Critics’ Picks

  • Alexis Rockman, The Rime, 2020, watercolor and acrylic on paper, 18 x 24".

    Alexis Rockman, The Rime, 2020, watercolor and acrylic on paper, 18 x 24".

    New York

    Alexis Rockman

    Sperone Westwater
    257 Bowery
    November 20, 2020–January 16, 2021

    The ghosts of humankind haunt Alexis Rockman’s new marine tableaux, executed in watercolor and acrylic on paper, at Sperone Westwater. In The Rime, 2020, a seagull glides before a foundering ship. Nearby, a billowing cloud of ocher and purple—the colors of forest-fire smoke and putrefied flesh—forms the visage of Death itself. Elsewhere, the empty wooden skiff in Lifeboat HMS Terror, 2020, floats unmoored on a gelid, blue-gray ocean, encircled by murky ice floes and polar bears. “Lost Cargo,” the title of Rockman’s exhibition, suggests the befuddlement of our own doomed species, and its extinction in the face of climate disaster. Wild fauna flourishes, while domesticated animals—a horse, some dogs—are adrift in the artist’s fabulous, post-apocalyptic settings, without a clue as to how to survive. Grand man-made edifices, such as the Taj Mahal and the Hagia Sophia, make their appearances as decaying memories.

    Rockman has been making imagined versions of the natural world and its gradual degradation for more than thirty-five years. Unlike the works in this show, his paintings are often sharply detailed and epic in scale and frequently merge the dark comedy of Hieronymus Bosch with the exquisite tenderness of a John James Audubon rendering. The artist’s water-based media react with one another and the paper to create blooming, otherworldly compositions cloaked in luminous mists and liquid shadows—each picture seemingly touched by acid rain. And even though his fable-like cautionary tales, strewn with symbolism and humor, are executed more loosely here, they remain, as usual, monstrously potent. Indeed, we’re unable to avert our eyes from Rockman’s nightmares, as he makes our creeping ruination so terribly entrancing.

  • Salman Toor, Bedroom Boy, 2019, oil on plywood, 12 x 16".

    Salman Toor, Bedroom Boy, 2019, oil on plywood, 12 x 16".

    New York

    Salman Toor

    Whitney Museum of American Art
    99 Gansevoort Street
    November 13, 2020–April 4, 2021

    Gaga, Carly, Robyn, Britney, and Madonna: I can almost hear Salman Toor’s paintings before I see them. Through their acidic green patina, anthems of glamorous loneliness seemingly emanate from the artist’s depictions of young, queer, Brown men, be they intimately gathered on a dance floor or smoking outside of a bar. The show’s title, “How Will I Know,” draws from Whitney Houston’s 1985 ode to crushing, and it casts a palpable air of longing and elation over everything. In Four Friends, 2019, the first painting you see upon entering the exhibition, two boys dance together in a small living room with flirtatious abandon, while two other boys, one of whom has his arm tenderly wrapped around the other, gaze into the cool light of a smartphone together.

    In Toor’s vignettes, we observe subjects grappling with the images they make of themselves, and the images that others make for them. Sometimes, this process is intimate and fun, as in Bedroom Boy, 2019, where a young man coyly takes a nude selfie in his boudoir; at other times, it is labor-intensive and tiring, as suggested by the terse smile of the pink-jacketed subject surrounded by a cloud of stylists making him up in The Star, 2019. For many queer people of color, the agency to fashion one’s own image is critical yet heavily policed. Indeed, several of Toor’s paintings address this. In another canvas from 2019, we see a pair of dejected-looking figures standing before a desktop rendered in dull gray—the official color of grim bureaucracy. The surface is strewn with personal items, such as a necktie and a sneaker. It seems as though the scene is taking place in an airport screening room—a scene of humiliation caused by some bigoted official’s notion that the two Brown men are security threats.

    I was drawn to the portrayal of diasporic queerness in Toor’s paintings. Tea, 2020, depicts a man who might be back home, visiting family. He’s standing in front of his ostensibly South Asian kin, likely getting peppered with uncomfortable questions from aunties and uncles. The moment is recognizable: It’s an encounter between a culture that you were born into and one that you chose, but neither of which captures all of the potential ways to be queer in the world. It feels vivid and full of possibility.

  • Roger White, May, 2020, oil on linen, 28 x 18".

    Roger White, May, 2020, oil on linen, 28 x 18".

    New York

    Roger White

    Rachel Uffner Gallery
    170 Suffolk Street
    November 13, 2020–January 30, 2021

    I could have stayed inside Roger White’s new solo show here until 2038. Or 2086. Or 2021. From canvas to canvas, time and how we contain, categorize, and dwell within it suffuse this stellar exhibition. There are paintings of lists; paintings of disposable food containers; a portrait of a pigeon; and one glorious fusion of moods that features a Decameron-era figure writing out what appears to be sex-room bot chat in a Late Middle Ages script. All of the works are modest in scale, unassuming.

    Three rectangular and vertically oriented pieces have been made to look like mass-produced flip calendars. Abstractions reminiscent of mid-career Willem de Kooning or early Gerhard Richter fill their top halves, while the bottom portions of two present numbered days and graphics for moon cycles in August 2038 and February 2086. Across from the February canvas hangs another calendar with the word May, sans year. Its lower half is blank, a speculative emptiness.

    Nothing in White’s world gets massaged too much: Faint pencil lines remain inside weekday quadrangles, and one senses the artist’s hand in his slightly imprecise renderings of different fonts. White’s muted palette and loose Photorealism in his pictures of clear plastic food containers recall the work of painter and sculptor Antonio López-García, but they pick up where he leaves off, riffing instead on the business of objects ultimately destined for the landfill.

    How do we pass time during a plague and in this late technocapitalist period? What keeps us, and how do we keep our interior lives intact? This is a show of palimpsests and science fictions (“No Coal, No Mars, No Americana,” reads one work). White’s paintings call to mind Michel Foucault’s famous invocation of Jorge Luis Borges’s encyclopedia in the preface to the French theorist’s 1966 book The Order of Things: “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous . . . .” If White’s images propose any system, it’s one that quivers with its own beautiful flaws, the very nodes for reimagining classification.

  • Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália, 1966–67, mixed media, dimensions variable.

    Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália, 1966–67, mixed media, dimensions variable.

    New York

    Hélio Oiticica

    Lisson Gallery | 504 West 24th Street | New York
    504 West 24th Street

    Lisson Gallery | 508 West 24th Street | New York
    508 West 24th Street
    October 30, 2020–January 23, 2021

    A well-manicured terrain of white sand and pebbled paths stretches across the cement floor of Lisson Gallery’s 504 West Twenty-Fourth Street location. A land mass made of gentle geographic curves, Hélio Oiticica’s islet is home to a trio of shed-like structures and clusters of large tropical plants in terra-cotta pots as well as hand-painted signs on wood and clay with delicate script. Two of the makeshift constructions possess walls crafted from variously colored fabrics, tarps, and boards. The one in the back of the space, however, is a cage housing two live macaws.

    Conceived in 1966 and completed in 1967, Oiticica’s architectural installation Tropicália was designed to manifest and critique his native Brazil. Stenciled letters inside the smallest of the three dwellings read, “a pureza é um mito” (purity is a myth). Aviary toys—ad hoc assemblages of wood and rope, not officially a part of the show—hang inside the pen. Nonetheless, looking within the coop, one might find formal relationships between the birds’ cubic, rough-hewn playthings and Oiticica’s shanties. Such resonances poke fun at our preconceived notions of picture-perfect, subequatorial paradises.

    How does Tropicália register in 2020, amid a global pandemic and the irreparable planetary havoc humans continue to wreak? Wandering into this part of the Oiticica exhibition, which occupies both of Lisson’s Chelsea locations, I felt like I’d come upon some end-time encampment, some premonitory locus for a new age exclusively populated by, per ecotheorist Donna Haraway, “critters”—e.g., microbes, plants, animals, viruses, or any other type of nonhuman life-form. I wondered about our man-made cardinal directions and how, despite such illusory systems of order, the earth might literally be shifting “south.” “The South is a political fiction constructed by colonial prejudice,” writes philosopher Paul B. Preciado. Oiticica’s art always possesses an edge with a Panglossian twist, an invitation to reimagine the ailing worlds we inhabit, to wander through the ruined labyrinth, and remake it with active play.

  • View of “TARWUK: Bijeg u noć,” 2020–21.

    View of “TARWUK: Bijeg u noć,” 2020–21.

    New York

    TARWUK

    Martos Gallery | New York
    41 Elizabeth Street
    November 13, 2020–January 23, 2021

    For their debut exhibition here, the Croatian-born artists Ivana Vukšić and Bruno Pogačnik Tremow—who work together as the collaborative entity TARWUK—present an astonishing assortment of drawings, sculptures, and paintings that interrogate trauma, violence, and loss. (Their name, according to the show’s accompanying text written by critic Bob Nickas, is “meant to signal an entwining of identity towards a common purpose: four hands, one mind.”) Per Nickas, TARWUK’s art calls to mind myriad sources, including dystopic science fiction (such as the 1982 movies Blade Runner and Road Warrior), the visceral phantasmagoria of H.R. Giger and Paul Thek, and, perhaps most significantly, the duo’s experiences living through the Yugoslav Wars, which started in 1991 and lasted for an excruciating ten years.

    The modestly sized tondo SIGIL_EngV.5 (all works cited, 2020), feels like a lunar deity, hovering close to the ceiling. Its nonobjective forms—a strange hybrid of Russian Constructivism and Orphic Cubism, rendered in dour browns and greens—are darkly hypnotic: eerie portents of things to come. The artists’ large, tenebrous paintings that line the walls feel like portals into ghastly dimensions. One exception, however, is the acrylic-and-oil MRTISKLAAHLux_Armor__Lucis.MARIO.0, a depiction of a mysterious, hermetic cosmos, festooned with a byzantine arrangement of esoteric figures and symbols. Compared to the other canvases, it seems lighter in mood, likely due to its intimations of otherworldly spirituality à la Hilma af Klint.

    KLOSKLAS_5T1ll43r3 and KLOSKLAS_divco/ZUBB32yeltenb are a pair of freestanding figurative sculptures that appear as though they were disinterred from an ancient charnel house. Built from an array of materials—such as aluminum, paint, plaster, polyurethane foam, detritus scavenged from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and human teeth—these fragmented bodies become the show’s sentinels, guarding the threshold between life and death, the past and the future, hope and despair. They seem like the survivors of a monstrous disaster; nonetheless, they are, surprisingly, quite tender.