Flanking the entryway of the upstairs gallery are two leather cutouts in the shape of depleted hounds. Peter Wächtler’s Dog 1 and 2 (all works 2016) loll on the floor like floppy shadows of the space’s twin mission-style windows. The scene inside is a pastiche of modern wit and dusty formalism, cast in flat light: Wächtler’s pastel drawings of volcanoes on the walls and glass starfish on plinths are intercepted by Sam Pulitzer’s smallish illustrations on ivory paper that looks aged, but isn’t. Pulitzer’s series has the grainy erudition of certain New Yorker covers but is otherwise slumming it, in weird edgeless frames fixed to retail displays from ULINE. In You’ve Got It, two faces on the strokes of a jazzy letter X pep each other up; Comrades, Not Colleagues frames a tableau of balaclava-clad revolutionaries, all eggplant and turquoise, graphically rounded off like smartphone icons. The images cite eclectic styles, yet—as if they’ve all been yanked from texts—they share a sense of missing action.
Wächtler’s five “I Don’t Want to Live (Seesterne)” sculptures, handblown in orange and blue glass, are delicately plopped on pedestals of varying height—yet their pudgy arms look like tongues more than anything, pulling apart five ways. For the other half of the depressive’s paradox, there’s his “I Don’t Want to Die,” also a quintet, comprising bold-hued pictures of an erupting volcano. These heavy sheets of paper slump unframed on the wall with the attitude of rush-job Jack Goldsteins—brilliant purple or blue or green skies behind sketchy dark wedges of cinder cone and smoke, a line of Pompeiian doom dribbling down. It’s a grand subject, returned to an appropriately petty scale—and no further: These two young artists recognize what a drained gesture it would be to send the old guards off forever.
To be common is to be many things: popular or plentiful, lowbrow or uncivilized, a thing which two or more people can share, an icebreaker. In Blair Saxon-Hill’s exhibition, visitors are welcomed by a theatrical gathering of characters just slightly larger than the average human and constructed from proletariat materials, such as cardboard, clay, sticks, and borrowed wares including umbrellas and handbags. They float on the walls in dialogue or as if they were a choir. They are at once harlequins, puppets with no strings, and DIY constructions of fragmented bodies. By flattening her figures and placing them on the walls––rather than, say, on the Soap Box (all works 2014–16) installed in the center of the gallery––the artist conflates the scenery with the characters. These pieces haunt the space, serving as a backdrop to the suggestion of discourse that happens at the center, on the floor, with no divide.
The theater has long been a space for the masses to convene and see bodies perform circumstances without the gravity of the real. To be a spectator among other spectators observing the same reflection of abstract concepts is a powerful and uniting feeling. And, in times of trouble, that is the most craved feeling: being together. By envisioning a space for her characters to both exist for and watch over visitors, Saxon-Hill’s show provides a reverence for the commons.
Usually a group show leaves one struggling for a narrative thread, but the humps, lumps, bumps, butts, dicks, and boobs that make up the work in “We the People” are right at home in the realm of plotless exhibitions. A benefit for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the show gathers work made during the recent election cycle: a period of political uncertainty, disturbing truths, and upheaval. The immediacy makes for a collection of very raw and honest work that portrays a commitment to making art for a worthy cause. Yet there is one common theme: exposing the vulnerable parts of bodies.
Works embedded with sexual innuendoes, such as a peeled and fingered orange in Stephanie Sarley’s video Untitled, 2016, and the smeared, spread thighs of Andrea Marie Breiling’s multimedia paintings Together and More (both 2016) neighbor sculptures in psychedelic palettes by Friends with You and Jen Stark. Hidden in the details of the former’s Seafoam, 2015, and the latter’s Drip Down, 2016, is a recurrence in the shape of a soft tower, sometimes erect, other times at half salute or pooling.
This demonstrable roar, an assertion of the bodies of the artists, provides comfort in troubling times, along with eye-opening poignancy and insight. Thus, the differences among the works here lend them a counterintuitive coherence. There is no pressure to assimilate; the contradictions exist side by side.
“The Ease of Fiction” brings together the disparate work of ruby onyinyechi amanze, Duhirwe Rushemeza, Sherin Guirguis, and Meleko Mokgosi, all of whom were born in Africa and now live and work in the US. Though these artists are in a unique position to comment on what constitutes African art and the stereotypes and caricatures to which it has been subject, the strength of this exhibition is not its ability to levy a cohesive argument but rather its insistence on formal and political diversity.
That said, the artists negotiate between the freedom of play and the responsibility to reflect on reality, a struggle that is often visualized as an interplay between abstraction and representation, which is most clearly seen in amanze’s surreal drawings that circulate her self-portrait in a fantastical world of birds, astronaut odalisques, and tiger-headed creatures. Her drawings give way on the next wall to Mokgosi’s masterwork Democratic Intuition, Exordium, 2014–15, a series of vignettes painted across eleven canvases, depicting scenes from the artist’s native Botswana and South Africa. Compelling figuration lulls us into a narrative that slowly dissipates into passages of gestural paint, exposing the construction of representation. That fuzziness between truth and fiction also manifests in the nearly illegible central canvas, which resembles a sun-bleached photograph, invoking indexicality only to deny us the comfort of history and veracity traditionally implied by the photographic image.
Rushemeza’s richly textured sculptural paintings deceptively re-create aging urban surfaces, while Guirguis’s trio of massive paper sheets are hand-cut into intricate screens derived from Egyptian architecture, interrupted with bursts of colored ink. Guirguis translates the conflict between containment and exuberance into Untitled (El Sokareya), 2013, a floor-bound sculpture comprising interlocking plywood petals that explode into one bold gesture—crystallizing most concisely and forcefully the tensions that ripple throughout the show.
If you have never seen a collagraph by the late Cuban artist Belkis Ayón, her first US retrospective will be a revelation. Created between 1984 and 1999, nearly all of the forty-three works on view are populated by mouth-less mythical characters who face outward to address us, in defiance of their inability to speak—a tension between form and composition appropriate to Ayón’s subject, the Afro-Cuban fraternal society known as Abakuá. The society’s secret rituals and beliefs consumed the artist’s too-short career, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that she was excluded from participating.
Though the exhibition overly emphasizes Abakuá iconography—a recurring white figure, we learn, often represents a sacrificial Eve-like female character in one origin story—didactics do not distract from the graphic power of Ayón’s work. Singular among print processes, collagraphy uses a board as a substrate onto which an artist can affix a variety of materials; the resulting matrix—one example of which is on view—can have a craggy surface that, when inked and printed, transfers both image and embossed texture to wet paper. Across multipaneled prints such as La Cena (The Supper), 1991, the artist tests the limits of legibility and disclosure through dense passages of grayscale patterning.
The scale of Ayón’s work grew larger over time, culminating in prints that behave more like sculpture or architecture, invading the space of the viewer. Such physically and psychically imposing work directly precedes her final print series, made just before she committed suicide at age thirty-two. These relatively small works are intimate and concentrated, both retrospective and introspective. A murky vortex, swirling like an uneasy mind, occupies the center of Hay que tener paciencia (You Have to Be Patient), 1998, while a black form rises up from the soup of puzzle pieces, fish scales, and vines to portend darkness.
I now carry in my wallet a receipt that reads, “When the future comes: We will have fought for economic justice / Cuando llegue el futuro: Habremos luchado por la justicia económica.” This carnival-amusement-like “fortune” was produced after pressing the button of The Fortune Teller (Migrant Edition) / La máquina de la fortuna (edición migrante), 2015, one of the four conceptually precise works that make up Beatriz Cortez’s solo presentation at this museum. Culled from the experiences and words of a group of collaborators, all immigrants, Cortez’s fortunes are invocations for collective action, opposed to a newly ossified fate.
The figure of the nomad, incarnated in the current political climate as the immigrant, is central to each of the works here. In The Beast / La bestia, 2015, a repurposed pinball machine dramatizes the journey of an immigrant crossing Mexico’s northern border, wherein the silver ball encounters the US ICE, the Minutemen, and Cesar Chavez’s “wet line.” Lights sometimes flash in this game, but the ca-chunk of the bumpers and the high-pitched ringing of bells are absent here—producing notable silences. Elsewhere, viewers can pose for a photo booth in front of backgrounds of Central American rural and urban landscapes—The Photo Booth / La cabina de fotos, 2015–16—or choose from a custom jukebox filled with sounds as banal as “Rain” or as weighty as a “Burial” in The Jukebox / La rocola, 2015–16.
When the future comes, tell me what we will have done. Tell me in (the aptly named) future perfect tense; the tense of Cortez’s fortune-telling machine—the tense of political aspiration.
“Do I look like a fucking lady or what?” So begins one of Adele Givens’s many appearances on Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam. She continues, “I like being a fucking lady, especially in the ’90s. We get to say what the fuck we want to, don’t we, girls?” Almost two decades later, Mickalene Thomas, whose solo exhibition is titled after the performer’s brilliant greeting (minus the F-bomb), responds in the affirmative.
At the center of Thomas’s installation is a twelve-minute two-channel video, Do I Look Like a Lady (Comedians and Singers), 2016, which collages together footage of a host of black female performers: Josephine Baker shadow-dancing; Nina Simone singing “I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”; a young Whoopi Goldberg doing her brilliant white girl routine; Pam Grier kicking ass; Whitney Houston beginning “The Greatest Love of All”; Givens opening her set; and Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who makes repeat appearances throughout, telling jokes and singing. This pantheon of women (some of whom are also represented in the four dazzling silk-screen and mirror paintings that line the room) charts out a genealogy, fulfilling what M. Jacqui Alexander calls the “desire to belong to the self in community,” a political desire that culminates in “radical self-possession.”
Thomas’s installation encourages such belonging: One can lounge on stools and in chairs tufted with a patchwork of seventies-era fabrics and read from stacks of books by the likes of Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, and many others. It’s a situation that insists on the value and contributions of these writers and performers, and, not insignificantly, of this artist’s own aesthetic. Or, as Givens would put it, “Ladies in the house tonight!”
The way through doors. The thingness of things. The sheer magnitude of the sublime. With graphite, oil, and encaustic on waxy expanses of paper sheets and the thinnest linen, Toba Khedoori carefully draws and paints the quiet intensity of doorways and windows, simple objects floating in vast space, and natural phenomena so large that even when they stretch thirty feet across the expanse of a museum’s white wall—as in Untitled (Horizon), 1999—their infinite potential can barely be contained.
To see more than twenty-five of Khedoori’s works––silent, restrained, meticulously wrought, and generally massive in scale––spanning almost as many years is to see a life spent in diligent contemplation. The earliest works here capture the oppression of crowds via the rows of closed doors in Untitled (Doors), 1995, and row after row of empty theater seats in Untitled (Seats), 1996. The works grow more intimate and domestic with depictions of fireplaces such as Untitled (White Fireplace), 2005, and finish with the tangle of nature in Untitled (Leaves/Branches) and the dream of a perfect underlying net of reality in the wholly abstract and gently bent Untitled (Grid), both 2015. Her expanses of empty paper, fleshed with wax and battered slightly by the spaces she crafts them in, make all that white less oppressive than the walls around them. Their off-white shimmer fills the emptiness. (The occasional full-bleed blacks, on the other hand, feel as heavy as black holes). Here is a soft, infinite space one can feel but never fully comprehend, except perhaps one tiny pencil stroke at a time.