Critics’ Picks

  • Mary Ann Carroll, Untitled (Wetland Scene), no date, oil on canvas board, 16 x 20".

    Mary Ann Carroll, Untitled (Wetland Scene), no date, oil on canvas board, 16 x 20".

    New York

    “Highwaymen”

    Charles Moffett
    511 Canal Street #200
    July 13–August 13, 2021

    Beginning in the 1950s, a group of young Black men, faced with the prospect of toiling in Florida’s citrus groves, instead learned to paint the windswept palms, motley waters, and singular radiance of the Sunshine State. Unable to show in the South’s segregated galleries, these artists, soon joined by one woman, peddled their work door-to-door or from their cars on the then-new interstate roads, themselves shaped by systemic racism. Today more than two hundred thousand landscapes are credited to this informal school of self-taught painters, who forged a tradition of American regionalism that, ubiquitous but long underrecognized, helped define Florida’s image in the twentieth century.

    The eleven pictures painted on board in this small, standout survey reveal the collaborative ethos of the so-called Highwaymen, officially comprising twenty-six artists who were active up until the 1980s. Under the aegis of the virtuosic Fort Pierce, Florida, landscapist A. E. Backus, who was white, and his enterprising mentee, Alfred Hair, the artists developed their own nimble approach, painting alla prima from their intimate knowledge of the terrain. Hair devised a kind of assembly line where as many as twenty pieces might be completed at once; often, the artists would touch up one another’s pictures, most of which are untitled and undated. Brazenly formulaic but fringed with fantasy, these paintings parade a wonderfully unprecious attitude about living with, and making one’s living from, art.

    This group may have worked quickly, but their art rewards long looking, from Mary Ann Carroll’s rapturous rendering of Florida’s light, to the delicate contemplations of brothers Sam and Harold Newton, to Rodney Demps’s serene and searing Untitled (Rainbow Sky), no date, which channels the Romantic sublime in its electric, nearly abstract sunset over the Atlantic. It’s as fresh as an ocean breeze and perhaps as fleeting. For the Highwaymen sold a vision of Florida that recedes further and further from view as the rising tides, in league with rampant development and Disneyfication, threaten to reduce their idylls to only a memory of a memory.

  • Louise Bourgeois, Passage Dangereux (Dangerous Passage, detail), 1997, metal, wood, tapestry, rubber, marble, steel, glass, bronze, bones, flax, and mirrors, dimensions variable.

    Louise Bourgeois, Passage Dangereux (Dangerous Passage, detail), 1997, metal, wood, tapestry, rubber, marble, steel, glass, bronze, bones, flax, and mirrors, dimensions variable.

    New York

    Louise Bourgeois

    The Jewish Museum
    1109 Fifth Avenue
    May 21–September 12, 2021

    Louise Bourgeois’s approach to art not only aligned with psychoanalysis but marshaled it. The exhibition here highlights her commitment to confronting emotional wounds via the unconscious, locating repressed traumas and fantasies through Freudian free association and interpretation. Bourgeois underwent analysis with a former disciple of Freud’s for more than three decades, starting in 1952. As a complementary exercise, she recorded her dreams and process notes: sometimes typewritten on sheets of loose-leaf in a mélange of French and English, sometimes handwritten in pencil on graph paper or on letterhead from the Yale Registry for Nurses. Fury and bitterness are recurrent and commanding themes. “One worry or another will always fill my days,” she lamented in 1952. In 1964, she wondered, “How many hells do I have in my name to count them and to differentiate one from the other.”

    Although she privileged art, writing functioned as an important conduit for Bourgeois’s Oedipally tinged fixations on her father and manifesting feminist exhaustion. Her texts, on view here in both original and facsimile forms, explore the fragility she felt as an artist, as well as the relentless tug of the family struggles she weathered as a middle daughter and a mother to three sons. These musings are accompanied by forty-seven of the artist’s works. One multishelf vitrine contains an assembly of smaller sculptures, including the pink marble Femme Couteau (Knife Woman), 1969–70, and a three-headed female rendered in fabric Hysterical, 2001. The two large-scale installations on view are as chilling as they are spectacular: The Destruction of the Father, 1974, is a visceral, recessed infernal den bathed in a Hadean red glow that upstages David Lynch in its nightmarishness, while Passage Dangereux (Dangerous Passage), 1997, is a sinister cage-cum-reliquary subdivided into six bays that are strewn with her father Louis’s shirt cuffs and furnished with, among other things, a wooden electric chair. Bourgeois harnesses the same fierce spirit on paper as she does in her formidable visual output: a direct if fragmented communion of despair and ambivalence that resonates with human vulnerability.

  • Nicole Miller, The Borrowers, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 52 seconds.

    Nicole Miller, The Borrowers, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 52 seconds.

    New York

    “Density Betrays Us”

    The Hole
    86 Walker Street
    June 29–August 14, 2021

    Gnarled somatic terra and chimeric aberrations fill “Density Betrays Us,” this deeply felt group exhibition. Didier Williams’s painting Koupe Tet, Boule Kay, 2021, features a weightless being ablaze with fluorescent color, while Yasue Maetake’s sculptural fusions of barnacle, bone, metal, and crystal are displayed as if they were interspecies fossils. Elsewhere, the phantoms are less speculative, though just as menacing: In Nicole Miller’s video The Borrowers, 2014, a man describes how he lost his left arm during a violent confrontation. In this harrowing scene, we see parts of his other, undamaged arm and hand reflected in a mirror, perfectly positioned to stand in for the absent limb.

    Far from a hodgepodge of loosely assembled variants of figurative work or an easy collection of superficial digital avatars, this presentation takes a deep dive into the many dimensions of the flesh in 2021. Corporeal investigations range from perfectly slick acrylic paintings such as Yitian Sun’s Ken, 2021, a portrait of Barbie’s companion as a severed head, to Casja Von Zeipel’s sculpture of a delightfully tricked-out, sometimes gooey humanoid in Friends of Grapefruit, 2020. Throughout the show, no surface, skin, or system goes untroubled. In Joiri Minaya’s pigment print Emergence I, 2021, a ghostly, semicamouflaged figure is engulfed by plant patterns, while Michael Jones McKean’s sculptural diptych 15 Families, 2015, calls to mind some anthropological plaque commemorating pioneering humans and their naive beliefs in tools, myths, and the invisible. 

    “A specter is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back,” writes Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx (1993). Traversing the halls of the gallery, I could occasionally feel the fake-concrete flooring installed for the show buckling and bubbling underneath my feet. This made me think about hauntings, and about the fact that every work here had already been betrayed by some form of reality, be it phenomenological, political, or virtual, and how that divestment empowers these subjects to keep returning to counteract easy visions of the present.

  • Jon Pylypchuk, Untitled, 2021, cast bronze, 15 x 19 x 12".

    Jon Pylypchuk, Untitled, 2021, cast bronze, 15 x 19 x 12".

    New York

    Jon Pylypchuk

    Petzel Gallery | East 67th Street
    35 East 67th Street Parlor Floor
    June 24–August 6, 2021

    While grappling with grief after the death of a close friend, Jon Pylypchuk cast a number of bronze “ghosts,” which are currently haunting Petzel’s soigné townhouse space on the Upper East Side for the Winnipeg-born, Los Angeles–based artist’s solo exhibition “What have we missed.” Pylypchuk, a multidisciplinary bricoleur who is known for crafting pitiable creatures from poor materials such as mangy fake fur, bits of plywood, and copious amounts of hot glue, first explored metal casting in 2008. Made in 2020 and 2021, the pedestal- and wall-mounted sculptures on view, largely untitled, are cast from scavenged fabric scraps and clothing including saggy underwear and flaccid socks: homely sartorial effects for our ungainly flesh containers, memorialized in a substance frequently utilized to glorify the dead.

    Hovering somewhere between bedsheet spook, executioner’s hood, and death mask, the specters’ faces have features implied by holes that have either been hand-cut or came readymade: for example, the leg openings in an upturned pair of men’s briefs, which drolly suggest a set of eyes. The sculptures are just humanoid enough to invite projection, a feature of pareidolia, our meaning-making tendency to see faces in objects, which has long played a part in the artist’s work. Pylypchuk hails from a line of Angelenos whose art traffics in abjection and regression (Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy), and, like their work, his doomed project of trying to conjure up the dead is riddled with pathos. His heavy spirits are variously patinated and textured: One resembles a piece of chainmail with its network of thick, gleaming knots, while another appears battered, tired, and tatty; patches of its ribbed, carob-colored surface are a corroded shade of green. After all, the patina of grief changes from day to day.

  • 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.