Critics’ Picks

  • View of “Heidi Lau,” 2022. From front: Receptor, 2022; Weightless Mountain, 2022.

    View of “Heidi Lau,” 2022. From front: Receptor, 2022; Weightless Mountain, 2022.

    New York

    Heidi Lau

    Green-Wood Cemetery
    500 Twenty-Fifth Street, Brooklyn
    May 7–July 3, 2022

    The catacombs of this urban cemetery are above ground, tunneled into a hillside in the 1850s, perhaps to allay Victoran-era fears of being buried alive. It’s in this clammy space assuring eternal rest that Heidi Lau has embedded a sculpture garden that nimbly bridges the terrestrial and the celestial. Her craggy, porous ceramics are hand built with archaic flair, as if hewn by wind and water. They recall spirit stones or scholar’s rocks: bones of the earth endowed with primordial energies. Some of Lau’s works reach for the mausoleum’s skylights; others cast moody penumbrae as they dangle from the ceiling via chains, suspended in gothic limbo. Like fossils they insist that, indeed, nothing is permanent.

    The astounding intricacy and volume of these works—many cloistered within a dozen or so dynastic vaults—reflect Lau’s yearlong residency at Green-Wood. Perhaps never before in the cemetery’s 184 years has it been so thrillingly haunted, and by East Asian apparitions: Lau, drawing on Taoist mythologies, conjures vestiges of spirits with staying power. Exquisitely creepy vertebrae trail from her ceramics’ petrified surfaces. Vacant faces materialize, camouflaged by glazes that adeptly meld the qualities of oxidized metal and tar. More conspicuous are the elfin hands that scrabble across this alien patina, as if in gradual self-creation. Surrounded by the dead, this animism goes beyond ancestral tribute. Lau frames the tomb as a transitional space, perhaps to remind us of the slippery boundary between personhood and objecthood.

    Accompanying text notes that roaming Green-Wood evoked for Lau memories of her late grandfather’s garden in Macau, and that Chinese gardens are “a metaphor for time, space, and our place in the cosmos.” These distant landscapes translate, improbably, to the catacombs’ spartan interior. We cycle through vaults to visit Lau’s creations, always returning to a central corridor: a flow that generates introspection and a surprising sense of play. That these sculptures, along with the sheer novelty of exploring typically locked burial chambers, don’t compete for our attention is a mark of the artist’s attunement to the potencies of objects and to sites of remembrance. By the exhibition’s early days, spiders, too, had come, finding equilibrium in the pits of new shrines.

  • Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, 1980, gelatin silver print, 8 x 10". From the series “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80.

    Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, 1980, gelatin silver print, 8 x 10". From the series “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80.

    New York

    Cindy Sherman

    Hauser & Wirth | East 69th Street
    32 East 69th Street
    May 4–July 29, 2022

    More than forty years ago, Cindy Sherman debuted “Cindy Sherman,” the polymorphous persona that, since then, has been the artist’s primary subject: a reflection not only of herself, but also of mass culture’s often strange and troubling depictions of women as a whole. The seventy photographs from Sherman’s 1977–80 “Untitled Film Stills” series are part of an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth that examines some of her earliest forays into self-portraiture. Of course, as familiar as these works—and the cinematic tropes they mine—have become, they never fail to unsettle. Take Untitled Film Still #7, 1978, in which the artist transforms herself into a louche Las Vegas type, leaning awkwardly out of a sliding glass door dressed in a white slip holding a cocktail glass and adjusting her garter belt; or Untitled Film Still #58, 1980, where she’s a resolute-looking heroine in a black wig and scarf, standing before a high-rise while staring fearlessly out of the picture, beyond the viewer’s gaze; and Untitled Film Still #53, 1980, in which Sherman, disguised as an elegantly made-up and coiffed character resembling Princess Diana, peers disconcertingly to her left. The shape of the glass torch lamp behind her humorously echoes her round hairstyle, while the background light forces her face into a veil of shadow.

    On the one hand, Sherman’s pictures reside in the playacting tradition of great Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; in the revolutionary identity-shifting oeuvre of Surrealist Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob (aka Claude Cahun), and even the searing confessional self-portraiture of Francesca Woodman. On the other hand, Sherman’s groundbreaking significance truly emanates from how her work subverts the premise that photographs can be trusted as sources of truth. The idea that a photo is rarely what it says it is because it represents a conceit and not a certainty was radical decades ago (and exquisitely articulated by Susan Sontag in On Photography [1977]). Some people who saw Sherman’s works when they were first exhibited claimed they actually knew the films the images were ostensibly based on—but that was her art playing its clever games on their highly mediated memories.

    Sherman’s “Stills,” with their onion-like layers of meaning, questioned the veracity of even the most compelling and honest pictures being made at the time by street-photography luminaries such as Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. These small, rich, and surprisingly demure prints (all eight by ten inches, like old Hollywood headshots) were originally hung in downtown Manhattan galleries while the perfectly produced, overbearing billboard-size portraits and still lifes of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn—seductive images informed by the exaggerations and lies inherent in advertising and fashion—were being displayed uptown. Today, Sherman’s early works seem as important as ever, demanding of us much more than the glossy fictions she makes fun of, insisting that we look carefully at our sources and read between the lines.

  • 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.