Sylvia Plimack Mangold

Alexander and Bonin
47 Walker Street
April 29–June 24

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Summer Maple 2013, 2013, oil on linen, 60 x 45".

In a kind of durational performance, Sylvia Plimack Mangold has painted the trees surrounding her home in Washingtonville, New York, for the past thirty years. Her painting routine, like tree growth, is seasonal. In winter, she paints from inside her studio; otherwise, she paints outdoors. Not merely relying on shadow and sunlight, Mangold creates depth and volume through variations in leaf color and multiple vanishing points. The artist enters her paintings, she declares, as if she were a “flying creature,” perhaps a hummingbird or a gnat. Early in her career, Plimack Mangold painted deadpan trompe l’oeil of her wooden floor. While Mangold’s tree and floor paintings share a material interest, they’re also both studies in spatial anatomy. Here, The Winter Maple Tree, 2016, feels like a composite, made from a row of trees stealthily lined up behind it. In The Pin Oak 4/13, 2013, a watercolor, fluffy leaves (think of Helen Frankenthaler’s gauzy, watery blots) drift into a soft, flat sky (not too unlike the atmospheric gradients rendered by Jules Olitski). Mangold’s treatment of genre is also subtly cheeky. While Conceptual artists subjugated form to content Mangold playfully but rigorously back-pedaled to recognizable, Romantic-era subject matter. Declining to make work that hews to manufactured and biannually shifting theoretical categories, Mangold’s subject, she writes, is “painting with nature as my source and focus. . . . This experience of being in one place, studying the same forms over and over sounds repetitious, but, in fact, it feels expansive.”

Haley Markbreiter

Tobias Pils

Galerie Eva Presenhuber | New York
39 Great Jones Street
May 6–June 17

Tobias Pils, Untitled (Viennese Head), 2016, mixed media on canvas, 33 1/2 x 27 1/2".

Tobias Pils’s monochromatic exhibition here opens with Untitled (Viennese Head), 2016, a black-and-white canvas featuring the profile of a deformed human head with a huge black void for a cheek. The eyes, however, gaze directly at you—they peer through a field of swaying lines that could be melting lashes, or even seaweed. It appears to be kissing a tangle of zigzags, some of which have edges that bleed delicately, as if they were rendered by an inky pen dragged down a sheet of wet paper.

To call the artist’s paintings surrealist seems a bit limiting—they play quite liberally with a kind of mushy cubism, too. Untitled (Arrow), 2016, shows a figure made from thick slabs of white paint, suicidally aiming a hard-edge white triangle with soft fletching toward its chest. Is this picture disturbing? Funny? Elegant? Cruel? Pils’s images ignite a variety of queasy sensations that are difficult to pin down. But we can access them nonetheless—deeply, intuitively.

It’s worthwhile to read this show as an immersive dream journal overflowing with id. In Untitled (Autumn 1), 2015, a bath-brush-like object grows out of a baggy gray creature that might be getting sodomized by a V-shaped demon. And whatever’s happening to the juicy, jittering blobs in Untitled (Flowers), 2016, looks just as fulsome, kinky. The artist’s deft brushstrokes and rich tableaux activate all manner of sweet, libidinal pleasure.

Yin Ho

Cameron Jamie

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St
530 West 21st Street
April 28–June 17

Cameron Jamie, BB, 1998–2000, Super 8 film transferred to 35 mm, black and white, sound, 18 minutes 20 seconds.

Documentary footage of violence that is dramatized or frivolous risks feeling naive at best and at worst like an ominous rehearsal. Fortunately, these pitfalls are evaded in the current exhibition of three films by Cameron Jamie, portraying ceremonies within different masculine subcultures. Perhaps that is because the artist’s interests tend toward the ethnographic. Each work captures rituals that privilege brutality over piety, though the difference is often hard to tell.

In Kranky Klaus, 2002–2003, male participants costumed as the furred, horned Krampus—the devilish cryptid of pagan lore—enact an annual parade of yuletide sadism, terrorizing their small Austrian village and policing the morality of its children. In BB, 1998–2000, the bruising slapstick of teenage savagery, filmed in Super 8, appears nearly transcendent. A wrestling championship held in a backyard in Southern California is shot in black and white, all frantic pans and zooms, contenders often dissolving into blurs then snapped back into focus. Parts of the tournament play out in slow motion. Folding chairs and trash cans are hurled. Chests are beaten. From rooftops, boys splash into bodies panting on a makeshift wrestling ring. Who better to score this rite of suburban survivalism than the Melvins? Their murmuring guitars and hellish drums lend the footage a chthonic tinge.

Massage the History, 2007–2009, is essentially a Sonic Youth music video with an unlikely premise. A middle-class living room in Alabama transforms, to the sound of a haunted acoustic riff, into a site of intimate rediscovery as two men gyrate: on furniture, a Christmas tree, and the plush carpet. “Not everyone makes it out alive,” Kim Gordon sings in a breezy half whisper. One man caresses a tassel hanging from a table, imbuing it with talismanic potential. To belong to these domestic arenas requires bodily transgression, and yet Jamie choreographs innocence as it usually is—neither lost nor found.

Zack Hatfield

Peter Howson

Flowers Gallery
529 W 20th St
May 3–June 10

Peter Howson, Prophecy, 2016, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 1/2".

Scottish artist Peter Howson is known for dramatic paintings of brutal melees in urban settings and muscular working-class men in noble combat or heroic poses. Elements of his own tumultuous experiences are often writ large, including his upbringing in a God-fearing environment and his struggles with depression, Asperger’s syndrome, alcohol, and drugs. In 1993, he was Britain’s official artist for the Bosnian conflict. In this role he created a work so horrifying that London’s Imperial War Museum, which had commissioned him, did not accept it into the permanent collection. During a 2000 treatment for addiction, he became a born-again Christian. These themes coalesce with calamitous, biblical frenzy in his current show.

Of several large canvases the principle work is Prophecy, 2016—also the title of the exhibition—a vicious nighttime street battle thick with fighters clamoring toward a central crucified Christ. The baroque cavalcade of ogreish figures and folkloric fiends stretches from spire to gutter as they wield blood-curdling medieval weaponry. Minarets and stone crosses tumble, flags of ISIS and the United States flail, all of which is illuminated by the baleful glow of lanterns and a distant moon. This desperate wreckage of humanity, just shy of being historicist kitsch, is nevertheless moving.

Human-giant hybrids with blistered complexions make up a suite of smaller, divisionist oil-on-gesso panels. While they suffer from a compressed scale, Whoin? Warum? Wie? Where? Why? How?, 2017, depicting a shirtless hulk holding flaming torches, is an unnerving symbol of socialist zeal and tortured resistance. These unabashedly religious works—a quality often shunned in contemporary art—are gripping in their evocation of the church’s barbarous legacy and an apocalypse perhaps only moments away.

Darren Jones

“Soft Skills”

The James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue, The City University of New York
April 14–June 3

Danielle Dean, Pleasure to Burn, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes 42 seconds.

Martha Rosler’s text and image work Know Your Servant Series, #1: North American Waitress, Coffee Shop Variety, 1976, includes a list of remarks concerning the ideal female server, suggesting that she should be forthcoming but in the background, kind but impersonal, and a hard worker who never breaks a sweat. This group exhibition plays up such contradictions of feminized work while emphasizing its performative aspects and the real labor it requires to produce pleasure for others. Here, pieces associated with second-wave feminism such as Rosler’s are positioned alongside younger artists’ output no doubt informed by that generation. The show thus opens up an art-historical gamut, but it also addresses the socioeconomic shifts within it: the increase of women in the labor market as well as the surge of service-sector, “pink-collar” jobs, not necessarily performed by women.

Productive juxtapositions highlight latencies in older artworks that yield contemporary resonances. Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (I am your reservoir of poses), 1982, lays out the title’s parenthetical phrase in the artist’s signature typeface beneath a large sun hat masking a woman’s body. In the context of the exhibition, Kruger’s image, once connoting the female body in art history, now provides a reading in which stereotypically female qualities—empathy, subservience, flexibility—become models for a precarious workforce to follow.

Danielle Dean’s Pleasure to Burn, 2012, expands upon Kruger. In an office-like setting, four women (two of color, two white) take turns repeating phrases to one another in emotional registers ranging from glee to despair—such as “wipe that smile on your face” and “laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color”—derived from ads targeting female consumers. In this racialized dramatization, the attitudes aren’t just imposed by some external patriarchal order; they are also internalized and reproduced in subtle interactions and gritted smiles between women.

Sarah Lookofsky

Nancy Spero

Galerie Lelong | New York
528 West 26th Street
April 27–June 17

Nancy Spero, Maypole: Take No Prisoners (detail), 2007, hand-printing on aluminum, ribbon, steel chain, aluminum pole with steel base, dimensions variable.

This exhibition presents Nancy Spero’s contribution to the Fifty-Second Venice Biennale for the first time in the United States. For her large-scale sculpture Maypole: Take No Prisoners, 2007, the late artist transformed a maypole—that folksy emblem of rebirth and community—into a monument to violence, national culpability, and complicity. Ribbons in cheery reds flow from a central beam strung not with flowers but with aluminum tragedy masks that wear contorted, aggrieved expressions. Some have mouths agape in Munchian howls; others spew gore that darts from their jaws like sharpened daggers. On the gallery’s white walls, the tangle of ribbons and ghoulish faces casts shadows that evoke lynching scenes.

The installation, conceived as a comment on the Iraq war, is paired with small gouache and ink drawings from Spero’s “War Series,” made between 1966 and 1970, at the height of the war in Vietnam. The selection includes Maypole/Kill Commies, 1967, which depicts this festive symbol topped with an American flag and weighted down by severed heads haloed in smudged red blood—a precursor to her 2007 piece. Female Bomb, 1966, personifies an explosive as a barren woman, with poisoned, retching skulls where her breasts and womb should be. Helicopter and Victims, 1967, imagines the titular aircraft as a prickly metal dragon that rains a mist of human waste and bones.

Art cannot prevent war. But Spero’s dark and expressionistic work suggests that there are few things more effective at conveying its horror and malignancy.

Hannah Stamler

Will Eisner

Society of Illustrators
128 E 63rd St
March 1–June 3

Will Eisner, Il Duce’s Locket, 1947, ink on paper, 16 x 23". Title page for The Spirit, May 25, 1947.

Will Eisner was one of the most influential and trailblazing comic-book artists in his field, and this retrospective underlines the power of his legacy. Stories about his costumed crime fighter, the Spirit, were published from 1940 to 1952 as a stand-alone comic-book supplement in American Sunday papers. The Spirit—a sophisticated narrative written for an adult audience—was acclaimed for its cinematic compositions (think Orson Welles, Fritz Lang) and innovative use of the splash panel, in which a single image takes up the entirety of the page. Eisner redrew the title logo frequently to fit the mood or theme of every new tale. More than forty of his original Spirit pages are on display, including images of the story Quirte from November 21, 1948, where he relayed the plot through the eyes of the antagonist, a creepy narrative device used much later in John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween.

Eisner reinvented himself in the 1970s when he discovered the work of underground comic artists such as Robert Crumb, who unabashedly accessed the full depths of his imagination. Although not a fan of the pornographic content, Eisner realized through their example that there was an opportunity to create something more personally satisfying, and he set to work on A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), a historical, slice-of-life piece about Jews living in Depression-era New York City—the book popularized the designation “graphic novel.” Contract’s lead story is partially based on Eisner losing his daughter to leukemia when she was sixteen. The graphic novel, with its exquisite draftsmanship and dramatic pacing, is nonetheless a realistic and haunting depiction of ethnic identity and the human condition. This and other of Eisner’s literary masterpieces profoundly shaped the medium and were harbingers of Art Spiegelman’s landmark Maus (1991) and Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World (1997).

Chris Bors

Elaine Cameron-Weir

New Museum
235 Bowery
May 3–September 3

View of “Elaine Cameron-Weir: viscera has questions about itself,” 2017.

Elaine Cameron-Weir’s current exhibition, “viscera has questions about itself,” feels like the laboratory/dressing room of a cyborg goddess. Five otherworldly garments and seemingly sentient accouterments occupy the gallery, titled with chopped and spliced phrases such as “subcutanean tantric the skingrip palpable, it” and “body conduit (dish of) psyche’ dissolved” (all works 2017). A long bolt of enameled crocodile-like skin, Snake 8, is draped down to the floor. In the middle of the gallery is a chain-mail garment with metal breasts and spine, subtly echoing Snake 8’s sinuous verticality. Another piece features two mysterious death baguettes nested in twin beds of white sand that are themselves cradled by troughs that look like a pair of extra-long, lace-up slippers. Inside the work’s shoestrings, little pans cook a thick black liquid—labdanum resin that vaporizes a hint of musky perfume.

Toward the rear of the gallery, the sleeves of a parachute-silk tunic hug a blue-neon tube (Lamp with Garment). Elsewhere, a spherical heating mantle on a ring clamp bolted to a rod contains a glass clamshell (Vault). In this work, uncanny metal jaws, labeled a “dental phantom,” are perched atop something that resembles a beaker stand. Cameron-Weir’s objects conjure both the dark romanticism of sacred keepsakes and the sinister functionality of technical devices ready to spring into action. Indeed, modular elements such as electrical conduit tubes and generic sandbag weights temper the moody affect of more sensual materials. This merging of body and machine is characteristic of a paradigm shift toward hybridity that has occurred over the past several decades. As new ontologies and ideas of non-brain-based intelligence gain traction, perhaps we will listen more closely to our viscera’s questions about itself.

Vanessa Thill

Adriana Ramić

Kimberly-Klark
788 Woodward Avenue
April 29–June 4

View of “Adriana Ramić: Machine that the larvae of configuration,” 2017.

A wall-to-wall landscape of fragrant herbs, green moss, and wildflowers fills the gallery with the sweet, aromatic perfume of a garden at morning. For her first solo exhibition, Adriana Ramić has built an ecosystem, titled Every time step that passes has a cost of one (all works 2017), specifically designed to entice ladybugs. In stark contrast to this natural scenery, hundreds of printed images—what the artist describes as flashcards—cascade down the gallery walls, depicting plants, mysterious diagrams, toxic-waste barrels, elephants, kitties, and balaclavas, among countless other things.

The flashcards are the result of an optical character recognition program that has been coded by the artist to reconfigure images into text—not too unlike what Google Books uses to convert analog type into searchable information. From a suite of thirty generic photos of ladybugs in Key (on display in a small dark room at the rear of the gallery), the program translates the pictures to letters of the Serbo-Croatian alphabet, which then become the immense flashcard backdrop to the very curious work of Land art—it’s as if you’re traversing Walter de Maria’s 1977 New York Earth Room reimagined by Mark Zuckerberg.

Ramić’s show confuses the distinctions between computer programming and the networks of complex systems that govern life. Caught squarely in this uncanny matrix are the gallery’s visitors, who are asked to wear sterile coverings over their shoes before entering the space, so as to avoid disturbing the fragile ecosystem. Flooded by stimuli in every direction, one feels like a complete stranger in the very world that we inhabit daily.

Gabriel H. Sanchez

David Novros

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street
534 West 21st Street
April 27–June 30

David Novros, Untitled, 1975, oil on canvas, 117 x 168 x 2".

David Novros’s current exhibition comprises four paintings and four works on paper from the 1970s. All postdate his first site-specific fresco from 1970, which was commissioned by Donald Judd for his Spring Street residence in New York City. Novros, so much more than a Minimalist, is interested in continuing the tradition of painting as an immersive, site-specific experience—as it is in Paleolithic cave art, Byzantine mosaics, and Renaissance frescos—one that can profoundly alter its surrounding architecture.

Untitled, 1975, is a large-scale work painted with luminescent monochromatic blocks assembled into two unconventionally shaped canvases evoking basic post-and-lintel construction, or a fragmented pictorial rectangle. His palette is restrained and often evokes the richness of earth and unpolished stones, as in the tripartite Lent Painting, 1975, which is full of glossy blacks, dusty reds, and greens.

Novros understands that paintings are objects, as have many in the generation of artists with whom he came of age. But he also senses the importance of allowing painterly intuition to take control. Perhaps the most important thing he shares with his Minimalist peers and the lineage of in situ art to which he responds is the desire to activate the viewer as he or she takes in the work. For example, in Untitled (Frog Altar), 1975, the work changes, tonally and physically, as we walk from one side of the piece to the other—as do we, phenomenologically speaking. This bodily engagement through the artist’s reductive painterly facture is the reason Novros was one of the handful of painters Judd supported, and it is also what makes Novros relevant today.

Alex Bacon

“Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
April 15–August 13

Běla Kolářová, Five by Four, 1967, wood, paint, metal paper fasteners, 56 x 39 1/2".

Though it feels like a side gallery, this exhibition is more than a side note of inclusion, thanks to curators Starr Figura and Sarah Meister and assistant Hillary Reder’s thoughtfully pared selection from the museum’s holdings. There are few surprises but some terrific anomalies in these five rooms, grouped roughly by theme (Gestural Abstraction, Geometric Abstraction, Reductive Abstraction, Fiber and Line, and Eccentric Abstraction). To wit: Helen Frankenthaler’s Trojan Gates, 1955, opens the show with a hardened enamel luster and feels like an entranceway to something other than her most famous muted stains. Many paintings in this early field, including Elaine de Kooning’s scrappy Bullfight, 1960, and Joan Mitchell’s magisterial Ladybug, 1957, hint pointedly at these doyennes’ fierce struggle for acceptance without any asterisk.

Things cool off in the next room, in which geometric precision takes over from gestural impulse. The stripe shadows of Gego’s stacked iron sculpture Eight Squares, 1961, is a wonderful complement to Gertrudes Altschul’s photographs, which compose abstract geometry from everyday objects. A discovery for me: the unexpected, severe beauty of Běla Kolářová’s Five by Four, 1967, with the punctures and twists of its gridded metal fasteners. Anni Albers’s Free-Hanging Room Divider, 1949, is used to do just that in a hallway of textiles, ceramics, and Lina Bo Bardi’s iconic Poltrona Bowl Chair, 1951. The corridor opens into the clean Minimalism of Jo Baer, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Eleanore Mikus, Bridget Riley, and Anne Truitt.

Yellow Abakan, 1967–68, a magnificent ten-foot sisal wall sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz, who just passed away, appears in my favorite room, with Ruth Asawa’s great suspended wire sculpture (Untitled, ca. 1955) and Lenore Tawney’s Little River Wall Hanging, 1968, whose delicate linen streams form the shape of a coffin. With a collection this strong, there’s no excuse not to make more space for these artists to hold their own in the main fourth- and fifth-floor painting and sculpture galleries.

Prudence Peiffer

Daniele Milvio

Downs & Ross | 55 Chrystie Street
55 Chrystie Street, Suite 203
April 30–May 28

Downs & Ross | 106 Eldridge Street
106 Eldridge Street
April 30–May 28

View of “Daniele Milvio,” 2017.

Daniele Milvio’s recent works feel like an unholy amalgamation of Cy Twombly’s beautifully loopy imagery and Anselme Bellegarrigue’s Anarchist Manifesto (1850). A number of Milvio’s smaller pieces, dark and ethereal things, are covered with swirling, barely legible script on linden wood supports. A snippet of text in Mastro Titta (all works cited, 2017)—the nickname for Giovanni Battista Bugatti, the Papal States’ head executioner from 1796 to 1865—reveals that they are menus for a spezzatino, or stew, of neoliberals, among other sorts of folk. Nearby, two larger paintings (Teresa! Senti Quanto Pesa! [Teresa! How Heavy It Is!] and Sire, Il Cicalaro [Sire, the Gabber]) anchor the show. In both pictures, rows of party people are violently murdered, via decapitation or throat-slitting. As the menu paintings suggest, they’ll be the main ingredients for a tasty cannibalistic repast. A sculptural trio of bloody heads, all untitled, sit on pikes—they’d make Salome proud. And metal chains, fixed to the walls by grotesque little creatures, recall Renaissance door knockers or accoutrements for an s/m dungeon.

Milvio’s fusion of madness, human-flesh-eating, and dark humor is political theater à la Grand Guignol. His destruction is gleeful, satanic—rich with vengeance, loaded with spite. Such a purgative bacchanal would be useful to many a contemporary appetite in this age of evil power-grabbing and demagoguery. Of course, you can’t take Milvio’s exhibition as an act of capitalist and social critique too seriously, but you certainly don’t want to undermine the liberating schadenfreude such a nasty vision has to offer.

Nicholas Chittenden Morgan

Erwin Wurm

Lehmann Maupin | Chelsea
536 West 22nd Street
March 30, 2017–May 26, 2017

Erwin Wurm, Deep Snow, 2016, instruction drawing and Baker Copenhagen bench, dimensions variable.

Since the 1980s, Erwin Wurm’s “one-minute sculptures” have instigated artful absurdity within the gallery space by asking visitors to act out detailed, irrational tasks with a vast spectrum of common objects. In his latest exhibition, “Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order,” the artist employs midcentury modern furniture as elegant props for a new suite of sculptures that will make most modernist design aficionados squirm.

Deep Snow (all works 2016) invites you to step into two wobbly, oblong holes that have been cut into a pristine Baker Copenhagen bench. In the artist’s own handwriting scrawled onto the bench, participants are instructed to lift the thing around their ankles as if putting on an enormous pair of pants. In Spaceship to Venus, they’re asked to sit on an Aalto Tank lounge chair with their bodies turned 180 degrees, while Head TV makes viewers plunge into a handsome Danish cabinet like an ostrich with its head in the sand. Littering the gallery are less interactive sculptures that are just as eccentric—Modernist Pickle features the titular condiment in triplicate, cast in bronze and caught in an acrobatic three-way; 3 Legs is a trio of lifelike human legs, seemingly wanting to scuttle their way out the gallery’s front door.

For Organization of Love, a party of two is asked to suspend a swatch of foam with nothing but their united foreheads. With this piece, as with many of the others, Wurm cleverly engages the ego’s susceptibility to being publicly attentive. When caught in this open, embarrassing display, there’s a tinge of horrible self-consciousness that washes over the body. It gets amplified by the overwhelming sensation that somebody’s cranky grandma is on her way to scold us for playing on the furniture.

Gabriel H. Sanchez

“The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin”

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
March 17–August 6

Mary Reid Kelley, Charles Baudelaire, 2013, ink-jet print, 22 x 16".

For Walter Benjamin, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, not only a center of cultural production but a capital as metaphor—a metonymy for modernity more generally. The contrast between its chaotic street life and the orderly arcade passages that framed its shop windows became the structural concept for his last work, the unfinished Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940. This compilation of quotes and original writings is, in turn, the organizing principle for this show combining wall texts by Kenneth Goldsmith and works by Walead Beshty, Andrea Bowers, Nicholas Buffon, Cindy Sherman, Mungo Thomson, and others.

Benjamin’s book is organized into chapters he calls “convolutes,” with headings ranging from “The Theory of Knowledge” to “Idleness.” Curator Jens Hoffmann has matched each of these with an artist. Thus, four photographs from 2009 to 2011 titled New York City by Lee Friedlander are grouped under “Convolute M: The Flâneur.” Friedlander’s camera captures mannequins glimpsed through shop windows. The interior layering with the cityscape is captured in reflection—an equivalent to how Benjamin’s flâneur might have seen the arcades of Paris. “Convolute J: Charles Baudelaire” is represented by a Mary Reid Kelley ink-jet print portrait of the poet (Charles Baudelaire, 2013). If Arcades had a hero, it was the ragpicker, a person who Baudelaire championed as the custodian, and curator, of Paris: “All that the city has rejected, all that it has lost, shunned, disdained, broken, this man catalogues and stores. He creates order, makes an intelligent choice . . . he gathers the refuse that has been spit out by the god of Industry.” The conversation, literal and ironic, between these widely varied works and Benjamin’s text is an argument for W. B. Yeats’s claim that “the living can assist in the imagination of the dead.”

Zachary Sachs