Tibetan art is now meta-ethnic. In this exhibition, the Shangri-la imaginary collides with realities particular to the global Tibetan cultural diaspora. The redefinition proposed here delivers a broad range of formal possibilities and artistic strategies. Most involve some degree of secularizing the Buddhist themes that defined art––thangka painting––for centuries.
The inclusion of Western artists working in Tibetan idioms dramatically expands the discourse. Livia Liverani trained in Ladakh with an experienced painter of the sacred arts; she recreates traditional compositions in a pastiche of patterned silks. Yet Buddhist iconography is shunned in Tserang Dhondup’s portrait of a Tibetan man wearing a Nike jacket and holding an iPhone5. An academically trained painter, Dhondup represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Chinese artist Lu Yang’s video Wrathful King Kong Core, 2011, puts Tantric gods within a sci-fi context. Using a dedicated sound track by noise musician Yao Dajun, she visualizes attributes of the wrathful god Manjushri alongside a neuroscientific introduction to the anger pathways of the human brain stem.
Tibetan-Swiss artist Sonam Dolma Brauen’s sculptural installation My Father’s Death, 2010, is the most stirring work: an understated pile of crimson-and-gold monks’ robes folded on the floor. These consummately Tibetan materials—monks robes, donated at the artist’s request—surround nine plaster-molded stupas (tsa tsa). Making and offering tsa tsa is an important spiritual practice, and while the significance of the plaster stupas may be obscured behind geometric abstraction, Brauen’s minimalism implies the deeply personal stories couched in their materials. In these contexts, we discover new boundaries where ethnicity, artistic training, or formal attributes correlate in novel ways. “Tibet” becomes a remarkably diverse concept tenuously binding everything together.
A forceful, magnetic tension fuels the infectious energy of this show, conjured by curator Bob Nickas. The diverse works by twenty-one artists gravitate toward opposing poles, the obsessive and the spontaneous. You can feel them attract and repel one another from across the room.
Intricate, labor-intensive pieces by Xylor Jane, Richard Tinkler, and Chip Hughes buzz with complex grids and patterns. Thousands of small dashes densely scratched into wet purple paint form Hughes’s labyrinthine I tried to hide the heart from the head, 2014. Currents of James Siena, his Op art forebears and trippy twangs of 1960s psychedelia course through these compulsive works, the best of which operate as mandalas, their visual complexity sucking the viewer into unexpected meditations. Balancing the neurotically detailed efforts are more subdued abstractions. One can linger quietly with Lisa Beck’s You Are Here, 2014, comprising a small painted mirror and block of wood, subtly stained by wiped-away enamel.
The misses are few. Eric Lindman’s large red canvas punctuated by navy jags doesn’t teach us anything that Clyfford Still didn’t reveal with more rigor. Staunchly rooted at the slacker end of the spectrum are Nikholis Planck’s untitled drawings featuring violet scribbles. They recall the evidence of people testing pens in stationery stores. Taken all together, though, these works provide an exhilarating tour of formal concerns. They eschew social and political questions (David Ratcliff’s paintings of stars trailing smoke, which evoke American warfare, are an exception). Instead, they offer us a vicarious joy. They enable us to enter the artists’ minds and join them in reveling in media, color, line, and in the variety of roads—from deer trails to superhighways—by which one can arrive at a compelling image.
If the witch’s hovel in Pumpkinhead were a suite in a Collins Avenue boutique hotel during Art Basel Miami Beach, that might give some sense of the flavorings Alex Da Corte has injected into his ambitious and garishly stunning three-story installation “Die Hexe.” Da Corte throws into question what it means to feel fear in its multitudes: fear of mirrors, fear of old ladies, fear of death, fear of life after death, fear of mint Listerine, fear of homosexual men, fear of Miami, fear of appropriation art, or as R. W. Fassbinder so aptly put it in his film title, Fear of Fear.
The scripted journey begins downstairs, the first chamber one of muted grunginess, illumined by lo-fi psychedelic black light. Candied apples are on the mantle—razor blades included, I hope. A closed door offers an eye-level view of a Robert Gober drain, which functions as a peephole into $1 Store Kusama, the first of a series of inspirational mood/concept works by Mike Kelley, Bjarne Melgaard, and Haim Steinbach—father figures all. These artists adumbrate the spells that the sorceress intones: trash culture and Home Depot shopaholism; outsiderness as abjection and glamour, sexual lure and vicious degradation; a DMT palette that might electroshock the Acid Queen. Each is placed in an individual room, though the rivulets of semiotic blood flow fresh throughout all the galleries for the discerning spectator.
The best room is the last, a bathroom/spa/morgue in mint green, likewise scented, and violently fluorescent-white flicker-flicker lit. It’s clean and bright, fresh and unnerving, with little details cuing the enveloping hysteria, viz., the moldings are out of joint. The top floor promises rebirth; hell is downstairs. One of three morgue drawers has been slid open, so one can discover that the body has dissolved and gone down the drain. Maybe “Die Hexe” recapitulates Dante’s Commedia, an ascent from the filth of hell to the pristine clarity of heaven? Except the absolute hell might be not at the bottom in the dark but rather in the Room at the Top.
The showstopper of “Here and Elsewhere,” last summer’s exhibition of contemporary Arab art at the New Museum, was this Lebanese artist’s Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila, 2014, a knotty consideration of the interwoven terrain of cinema and politics. Becoming Jamila has its roots in back issues of the pan-Arab culture magazine Al-Hilal—which, during the Algerian War, frequently praised the revolutionary Djamila Bouhired as a model of Arab womanhood. Bouhired became a character in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, and the actress in Arsanios’s video is preparing to star in a new film based on her life. She sits in a bar in Beirut rehearsing her lines, imagining Bouhired (or the woman who played her in 1966) planting a bomb in an Algiers café. Yet as she holds up copies of Al-Hilal, including one whose cover shows Bouhired toting a gun, we realize that the remake isn’t actually going to be made. Representation isn’t what it used to be, and, frankly, neither is freedom fighting.
This first American survey for Arsanios, which had an earlier iteration at Kunsthalle Lissabon, includes some early animations that interrogate modernist architecture in Beirut (the sound track of one, a little incongruously, features a snippet of the ’90s eurotrash banger “What Is Love?”). But the Al-Hilal series is her strongest work, and along with Becoming Jamila, this show includes a melancholy new video, OLGA’s NOTES, all those restless bodies, 2014, that also looks at postwar Arab culture with deep, post–Arab Spring skepticism. In 1963, as part of president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s modernization program, a new ballet school opened in Cairo with the explicit aim of creating “the new body” for the Egyptian nation. What have those bodies become, Arsanios asks as she films one woman dancing Trio A and another on a stripper pole. Overworked and scarred by history: the locus of an ongoing war between modernity and domination, which proceeds by attrition and doesn’t even stop when you’re worn to the bone.
What do women smell like? In her latest solo exhibition, Anicka Yi pushes at the limits of our episteme and provides a whiff. It’s not ready to wear; in fact, it reeks. One hundred women—primarily artists, curators, and critics (full disclosure: I was one)—were swabbed, and the resultant samples have been cultivated here in a moldy petri dish “billboard” that assaults visitors at the entrance to the show. The thriving bacterium, which Yi nurtured with the help of MIT synthetic biologist Tal Danino, is a budding contaminant, a collective, germy growth. A strain from our culture as well as one captured from air samples in Gagosian Gallery were rendered into a chemical composite, and the ensuing scent is being discharged in a second, all-black room via three diffusers topped with helmets in transparent vinyl boxes (which strongly echo Jasper Johns’s Duchamp-inspired sets for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time, 1968). If it sounds like a queasy blend, it is. It’s also heavy on butyric acid—think Parmesan cheese, rancid butter—with a sour floral accord up top, and it’s festering among all the other odors in the show: all that plastic for the boxes and the various organic sculptural assemblages therein, such as a flayed-skin-like array of kombucha scobies.
What does feminism smell like? The women Yi sampled don’t come out of any particular wave, nor do they adhere to one mode or affiliation. Yet she seems to want us to inject new expressive and affective strategies into old issues that traverse all of society—namely, feminism, patriarchy, and capitalism. She wants us to make a stink if those exchanges—new terms, new smells—fall short. “You Can Call Me F” is the title of the show.
How do you document an affair? Receipts, maps, menus, locks of hair, ticket stubs, empty contraception packages, fingernail clippings, letters explicitly recounting sexual positions, and photographs—hundreds and hundreds of photographs, which in this affair were taken by Cologne businessman Gunter F. of his young secretary, Margret. The couple spent a year together, and all of the above material was meticulously collected by Gunter and packed into a briefcase, which was later found in an abandoned German apartment. This archive is currently receiving its US debut, “Margret: Chronicle of an Affair – May 1969 to December 1970,” after being first shown at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
The exhibition feels dramatically of the past—not just because the archive is—but because the sorts of ephemera on view are alive with traces of time and touch. There is loopy, expressive cursive, a crumpled napkin spotted in blood, a neat clipping of hair taped to a sheet of yellowed paper. All get at the essence and gravity of the keepsake, which increasingly today is not an object or even image of an object but an image in and of itself, kept behind a screen. Does the memento risk extinction? And if so, what are the stakes of such a loss?
It’s the sheer physicality of this collection that transmits the poetics of memory, ushering one into another’s nostalgia and getting at the complexities of voyeurism. Beyond personal appeal, however, is a near-pathological belief in the totemic power of the object. At play then is the collateral damage of the digital archive—that losing our keepsakes may not only be a loss in sensorial memory but a reconstitution of memory itself. The same obsessive impulse to document keeps memory as alive as it does dead: To possess it through an object is to declare its mortality—but what happens if there is no object?
Studio paintings are seductive. They invite us to enter the sites of creation, extending the tantalizing hope that doing so will demystify the process. Then they thwart our expectations. From Brueghel to Brancusi, Daumier to de Kooning, curator John Elderfield has mined the centuries for artists’ paintings of their ateliers, plucking fifty-odd works from far-flung museums, foundations, and private collections and setting them in the gallery like precious stones. The variety is mesmerizing. When models appear, they range from relaxed and sexy (Henri Matisse) to anguished (Lucian Freud). The rooms themselves can be oases or prisons.
A self-referential playfulness courses throughout: These are the spaces where art is made, not the art itself, yet the rooms become that too. They offer intimate insights, but they also omit and obscure. In several studios, stretched canvases are turned to face walls. In Carl Gustav Carus’s Das Atelierfenster (Studio Window), 1823–24, we see the back side of a painting propped in the window. Is the artist hiding it from us? Or showing it off to the world? It feels like a fitting metaphor for the tension between exhibitionism and opacity charging these works.
No matter how stylistically busy or spare, neoclassical or cubist, these images all pulse with a sense of vital necessity. A round table dominates Pink Summer, 1975, a large, bubble gum–hued oil painting by Philip Guston. It and most of the objects lying on it are sketchily outlined in red, but half a sandwich, a bunch of brushes, and a watch get more tonal attention. All the artist needs, they seem to say, is food, tools, and time. In the background, a half-obscured head in profile suggests a sphinx sinking into the sand. But these studio paintings are not Ozymandian monuments to vanity, bound for the ash heap of history. Elderfield presents an eloquent argument for their profound and complicated value, fueling their enduring allure.
Light them as you will; Victor Man’s nocturnal paintings insist on their place in the long, dark corridor of art history. Their subjects emerge from the gloaming, buoyed by a bright tunic or foulard—or a gloss of Picasso, Balthus, or Mantegna—that hovers, almost protectively, over his tenderly rendered models. Yet Man is no timeless painter. His citations follow a historical dialogue between painting and photography, with precedents from Manet to Richter, here extended discerningly into our century. In Grafting/or Lermontov Dansant Come [sic] Saint Sebastien, 2014, the “double exposure” of a boy’s head as it lists to the side results in an extra, misregistered eye. The Photoshop mouse as Sebastian’s arrows? Perhaps, but the point is largely irrelevant before the boy’s frank, tricloptic gaze. The painted portrait wins out over the ghost of a photograph, even as it cribs photography’s latest tendencies; painting has time, after all, on its side.
In the back gallery, Man presents paintings from his series “The Chandler,” 2013–14, variations on a modern-day Saint Denis in secretarial dress. Though the press release implicates Georges Bataille’s anarchic and antirational Acéphale, the paintings themselves gesture elsewhere: to a chastened Judith, to Medusa, or to beheaded martyrs. Their palettes’ obscurity makes mysterious what might be irritatingly plain in a photograph: A cropped image of a woman has become the image of a cropped woman. The gesture recalls chandlers, medieval servants charged with the upkeep of household candles, who lopped off long wicks to keep their flames burning. The objectification accomplished by cropping out a nude’s face, not incidentally, has done similar work for viewers’ burning desire. In the most recent painting, the sitter’s hand recoils as the head looks up at its old roost, suddenly aware of its violent reorganization—a shock of self-recognition of the model no less than the motif.
The moods of this elegant exhibition, which includes loose pastels and watercolors, precise pencil sketches, and frenetic ink drawings, fluctuate like the spikes on an EKG. There are moments of warmth here—a mother and child on the beach—but many of Alice Neel’s subjects are solitary: an old woman with no purse riding a train, a brooding child, a lost-looking man with an empty coffee cup. Even when several figures share a space, they can appear isolated. In Alienation, 1935, Neel lies naked on a bed, lips and eyes firmly shut. A nude lover stands above her, turning away, limbs crossed defensively. Inky shadows threaten to consume the old man lying on the curb in Untitled (Bowery), 1936. Other haggard figures trudge past him, their weariness and despair scrawled and scratched into their features.
Suffering, as W. H. Auden observed, unfolds while “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Neel adroitly pins the pain and quotidian sorrows of her subjects to a heedlessly humming city. In an ink-and-gouache depiction of her dying mother, Neel incorporates other hospital patients receiving visitors and, through the window, a boat going about its business, an urban counterpart to Auden’s “expensive delicate ship” bypassing Pieter Breughel’s drowning Icarus.
Neel strips the world away in other portraits, allowing her sitters to dominate the blank paper. In Ginny, 1975, Neel’s youthful daughter-in-law gazes past us with large gray eyes, a modern-day sibyl in sneakers. In the horrifying Self-Portrait Skull, 1958, Neel paints herself as death’s head with stringy hair and broken teeth. Black ink gushes in grotesque streams from one eye socket. Taken together, the works in this startling show create compelling cycles of life and death, simultaneously universal and profoundly intimate.
Caught up in the fluorescent reds, acidic greens, and woozy ultramarine blues coating erotic entanglements of cartoons and classical figuration, politics and fantasy, in these acrylic and oil canvases, you could just miss the black marker insignia “SAUL ’68” on Target Practice. Hiding in plain sight is evidence that these large works hail from an era of riots, uprisings, the Vietnam War, and the flourishing of countercultural glee in America. Take equal parts hysterical protest and militaristic righteousness and you have a painting like Pinkville, 1970: A glistening orange American solider with a cross around his neck, a protruding erection, and a green army helmet stabs and stomps on dehumanized representations of Vietnamese women, one of whose hair curls into fat black letters spelling Big Murder. This canvas’s power lies in the way it toys with enshrining entitled fantasies about domination while bellowing its protest against such scenes, which are brought to life through war time after time.
Throughout the paintings on view, not an inch of their surfaces backs down from competing for the eye’s attention through their formal ingenuity, lurid palette, and the brake-screeching words, such as Bank of Shit or Fucking Cop, that address all too contemporary realities. The latter phrase is emblazoned across the length of a red-faced policeman’s fleshy pink schlong, whose head splits to grasp the blade of a sickening yellow pocketknife inscribed with Decency in Self Defense, 1969. The handle of the knife reads Self-defense, though, and is delicately grasped by the claw of a Black Panther woman tangled in the drooling policemen’s limbs. But her expression reads cool as a cucumber compared to the cops’ spluttering hate, fear, and telling lust.
Perhaps due to the popularity of Game of Thrones, Folkert de Jong’s “The Holy Land” seems topical, despite that three of the sculptures are made from three-dimensional scans of Henry VIII’s armor. Dispensing with his previous contemporary materials of Styrofoam and polyurethane, de Jong depicts three stages of Henry’s life and hints at current global conflicts, including the outright medieval beheadings perpetrated by the Islamic State, in these patinated bronze relics. The green, red, and blue patinas of the bronze remains consistent throughout the triad, but each sculpture retains a distinct personality: the youthful king in Fidei Defensor (all works 2014), the virile middle-aged warrior with a bulging codpiece in From Stately Throne, and the bulky barrel-chested one in Old DNA.
Several of de Jong’s works are encased in acrylic glass vitrines with colored panels, the most macabre being The Knights Move, a ghost of war with a snakelike body made from pigmented polyurethane foam adorned with a coat that de Jong’s uncle wore in the Dutch navy. By incorporating a biographical aspect, de Jong contradicts the anonymity of this faceless soldier, bringing a human element to its nightmarish form. Notwithstanding the permanence of its bronze material, the freestanding Babel’s Maze appears precarious due to the spindly base propping up its central element, a top-heavy cluster of cast machine guns with a decaying, greenish finish. Connected to a bowler hat and cane by a thin armature, the work depicts a violent empire potentially doomed to fail, as implied by these theatrical components. Although de Jong eschews any overt references in these works, one can’t help but make associations with the current stances and policies of nations that take cues from religion, divine-right theory, and the philosophy of “might makes right.”
Oh, how we long to be seduced. Imagine that quickening of the pulse when Christian Dior unveiled his New Look in 1947, after all the misery and asceticism of the World War II years—that fulsome twenty yards of fabric draped over a revamped Edwardian silhouette, returning to the world what Parisian fashion had always done best: aristocratic hauteur alloyed with sumptuous glamour.
Faggy, filigreed, fabulously flat—Caitlin Keogh’s scintillating crop of nouveau paintings are a welcome respite from all the slopped-out, dudely, abstractionist facture littering Chelsea and far beyond. Keogh’s in possession of a razor-sharp style and illustrative swagger that looks back to the greatest: thirties fashion magazines, Jean Giraud, 1970s glam rock, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Steve Strange, all of which aggregates into an unrepentant Surrealism that’s more Gene Moore than Salvador Dali could ever have hoped to be.
And so much pink! Plush, powdered, pussy pink—from the vulvar split between the shoulders of the multiply perforated female form in The Illustrator (all works 2014), to the anthropomorphized ribbon about to quiescently behand itself with a pair of enormous shears in The Modiste, to the queerly de-nippled odalisque-like Eve, delivering the Serpent, in The Writer. It’s a vision of “sinister femininity” (to quote the show’s curator, Piper Marshall) that Keogh has appropriated from historically misogynistic sources and made entirely her own, doing as the quaintrelle, or female dandy, should: destabilizing paint into maquillage, enhancing veneer into armor.
And honestly, it can’t be overstated: There’s nothing like a gracefully manicured edge to cut through all the shit.
“Hie to Kolob,” Jason Metcalf’s cathedral-like exhibition, explores the quintessentially American qualities of regional evangelism and religious art, especially the pioneer’s folklore of Mormonism. Metcalf himself was raised in Utah, and his personal history is deeply steeped in the residual culture around the state’s predominant religion. Titled after a Mormon hymn that incants aspirations to reach Kolob, a star recognized by the LDS Church for its supposed proximity to God. “Hie to Kolob” is a winking homage to the massive Christus installation at Salt Lake’s Temple Square, colloquially known as Space Jesus.
The series positions large, airbrushed supernova-like canvases beside a graduating-light installation of incandescent lamps, and A paved work of pure gold, 2012–15, which, as its title suggests, is a foot-square tile made of aerospace-grade aluminum plated with a 99.999% pure layer of gold. The metal is the most thorough reflector of infrared radiation (footnote to NASA’s use of gold to plate the surfaces of astronauts’ helmet visors); a sharp pillar of light that radiates to the ceiling from the single square punctuates the room with an ecclesiastical luminosity.
Religious narratives and imagery are by nature often surreal and irrational; though Metcalf humorously acknowledges this absurdity via his co-opted devices of melodrama-via-airbrush and staged lighting, at heart these are not cynical works. The chromatic vibrance of the paintings increases as the lamps over them brighten, producing a fool’s-gold effect of religious divinity that climaxes with the reflected light of real gold: The experience may be dominated by special effect, but there is sincerity at its core.
Now that the Met’s presentation of Leonard Lauder’s Cubism collection has come down, we can safely say that the most vital collision of forms currently on view in New York takes place in Untitled (3/95, I), 1995, a firecracker from this German artist’s early days. Charline von Heyl paints a seafoam easy chair from the side, its feet resting at the bottom of the composition, its right face scored with dark-blue hatches and white crosshatches, the latter as smothering as a fisherman’s net. Overtaking the top half of the canvas is a painter’s palette, the thumbhole cloned twice over. Unlike the chair, the palette is depicted from above, or actually, it’s not really depicted at all; it’s merely signified by a calligraphic white flourish. Panes of color respect the palette’s border on the right, but on the left the background bleeds over onto the chair. It’s a disjunctive, dynamic crypto-Braque whose “incorrect” elements surpass nonfigurative harmony.
Von Heyl painted the seven works in this show while working for Jörg Immendorf, her professor at art school; there are echoes in the chair of the cool palette of his Grand Guignol “Café Deutschland” series. She had no time for expressionist bluster, though, and while her canvases evince a dark humor, she has never pulled the longstanding German trick of beating up on painting in order to save it. In both of this winter’s major painting shows—MoMA’s much-contested “The Forever Now” and Gavin Brown’s better received “Call and Response”—von Heyl stood out for her refusal of both zombie formalism and Kippenberger-lite mess making, as if she is still working through the modernist explosion with which the rest of us have decided not to come to terms. Do not recoil, von Heyl insists. Paint because it’s hard; paint because you’re an adult.
Jamie Isenstein titled her latest exhibition “Para Drama,” after a phrase used to describe infighting among paranormal investigators. The term equally applies to the attendant theatricality of Isenstein’s sculptures that incorporate her own body (past examples include a live hand extending from a wall to form a candelabra, à la Cocteau; actual arms and legs fleshing out a wingback chair). For this show, Isenstein has expanded her idiosyncratic surrealism to include a sculpture in which the body remains invisible and instigates movement. In Mechanical Bed (all works 2015), a quilted coverlet inches up and down a mattress incrementally, manipulated by the artist’s hidden hands. The action is so eerily, robotically smooth that a viewer could easily not realize that there is a human laborer concealed within were it not for the materials list, which includes “actor.” (An INTERMISSION sign appears on the still sculpture when Isenstein is absent.)
Other sculptures are enlivened by more elemental forces: The breeze from a fan animates two white gloves that flutter aloft, bewitching an empty chair decked with tinkling wind chimes; a flame emerges from a solitary dinner plate in Theater and be Theatered, and another flickers from the lips of a porcelain mask resting on a crisp white pillow in Fire in the Mouth. Such materials recall the early installations of Jannis Kounellis, but while those dealt in references to ancient history and classical music, Isenstein appears to draw from more populist fare: Disney’s Fantasia, The Addams Family’s Thing. Many of these works feature visually ingenious gags we’ve seen from Isenstein before, but two seemingly comedic sculptures titled Onions—which feature mascot heads layered with multiple masked disguises, from clowns to circus animals—point to a missing inner being, an infinite regress of vanitas masquerading as camp: It’s melancholy all the way down.
Barbara Kasten did not study with Josef Albers, but the Bauhaus ghosts her work. The photographs on view in her latest exhibition are constructions, geometric props positioned to throw colored light and shadows across the page. The plastic forms in these images delineate space but neither rise into the foreground nor fall into the background.
A spatial visual exchange registers on the photographic paper. Where De Stijl jockeys color and line in two dimensions, Kasten’s “Transpositions,” 2014, opt for a manipulation of volume and air. This respiration of form into space appears as an intentional blurring, a reverberation caught by the still of the camera frame. This relational pull conjures up the words of architecture historian Sigfried Gideon, who acutely described the movement of modern buildings as “cubes of air within, cube of air without.” The neue-architektur of modern times was a model that demarcated potential and provided a physical framework for the utopian ideal. These photographs offer an architecture that takes in the expired ideals of their historical forebears to expand them outward, splaying their shadows into a transitional space. Kasten’s images have the power to show a new generation some basic concepts of art that they can explore with their nifty digital tools.
In Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô (1862), the cannonballs that fall on Carthage have been engraved with insults (“swine,” “vermin”) or else bitchy witticisms (“catch!”), and the victims they strike down have the abuses imprinted on their flesh. Hence the jagged backward writing carved on a cannonball in Caleb Considine’s small but riveting Painting for Salammbô, 2015, reads “I have thoroughly earned it.” The work depicts the piece of artillery in his Brooklyn studio next to a ratty sofa and a crumpled winter jacket. The couch, a Craigslist hand-me-down of woven brown and beige, seems undisturbed by the armament that sits upon it. If the cannonball had fallen from the sky, surely the sofa would have been smashed. Is Considine then, in his studio, the victim of the assault? Or could it be Considine who is preparing to catapult the ball upon those of us who still can’t think through painting, us who “have thoroughly earned it”?
Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education may seem like easier parallels to the naturalistic precision of Considine’s paintings. Yet more than any of Flaubert’s novels, the grandly camp Salammbô offers a model of artistic creation—a naturalism with no documentary aim, a proudly useless perfection—that Considine, with his catapult in the corner of the studio, understands as nothing less than an act of war. And if naturalism were at its core a pessimistic, deterministic style, then perhaps for young artists today it may have new use. History is not fiction, it turns out. History is fate, and to make sense of that dreadful downturn we need art that’s not an umpteenth bloodless critique, but an act of creation as forceful as a cannonball to the chest.
Censorship and sexuality have long been strange bedfellows. “Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship” details around a dozen international episodes of erasure and exclusion over the past half century, in which the frank depiction of queer people and sexualities rubbed up against church, state, and individual bigotry, resulting in physically and psychologically violent acts of censorship. Curated by Jennifer Tyburczy, "Irreverent” importantly includes many previously censored works and brings them renewed exposure. Additionally, through the creative incorporation of diverse ephemera, including installation photographs of censored artwork as well as documentary footage and signs from activist responses, the exhibition deftly contextualizes the sociocultural arenas in which censorship and its ramifications have played out.
Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, and Andres Serrano loom large, the past and more recent censorship of their art acting as lightning rods, to which “standards of decency” (in the words of Jesse Helms) continue to be applied. On view are three Serrano works from “The History of Sex,” 1995, which were vandalized with axes and crowbars in Lund, Sweden, in 2010 by alleged neo-Nazis. The damaged prints themselves are on display, their shattered frames and ravaged images showing where Serrano’s lush, large-scale photos of bestiality and interracial gay fellatio were virulently attacked.
As the world’s only gay and lesbian art museum, this institution is uniquely positioned to “celebrate” censorship in a tongue-in-cheek manner that recuperates these works from a once-criticized position. For instance, an initial display of Alma López’s Our Lady, 1999, a flower-clad Virgin of Guadalupe interpretation supported by a bare-breasted female angel, incited protests from religious communities in Santa Fe for its queering of sacred iconography. López’s image now graces the museum’s entranceway and the cover of its quarterly scholarly publication, a fitting resurrection for this “irreverent apparition.”
A fact lost on most media: “On Kawara—Silence,” the title of the most comprehensive overview to date of the late Conceptualist’s work, is accompanied by a tiny spiral icon, a miniature Guggenheim ramp. Whether didactic, deadpan, or an allusion to the impressive totality of his work (probably all three), the symbol is an idiosyncratic detail the artist desired. Its closest typographic kin, “@,” doesn’t really suffice, even though it aptly lights up the poetically terse, direct address of much of Kawara’s best work, its pre–social media forthrightness. See the postcards to his friends (the “I Got Up” series, 1968–79), which trace his itinerancy and are elegantly pinned between large panes of glass in freestanding displays in this show, and, similarly, the telegrams (from “I Am Still Alive,” 1969–2000), a testament to his “at-ness.” Above all, his longest-running work, the Date Paintings, from the “Today” series, 1966–2013, carry forward this focus on self-reliance, on having a daily practice, and on being directed, if only one way—in a monologue.
Ascending the final, top ramp, one encounters a show within the show: fifty-one of the Date Paintings, marking each year of Kawara’s production, beginning with two canvases from January 12, 2013. Without any fanfare, the exhibition simply ends. January 30, 1966. Drifting back down to the exit, one finds the commencing work from this series, painted on January 4, 1966, in the first gallery. It’s like the eternal return. Kawara’s spiral feels complete.
The sun sets on a passive-solar conference room, on ergonomic pleather rolling chairs around a glossy table with a conference phone. Everyone’s excited in this video (Elizabeth Orr’s Applied Marketing Topic: Loss Leader [all works 2015]) to talk about a pricing strategy for which the piece and exhibition, Orr’s first solo, take their names. (A loss lead, like a nascent art practice, is something offered at a profit loss in hope of future gain.) Swiveling toward the camera, a corporately assertive acolyte played by the artist Mariana Valencia vaguely declares: “My understanding of loss lead is just in terms of marketing.” Another, played by Emma Hedditch, is eager to learn: “I am going to be interviewing them later this week about strategic meditation in the workplace.”
Such moribund exuberance already suggests the inanimate, and the piece’s installation as a sculpture, closely facing one wall and supported by a metal pole descending from the ceiling, cements its continuity with the abstractions on display. The show has nothing on the walls, and at the center of the gallery are two Formica structures, Ghost Posture and Projected Return, the former’s shape resembling a traffic arrow and the latter’s something like an airport carry-on size-test box. On these stand unframed panes of minimally varied tinted glass, evoking, perhaps, the Instagram filter array, or just how much the history of Minimalism and the pages of a Uline catalogue really have in common. Corporations are disseminators of aesthetics, too—the architectonic mishmash seems to say—and this is what their dreams look like.
The only way to understand the full extent of the revelations of Edward Snowden—the disregard for law, the imbrication of governmental and corporate power, the simultaneously awesome and pointless data harvesting—is to put your own grievances to one side and look from the position of the surveillant. For more than two years, the German artist Simon Menner combed through the archives of the Ministry for State Security and unearthed disturbing, at times bitterly comic photographs of Stasi agents trying on disguises (mustaches, hairpieces, fur coats with flared collars) and practicing hand signals: an outstretched palm or a fist pointing downwards, as structured as an Yvonne Rainer performance. A hundred Polaroids document not just illegally imported coffeemakers and West German marks stuffed into cigarette cases, but also unmade beds and sloppy desks: The agents put everything back after their raids, leaving the surveilled in the dark. The oppressors are watching you. But what do they see, and what do they want to see?
The nine other artists in this show take a more contemporary view of surveillance and of the photographic apparatus’s complicity in repression and privacy violation. For The New Town, 2013, Andrew Hammerand took footage from a CCTV camera set up in a planned American suburb, and the grainy images of teenagers and families have the look of a crime scene. Drone vision, whether in the black-and-white shots of Tomas van Houtryve or the Google Earth appropriations of Mishka Henner, turn life into data. Neither legislation nor public outcry seems to be enough to stop such gazes, and unless you can shrink to a size of a pixel, as Hito Steyerl has recently suggested, you aren’t going to escape. One other way out might be the one proposed by Hassan Elahi. Every week since 2002, he has sent the FBI hundreds of photos of his daily life, flooding the system and rendering it even more worthless.
Lutz Bacher’s current solo exhibition, “For the People of New York City,” feels a lot like a Frank O’Hara poem: clever, buoyant, wistful, and utterly enthralled by all the garbage and loveliness of city existence. Her ability to resuscitate amateur videos, industrial throwaways, or bodega tchotchkes into numinously charged tableaux aligns her with urban visionaries such as Jess or Joseph Cornell, makers seemingly preordained to make even the stupidest of ready-made things exquisite.
Bacher’s Empire (all works 2014) has nothing of the dead-eyed, steely glamour of Andy’s: Hers swings, blurs, and bobs in space on multiple surfaces, translucent and opaque, woozy with luscious, lurid color from a pair of precariously balanced digital projectors. Like a disarrayed Stonehenge, larger-than-life-size windshields made of Plexiglas are scattered throughout the main area of the ground floor, kept upright in metal stands weighted down with sandbags. Images of this famous edifice reflect into and onto one another, all over and at once, creating an atmosphere that’s like a touristy phantasmagoria by way of a boozy Midtown cab ride.
How Will I Find You is perhaps the most funereal experience of the show. What seem to be hundreds of dirty plaster molds and broken figurines of bunnies, bowling pins, and a beheaded Pillsbury Doughboy are collected into a vast heap in the middle of a room, all gathered around two columns. Is it a Canal Street junkyard? A 9/11 elegy? Heavy-handed, homely, and immanently heartbreaking—just like this terrible city that is so dearly loved.
Fragments, ciphers, mirroring, and a whisper about lineage are hung as five oil paintings in Caitlin MacBride’s New York debut. Presenting a mysterious array of oblong forms severed from discernable context, MacBride’s works slink around the alleys of representation but have clearly inhaled the vapors of abstraction and had more than a few liaisons with “Pictures.” Orphaned from any alliances, they look like they’re searching for where they might fit in, as if wandering down art history’s halls, querying David Salle: “Are you my father?”
The two largest works pull the heavier weight of ideas. The first is mysteriously titled Wry Proportion of Its Begetting, 2015, and is predominantly painted a night-colored black and centered by an olive-green display containing three amorphous, articulately rendered blobs all in a line and individually posted on rods or a shelf. They resemble nothing so much as 3-D printed tchotchkes living in a flat monochrome realm cut off from any world except that of race-to-the-black-square minimal painting.
The second, Neck for the Worm Arm, 2015, functions less as a unified composition and more like a layering of competing visions for contemporary painting. A rocky indigo-blue shape in the top center opens a window onto a ghostly white folkloric scene of a deer and a shadowed figure holding out a sword. This interruption in the otherwise color-blocked painting feels cinematic, like an oblique zoom into an intimate scene or a rip in the veil of abstraction. To say that this gentle, even pretty, sight is the painting’s true face emerging from the coded gestures around it, though, would be too trusting given the pieces’ evidently wily nature. Spend the night with them, yes, but in the morning you might not recognize them.
Jamian Juliano-Villani’s new canvases are huge, bulging, and flat. They panel up the walls and leave almost no empty space. In addition to seeming unmannered, they’re rude. Fly Kama Sutra (all works 2015) swipes through frames of at least three different, disjointed, and frankly unhinged scenarios. To see it in its entirety, you have to step outside the doors and look in through glass. Have you ever been to a tiny, shitty apartment with no real furniture, no food in the cupboards, but then a seventy-two-inch brand-name TV? Juliano-Villani’s third solo exhibition feels a lot like that, inviting judgment from an inner classy mom: This artist is irresponsible; this artist is not spending wisely.
Nor is hers an easy, happy profligacy, as her brushes with cartoon airiness and billboard surrealism suggest. The best painting is the one that looks you square in the eyes, but its own eyes are scratched right out: Penny’s Change is a smear-up of a puffer-jacketed graffiti artist’s selfie and Peter Saul’s Mona Lisa Throws Up Pizza, 1995, with the kind of teeth—big but mostly missing—that appear to you in nightmares about money. If you can bear to zoom in on it, you’ll notice that its surface is greasy, like a screen that’s been touched or spilled on, as if the painting has been handled without any care or maybe with far too much.
In the photographs that compose Martin Beck’s Flowers (set 4) and Flowers (set 5) (both 2015), a bouquet sits in various states of completion, quite corporate in its prim pose, housed in a clear vase and floating in a field of black: This is the empty dream-space of stock photography, where portraits twinkle like Platonic ideals. At first, the arrangement is a bustle of white blooms (the better to slice against the black), while later stages burst into yellow, bloodred, and pink. These are not pictures of flowers but of cleanliness, of bureaucratic pleasantness, of the sanitized cheer kept up by those manicured hands that crane delicately from beyond the frame to fondle the petals and stems. Here at last is the utopia dreamt up by HR manuals and company retreats, a no-place of smiling industriousness and aseptic bliss.
This show sparkles with a glassy politesse that reaches its apex in Strategy Notebook, a video installation in which words such as “question,” “recall,” “reduce,” and “hold back” fade on and off a screen of alternating colors—the terms themselves were lifted from a 1970s “problem-solving” manual. Spliced with the limpid C-prints, the scene is one of workplace bubbliness, bourgeois incentives, and the hardening of entire states of mind (“memorize”) into techniques to be launched at the vaporous challenges that face a whole droning class of white-collar meaninglessness. The words—“chart,” “simulate,” “search”—dissolve and materialize on the cheerful flatness of digitized space, bobbing so gently there that it’s easy to forget what they are: commands.
Erin Shirreff’s art beats between objects and images. Her latest show, “Arm’s Length,” consists of four bodies of work: large-scale cyanotypes, lush pigment-print diptychs, plinth-bound arrangements of plaster geometries, and layered compositions of steel. Its structure is syntactic, defined through a vocabulary of forms that recur across materials and media. Here tapered to a line, there fixed as a photograph, Shirreff’s shapes resist self-containment, meeting in shifting constellations that fail to congeal.
Drop (no. 14) (all works 2015) began as a catalog of curves—the stock stuff of art-school figure drawing—that Shirreff sketched in her studio. Resized to the ready-made parameters of sheets of hot- and cold-rolled steel, the curves coexist as template and cutout, the bend of a semicircle hedging the rectangle from which it was clipped. Isolable and absent jointing, each leans against the gallery wall in mime of the pictorial logic of figure against ground. Cobbled with a sort of calculated casualness, the array seems primed for reconfiguration. A nearby cyanotype, Four strings, literalizes Drop’s insistence on a frontal (and, hence, imagistic) encounter with form. Created through the exposure of sculptural elements to light-sensitive fabric, the image indexes an object that no longer exists. Stretched to a scale typical of postwar abstract painting, its effect is at once factual and vague, the blunt aniconism of its forms contravening the lyricism of its rheumy scale of blues.
Such slippages between photographic, pictorial, and sculptural space organize the installation. Images sidle into objects; objects are percussed into images. In each case, Shirreff’s work appears other to us, close enough to touch yet poised at asymptotic remove: the not-quite nearness of an arm’s length.
In Sanskrit, samsara denotes the endlessly repeating cycle of birth, life, and death, the quality that is, according to Buddhist philosophy, determined by individuals’ actions. Max Greis illustrates this concept in an impressive exhibition of eighteen mixed-media artworks. He packs myriad scenes and tiny details into apocalyptic panoramas that evoke history, war, conquest, development, and environmental devastation.
While from a distance the compositions appear as moody landscapes that evoke Constable or Turner, close viewing reveals the influence of Bosch and Breugel. Where the Buffalo Roamed, 2015, depicts a surreal palimpsest of North America’s occupants: Native Americans and herds of bison, teepees and Conestoga wagons, give way to soldiers, cars, and military barracks. Terraced fields and industrial installations give rise to piles of garbage and the leisurely bourgeoisie. Nearby is the Oklahoma Land Office, a launching rocket, and a satellite dish, deftly evoking a century and a half of exploration and expansion. Above it all fly small planes, fighter jets, and birds of prey. Heaven, hell, animals, humans, titans, and hungry ghosts—the six realms of existence described in Buddhism—are all here.
In several works, Greis projects video footage onto the panels, perfectly matched to the landscapes in scale and perspective, adding yet more layers of time and history. And on a shelf, a row of dioramas set into vintage books extends the exhibition’s themes, with book titles providing ironic commentary: The Future as History, Outside In, Strange Animals I Have Known, Carved in Sand, Only in America, Beyond the Summit.
Squashed under glass like butterflies, a pink down jacket, five Hermès ties, and a human-hair wig lie inside a frame. Peanuts & Turtles & Hunters & Chains & Potted Plants, 2015—named for the items cheerfully printed on the ties—encapsulates the keen wit pervading Nina Beier’s first solo show in New York. The materials are whimsical, but their humor is undercut with horror. The flattened jackets and sleeping bags in this series suggest crushed bodies; the sinuous ties swirling around them become viscera spilled on impact. Flattening the ties allows us to examine them as though they were drops of viral blood viewed through a microscope. The jaunty prints become bizarre and a little sickening. Beier’s interest in exposing the perversity of everyday commodities recalls Mike Kelley’s unnerving arrangements of soiled stuffed animals and yard-sale relics.
In a second series, Beier creates giant glasses that Goliath might use to sip a cosmo. Each one contains objects extracted from photographs—hand sanitizer, scissors, bone—encased in translucent, blue-tinted resin. By placing these items in stemware, Beier points to how we consume ready-made images and to their power to alter our minds, moods, and behavior. The still lifes themselves conjure a tension between preservation and decay. Hair spray and Band-Aids as well as the substrate in which they’re embalmed contrast with fragile, transient tokens of the natural world: dismembered beetles, the shards of a shattered emu egg. These exquisitely cryptic sculptures play on the biblical conversion of water into wine. Metamorphosis lies at the heart of Beier’s work, which so effectively transforms prosaic materials, exploding their contexts and stretching their meanings to startling proportions.
Hank Willis Thomas’s latest exhibition presents a century’s worth—one per year since 1915— of magazine advertisements featuring white women. Each have been enlarged to poster size and all traces of branding have been erased, making it near impossible to identify the products being advertised, forcing us to interpret the images on their own terms. An enigmatic slogan-like title inspired by each advertisement's original text accompanies the corresponding works.
Thomas’s series functions as a pictorial history of mainstream femininity in America, tracing shifts in the societal roles occupied by and assigned to white women. Sadly but unsurprisingly, images of sexism and violence toward women, both overt and subtle, abound. Regardless of the decade, their bodies are frequently on display, served up in a state of undress considered risqué at the time, docile objects of desire for the eager male consumer. They appear caged, shackled, tied up, and straightjacketed. One smiles obliviously while being dragged by her hair; another smirks playfully despite a black eye, a lit cigarette in her hand. There are some notable exceptions: A 1920 image shows a woman driving, firmly in control of her own destiny, while another from 2014 shows a lesbian couple being intimate mid-selfie. However, progress toward equality is always halting: Wartime images of women aiding the military effort are followed by a postwar return to domestic order. Somewhat uncannily, doubles and masks reappear throughout, seemingly confirming British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere’s 1929 assertion that “womanliness” was never an essence but a masquerade.
Enthralled by these details, it is easy to forget that the author of this history is a black man. Through more than half of the twentieth century a black man could be lynched simply for looking at a white woman, and a strange image from 2001, tellingly titled The Gaze, encapsulates this fraught past. A blond woman squats on a bed in a dingy room, staring out at us assuredly. On the television behind her is the face of a black man who appears to be watching her. He looks anxious, uncertain exactly of what the consequences of his act will be.
For his second solo exhibition at this gallery, Arthur Ou took fourteen portraits of artists who work primarily within the realm of the photographic—people such as Uta Barth, James Welling, and Moyra Davey—reading parts of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous treatise on the limits of perception and language, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in settings both public and domestic all over the world. Also on view are two R. M. Schindler–inspired chairs on which viewers are encouraged to dally and pore over pocket-size volumes of Wittgenstein’s book, republished in three variations—World, Picture, and Fact—where instances of these three words in the text have been replaced by the artist with the word photograph.
There is a nineteenth-century strain of quiet in this suite of small black-and-white images by Ou. It is a temperament that seems to honor interiority, solitude, and a sort of tender pictorial loveliness—qualities that run counter to the extroverted supergraphic shininess of much contemporary photography. The artist doesn’t seem persuaded by the idea that Photoshop has killed the photograph, either. On the contrary, his exquisitely produced gelatin silver prints seem to announce that analogue photographs, as documents of representation, intention, technology, and time, are more intractable and mysterious than ever, and have a power far stranger than any digitally over-manipulated mutation floating across a screen. Ou’s modest works are as subjectively and materially rich as paintings, a medium we once foolishly thought died from modernity, too.
If barbarism is shoved deep into art, it sits snug as a gun in its holster. Let’s call Hito Steyerl’s work an epistemology of the holster. This survey of her videos since 2004 betrays a preoccupation with casings, coverings, capsules: that is, the thin membrane of criticality stretched taut over so much art discourse. Steyerl’s filmed lectures tickle the art world’s left-ish pieties, as we see her—speaking with pedagogical placidity as she gets all political—deliver the eagerly anticipated theoretical assault. And the artist lecture is itself a kind of casing or effluvium, a foam that forms on top, as the art world’s stony concerns—selling, buying, selling again—churn beneath.
Is a Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, a two-channel video installation, presents a theory that dances along by Steyerl’s bracing, associative logic: It knots together the storming of the Hermitage by Russian revolutionaries; the commingling of arms manufacturers and the culture industry; and the technological imaging systems that make possible both the steel flexion of a Frank Gehry structure and of a fighter helicopter. The museum doesn’t simply “reflect” violence but is itself a site of contestation, destruction, and—we hope—retaliation (which is why the seating in the gallery is made of piled sandbags, perfect for ducking enemy fire). The theme is more poignant in the film Guards, 2012, for which Steyerl interviewed museum guards that have served in the armed forces at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her gesture scuffs the polished halls of culture with the mark of state violence.
It’s difficult these days to imagine any work that can’t simply be looped back into capitalism’s cynical embrace like a prodigal son. Not so here: With her pixelated images, her ironic truth-telling, and the coy fluttering of her dialectics, Steyerl dares to see agency in complicity, cunning in crime.
To reach the main gallery of Pam Lins’s “Model Model Model,” the viewer must first pass through a gauntlet of hand-built ceramic phones, calling to mind less the art-historical corridor of Pop art than the hall of a community center. Along with their pedestals, priority mail boxes sloshed with paint, the works are as homely and economical as the notion of a model itself: dummy, replica, didactic—in short, not quite sculpture. Beyond the telephones, five tables built from Enzo Mari’s 1974 open-source designs host some thirty earthenware constructions, which Lins has rendered from photographs of Nikolai Ladovskii’s architecture workshop at VKhUTEMAS, the state art and technical school founded in Moscow in 1920. These three sets of models, or rather, models of models of telephones, utopian constructions, and tables, demonstrate the elasticity of the term: models as prototypes and paragons, simplifications and propositions, explanations and projections, the start of the production line and the objects that produce lines of relation. By virtue of its slippery semantics, the model shrugs off its not quite–ness to become the crux of sculpture’s social and critical potential.
The exhibition’s real reveal, however, is (literally) retrospective: the backsides of the austere student models have been glazed with colorful geometric motifs that animate their volume (The experiments continue upstairs, with a spirited group show organized by the artist around her color theory reading group.) The limitation is photography, a medium that shares with models both their indeterminate scale and their unstable liaisons with the material and historical world. Yet the kaleidoscopic object lesson goes deeper, to what historical documents must necessarily fail to show. Lins’s work as a teacher as well an artist seems pertinent, and poignant, here: Perhaps the only way to wholly see the model of an avant-garde education—or of radical industrialism, or even simply communication—is to model the model ourselves.
Allen Ginsberg once compared Fred W. McDarrah, the inaugural staff photographer at the Village Voice, to Weegee, a fellow photojournalist whose nocturnal flash revealed a multitude of subversions. McDarrah, however, was preoccupied not with crime but with the convulsions of culture—in literature, art, music, and politics—and his lens was primarily trained on happenings south of Fourteenth Street, from Beat readings to Club meetings. In 1961, he published The Artist’s World, a book in the tradition of the quasi-anthropological photographic essay, complete with explanations of the curious habits of downtown natives. McDarrah shot intrepid painters in illegal lofts; late-night coffees at the Chuck Wagon after the Cedar Tavern’s last call; and opening-night dinners “invariably” held at Chinese restaurants—where the artist of the hour could bask triumphant, “replete with excitement and egg rolls.”
Artforum dismissed the book as a “movie magazine for intellectuals,” while Brian O’Doherty, in the New York Times, winkingly fretted that it signaled the East Coast avant-garde’s imminent decampment for Hollywood. But history has burnished this erstwhile gossip fodder: Today, McDarrah’s images often populate the archival nooks of exhibitions and the margins of catalogue essays. This show brings together a majority of its vintage gelatin silver prints (far outshining the book’s coarsely screened halftone repros), revivifying scenes from a lost New York: Robert Rauschenberg in a junked-out lot, reading the newspaper; Bob Thompson on the bongos, accompanying Red Grooms; Jane Wilson, pensive in a French twist.
If occassionally unremarkable as photographs, these images do remarkable work: Vasari frequently got his facts wrong, but McDarrah presents us with the lives of the artists in fine-grained detail. The Artist’s World may have been accused of glamorizing the avant-garde, yet McDarrah’s book divulged that the artists themselves picked up the post-opening dinner tab, and many returned to cold-water flats in the early morning hours, after the world stopped looking so picturesque.
Leidy Churchman’s “The Meal of the Lion” opens not with an apex predator but with a modest character presented in a painting that takes its name: Insecure Rat, 2013. Gazing quizzically at its own reflection in a brackish puddle, the creature sets the tone for an anxious show rife with reference points that are individually rich but collectively inscrutable.
Past the gallery entranceway is the exhibition’s namesake and largest work: Churchman’s 2015 rendition of naïf painter Henri Rousseau’s iconic jungle tableau, which depicts a lion with what appears to be a leopard dangling from its bloody maw. Like the earlier artist, Churchman, a painter with a collector’s knack for ferreting out curious imagery, affords pride of place to visual phenomena that he has never seen in person. Here he extends Rousseau’s penchant for the exotic to a range of visual referents that are obscured in various ways. Some have clear barriers to direct observation, such as Churchman’s mapping of invisible underwater tides in The Great Global Ocean Conveyer Belt, 2015. Others are more puzzling: Jungle Café, 2014, seemingly presents a pamphlet painted from life at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s restaurant of the same name. Only the street address is off—Churchman’s 699 Manhattan Ave. in place of the café’s actual address, at 996.
Churchman’s hand has a flatness that recalls not painterly guesswork (of shadows and other nuances available only to the painter from life), nor the intentional flattening of cartography or design, but that of painting from photographs. If the accumulation of imagery is ultimately underwhelming, it is not for lack of cohesion (which was likely never the intention here)rather, in the paintings’ inability to seduce the viewer into recognition of the terrifying wonders they reproduce, nor of the artist’s motives in copying them.
“Some clients ask us to piss on them, but I'd be happy to shit on them on behalf of all women.” So opens this group exhibition—including works by Sanja Iveković, Rajkamal Kahlon, Victoria Lomasko, OKO, Cecilia Vicuña, and Carla Zaccagnini—with the words of one woman in Lomasko’s Girls, 2012, a collection of impromptu sketches of Russian sex workers whom the artist interviewed. It’s not the only sentence in the exhibition that rings with the easily recognizable sound of necessity. “They are willing to bury us alive,” reports Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in Lomasko’s Pretrial Tagansky Hearing Pussy Riot, 2012. Here is a show for a world already buried alive in the shit of patriarchy.
Razor slashes in white paper in Zaccagnini’s My Hieroglyphic on the Velázquez Venus Will Express Much to the Generations of the Future, 2012, abstract the violence chronicled in her book Elements of Beauty (2012), which sits on a bench nearby and is made up of documents of the attacks on paintings in the UK carried out by early twentieth-century suffragettes. It is this legacy of risk and altruistic punishment that holds the crowded show’s formal diversity together. Iveković’s Isn’t She Too Old for That?—On Witches, 2013, combines casual photographs of older women with illuminated witch-hunt illustrations, in a perverse affirmation of the monstrous guises female artists are assigned. As the contemporary feminist Sophia Cleary put it recently: “An isolated lone woman artist is like crazy and disturbed ‘probably poisoned by lead’ but an isolated lone male artist is a glorified monk.”
A woman’s tongue licks and slurps brightly colored candy and cake decorations off a pane of glass positioned above the camera lens in Marilyn Minter’s eight-minute video Green Pink Caviar, 2009. The fluorescent hues of the film illuminate the darkened gallery, as meditative music plays through headphones hanging nearby. Dana Levy’s palette in the video Everglades, 2014, projected onto the back wall, is less obnoxious but equally provocative, toying with the viewer as voyeur. The video was shot at night in Florida’s Everglades National Park: A full spectrum of colored lights permeates the park’s dense vegetation as gallery visitors listen to distorted sounds of environmental destruction playing from speakers overhead.
Themes of objectification and spectatorship, commonly associated with Minter’s cropped close-up shots, also appear in Anna K.E.’s video Gloss of Forehead, 2015, but K.E. pushes them beyond glamour and the fetishized female form. Her comparatively wide camera angle reveals an disheveled artist’s studio and engenders a narrative about the economics of aesthetic cultural production as its subject moves objects and materials meaninglessly around the space. The figure is doubled over and anonymous, its bare bottom facing the camera as if to mock it. As in Levy’s piece, it’s easier to focus on the visual spectacle here rather than considering the poignancy posed by the distortion of natural phenomena and the human form.
“Enchanted Space” is Barbara London’s first curatorial project since leaving MoMA in 2013, and its perversity results partially from watching these three videos in the dark. But perhaps there is also a guilty pleasure to be had in participating in the self-abasement of these human and environmental subjects, as well as of ourselves.
Bodies in bad form make up Torbjørn Rødland’s second solo show at Algus Greenspon. There is the belly in Drunken Man, 2014–15, wine-splashed and birthmarked and fat. There are the hands in The Photographer, 2015, or rather, the fetal stumps. There is The Geller Effect, 2014, a deathly still life in which bent and broken utensils lie with blond wisps of hair, and there is a green-looking foot hooked into the waist of a man’s pants in Red Pump, 2014–15. The ten photos in “Corpus Dubium” are lit in ways that can only be described as wrong: from behind or below, lending subjects or objects a silvery, queasy cast. All recall nothing so much as the Seconal dream tableaux of Jo Ann Callis.
The only bodies that aren’t deformed belong to two or three white girls of different ages (almost everyone in Rødland’s output is, like himself, white and Scandinavian—he has referred to his work as autobiographical). The youngest girl, in This Is My Body, 2013–15, has a strong pair of hands at her neck and in her mouth, as if she’s about to have an exorcism or lose a baby tooth. The oldest appears in The Mirror, 2014–15, taking a naked selfie with one white sock and one white shoe on. She could also be the girl in Blue Jeans, 2014–15, holding the jeans’ huge waist away from her torso with a white-gloved hand, making the image either a weight-loss ad or the scene of a crime—but since we don’t see her face, we don’t know. We also don’t know whose pill case is shown in This Is Every Week, 2012–15, its contents shot across undulating strips of gray material in Tablets and Waves, 2014–15. We do know that there is rarely a cure for a pattern. There is instead, as in the titular image of a man’s muscled arm squiggled with varicose veins, a chance to see beauty as symptomatic.
In her latest show, Xylor Jane continues to explore the visual and cognitive qualities of numbers, mapping them onto canvases in compositions that resemble complex puzzles or decks for dark arts. In some works, such as Twelve Twenty One and Leap Second, both 2015, and RX Rose, 2012, Jane overlays staccato spots of paint on a solid ground. In others such as Threes, 2015, she applies a spectrum of hues in tightly packed, geometrically allocated spaces. This technique is magnified in Twenty Nine, 2015, a surface of glossy black paint brushed in different directions, each segment reflecting light at different wattage. The works’ visual impact pivots on the vibrating edge tension achieved not just by color but by paint itself, as Jane milks both for their luminosity and tactile quality, recalling the potent subtlety of Ad Reinhardt and the vitality of a monochrome Grotjahn.
The balletic quality of numerical equations as well as the geometry they often describe are critical to these works. Yet if computational symbols and structures imbue her work with layers of meaning and an opaque mystical quality, the visceral power in her pictures lies in their meditative quality: Visually pulsating with measured ticks, the pictures translate a dreaminess and the sense of hyperfocused study that is innate to a state of delirious subconsciousness. Jane has spoken of working often in dark early-morning hours, when her mind is still more connected to sleep than it is awake. Her works transport us to that same metaphysical place, as shimmering gestures take on recognizable forms, at once tangible visuals and homages to invisible ideas.
Take what you want from all the Marxist cant surrounding Christopher Williams’s long-term project on the history and discourse of the photographic. What one finds at the heart of his practice is something simpler but no less profound: a reverence for the miracle of seeing and for the efforts we’ve made at trying to approximate or capture the mystery of this extraordinary phenomenon with the invention of the camera.
Juliet Jacobson is a drawer who works exclusively from photographs, transforming the information of mechanical reproduction into experiences that are startlingly physical and emotive. Though her technical prowess is stunning, her goals are well beyond pat mimesis or academicism. “There Is Nothing Perfectly Beautiful Except the Invisible,” her first solo exhibition at this gallery, is an investigation into the slipperiness of perceived reality, where the idealism of photographic space is shunted out of its Platonic sphere and put back into the sensuous realm of material facture and presence.
And sensuous is the word for Jacobson’s graphite and colored-pencil drawings, not simply in the exquisiteness of her hand—which is tender, replete, gorgeous—but also in the scrupulous observation she affords her seemingly banal subject matter. Gently crumpled or folded sheets of white paper and dirtied surfaces of mirrors that subtly reflect pale swaths of prismatic color feel like sites for spiritual projection—empty screens that are anything but, full of divine potential (and, strangely enough, not too unlike religious icons—objects that seem to gaze more fully into us than we into them).
Start anywhere, go everywhere—that would seem to be the calling card of mid-twentieth-century painter Charles Burchfield’s body of work, which predominately captures scenes from nature and rural, country life as charged by drama, tension, and a freewheeling style that rockets straight out of humble en plein air painting’s crypt and into the stratosphere of vision. The effervescent landscape drawings in this exhibition are often cut through with shafts of light, as in Dawn in Early Spring, 1946–66, which depicts a forest. The picture—done in watercolor and charcoal, as many works in the show are—is centered by a ringed wood backlit by some burgeoning glow while vegetation and trunks teeter between representation and exuberant mark making.
In the nearby Moonlight in a Flower Garden, 1961, the sky is a canopy of biomorphic waves balanced above the similarly shaped flora below it: as above so below. Even a series of three lightly sketched ink-and-charcoal drawings are positively calligraphic, with two of them including a line of cursive punctuating the compositions. One, circa 1960, reads “The spirit of winter lurking in a woods” underneath a handful of graceful outlines describing trees. But then, any line throughout the works here could rally itself to a poem, if one were so willing to read it.
Light showers down, and clouds and foliage vibrate in their rows of lines and washes, as if threatening to explode into painterly abstraction like the work of Burchfield’s contemporaries over in America’s metropolitan centers during his era. Instead they hold their breath and tenuous forms, basking in an illumination by turns divine and pagan.
When the 1963 negative for Le Bonheur (1965) lost most of its colors, Agnes Varda had a new one created to look more original than the first. The name given to things more original is artifice, but Varda has said that the film’s palette was exactly as she found it in nature, a truth that applies itself well to the realaesthetik of painter Lisa Yuskavage.
Opening with the green-on-green oil-on-linen Bonfire, which is split in two panels of equal, familiar brilliance, the exhibition unreels into a series of canvases obscured in shades of fog, letting iridescence win over her signature scale-tipping chromaticism. A second surprise: The woman who for years has felt like painting other women now also feels like painting a number of men, some of whom she affectionately termed “dudes” in the titles of her works. Others appear with babes, peek up from supine positions (The Neighbors, 2014) or fan out in splendor from behind (Hippies, 2013). Most of these boys are coyer, cuter, and more virginal than the feminine subjects we’ve often mistaken for “girls.”
But if her subjects-as-objects have always been grown, her style is matured—tenderer, reveling in awe. It’s rare that we get to see a famous painter changing before our eyes, especially so late in a game she has already won (though fans of John Currin, her straightforward counterpart, may have a different opinion). In a show that extends her career-long field day with color, a sunset coda—three pieces in finely splayed pastels over ink-jet on paper, each re-presenting a scene or a subject from her oils—gives us a chance to see Yuskavage’s figures in a state that feels closer to her nature, as heavenly and earthy as it is.
In 1995, Hale Tenger’s contribution to the fourth Istanbul Biennial was a portrait of her country as a cramped, one-room guard house, cordoned off in a concrete yard by a towering barbed-wire fence. Inside the structure were the barest necessities for passing time in the isolation of guard duty; walls were plastered with postcard scenes of natural wonders, including some of Turkey’s most breathtaking vistas. The images indicate that whoever served their time in that space dreamt of life outside the fence, suggesting the guard as a kind of prisoner. This play of perspective echoes in the installation’s title—We didn't go outside; we were always on the outside/ We didn’t go inside; we were always on the inside—which flows almost like a call-and-response chorus of an old song. Fittingly, the only company kept within this guard house comes via a battered transistor radio, which here crackles out a rotation of old-timey tunes. While the artist proposed the installation as a metaphor for Turkey’s geopolitical isolation, the presence of the radio subtlely implicates the government’s hand in that isolation, namely the monopoly on radio programming, which was under direct state control from 1923 up until ’94.
For this exhibition, Tenger restages the installation in the basement of New York’s historic Westbeth Building. If in 1995, Turkey was musing on what it means to have its media out from beneath the blunt thumb of the state, now, twenty years later, the country is contemplating a return to state control of media outlets. Once more, it seems, Turkey has found itself uncertain on which side of the fence it lies.
For the astrophile, it is a source of perpetual frustration that the moon looks like shit on an iPhone. For the moon, it is a source of power. The whitish stripes in Mary Corse’s minimal paintings, twelve of which comprise her second show at Lehmann Maupin, exert a similar pull: There is no one angle from which you can fix in your perception the experience of looking at a canvas and feeling it change. One moment the stripe is blank; in another moment it’s mark-ridden, dirty; in another still it’s almost silver. This whitish magic, achieved by mixing acrylic paint with the shiny glass beads used in highway signs, has been Corse’s signature effect since 1968.
Corse shares the rigor and compositional wit of Ellsworth Kelly and the rough grace of Agnes Martin, but she has the name recognition of neither. Though she was born in Berkeley, lives in Los Angeles, and is adjacent to the Light and Space movement, she hates being called a “California painter.” Yet it’s hard to think of another classification as right. In her new paintings, the non-whitish stripes are the colors of newer cars: black, sun yellow, glittering ruby, or blue. The show is like a tightly controlled cruise through an alien landscape, albeit one that should be a little more familiar.
How do you summon a love that dares not speak its name? For generations of gay men, subversive amatory feelings were expressed through unspoken tokens and symbols—Oscar Wilde’s set favored green carnations affixed to their lapels, while in the 1970s, colored handkerchiefs were de rigueur for getting laid. For artist Elijah Burgher’s current show, signification of sexuality is wrapped in the cloak of esoteric practices, including the use of a mystical symbol known as a “sigil” and the invocation of a fictitious cult referred to as the Bachelors of the Dawn.
Among the works exhibited, seven large-scale acrylic paintings on unframed drop cloths feature Burgher’s sigils. Set against monochromatic fields, the palimpsest of snaking, interlocking geometric forms, as with BotD (Love Machine) and BotD 4, all works 2015, call to mind an archaic circuit board. Created through the abstraction and recombination of letters in an existing text, the sigils are quite literally the deconstruction of language in the service of sexual affirmation. Judith Butler eat your heart out. Meanwhile, interspersed amid the paintings, six portraits in color pencil, such as Bachelor (Anthony), portray nude male figures set against backdrops of various sigils, while a seventh image, AOS, depicts Austin Osman Spare, the early twentieth-century British occultist who popularized the use of sigils, sans sigil decoration.
Elsewhere, a series of ten small red monochromatic pressure prints titled “BotD (Red)” displays additional sigils. For Burgher, a sigil’s power lies, in part, in its ability to undermine established forms of communication. Indeed, it would seem that when existing language forecloses the attestation of forbidden desire, a new one has to be created.
Jasper Johns punctured AbEx’s ballooning supremacy in the late 1950s with the most unassuming of means: His painterly renderings of letters, numbers, targets, and flags were a sly reminder of the abstraction inherent in our everyday symbolic systems. After devoting her career to picking up where the New York School left off, Jacqueline Humphries has introduced representation of a Johnsian sort in her new work: The eleven paintings in her current exhibition are veiled with emoticons, letters, and eight-bit glyphs. The glyphs are actually enlarged and rasterized pencil rubbings of canvas that, from a distance, resemble television snow; but don’t mistake this white noise for the susurrus of bland asset-class abstraction—up close, Humphries’s canvases bristle with layers of complex ambition.
These works are an information-age update on the artist's fascination with cinema’s silver screen, the metaphorical and literal ground of her chimerical metallic-pigmented paintings of the last decade. The stenciled graphical fields have been troweled on, frosting-like, in fluorescent hues as well as a distinctive, lusterless black, whose silty texture evokes the rare earths that power our glowing devices. A distaff bent seems to reveal itself at times: In : : :, 2014, a silver-and-purple underpainting features gridded dark circles interconnected by scraped-off lines, resembling tangled wires crisscrossing a telephone switchboard—that classic domain of feminine industry—while oo oo%, 2015, and Xx, 2014, are marked with painted and stenciled x’s, recalling cross-stitches, chromosomes, or kisses. Humphries evinces an ambivalence for the affective labor that on-screen communication often requires: She flipped the grins of : ), 2015, into frowns and dotted two works with multiple masks of indecision (:-/). There’s nothing uncertain in these paintings’ effect, though: Mesmeric, like the electronic screens that transfix us, it’s nearly impossible to look away.
The sculptures in Harry Dodge’s second show at this gallery, “The Cybernetic Fold”—a riotous group of mixed-media assemblages—are occupied with decidedly nonsculptural activities: leaning, bending, resting, and prevaricating. Among materials such as plywood, glass, MDF, and urethane resin, there are also socks, metallic rainbow glitter, and Bondo (an automotive body filler). This promiscuous constituency suggests a sophisticated dogging of pesky binaries: high/low, natural/artificial, human/nonhuman. In This Hole/Honey Bucket and Fuck Me/Who’s Sorry Now (all works 2015), are similar in construction, both rectangular boxes bent in the middle at obtuse angles as if ready to spring back to upright positions. In these works, the implication of movement is accompanied by Januslike ornament: What look like empty eye sockets from one view recede into drooping oblong eyeballs from the reverse. They toss their brightly colored forms backward as if in laughter, but the opposite view suggests the humanlike forms have doubled over in dejection.
This is a sharp-witted study of materiality and relationality at a moment dominated less by objects than their porous digital counterparts. Pure Seemings, a small ink drawing, depicts a hand reaching through a laptop screen to pick a pixelated nose. A small self-portrait—styled as the artist’s own “technoskin”—is incorporated in My Glassy Essence (Shame in the Cybernetic Fold), a rather scrappy wedge of a sculpture that, as its name suggests, seems to be folding in toward and away from itself at various junctures. It’s held together by bolted sutures and notched joints, full of smooth surfaces that play against rough puddles and drips of resin. The inclusion of Dodge’s self-image reminds us that human bodies, too, are porous products of science and craft, full of sharp contrasts and contradictions, ambivalence, and awkward moments.
“Night Self-Portraits,” Chantal Joffe’s newest series of works includes fifteen sumptuous wet-on-wet paintings that depict Joffe and/or her daughter, Esme, in various poses, both solo and together as mother and child. A painter’s painter, Joffe treats the medium with an assured yet gentle, Hockneyesque irreverence, applying fluid and vibrant swaths of paint over richly colored grounds that she allows to peek through, subtly electrifying the images and suggesting the tint of artificial indoor lights. Like her pictures, Joffe’s titles are matter of fact and descriptive: Self-Portrait in a Red Dress and Orange Cardigan, 2014; Naked Self-Portrait with Esme with her Arm Raised, 2014. Self-Portrait in Striped Trousers, 2015, shows the artist nude from the waist up with one hand on her hip, casually staring down the viewer, while Self-Portrait (Weeping Woman), 2015, unsentimentally zooms in on the artist’s pained expression, sans sap, at once intimate and immediate.
Joffe’s interest in fashion is well documented, but her treatment of clothing seems adjunctive to her interest in women’s bodies. Here, portrayals of herself in a red dress channel a more self-conscious attitude toward female sexuality than the pictures of Joffe’s nude figure, which convey the confrontational composure of Alice Neel’s famous self-portrait. Following in the tradition of artists painting themselves, Joffe’s pictures distill a deep pathos—but produced mostly from photographs after a day’s end, these works access the critical cognitive space . between the roles the artist occupies and her own self-awareness.
For her New York solo debut, Toronto-born, Stockholm-based artist Zoe Barcza has turned the gallery into a cryptic crime scene. Nine stretched linen canvases painted with trompe l’oeil rips and tears line the walls in a continuous band. It looks as though a claustrophobic tiger tried to claw its way out of the room. While Barcza’s painted gashes play on the actual slashes Lucio Fontana famously made in his monochromes, cheekily codifying them, they’re more than art-historical one-liners. Flat yellow stripes—visible through some of the “tears”—suggest stretcher bars supporting the linen. By stylizing these beams instead of making them resemble wood, Barcza deliberately transforms the experience of spying them through the holes into a humorous anticlimax, undermining her own illusion.
Surrounded by these spare yet complex paintings stands a cartoony sculpture of a striding man fashioned out of curvy pieces of black-painted steel. International Loner, 2015, sports swooping arms, pointy shoes, and a too-small hat. He leans forward with purpose but glances back over his shoulder, as if wary of being recognized while skipping town. He carries two TVs like suitcases, one of which shows a golden wheat field undulating in the wind while the other plays footage plucked from a bizarre French porno. In it, crudely animated condoms clamber over a sleeping woman like so many dwarves merrily molesting Snow White. The baggage-laden loner could be peddling desires—the serenity of the first video, the voyeurism of the second—and we’re his marks. Or maybe he mirrors the way we all nervously tote around our ideals and the weirder, kinkier realities of longing. Together, Barcza’s sculpture and paintings, both of which partly owe strength to her light touch, create a show about confines and freedom, economically packaging these concepts into offhandedly perspicacious pieces.
Well known for faking his death at least a few times before he died in 2008, Bruce Conner was forty-five when he took on a project to shoot at the nascent San Francisco punk club Mabuhay Gardens for one year. The resultant series of “27 PUNK PHOTOS,” 1978, was originally published in the magazine Search and Destroy, and it’s one of the highlights of this exhibition, which features an array of his gelatin silver prints, collages, drawings, and a film. The show aptly traces his career-long penchant for merging light with shadow, and for finding sensation along the edge—a visual concordance he shared with his friend Jay DeFeo—and an interest that should be seen en masse in his 2016 joint MoMA and SF MoMA retrospective.
Conner’s 16-mm meteoric film VIVIAN, 1964, a frisky study of one-time actress Vivian Kurz, complements the anarchic energy of these photos. In this proto–music video, partially shot during Conner’s three-day presentation of works at Batman Gallery, Kurz appears ecstatic, an object(ified) study in youth and beauty. Contrast this—and his other works about women—to the knowing, sly gazes animating the portraits at Mabuhay: Cheri the Penguin, mouth agape; Ginger jutting a out a hip and cringing; and Amy contrapposto, glaring. Conner, an ultimate insider/outsider, once compared his punk photos to sports and even combat photography; themes of sex and death run throughout. While it’s odd seeing these scenes so neatly arranged and framed, they still disclose an electrified spirit, and ways to divine meaning from the extremes.
Written in a small, clinical typeface near the gallery entrance are the words “Start Here,” which introduce seven hundred digitally manipulated photographs by Lucas Samaras, collectively titled XYZ 1550 - PLACEBO 97, 2015. From there, a biographical narrative unfurls, which finds Samaras revisiting his family photo album in a manner that recalls his early Polaroid manipulations of the 1960s and ’70s. In the room’s center stands Doorway, 1966 (constructed 2007), a monumental mirrored cube that reflects the gallery’s contents and greets visitors with their unavoidable reflections. Despite the colossal scale of these works, the most spectacular aspect of the presentation is what can actually fit into your pocket: Samaras’s brilliant counterpart app, Album 2, which takes its name from the exhibition and is home to downloadable versions of all the photographs in the show, free of charge.
In the gallery, the entire collection is neatly matted and housed within a series of aligned shelves. Attuned with the artist’s previous output, the majority of works are digitally collaged self-portraits that have been melded together with an array of computer graphics and overlays. In the app, those same works transcend physical space and are shown within an immaterial realm, where each image is at once infinitely replicable and preserved in its original state. It’s in this app that both time and space—themes with which Samaras has wrestled throughout his career—have finally dissolved into complete submission.
Artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady’s latest exhibition, a pairing of two previously seen series, is an exploration of how narrative is used to make sense of the world. Spread over the gallery’s street-level space, “Cutting Out of the New York Times,” 1977/2015, contains elements of memoir, journalism, and social critique. First exhibited in 2006, photocopied sections from O’Grady’s first poems stick to the walls, resembling vertical and horizontal scrolls of text cut from the New York Times over twenty-six Sundays in 1977. “White and Black and / The Sound That Shook Hollywood / The Crisis Deepens in / Theatrical Détente” one sheet reads, and on another, “Transforming Faces / The Woman as Artist / Cosmetic Lib for Men.”
The forty-eight photographs in “Rivers, First Draft,” 1982/2015, appear in a similar fashion on the first floor but sectioned across the gallery’s five walls as if storyboarded into scenes. O’Grady imagined this narrative, originally performed in a leafy section of Central Park, as a personal metamorphosis, with the brightly dressed characters each representing a stage in her artistic development. Both works are innately rebellious, as the language of one medium is usurped to create meaning in another, and hint at O’Grady’s critical stance on New York’s art world and second-wave feminism.
The pacing of these coming-of-age existential narratives is metered by their method, their seeming randomness made meaningful through juxtaposition. They are deeply personal attempts at looking at how words and images connect to form knowledge, but O’Grady is asking us to see beyond the status quo, to reframe what we know in new paradigms of existence.
Trenton Doyle Hancock works in a baroque grotesque, from portraits whose emetic intricacy recalls George Grosz to centerless, Boschian tableaux. This retrospective starts with drawings from the artist’s childhood and maps his career’s uncanny continuity up to the present season. Already in the heavy graphite wobble of a ten-year-old, Hancock had chosen Torpedoboy as his avatar, a caped and hero-diapered character who would appear throughout the decades and here adorns a site-specific installation of his 2002 series “Studio Floor.”
This drawing series is the exhibition’s garish centerpiece, with captions in acrylics below each frame narrating the superhero’s theft of tofu from the bony, bone-white, repulsively awkward beings known as the Vegans. This begins to read as an episode of an ongoing racial conflict (another work on display, Vegans Send Newly Acquired Moundmeat to the Tofu Converter, 2004, reveals the creatures’ sacred pabulum to be made out of their darker rivals), but the story devolves with a gorgeously absurd narrative absentmindedness. Torpedoboy escapes, gets distracted by a prostitute, performs some anxious scat play in a hotel room, then falls asleep alone beside a nasty, worm-segmented dildo.
The series’ use of walls and frames in the manner of a cartoon panel sequence marks Hancock’s expansion from the page to other forms, among which are his pizza-box paintings, animations, and the frightening cutout series “Step and Screw,” 2014. Describing the development of Torpedoboy alongside Philip Guston’s “Klansmen” paintings and racist killings in the South, the subject matter draws the viewer in, then it disorients with too much information. It is the artist’s favorite strategy.
When Richard Serra erected his seventy-three-ton wall outside New York’s Federal Building in 1981, it was a gash in public space, a twelve-foot-high insult that seared the hide of civic respectability. By contrast, Rey Akdogan’s sculptures hang low to the floor in sharp aluminum stripes, signs of a frosty rapprochement between minimalism and the late-capitalist office. Akdogan’s crash rails, bars that line the blanched spaces through which we so passively pass (hallways, elevators, corners), are painted black or white, some striped with red or orange, some cut with a neat bevel. Behold that other Invisible Hand, the loose fist of administrative oversight, the soft nudge of municipal regulation—it cups the demos in its palm. The rails are safety measures and quiet fixtures; here, they’ve been named after colors—CRA 200 (line #T3), for instance, or CRA 800 F [HSS 500, RAL 3020] line #2, both 2015—in the bloodless taxonomy of industrial precision.
Fetishes, to Freud, simply fastened the mind to some winking irrelevance in order to stifle an old psychic wound. Akdogan’s sculptures do just that, as they narrow their gaze to the unannounced and unredeemed—clean rectangles that glint with utility at the edge of peripheral vision. But splayed above the pieces is the vast emptiness of the white cube: blank walls sculpted by the sculptures. Whole lives are spent toiling within such spaces, the clean corners of button-down officialdom: a structure more gruesome than Serra’s ever was.
Strapped, whipped, and yanked along, this show is a bridled beast, and like its namesake—Anne Desclos’s 1954 S-M novel The Story of O—it gasps with exquisite agony. Jared Madere’s untitled installation is a battered monument to binding and constraint: Branches are stuffed into a hippie dress and topped with a wig, making a psychotic mannequin, a wretched anthropomorphism of fabric and bark. Behind it (her?), Madere has strung up what looks like sagging sails, streaked with blue and patched with cracked mirrors, a picture both glittering and strangely soft—but the whole thing is bolted to the floor with metal cables, and voilà: We’re slapped back into Desclos’s chamber of bruises and leashes.
Pretty homologies spring up all around. Lynn Randolph’s Transfusions, 1995, also writhes within the tangles of bondage and sexualized submission. The painting is wittily crass, as it depicts a white woman—perfect measurements, chest thrust up in a cartoon of ecstasy and possession—preyed upon by bats, an IV drip, and a fanged, claw-shaking Nosferatu. Lucy Dodd’s metal sculpture Mantis, 2015, glances at it from across the room, its power cord snaking on the floor like a dropped whip.
But the floor itself is what locks the pieces in a final grid of domination and surrender. It’s stamped with a diagram from philosopher Graham Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, 2011, a key text in the field of object-oriented ontology (OOO)—the exhibition’s other namesake. Harman has made a career of leveling human consciousness, pounding subjects into objects: but the branches, cables, cords, and wires dribbling over his rigid chart whisper a different story, that of a consciousness both throttled and free, laughing through the beating.
A pioneering Argentinian artist who contributed to Happenings and Pop as well as Art and Technology in the 1960s, Marta Minujín is once again ubiquitous. Last fall, her work appeared in the Guggenheim’s reconsideration of Latin American art, “Under the Same Sun,” and this fall, it will be included in MoMA’s “Construction to Transmission.” In the meantime, this show offers a deeper view of the artist’s avant-garde oeuvre.
The exhibition encompasses several bodies of work, the oldest of which comprises documentation of her actions. In Kidnappening, 1973, partygoers were abducted from a cocktail party at MoMA and redistributed around the city by the artist and a troupe of performers, who assumed classical poses and wore cubist makeup. The work deploys what Robert Smithson called the site/non-site dialectic to demonstrate the limits of both art and guerrilla warfare as just theater. The historical documents of this and other events contrast with the frenetic fluorescence of her abstract paintings—most of which are amputated relics of one of her last mixed-media environments, the Laberinto Minujinda, 1985—and her autonomous series of painted mattresses, which she began in Paris in the early 1960s, highlighting her commitment to collapsing the space between art and life.
Other works from the 1980s cement Minujín’s importance as a carrier of the torch of Latin American Conceptualism. Payment of the Argentine Foreign Debt to Andy Warhol with Corn, The Latin American Gold, 1985/2011, comprises newly printed large-format photographs of a performance in which the artists appear to debate each other over a bed of corn. Though redolent of Pop in the age of Interview, the work is a witty comment on art’s relation to economic and cultural imperialism. In a similar vein, her falling and overturned monuments—some made of consumable products, as in the drawing proposing a Torre Eiffel de Pan Baguette, 1982—criticize the collusion of mythology and power that is our daily bread.
It’s a mirthless irony of our time that the demise of civilization lies in the hands of a few puttering functionaries. So there’s something procedural, something grimly determinate, about the patent insanity of this show. Rochelle Goldberg’s glazed clay fragments sit like clenched guts on a strip of white carpeting, smeared with crude oil and chia seeds, the latter spread evenly on surfaces, mapped methodically on the white fuzz. Chaos inheres within structure and shoots to allegorical heights with Robert Bittenbender’s Broadway Nights, 2015, a lattice of twine, cheap bracelets, and chintzy debris, brought together in a preposterous kind of order. It dangles from the ceiling. Cells, grids, matrices—the pieces all click into a conspiracy of organization, with Win McCarthy’s Sunday Afternoon at 5CR, 2015, plunking the show’s most literal note: Rocks with collaged faces stare out from a metal cage, their two-dimensional features locked in a box.
But we have to laugh. Polish painter Jakub Julian Ziolkowski has contributed five canvases to this exhibition, all of them crossing the plump figurations of Philip Guston with a crazed, cackling style. The painting that greets visitors at the gallery’s entrance is of a bleeding, self-flagellating body in a crown of thorns—the title, of course, is Fanatic, 2011. But even the skinned flesh is patterned, regulated, and the exposed muscle devolves into striations and stripes. Reason reigns, even as violence slops over the sides. A James Ensor etching, L’Ange exterminateur, 1889, hangs quietly in the far corner, the nineteenth-century outlier that, perhaps, sums up this whole shambling gang of deranged pieces. Ensor’s angel gallops across the sky, brandishing his sword, as a row of men crouch, performing an act that carries with it all the inevitability and regularity and filth that attend this fearful, apocalyptic age. They are shitting themselves.
The 450 photographs that comprise Wolfgang Tillmans’s slideshow Book for Architects, 2014, first seen last year in Rem Koolhaas’s Venice architecture biennale, pull off a neat trick: They turn down objectivity and subjectivity at once. Shot with no specialized equipment, his photos dissent from the pristine midcentury architecture photography of Ezra Stoller or Julius Shulman, but Tillmans muffles his own voice through spontaneous cropping, unmediated lighting, and indifference to scale. Many of the images come from London—and few artists since Hogarth have made that city look as vile as Tillmans, with his shots of the rebarbative new city skyline, comically ugly Vauxhall condos, or the money launderers’ palaces known as One Hyde Park. Others evince cool, downbeat placelessness: HVAC systems in Russia or Korea, anonymous towers in Berlin or India, airport security lines, a doorknob, an elevator.
Early in his career, Tillmans would tape or pin his relaxed, vernacular photographs directly to gallery walls, and favorite images—of his friends Lutz Huelle and Alexandra Bircken in the forest, or a backpacker encountering a deer on the beach—would repeat in his installations for years. Those recurrences bugged a lot of people, but Tillmans was onto something: He turned his own output into a perpetually renegotiable archive, a memory bank wherein individual images matter less than their relations and their redeployment.
Book for Architects, with its unidentified locations and slideshow presentation, reaffirms that transmission and circulation matter as much or perhaps more to Tillmans than form or place. “Architecture today is little more than cardboard,” Koolhaas averred in Venice last year, and Tillmans, on the evidence, wouldn’t seem to disagree. Yet Tillmans is smart enough to know what you can do with cardboard—the perfect medium for the projection of past memories and dreams that never came true.
Is it too much to say that the most humane objects—cups, books, shirts, and socks—the things that regularly get intimate with us, often find themselves packed into cardboard boxes? An exhibition of sculptures, costumes, and performance documentation by Susan Cianciolo, “If God Comes to Visit You, How Will You Know? (The Great Tetrahedral Kite)” focuses on the designer and artist’s “kits,” selections of materials, tools, and ephemera collected in decorated cardboard boxes. Much of the contents are part of Run, her deconstructive fashion line emphasizing customization and personal relationships, for which she collaborated with Bernadette Corporation, Rita Ackermann, and Mike Mills, among others.
Remember Kids Activity Kit, 2004–14, includes a star pin, crystals, elaborately crocheted child-size dresses, skirts, and sweaters, linen fairy wings, clay pieces, inky paintings, and book images. It’s difficult to speak of glitter and pins, dolls and bits of string, without feeling twee—but at stake here is the relationship between care, labor, and materials. Other kits contain instructions for making a generic shirt, journals, and sketchbooks, as well as antique and vintage fabrics, which are at once diaristic and instructional. They are small calls to action, ingredients suggesting free-form recipes, invitations to improvise and to depart from standardization: “Make a sweatshirt that’s right 4 U!” reads a scrawl on Do-It-Yourself Sweatshirt Kit, 2001–15. Performers in a variety of headscarves at the show’s opening sat by the boxes and took visitors through their contents. Cianciolo continually reworks the contents of the kits–reconstituting, revising and restarting–offering different reconfigurations to equip for personal care and expression. If most human lives end with boxes, it seems like here that something is carefully trying to begin, and begin, and begin again.
The cosmic nightscapes riotously abloom in Harold Ancart’s new works on canvas land us on an exotic planet. Vibrant plants, bonfires, and astral confetti in the show’s seven oil-stick paintings thrum in tropical colors against abundant, magnetic fields of black that concentrate contemplation, evoking lacquerware worlds. But if believable blossoms top stems here, so do moons and gradient disks resembling telescopic iris shots onto other planet floors, upending figure-ground certainties. The echo between a restless treelike shape in one painting and airborne sawtooth blobs in another (all works untitled, 2015) enacts these paintings’ own shifting states of coalescence and disassembly, like cloud clusters or avian flocks. Seen up close, even the color-flecked carbon black sometimes suggests ripped rind more than deep space.
The history of painting that lives in these works like chromosomal traces enriches such dimensional unknowns. Fauvist and Symbolist flavors are joined by AbEx and Minimalist devices, such as in the neat horizontal shelf of white paint frosting one work’s upper band, unaffected by the big stylized bonfire below that is the painting’s apparent subject. Discrete veins of color and encroaching edges recall Clyfford Still’s seismic fissures, while the single pin-thin verticals of white paint suspended in two works seem equally mindful of AbEx zips and Asian folding screens. The show’s sole small work, pictorially nearly identical to the big bonfire painting, faces the latter on the opposite wall, like a portrait or a progeny, as if either fantasia were indeed life-size.
This is the planet of painting, after all, and Ancart’s space exploration is the exploration of painted space: More than depicting petals and flames, how might a painting itself grow like a flower, ignite like fire, and bring about forms that thrive as life-forms in the otherworld it always is?
For an exhibition of more than sixty items produced largely since the turn of the millennium, “Drawings: Studies for Works 2000–2015” coheres with an unusual syncopation. Little wonder that these ink-jet prints, gouaches, ink drawings, and other media works on view by Seth Price, whose heterogeneous output has often concerned distribution as much as it has distraction. Some pieces such as Books are Weapons, 2003, read as bits or fragments from a broader narrative, as if excerpted from an author’s meandering plot: This pen-and-graphite drawing displays a cartoonish publication against an upright, modest Victorian home, extolling that “Books are weapons . . . and houses, etc.” One windowpane is likened to an unsavory insect’s nine eyes, which all resemble monitors. Another work, Study for a Christian Novel, 2001–2002, summarily outlines a grand narrative that remains unwritten, depicting a flowchart prophesying incidents of mass migration, stockpiled cash of the 1 percent, plague-like religious conversion, and a “cult of the individual.”
Many studies glimpse presciently toward today, with its de facto modes of shambolic messaging and devout narcissism. Study for Confusion, 2003, lists the tent poles of balanced living, as if typed by a frenzied multitasker: “Wrok, Fmaily, Freidns.” Bisexual Litigator, 2013, labels an insufferably—and amusingly—individualized suitor: “Steeped in critical theory + psychoanalysis as well as Torah, high-powered and intense, looking to meet same.” As a whole, this boisterous array of works sketches out a musing, heretofore an overlooked layer of Price’s inquisitive yet otherwise materially infatuated practice—a mode of production that hangs in the balance between thinking and making.
If the Internet has come to bolster geographically dispersed tendencies and social groupings in the world of contemporary art, the price it has levied for this connectivity and acceleration has been the triumph of the image as the dominant vessel of influence. In their New York debut, Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel present a precise body of sculpture that lays siege to that dominance in the Beaux Arts townhouse where the gallery recently reopened. In this buildingonce owned by nineteenth-century merchant and art collector Cornelius Bliss and on the same walls where his daughter would hang works by Picasso and ModiglianiDewar and Gicquel have installed two strangely proportioned, handmade wool tapestries. When we see the works, they appear as hugely oversized wool sweaters. Too large to be donned, the truth of the lush, richly woven works rests in the volume of space they inhabit with their pliable contours and organic texture. In this sense, they challenge us to subjugate vision to a material presence that refuses to be subsumed by it. What better material than wool, the fiber of both resilience and warmth, could be pitted against the indifference of imagistic conditioning that would reduce a six-foot-tall tapestry to a piece of clothing?
The other works in the exhibition stalk a similar vector of attack: Hand-carved earthenware sculptures approximate a toilet and a wash basin set with such exacting detail that they seem they could be functionally deployed given the right plumbing. Their organic patinas of muddied green dance away from ideas of the readymade with which a viewer might meet them. The pitcher accompanying the basin provides a more elusive movement: Standing on a large foot, it evokes some unspecified near past. Its empty form tempts a figurative reading, but the work’s straight-faced rendering is an end only to itself. There are no molds or reproductions after all, but only a way for the artists to continue working.
Three works in David Maljkovic’s current show share the title Out of Projection: Two ink-jet-on-aluminum collages, both 2009/2014, and an HD video, 2009–14, depict retired Peugeot workers at a test track, milling around prototypes that look at once flamboyantly futuristic and hopelessly outdated. These works are set against wallpaper that reproduces a sparse view of Maljkovic’s 2014 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, whose interior is similar enough to Metro Pictures’s that the skewed black-and-white floor-to-ceiling images are mildly disorienting. More than producing a simple vertiginous effect, the installation poses questions with wider purchase: What happens when an artist’s work moves from institution to gallery? What is the purpose of literally transposing new works (for Maljkovic, this descriptor seems perpetually uncertain) onto past exhibitions?
Compounding this ambiguous status of artworks and documentation, a slide presentation titled In Low Resolution, 2014, shows images from the artist’s archive with some areas reduced to blocks of oversize pixels. It’s reminiscent of the televised censoring of nude bodies, a process of obfuscation that also tantalizes. Among the eighty slides are images of the Peugeot prototypes, along with production cars bearing indecipherable interventions. A hatchback has what appear to be round gray blocks adjacent to its wheels, but the indeterminacy of the rendering makes it difficult to distinguish impediment from improvement. It’s a compelling analogy for Maljkovic’s process-based critique of memory and historical narrative, in which the refusal to come to a conclusion is both an acutely political choice and a significant source of vitality.
History does not remember Marjorie Strider as well as it should. Tom Wesselmann, Mel Ramos, and Roy Lichtenstein were all contemporaries of hers in the 1960s, and there was a great deal of overlap in all their subject matter: Crayon-colored Pop representations of the female form. But what Strider didn’t do, which her dudely confreres did, was to subject her women to the burnishing effects of male Eros. Even the most embittered of Roy’s girls always wanted Brad back, pretty-perfect in crisp lines, red lips, tears, and distress. Strider wasn’t big on this form of boy’s-club fantasy and gaze—her ill-at-ease, uninviting ladies would rather see Brad’s head on a fucking pike.
This gorgeous miniretrospective of Strider’s works from 1958 to ’74—drawings, collages, sculptures, and bas-relief sculpture/paintings—are abrasive reconfigurations of midcentury American “femaleness,” subtly roiling in their formal discomfiture and attitude, a kind of voluptuousness threateningly rendered in a manner that evokes tumors. Only one of the artist’s famously bumper-boobed women is on display—Come Hither, 1963—a Liz Taylor doppelgänger in black and white with a rictus and slightly crossed eyes. But Strider’s caustic take on feminine softness and desirability comes across just as vividly in her still lifes, where “domestic” objects stand in for irritated female bodies, as in Untitled (Graters) and Untitled (Shakers), both 1973–74, a series of homely cheese graters and spice shakers oozing Lynda Benglis–style blobs of rotted-out, Play Doh–looking guts.
Green Horizontal (Jolly), 1964, looks like a prop out of an old Green Giant commercial, where, perhaps, a happy housewife pointed winningly to its pair of misshapen 3-D lima beans, ready to plop out of their pod. Are they dead ovaries? Or maybe even a sad sack of balls? They are all of the above, surely—and a funny, withering rejoinder to the pro-bro stylings of first-generation Pop.
Titled after Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” this exhibition draws on cybernetics in order to explore both utopic and dystopic systemic themes in art. Most acute, Brenna Murphy’s labyrinthine digital renderings of light and space seem to crystallize Brautigan’s vision of a “cybernetic meadow,” where idle humans are nurtured and sheltered in a technocratic paradise. The halcyon days of computer-science technologies that Brautigan envisions are difficult to imagine. Moreover, familiarity with his satiric writing leads one to believe that the poem is tongue-and-cheek in revealing the dark edges of a techno-utopia: surveillance and communication control.
Drawing out a long history of cybernetic fantasy, the earliest work on view also harks back to the late 1960s. Paul Laffoley’s The World Self, 1967, a diagrammatic pink-hued painting, resembles the tightly controlled aesthetics of system painting of the 1960s but lacks the rigor of actual scientific inquiry. Through its lack of cohesive meaning, it manages to operate in what Robert Smithson saw as the evasiveness of systems in art. Additionally, Lee Mullican’s methodic abstractions, here from the 1970s, attest to his experiments in a fictive-science abstraction from as early as the 1950s.
In our current self-assured technophilia, we imagine digital technology as a more objective approach to classification, which can resulting in less systemic prevarication. See Michael Portnoy's Kalochromes seemingly faithful bitmapped screen-prints of kale, which camouflage an encrypted image of a future trend-setting vegetable. Because the images deny the viewer full visual access, they also hamper full assimilation of information. Themes of systemic failure and distortion are carried through in Shannon Ebner’s black-and-white photographs of a poem, as she translates words into form, data, in a style reminiscent of the dot-matrix printer. Iman Issa’s information-based and unreliable reconstructions of canonical works of art remind us that systemic production has countless trajectories, which continuously engage in regression, actualization, dissolution, and recomposition within the same works. Conceptually rigorous and visually arresting, the exhibition, like the poem, manages to convey the enchantment and unease of our cybernetic universe.
There is the problem of eyelashes. The six unnerving photographs that Laurie Simmons displays here feature interchangeable models against perky colored backgrounds: vapid, prosaic images from a fashion world where Vogue is no longer distinct from twelve-year-olds’ makeup lessons on YouTube. But the eyelashes: Overpainted on the upper lid, much too thick on the lower one. It takes a few seconds to notice—compliments to the dexterity of this maker’s hand—that the models’ eyes are actually clamped shut, and irises and pupils have been painted over their lids. What gives the game away are the lashes—the lower lashes are in fact upper lashes: monstrous, spidery antennae, markers of an enduring but diseased humanity on bodies that makeup and Photoshop have otherwise scrubbed of biology.
In The Land of Green Plums, 1994, the Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller writes of the body as a pell-mell cluster of organs, any one of which could betray the others. “If you control your face, it slips into your voice,” she writes. “If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers.” Like Müller, Simmons employs the techniques of Surrealism not as a dated language for internal fantasy, but to express the very real effects of external pressures on the body, the psyche, that thing we used to call the soul. There’s no point going inward, these images say; even your imagination has been spoiled, and the dream you dream with your eyes closed tight belongs, if we’re honest, to the international conglomerate that sold you the mascara. Put on a brave face for the camera, but the body cannot withstand the onslaught; keep the pain behind your eyelids, and it will slip out through your lashes.
Regarded for his role as a painter, teacher, and critic, Andrew Forge created a visual language with the aim of reconciling perception and representation. In this latest presentation of his work, featuring nineteen paintings dating from the 1990s up to his death in 2002, the dotted and dashed compositions create a sensory Morse code capable of captivating viewers. These images reverberate with hints of fleetingly identifiable forms and employ a great variety of brushstrokes exploring the emotive possibilities of shape and color built from small, simple forms.
An untitled yellow-and-green watercolor from 1996 invites the viewer to swim, wade, or climb through the individual sensory units that compose the work. The eye follows a suggested diagonal divide created by earthy green dots integrated across the painting. The overlap and variability of each shape allows the fragments to read as an organic whole of unknown depth.
Downstairs, the oil-on-canvas painting April, 1991–92, displays a dynamic combination of colored dots, layered and arranged to create vague suggestions of form along with splotches of descriptive color, translating the sensory impressions of a late April day into a large-scale composition. In this piece, as throughout his work, Forge sought to address a particular query he expressed in a 1975 piece for Artforum: “What does any attribute of the outside world mean—what makes it worth commenting upon or isolating or trying to recreate on any level?” This examination of isolation is evoked by the individual, energetic elements that coalesce to form each painting.
The marble Buddha laughs benevolently, luxuriating, on one side. His follower, a worried-looking marble snowman, stares back. He seems to be realizing that he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell at this whole enlightenment thing. Artist Peter Regli cleverly comments on metamorphosis through more than fifty small groups of these knee-high characters. Watching the deities serenely teach their lumpy, half-melted little acolytes is highly amusing—they make such unlikely pairs. Yet, the snowmen become relatable stand-ins for us humans, desperately seeking wisdom and meaning before it’s too late. To tackle the transience of life with so much humor isn’t easy, and Regli’s results are oddly moving.
Regli, who refers to this and other projects as “reality hacking,” gave photographs of Buddha tchotchkes, snowmen, and toys to marble carvers in Da Nang, Vietnam, who fabricated the sculptures. Before this commission, the craftsmen only produced a few traditional Buddha types for temples. And they had never seen snow. By introducing this foreign subject matter, Regli seems to be hacking their reality as well as the visual expectations of his viewers. That the statues are all carved in marble highlights their formal similarities—balls of snow echoing bald heads and round bellies—at the same time that it places them in conversation with classical Western sculpture, the slumping snowmen providing comic foils for the idealized bodies of ancient Greece. Their kinship extends beyond medium, though. All sculptures, Regli seems to point out, spring from a common human need to create characters in our own image. From eternal gods on altars to snowmen in suburban backyards, we grapple with time through sculpture, watching some weather the centuries while others slip away with the seasons.
“The People of Town N,” the title of Nikolay Bakharev’s second solo exhibition at this gallery, refers to Novokuznetsk, the artist’s hometown in southwestern Siberia, where he’s managed to capture an assortment of its denizens in various stages of unguardedness or vulnerability for more than thirty years.
Novokuznetsk is a mill city—steel, iron—and the hardness of its environs can be read on the faces and bodies of Bakharev’s subjects. Though most of the pictures were taken after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bakharev’s people seem, at least from the perspective of Western eyes, to be trapped in the amber of impoverished, Communist-era aesthetics—outdoors or in their cramped apartments, in seventies hair styles and secondhand polyester swimsuits, with a few black market–looking American records or magazines lying about.
But the joy of Bakharev’s work is in his depictions of eroticism and camaraderie. See friends and strangers lying about in the woods in (Relationship #8, 1986-90) or smiling and getting drunk together in (Relationship #105, 2001), or various men and women (mostly women) posing in next to nothing or nude, exultant in their bodies in these moments of sweet, seditionary exhibitionism (it was forbidden to show or even take pictures of naked bodies during Russia’s Soviet years). Like so many documentary photographs, Bakharev’s work is unyielding in its moles-and-all frankness, but his touch is unequivocally tender—a chronicler of a great and immersive love among so many ruins.
The subtitle of the Tom of Finland exhibition currently at Artists Space, “The Pleasure of Play,” points to a key aspect of the artist’s work: its fundamental cheerfulness. Tom, who admired the work of Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell alike, gave his homoerotic drawings of well-muscled men in uniform (and in various states of undress) a subtly wholesome bent. He once vowed, “My men were going to be proud and happy men.” His young bucks’ cocks are mammoth, but often their good-natured grins are bigger. The highly repressive decades during which Tom’s work developed could not stem his innate sex-positivity.
This two-part exhibition, the largest to date in the US (where he first became known in the mid-1950s through his drawings for the Los Angeles quarterly Physique Pictorial), features nearly two hundred drawings, hung loosely by medium and theme rather than chronology, and an even greater number of reference collages—mass-media clippings arranged by type that helped guide the prominent cleft chins and flared-thigh jodhpurs that defined Tom’s hypermasculine ideal. Early gouaches from the mid-1940s feature urbane rakes whose illicit behavior is only occasionally explicit; but soon thereafter, Tom provided close-up views of every possible combination of orifice and appendage, as modeled by bikers, sailors, loggers, and cowboys. A standout in the main exhibition is a twenty-part 1977 series starring Tom’s recurring leather-daddy character, Kake, whose cruising instigates an orgy that grows one by one with a stream of onlookers turned joiners. It’s remarkable, not least because Tom rendered the profusion of compound convexities—nipples, biceps, asses, abs—in the unforgiving cross-hatching of pen and ink. His skill in graphite is no less extraordinary: Portraits made in the ’80s seem lit from within, all oiled skin and gleaming leather. But it’s a surreal intergalactic image that endures, providing a suitable analogy for Tom’s global effect on gay culture. In it, a brawny, mustachioed Scandinavian penetrates planet Earth in smiling ecstasy.
As suggested in the exhibition’s title, “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997” launches a conversation between two discrete time periods. Curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the presentation begins with paintings from the era following India’s independence from Britain, primarily by those involved in the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group that jumpstarted modernism in India. These artists’ interest in diverse media beyond painting—output that is rarely exhibited—is worth noting. See F. N. Souza, who used diluted printer’s ink and magazine paper to create what he dubbed “chemical paintings” in 1969, and Tyeb Mehta, who produced the sixteen-minute black-and-white film Koodal (“Meeting Place”) in 1970.
Two standout contemporary artworks that marry material experimentation with social commentary are Asim Waqif’s By-Construction and Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice, (both 2003). Exploring art-world consumption, the former is an ingeniously built sprawling structure composed entirely of trash generated by the exhibition itself, such as shipping crates. The latter is inspired by the inaugural speech of the newly formed and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Kallat transcribed each letter of the address with rubber adhesive that he then set aflame. Given that the work was constructed a year after the sectarian riots in Gujarat, the charred letters and the buckling of the mirror from the heat powerfully suggest that Nehru’s wishes for India were unfulfilled. Overall, the highlighting of experimentation with materials throughout the exhibition prevents the show from being weighed down by context—a chronic problem for display of “Indian” art —while not eschewing it either.
Laurie Simmons recalled encountering a trove of unfinished work in Sarah Charlesworth’s studio shortly after her death: “There was more green than I had ever seen in one art project . . . and that was how Sarah left us, with this beautiful—the green of springtime, the green of promise, and the idea that things weren’t ending, that there was a new beginning.” That verdant sense of imagination suffuses “Doubleworld,” Charlesworth’s first major survey in this city, and quite unlikely her last. Immersing oneself in more than forty years of this artist’s strange and searching eye, one is witness to a dexterous mind that could combine the seductiveness of the photographic surface and space with an inexorably Conceptualist rigor.
Elegantly and quite frequently, Charlesworth used photomontage as an illusion-breaking device to interrogate the junkyard of overlapping imagery and meanings within the histories of art, photography, and popular culture, culminating in tableaux that could look like hybrids of outdoor advertising, fashion spreads, and National Geographic. One sees this most pointedly in Gold, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1983–88, which reads like a flowchart of conspicuous consumption throughout history, a survey of this precious metal’s various incarnations and perversions, from pre-Columbian death masks and medieval tchotchkes to 1980s designer wristwatches and a gold lamé swimsuit.
But the didacticism of a lot of these dyed-in-the-wool Pictures-era works utterly melts away when we come to later series such as “0+1,” 2000, and “Available Light,” 2012, spacious and metaphysical bodies of work that are studies in the colors blue and white as luminous, palpably physical experiences. Make no mistake—these aren’t sentimental, late-in-life studio dalliances. Charlesworth’s meticulousness, even ruthlessness, as a thinker and maker is in high gear throughout these images. After all, unrepentant beauty is rarely for the weak of heart.
Countering Richard Serra’s famous Verb List of 1967–68, Anne Wilson’s To Weave, to Wind, to Knot, to Twist, to Push, to Pack, to Press, 2010—a light box of tools used for “women’s work” and reconfigured in glass—stresses the action embedded in this exhibition’s title. “Pathmakers” assembles more than one hundred objects by forty-two artists in a broad survey of historical and current practice. The show is divided into two floors: The “midcentury” galleries open with a cluster of Ruth Asawa’s dangling wire sculptures, ca. 1950–72, dramatically lit so that their shadows appear like the transparent fabric tapestries in their company. A floor below, “today” is anchored by projects from 2014: Michelle Grabner’s bright paper weavings and enamel paintings, and Polly Apfelbaum’s exuberant marker-on-silk pendants.
Curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales have chosen nine lesser-known figures for longer explanatory labels, including Alice Kagawa Parrott. Her unisex Hanten Jacket, ca. 1960, was a favorite of artists such as Agnes Martin, whose own version is on display. (I would have loved to see some connection to Gabriel Ann Maher’s Garment and accompanying video _Design, both 2014, which explore the role of gender in how we dress.) One emergent theme is the shaping of space. Textile pioneer Dorothy Liebes’s subtly luminous Room Divider for United Nations Delegates Dining Room, ca. 1952, finds its contemporary parallel in Hella Jongerius’s Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates Lounge, ca. 2012. Like Eva Zeisel’s whimsical Belly Button Room Divider, 1957, Jongerius’s curtain carves our environment and filters how we see it.
If certain historical and geographic contexts go unexplored—with everything from showerheads to gravy boats on hand, how could they not?—“Pathmakers” charts a postwar trajectory for women artists that includes corporate collaborations and individual experimentation, without hierarchy of genre. The show celebrates making as discovery. There’s no better illustration than Zeisel, whose work we surprisingly encounter again on the contemporary floor: In 2008, at the age of 102, she decided to try her hand at lighting.
If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.