Critics’ Picks

  • Leslie Thornton, Cut from Liquid to Snake (still), 2018, HD and 2K video loop, 26 minutes 14 seconds.

    Leslie Thornton

    125 Charing Cross Road
    November 24 - December 22

    “Have you really thought about the question, What is thought?” philosophizes a bearded man in Leslie Thornton’s twenty-six-minute film Cut from Liquid to Snake, 2018. His face is oddly cramped against the camera; perhaps we’re witnessing bedtime banter. Complicating matters, Thornton has fragmented the footage into multiple reflections that jumble into a kaleidoscope, an effect she repeats throughout the film. A woman’s voice replies with a non sequitur: “The Boson is the particle, and the Higgs is the field. . . .” He interrupts: “They’re just names.” Thornton’s grainy, near-monochrome video of ants moving, girls on a train, and fish swimming upstream blurs in and out of abstraction, while the soundtrack—a proliferation of female voices, cricket chirps, audio glitches, and harp—offers only moments of comprehensibility. It is as if we were witnessing the human brain at work, struggling to pattern experience into meaning.

    But there is a deeper anxiety in the film that hovers elsewhere, on the frightening cliff edge of no—or too much—meaning. It is glimpsed in Thornton’s footage of bubbling tar sands and heard in an archival audio clip in which an eyewitness to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima describes its effects on its victims’ bodies, whose “fingernails bent upwards, so that you could just pull them off.” Later, we watch a relative of Thornton’s describe the artist’s grandfather and father’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, how Thornton’s father signed his and his parents’ names into the atom bomb’s casing before packing it onto the plane to Japan. Framed by this legacy, Thornton’s film dips into and out of language, kinship and separation, all the while grappling with her own implication in a history of horror that goes beyond sense.

  • Gordon Matta-Clark, Garbage Wall, 2018, mixed media, 14 x 6'.

    Gordon Matta-Clark

    David Zwirner | London
    24 Grafton Street
    November 21 - December 20

    Gordon Matta-Clark was constantly bereaved. Soon after his birth in 1943, his father, the painter Roberto Matta, abandoned the family; Matta-Clark’s cousin died in a building collapse in 1973; his twin brother, Sebastian, killed himself in 1976. Gordon succumbed to cancer two years later at thirty-five. Haunted by endings, he splayed his interest in revitalizing urban space through as many new artistic forms as he could.

    “Works 1970-1978” contains drawings, photographs, collages, and films, but the centerpiece is Garbage Wall, a large, compacted block of debris and discarded objects, bound together in acrylic polymer and cement. Matta-Clark made three versions of Garbage Wall but left its future executions to circumstance; both the dimensions and contents vary. This one is fourteen feet long and six feet high and was assembled in November by a team at the gallery. Its facade is studded with musical keyboards, toy trains, battered VCRs. It’s a time capsule of forgotten objects, the detritus of several lives fashioned into a collective memory.

    How we share space, how we read the traces we leave behind—these questions also characterize Matta-Clark’s signature “cuts,” cavities he made with a chainsaw in derelict structures. On the first floor, several collaged Cibachrome prints depict site-specific works including Office Baroque, 1977, which involves “anarchitectural” excisions from an Antwerp building’s floor and wall. Downstairs, a film of the same title and year documents the artist’s team onsite as they lever—with surprising delicacy—the excised portions onto the street. As the building is opened up, its angles and planes proliferate; shadows arc across exposed wood, split by the gashes. One print takes two vertically opposed viewpoints, inverts them, and sets them parallel, playfully scattering the single perspective. Alive with architectural and human integrity, this exhibition attests to the generosity of Matta-Clark’s practice; he treated the loss of space as a possibility, even a gift.

  • Sheida Soleimani, Minister of Energy, Industry & Mineral Resources, Saudi Arabia & UN Secretary General, 2017, archival pigment print, 60 x 40".

    Sheida Soleimani

    Edel Assanti
    74a Newman Street
    October 26 - December 21

    In “Medium of Exchange,” Sheida Soleimani dramatizes the play of domination and dependence between the US and oil-rich nations. Featuring an array of actors in caricature masks, her photographic collages are a visual assault: shock-and-awe metaphors megaphoned through a punky, DIY aesthetic. Laying bare the amoral, transactional ties between the establishment and OPEC figureheads, Soleimani choreographs a pornography of cronyism and corruption—the money shot, in this case, being geysers of crude oil.

    In a disheveled hotel room, Jimmy Carter and the UAE petroleum minister are caught in flagrante delicto (Minister of Petroleum, UAE & Former President of the United States, 2018). The former president, a call girl in a little black dress and heels, offers her punter the golden handshake of a US bomber jet. The mattress is strewn with peanut shells (a nod to Carter’s rural family fortune): spent ammunition in America’s ongoing imperial crusades. In another, Donald Rumsfeld—sporting a hundred-dollar-bill towel and baseball cap like a Miami spring breaker—locks hands with Dick Cheney, coyly perched on a Halliburton oil drum (Former Vice President and Secretary of State, United States & Halliburton CEOs, 2017). The photo’s prom-like pomp is belied by a background of exploding Iraqi oil fields: the military-industrial complex demolished with sledgehammer satire.

    Soleimani takes the idea of commodity fetishism to literal, lurid new heights. In one image, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lies splayed and bare-breasted beneath a Saudi energy minister, his jackboot replaced by a plastic stiletto. An oil-smeared hosepipe links them in kinky foreplay (Minister of Energy, Industry & Mineral Resources, Saudi Arabia & UN Secretary General, 2017). Inside a tent emblazoned with various primary food exports from all fourteen OPEC nations, a video loop brings some of these scenes to life. Two Middle Eastern ministers, dressed in kaffiyehs, stuff their faces in a mindless ice-cream-eating competition. The judge? A headless body yammering away in stars-and-stripes boxer shorts.

    The smartness of this show lies in how Soleimani grubbily implicates us in her cynicism. Propped up on petrol cans, these tableaux slant like mirrors, forcing us to reflect on our own art-world complicity. Just who is sponsoring that next blockbuster exhibition you’ll see?

  • 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.