Critics’ Picks

  • View of “Cameron Rowland: Deputies,” 2021.

    View of “Cameron Rowland: Deputies,” 2021.

    New York

    Cameron Rowland

    Essex Street/Maxwell Graham
    55 Hester Street
    May 1–June 19, 2021

    The dehumanizing logic that regards Black people as equivalent to property was most legibly enshrined in the institution of chattel slavery, but this order of racial domination persisted after abolition and remains indelible in property relations today—albeit in more diffuse forms. But regardless of its degree of abstraction, this brutal arrangement has always been secured by the force exerted upon predominantly poor Black populations by the police.

    In “Deputies,” Cameron Rowland considers enforcement, an inexorable feature of racial capitalism, through a charged presentation of readymade objects. Lynch Law in America (all works 2021), a blue-light emergency-call tower—ubiquitous on university campuses all over the US—stands dormant. The structure is a conduit through which white citizens wield state power against Black people, firmly in the tradition of the murderous statutes after which the piece is titled. Nearby are five TrunkTracker V UHF radio scanners for all of New York’s boroughs. One of them is routed into a speaker; intermittently, the crackling sound of a dispatcher’s voice pierces the gallery’s air.

    Two nineteenth-century Chatillon cotton scales, each one titled Price per pound, hang on the north wall of the exhibition space, directly evoking the plantation. In profile, they also look like muskets: The empty mounting hooks attached to the scales resemble a gun’s trigger. The manufacturer’s engraved brand preens with the legitimacy of capitalist enterprise; indeed, a number of the works here bear some sort of wordmark or logo. Their authoritatively ordinary appearances are inextricably tied to the violence they perpetuate.

    The exhibition’s coda takes the form of five benches surreptitiously placed in Manhattan’s Seward Park, which is a short walk from the gallery. They are indistinguishable from other benches nearby except for the fact that they aren’t bolted down. Each one is titled after an unmarked Black burial ground in the city, all of which have been built upon through development. These works have a memorial function, mourning Black lives destroyed by America’s racist structures. But a thread of potential reprisal is woven into the sadness, as Rowland designates the seats as sites “for resting or remembering or plotting.”

  • Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Dispersal, 2019, Virginia tobacco, Perique tobacco, thread, seed pods, support stocking, and found pole, 43 x 14 5/16".

    Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Dispersal, 2019, Virginia tobacco, Perique tobacco, thread, seed pods, support stocking, and found pole, 43 x 14 5/16".

    New York

    Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill

    MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
    11 West 53rd Street
    April 25–August 15, 2021

    In 1941, the exhibition “Indian Art of the United States” filled New York’s Museum of Modern Art with Indigenous works in order to transform their status from curios or ethnographic specimens to fine art. Eighty years later, the Métis artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill had a double-height wall in MoMA rubbed down with fresh tobacco leaf—when I was there, a few sweet-smelling particulates escaped the gallery’s filters and lingered in the air. Hill’s exhibition, her first solo institutional presentation in the United States, is also the first by an Indigenous woman at the museum’s Fifty-Third Street location. Tobacco is her primary theme and material, and here she stuffs, sews, and infuses it into collages and soft sculptures that intertwine the plant’s contrasting meanings within colonial and Indigenous value systems.

    Five large flags—two of which, Disintegration and Dispersal, both 2019, are sewn from dried and cracking tobacco leaves—gesture toward recognizing Indigenous sovereignty. The flags’ proportions are based on those of the US dollar bill and call to mind tobacco notes, which were among the earliest forms of paper currency in the British North American colonies. Hill emphasizes the economic and political histories of the plant over its ceremonial and spiritual uses, but the artist also examines her medium’s role within alternative Indigenous economic systems rooted in kinship, exchange, and gifting. Thirteen of Hill’s Spell drawings, which she began making in 2018, are coated in tobacco-infused Crisco and adorned with various items, including magazine cutouts, charms, and wildflowers; the artist has given some of these pieces to friends and used others for trade. Two pairs of nylons packed with ground tobacco, Exchange and Kiss, both 2019, are arranged like kneeling human legs on plinths. A group of rabbit sculptures has been created from similar materials: Some of them have beer-can tabs for eyes, and one even has a cigarette spine. Rabbits have often been used to represent women in overtly sexualized ways (think of the terms ski bunny and beach bunny, or the Playboy brand), but for Hill they symbolize the labor of reproduction and fecundity. By referencing Indigenous life ways in these sculptures—such as rabbit trapping, which tends to be characterized as female work within Indigenous communities—Hill honors economic models that are expansive, generous, and powerful.

  • Matthew Wong, The Performance, 2017, ink on rice paper, 34 1/2 x 28".

    Matthew Wong, The Performance, 2017, ink on rice paper, 34 1/2 x 28".

    New York

    Matthew Wong

    Cheim & Read
    547 West 25 Street
    May 5–September 11, 2021

    For artworks whose acclaim has continued to grow since their maker’s suicide in 2019—and whose work is often framed by this terrible event—Matthew Wong’s ink-on-rice-paper drawings emphasize a vibrant dialogue between his external influences and his interior life and crucially expand the conversation around his work. The exhibition here foregrounds Wong’s interest in Chinese landscape painting, which proves a rich subject that helps illuminate the artist’s sensitivity to the world before him.

    To call Wong’s work haunting is easier than to notice those moments of formal inventiveness and play where splashes of black ink or their omission create portals that tease a point of entry. Where Did the Time Go? and Inside the Flower Cave (both 2016) rely on circular shapes: In the former, nested in an irregularly crosshatched field, the opening appears empty; in the latter, it becomes an inwardly swirling, linear void against a blank background. Seeing the pictures side by side complicates our sense of coming or going. Nearby, in The Performance, 2017, another oval encircles a figure that is seen from behind. Here, Wong’s attentive composition and varied application of ink lends the image a sense of tranquility that seems both dissociative and enchanting. In this piece and others, the artist’s evocation of mountains, leaves, and water blurs the boundary between where one sensation begins and another ends. 

    Wong expresses psychic pain in his art with an exquisite tenderness. But “Footprints in the Wind, Ink Drawings 2013–2017,” the exhibition here, offers one something perhaps even greater: an encounter with an expansive consciousness that was committed to conveying the vast and oceanic feeling of being alive.

  • View of “Rindon Johnson: Law of Large Numbers: Our Bodies,” 2021.

    View of “Rindon Johnson: Law of Large Numbers: Our Bodies,” 2021.

    New York

    Rindon Johnson

    SculptureCenter
    44-19 Purves Street
    March 25–August 2, 2021

    Whether lurking in corners or suspended above courtyards, Rindon Johnson’s artwork meets the viewer in unexpected places. Paired with deliciously poetic and stream-of-consciousness titles, his anarchic forms spill across SculptureCenter, suggesting a largeness that cannot be contained. The artist’s solo exhibition here, “Law of Large Numbers: Our Bodies,” luxuriates in our ache for corporeal freedom by throwing two topics into tension: first, the titular law of large numbers, a mathematical theory holding that as an experiment’s sample size grows, its average will inch closer to its expected value; and second, the seminal feminist publication on women’s sexual and reproductive health Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971).

    Johnson’s material vocabulary contests algorithmic principles to revel in the malleability of the body. The enormous sculpture Coeval Proposition #1 Tear down so as to make flat with the Ground or The *Trans America Building DISMANTLE EVERYTHING, 2021–, hijacks San Francisco’s famous edifice and monument to capitalism by envisioning a site of infinite possibility for trans people. Mapping his body onto a version of the tower, Johnson has darkened, or “ebonized,” the structure and stripped it of floors, walls, and ceilings. What’s left is an open container that seemingly expands in every direction. Coeval Proposition #2: Last Year’s Atlantic, or You look really good, you look like you pretended like nothing ever happened, or a Weakening, 2021, is a floor-based digital projection that utilizes real-time portrait-animating software to upend the meaning of data. A year’s worth of graphically rendered information about the Atlantic Ocean bleeds into gentle footage of waves rising and falling, weaving a lullaby that blurs evidence into abstraction.

    Exploding the idea that any law can determine the bounds of our existence, Johnson embraces the incalculability of our being. His work reminds us that we are as vast and unpredictable as the ocean itself.