Critics’ Picks

  • View of “Ellen Rothenberg: ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant,” 2019.

    Ellen Rothenberg

    The James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center
    365 Fifth Avenue The City University of New York
    February 6–April 13

    The construction of inhumane “tent cities” for migrant children along the US–Mexico border made international news last fall. One might think that Germany, which took in more than one million refugees in 2015 at the peak of the migrant crisis, would have devised a more benevolent solution. Alas, according to Ellen Rothenberg’s installation ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant, 2018, that wasn’t the case. The artist conceived this work to mimic the shipping-container settlements for refugees—the so-called Tempohomes built by a state agency—at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, which was never finished by the Nazis, and sits adjacent to a former concentration camp. The installation’s numerical title is derived from the international standard for labeling freight shipping containers, yet it recalls the callous systems bureaucracies use to organize and categorize foreign bodies.

    Initially displayed last year at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant triangulates a relationship between different cities in this presentation. Rather than moving a Tempohome from Berlin to New York, for instance, Rothenberg re-creates the alienating ambience of these provisional structures by erecting plywood barricades. Plastered to these walls are prints that depict lockers full of Tempohome residents’ belongings. There is also a 1956 Li’l Abner comic in which a hillbilly brood objects to the arrival of the “Square-Eyes Family.” “Le’s git a mob together!! An’ run ‘em outa town!” one character remarks with deplorable zeal. Tape markings on the wooden floor, evoking the demarcations of airport runways, illustrate a Tempohome housing plan. Elsewhere, Rothenberg shows us detailed photographs of the Tempelhof’s infrastructure, along with artifacts from the Spertus’s collection—including an Israeli coin commemorating illegal immigration.

    The sculpture Carrier underscores the exhibition’s visceral impact, as it displays the personal effects of anonymous displaced persons—shoes, pillows, and plaid polyester laundry bags—buckled like trapped detainees to a freestanding wall with bungee cords and ratchet straps.


  • View of “Derrick Adams: Interior Life,” 2019.

    Derrick Adams

    Luxembourg & Dayan | New York
    64 East 77th Street
    February 26–April 20

    Derrick Adams’s exhibition here, “Interior Life,” evokes a comfortable bourgeois dwelling. With the exception of Adams’s portraits from his ongoing series “Deconstruction Worker,” 2011–, all of this brownstone’s congenial appointments—sleek modernist furniture, elegant vases, stainless-steel appliances—are mere wallpaper, graphic representations of the good life, which are delineated into specific areas of a home. In the family parlor (that is, the first gallery), three portraits of anonymous sitters hang above a mantelpiece and a sculpture of a Black Power salute. Elsewhere, soul food recipes are pasted on a kitchen wall, and in the bathroom, a mask peeks out from behind a Malian mud-cloth shower curtain. There are catalogues on a shelf for landmark shows, among them Kongo: Power and Majesty (2015) and Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (1994–95). Depictions of African art, such as ceremonial masks and power figures—magical sculptures that can keep colonialist evils at bay, among other things—are collaged with eyes cut out from photos of famous black figures. On a television is the title card of a popular 1970s sitcom. If you read the name, WHAT’S HAPPENING!!, as a question posed to the viewer, then the happy salutation becomes something more complex and disquieting—a cry against this ugly and precarious political environment in the United States, in which the rich culture Adams’s work draws upon is once again threatened.

    The models for the portraits are in profile, their skin a faceted spectrum of tones. One could see a span of references in these pieces, from the intricate patchwork of the Gee’s Bend quilts to the racist physiognomy charts of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But Adams’s “Deconstruction Worker” pieces—stoic, tender, resplendent in gorgeous fabric—have always embodied their own form of strength and majesty. Poet Elizabeth Alexander once wrote that the “black interior” is “a space for tableau or retablo, with its connotations of the sacred. The living room is where we see black imagination made visual, a private space that inevitably reverberates against the garish public images usually out of our control.” Here, one encounters this radiant source.

  • H.C. Westermann, Suicide Rehearsal, 1965, ink, watercolor, paper, newsprint, 17 x 14".

    H. C. Westermann

    Venus Over Manhattan
    980 Madison Avenue 3rd Floor
    February 20–April 6

    H. C. Westermann is beloved for a type of sculpture that’s a potent mix of Dada and old, weird Americana. But this modest yet gripping exhibition also reveals that he was a marvelous draftsman with a sharp, satirical wit. Along one wall is a group of drawings, inspired by a road trip the artist took with his wife, that skewers 1960s fantasies of the Wild West. In Right Straight On, n.d., an old man seems the sole inhabitant of an overbuilt, abandoned desert city; is he a sage brimming with wisdom, or is he just lonely and exhausted, wondering how to go on? The palm tree in Buildings on a Red Butte, 1968, suggests that we might be taking in a tiki-style paradise—yet the butte it sits in front of looks a lot like a nuclear reactor. These arid oases are little hells, custom-built to torturous perfection. Though Westermann’s depictions feel apocalyptic, he’s merely just showing us how things were and, frighteningly, still are. He allows us to laugh a little—uncomfortably.

    Other works, such as Suicide Rehearsal, 1965, target American militarism and what we now call toxic masculinity. It depicts a man who apparently hanged himself while wearing a cocktail dress. His head is a putrefied green. A yellowed newspaper clipping attached to the corner of the work tells the story of this subject, a “41-year-old ex-seaman who meticulously planned his ‘final curtain.’” It appears the former sailor left a long note clarifying that “I am not a queer” and that he just wanted to die in a frock. His journal, according to the article, describes a couple of girlfriends, “transvestites . . . who apparently had affairs with women as well as with him.” The column also talks about an incredulous coroner who didn’t believe the man killed himself. Westermann’s artwork is a cruel illustration of an even crueler culture that produced such a fatality. One is fascinated by this salacious bit of history—and a bit scandalized by one’s own titillated response.



  • Hilary Berseth, Cleaved Slates Stacked, 2017–18, graphite and fixative on paper, 23 x 18 x 18".

    Hilary Berseth

    Van Doren Waxter | 23 East 73rd Street
    23 East 73rd Street Second Floor
    February 21–March 30

    With paper and pencil, Hilary Berseth has drawn in exacting detail life’s less charismatic roadside attractions—rocks, sticks, bones—and fashioned sculptures mistakable for what they depict. Inspired by the scenery of Pennsylvania’s Tohickon Creek, they possess a rugged whimsicality, like a dust-bowl pop-up book. On plinths or suspended by string, the artworks appear parched and brittle, unable to withstand a human sneeze. Behold how the heaped, lichened stones of Cleaved Slates Stacked, 2017–18, attached with tiny notch joints, elude gravity. Peer inside the stippled cave of Model 5, 2012, a conical mobile twirling in a corner. A doe’s skeleton has been reconfigured; its skull dangles by a window, while the rest of it forms a helix nearby.  

    No new muse for Berseth, nature: In a lovely twist on art colonies or Koonsian factories, he has previously outsourced labor to thousands of honeybees to construct otherworldly hives. As in the work of Vija Celmins—whose influence especially looms in Moon and stars, 2018, a nightscape diorama spied through a peephole—the artist’s hand is disappeared through every stroke, through every additional minute of impeccable toil. Berseth’s mute models appear locked in dialogue with photography (how easily the show could have shared a title with William Henry Fox Talbot’s landmark book, The Pencil of Nature [1844–46]). And it’s in two dimensions, not three, where the trompe l’oeil thrives; those quickly perusing the exhibition’s web page may think the artist is simply hawking backyard finds. In the gallery itself, there’s that familiar whiff of reheated commentary on the speed and treason of contemporary art—specifically, how it’s made and, of course, how it’s consumed. Yet Berseth’s lifelike, lifeless realia satisfy for how they refuse to take for granted the tedious miracle of the Earth, rendered here as exquisitely flat and emphatically erasable.