Critics’ Picks

  • Bill Cunningham, Untitled, New York City, 1979–81,gelatin silver print, 10 x 8".

    Bill Cunningham, Untitled, New York City, 1979–81,
    gelatin silver print, 10 x 8".

    New York

    Bill Cunningham

    Bruce Silverstein Gallery
    529 West 20th Street Third Floor
    September 26–November 21, 2020

    For decades, many turned straight to the style section of the New York Times’ Sunday edition to pore over the vast arrays of tiny images the ubiquitous photographer Bill Cunningham shot at galas, at couture shows, at art galleries, and alfresco, celebrating the twin pillars of high and low society: fashion and fame. He had a knack for catching his comely subjects—whether the well-born and powerful or the chicest of the hoi polloi—unawares, mid-sentence, -gesture, -stride, and -kiss, imbuing his weekly offerings with the frenetic energy of the day.

    “New York, New York” is an ebullient show that focuses on Cunningham’s street photography, where he reveled in picking from the crowd what he discerned, often prophetically, as trends in style and culture, as well as the odd celebrity. Among the eighty-plus photographs featured here, we see punkish Mudd Club denizens, Keith Haring tagging a window, Central Park roller skaters, a leggy Pat Cleveland toting a Fiorucci shopping bag, a grinning blue-blooded school girl in white gloves, the deadpan stares of cabaret artists Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi, clusters of decked-out dowagers from the Upper East Side, and spiffy men in fur coats and leather trousers. These uniforms and poses, now relics of New York’s second Gilded Age, are loaded with references to social history. Bridging the generation gap is a beaming Anna Wintour—who often said, “We all get dressed for Bill”—framed by two men in black tie. In the spirit of Garry Winogrand’s 1975 “Women are Beautiful” series and Malick Sidibé’s exquisite portraits of elegant Malian nightclub habitués from the 1960s and ’70s, the best of Cunningham possesses a timeless joie de vivre, a reverence for personal expression, and a healthy dose of voyeurism.

  • Jonathan Lyndon Chase, lucky lovers, 2020, acrylic paint, spray paint, oil slick, and glitter on canvas, 72 x 60".

    Jonathan Lyndon Chase, lucky lovers, 2020, acrylic paint, spray paint, oil slick, and glitter on canvas, 72 x 60".

    New York

    Jonathan Lyndon Chase

    Baby Company
    73 Allen Street Suite 303
    September 9–November 21, 2020

    The viral ascendance of Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X’s SoundCloud-born breakout “Old Town Road,” a hip-hop production dyed with Western clichés, rode a resurgent fascination with rodeo aesthetics that permeated pop culture. Largely propelled by Black musicians such as Solange and Megan Thee Stallion, the “yeehaw agenda” (a phrase coined on Twitter in 2018 by the content creator Bri Malandro) stirred a media-wide discourse about the conservative, racialized gatekeeping of country culture that controversially resulted in the removal of Nas X’s hit from Billboard’s genre-specific chart. In a new installation of paintings, video, sculpture, and sound, the Philadelphia-based artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase continues that discussion by dissecting and democratizing one particularly fraught icon of Americana: the cowboy.

    Cum in (all works cited, 2020), a sculpture featuring a pair of shuttered saloon doors with the words “slow dancing” offset in slimy white cursive, welcomes visitors to the space. Paintings and neon hangings are arranged in a haphazard salon style and create the feeling that one’s happened upon a roadside bar—or perhaps a homosocial space for cruising. To that end, the canvas lucky lovers finds two men—one of whom wears a tall, square Stetson—rendered in a haze of thick pink strokes and entwined in a suffocating embrace. Its surface is marked by red, ovular drips: Are they gaping assholes? Open wounds? These forms spill over into another painting, the eye-catching Black Knight, in which a rider, seemingly fused to his stallion, is posed against an urban backdrop. The barrier between man and mount is nearly indistinguishable.

    Chase’s paintings are projections of personal fantasies onto historical ones. The cowboy is a symbol of masculinity, white and heterosexual, and his image often negates the stories of Black cattlemen who shaped the frontier. (By the end of the American Civil War in 1865, a third of cowboys were vaqueros, and roughly a quarter were Black.) Coupled with autobiographical works, including Babble, an installation featuring a chapel door with looped jabber that emanates from beneath it—a meditation on religion and queer shame—Chase seems to suggest that, at the heart of this reverie, there is something undeniably real.

  • Toyin Ojih Odutola, As He Watched Him Walk Away, 2020, colored pencil and graphite on Dura-Lar, 11 x 14".

    Toyin Ojih Odutola, As He Watched Him Walk Away, 2020, colored pencil and graphite on Dura-Lar, 11 x 14".

    New York

    Toyin Ojih Odutola

    Jack Shainman Gallery
    524 West 24th Street
    September 10 – October 2020

    Nigerian American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola is a master of the epic narrative. Her breakout 2017 solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art chronicled a marriage between two men from fictitious aristocratic families in Nigeria. And her debut exhibition in the United Kingdom, currently on view at London’s Barbican Centre, spins a yarn about a Nigerian autocracy run by female warriors who oppress male workers—a tale that spans forty sequential drawings and took the artist more than eight months to formulate prior to execution.

    In Ojih Odutola’s presentation here, the artist explores world-building on a more intimate scale. She relinquishes her elaborate aliases and sweeping mythologies to offer her viewers something less guarded: microfictions that imagine the inner lives of everyday Black subjects through exquisitely drawn, closely cropped portraits and short text panels. She made these vignettes during the Covid-19 lockdown, a period of mandated isolation during which, to an extent, human connection itself had become a fiction.

    The fundamental gaps in our understanding of others’ experiences—regardless of the quality of our communicative tools or the capaciousness of our empathy—lie at the heart of these open-ended narratives. In one picture, a text panel with a curt accusation—“YOU HAD SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL. WHY’D YOU HAVE TO GO AND FUCK IT UP?”—hovers by an image of a figure cradling a cell phone. Elsewhere, a portrait of a woman sleeping is paired with a written plea (which is also the show’s title): “Tell me a story, I don’t care if it’s true.” In another image, sans writing, a man covers his face with his hands in an empty landscape, moist patches of green abutting smoky strata of sky. His tale has now been placed, gently, in our hands.