Critics’ Picks

  • Lara Nasser, Tic, 2018, acrylic and oil on panel, 8 x 10".

    Lara Nasser

    Meredith Rosen Gallery
    330 West 34th Street
    July 20 - August 25

    The big three Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—don’t allow much in the way of humor. Lara Nasser’s exhibition “Half Ass” shrugs off the restriction. Her clumsy, kinky, and tablet-size paintings, with laconic titles such as Tic and Lump (all works 2018), commingle religious figures and cum shots from homemade Muslim porn films, among other things. The artist’s frequently dead-eyed subjects feel like the kinds of holy folk certain people find in sundry foodstuffs: the Virgin Mary in a potato chip, for instance, or Christ’s visage on toast. Nasser extracts the silly from the sacred, underlining that reverence is never too far off from ridiculousness. In the sculpture House Ruin, the artist depicts herself as Jesus, and in the interactive video installation EDBTZ, or Uncausing the Cause, she is a Zoltar-like clairvoyant. In this piece, “Who?” and “What?” are printed on tacky red buttons for visitors to push—as if they were props out of a game-show nightmare. Of course, Nasser’s fortune-teller responds with intentionally fruitless and grammatically incorrect messages—useless for anyone’s future.

    There’s also a shrine to the scrotum called Scratch and Sniff—it has a club-kid fashion vibe—featuring a fishnet stocking with a painting of the Son of God trapped inside. A brass disc strains the bottom of the stocking, making it look like a set of balls. Indeed, “Half Ass” scrambles the pecking order of power: Nasser makes sure that female sex workers mingle with sibyls while she buddies up with men of authority to troll the patriarchy. The artist makes orthodoxy and unsavoriness oddly comfortable bedfellows.

  • David Wojnarowicz, Susan Pyzow, and Paul Marcus, The Lazaretto: An Installation About the Current State of the AIDS Crisis (detail), 1990/2018, mixed media, dimensions variable.

    David Wojnarowicz

    P.P.O.W
    535 West 22nd Street Third Floor
    July 12 - August 24

    David Wojnarowicz’s ephemeral installations have long been the stuff of art-world legend. Take his “Cockabunnies,” elements of what the artist called an action installation. In 1982, Wojnarowicz let loose dozens of live roaches with glued-on bunny ears and tails at the opening of “Beast: Animal Imagery in Recent Painting” at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York (now known as MoMA PS1). The gesture was a kind of revenge for not being included in the exhibition, as well as a fantastic moment of guerilla comedy. Here, the gallery gives us objects, documentation, and re-creations of many of Wojnarowicz’s best-known but rarely seen installations: crowded and room-size works overflowing with detail that return to us the thrilling immediacy of the artist’s confrontational presence. (The show coincides with the major Wojnarowicz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which runs until September 30, 2018).

    In You Killed Me First, 1985, a large-scale photograph of a collaborative installation with the filmmaker Richard Kern, a decomposing nuclear family sits at a dinner of rotten food beneath a crucifix hanging on the dining-room wall, seemingly drenched with their own gory entrails. In the exhibition’s harrowing standout, The Lazaretto: An Installation About the Current State of the AIDS Crisis (another collaboration between Wojnarowicz and the artists Susan Pyzow and Paul Marcus), 1990/2018, the artist’s enemies of the 1990s culture wars—President Bush the first, Cardinal John O’Connor, and Senator Jesse Helms—are depicted in Klan robes, eating baby dolls. Visitors enter a maze made from black garbage bags that resemble body bags. On them are handwritten statements from a number of people and sources, such as real-life AIDS victims. The maze opens onto several rooms—one features a projection of a decomposing corpse lying on a bed next to an end table piled high with pill bottles. On the wall above, in what appears to be blood, the artist has scrawled an indictment of politicians and religious leaders for their murderous inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Wojnarowicz, who would himself die from the disease less than two years after the original work’s completion, created indelible art from his experiences of childhood abuse, homophobia, and illness. In keeping with his belief that exposing one’s suffering is a political act, this, Wojnarowicz’s final installation, brilliantly and persuasively recasts the private sickroom as the scene of a public crime.

  • View of “Katherine Bauer: Cinematic Death Moon Return: Impact Phase,” 2018.

    Katherine Bauer

    Microscope Gallery
    1329 Willoughby Avenue 2B
    July 20 - August 26

    The gallery visitor enters an enchanted forest of daturas (aka devil’s trumpets) and moonflower vines, which magically bloom in the night hours. Artist Katherine Bauer grew them in an upstate greenhouse this year. These plant species are often associated with shamans, witches, and lunar rituals. In alchemical literature, plants grown in moonlight are said to have transformational powers. Here, they intertwine—poetically, physically—with the history of cinema. Vine tendrils have laced themselves into the sprocket holes of 35-mm filmstrips suspended from the ceiling. They fall like astral rays from a giant film platter that evokes a lunar disc.

    The platter and bits and pieces from a large movie-house projector litter the floor. The artist rescued these mechanical parts from an abandoned upstate theater that refused to convert to digital. A silver projection screen taken from the theater is the backdrop for this living forest of celluloid strips, obsolete equipment, and assorted flora. Bauer made her rescue operation into a 16-mm short, The Vanishing Lady, 2018, a nod to the French filmmaker Georges Méliès, here projected onto a rear wall. The work shows actors playing Hollywood starlets and robed priestesses who float through the disassembled theater and over a nearby stream to perform mysterious rites. Bauer will enact similar rituals during the exhibition.

    This environment addresses the dissolution of film. Bauer makes us think of Méliès once more, whose works were destroyed to reclaim their silver nitrate. Silver is a metal connected to Artemis, the Greek goddess of wilderness—a nature spirit not too unlike the artist. Her exhibition is a commentary on the depletion of the earth’s chemicals since the Industrial Revolution and the inception of cinema. The artist enters the territory of Goethe’s naturalism and the philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s writing on plant energetics. Bauer’s installation is an enchanting meditation on death and resurrection.

  • Lutz Bacher, The Long March (detail), 2017, framed postcards, paint, dimensions variable.

    Lutz Bacher

    80WSE Gallery, NYU Steinhardt School
    80 Washington Square East
    June 21 - September 8

    NYU Barney Building: Einstein Auditorium
    34 Stuyvesant St
    June 21 - September 8

    The found collection of one hundred postcard-size photographs of Mao Zedong precisely framed and installed in Lutz Bacher’s The Long March (all works cited, 2017), on view at 80WSE, oscillates between portrayals of the revolutionary turned despot as an all-powerful leader and as an everyman who enjoys Ping-Pong, swimming, and a good smoke. Highlighting the parallels between advertising and propaganda, one portrait “captures” Mao smoking a cigarette in a wicker chair, a mountainous shoreline stretching out behind him. Hung on walls painted shades of gray that match the chairman’s dour suits, the soft-focus color photographs contribute to a cult of personality that feels quaint compared to the invasive and omnipresent nature of celebrity and politics today.

    Open the Kimono, a slideshow composed of notes scribbled by Bacher from radio, television, and passing conversations, is a companion piece that will be published in a forthcoming book. Presented in the lecture hall of NYU’s Barney Building, the digital “lessons,” as Bacher calls them, whir by so quickly that they are difficult to register in full. Instead, we are immersed in a barrage of snippets and phrases plucked from pharmaceutical ads, motivational infomercials, procedural dramas, and the endless patter of the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

    Both works consider how propaganda functions today, evoking the oversaturated media culture that propped up, and even created, our narcissistic president, whose proclivity for military strongmen is not incidental. The lessons amplify the numbing and cacophonous effect of so much noise and information. The Long March emphasizes the contrast between Mao’s highly orchestrated approach to his own image and the brand-dominant culture that provides a ready-made template for today’s authoritarian leaders—shit men in shit suits, to paraphrase one of Bacher’s notes.

  • Alberto Giacometti, Diego au manteau (Diego with a Windbreaker), 1954, painted plaster, 15 x 13 1/2 x 9 1/2".

    Alberto Giacometti

    Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York
    1071 Fifth Avenue
    June 8 - September 12

    “Giacometti” is no blockbuster, but this retrospective succeeds thanks to its modesty—much like the artist’s own. The sculptor found no mood, idea, or quandary that he could not render from a chunk of white plaster. No other modern relied so heavily on the old-fashioned stuff. One senses the art’s inner world of white, even before seeing the show’s photomurals of his famously disheveled and astonishingly narrow studio, where he also slept. He moved into the place at twenty-five and never left. He said, “It gets bigger every year.”

    As vivacious, pervy, and necessary as Alberto Giacometti’s surrealist pieces are to us today, he dismissed them entirely shortly after World War II, when he dedicated himself to working from life. The tide of recent Giacometti exhibitions and publications, and the 2017 biopic, also favor his work from sitters, in addition to the artist’s tales of “failure.” He likely would have been content to destroy everything he made, but his watchful brother Diego, his essential model (and his only mold-maker), saved some of the artist’s best pieces. A typical work modeled after his sibling—Diego au manteau (Diego with a Windbreaker), 1954, for instance—has a fist-size head with scored features, more scratched-in drawing than sculpture. Giacometti called his busts failures. They are ravaged, but for us they are miracles of presence.

    The camera certainly loved Giacometti. But looking at any picture of him at work, one notices that his models are frequently poor substitutes for the objects themselves. His sculptures are more of everything: articulate, present, alive. Gaze into a figure’s eyes: the thing is too true. A portrait from life? Perhaps the unblinking demon of life itself.

  • Ana Mendieta, Parachute, 1973, 1/2" reel-to-reel videotape transferred to digital media, black and white, sound, 7 minutes 9 seconds.

    Ana Mendieta

    Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art & Storytelling
    898 St. Nicholas Avenue
    October 12 - September 23

    The major facts of Ana Mendieta’s life and work are well established. She was born in Cuba in 1948. Her family, at odds with Fidel Castro, sent her to the United States when she was twelve. A program run by the CIA and the Catholic Church landed her in foster care. She studied painting but was increasingly drawn to performance. Her materials included mud, feathers, blood, and her own body. She moved to New York and joined the feminist AIR Gallery. She met the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, fell in love, and plunged to her death from the window of his apartment. She died at thirty-six but had accomplished so much as an artist—her work varied incredibly across a single decade—that her estate is still discovering new things: notably, three pieces dating from a little-known time in her life, when she worked as a school teacher in Iowa City and made her students’ capacity for imaginative play central to her practice.

    Those works—including the single-channel video Parachute and the sound piece Untitled (Soul), both 1973—form the core of this novel exhibition, “Thinking About Children’s Thinking.” In the wobbly black-and-white video, we see Mendieta’s students turning a parachute into a dome-like dwelling, as peals of laughter sound across the playground. In the grainy audio, we hear them speculating wildly on what the soul of a person might be. Elsewhere, Mendieta’s famous Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972, is presented, ingeniously, as a game of dress-up. Does all of this work as a show for kids? Not really. The museum’s security staff exerts too much control over their behavior in the space for them to have much fun. But as a refreshing approach to an all too tragic story, it opens up a world of possibilities for new scholarship and all-ages exhibition-making.

  • Chaim Soutine, Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925, oil on canvas, 55 x 42".

    Chaim Soutine

    The Jewish Museum
    1109 Fifth Avenue
    May 4 - September 16

    At the entrance to “Flesh,” a survey of Chaim Soutine’s meat still lifes, we are greeted by an oil on canvas of a dead rayfish (Still Life with Rayfish, ca. 1924), inspired by a Chardin painting. The titular creature hangs flag-like, facing the viewer with empty eyes and a wide-open mouth that wavers between song and scream—an ecstatic martyr for the dinner table.

    Like all of the paintings in this show, Rayfish reminds us that the pleasure of consumption relies on the pain and sacrifice of others—an understanding that should prompt us to give meals the solemnity of ritual they deserve. This is a simple message, but Soutine delivers it with exquisite beauty and force. Take the pair of fowl laid gently on a white tablecloth, as if on a silken casket veil (Two Partridges on a Table, ca. 1926), or the painting of three silvery fish on a plate, flanked by forks (Still Life with Herrings, ca. 1916); the entrée shimmers like the cutlery waiting to descend upon it. Soutine’s images of chickens have a decidedly Jewish inflection: Plucked and strung-up, the birds recall kapparot, a Yom Kippur tradition in which human sins are symbolically transferred to a chicken that is later killed in atonement.

    Yet the exhibition’s centerpiece is the beef—much like a hearty supper. One section features pictures of butchered cows and oxen, their exposed bones and innards a gruesome tangle of black, jaundiced yellow, and a lacquered red so deep it appears to have the stickiness and gleam of congealed blood. These images, especially Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925, are haunting. The slaughter is still fresh.

  • View of “Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms,” 2018.

    “Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms”

    New-York Historical Society
    170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street)
    May 25 - September 2

    On Juneteenth, Nikki Haley declared that the United States had left the UN Human Rights Council. You could see it coming. But to do it on that particular day, under the supercilious rationale that the HRC wasn’t “worth its name” because it has members “like China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela,” only served to underscore the US’s own past and present of slavery and torture, of cruelly separating parents and children.

    The still-emerging political project of human rights has been unfortunately stained by imperialist impulses, power-mongering, and greed. That truth quietly snakes its way throughout this sprawling multimedia extravaganza of a show, even as your heart breaks to be reminded—through Norman Rockwell’s signature style—of the utopist boilerplate rights language affirmed by FDR: freedoms of speech and worship, freedoms from want and fear. These tenets of classical liberalism were directly incorporated into the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt and a focus of the last room in this show. Was it all so easy then? Of course not. Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Wendy Brown have claimed in different ways what’s wrong with universal human rights, but I wonder what they’d say in the wake of this past Juneteenth.

    A thought: If the project of human rights can be reframed as a continuing goal of instituting legal obligations, then can it be rethought today as a radical project? Might this oversize exhibition prompt us to consider rights tactics that haven’t yet been approached (and not what is merely “under threat,” as some journalists have already argued)? And, as Trump abandons a long-standing US bipartisan tradition, to say nothing of the rule of law, is it a complete irony that while talking about compassion I don’t feel anything but murderous, bloodthirsty rage?

  • Bodys Isek Kingelez, Kimbembele Ihunga, 1994, paper, paperboard, plastic, various materials, 51“ x 73” x 10' 5".

    Bodys Isek Kingelez

    MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
    11 West 53rd Street
    May 26 - January 1

    There are three key moments that keep the legend of Bodys Isek Kingelez burning. One is when the Congolese sculptor—maker of intricate paper objects known as “extrêmes maquettes”—quit his job as a schoolteacher in Kinshasa and began making art, feverishly, from paper, scissors, a razor, and glue. The second came when a Kingelez sculpture arrived at the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaire. The staff there refused to believe he’d made it himself and demanded he create another one onsite. He did, and they immediately hired him as a restorer. The third was his participation in the 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the Earth), which catapulted Kingelez to international acclaim.

    His first US retrospective here turns on three similar moments, illuminating formal shifts in the work that subtly reflect changes in the artist’s life. Soon after “Magiciens,” Kingelez, who had been making singular buildings such as Allemagne An 2000 (Germany Year 2000), 1988, and Paris Nouvel (New Paris), 1989, began to construct entire cities, such as Kimbembele Ihunga, 1994, named after the artist’s birthplace. Some years later, he started incorporating lights and transparent materials, which give Ville de Sète 3009 (City of Sète 3009), 2000, for example, its majestic glow. And then, toward the end of his life (Kingelez died in 2015), he returned to the found packaging materials he began with, using mint boxes and lightbulb cartons in Nippon Tower, 2005.

    By turns playful and austere, rigidly chronological and blessedly open to what art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu has termed the artist’s “ecstatic imagination,” “City Dreams” moves lightly through thirty-three examples of Kingelez’s work. Lines of thought about colonialism, liberation, repression, health, and the realities of life that find welcome relief in utopian propositions arise naturally from the sculptures themselves. Curator Sarah Suzuki, whose accompanying catalogue is exceptional, deserves credit for lending astringent analysis to Kinglez’s context without ever dampening his magic.

  • Barbara Hammer, What You Are Not Supposed to Look At #5, 2014, chromogenic prints, Mylar, X-ray, collage, 23 x 26". From the series “What You Are Not Supposed to Look At,” 2014.

    “Multiply, Identify, Her”

    International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)
    250 Bowery
    May 23 - September 2

    This lively exhibition of ten artists contributing portraits, videos, films, and photocollages winds its way around two muses. One of them, the artist Laura Aguilar, who recently died, is nowhere to be seen—her work is not included in the show—but the spirit of her challenging self-portraiture (for some pictures in her 1996 “Nature Series,” Aguilar would fold her enormous body into the shape of a large rock in a landscape) was an explicit inspiration for the curator, Marina Chao, and Aguilar’s sense of identity as necessarily plural, complex, and polyphonic provides a spacious conceptual blueprint, into which all of the works on view can fit.

    The other muse, the legendary singer Eartha Kitt, is, by contrast, totally inescapable. You hear her even before you descend the stairs to the gallery where the show is installed, belting out the lyrics to “Angelitos Negros” (Black Little Angels), as part of Mickalene Thomas’s winning eight-channel video installation of the same name, composed in 2016. In Thomas’s work, you see original footage of Kitt performing in 1970 spliced with reenactments by three other women, including Thomas and her girlfriend Racquel Chevremont, all of them mimicking Kitt’s stormy presence to the point of blissful confusion.

    “Multiply, Identify, Her” comes nearly forty years after ICP staged its first plausibly feminist show, “Recollections: Ten Women of Photography,” in 1979, featuring works by Berenice Abbott, Nell Dorr, and Consuelo Kanaga, among others. Chao deserves credit for honoring that ancestral format while assembling such a wildly diverse group, including riveting collages by Geta Brătescu, Wangechi Mutu, Lorna Simpson, and Barbara Hammer, whose layers of self-portraiture (nudes with found X-rays from the series “What You Are Not Supposed to Look At,” 2014) are intense meditations on illness, fragility, age, and—à la Aguilar and Kitt—defiance.