Critics’ Picks

  • Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, 1980, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16".

    Robert Mapplethorpe, Alistair Butler, 1980, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16".

    New York

    Robert Mapplethorpe

    Gladstone Gallery | West 24th St
    515 West 24th Street
    March 12–April 24, 2021

    Photographs of orchids paired with nude bodies, genitalia juxtaposed against horses, plants with rarely exhibited Polaroids, portraits of Patti Smith and interior decor—Arthur Jafa’s curation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work reframes the artist’s well-circulated imagery and motifs within the broader scope of his oeuvre. Jafa sheds new light on the canonical artist through a simple act: by arranging Mapplethorpe’s more familiar prints with those that are rarely seen. The works are placed so closely together that they need only whisper to hear one another. It’s a subtle conversation, and one Jafa has made possible by moving away from the all-too-easy and frequently relied upon categories Mapplethorpe’s photographs are typically understood in terms of, such as the artist’s interpretation of the male body, the queer gaze, or his particular interpretations of Blackness. Instead, Jafa takes a more formalist approach to organizing Mapplethorpe’s work, attending to color, shape, and light. This arrangement prompts viewers who are familiar with Jafa’s art to see Mapplethorpe’s pictures through a new lens, as part of Jafa’s own found-image practice.

    Rather than the high-speed, fragmentary poetry of Jafa’s APEX, 2013, or Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, 2016—what one might characterize as “Jafa time”—the stillness of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and their immediate legibility in the gallery allows the viewer to shift the frame speed, creating a kind of spatialized montage. Walk slowly, and you’ll experience Mapplethorpe’s photographs as still images; walk faster, and the line between what is cinema and what is photography will blur; walk faster still, and suddenly the boundary between Jafa’s and Mapplethorpe’s visions is muddled. Though each of the works themselves warrant and ask for the individual attention of the viewer, Jafa’s cinematic hand is persuasive in its call to move quickly and quietly, to use the space and time of the exhibition as tools for reading the photographs, to consider the photographer as a latent filmmaker.

  • Josephine Pryde, Cabinets (Six), 2019/2021, C-print, 15 x 10". From the series “Cabinets, [One–Nine],” 2019/21.

    Josephine Pryde, Cabinets (Six), 2019/2021, C-print, 15 x 10". From the series “Cabinets, [One–Nine],” 2019/21.

    New York

    Josephine Pryde

    31-45 37th St. Suite #G
    March 20–May 9, 2021

    Josephine Pryde makes hard images. In this show, Pryde revisited her 2005 commission for the first issue of Hard Mag, for which its publisher, Dan Mitchell, asked her to contribute photographs of shopping articulating “frustration, pain, humiliation, difficulty, failure, paranoia, [and] low self worth.” For the assignment, Pryde began taking sea creatures, presumably dead, into changing rooms of various chain clothing retailers and photographing them with her Yashica T4 (the same point-and-shoot analog camera used by Terry Richardson). In Cubicles Hard Mag Fenwicks (One), 2005, the only piece from the original series included here, an embryonic squid perches listlessly atop a patch of red fabric and what might be some Topshop denim. For the series “Cabinets, [One–Nine],” 2019/21, we see an octopus’s tentacles gather gently in the sink of an airplane bathroom and, in another picture, adhere to a toilet-paper holder. Folded on a white cloth and placed on the gallery floor, The Flight That Moved Them, 2021, holds a hidden photograph; roughly conforming to the dimensions of the Astoria space, the piece will be unfurled as the show progresses.

    Pryde is attuned to how our egos are shaped by embodied encounters. Sometimes, we manage to escape while trying on a new hat at Zara or to find refuge in a public bathroom. At other times, faced with our reflection in a poorly lit fitting-room mirror, we are left only with our wounded selves and must aim again for repair—try on something else, maybe, or take one more photo. Pryde infuses the sterile atmosphere of commodity and fashion photography with a visceral edge of confinement, abandonment, and permeability. Perhaps this is what Luce Irigaray meant when she said, “Femininity consists essentially in laying the dead man back in the womb of the earth, and giving him eternal life.” Her airless yet seductive tableaux of surfaces and skin express the desire for both contact and release.  

  • Sanou Oumar, 8/23/20, 2020, pen on paper board, 40 x 32".

    Sanou Oumar, 8/23/20, 2020, pen on paper board, 40 x 32".

    New York

    Sanou Oumar

    Gordon Robichaux
    41 Union Square West, #925 & #907 (Enter at 22 East 17th Street)
    March 14–April 25, 2021

    Enlivening the malnourished optic nerve, Sanou Oumar’s eleven laborious pen-and-paperboard works mingle tantric designs, hard-edge abstraction, and vibrant adornment in items of selfless concentration. Improvising in the manner of a doodle, the Burkina Faso–born artist often traces nearby objects—his ID card, clothing tags, a floss pick—to find his shapes, encrypting the ordinary into percepts of cosmic equipoise often reminiscent of Buddhist sand mandalas or gothic cathedral windows. See 8/23/20 (all works cited, 2020) in which a circular screen, patterned with scrolling orange tendrils, circumscribes a ring of four smaller orbs, these enclosing outgrowths of sensual, petallike curves that bleed into shades of peach and coral. 6/15/20, with its colorful tessellations and irregular black grid, evokes two Dutch exports: African wax prints and Piet Mondrian.

    Beside expanding the traditional idioms of modernism, these compositions serve a transcendental purpose. Like Mondrian, Oumar moved to New York as a refugee. Amid the trauma of displacement, he found a meditative, healing ritual in drawing, and a way to connect with a higher plane that has invited comparisons to the spiritualist painters Emma Kunz and Hilma af Klint. Yet unlike them, the draftsman appears motivated less by an imagined future than by a desire to bridge the past with the present. The press release speaks of a deeply personal symbology: a pink flourish may indicate the artist’s late mother, a set of spiderweb lines the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Such memories of memories ripple across Oumar’s sleek, opaque surfaces, acquiring new associations with each viewer. Consider him a pupil of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn.”