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.
Although it may seem that the work of Isa Genzken and Michael Asher could not be more different—materially, conceptually, and in terms of the history of their critical reception—a connection is nevertheless drawn between them via the titling of Isa Genzken’s solo exhibition: “I Love Michael Asher.” Why the artist loves Asher, and how or if such admiration shows up in the work, is left for the viewer to parse.
Historical influence is one of the trickiest claims to make about an artist, and Genzken seems to know it, exploiting this tight spot to hilarious effect. For example, no images of Asher or his installations exist in the exhibition, yet photo-reconstructions of Archaic Greek statues do—their gaudy colors related to the wild mishmash of bright clothing in Genzken’s 2016 series “Schauspieler,” (Actors). Forget the devil, the pleasure is in these works’ material, highly evocative details. Notice a disco ball casually hanging from the finger of one of the mannequins, dangled near its ass; the overly careful way a piece of Plexiglas is custom cut to conform to the contours of a wall-mounted collage’s jagged edge; a photograph of the artist standing in front of Marisa Merz’s Untitled, 1980, installed in Hauser Wirth and Schimmel’s previous show, “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture By Women, 1947–2016”; the amorphous smudge on an otherwise shiny green top of a work table in an untitled piece from 2016.
Regarding a 1974 installation at Anna Leonowens Gallery at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Asher wrote that, “At a maximum, within artistic practice, [the installation] demands the receiver to take a critical position within the material world.” In this regard, Genzken is in perfect alignment with the object of her affection.
A cyborg, a poodle, and an unassembled IKEA bookshelf walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “Let me guess, lost the instructions?” The cyborg says, “This DIY mess is bullshit. Can’t we come up with a more efficient and tidy manner in which to assemble and install our basic needs—our medicine cabinets, our midcentury knock-off nightstands, our interchangeable shelving units?” The poodle says, “I barely defecate anymore. And when I do, my excrement smells like peaches and suntan lotion. I’ve also perfected my haircut to be both aero- and aqua-dynamic.” The IKEA bookshelf says, “Yes, we have lost the instructions.”
In “The Inner Reality of Ultra-Intelligent Life,” Harry Dodge breaks the veneer of spectatorship to reveal a fourth wall that is as flimsy as that box-store furniture set. The single-channel video Mysterious Fires, 2016, uses the nuances of conversation as both medium and fodder. Two characters are engaged in a tête-à-tête that ping-pongs from bohemian discussions of the ethics of robotics to bourgeois arguments over Cardigan versus Pembroke Welsh Corgis. The pair go off-script and ask for lost lines, which are volleyed back by off-screen voices, defying the mastery of a narrative. The duo wears costumes and rubber masks, dissolving and layering their individual identities. What, after all, is the purpose of constructing legible works with bodies that refuse to cohere? And where do the mess, the contamination, and humor of being human fit into the quest for perfection?
The works here, including older drawings and sculptures, absorb a viewer into the drama of Dodge’s world: a zone neither here nor there, nor anywhere. From this uncomfortable place of indeterminacy, Dodge faces the audience in a search for life that recognizes the joke.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” asks the New York Times job listing in Paul Sietsema’s ink-and-enamel drawing Vertical newspaper (thin green line), 2016, with some letters obscured by an unctuous mark. That white enamel is materially distinct from the ink rendering of the broadsheet below, but it is also not all it seems—the glob is the base for a painting of a paint-dipped coin, tossed onto the Times.
Such exacting representations throughout the exhibition bring up questions such as What do I see? and How was this made? That they come up simultaneously reflects the interchangeability at the heart of economic thinking, particularly given the objects depicted. In addition to the coinage, Sietsema’s enamel-on-linen work Swipe painting (Chase), 2016, depicts a credit card gliding across a support, evoking the movement of touch-screen commands, while the enamel and oil on linen Carriage Painting, 2016, shows a greatly enlarged collage of a torn hundred-euro bill.
The most intense performance of fungibility comes in the artist’s looped grayscale 35-mm film Abstract Composition, 2014, which depicts a rotating scrap of digitally animated cardboard, perforated with text taken from the descriptions of online auction items. After each has a spin, a new phrase appears. The switch happens offscreen, during the brief moment when only the edge of the turning cardboard faces the camera. The seamless shifting of contradictory content—“no further description” gives way to “multicolored divider”—unsettles the seemingly matter-of-fact subject. If the modernist push toward abstraction aspired to bring viewers beyond this material world, the invisible handling of commercial language in Sietsema’s film casts abstraction as a tool of the market-inflected reality we all live in.
Outfitted in a white dress and matching head wrap, Barbara T. Smith sits on the ground. She places a photograph ceremoniously on a piece of fabric, next to eight others. This is the tarot by way of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; photographs of plants, architectural spaces, friends, students, colleagues, and the artist’s own body form the major and minor arcana of The Cloistered Study, 1976, an arrangement based on Smith’s performance at the experimental Johnston College of the University of Redlands, where she taught at the time. An enlarged black-and-white photograph documenting Smith’s performance is installed above a pedestal draped with fabric and photographs that were used in the performance, adjacent to a grid of four shallow shadow boxes, each containing a baroque composition of photographs, feathers, shells, and sundry other items from the natural world. The Cloistered Study is both activity and ideogram—a picture of a practice, and it is emblematic of the focus on language and meaning that runs through Smith’s decades-long, complicated oeuvre.
Two years ago, the Getty Research Institute acquired the artist’s archive of correspondence, photographs, project files, and artists’ books. Although none of the books from that collection are displayed here, Smith’s books are, in many ways, at the heart of this exhibition and of her practice in general. Ever shifting in format, they document epic road trips, banal business contacts, and an ongoing (perhaps spiritual) relationship to materiality. Many of the books in the Getty’s archive are restricted due to their fragility, and the ones shown here are sealed up in vitrines. But no matter: The vibrancy of such a book as Reminder (1967) spills out from its edges, exceeding what we think we know about this important artist.
Park McArthur suggested in this past summer’s issue of Artforum that identity is an expandable pocket, “like the bottomless velvet bags used at magic shows.” In a parallel universe, I imagine that this pocket looks a lot like A. K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard’s In Spirit of “Knuckles” the Handbag, 2014, in this group show. Both campy and base, it is at once a crocheted purse and a plastic bag, encrusted with doorknobs, ceramic mug handles, utility knives, a quartz crystal, and a papier-mâché hand. This exterior appears to be about a hand’s work—the array of objects we take hold of to hurt, heal, and nourish our bodies and those of others. Any promise of efficacy is nearly voided by the exhausted proliferation of forms; yet still it persists as this pocket, this bag.
Naotaka Hiro’s performance-based videos such as Ass Gong, 2010, and Peaking, 2016, along with a related sculpture, Peak, 2016, stand sentinel over the main space of the exhibition. His is a more claustrophobic take on Carolee Schneemann’s Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973–76—the whirling lines he draws from inside a large canvas bag (there it is again, the pocket!) echoing the spinning cast-bronze ass gong, which once every three minutes is ceremoniously beaten. Elsewhere, smaller, quieter works hold court: Bashir Naim’s short, looped dance Improvisation, 2015, displayed on a cracked iPhone, and Johanna Breiding’s velvety photograph titled Still Life with Octopus and Inverted Basketballs, 2015. These are only a few of the works that elucidate the possibilities of bodies and the expanse of identity.
In 1987, a body’s arrival at LACE was caught by electronic infrared, heat-seeking intrusion detectors. Rather than a protective mechanism installed to ensure the safety of the gallery’s contents, this device was an artwork by Julia Scher. Upon approach, one tripped flashing lights and ringing alarms. Scher’s work was part of the pivotal exhibition “Surveillance,” the historical precedent for a new group show organized by Shoghig Halajian and Thomas Lawson. If the earlier moment was preoccupied with technologies of observation and their infrastructure—it was subtitled “An Exhibition of Video, Photography, Installations”—today, the curators and artists insist, we must consider not just the tactics but also the targets: Like most policing and warfare, contemporary surveillance affects disproportionate violence upon bodies whose difference is itself criminalized.
Juliana Huxtable’s ink-jet print Untitled (Casual Power), 2015, alludes to an area in Harlem along the Bronx River where GPS software fails; Barbara Ess’s Surveillance Nightlights, 2010, and Wildcat Movie, 2009, present footage from heat-sensitive cameras installed along the US–Mexico border. In the lobby, the CCTV monitors of Coco Fusco’s Dolores from 10 to 10, 2002, re-create the excruciating experience of a maquiladora worker suspected of forming a union—her employer holds her for twelve hours without food or drink.
What does it mean to be seen today? The artists surveyed here disrupt the calming rhetoric of transparency, or of any clear path drawn from representation to freedom. Sondra Perry’s spellbinding two-channel video Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One, 2015, features various generations of her own family in neon-green ski masks peeling sweet potatoes and singing; the younger ones admire themselves in a front-facing camera. Masked—perhaps the better for going undetected—they are gorgeous nonetheless.
One collage, a sharp horizontal band tightening around all of the rooms of the gallery, encircles us with images of women. For Pictures of Women Working, 2016, some one thousand photographs, affectionately clipped from national newspapers and fashion magazine advertisements or editorials, paper over one another, with a bit of white paint filling in the occasional gap. Lifted from the era of feminism’s second wave, sepia shots lie over newer pages of the New York Times, interspersed with a series of sheets containing black-and-white photos of women repeating aerobic moves while free-floating in electric blush-, cantaloupe-, or celery-colored dimensions. There are good women—breastfeeding in ivory satin robes, vacuuming, filing into work in a neat row of nurses’ caps and white stockings, kneeling in coronation with ladies in waiting. Then there are bad women—caressing each other, smoking (Nina Simone and Gloria Steinem both daring you to comment with their confronting gazes), protesting the Vietnam War and labor inequality. And sphinxlike women—Hillary Clinton, many times, throughout the decades.
Babies in arms, babies everywhere, perhaps in a nod to the artist’s own new motherhood. Cher is here; so are more anonymous figures strutting in eighties shoulder-padded power suits. The photomontage, lovingly amassed and laid out, uses the elementary craft techniques that fashioning a valentine for the object(s) of one’s admiration might involve. But this one is not inscribed to a crush—it’s to big sisters.
In the center of a golden room glowing in the midday sun sits a glass saguaro cactus on a wooden table held together with soldered copper wires and blooming with handmade flowers. An old pay phone hangs silent and broken from the wall, and a twisted gold stick leans listlessly in a corner across from an industrious electric fan waving its blades to billow a single plastic bag. A black wooden chair lingers by the door.
In Golden Room (all works 2016) one can watch the shadows of a passing day trace their patterns over the old walls, cut and scarred, and hear the voice of laub echoing from the video #AndNowWeLetGo, shown on a tablet propped just outside the swooping curve of the cut swinging door. In it, laub speaks in fragment after fragment, as intimate as a video call, with absurd images mixing into the twist of poems and shudder of naked emotional declarations.
The artist offers his phone number in the press release, so I called it. We talked briefly, and he told me the installation was inspired by a mutual friend, Emi, who recently and suddenly died. I went back to the gold room to sit and watch those shadows slowly shift alongside the cough and stutter of traffic just outside. While sitting there, laub sent me an email to follow up on our conversation: “I spent this entire month thinking about Emi with a saguaro that had golden juice slowly spilling out of its wounds and she would be catching it—in her hand hands and there were honeysuckles everywhere—you know the smell? It is a golden smell. . . . And I want to cry in the golden room—like I think it’s a good place to be sad.” And it is.
A consortium of props and decor offers a capacious mix of memories, myths, and maladies in Karon Davis’s solo exhibition “Pain Management.” Reflecting on the physical and emotional experience of suffering and loss, Davis brings us into what was, until recently, her world, which was confined to her husband’s bedside in a hospital as he underwent cancer treatment. She takes us on a hallucinatory journey as told through the re-creation of a waiting room and eight characters composed of plaster casts, and one of shredded medical bills, indicating the financial as well as affective burden she carried throughout this ordeal. The omnipresent nurses in scrubs take center stage: Here, they assume the symbolic form of a narcotic angel in Morphine (Angel) (all works 2016), a scarecrow for Isosfamide (Scarecrow), and a caretaker in Nicotine, (Seated Nurse Smoking), eschewing the humor, affect, and pathos that the artist likely negotiated throughout Noah Davis’s stages of illness. The sculptures of children, a series titled “Children of the Moon,” include Mawu (Holding a Basket), who seems to be grimly reaping Elizabeth V. Spelman’s “fruits of sorrow” from the scarecrow’s field, while Mary (Catching the Moon), attempts to play catch with the moon; another, Oya (Holding a Scarab Beetle), gazes upon the insect resting on the palm of his hand. These melancholic figures reference Davis’s interest in Egyptian mummification, providing a historical and cross-cultural perspective on the treatment of death, transcendence, and preservation.
The largest piece is the one that ties this exhibition together—an overwrought box of Kleenex tissues titled Cry Baby. Davis’s rapport with this icon of sorrow transports us into familiar recollections of affliction. As if to encourage catharsis, an unobtrusive box of Kleenex similar to the artist’s sculpture sits near the guest book, waiting for you upon checking in or checking out.
The Earth is round: a hopeful curve, a just-around-the-corner, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, what-goes-around-comes-around sort of shape. Loops, circles, and patterns attempt to assuage the panic of “Is this all there is? This rude heap? This heavy lump?” After too many turns, however, the wheel becomes a self-fulfilling and nauseating prophecy. The rub then is the anticipation of corners. When you’re hanging upside down, the randomness of Earth outstretched indefinitely begins to feel more comfortable.
The humor and immediacy of Stanya Kahn’s exhibition “Heatstroke” mimics this absurdity, the impossibility of making sense of the primordial puree. Funny points out the coiled mayhem and stretches it to voltage, as in the ink drawing In All the Wrong Places, 2016. Funny electrifies the feedback loops out of complacency in the canvas Keep It Together, 2014. Paintings such as Kill Me If I Ever Get That Hot, 2015, or Heatstroke, 2016, are stopgaps from cycles of anxiety or the volley between one political snake to the next.
If satire is as mathematical as Lenny Bruce states—tragedy plus time—then it is through progression, a piling upon or digging deep, an equation of “yes, and,” that the nightmare Ferris wheel ride can rest. The work in Kahn’s show, appropriately located in a gallery called the Pit, is very much at home in the yawn and void, a place from which we can only look up and out.
Days later, the gallery’s still dank with the hotboxed aroma of weed. At the opening of Henry Taylor’s fourth exhibition with this gallery, a film that the artist collaborated on with Kahlil Joseph screened in a shadowy room where a crew of Rastafarians smoked very large spliffs in quietude, just as they do in Wizard of the Upper Amazon, 2016.
Taylor paints with deceptive simplicity and a sophisticated heart the people and scenes he sees around him, and here, these pictures hang in a room amid a dirt lot, graffitied walls, and a dead tree that arcs high to the pristine white ceiling. Another room over, bright green Astroturf circles Not Yet Titled, 2016, a fake pool with a few loose foam noodles floating on its painted cyan surface. Together, these two spaces give off a kind of rags-to-riches story similar to the artist’s. Let’s not dip into biography, though, but instead look: The paintings around the dirt lot reveal street scenes and daily life, whilst poolside are close-ups of a family splashing, swimming, and lounging with joy. Tucked behind the ersatz pool is a re-creation of Taylor’s studio, muddy with paint and painting and stacked with art books, his glasses resting on the table next to them. The paintings’ subjects appear to be the artist’s cohorts and companions, the studio a portal––along with weed, maybe––between different states of being.
Though there’s something a little heavy-handed in these sets, the works have a moving force. They present a way of artmaking mostly abandoned in America after the European avant-garde swept out Regionalism––by an artist who simply paints the distinct scenes around him in a palette drawn from life.
Hanne Darboven’s systematic output is intimidating, partly due to its inscrutability but mostly because of its scope and ambition. This is serious work, as in labor, and it is displayed here to a rare enough degree that initial feelings of awe turn into a strange sense of gratitude.
Much of what’s here is writing. Erdkunde I, II, III (Geography I, II, III), 1986, covers the walls of the massive first-floor gallery with more than seven hundred framed panels. Some contain photographs of her studio or previous installations, encyclopedia pages or detailed drawings, but most are repetitive numbered sheets of lines and curves in firm black ink—writing as daily exercise. Some are recognizable as names and lists, but the content is mostly unidentifiable. On the floor, ten pictorial tableaus point to different stages in history, tying the voluminous chronology together in one big sweep of human experience.
Upstairs, across a smaller space, Leben, leblen (Life, Living), 1997–98, presents more than fourteen hundred panels of typed and handwritten numerical sequences and calculations, indexing a period of one hundred years. Zooming in to find patterns is futile: One must consider the whole installation, which also includes two large dollhouses. These two feel like a reconciliation of personal memory and culture with the passing of time, as do the objects in Fin de Siècle – Buch der Bilder (Fin de Siècle – Book of Pictures), 1992–93, in which meticulously labeled photographs of instruments from Darboven’s studio, such as clocks and microscopes, also symbolize markers of technological progress.
Both writing about and painting language have been hallmarks of Mira Schor’s inventive practice for decades. Her latest solo show provides an opportunity to grasp the depth of this output vis-à-vis two large-scale accumulative series, separated by more than twenty years.
Schor has described “War Frieze,” 1991–94, as a response to the 1990–91 Gulf War; and bits of language, such as “area of denial,” that appear in the eighty-canvas segment shown here are exemplary of the artist’s expert ability to massage the multiple meanings of words and phrases. She paints the line of this particular phrase as coming out of a vagina, thereby pointing to the sexualized taboo that produces and reenacts (ad infinitum) the cultural meanings ascribed to the female body. But “area of denial” is also a historically specific phrase, one used to describe a class of weapon that was designed to prevent an opponent from traversing or accessing territory; the expression thus represents one of those convenient collages of language by members of the military-industrial complex to at once dodge description and obfuscate intent. In this regard, “War Frieze” remains sadly relevant—despite not being as well known as it should be.
The second, more recent “‘Power’ Frieze,” 2016, depicts a central figure representing “Woman Artist.” Inspired by the Mangaaka sculptures that Schor encountered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these skeletal power figures, some of them wearing boxing gloves, do battle with internal and external invalidations. Painted on tracing paper as thin as onion skin, they too are works of uncompromising strength and clarity.