Critics’ Picks

  • Michael Buthe, Untitled (Landschaft), 1987/88, acrylic on canvas with tree branch, 50 x 182 x 30".

    Michael Buthe, Untitled (Landschaft), 1987/88, acrylic on canvas with tree branch, 50 x 182 x 30".

    Michael Buthe

    Alexander and Bonin
    47 Walker Street
    March 3–August 14, 2020

    Richter, Polke, Kiefer. . . Why not Buthe? Though he shared their protean quest to reinvent the role of the German artist, Michael Buthe’s star, fast-rising and once dazzling, has faded considerably over the years. Perhaps it’s because his greatest triumph—his eccentric mystique, which the artist worked hard at cultivating and lavished upon his ephemeral, room-size exhibition-environments—is so difficult to summon today without Buthe himself, who died in 1994 at the age of fifty. As he said, “There is no art, only life.” This small survey—a reversal of that claim—makes a case for a complicated figure who, in his efforts to self-canonize, can feel simultaneously behind and ahead of his time.

    Soon after first gaining attention as a student with a series of slashed-canvas sculptures, some of which were included in Harald Szeemann’s landmark exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), Buthe traveled to Morocco, a transformative spiritual experience. He began to split his time between Cologne and Marrakech, painting gold-flecked abstractions steeped in shamanism and the occult. In the 1980s, Buthe expanded his mythology by employing a Rauschenbergian approach to his surfaces, incorporating whatever was around: coffee filters; famous faces clipped from magazines; or, as in Untitled (Landschaft), 1987/88, large tree branches. For Steine (48), 1991/92, the artist applied acrylic in blistering colors over a photograph of a stone, an allusion to the martyrdom of thirteenth-century Christian mystic Ramon Llull. Like Anselm Kiefer, Buthe was a bricoleur of ritual and rupture, his intimate encounters with history often conflating the kitsch with the consecrated. This tension erupts in an uneven late style characterized by galactic swirls and Kusama-esque dots: See Untitled, 1989/93, which fills an entire wall and puts one in mind of a busted kaleidoscope. Such things will not convert you, but they do remind us to remain open, wherever we are and while we still can, to astonishment.

  • View of “Daniel Canogar: Billow,” 2020.

    View of “Daniel Canogar: Billow,” 2020.

    Daniel Canogar

    bitforms gallery
    131 Allen Street
    April 22–August 16, 2020

    Daniel Canogar’s sinuous, ripple-like sculptures emanate colorful LED light in “Billow,” his solo exhibition here. It’s no accident that his bending architectural forms mimic hills, valleys, and mountains: Their slumbering shapes make the works’ cascading waves all the more hypnotic. As time passes, unexpected color shifts arise. Rich Prussian blues turn turquoise, only to be invaded by swaths of lemon yellow. Periodically, eroded alphabets also course along their curves, mingling with abstracted tints and tones. Outside bitforms gallery’s windows, passing cloud formations cause subtle modifications in interior lighting—various glows illuminate black walls. 

    The animations embedded in Canogar’s five soothing sculptures here are made from data, culled in real time vis-à-vis current Google trends. Hues morph depending upon how hot or viral a topic is. What initially seems like an unholy marriage of digital Color Field painting and swirling neo-geo aesthetics is in fact based in information: meaning-filled flows of capital, algorithmic interests, and fleeting popularity. The matter of media luminosity is never exclusively optical, and in the case of Canogar, patterning plays with the political economy that underpins our incessant internet rifling.

    That my first in-person viewing of an exhibition in four months was occupied by digitized data wasn’t lost on me. Thermal cameras came to mind as I stared at the sculptures’ murky edges, as did a recent article on how infrared tech might spot sick people in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. I couldn’t help but think that these pieces might be taking our temperature. And in a way, they do, as they’re synchronized to capture the world’s collective interests while fashioning an imprint of our transitory interior. What “billows” here isn’t simply a lush cybernetic landscape. The rare word that reveals itself in the works’ inky stenography—such as “policy” or “chemotherapy”—surfaces like a subtle rumor or hidden agenda. In the end, biometrics are biopolitics.

     

  • Gaku Tsutaja, Spider’s Thread Daily Drawings Day 11: 230 Million Dollar Village, 2020, sumi ink and graphite on canvas, 11 x 14".

    Gaku Tsutaja, Spider’s Thread Daily Drawings Day 11: 230 Million Dollar Village, 2020, sumi ink and graphite on canvas, 11 x 14".

    Gaku Tsutaja

    Ulterior Gallery
    172 Attorney St
    June 24–August 9, 2020

    If recent months have taught us anything, it’s how deeply entangled our lives are with others across the globe—revolutions and microbial pathogens can sweep through continents, propelled by social media and airborne particles. Gaku Tsutaja’s current exhibition here addresses this interconnectedness, ensuring us it’s nothing new. When the pandemic hit, Tsutaja was researching the Manhattan Project and its devastating nuclear impacts, in Japan as well as the Native American homelands, portions of which have been co-opted by the United States military as test sites. Illustrating a butterfly effect of consequences across space and time, her densely symbolic paintings and drawings have only become even more timely amid current events.

    On the gallery’s website are two majestic sumi ink and charcoal paintings. Both Spider’s Thread: This Landscape and Spider’s Thread: That Story (all works 2020) are packed with allusions to aerial bombings, toxic pollution, and collective states of fugitivity and loss. The tableaux are set in Sanzu-no-Kawa, the mythological Japanese “River Styx,” envisioned as a landscape marred by nuclear fallout. The translucent leg of the titular arachnid descends from above in each picture, piercing through its narrative layers. 

    Tsutaja also produced forty-seven drawings, created under quarantine and posted virtually on several of the gallery’s social media platforms throughout the show’s run. These function like a filmic storyboard for her larger works and make space for the viewer to engage as active witness to each imagined episode. In Spider’s Thread Daily Drawings Day 11: 230 Million Dollar Village, an enormous hand places a small workhouse into an architectural model of the Hanford Site, a nuclear production complex in Washington state that was fully deactivated in the late 1980s. In Spider’s Thread Daily Drawings Day 10: Intruder, we join a group of zoomorphic characters styled as members of the Wanapum tribe, who were forced off their land by the US when Hanford was being erected. And in Spider’s Thread Daily Drawings Day 12: The Birth of a Monster, we look up across a cavernous laboratory, where a spherical creature—a kind of mutated, engorged virus or chrysalis—looms over our heads. With spindly, threadlike limbs, it hangs delicately from the ceiling, like a bomb about to drop.

  • Alan Prazniak, Interlude, 2020, oil on canvas, 24 x 30".

    Alan Prazniak, Interlude, 2020, oil on canvas, 24 x 30".

    Alan Prazniak

    Geary
    208 Bowery
    Online exhibition

    “Modern Country,” Alan Prazniak’s second solo exhibition here—reconfigured, of course, for virtual presentation—is an exploration of landscape painting that merges the classical with the hallucinatory. The show is accompanied by a video of the artist’s studio that features him flipping through assorted sketches, with details of the seventeen oils on view. We get a sense of the canvases’ relatively modest scale through a shot of several hanging together, salon style. In a voice-over, Prazniak posits that a painter’s mission is “to get lost.” Indeed, his restless, searching hand visibly scales every inch of these pictures, resulting in works that engage and extend observation, making you crave the intimacy of examining them in real life.

    Interlude (all works 2020) is a wispy wet-into-wet image featuring a distant sun, rolling hills, a pond, and blades of grass. Although formally and chromatically ascetic, it is nonetheless activated by the artist’s vivid paint application, which, at various moments, can be buttery, viscous, wan, and even luscious. The picture plane of The House of the Orchard is kinetic yet contained, built from wonky geometric forms. A bird, a wolflike creature, and a single floating flower are rendered as flat decorative motifs that flank a nighttime scene at the heart of the piece, which suggests a portal into an untamed elsewhere.Gradual Stone is agitated, ominous: It depicts a billowing and heavily impastoed smoke cloud rising from a small site on a scumbled horizon. The sky is tinted orange and roiling with churning brushwork. Landscape is Prazniak’s subject matter, but so is oil paint, which he employs with great skill, emphasizing its physicality and versatility. Although the artist’s wandering takes place on the surface of the canvas, he pulls us deep into the construction of each tableau and its seductive, inscrutable pleasures.