Critics’ Picks

  • Lydia Ourahmane, bronze belly III, 2019, bronze, sealed lead, bust 33“, waist 26”, hip 36".

    Lydia Ourahmane

    167 Rivington Street Lower Level East
    April 27–June 23

    This is not obvious when you first enter Lydia Ourahmane’s “low relief,” but the entirety of the gallery floor has been mopped with antiseptics. The atmosphere is surgical, cloying, and yet intimate. Also not apparent is that the show’s central bronze sculptures, cast with the exact measurements of the artist’s abdomen, have been implanted with lead, which will slowly creep into the bronze and mutate the color. Titled bronze belly IIV, 2019, these works are laid on the ground, naked and vulnerable, pelvic bones lilting upward.

    Renée Falconetti as a weeping Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film has become something like an emoticon for art-theory invocations of feminine suffering. Ourahmane’s plaited hair, which she cut off in the gallery and left like an artifact, seems to me the image’s antithesis. In an interview the artist said, “materials I use often have lived through social, political, or economic tensions, and they do carry that weight.” With a truly radical understanding of what it means to make a sculpture, Ourahmane trusts an object to signify female pain better than a human face, lets ten years of her hair insist on its own register of language.

    Tucked behind the show’s sculptures, a cryptic wall text, composed by Ourahmane with the writer Carlos Kong, avoids disclosure and privileges a demure withdrawal. It hits a tone between “cooler-than-you” girl talk and a recollection shaped by the kinds of excisions trauma imposes. The reader is left with both a desire to access that artist’s intimate history and the knowledge that they won’t get the whole story. That’s all right. Those struck by the tender poignancy of “low relief” are struck immediately, intuitively. The words come later.

  • Robert Bittenbender, Pennys from Heaven, 2019,
    mixed media, 60 x 48 x 11".

    Robert Bittenbender

    134 Bowery 4S
    May 3–June 16

    The 2003 Lifetime TV movie Homeless to Harvard tells “the inspiring true story” of a young girl who escapes her drug-addicted parents and destitute childhood by making it to the Ivy League. Captivatingly played by Thora Birch (of 1999’s American Beauty), Liz Murray lived this classic American tale of rags-to-riches reinvention, one Robert Bittenbender presumably riffs on in his assemblage Homeless to Haverford (all works 2019), one of five such pieces in this exhibition, “Space Vixen.” There are also two digital videos in which pages from friends’ unpublished novels run on a loop (The Blond Berber and Teeth and Taxes). If those details feel like an Adderall spiral, you’re not wrong—looking at Bittenbender’s work feels a bit like when you Google search one thing and end up in an hours-long internet K-hole. Alongside allusions to Kafka (Hunger Artist Games), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Charisma Carpenter), and Billie Holiday (Pennys from Heaven), there’s the material goriness of his overloaded junk-store aesthetic, with its proliferation of zip ties, cloth flowers, chunks of guitar and computer parts, photographs, and price tags.

    Though his intricate tableaux are often compared to the 1950s and ’60s assemblages of Bruce Conner or Lee Bontecou, Bittenbender’s works are not nostalgic for some long-buried notion of bohemia. New York is a creaking ruin, and our perverse perseverance in the face of relentless urban development and creeping ecological disaster speaks to the sterility of today’s alternative downtown lifestyle. With his inclusion in this year’s Whitney Biennial, Bittenbender has made it to Harvard, so to speak, as a young artist, but it is his apparent embarrassment of scaling the capitalist scaffolding (and its definitions of success) that is a key charm of his work.

  • Yugi Agematsu, zip: 01.01.03, 2003, mixed media in cigarette pack cellophane wrapper, 2 1/2 x 2 x 1". From the series “zips,” 2003.

    Yuji Agematsu

    Miguel Abreu Gallery | Eldridge Street
    88 Eldridge Street 4th Floor
    May 1–June 21

    One way to understand a culture is through its trash. Yuji Agematsu’s sculptures in this show—composed of chewing gum and cigarettes, pigeon feathers and shattered glass, dirty Band-Aids and condoms, among other things—are made from New York’s detritus, which coats the streets like dandruff. Each tiny work—and there are hundreds—has its own discrete character.

    Every day since 1985, Agematsu has taken daily walks throughout the boroughs (he moved to Huntington, New York for school in 1980, and ended up studying with the jazz musician Milford Graves only one year later). Each jaunt has been diligently recorded via notebook entries, drawings, and sculptures made from found objects. This exhibition centers on two series of Agematsu’s work: “ziplocs,” 1995, for which he laid out his collections as studious typologies in plastic bags, and “zips,” 2003, for which he built tiny, poignant totems set in cellophane wrappers from cigarette packs. Both series are displayed as monthly calendars—pinned to panels or put on acrylic shelves in gridded configurations—while notations and diagrams of his wanderings are arranged in vitrines or framed nearby.

    With their monastic consistency and numbered titles, such as zip: 10.01.03 . . . 10.31.03, 2003, Agematsu’s work makes one think of On Kawara’s date paintings and the impersonal cadence of time. Yet his art is mesmerizing and significant precisely because of its locality and how it enshrines the mysteries of the city. Agematsu has created a moving diorama of human activity and a testament to one individual’s experience of collective memory and time.

  • View of “Shahryar Nashat,” 2019.

    Shahryar Nashat

    Swiss Institute / CONTEMPORARY ART
    38 St Marks Pl
    March 20–June 2

    Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari once described desire as a machine. The way Shahryar Nashat grapples with it, especially in the face of death, is compulsively machinic.

    In the artist’s first institutional solo show in New York, coldly lit and antiseptic spaces—some of which have windows tinted a sickly pink—feature a suite of sculptures called Bone In, 2019, which look like chunks of red meat Saran-wrapped around stiff boards. The works are appended with little printouts of statements to a theoretical lover: “Since I met you I’ve been trippin,” “Why you acting like you don’t know me?” Directly adjacent is Untitled, 2018, two spectral X-rays of hip joints marred by glitchy, candy-colored striations. Downstairs is “Rib,” 2019, a series of brittle-looking, papier-mâché, walker-like objects. One is bandaged, as if it were a human leg. In the back room is another crutch-sculpture, Sex Position for Broken Ribs, 2019, covered in more gummy-looking papier-mâché and bracketed to the wall, ready and eerily willing.

    While Nashat’s titles can be tongue-in-cheek, the tone is not; everywhere the body is in the process of breaking down, or is already damaged. The sculpture Start to Beg, 2019—which looks like a cross between a felled column, a boulder, and a piece of fat redolent of Matthew Barney’s slowly shifting Vaseline sculptures—is literally marked by discombobulated bites, scratches, and arm indentations. But it’s in the video Keep Begging, 2019, where the human gets fully subsumed by the technological. In it, the camera jerkily toggles between a man’s elbow and his armpit, zooming in so closely and mechanically that a hair on the former resembles a computer wire, while the latter becomes an alien landscape. A disembodied female voice intones, “Do we go to war?” It’s not stated whom the fight is against, but if it’s our digital analogues, they’re already winning.

  • View of “Frederick Weston: Happening,” 2019.

    Frederick Weston

    Gordon Robichaux
    41 Union Square West, #925 (Enter at 22 East 17th Street)
    April 28–June 16

    Frederick Weston used New York City as his public gallery. For the series “Blue Bathroom Blues,” 1994–, he has plastered homoerotic collages in the titular hue onto the plywood walls of construction sites. One day he was caught by a security guard: “Oh, you’re the artist!,” he said. Rather than apprehending Weston, however, he let him finish the job and sign the work. For the artist, this was an affirmation of his talents.

    “Happening,” Weston’s first solo exhibition in New York, gathers a selection of collage works from the past two decades that reference his identity as a black, queer artist living with AIDS. The collages—composed of a variety of materials, such as magazine clippings, plastic bags, and fabric swatches—are attentive to the vagaries of mass media and suffused with a distinctly personal touch, one that also considers the thorny politics of representation. Take Body Map I, 2015, which consists of a nearly life-size paper figure overlaid with the faces of celebrities, among them George Foreman and Barack Obama. The largest image is that of Tom Morgan, a black journalist who lived for twenty years as an openly gay and HIV-positive man. In Sambo Schema I and II, both 2006, photographs of minstrel-show actors in blackface abut smiley-face pins and cutouts of dolls and cartoons. Titled after Helen Bannerman’s children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899), they underline how racist, dehumanizing tropes were popularized as juvenile entertainment.

    Weston’s collages reflect his training as a fashion designer and exemplify his tactile impulse for collecting. This drive is further enhanced by an installation of binders stuffed with clippings, their spines referencing a swath of themes, like “POLICE” and “FEELINGS.” Yellowed paper pokes out from their worn plastic covers. Dating to 1995, the binders comprise only a fraction of the archives housed within Weston’s apartment and studio. They are repositories of inspiration, yes—but perhaps more poignantly, they are a testament to Weston’s refusal to forget and be forgotten as an artist.

  • Nancy Barton, Swan Song, Lakme, 1988, chromogenic color print and Formica, panel: 60 x 24“; photograph: 36 x 24”. From the series “Swan Song,” 1988.

    Nancy Barton

    71 Morton Street
    April 27–June 1

    Nancy Barton’s “Swan Song” is a series in two times. Originally presented in 1988 at New York’s American Fine Arts, Co., this body of work can be located within the trajectory of CalArts’ “Skeptical Beliefs,” with its expectation of ceaseless critique or, at worst, critique reified as “smart” style. This feels like a distant memory, it seems, even though so many significant artists were born of that acidic soil, such as Mike Kelley, Christopher Williams, Carrie Mae Weems, and, of course, Barton herself.

    “Swan Song” consists of ten reliefs that pair photo-based images and text. They mimic the look of posters announcing opera productions, all of them featuring tragic (or histrionic) female characters from myth, literature, and history—Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, Salome and Elektra, among other staples of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century repertoire. The artist’s mother, Marjorie Barton, who had studied voice at the Julliard School of Music but gave up these aspirations in order to raise a family, is the star throughout. There’s something painfully intimate about Barton’s focus on her own mother, who is both glamorous and cursed. The texts of “Swan Song” feature stories from both Bartons: Their jangled recollections of life unfurl against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Autobiography is subsumed by art—on the one hand the untrammeled passions and desperate fates proffered by opera, on the other a distanced, endlessly ambiguous photographic record. These commingle with excerpts from the librettos and passages of critical theory—Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, Luce Irigaray. Barton suggests an afterlife for her mother’s abandoned musical dreams, dressing her up for the roles she never played, a gesture at once restorative and sarcastic (Barton remarks that the appeal of photography “was not that of creativity or self-expression, but the potential for recrimination”). The series is moving, but not in a Hallmark way: It’s too kitchen-sink miserable and archly ironic. Why not find out that Elektra and Lucia live in the Hollywood Hills, resigned and depressed, vengeful and fatal?

  • Rutene Merk, Aki, 2019, oil on canvas, 55 x 63".

    Rutene Merk

    Downs & Ross
    96 Bowery 2nd floor
    April 28–June 9

    Choose your fighter: Verrocchio’s bronze David, 1473–75, an epicene precursor to Michelangelo’s opus, who stands winsomely over Goliath’s head; or Aki Ross, the valiant protagonist of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s CGI breakthrough Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within (2001). These two prove the most familiar muses in Rutene Merk’s “Sprites,” the Lithuanian painter’s first New York solo show. The parallels between Verrocchio and Sakaguchi eventually cohere: Both creators are revered for their fierce, lifelike rendering of the human figure. Yet in Aki, 2019, and David at Night, 2018, Merk coarsens this realism with a late ’90s RPG aesthetic and flush, screenlike facture. Informed by video games, the internet, and various tropes from antiquity, her vaguely Impressionist, always phantasmal portraiture loops us into avatars’ afterlives—take Scribe, 2019, a gauzy portrayal of the ancient Egyptian bust that went viral for sharing Michael Jackson’s likeness. It makes one wonder: When is an image no longer an image?

    Merk has spoken before of being inspired by tronies, a Dutch genre devoted to the exaggerated facial expressions of stock characters. Her own subjects’ visages, though, remain impassive. Consider Kamea, 2019, a laminated-looking androgyne who genuflects amid beige and green . . . lily pads? Too bleary to tell. The press release features definitions of the word sprite, one of which tells us that it’s a graphic-design term for background manipulation. In Merk’s laggy simulacra, story lines become lives, agency is as real as fantasy, and fantasy’s reality must not be trivialized. She gives her sprites souls only to maroon them in depthlessness. Just look at them: as detached as the simpering head at David’s feet.

  • Doreen Garner, Henrietta: After the Harvest, 2019, urethane foam and plastic, silicone, steel pins, barbed wire, glass beads, 71 x 38 x 10".

    Doreen Garner

    191 Chrystie St
    April 21–May 26

    In her 1975 mission statement “A Letter to Women Artists,” Hannah Wilke laid out some terms of engagement for her work: “Feel the folds . . . expressive precise gestural symbols.” Doreen Garner’s tumid sculptures of affecting and undeniably vaginal forms can be read along similar lines. Though reminiscent of the uncanny valley à la Paul Thek, the trompe l’oeil corporeality on view here chiefly addresses the threats that black women are uniquely vulnerable to—take the 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland, which led to her untimely death in a jail cell. An audio recording of the traffic stop that instigated this tragedy can be heard playing out of the pink bloom of Heard From Her Larynx: Sandra (all works 2019), a silicone-and-synthetic-hair-covered gramophone mounted onto a wooden pedestal, stained burnt umber.

    Bland’s callous and aggressive handling by the police officer is contextualized by Garner as simply one more example in the great American tradition of exploiting African American females. The barbed-wire-wrapped Henrietta: After the Harvest—which features bright-green plastic vials at the center of a hulking diseased organ, made from foam, silicone, and glass beads—and Betsey’s Flag, a gruesome version of Betsy Ross’s famous banner presented as a stapled assemblage of silicone skin in various hues of brown, are, respectively, tributes to the late Henrietta Lacks, and her substantial yet unwitting contributions to medical research, and Betsey, one of the several enslaved women J. Marion Sims tried surgical techniques out on while developing his renowned vesicovaginal fistula operation. The conflation of Betsey’s and Ross’s names in the title Betsey’s Flag implicitly advocates for equal recognition of and respect for each woman, while the steel pins precisely ornamenting the symbolic flesh of both pieces are a sobering contrast with the fundamentally nonconsensual invasions of and theft from black women such as Betsey and Lacks.

  • Joe Brainard, Untitled (Portrait of Joe), n.d., mixed media collage, 11 x 9 1/2".

    Joe Brainard

    Tibor De Nagy Gallery
    15 Rivington Street
    April 20–May 26

    Those needing a dose of gaiety—both the festive and the faggy kinds—should make their way to “100 Works,” a survey of paintings, drawings, and collages by the late Joe Brainard (1942–1994). Most are no bigger than a notebook page, and the dense hang is perfectly in keeping with the artist’s aesthetic of accumulation. He was, after all, the author of I Remember (1975), an expansive inventory of memories ranging from sad to sexy, beautiful to banal.

    Take Untitled (12 Madonnas), 1966, a collage that is an unholy combination of church, drag, and thrift store. It’s decked out with hypnotic overlays of sequins and dime-store cards featuring the titular virgin, all of which is topped off by a Pollockesque skein of white paint. Though overflowing with gay signifiers, it short-circuits any tidy notion or classification of a “gay” aesthetic. Chewing Gum Wrappers, 1971, is a teeming explosion of color and texture built out of layers of detritus, calling to mind Anne Ryan’s intimate painterly collages and Robert Rauschenberg’s combines (but on a rather reduced scale, of course). Even when Brainard’s images border on being twee, they never slip into outright mawkishness. The artist always made a habit of slipping razors into his frosting.

    Like his cohorts—including the poet James Schuyler and the painter Jane Freilicher—Brainard gravitated to homely spaces: cottages in Vermont; the seaside town of Southampton, New York (prior to its current billionaire infestation); or cluttered kitchenettes in dim Manhattan apartments, likely full of overstuffed ashtrays (as the many cigarette-heavy pieces here suggest). Not exactly a man of the world, Brainard was full of enough love to both fuel and consume it.

  • Louis Fratino, I keep my treasure in my ass, 2019, oil on canvas, 86 x 65".

    Louis Fratino

    Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
    530 West 22nd Street
    April 18–May 24

    Louis Fratino’s paintings here evince a tenderness often excluded from portrayals of gay male desire. Although frequently graphic and enamored of the male body, they eschew a Grindr-marketplace aesthetic. Indistinguishable save for a few recurring tattoos, their subjects, when coupled, are a tangle of limbs. For instance, in Early Spring, 2019, a scene of penetration is rendered as a Cubist jumble of flesh, while I keep my treasure in my ass, 2019, features a man gripping his own ankles as a smaller man is either being birthed from or swallowed up by his asshole. Here, ardor runs the gamut from fertile to consumptive.

    Fratino’s oils are alternately monumental and diminutive in scale, some even painted inside box lids. The viewer is always either stepping back to take them all in or leaning in close enough to breathe on the work. This dance of distance and intimacy is mirrored in Fratino’s paintings, whether his subjects are gathered in a club (Metropolitan, 2019), trysting (Me and Ray, 2018), or alone in bed, enjoying a reverie (Yellow Sleeper, 2019). In Manhattan Bridge, 2019, a man walking his dog along a desolate bank of the East River is illuminated by street lamps, moonlight, and—brightest of all—the glow of a phone screen.

    This digital index, along with the works’ unabashedly gay content, resituate the artist’s otherwise modernist paintings in a contemporary context. Although acutely following the tradition of artists like Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, Fratino’s canvases are neither derivative nor pastiche. Rather, in a stroke of generative revisionism, the works here inscribe the straight art-historical canon with the prosaic and intimate junctions of gay life today.

  • Remedios Varo, Hallazgo (Discovery), 1956, oil on Masonite, 27 x 19".

    “Surrealism in Mexico”

    744 Madison Avenue
    April 15–June 28

    Whether they were seeking a new context and inspiration for their art or fleeing from strife in Europe, many in the twentieth-century avant-garde long held a fascination with Mexico. Overlapping with the last few weeks of a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, this show brings together three paintings by Kahlo—including the modestly sized yet famous La Venadita (The Little Deer), 1946, and an unusual oil-on-metal composition framed in Oaxacan tin titled The Survivor, 1938—with pieces from a whole circle of lesser-known Surrealists who came to live and work in the country during and after World War II. In this compact but brilliant survey are several collages dated to 1935 from the Mexican artist Agustín Lazo and the Peruvian artist César Moro, which appear similar to Max Ernst’s. But two of the best-represented figures here are painter Remedios Varo—who originally hailed from Spain and possessed a meticulous style reminiscent of medieval masterpieces—and the British painter and writer Leonora Carrington.

    Among the Carringtons is an egg tempera­ on Masonite, Les Distractions de Dagobert (The Distractions of Dagobert), 1945, a labyrinthine representation of events (and hallucinations) from the life of Dagobert I (ca. 605–639), one of the last rulers of the Merovingian dynasty. Varo’s oil, Hallazgo (Discovery), 1956, included in the artist’s first solo show held in Mexico City that same year, is a stunning scene of fairy-tale wonder rendered with astounding precision and sensuous texture, exhibited here for the first time in the United States. Fans of Julien Nguyen and the trend of mysticism in contemporary art would do well to pay heed to their foremothers here, and with the visionary Hilma af Klint breaking records with her recent retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, surely New York should have a major Carrington or Varo exhibition, stat.