Critics’ Picks

  • Minerva Cuevas, A Draught of the Blue, 2013, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 48 seconds.

    Minerva Cuevas, A Draught of the Blue, 2013, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 48 seconds.

    Minerva Cuevas

    Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College (CUNY)
    135 East 22nd Street
    August 29–November 1, 2019

    Omnia sunt communia: “All things are held in common.” The artist Minerva Cuevas, who lives and works in Mexico City (where she was also born), asserts this notion time and time again with “Disidencia” (Dissent), her first exhibition in New York. Cuevas’s far-reaching “cartography of resistance,” as some have called it, includes the food sovereignty protests on the streets of her birthplace, a staged intervention in a Paris McDonald’s, and her own underwater demonstration, which seems to reference a strategy used by anti-Exxon climate activists in 2016.

    In the video A Draught of the Blue, 2013, the aforementioned Latin phrase appears on a banner held up by two scuba divers above the endangered coral of the Great Mayan Reef. Other signs in this work read “IN TROUBLE,” “1%” (a reference to wealth disparity and the total amount of coral left on the planet), and “25%” (an estimate of the worldwide deaths caused by human environmental damage and the percentage of marine life reliant upon coral, according to the United Nations). Cuevas puts economic narcissism in close proximity to ecological collapse—or, as Naomi Klein characterizes it, “climate barbarism.”

    The parodic Donald McRonald, 2003, extends the horror to corporate overreach. In the video, a McDonald’s mascot look-alike parades in the restaurant chain, incriminating the fast-food monstrosity for its lack of unions, low wages, and employees’ minimal vacation time, while proceeding to order and devour a Big Mac. The slideshow La venganza del elefante (The Revenge of the Elephant), 2007, is a reordering of the German illustrator Wilhelm Busch’s nineteenth-century drawings of human dominance over nature—in it, Cuevas shows an elephant actively pursuing its hunter. For the artist, humor is a weapon, a salve, and an invitation to do better for all. As a young boy reminds us in a different video piece, “we have much, very much to do with our neighbors.”

  • Debanjan Roy, Toy Gandhi 4 (Superhero), 2019, silicone and automotive paint, 56 x 38 x 32".

    Debanjan Roy, Toy Gandhi 4 (Superhero), 2019, silicone and automotive paint, 56 x 38 x 32".

    Debanjan Roy

    Aicon Gallery
    35 Great Jones Street
    October 2–October 26, 2019

    On October 2, 2019—the 150th anniversary of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s birth—the Kolkata-based sculptor Debanjan Roy transformed this space into a veritable Madame Tussauds dedicated solely to the shiny celebrity of the Mahatma, “the great soul.” With a careful hand, Roy plays with Gandhi’s image, rendering it as a series of toys, including a beefed-up superhero, a life-size puppet, and a plunger-holding bobblehead. On the gallery’s first floor, eight different Gandhis stand off, smirking at one another. None of them contain much of a soul, let alone a great one.

    Perhaps the most unsettling of these sculptures isToy Gandhi 1 (Munny Doll), 2019, an all-white, six-foot-tall, Minion-like figure. Its gummy grin shows us that all you need are some visual cues—a walking stick, a pancha, glasses, oversize ears—and you can make what was once a symbol of sacrifice and resistance into whatever you like. There is a deep capitalist critique going on here: Once an image has been largely circulated, it becomes estranged from its founding principles and can be used to sell, sell, sell. But Gandhi is not only the victim of capitalist misappropriation. On the same day as the show’s opening, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi published an op-ed in the New York Times using Gandhi as a political plaything, pushing for right-wing Hindu nationalism in his name.

    Through wood, silicone, and clay, Roy reveals just how disturbing such appropriations can be. While so many are in the business of simplifying Gandhi for all kinds of spurious ends, Roy complicates him. In rendering the playful poignant, he forces us to rethink the dangerous ideologies grabbing hold of our icons, allowing us to see that, just like Gandhi, we are not to be toyed with.

  • John Zurier, Urður, 2019, oil on linen, 84 × 58".

    John Zurier, Urður, 2019, oil on linen, 84 × 58".

    John Zurier

    Peter Blum Gallery
    176 Grand Street 2nd Floor
    September 27–November 9, 2019

    The thirteen paintings in John Zurier’s solo exhibition—obliquely derived from the atmospheric conditions of Berkley, California, and Reykjavík, Iceland—affirm the artist as a deft painter of weather and light. For over two decades, Zurier’s gestural works have made the most of his preferred medium’s essential ingredients: color and surface. His intimately scaled canvases usually express an affinity for a pared-down palette of warm and cool grays. Yet this presentation offers a few lively exceptions.

    Three commanding pieces from the series “North from Here” (all works 2019) hang together on the gallery’s eastern wall. Each sports a variegated field of luxurious ultramarine against an airy white ground flanked by perpendicular bands. Despite their tenuous relationship to landscapes (especially given their verticality), one cannot help but read the white patches along each painting’s upper edge as clouds gently drifting past an open window.

    The most striking of the large canvases is Urður—its exquisite field of pale blue is almost completely obfuscated by an application of acidic green. Upon close inspection, the viewer can notice how the thin marks skate across the linen—recording every nuanced inflection of the artist’s hand—until halting just before meeting the work’s left and right edges where the slivers of azure have been carefully preserved. One finds oneself repeatedly pulled back into the painting’s shallow space each time one’s eyes wander toward its perimeter. Urður, along with its pink cousin The Wind, connote a sense of ethereal joyousness, distinguishing them from smaller canvases such as Keisetsu no Kou (Firefly and Snow, Success) and Mure (14 years ago), which embody a foreboding tone. Most of the works don’t deviate from Zurier’s signature program; yet the show underscores his ability to distill the essence of visual experience into images that achieve a rare synthesis of thought and feeling.

  • Constantina Zavitsanos, Boxed Bet (detail), 2019, transmission holograms, acrylic mounts, 5mW red laser, dimensions variable.

    Constantina Zavitsanos, Boxed Bet (detail), 2019, transmission holograms, acrylic mounts, 5mW red laser, dimensions variable.

    Constantina Zavitsanos

    253 East Houston Street Ground Floor
    September 15–October 27, 2019

    A plywood ramp, titled Call to Post (all works 2019), emerges from the floor, extending across the back length of this long, rectilinear gallery. At the far end of the space, it curves upward, turning into a wall. Visitors that gather atop the ramp are bathed in a red light that seems to hover above the darkened room. To the right of this work is a cantilevered vitrine that holds Boxed Bet, a suite of hologram works depicting dice in mid-throw. To the ramp’s left is All the time, a video made up of two overlapping projections, which come from the floor and the ceiling. These three pieces comprise Constantina Zavitsanos’s first solo show, “L&D Motel,” which obliquely returns us to debates regarding architecture and sculpture that animated artistic discourse in New York during the 1960s and ’70s.

    This presentation seems to play on Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, 1972. But, unlike Acconci, the artist refuses to make the exhibition a kind of nonconsensual sexual encounter. Zavitsanos instead offers us a sensual space where words (and waves) pass between (and through) all who visit. The video’s open-caption texts—which are only visible when your body blocks one of the projectors—feature phrases such as “all the degrees of freedom necessary to define it” (this particular wording is nested beneath another line reading “that love’s holographic, that touch is impossible”). This triangulated relation is echoed in the transmission holograms. For instance, if one were to cut the hologram’s substrate, it would not halve but double—alluding to a world full of abundance instead of lack.

    Every so often, a series of vibrations moves through the space—and everyone in it. Even if you’re not seated on the inclined ground, the infrasonic, low-frequency waves are still palpable. Unlike Acconci’s performance in which he was hidden from view with his voice electronically amplified, Zavitsanos’s show considers perception through multiple, overlapping sensory valences—if you aren’t seeing or hearing it, you can still feel it.

  • Sam Ekwurtzel, mooring bollard, partially drained (a), 2019, aluminum bollard, fused silica ceramic shell, extruded hollow core kiln shelf, 30 × 30 × 30".

    Sam Ekwurtzel, mooring bollard, partially drained (a), 2019, aluminum bollard, fused silica ceramic shell, extruded hollow core kiln shelf, 30 × 30 × 30".

    Sam Ekwurtzel

    Simone Subal Gallery
    131 Bowery 2nd Floor
    September 8–October 27, 2019

    East River–adjacent ferry queens like myself, who take New York City’s commuter boats up and down the coastlines, will recognize the fat mooring bollards—posts that ships get tied to when docked—in Sam Ekwurtzel’s solo exhibition, “Renderings.” They stand like rigid sentinels here, but looks are deceiving, as what appears in the gallery are actually husks—or perhaps even ghosts—of the original bollards that were created through clever acts of destruction.

    The artist has coated eight of these squat columns, made from aluminum, with layers of a white, high-temperature ceramic material that’s frequently used for making metal casting molds. Placing each bollard on an elegant, thin shelf—which looks like a plaything of Carl Andre’s—Ekwurtzel then fires them in a kiln at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, liquefying the objects completely within their gleaming, white clay shells. The metal pools haphazardly onto the bases, like spilled paint. For instance, in mooring bollard, partially drained (a) (all works 2019), the gooey-looking, shiny aluminum flows mostly to one side of the shelf, without spilling over. And in window grate, partially drained, one of two pieces that are mounted to the wall, the bubbling metal oozes out of the hollow, ceramic bars, so that hard and soft, right angles and curved edges, are in distinct opposition: an experiment in chaos and control.

    Ekwurtzel has found a threshold at which these seemingly permanent fixtures of the cityscape can be effectively neutered and made ephemeral, finding in their eradication new forms that are sensitively, sculpturally beautiful.

  • Leslie Hewitt, Untitled (Dreambook or Axis of the Ellipse), 2019, digital chromogenic print in wood frame, 52  x 62  x 7".

    Leslie Hewitt, Untitled (Dreambook or Axis of the Ellipse), 2019, digital chromogenic print in wood frame, 52 x 62 x 7".

    Leslie Hewitt

    Perrotin | New York
    130 Orchard Street
    September 11–October 26, 2019

    Leslie Hewitt builds deftly upon her conceptual photographic practice in “Reading Room,” an exhibition featuring both a solo presentation in the main gallery and the artist’s reimagining of Perrotin’s in-house bookshop. Hewitt was inspired by the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, which was founded by Lewis Michaux, a celebrated civil rights activist whose business—which opened in 1932 and lasted until 1974—doubled as a home for community gatherings, political discussions, and art. Her show includes pieces such as Riffs on Real Time (2 of 10), 2012–17, a photo that depicts Michaux inside his store; Forty-two, 2019, a computer-generated video that randomly selects and configures words from a data set related to Michaux’s shop, building concrete poetry with endless associative relations; and a collection of texts influential to Hewitt. The artist has also scheduled a series of collaborative events that will take place throughout October.

    In the gallery, Hewitt’s photo-sculptures—pictures of still lifes resting inside heavy wooden frames that sit on the floor—contain elements and strategies that appear frequently in her work, such as a square sheet of elm balanced on a stack of books with their spines flipped away from the viewer, rebuffing our gaze; the layering of objects to create registers of opacity or access; and the repetition of symbols, in a minimalist, serialized arrangement, that evoke a desire for interpretation while refuting any explicit narrative.

    Möbius strips materialize in several of the photographs, including Untitled (Awakened Even When Turned), 2019, where it takes the form of a metal sculpture, and Untitled (Dreambook or Axis of the Ellipse), 2019, in which it appears as a drawing and, rather obliquely, via the spines of two cleverly arranged books: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Black Orpheus (1948) and Henry Dumas’s story collection Ark of Bones (1974). These pieces in particular reflect the dual structure of “Reading Room,” a stunning extension of Hewitt’s incisive rephrasing of interpretive refusal and embrace.