Critics’ Picks

  • Susan Meiselas, Mitzi, Tunbridge, VT, 1974, silver gelatin print, 9 x 9". From the series “Carnival Strippers,” 1972–75.

    Susan Meiselas

    Danziger Gallery
    95 Rivington St
    January 11 - March 3

    Susan Meiselas took her first photography class when she was in her early twenties, studying at Harvard and living in a Cambridge boardinghouse on Irving Street. Her final project from the course, “44 Irving Street,” 1971, matched portraits of her neighbors with texts that described how they saw themselves in her pictures. The wild card in the series is Meiselas’s own self-portrait, double-exposed, a ghostly trace over a sturdy wooden chair. This is the first image you’ll see if you visit Meiselas’s blockbuster retrospective, up until May 20 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. And it’s the last image you’ll catch if you duck down into the reception area of this gallery, featuring a much smaller, piston-like presentation of Meiselas’s art: twenty-five photographs from her groundbreaking series “Carnival Strippers,” 1972–75.

    Meiselas spent four summers in the 1970s traveling through New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, meeting young women who made some kind of life stripteasing for small-town carnivals. This exhibition, bracingly relevant for work more than forty years old, emphasizes the portraits of the girls Meiselas got to know. Sometimes we get their names—Coffee, Carlisle, PA, 1975; Mitzi, Tunbridge, VT, 1974; or Sammy, Essex Junction, VT, 1974—while others are merely described as “the new girl,” or “the star.” The one recurring figure is Lena. We see her fresh-faced and bold (Lena on the Bally Box, Essex Junction, VT, 1973) or flopped down exhausted in bed (Lena in the motel, Barton, VT, 1974). We hear her in a pair of audio files, too: The grain of her voice slips from adrenalized to defeated as the seasons pass. “I’ve got a mind; I want to use it for myself,” she declares at a decidedly raw moment. “I want to be me; I don’t want to be anybody else.” At a time when a woman’s agency in the matrix of power needs serious thinking every day, Meiselas’s work here is necessary, thoughtful, and brave.

  • Tina Barney, 4th of July on Beach, 1989, chromogenic color print, 30 x 40".

    Tina Barney

    Paul Kasmin | 297 Tenth Avenue
    297 Tenth Avenue
    January 17 - March 3

    I found myself in the shoes of a voyeur, visiting Tina Barney’s landscapes here at night. Through the evening-lit gallery glass, the photographer’s frozen frames of summer looked more sinister than they had during a daytime trip. Her seemingly clichéd pictures of the seasons—as we see in works such as Drive-In 2017, Tennis Court, 1988, and 4th of July on Beach, 1989—are so obsessively formal that they bring out the shiver beneath nostalgia’s blush.

    Barney serves up an ice-cream headache—a sweet, saturated world in which one is constantly seduced by sumptuous details yet held at a chilly distance. But this only exacerbates the desire to enter the glistening reality of her prints. While the earliest work in the exhibition is from 1988, one would be hard-pressed to figure out the exact years all of her images were taken. Barney’s photos feel impossibly consistent. It’s as if linear time had collapsed into the blur of New England’s collective memory, a kind of whitewashed forever.

    A departure from Barney’s usual portraiture, the exhibition reveals a different aspect of the artist’s practice—one that’s focused on outdoor space and the way its beauty reflects our values. Of course, like all pretty things, nothing is as harmless or as luxurious as it seems, and in the artist’s landscapes one sees the way expectation laps away at the myth of the quaint Yankee beach town.

  • Peter Plagens, Six of One, 2017, mixed media on canvas, 84 x 78".

    Peter Plagens

    Nancy Hoffman Gallery
    520 West 27th Street
    January 25 - March 10

    Each one of Peter Plagens’s eleven abstract paintings and collages here can be regarded as trinities, made up of three visual elements that frame or obscure. Spaghettilike marks along the works’ perimeters jut and race about. They surround and jaggedly collide with flat inner plains of purple, gray, pink, or turquoise. At the heart of these works lie geometric units of blazing color, akin to tangram puzzles.

    Plagens, also an art critic, has said that he manages to keep his writerly tendencies out of his paintings. He is, however, not entirely successful. His images feel a lot like discussions—heated, whispering, tussling. One can palpably sense the distinctive components of a conversation in his pictures, as the works slip between coherent wholes and fluid parts. The more structured, central nuclei have a stabilizing effect and function as mediators between order and bedlam, the terrestrial and the cosmic. The expanses of singular color encircling these forms act as spatial vacuums, providing a calming pause for the eye to rest. Black Flag, 2014, and Six of One, 2017, are marvelous examples.

    Once an artwork is made public, the artist passes the baton of consideration and response to the audience. But when both maker and critic are manifest in the same person, we might expand our experiential apparatus. We are too well trained for seeing art. This exhibition—if we strain our ears as well as our eyes—permits us tantalizing access to a particularly intimate discourse.

  • Laurel Nakadate, The Kingdom #10, 2018, inkjet print, 3 x 5". From the series “The Kingdom,” 2018.

    Laurel Nakadate

    Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
    535 West 22nd Street Sixth Floor
    January 18 - March 17

    There is a different Laurel Nakadate on view in this exhibition. The woman here—no longer a catalyst in extreme social experiments, as she was in a number of well-known earlier projects—is a mother who reflects on her own family and personal history.

    In “The Kingdom” (all works cited, 2018), the series that gives the show its title, thirty-four digital photomontages depict Nakadate’s infant son inserted into vintage photographs of the artist’s mother, who died shortly after his birth. The little boy, traversing space and time, appears in a variety of scenarios: resting peacefully in his grandmother’s lap when she was a young bride, all in white for her wedding day (The Kingdom #2); or clutched to her chest in a picnic picture and flanked by her sun-kissed friends, her leonine face framed by a gorgeous mass of wavy hair (The Kingdom #10). Nakadate played a marginal role in the execution of these pictures—she hired anonymous digital artists to create them, with only one guideline: to make it look like her mother is always holding her grandchild.

    Executive Order 9066 features more photos of Nakadate’s happy and carefree son, but it is a deceptively buoyant piece: The 180 images in this work correspond to the days of her father’s detainment in a Hunt, Idaho, internment camp for Japanese American citizens. Many of these camps were erected after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor during World War II—just one example of vicious US xenophobia. Though the artist’s narratives unveil the tragedies within multiple generations of her family, they are nonetheless girded by the hope of new beginnings.

    Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

  • Isaac Pool, Starter Pack, 2017, ceramic and wire base, plastic cucumber, rubber band, lightbulb, eyeliner, mascara, and Heatherette for MAC lipgloss, 16 x 6 x 4".

    Isaac Pool

    Knockdown Center
    52-19 Flushing Ave
    January 13 - February 25

    “Good sister, bad sister / better burn that dress, sister / scar tissue blood blister / suck upon the dregs, sister.” The lyrics to this Hole song, from their unrelentingly rage-filled 1991 album Pretty on the Inside, are chanted like a spell by the actors in Isaac Pool’s object-play 40 Volume, 2016. The work stars four sculptures on pedestals (moved from the gallery into an adjacent black-box space for the performance’s two-night run). The characters, voiced live by actors, include a robust head of fennel—the diva—and three vases composed of tube socks suggestively encrusted with hair gel. The objects’ quipping exchanges, punctuated by a cappella renditions of songs by pop stars such as Mariah Carey and Billy Idol, reveal a complex but affectionate homage to femme fabulousness, shot through with class anxieties. (The title refers to a strength of hair bleach.)

    Pool’s aesthetic renews the codes of camp in ways that are both tender and aspirational. During the opening, Knockdown Center’s bar served a strange, Dorito-dusted, smoky cocktail containing mezcal and an alcoholic lemongrass-flavored kombucha, among other ingredients. His humble yet pathos-ridden works include Dorito Flag, 2016, a neon assemblage of stretch velvet and fringe—backlit by a fluorescent bulb—and The Promise, 2017, a piece that combines the minimalist Swedish brand Acne’s millennial-pink shopping bag with a plastic cookie and real zit medication. Pool’s sources range from JOANN Fabrics to MAC cosmetics, found religious fliers to faux cucumbers, all of which manage to channel loss and queer desire. They flesh out his poetic sensibilities with cribbed and coded language, amplified by Courtney Love’s raw yearning in the chorus of “Good Sister”: “I try but I can’t and / I want to so bad and . . .”

  • Kamrooz Aram, Ornamental Composition for Social Spaces #14, 2017, oil, wax, oil crayon, and colored pencil on canvas, 78 x 68".

    “Kamrooz Aram, Anwar Jalal Shemza”

    Hales Project Room
    64 Delancey Street
    January 24 - February 25

    Historically, the relationship between painting and decoration has been uneasy. Critics have long regarded the decorative as anathema to serious Art. It is precisely that contentious space that Kamrooz Aram probes, implicitly asking the audience to consider the values that we ascribe to categories such as ornament, design, painting, and architecture, which his work ultimately suggests are all inextricably linked. Two of Aram’s paintings here, Ornamental Composition for Social Spaces #14 and #15, both 2017, display layers of abstract gestures and figurative marks rendered in oil, wax, and colored pencil. He borrows floral motifs from Persian rugs, which appear both buried and partially revealed amid flurries of expressionistic smears and hard-edged forms, including the grid—a symbol of modernist painting’s aesthetic rigidity. Likewise, Aram’s visual references to Persian rugs address the summary dismissal of nearly all non-Western motifs as “merely decorative,” which begs the question of why the decorative is considered undesirable in the first place.

    While nods to Cy Twombly or Jo Baer are evident, the juxtaposition of Aram’s painting with aquatints by the older artist Anwar Jalal Shemza reveals further spheres of influence. Like Aram, Shemza grappled with simplistic readings of non-Western art forms, but at a time when politics were even more exclusionary. In 1956, when Shemza moved from Lahore to London, he was disillusioned to hear the storied art historian Ernst Gombrich relegate Islamic art to the realm of the functional. Shemza’s works in this exhibition engage with the legacy of European modernism—via soft pastels and repeating curvilinear forms à la Paul Klee—that also recall the visual rhythms of calligraphy and Islamic architectural designs. Shemza’s negotiation of these fraught cultural relationships illuminates a history that still drives Aram’s practice today.

  • Anna K.E., Intangible Economies of Desires (Knee #3), 2018, 3-D rendering, inkjet photo print, color pencil drawing, LED light, aluminum jalousie, glass, Plexiglas, rubber, wood frame, 70 x 60 x 4 1/2". From the series “Intangible Economies of Desires,” 2016–18.

    Anna K.E.

    Simone Subal Gallery
    131 Bowery 2nd Floor
    January 12 - February 25

    Anna K.E. is a former dancer, and her installation here suggests a kind of choreography, inviting the viewer to slip through and around, weave in and out. Many of her pipelike steel sculptures feature lightbulbs much like the orbs that illuminate New York City subway entrances. One descends from the ceiling, while others jut out at angles, creating an intricate web of architectural armatures for the viewer to navigate.

    Appended to these structures are small speakers, each emitting a distinct sound, from crying babies to adults speaking various languages. You feel as though you’ve stepped into a quirky jam session, a hellish daycare—the noises contrast sharply with the cool elegance of the sculptures. Aluminum blocks, coated in marzipan, are inscribed with mysterious texts. One of them, Manifestations Causing Digestions, 2018, reads, “Odorless fiction.” These blocks are ciphers, as intractable and opaque as the language in Marcel Duchamp’s short film Anémic cinéma, 1926, or the leaden, waxy materiality of a Jasper Johns.

    Images from a series of 3-D-rendered body parts wrapped in technological apparatuses line the walls (“Intangible Economies of Desires,” 2016–18). Some seem to depict shooting laser beams. The ink-jet prints are occluded in spots by transparent window shutters, blinking LEDs, and shiny metal frames, complicating the viewer’s perceptual encounter. K.E.’s exhibition is an idiosyncratic take on corporeality. The show is neither a didactic illustration of the “posthuman” nor a lament about technological alienation, but something fascinatingly in-between and utterly of the moment.

  • Kasper Bosmans, “Legend: Chip Log,” 2018, gouache and silverpoint on poplar panel, eight 11 x 8 1/8'' panels.

    Kasper Bosmans

    Gladstone Gallery | West 24th St
    515 West 24th Street
    January 18 - February 24

    Kasper Bosmans reinterprets selected relics to direct our attention toward the seemingly obsolete powers that conceived them. On a large wall, Ebstorf Map (life size) (all works 2018), is made up of three rows of ten panels that replicate the titular document. The original thirteenth-century mappa mundi, with Christ's face included at the top, illustrates more than mere geographic information. Here, the distance between each parchment expands the surface that the piece occupies, suggesting the map's purpose: to promulgate European dominion.

    Complementary to such a conquest were “chip logs,” wooden triangles with an arched side and a rope knotted at equal intervals attached to one face, which were meant to measure the speed of a vessel in a body of water. After tossing a log from the ship’s stern, sailors would count the number of knots on the rope that slipped through their hands in a given period of time. In T.O. Chip Log (Ebstorf), four chip logs are arranged to form a full circle, the only piece mounted on the Prussian-blue walls of the third and last room. Due to factors such as tides and currents, measuring speed with logs was never exact. Thus, control over the seacraft was always imprecise—but it was power nonetheless.

    By way of wall text, Bosmans has created rebus-like legends to guide the viewer through his work. “Legend: Chip Log” is a series of eight small paintings featuring clean, color-saturated icons both retrieved from the past and borrowed from the present. Although the iconography is mostly recognizable—apples, flags, spinning pinwheels, fleur-de-lis, hourglass cursors, castles, bombs, crowns—the connections between the figures are left undeciphered. Various historical contexts add a degree of unintelligibility to the paintings and prompt the question: What contemporary objects will serve as residues of power in the future?

  • Maryam Jafri, Where we’re at, 2017, wooden frame, books, vinyl, dimensions variable.

    Maryam Jafri

    Kai Matsumiya
    153 1/2 Stanton Street
    January 11 - March 11

    Maryam Jafri’s “War on Wellness” states that the wellness industry has polluted more than it has detoxed. The exhibition has resonance now that pseudoscience, in the form of climate-change deniers and flat-earthers, has become authority. If “wellness” only targeted the affluent, it would be a mere perpetrator of victimless crimes, no more dangerous than a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap—but it isn’t. It’s part of a nexus of unattainable dreams and delusions that have hijacked our best instincts toward ourselves and sold them to the almighty Oz.

    Self-care, 2017 is a toilet-paper roll made from a purple strip of yoga mat. It’s a surrealist object and a sculptural meme at the same time (one should not discount the meme as a critical strategy in a time when accepted methods of critique are too slow-motion for our current greenhouse of horrors). Where we’re at, 2017 is a wall-size functioning crossword puzzle/bookshelf of psychobabble, pop political science, and secrets-to-success books. It suggests that our problems, as defined by the prophets of false hope, are utterly solvable—not intractably social, physical, geographical, and economic.

    A prayer altar with a monitor showing an army captain teaching meditation to troops, (American Buddhist, 2016), is not a takedown of certain reflective practices. But it does underline that the possibilities of utopia through healing are thwarted by the fact that no self-improvement technique is morally neutral or divorced from our self-inflicted forces of destruction—regardless of how much water dribbling off polished stones is present. The work also points out that the wellness industry, by aping the forms of organized religion, is guilty of perpetrating similar abuses.

  • Thornton Dial, Ground Zero: Decorating the Eye, 2002, clothing, enamel, spray paint, Splash Zone compound, canvas, wood, 76 1/2 x 108 x 4".

    Thornton Dial

    David Lewis
    88 Eldridge Street Fifth Floor
    January 25 - March 18

    In the art of the late Southern painter Thornton Dial, the notion of “relief” leads in several directions. Along one path, it was the word used in his lifetime (he died in 2016 at the age of eighty-seven) to describe his wild assemblages on canvas and wood, which were so heavily piled with found objects, oils, paints, enamels, and other compounds that they reach out several inches from the wall. In another sense—for an artist who was dealing with some of the more abject horrors of the world and described his approach to history in terms of tilling the soil—“relief” also suggests a kind of reprieve. Dial busied his hands to find, for himself and his viewers, a way to be freed from violence, cruelty, injustice, and tragedy. His way was to give those things shape, color, texture, and depth.

    In the last thirty years of his life, Dial touched on the US-led invasion of Iraq, wildfires in California, the destruction of the World Trade Center, O. J. Simpson, and the legacy of the civil-rights movement epitomized by the 1965 protest marches in Selma, Alabama. This show, featuring seven paintings and one stand-alone sculpture, delves into the last three, most strikingly in Ground Zero: Decorating the Eye, 2002, which translates the smoldering site of mangled steel and charred remains into a lurid, almost sickly orange broken up by flower patterns and a little girl’s tutu. Even more brilliant, however, is the decision to match the seriousness of Dial’s “history painting” with his teasing of art history. In Art and Nature, 2011, a handful of paint cans appear to have been dumped over a pair of delicate ceramic vases, smashing one while leaving the other intact. Everything together signals art’s utter fragility but also its fighting spirit.

  • Jamian Juliano-Villani, Gone With the Wind, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96".

    Jamian Juliano-Villani

    JTT
    191 Chrystie St
    January 11 - February 24

    The last time Jamian Juliano-Villani staged a show at JTT, the canvases were so big and the gallery so small that viewers had to stand outside to fully see the works: sci-fi visions of sexed-up aliens and blasted moonscapes, both menacing and irreverent, like billboard ads for the apocalypse. This time, the space is bigger, the paintings are smaller and—more importantly—sparer. The restraint that characterizes these enigmatic, economical works marks a shift for the young New Jersey native, who gained early fame for phantasmagoric mash-ups of cartoon figures stretched like Silly Putty, stock imagery, logos, and memes in lurid acrylic: David Salle–esque pastiches for the Ren & Stimpy generation. Instead of splicing everything she’s got into each canvas, it feels as though Juliano-Villani is testing how much she can strip away while still achieving the psychotropic dread of her busier works.

    In Gone with the Wind (all works 2018), a cartoon fish gluts itself on Coca-Cola while a helpless-looking firefighter floats above burning California. October depicts an ash-choked Pompeian infant blowing across an empty school hallway. The linoleum floor is littered with shattered glass, in an eerie evocation of recent school shootings. Together, these works convey a loss of control, of entropy overriding security, idealism, and best-case scenarios. In Three Penny Opera, Juliano-Villani delivers her own late-capitalist critique: Cookie Monster, stretched to fashion-model proportions, sashays down a runway toting bulging Key Food shopping bags like so many designer duffels. One can see why the artist would relate to Brecht’s alienation effect; she too excels at rendering the familiar foreign.

    Lest we take these works too seriously, though, Juliano-Villani has also made an inane installation involving jokey, graffiti-covered canvases (“toys can’t hang,” reads one). The stoner humor deflects earnest engagement with the other, excellent paintings. Unnecessarily—those are plenty funny, and much more as well.

  • View of “LaToya Ruby Frazier,” 2018.

    LaToya Ruby Frazier

    Gavin Brown's Enterprise | Harlem
    439 W 127th St
    January 14 - February 25

    LaToya Ruby Frazier’s first show here is expansive, tenderhearted, and so cleverly slotted across three large floors of ascending exhibition space that you might actually laugh out loud when you arrive at the uppermost landing and realize the paces you’ve been put through to get there.

    On the ground floor, the looking is tough and requires real work. Frazier’s “Flint Is Family,” 2016–17, made up of twenty-four photographs, follows three generations of women—mother Renée, daughter Shea, and granddaughter Zion—as they course through the horrors of the Michigan water crisis, in which a toxic combination of government disregard, corporate greed, and crumbling infrastructure exposed the residents of a largely poor, black town to devastatingly high levels of lead in their drinking water. The pictures wind through the gallery alongside a twelve-minute video (also titled Flint Is Family, 2016) and 1,364+ Days Undrinkable, 2016–17, a mural made up of twenty-five prints.

    Your reward for all that is the more familiar territory of the second floor, where twenty-eight images from Frazier’s best-known series, “The Notion of Family,” 2001–14, line the walls. Here, moments of extreme intimacy tangle into another story of industrial failure and economy in free fall. And then, the top-floor finale, “A Pilgrimage to Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum,” 2016–17: thirteen gorgeous, large-scale photographs of the late artist’s outdoor museum in Joshua Tree, California, all of them majestic portraits of his incredible junkyard assemblages. Frazier once described her own work as a spiral, spinning out from the home to the street and beyond. In this show, her work takes on a different shape, that of an almost spiritual elevation, suggesting that the path to enlightenment runs, by necessity, from community service and a commitment to social justice, through extremely empathic observation, until you reach a roomful of wondrous art that is all the more gratifying for the climb.

  • Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square: Consent, 1947, oil on Masonite, 16 x 16".

    “Josef Albers in Mexico”

    Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York
    1071 Fifth Avenue
    November 3 - March 28

    Josef Albers’s series “Homage to the Square,” 1950–76, oil paintings of the titular form in three or four colors on Masonite, are icons of modern art—printed in textbooks, on posters, and, in the 1980s, on US postage stamps. We are familiar with these works. We have memorized their contours. We have learned the principles of color theory and geometry they make manifest. And yet, what remains exceptional about them is precisely what we cannot immediately perceive—the infinity of reactions their disarmingly simple designs cause. What will lingering in front of an Homage piece make us see, and how it will make us feel? Will the squares nest inside one another, as in a set of Russian dolls? Or will they expand out toward us, like an accordion in play? Will they make us serene? Alarmed?

    This exhibition, pairing the artist’s paintings with photographs he took in Mexico, hints at even more of what lies in wait beneath these cool exteriors. He and his wife, textile artist Anni Albers, saw an attentiveness to form in pre-Columbian design similar to their own aesthetic principles, and took frequent trips to Mexican architectural ruins from the 1930s on. Might Josef’s squares be about the vertiginous sensation of gazing up at ancient flights of stairs? Or how the sunlight curves over intricate and labyrinthine stonework patterns?

    No cultural translation is neutral, and the Albers’ zeal for all things Mexican can feel fetishizing or appropriative. But this in and of itself is part of what makes “Josef Albers in Mexico” tick. Are Josef’s squares original? Are they “modern”? The exhibition prompts these questions and more.

  • View of “Cathy Wilkes,” 2017–18.

    Cathy Wilkes

    MoMA PS1
    22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue
    October 22 - March 11

    The air is cold and heavy with desperation: Witness the tattered cloths, the dirty dishes. A 2006 painting with an overturned saucer affixed to its jejune surface spells out its title in thin pencil strokes: “She’s pregnant again.” The piece is a womb and a void. Look at the children: Their legs are thin or absent, their toys worn, shredded (see the brown Beanie Babies bunny whose velvety ears lie a little too close to that tarnished Swiss Army knife, in Non Verbal, 2005/2011). Their TV is turned off, with a faded red towel thrown on top of it—did it put out a small fire? Cathy Wilkes’s show is full of sparks, both deadened and vibrant. Life is glimpsed through assemblages of used and abused containers, discarded items, and household goods.

    But the kids can still draw and write: “All things were made by it and without it was not anything made that was made,” says a carefully transcribed passage on wide-ruled paper in a youthful hand (Untitled, 2017). It’s part nonsense, part faith—a story about creation that rhymes without reason. And Wilkes eschews reason. She intends for her work to be experienced as a vast mystery, unfolding as a kind of maternal detachment. Mannequin mothers stand stiffly in ripped stockings, float above dead nettles, dance while possessed by some cleaning routine, or sit hunched over an alcohol bottle while the young ones watch hungrily nearby. In their wake are those fragments of narrative—crusty residues, shards of mirror—rearranged and broken again for this haunting retrospective.