Critics’ Picks

  • Peter van Agtmael, Darien, Wisconsin. USA. 2007, digital print, 16 x 20".

    Peter van Agtmael, Darien, Wisconsin. USA. 2007, digital print, 16 x 20".

    New York

    Peter van Agtmael

    Bronx Documentary Center
    614 Courtland Avenue
    April 14–June 26, 2022

    In the unassuming gallery space of the Bronx Documentary Center’s annex are 128 photographs—unframed and held up by magnets—by Peter van Agtmael that, in total, represent the most ambitious presentation of documentary photography I have encountered in recent memory. Van Agtmael, who often works in a photojournalistic mode and is a member of cooperative Magnum Photos, endeavors to interweave many of the political threads that have defined the past few decades in America, each of which could have easily been the focus of an entire exhibition: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the veterans’ experience of coming home, the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right, the opioid crisis, the Mexican-American border, September 11, January 6, police brutality, systemic racism, white privilege, and so much more. This kind of unwieldy thematic scope could easily render “Look at the USA,” messy or superficial. But, because the pictures are paired with thoughtful texts by van Agtmael, and because the entire show is undergirded by his personal story of growing up as a boy fascinated by and drawn to war, the exhibition doesn’t just achieve coherence—it transcends its very genre.

    The de facto master key to reading this diverse range of pictures as a single body of work is present in almost every image of the exhibition, but there are a few where it’s illustrated most clearly, such as van Agtmael’s photograph of an Iraq War veteran’s toy light saber battle with his children. Here we find simulated violence freighted with the cost of real violence—the veteran has a prosthetic leg, the result of a rocket attack in Baghdad on the Fourth of July, 2006. Here we find the vicious cycle of the American war machine, a network of brutality abroad propping up a culture of brutality at home. And, maybe most importantly, here we find the pathetic banality of our own barbarousness, the everydayness of our national bloodlust.

    In short, “Look at the USA” appropriately forces us to do just that. And what you’ll see is van Agtmael’s evenhanded perspective of a country that fetishizes violence in its bones, where the line between cosplay war and actual war is blurred beyond apprehension and efficacy.

  • Peter Uka, Veranda Lovers, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 x 96 1/2".

    Peter Uka, Veranda Lovers, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 x 96 1/2".

    New York

    Peter Uka

    The FLAG Art Foundation
    545 West 25th Street 9th Floor
    March 12–June 4, 2022

    Peter Uka’s figurative paintings quietly sing. Music seems to emanate from each work via the twist of a dancing body, a subject’s unflappably cool posture, or a vibrant pattern on cloth. Music is represented in more literal ways as well, as we see in the vinyl 45s hung on a wall above an amplifier and turntable in Basement Barbers, 2018, or the three-piece band in Highlife (Funky Groove 2), 2021, who are barely visible behind an ecstatic crowd of dancers. Rhythm is an attitude in the exhibition “Peter Uka: Remembrance,” which nostalgically recalls the 1970s Nigeria of his early childhood, a time when the nation was forging its own identity after gaining independence from Britain in 1960.

    Each canvas contains an astonishing array of hues. In particular, Uka uses tangerine and lemon—as well as an emerald green and a vivid effervescent red—to forceful effect. The artist seems to pull from all regions of the color wheel with each composition, yet balances the tonal range with a keen eye and deft hand. Uka’s figures, whose skin and hair are rendered with a soft and loving delicacy, are perfectly situated in time with their bright period-appropriate fashions. Outfitted in platform shoes, butterfly collars, and flared trousers, his subjects reflect the boom years of the Nigerian economy, when oil revenues made the country prosperous. Yet the horrors of civil war and geopolitical instability do not lurk far behind, as we see in Veranda Lovers, 2021, a tableau that hints at the damaging impacts of economic policy on Nigeria’s stratified population. In this scene, a couple gaze at one another in worry while behind them the clamor of industrial forestry ensues. What we witness is not the delight and ease of tender affection, but the pain of imminent loss and an uncertain future.

  • View of “Mo Kong: Lounge of a Prophet,” 2022.

    View of “Mo Kong: Lounge of a Prophet,” 2022.

    New York

    Mo Kong

    Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space
    88 Essex Street, No. 21 inside Essex Street Market
    March 25–May 21, 2022

    Tucked between the intoxicating fumes of spiced tagines at Zerza Moroccan Kitchen and neat rows of dried Japanese goods at Ni Japanese Deli is Mo Kong’s presentation “Lounge of a Prophet” at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space. The close proximity of Asian and North African delicacies awakens ancient, reductive myths about the Orient inside the contemporary food bazaar that is Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—where the gallery is located—bringing forward the show’s main critiques.

    Beneath the exhibition space’s yellowed light, Kong has constructed what appears to be a modernist curio shop or fortune-teller’s parlor, replete with arched doorways and clean black surfaces at countertop height. Drawers of dehydrated produce native to Asia, such as dragon fruit and citron, incubate quietly behind a glass display. Strange devices whir with changing temperature and light. Herbaceous steam rises from cabinet orifices.

    The scents concocted from Asian ingredients in Kong’s work have typically induced repulsion or posed a racial threat to the existing white world order. Yet the artist’s embrace of innocuous-yet-disfavored odors does not suggest that the mere tolerance of racialized smells will extinguish anti-Asian racism. Instead, Kong’s utilization of the olfactory asks what kinds of racial animus suffuse domains outside of the visible.

    Kong’s built environment is inspired by the shape of the empty space between two lines in a graph that charts about a decade’s worth of economic and ecological collapse—a shadow realm that receives little attention yet seems to harbor equal parts romance and despair. Rather than flatten the curve as an antidote, the artist has extruded it so that we all may dwell in its queasy dimensions.

    Jars of fruits pickled by fictional company NEW YORKOOL—foodstuffs that the artist predicts will be endangered due to global warming and nationalist trade policies—interrogate a hypothetical solution to preserving “exotic” cultures. At once rejected and retained, prized yet disposable, the hermetically sealed, live-fermented foods epitomize what theorist Anne Anlin Cheng has called the process of racial melancholia in the United States. In an age of neoliberalism, tasteful branding and the theater of crisis come as a package deal. Hope you’re hungry.