“Who needs bondage? Isolation will do.” Julia Heyward (also known as Duka Delight) is a master at talking dirty. Her words are seductive, to be sure, but more so unctuous and often defiled. In performances and videos made between 1971 and 1984—the purview of her first monographic survey, curated by Jamie Stevens—she lends an incantatory cadence to skeins of metonymy, rhyme, and alliteration. Buoyed by her southern drawl, language revels in its own slipperiness, a fish the artist is quick to gut.
Heyward’s penchant for volte-face is also visual. After all, she pioneered the genre we now call music videos, primers in transforming teenage lust into quotidian—and therefore nefarious—forms of capitalist desire. The exhibition’s titular video, Conscious Knocks Unconscious, 1979, features a surreally spinning Venus de Milo. Contra the literally “unarmed” sculpture, the artist boasts that she has an army replete with privates (smacking her breasts and crotch to percussive effect). Shake Daddy Shake, a hypnotic 1976 performance, tells the story of yet another doomed limb. After a lifetime of shaking hands with his congregation, her pastor dad has developed an involuntary—you could even say unshakeable—tremor. Heyward’s vocal acrobatics commandingly rail against the patriarchy while doused in familial sweetness, her dulcet tones edged with an enraged timbre girls reserve only for their fathers.
A leather costume of battery-operated LED lights (used in her 1984 performance No Local Stops) hangs from the gallery ceiling. Devoid of a wearer, the empty carapace is both threatening and erotic. Who needs bondage when you’ve got chains of signification? Heyward’s oneiric monologues—though seemingly stream of consciousness—insist that association is in fact never free.
There is a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece Masculin Féminin (1966) in which Chantal Goya leans over to the handsome Jean-Pierre Léaud and remarks, “You dummy, I love you.” Léaud’s attention, however, is held by the action playing out on the cinema screen before him. Not surprising for Ian Wallace, the symbolic separation of the sexes, a mediation of experience through film, and the foreclosed gaze of a desired subject are motifs as recurrent in his ongoing body of work as they are in Godard’s oeuvre.
In the case of Wallace’s series “Masculin/Féminin,” 1996–, the artist also looks to explore themes of disjunction. In Where Are You (Masculin/Féminin), 2015, two black-and-white photolaminate stills from Godard’s film are affixed atop intersecting monochromatic planes of white and yellow acrylic. The abutting fields of color amplify the disconnect between Léaud and Goya, whose opposing gazes foreground their isolation from each other. Wallace’s deployment of this medium would seem to evince Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the freeze-frame as representative of a greater “logic of disembodiment.”
Utilizing actors for his series “Event Structure,” 2007–, Wallace photographs everyday Parisian mise-en-scènes, mounting the resulting color images onto color-blocked canvases in a manner similar to the works belonging to his “Masculin/Féminin” project. And while his male and female protagonists are here depicted in the same image, as in Event Structure III, 2015, their gazes nonetheless fail to align. For Wallace, the look of love is more like a cold stare.
The repeated circle patterns that top Brendan Fowler’s two large, layered wall pieces are made with an industrial embroidery machine—the kind that stitches logos onto sports jackets and baseball caps. This process translates the traditionally decorative craft associated with leisure and personalization into an automated, mass-market context. Though the wall pieces could technically be called photographs due to the blurry digital ink-jet prints that comprise the base layer of each, their disorienting stratification is demonstrated by the materials list: rayon and printable polyester on archival pigment prints mounted on dyed canvas. The photographs’ subjects are barely recognizable, as in Nancy Getting Birthday Cake with Empty Polka Dot Motif, Notebook and Sampler Piece Instructions, 2015, in which a human figure is eclipsed by blurs of light and stitched over with circles—a stock image from the quilting software Fowler uses—as well as the outline of a notebook, labels, and instructions for using a digital sampler.
The embroidery machine’s imprecision can create blips and flaws, especially where shapes overlap partially. A loop of sampled sounds in various combinations also expands the show’s theme of layering and pastiche. Using a digital sampler that has been central to the artist’s previous performance work, here placed on a large wooden bench constructed for the show, Fowler improvises variations of pre-set sounds. As with the generic imagery in the two wall pieces, Fowler uses the vocabulary of variable and repetition, choosing from ready-made elements to explore the uncanny effects of creating through permutation, playback, and machinated glitch.
Curating a show to posit the idea of artists following in another’s footsteps is always a difficult feat that runs the risk of facile didacticism. Yet Katy Siegel steers clear of such a fate here, tracing a legacy of Helen Frankenthaler that is consistently surprising. Anchored by her 1962 canvas Hommage à M. L., the show divides into a variety of media and styles. Ulrike Müller’s miniature paintings–turned-jewelry, from 2011 to 2014, are wonderfully unexpected, as is Cheryl Donegan’s classic video Head, 1993; they seamlessly enter the conversation and amplify Frankenthaler’s voice rather than distracting from it. Marilyn Minter and Andy Warhol collide with Judy Chicago, and the result is a visual treat.
The most striking addition to the show, however, is one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s trademark beaded curtains. Untitled (Beginning), 1994, is installed at the entrance to what Siegel deems the “Men’s Room,” which also includes contributions from Carroll Dunham, Christopher Wool, and Mike Kelley. This green membrane that one must pass through to enter the room bisects the exhibition; it acts as a threshold. Industrially produced, glittering, and cold on the skin, Gonzalez-Torres’s work is far from the warm exuberance of Frankenthaler’s painting. Yet both artists point to a productively tenuous life, a shifting between presence and absence: The penetrating, stained, vertical blue hues of Hommage are reminiscent of the capacity of Untitled (Beginning) to surround and invade the body. These surprising and aptly observed affiliations expand our understanding of the legacy of the ever-multivalent Frankenthaler and inspire unexpected curatorial possibilities in a time of increasingly univocal exhibitions.
Ten major series of sculptures by Doris Salcedo fill the museum galleries like a labyrinthine graveyard for the artist’s first retrospective. Clumps of human-scaled objects summon an atmosphere of collective mourning, similarly provoked by her large-scale public interventions, the latter of which are represented here only by a documentary video. Twenty-nine years of sculpture by the Colombian artist commemorate the inglorious deaths and traumas of victims of gang violence in Los Angeles or a banana-plantation massacre in Colombia, among other atrocities. Survivor testimonies conducted by Salcedo are metaphorically absorbed into materials like cast concrete and busted metal bound with animal guts throughout untitled artworks dating to 1986. A haunted feeling pervades.
Salcedo emerged in the 1980s amid the rise of post-trauma studies as an academic discipline, but her work strums a power chord on the heartstrings. For instance, A flor de piel (Heart On Your Sleeve), 2014, is made of thousands of rose petals preserved and sewn into a giant shroud the color of spilled blood, filling an entire gallery. It’s a place to empty your emotions.
This artist knows that museum guests invariably become mourners at her global memorial. In this call to act, we can see the seeds of today’s social practices that focus on research, activism, and justice. For instance, Salcedo’s pioneering work using reclaimed wood and concrete is a material legacy carried on by artists such as Theaster Gates, who lectures on Salcedo at the museum on May 16.
This installation of Ragnar Kjartansson’s nine-channel video The Visitors evinces that rare ability to render an enveloping realm while highlighting the character of the space in which it is exhibited. Ambiance, so central to the work itself, is also deeply contingent on the architecture of the venue in which The Visitors is shown. A gleaming and impressive new space just three years old, MoCA sports a sleek, mirrored gunmetal exterior and clean, modular galleries. These contrast evocatively with the views of Rokeby farm, the lavishly dilapidated nineteenth-century estate in upstate New York where The Visitors was shot.
Over the video’s sixty-four minutes, eight performers—an all-star conglomerate of contemporary Icelandic musicians including Kjartansson himself (the artist was formerly a member of the band Trabant) alongside members of múm and Sigur Rós—occupy single rooms within the historic farmhouse. Connected to each other via headphones, the performers move compellingly in and out of sync, seemingly straining to hear the delicate aural entrances and exits of their collaborators—the resulting slight disruptions, missed cues, and elusively wandering downbeats produce the work’s deeply melancholic core. The video, whose excessively labor-intensive production echoes the baroque grandeur of the house they play in, is a triumphant effort of careful construction that is slowly and inevitably disarticulated, recalling the weathering effects of cyclical time and culminating in the song’s repeated lyrics: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways. [. . .] There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing you can do.” (The lyrics come from a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife, while the work’s title is taken from Swedish supergroup ABBA’s eighth and final studio album, made amid spousal tensions among band members.)
Kjartansson’s effort falls within an expressive tradition of musical performance that delights in the expansive, surprising range of mood that can emerge from the simple experiment of selecting and embodying a specific environment. Without knowing exactly what occurred or how the mood overcame you, by minute sixty you will be yearning for an old house, a hot summer, and friends to make something beautiful with, while aware, too, of your own distance from all of the above.
When America sneezes, the world catches cold. In this show of five new bodies of painting and sculpture by Nate Lowman, that cliché of superpower economics summons the spirit of the American working class. For instance, front and center is Untitled, 2013–15, a colossal installation of a map of the United States with each state made out of a bit of soiled drop cloth wrapped around a shaped stretcher. Excepting Alaska and Hawaii, all are installed on a wall inclined away from the viewer. The best seats in the house for this work are atop a set of found bleachers that Lowman chose for their ubiquity in Texas.
Moving through, Lowman’s air-freshener paintings—canvases shaped after the rearview mirror’s best friend—playfully introduce modernism’s nonrectilinear substrates to the zingy forms of cartoons. Accompanying these are seven works with titles such as Mellow Yellow and Ghost of Indiana, both 2014, for which the artist stitched together the scraps of canvas leftover from the air-freshener works using unscented dental floss.
Eight paintings of Lowman’s studio’s ceiling flank the final gallery’s walls. Made by filling in areas traced from projected photos with dapples of latex, these works—all titled after his studio’s address—pair with the drop-cloth pieces to represent the upper and lower boundaries of an artist’s workplace. They radiate in the light cast by the central installation of makeshift lamps, Rave the Painforest Again, 2015, which fuses blue-collar materials such as construction boots filled with cement, Gatorade coolers, and coffee cans stuck with leprous Garbage Pail Kid decals with vintage lightbulbs containing hand-wound tungsten thread, illuminating once again the artist’s déclassé alchemy.
Full of productive juxtapositions and sight lines that bring together Conceptual, Fluxus, Neo-concrete, and classic Pop works from four continents, “International Pop” presents a complex interpretation of postwar art. The works exhibited are surprisingly heterogeneous, with one common denominator: a desire to reimagine everyday life in an era transformed by consumerism, media, and new forms of political domination and liberation.
Viewers first encounter Shinohara Ushio’s Oiran, 1968, a portrait of a courtesan whose face has been left blank. Hanging nearby are a few dozen plastic coats on Thomas Bayrle’s Clothes Rack 1 and Clothes Rack 2, both 1968–70. In each, the model is missing. This might seem like an odd, ghostly overture for an exhibition bursting with flesh, from Marjorie Strider’s pinups and Jana Želibská’s veiled nudes to David Hockney’s prone lover. But even in the lustiest, most corporeal works something’s absent. They reduce the human figure to a silhouette, a caricature, or a fragment. Expressions are hard to read, and skin extends into the commodities that surround it, as in Richard Hamilton’s Hers is a Lush Situation, 1958, whose painted curves simultaneously outline a car and a woman’s body. By showing us half-present collaged and appropriated bodies, these works reveal that the true subjects of Pop art were ways of life that hadn’t yet fully coalesced and that pointed beyond their present toward the beginnings of something stranger.
This expansively ambitious show curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson is based on a fresh postulate for history and an apt query for today. The exhibition proposes that carnival—that great tradition of pre-Lenten partying in public, endemic to former slave societies in the Caribbean basin—has played a crucial role in shaping modern culture everywhere. It’s not only people in Trinidad and Rio and New Orleans, these days, who build stylized lives around Fat Tuesday’s “farewell to flesh”; Caribbean-style carnivals are also New York and London’s biggest and best-attended yearly public events.
That’s the postulate. The question is trickier: How might carnival’s attendant forms of aesthetic practice and ritual modes of masquerade—the performative arts that Trinidadians call mas’—be synthesized with the larger contemporary discourse of performance art, with its genealogy presumed to originate in the bodily economies not of chattel slavery but of Europe’s avant-gardes?
To find out, the curators commissioned nine artists from the Caribbean and its diasporas to create performance pieces for their respective islands’ main carnival streets (or, in the case of London-based Hew Locke, for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall). The exhibition here gathers both photographic documents of and materials used in the resulting pieces—decorative coffins from Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson; Locke’s faux riot-cop shields, riffing on carnival’s contradictions in now-gentrified Notting Hill—to at once refigure the artists’ work and ask “how carnival might be critically re-inserted,” Tancons writes, “within the history of the exhibitionary complex.”
The answer to that, on evidence here, remains fuzzy. It is telling that the two strongest pieces in the gallery context are films, by Cauleen Smith and Christophe Chassol, which were conceived as such. But one leaves the show convinced of both its guiding questions’ import and of the key role that its revitalized host institution—sited in a city that has both sprouted a real restive art scene, ten years from Katrina, and retains the country’s richest well of folk performance tradition—can play in the asking.
“Word & Image”—one of two shows together presented as “Framing Fraktur”—sprawls throughout the Free Library’s lobby, corridors, and archives, exploring ties between historical fraktur—eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Pennsylvania German manuscript-based folk art—and the practices of seven contemporary artists who treat words as visual or material compositional elements as much as carriers of verbal information. Curated by Judith Tannenbaum, the exhibition interweaves conceptually—and sometimes spatially—with the concurrent archival presentation “Quill & Brush,” organized by Lisa Minardi. Vitrines, tucked in a first-floor corridor and filled with contemporary works alongside fraktur facsimiles, provide a primer on the exhibition’s themes. Anthony Campuzano’s case, for example, includes a drawing with text, Autobiography: Emily Dickinson via Frances Farmer, 2004, next to the watercolor fraktur Spiritual Labyrinth, 1785. Both works crush text as mark making into claustrophobic, repetitive layouts that reinforce their words’ emotive subject matter.
Embracing fraktur’s blurring of fine art and utilitarian design, artist Marian Bantjes has created the show’s ornate primary-colored graphic identity, which flutters on tall banners between the library’s exterior columns, heads up marketing materials, and graces the catalogue’s cover. On the second floor, three of Bantjes’s Framing Fraktur, 2014, pencil studies on gridded paper, adapted from archival fraktur letterforms, hang not far from Elaine Reichek’s modest needlepoint work Sampler (Kruger/Holzer), 1998. Serving as a critical microcosm of the exhibition—and positing that formal similarities between fraktur and current art belie significant differences in values—Reichek’s work places oft-embroidered eighteenth-century idioms (“Do as you would be done by”) in contentious dialogue with appropriated contemporary phrases, such as Jenny Holzer’s 1977 truism “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”
Daniel Leivick’s exhibition underscores the necessity of seeing photographs in person. Offering richly composed aerial photocollages that allude to cartography, systemization, and early twentieth-century abstraction, these sixteen photographs maintain at their core a uniquely physical presence. Posed between fact and fiction, Leivick’s digitally altered pigment prints construct grand-scale narratives loosely tied to the history of the ancient Egyptian city Heliopolis. Leivick uses this site as a metaphor for broader ideas about culture, time, and myth in order to critique peoples’ relationship with our planet.
These works focus a critical lens on surveillance, machines, and environmentalism, emphasized by the choice of titles such as Slums and Panopticon Prison, 2012, or Bombing Range, 2014. Each large photograph is strikingly beautiful and allows viewers access to patchwork landscapes, as in Fossil Water Irrigation, 2012, or Abandoned Earthworks, 2013. Crisply rendered details of suburban minutia such as swimming pools and modular homes are juxtaposed against the vast terrain of the American Southwest, as seen in Encroachment #3, 2014. This fosters a constant tension between the macro and the micro, the man-made and the natural. With this push and pull, viewers enter Leivick’s vision of a timeless environment mostly devoid of human figures but nevertheless affected by humanity. Without the works’ titles, the locations are ambivalent and strangely neutral. Open-ended and enigmatic, each visceral landscape allows us to follow Leivick’s suggested narrative, or more alluringly, to create their own myths about its people and the events that took place there.
New York–based artist Amy Feldman’s exhibition “Mirror Cool” features four large paintings in two colors: cool gray pigment against stark white canvas. Each work is a 6.5-foot square canvas, but the painted images—bubbling rectangles in Mock Zero or cartoonish biomorphic shapes in I Is for Idiot, both 2015—emphasize verticality. Feldman, who works from preparatory sketches, quickly completes each painting in one sitting: the gestural brushstrokes, dripping paint, and swooping lines that compose the simple subjects underscore the sense of motion and speed.
Although these are new works, Feldman has returned to previously used subject matter. For example, Former Future, 2015, a massive rectangle composed of large circles overlapping one another, is nearly identical to Holy Over, 2014, and very similar to O, 2014, and Owed, 2011 (the earlier works are not included here). With this repetition, Feldman seems less concerned with the image, resigned instead to highlight the act of painting itself.
Indeed, these works are smart and intentionally elusive. Feldman claims influence from semiotics and wordplay, irony and stand-up comedy, and Robert Ryman’s monochrome. Really, these works rely on much more: the history of painting from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. If irony is at play, it at first seems disingenuously aligned with the exploitation of the viewer. On closer inspection, perhaps irony and repetition are tools for reconsidering the proliferation of images. But, then, to what end? While Feldman offers visually straightforward images, subversion and critique linger just beneath the surface.
On the evening of July 5, 2013, a freight train carrying two million gallons of crude oil escaped from its overnight resting station, and after traveling unguided for seven miles, it derailed at the town center of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. Forty-seven locals, some sleeping comfortably, unaware in their homes, tragically lost their lives in what would become the deadliest non-passenger train derailment in Canadian history.
That same night, photographer Benoit Aquin traveled to the site and began documenting the aftermath. Despite the ensuing chaos, his pictures, which are now on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, show a perspective that’s pensive and reserved—an approach that avoids the shock-and-awe orthodoxy of contemporary photojournalism and instead taps into the deeper psychosomatic impact felt upon observing the damaged community of Lac-Mégantic.
Photographs such as Exclusion Zone, 2013, do this powerfully: the camera’s harsh flash exposes evidence of the catastrophe—a hastily assembled fence that was erected to separate civilians from the disaster site. Or in Rebuilding Track, 2013, where that same piercing flash cuts through the darkness to illuminate thousands of falling snowflakes and two neon-clad rail workers. In the museum’s gallery space, the pictures are hung frame to frame in a single unadulterated row, as if to mimic the formation of aligned rail cars. And with each passing car, a new article of evidence is revealed to the viewer, like disparate scenes of an ongoing nightmare from which you cannot wake.