficult journey managing her parents’ decline, show her immense talent as a long-form storyteller while illuminating the autobiographical foundation of her entire practice. It’s a treat to see Chast’s original works and studies here, with their pasted-over thought bubbles and careful, blobby shading. Also, who knew about her beautiful painted pysanka eggs and hooked rugs? The linen and wool Dad’s Favorite Foods, 2014, features exactly what the title describes: her dad, gefilte fish, toast, a banana, a jar of borscht, and more.
Among her kaleidoscopic abstractions of botanical and celestial phenomena, a statement by Alma Thomas is stenciled on the museum wall: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Taken axiomatically, this might read as Pollyanna denial or cool aestheticism. But in their claim to universal subjectivity and transcendent beauty, there’s an indisputable if paradoxical politics in the paintings of the late Washington, DC, abstractionist, who—at the age of eighty, in 1972—became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum.
With their ribbons, wheels, and allover patterns of abbreviated brushstrokes, Thomas’s paintings are romantic but not mystical, emotive but not sentimental, pretty but not precious. In Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, Fauve-style garlands of tessera-like gobbets of paint shuttle up and down the canvas. A torrent of feathery brushstrokes against a blue-black ground, the dreamy, disco-pink Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973, recalls Monet’s woozy, horizonless lily ponds. One of several NASA-inspired paintings, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, riffs on aerospace as a source of abstraction, estrangement, and galactic sublimity. The planet—viewed from some astronomical distance—becomes fiery bands of red, orange, and yellow, suspended in a gaseous poppy-colored field.
For a modernist humanist such as Thomas, art transcended spatial, temporal, and political exigencies. “Creative art is for all time,” she insisted, “and is therefore independent of time . . . of age, race, and nationality.” Though resistant to identitarian politics and social dramas, Thomas’s art was unavoidably entangled in them. They impelled her late-in-life break into the Whitney, following activist demands for the inclusion of African American artists. Two oil sketches depicting the 1963 March on Washington—in which she participated as a septuagenarian— give historical texture to Thomas’s astral abstractions, grounding them in ongoing, unresolved antinomies of abstraction and representation, universalism, and difference.
Grandpa, kids, the rich, serial murderers: Everybody collects! Freud said it has something to do with toilet training—that losing one’s shit, quite literally, can be a traumatizing experience, and collecting is a way of cauterizing that early-childhood wound. That’s stupid, and deeply ungenerous. It doesn’t explain the eerie profundity of self-described “super-medium” Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s Weltrettungsprojekt (World Rescue Project), 1995–, a small edifice comprising more than three hundred thousand drawings created to save humanity from supernatural forces of doom, or The Sketchbook from Auschwitz, ca. 1943, a handheld catalogue of horrors illustrating life at the most infamous of Nazi death camps, rendered by a phantom known only as “MM.” These works appear in “The Keeper,” a sprawling group exhibition that interrogates the impulses behind creating and, more specifically, amassing. There are plenty of trenchant offerings from sharp contemporary makers, such as Carol Bove (with Carlo Scarpa), Ed Atkins, Henrik Olesen, and Aurélien Froment. But really, the show belongs to the “outsider artists” (such an irritating appellation), whose obsessions and sorrows emanate freely—even suffocatingly—from their gorgeous, haunted objects.
Arthur Bispo do Rosário spent the majority of his life institutionalized, fashioning sublime sculptures and ecclesiastical garments from all manner of castoff in anticipation of the Last Judgment; Hannelore Baron’s delicate, scorched-looking Wunderkammern feel as though they were salvaged from hell; and the modernist quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, made by descendants of slaves (Loretta, Quinnie, and Missouri Pettway here) are cold comfort pieces, borne of ingenuity, certainly, as well as a great deal of suffering. First-wave Conceptual artist Howard Fried, however, might win the prize for Most Startlingly Tender . . .and the Creepiest: The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe, 2014–, a memorial display of the artist’s dead parent’s clothes, shoes, and handbags, fastidiously organized and entombed behind glass. Through a byzantine selection and authorization process, you can get several pictures of yourself taken by Fried while wearing the deceased matron’s togs and, later on, attend a “celebratory event” in her honor. Filial adoration with a light powdering of necrophilia—moms aren’t easy to please.
In a second-floor gallery leading to a dark room where Nan Goldin’s epic slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1976–96, plays in a dedicated installation, vintage flyers from the artist’s archive highlight its start as an improvised and evolving performance staged in the long-gone clubs and alternative venues of New York’s downtown scene. This canonical masterpiece, shown here in its original 35-mm slide format, comprises nearly seven hundred images: fearlessly intimate snapshot-like documents of Goldin’s chosen family and a devastated demimonde at the height of AIDS. The photos—ordered in untidy categories such as couples, mothers, injuries, male nudes, and shooting up—are appropriately fleeting. Just as one recognizes Goldin’s luminous contemporaries (Greer Lankton, Cookie Mueller, and Mark Morrisroe, to name just a few), they’re gone. It’s impossible to absorb every charming or startling detail. And the enthralling parade is set to an eclectic sound track. You can imagine it playing in any of the cozily derelict East Village apartments or dive bars depicted.
Goldin has called her stark, bruised self-portrait, Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984, the “central image” of “Ballad.” In it, the powder-blue wall and curtain of her background complement the subconjunctival hemorrhage of her left eye and her perversely matching, carefully applied vermillion lipstick. Such bold self-exposure grounds her diaristic magnum opus, giving it a heroic credibility that will forever distinguish it from all the Goldinesque knockoffs made since. This image is not an aestheticization of violence—it’s a refusal to be shamed by it. Her photos are not glamorizing but often undeniably glamorous, simply because her subjects are. The pervasive longing that suffuses “Ballad” parallels our own desire to know more about a very different New York and the minutiae of brilliant lives cut short.