Critics’ Picks

  • *View of “The Scar,” 2018.

    Noor Afshan Mirza and Brad Butler

    Delfina Foundation
    29/31 Catherine Place London
    September 27 - December 1

    Noor Afshan Mirza and Brad Butler’s five-screen narrative installation, The Scar, 2018, unfolds in three filmic chapters: “The State of the State,” “The Mouth of the Shark,” and “The Gossip”—the latter being a three-channel presentation. The artists began an early iteration of the project in 2015 during their residency here as part of a program titled “The Public Domain.” After the initial premiere of The Scar at HOME in Manchester earlier this year, the artists have brought the work back to where it first began, a homecoming of sorts which will involve an extended schedule of talks, performances, and workshops.

    In the gallery, the lights are low, the room made darker by the burgundy wallpaper. An interruptive, sometimes violent white-noise soundscape hangs heavily. In lieu of gallery notes, the viewer is provided with four noirish archetypes: Kaptan, the chief of police; Ağa, the politician; Reis, a right-wing state assassin; and Yenge, the taken woman. The film, loosely premised around a car crash in Turkey in 1996, smudges true events with altered narratives and dreamlike sequences (hallucinatory visions often haunt our protagonists). In the first two chapters, our characters swerve through the night in a black Mercedes, the men partaking in misogynistic banter. After her silence in the first film, Yenge begins to interrupt the male dialogue in an internal voice-over in the second. Her soliloquy about the “Resistant Dead,” murdered by the state, and the violence enacted by her fellow passengers, feels like evidence or oral testimony. There’s a sense of history being authored, as well as its dissent. This chapter culminates with the introduction of the “The Gossip,” named for a chorus of female activists who, pursuing justice, devise a supernatural utopia where the constraints of language and time do not apply. For Mirza and Butler’s characters, the possibility of resistance is commensurate with the imagination. Despite its framing of emancipation and transcendence within a magical realist lens, the chapter suggests the potential for our own world’s revitalization—for wounds to close, and become scars.

  • Ibrahim El-Salahi, By His Will, We Teach Birds How to Fly No. 5, 1969, pen, ink and wash, 15 x 22 1/8”.

    Ibrahim El-Salahi

    Vigo Gallery
    21 Dering Street
    September 19 - October 26

    Drawings from the 1960s and 1970s dominate this exhibition of black-and-white works by the Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, in particular, the titular series “By His Will, We Teach Birds How to Fly,” 1969. Pen, ink, and wash figures appear embraced by the buttery tones of the paper, imbuing each surface with a gentle glow but also a sense of transparency, as if these inky bodies were suspended in the warm, hazy hug of memory. Already at this early date, El-Salahi’s mastery of the medium is obvious. His sure yet delicate hand seems to veer effortlessly between expansive, watery swaths of gray and condensed, rich bleeds of velvety black that feather out like river deltas or the tendrils of ferns.

    Then there are the delightful scenes from a 1977 series of illustrations for Tayeb Salih’s novel Maryud—horses and riders, a kooky owl—still pen and ink, but with a woodcut feel. Or take the pair of quadriptychs titled Male Tree and Female Tree, both 1989. They serve as windows affording views of distant phantasmagoria, hovering vistas of tightly scored ink marks giving way to nothingness, a deft play on black and white, but also being and nonbeing.

    The overall effect is that of stepping into the mind of the artist, now in his eighties. Here, a figure floats Zen-like, or as if in a womb. There, another forges onward to some unseen destination, finger pointing in action, hand raised like Zeus about to hurl a thunderbolt. These images accompany lined and turbaned faces, fantastical plants, large haunting eyes, the belly of a crocodile, the checkerboards of El-Salahi’s youth, words and scriptures. They embody El-Salahi’s memories, his visions, and dreams. More importantly, they embody his enduring celebration of human dignity and freedom.

  • Mika Rottenberg, 
Mary’s Cherries, 2018, mixed media, dimensions variable.

    Mika Rottenberg

    Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art
    St James’s
    September 8 - November 4

    This venue’s inaugural exhibition, Mika Rottenberg’s show encompasses seven intersecting galleries across three floors. Grotesque, uncanny, and extreme, the artist’s videos often feature real-life people with extraordinary physical attributes and talents who toil in surreal assembly lines to mass-produce objects for consumption. While reminiscent of a factory, the gallery’s network of open, naturally lit spaces—the building is a rehabilitated Victorian bathhouse—clashes suggestively with the oppressive restrictions portrayed by Rottenberg. On the ground floor is Mary’s Cherries, 2004, in which three women in monogrammed pastel uniforms manufacture cocktail cherries out of fingernails in a compact makeshift workshop. They pedal furiously on stationary bikes to power a UV lightbulb, which causes Mary to magically sprout talon-like, red fingernails—these are quickly clipped, mashed, and rolled into sticky balls. Rock Rose pauses to smoke a cigarette and dab sweat from her colossal cleavage, while statuesque Barbara pounds her huge fists and calls out to her coworker impatiently.

    Also included are a number of new kinetic sculptural works. In the third room on the first floor, liquid drips from the ceiling to the ground, where several frying pans have been placed on hot plates (Frying Pans, 2018). The moisture hisses and evaporates into dramatically spotlit mist, fabricating another of Rottenberg’s fantastical visual narratives, where the transition of liquid to vapor becomes a factory-made process. Viewers will likely detect a clear socioeconomic metaphor: These precarious cycles teeter on the edge of collapse and play out in small, constrained spaces. In a video work commissioned for the exhibition, Untitled (Ceiling Projection), 2018, a hammer smashes a variety of colored lightbulbs into kaleidoscopic fragments—an empowering act of defiance that disrupts the sense of control pervading throughout.

  • James N. Kienitz Wilkins, The Dynamic Range, 2018, VR, 18 minutes.

    James N. Kienitz Wilkins

    155 Vauxhall Street
    September 20 - December 16

    Brooklyn-based artist James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s first exhibition in a gallery context considers truth through the medium of film. Take The Dynamic Range, 2018, a video shot with the lens cap on, which was originally commissioned for planetarium format and is here presented through a virtual-reality headset. At the beginning of the video, darkness. But then particles of light become visible through colored pixels, which swirl into an upward tunnel as a Morgan Freeman impersonator narrates the digital advances of camera technology. Wilkins prompts us to think about what we see when we see nothing, how blindness forces a kind of trust in what we’re told. Hanging nearby, The Second Person, 2018, an archival analog photograph from the Apollo II mission that the press release describes as “manipulated,” cunningly builds on this anxiety; aside from being cropped, the work completely resembles the original. Though nothing seems contrived, seeing is not quite believing in Wilkins’s work.

    Projected onto the wall in a separate room is Indefinite Pitch, 2016. In this slideshow, Wilkins narrates a story that begins with a movie pitch. The plot is stolen from Arch Heath’s silent (and lost) serial film The Masked Menace (1927), whose main character terrorizes citizens with his living-flesh countenance exposed, diurnally covered by a mask. High-quality black-and-white images of the Androscoggin River, which runs through Maine and New Hampshire, accompany the voiceover. Heath’s film was shot in Berlin, NH, and so we might assume Wilkins’s images were too, but they turn out to be from his hometown, which he describes as being “close enough.” By this point, a police siren has broken up Wilkins’s monologue, which fluctuates in pitch throughout, and the fictional tale turns into a picture of local politics ravaged by arson, heroin use, and white-supremacist organizations. In the end, real life turns out to be the true horror.