Canvas masks with square polycarbonate welding lens eyes and two tubes, each dangling like strange appendages, line one wall of the gallery. The masks, together titled the Garrett Morgan safety hood allowing the wearer to breathe in a hostile environment (all works 2015), are replicas of air-filtration hoods––originally conceived to protect firefighters from smoke––created by African American inventor Garrett Morgan. Here, James Crosby reinterprets them as defenses against both atmospheric and social threats. A large black-and-white photograph of a figure donning the hood highlights its capacity for disguise (Take care of your mask and your mask will take care of you). Although the gallery text affirms the wearer is Crosby himself, his face is completely obscured, making this claim impossible to verify.
Crosby’s decision to frame Morgan’s legacy around this particular invention—rather than another of his innovations, such as the electric stoplight—allows the artist to engage the subject of blackness. Though Morgan symbolizes African American achievement, Crosby’s emphasis on the hoods as Morgan’s defining civic achievement seems to imply that becoming part of the Black American historical canon requires deemphasizing, or even effacing, race. A pair of hoodies cut open––one resembling a soft exoskeleton, the other concrete-dipped and hardened, like armor—emphasizes this tension between visibility and concealment. Clothing and camouflage can protect the vulnerable, though not always, as the hoodie, now a haunting symbol of police brutality, reminds us.
Crosby offers no finite answers for how blackness should present itself in society or, for that matter, in art (notably, none of the pieces on view directly represents the black body). His refusal to try to neatly resolve such vast and difficult questions only makes his debut exhibition more compelling.
“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.” The carving of character by light, as the early camera was thought to do, and as this advertising slogan for photographers of the 1800s suggests, was especially trenchant for those who wanted to remember their dead at eternal slumber’s start, with astonishing veracity, via the daguerreotype’s unearthly powers. Memorial portrait painting is another kind of alchemy—venerable, yet stranger, as it tasks the artist with reviving a kind of familiar glow or personality from the deceased––sometimes using the corpse as a model––for the commissioning bereaved.
This exhibition, curated by the museum’s Stacy C. Hollander, is an extraordinary survey of memorial works—mostly painted and photographic—that were made by artists, both formally trained and self-taught, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, a time when we were more intimately acquainted with mortality and the rituals surrounding death. Many of the works’ subjects are quite young—children and babies who died from illness, accidents. One of the most affecting is Thomas Wilder’s oil-on-canvas portrait of Anna Baylies Bushee, 1848, which depicts the girl, just barely five, sitting in a dour parlor near a window that looks onto two small angels—ugly, sickening things—awaiting her arrival in heaven. There’s Charles Willson Peale’s Rachel Weeping, 1772–1818, a painting of the artist’s wife crying over the body of their infant daughter, Margaret, who was taken by smallpox: Margaret’s yellowed lips are held shut by a silken chinstrap, her arms securely fastened to her sides by a swath of white ribbon, tied with a dainty bow. There’s even a plaster death mask by Hiram Powers made from his little boy’s face, James Gibson Powers, ca. 1838, who succumbed to “water on the brain.”
Pictures of headstones appear in the exhibition as well—some so crudely fashioned that they look considerably older than just two or three hundred years. Also on view: an ivory medallion featuring a watercolor and graphite rendering of a virginal teenage bride. A photo encased in a velvety, locket-like frame shows a young lady in her casket, lavished with flowers, with an aged paper fragment that reads “Death’s seal is on that cherub brow, and closed that sparkling eye.” Genteel language often poorly conceals such devastating loss.
Diane Simpson’s sculptures are part translation, part fantasy, and pure pleasure. The octogenarian artist begins each work by creating isometric drawings on graph paper. She uses the drawings, with handwritten instructions for assembly, as blueprints for artworks with interlocking components. While they reference articles of clothing, the sculptures are constructed from hard angles, often in materials with an architectural heft. Simpson’s efforts result in a sophisticated, homespun modernism that channels the Midwestern cosmopolitanism of her hometown, Chicago.
Her second show with this gallery showcases seven sculptures and two drawings from her “Samurai” series, 1981–83. This was only her second body of work after finishing her MFA in 1978, at age forty-three. Simpson took inspiration from a scene in Akira Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha (1980), in which she observed the intricate folds of seated samurais’ skirts. In her works, the skirt’s function switches from modesty to protection; feminine concealment of the body becomes masculine containment. Her highly photogenic and life-size warriors, made from MDF and wood, project a squat, robotic, almost flat image of power. And yet the objects beg to be encountered in their rich dimensionality. Here, surprising details of their hardware-less construction emerge. Samurai 9, 1983, references Art Deco architecture in its stepped peaks and frontal solidity, while its sides reveal elegant, sloping planes. Simpson also indulges her painterly sense of color. Samurai 10, 1983, and Samurai 5, 1982, nod to Agnes Martin with their delicate grids, both incised and drawn, in pale red, salmon, and white. Samurai 6, 1982, features a dramatic enamel gradient that goes from white to gray. Conceived more than thirty years ago, Simpson’s work feels newly conversant with recent sculpture that refuses to pit structural concerns against beauty.
These photographs, shot between 1988 and 1992 in Grapevine Branch (a small community in West Virginia) were made collaboratively. Not wanting to rehearse the old narrative of “poor isolated rednecks,” Susan Lipper involved her subjects in the storytelling process, visualizing their personal myths. It’s surprising, then, that her work features those familiar tokens—guns, Klan hoods, bibles, booze—that decorate the liberal’s imaginary tableaux of the rural South. How did these props end up there? And, more to the point, what is it that is so unsettling about the results?
For a start, we might observe that Lipper’s characters never directly confront the camera. They look at us through masks, or look past us, or blankly stare at the ground. These are postures, and yet their effect is menacing. And it’s precisely that tension—between real and imagined fear—that forces us to engage, not retract. Untitled (Grapevine), 1992, for example, shows an old man looking at us through the broken window of a ramshackle pickup truck. His face and particularly his eyes are hidden by shard patterns. This framing is too perfect to feel circumstantial; it’s practically iconic. Yet the scene’s physical realities—unrepaired window, worn-out clothing—ineluctably evince a lifestyle in decay.
Lipper and her subjects are staging the relations between lived reality and its representation. We are invited not so much to look at these photographs as through them, at the social significance of the forlorn rituals they recount. Though Lipper’s scenes are evenly distributed between nighttime and day, they all unfold at a mysterious, timeless twilight hour. Revelation is within reach, but it remains one frame away.
In the years after New Hollywood cinematographers popularized lens flare as an acceptable filmic glitch, a certain strain of color photography—as seen on moody LP covers and ad pages for muscle cars or cigarettes—seemed to dwell almost exclusively in the magic hour, that pre-twilight moment when the sun emanates diffraction spikes and gentle melancholy. Roughly the same period marked the apex of utopian design’s perfusion in popular culture, as geodesic domes materialized everywhere from Expo 67 in Montreal to Colorado’s legendary Drop City commune.
Matthew Porter mines and merges these aesthetic strains in the exhibition “Sunclipse,” titled after Buckminster Fuller’s non-geocentric term for sunset. Taking contemporary photography’s genre eclecticism as a given, Porter sets off hazy, image artifact–laden pictures of nature and decay in equatorial zones with ambiguous fashion shots and cinematic cityscapes, generating a productively inscrutable mix that implies civilization’s impending dusk. A series of late-afternoon photos (“Cape Romano,” 2016) taken in southern Florida features a quirky coastal vacation home composed of bubble-shaped pods on stilts—vaguely space-age structures that are being reclaimed by the rising sea, their futuristic curves defaced by graffiti sporting distinctly American appellations: KAYLA, KC, and COBI were here. In Frigatebird, 2014/16, sun shrouds the perched avian subject with the golden mist of a veiling flare, more typically applied to glossy editorials as a dreamy postproduction effect, while Porter’s actual editorial-esque shots depict a female model shielding her eyes from bright light or fringed by tropical plant fronds.
The exhibition’s fulcrum, however, is Porter’s photograph of the United Nations headquarters at nightfall, UN, 2016, which exposes an inadvertent, possibly divinatory ghost: The contour of the camera’s aperture blades is doubled in the form of a crimson pentagon—sly metonym for American militarism?—suspended in midair, haunting the monolith to global peacekeeping in the dying light. Ascendant darkness has never looked more radiant, or more terrifyingly apt.
What is the female nude anymore? In Loie Hollowell’s idiom, female orifices are conflated with elements of the natural world: a canyon might be spread legs, or the sun, an anus. Her unflinchingly direct paintings sublimate aspects of the female experience in compositions that are both landscapes and anatomical abstractions, echoing a long tradition of feminist painters who claimed the female body for their gender’s own demesne. Synthesizing Judy Chicago’s hard-edge symbolism, Hilma af Klint’s diagrammatic visual language, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s sense of the iconographic, the fourteen paintings presented in Hollowell’s first exhibition here are powerfully referential of her forebears. Perhaps that’s why the emerging Queens-based artist’s works, despite their electric palette and vivid style, can seem solemn—in 2016, gender politics are still very real, and expressions of female sexuality are endlessly misunderstood and/or maligned.
Hollowell and O’Keeffe, despite appearances, differ considerably. It’s not just that the latter disavowed eroticized readings of her work, but the former points to the sexual subtext of her paintings with titles such as Full Frontal (In Green) and Thick Pound over Green Mound, both 2016. Inspired by tantric painting and other esoteric styles, Hollowell’s luminous, tonal delicacies set up formal contrasts between figure and ground, flatness and depth, fallowness and fecundity. Her surprising use of relief, created with sawdust and foam, adds an unexpected textural quality to her smooth handling of acrylic. Unlike many practitioners of the straight male imagination who violently deconstruct and distort the female body (think Picasso, de Kooning, Koons, Currin, and Carroll Dunham), Hollowell suspends body parts not as isolated sexual organs but as elements of a vital and coherent cosmology.
You enter the gallery, and the sound of a capella singing, without warning, echoes throughout—sweet, jubilant, evanescent. The vocalist, casually dressed like a patron, comes in, faces a wall, and starts doing his thing. The song gently defamiliarizes the exhibition context. This scene is just one element of Jim Hodges’s installation I dreamed a world and called it Love, 2016, a painfully heartfelt proposition against the wretched anxiety of the day. Lining the perimeter of the room is a series of tall polished-glass panels mounted on canvas. Hodges conceptualizes the exhibition as a slippery totality: Even the artist himself doesn’t know when the music is scheduled to happen. There is also no checklist, which pushes us further into an undefined terrain. Hodges does, however, provide a handwritten card with the show’s title. It’s a small gesture, but one that suspends the authority of “information” in the age of endless data and poetically perverts the conventions of Chelsea shows.
The shimmering surfaces of the glass panels are etched with a camouflage pattern—marbleized colors collide into one another, creating a kaleidoscopic spectrum. Within this intricate lattice, reflections crisscross—the camouflage absorbs the viewer into its fluid reflections. This immersive work cuts off reality to make room for fantasy, marvelousness, and indeed love. Hodges’s offering here is not the sum of a clean arithmetic—it is a heady, blossoming thing, as unintelligible and beautiful as a whirlwind romance.
Marilyn Minter is what some would call a “nasty woman”—a term that has made quite a few waves this past election season. And depending on who you are and where you stand, that epithet can either be the highest form of flattery or a scathing misogynistic insult. Minter’s “nasty” work demands respect from its audience, and the large scale of these in-your-face paintings serves to reinforce this idea.
The women depicted here—seen through a misty haze, as if in the midst of a scalding-hot shower—stunt the male gaze and its obsession with bodies that are polished, waxed, nipped, tucked, and Photoshopped into oblivion. Minter’s subjects flaunt their untended pubic hair, bare breasts, and luscious lips. Her bathers face the viewer directly. The artist’s palette is hypervivid, and the blurriness caused by the pane of glass that she rephotograhed these ladies through for her paintings render her subjects as impossible fantasies, well out of range for any common boy’s stare. Works such as Big Breath, 2016, and Thigh Gap, 2015, defy centuries of male leering and dictate their own rules of representation.
Exhibitions like this one are necessary—Minter’s art is crucial. Women are going to be thrust into plenty of darkness in the coming years, and her pictures remind us that a society cannot call itself free until all women—regardless of their dimensions, sexualities, and ethnicities—have full control over their own bodies.
The dull throb of light from the neon sculpture that spells out the title of Eve Fowler’s latest exhibit and of the artwork itself––with it which it as it if it is to be (all works 2016)––bathes the entrance in a soft glow. The artist’s other piece that shares the same name, a black-and-white 16-mm film transferred to video, consists of a series of studio visits with women artists in New York and Los Angeles. Fowler captures each maker doing her particular actions, workaday on the surface, that produce art. Different sets of hands, like dancers, shape clay, pour paint, attach drill bits, and cut through space. The only sound is a recitation of Gertrude Stein’s 1910 text Many Many Women, a hypnotic parade of sensible words rendered utterly nonsensical, but meaningful nonetheless, via repetition and rearrangement. An excerpt: “Each one is one, there are many of them. Each one is one. Each one is that one the one that one is.” These lines gain strength by being heard, not by being read silently—and it’s fitting that Stein’s language has found a new life, performed as music.
Fowler’s film, as delicate as filigree, shows women as numinous beings who unashamedly love, give birth, and feel. They are artists simply talking and doing, formulating ideas and inventing things. It is a quietly explosive work: a subtle, simple document of female camaraderie and process, and the subdued magic of everyday life.
“Zombie Formalism, 1970–2016” is a group exhibition that switches out Clement Greenberg for Roger Corman and skewers the work of all those (mostly) hot young dudes of recent vintage who’ve made process-based abstraction so insufferable. Mark Prent’s morbidly hilarious sculptures of desiccated, flesh-hungry creatures, His Final Statement and Five Stuffed Crows (both 1970), reimagine aesthetics as a horror show and artistic production as brain-eating. They also broaden the much-maligned term under which these pieces are being shown, helpfully putrefying notions of fashion and market cool.
Nods to this stripe of making’s sleekness and chicness, however, are here, but they’re decades old: Boyd Rice’s diamond-shaped swath of enamel-sprayed cotton that looks almost photographic, Untitled, 1975, and Jeff Way’s psychedelically striated Untitled (Red-Green), 1971, are juxtaposed with more recent iterations of zombie styling, cleverly perverting what could be mistaken as an exhibition of homages to something more incestuous, necrophilic, interesting. Megan Marrin’s juicy rendering of a corpse flower, Those three days (titan arum), 2015, imprints itself quite indelibly upon the mind. Her take on large-scale Photorealism is shot through with a Novalisesque romanticism that revels in the erotics of absurd phallocentrism.
The younger generation’s works on display are not critical of zombie art. And they certainly aren’t dismissive of their senior peers, either. Here, many queer minds gather together to inhabit all kinds of worlds—idiosyncratic, camp, and hallucinatory—in ways that your typical walking-dead crapstractionist could never imagine.
For her recent exhibition, Sara Deraedt photographed vacuums in store windows in various international locations. These are the sort of window displays in which the device is just placed and lit—no sales props. Therefore, besides the fact that some of the pieces depict prices in different currencies, we might not consider geography. Deraedt is like an anti-anthropologist, traveling around the world and concluding with, “I got nothing.” There is a gentle absurdity and humor to this project. In dyson animal, 2013, there is some lint near the nozzle, which suggests either the appliance’s past failures or its future accomplishments.
By using three different kinds of prints and different border sizes to create elegant transitions from piece to piece, Deraedt positions herself closer to formalists such as Joseph Albers and Edward Weston than content-heavy image-makers—think Christopher Williams, Anne Collier. Lynne Cohen’s photographic roamings from neutrality to neutrality also come to mind. The machines themselves, in different colors of plastic, vary as invisibly as the photos. There is a sense of aesthetic choice being automated. To query the physical differences between the photos seems similar to wondering of a vacuum, “Why is that one green?” Because it is—it’s like the sky.
The foregrounded window acts as a lacquer, its specularity impeding clarity and preventing the dust of content. We have become addicted to content. “What is the work about?” This is a question that renders most experience impossible. So it is a great pleasure to look at photos that don’t want to be recognized.
Sondra Perry’s crucial exhibition “Resident Evil” registers systemic, racialized violence and viscous identities under surveillance. Against the chroma-key blue walls of postproduction and computer operating system screens of death, a majestic animation, which shares its title with the show, smears the artist’s skin cells like molten lava, giving shape to our structural meltdown. Perry seamlessly choreographs an unnerving network—Fox News Baltimore coverage, a YouTube relaxation trance, a televised exorcism—that offers possibilities for rewiring power relations. Deconstructing righteousness as whiteness and badness as blackness, Perry doesn’t advocate bodily transcendence; she wants Eartha Kitt singing, “I want to be bad.”
Kitt appears as “Bad Eartha” on a TV broadcast in Resident Evil (all works cited, 2016), pressing her hands against the camera glass with come-hither seduction, calling to herself as a representation. The diegetic sound contributes to a shift in subjectivity, and Perry’s subtext proposes to subvert social binaries by occupying them. Captured by Blair Witch–style shaky camera pans and overlaid with accounts of police brutality, the dimly lit domestic scene becomes ominous.
Surrogates for depleted bodies repeat throughout: a rowing workstation mired by globs of hair gel (Wet and Wavy Looks—Typhon Coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation) and a malfunctioning cyborg that twitches and fades, seemingly with emotion (Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation). The automaton, Perry’s avatar, is exhausted by the risks of being itself and by running hardware beyond its specifications. It’s a potent metaphor for projections that white norms graft onto black culture, corrupting the flesh of physiological health with symptoms in perception and behavior. As public truth devolves and consciousness morphs with fraudulent news and faulty algorithms, the latent virus erupts on every surface—and Perry exposes its entrenched complexity.
This necessary exhibition presents architectural and design responses to an increasingly precarious but basic human right—shelter—in our era of mass crisis, emergency, urgency, and hopelessness. The show begins with the immense issue of housing the sixty-five million displaced people and refugees across the globe, and it ends with more ethical questions than it can ever answer. Yet one thing is clear: Nothing on view can ever be a lasting solution to the anxieties faced by the stateless families and individuals who are having doors slammed in their faces at every turn.
The risk of aestheticizing crisis runs high here, but the most interesting works avoid this through representation and not mere documentation. Consider Woven Panel, 2016, a woolen rug made in collaboration with Manuel Herz Architects and the National Union of Sahrawi Women, an organization spread across refugee settlements in southwestern Algeria. The piece depicts the Rabouni camp’s long-standing ministries of defense, interior, and education, as well as a museum. A portrayal of a government that’s been in exile for nearly forty years, the work moreover underscores the tradition of weaving among the Sahrawis.
A disquieting grid in the show presents pictures of historical settlements: from a black-and-white image of Dheisheh, the largest of the Palestine refugee camps in the West Bank after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to Gordon Welters’s 2016 photograph of cubical-like living spaces in Berlin's Tempelhof Airport. Across the gallery, another grid is offered: found news images of migrants on overcrowded boats in Xaviera Simmons’s Superunknown (Alive in The), 2010. Among the moral dilemmas echoed forcefully around the exhibition there are these: what it means to be in-between, without rights, and, most critically, to be positioned as superfluous.
For Joan Mitchell, painting was a suspended kinesthesia, an act that both dilated and disallowed bodily control, like riding a bicycle with no hands. Displayed here in a four-decade sweep alongside pastels and watercolors, her canvases make a case for the mnemonic. Though never explicitly figurative, they suggest scenes less seen than remembered. Each collects moods manifesting as gestures: dense clots, gooey smears, and wispy sprays. Together, they vex binaries of facture and image, positing the mark as a device that joins materiality and affect.
In 1959, Mitchell quit New York for France, eventually settling on 12 Avenue Claude Monet in Vétheuil. Heel, Sit, Stay, 1977, channels the founding Impressionist’s favored theme—nature, imaged on water—creating a surface that we both skip across and peer through. Each side of the ten-foot-tall diptych riffs on the other. The right side collects tufted, saturated strokes; the left responds in a springy staccato. Complementary colors organize the scheme: Rusted greens round into bruised reds, and cobalt blues appose acid yellows, like sunshine hitting shade. All around, paint piles up and runs down, obtaining a state between stillness and motion.
Nearby, an untitled eight-part pastel from 1978 asserts a tenuous horizon. Dashes of fuchsia and lime hyphenate adjoining pages, while tangles of black anchor their spread, obeying borders. White scumbles passages of lavender and azure, dissolving discrete strokes into a cumulous haze. Spread across so many sheets, space resolves into a fragmented continuity. As in the best of Mitchell’s paintings, the composition sinks toward the edges of our vision, immersing us in a realm where landscape loosens into feeling.
In his last exhibition here, James Hoff showed how computer viruses could “infect” digital paintings to striking, sensuous effect. For his new show, he considers the banal side of technology with two series addressing how contemporary forms of photography dull our experience of the natural world. “Life Cycle” (all works 2016) comprises rocks painted a black-and-white camo pattern to confuse and escape the flattening, miniaturizing gaze of aerial photography. For his second and primary body of work, “Useless Landscapes,” Hoff translated cell phone pictures of upstate New York into copper etchings on fiberglass—material substrates used in circuit boards. Seven narrowly framed images present groups of thin golden trees against gauzy skies. Although each image is different, the variations between them are so slight as to seem unremarkable.
Nature, once seemingly vast and majestic, and a hallmark of Romanticism, is here easily captured in the tiniest of mobile lenses. At first glance, “Useless Landscapes” inspires indifference, not exaltation. But don’t be fooled by the suite’s generic, monotonous feel. If you stare at the etchings long enough, their properties shift: The copper starts to look like gold leaf, a material favored in devotional art; and the fiberglass seems thick and springy, like glycerin or fat. Current research indicates that forests possess a manner of intelligence, with trees and fungi communicating via a complex network nicknamed the Wood Wide Web. Maybe our circuit boards and nature snaps (edited, uploaded, and distributed) actually mimic Mother Nature’s divine, organic essence as much as they rob her of it.
“The house protects the dreamer,” Gaston Bachelard wrote. “The house allows one to dream in peace.” Andrea Grützner is drawn to visual liminality: to the moment, or rather the angle, at which physical reality threatens to dissolve into aesthetic abstraction. Though these photographs are all shot in the same East German village guesthouse, it’s often hard to tell just what the artist is looking at. Her carefully geometric shots—devoid of any messy human traces—are closer in spirit to László Moholy-Nagy’s abstract paintings than the feature spreads of Dwell magazine.
Their effect is initially disorienting—dimensions blur and flatten. The guesthouse becomes a mysterious labyrinth of lines and shadows. But Grützner’s hospitably bright colors hold our attention, and slowly we come to make sense of what’s before us. Untitled 5, 2014, for example, is neatly divided into two vertical panels: one largely white, the other an amalgam of colored polygons. For a long while we bathe in pleasing ignorance: Is that an incomprehensibly painted ceiling? Then a line near the top reveals itself to be a water pipe, seemingly going into the photograph. We are facing a wall—no, two walls, at differing scales. Which means there’s a third, perpendicular wall hidden from us.
The visual discovery has a metaphysical echo. Depth, we realize, hides at the surface. Look hard enough and your reverie will yield meaning. The guesthouse’s transient nature is especially relevant in this context. Facing her own walls, Grützner might have dwelled on more personal history. But this common refuge confronts her with universal questions.
The portable hole is a deus ex machina of sorts, a black circle that doubles as a teleportation device. Cartoon characters use them to effortlessly escape from or banish their adversaries—and petty annoyances. The void’s blackness seems infinite, governed by the character’s will.
In Quentin Morris’s current solo exhibition, black limitlessly absorbs constraint. The show collects unstretched canvases and framed drawings, all untitled, from 1975 to today, and surveys the painter’s career-spanning meditations on the color black as well as the notion of blackness as it pertains to race. Five monochromatic circle paintings hang symmetrically in the first gallery. The contrast between silk-screen ink and acrylic paint emphasizes their folds and textures, and the paintings’ dappled surfaces suggest that they were pressed together then pulled apart. In direct sunlight, one 2016 painting resembles an eclipse—a halo emanates from the white wall behind it. These works are reactive and present to their surroundings, and the gallery space yields to the magnetic depths of their dark surfaces. Standing between them, it feels as if you’ve passed into the void.
Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings are an obvious touchstone, but Morris eschews that artist’s antagonism. In a pair of drawings from 1987, graphite delicately adheres to its blueprint-paper substrate, creating a tension that sustains the solid, metallic-looking drawing material’s momentary grace. And a painting from 1986 faces a bank of windows in the fifth-floor south gallery, the earliest of five separate rectangular works on view. While nonreferential, the paintings unassumingly observe something of their respective years. As the powdery matte surface of the painting above swallows up the abundant sunlight, our vision remains complicit in the production of blackness.
“I think that artists in the South must at some point confront the work of folk artists,” the late artist Beverly Buchanan said. But Buchanan, who is known for her colorful shack sculptures emulating Southern vernacular architecture, was anything but an outsider artist. In the early 1970s, she studied with Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden while working as a New Jersey health educator. She also gained the support of such curators as Lucy Lippard and Lowery Stokes Sims. Yet as a black woman artist who spent the height of her artistic career in Georgia, her work has not been given its historical due.
This exhibition, organized by curator Jennifer Burris and artist Park McArthur, surveys Buchanan’s practice, which commemorated the resilience of black communities while interrogating American racism. Separated into three galleries of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (triangulated around Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974–79), the layout flips the script on Buchanan’s work. The show opens with her least known pieces—the series “Frustula,” 1978–81, made up of squat, cast-concrete sculptures—artworks in pointed dialogue with post-Minimalism’s industrial-ruin aesthetics. Buchanan pursued site-specificity when she moved to Macon, Georgia, in 1977. From 1979 to 1986, she created a number of humble concrete sculptures, mixed with local materials such as tabby (a cement made with oyster shells, water, lime, ash, and sand, once used for building slave quarters), which memorialized sites of racial violence. Three videos, created by McArthur, Burris, and Jason Hirata, June 10–19, 2016, 2016, document four of her Southeastern projects in situ.
This is an artist-curated show, and the second and largest section—containing more than one hundred archival objects—reveals an artist’s eye. Burris and McArthur include pieces such as the plaid shirt Buchanan painted in, adorned with white crosses and blue and red stars (Untitled, Church on Fire, 1995–96), and photo reproductions of her Guggenheim grant report for the public artwork Marsh Ruins, 1981. The final section, devoted to her miniaturized shacks from 1987 to 2010, is enriched by photos of the 1991 performance Out of Control. Buchanan enacts a conceptual score of symbolic brutality, setting a shack sculpture on fire, only allowing a friend to extinguish it.
No other year in recent history has exposed so starkly the complex views of democracy in the United States, in private selfhood and social community. And so this gallery’s inaugural showing of William Eggleston, with selections from The Democratic Forest, ca. 1983–86, his epic project of thousands of photographs taken around the country (and a few overseas), could not be more timely. Last year, Steidl launched the resurgence of this work with an elegant ten-volume anthology, the largest compilation of such images to date (the original book was published in 1989, with an introduction by Eudora Welty; Zwirner Books has published its own selection to accompany this show). And if Eggleston’s preferred mode of seeing his photos is flipping through a box of prints, this chance to view some forty hanging on the wall (in two sizes, the largest just over five feet) is not to be missed.
Most of the images in The Democratic Forest were taken on road trips across the US or in intervals between travel—red vinyl rest-stop booths, a swimming-pool astroturf oasis in a parking lot. The selection on view here emphasizes interiors, too, whether a cluster of condiments on a checkered tablecloth or faded lace curtains. These pictures aim to show things as they are when no one is looking at them, which is no small feat. Eggleston’s quest for the subtle truths of the ordinary—he has said that he is “at war with the obvious”—is apparent in his framing of local color and quotidian detail: The facemask hanging idly over tomatoes ripening beside a turquoise sink; a plane cutting through a blue sky near a bright green roof, trailing a message we can make out only the beginning of: PICKLES; a rotary phone resting off the hook on floral sheets stippled with light; a young boy in overalls perusing a gun catalogue. These are quiet novellas, often with a kick of unease and a beauty that would seem accidental if we didn’t know better.
Dave swims in and out of view over a rocking sea of yarn-festooned burlap. Dancing in the double vision of overlaid video, Dave’s face becomes the center of an increasingly tight frame, zooming in on eyes that gaze bleakly below a sweaty forehead. It’s time for Hooking up with Dave, 2016, artist David Kramer’s attic installation.
On the gallery’s rickety third floor, Kramer’s tableau feels like a crawlspace/derelict boys’ club, complete with a Mad Men–style liquor selection, sans the 1960s ritz. Hanging across from a miniature pool table, a hook-rug tiger skin glows in neon green. And laid directly on the floorboards is a rather suspect bed, sporting an oversize pillow illustrated with the cartoonish faces of a couple necking with abandon.
On a screen to the right of the bed, the artist gives us hook-rugging pointers from a YouTube tutorial that shows him in slow progress on the aforementioned tiger skin and cushion. Innuendo meets hobby talk in Kramer’s avid effusions: “Soon enough, you’ve got a whole project under your belt” or “I can spend hours just hooking up.” Slowly, the infomercial quality fades as the video takes on a confessional atmosphere. With the unsettling fervor of a middle-aged man seeking escape in childlike petulance, Kramer’s character describes the double demons of a shrewish wife and an estranged son. It remains uncertain, however, if they’re the symptom or cause of his obsessive new hobby. This is an American Beauty sort of midlife crisis that finds illicit satisfaction in a ball of yarn, not seducing a child’s pretty, precocious friend. Despite craft’s wholesomeness, Kramer’s creations are not for volunteer librarians or even the office Secret Santa pool. Rather, they bespeak a struggle for virility, doomed by an absurd, tragic dream that a better man can be conjured with hook and thread.
Between 1969 and 1973, Rosemary Mayer’s art underwent a dramatic transition. Abetted by the arrival of feminism, its investment in the body and the recuperation of craft, the laconic beauty of her early text-based works effloresced into the voluptuous fabric sculptures for which she is best remembered. Curated by art historian Maika Pollack, the gallery’s founder, with Marie and Max Warsh—Mayer’s niece and nephew—this exhibition tells the story of this sea change while also shining a light on a significant yet under-recognized figure in feminist and post-Minimalist art.
During the late sixties, Mayer (who passed away in 2014) contributed to 0 TO 9, a mimeographed journal of Conceptual art and poetry, with her sister, the poet Bernadette Mayer, and her then husband, Vito Acconci. Several works on paper from this period traffic between image and text. In Untitled [12 columns], ca. 1969, compositions of colored squares drawn on graph paper are paired with black-and-white typewritten pages detailing those same patterns in words.
Semiotic games give way to atmospheric affect in The Catherines, 1972–73, a gauzy matrix of peach and purple veils draped on a teardrop-shaped wooden support. Created the year Mayer cofounded the all-female cooperative gallery A.I.R., the work is titled in honor of notable women from European history: the warrior countess Caterina Sforza, the empress Catherine the Great, the mystic Catherine of Siena. Openly feminist and unapologetically ornamental, its flesh-colored swags of various transparent fabrics make sartorial and genital insinuations. More subtly, The Catherines also suggests the ethereal forms of Mannerist painting, to which—as Marie Warsh and Gillian Sneed have noted—Mayer likened the art of the 1970s after the dissolution of Minimalism’s spatial certainties. “Once surfaces were clear, ordered and opaque, surfaces that quickly answer questions,” she wrote in the introduction to her 1975 translation of Jacopo da Pontormo’s diary, “then forms dissolved, colors paled, began to float in uncertain atmospheres.”
Ree Morton flew her own flags—for proof, see a whole wall of them displayed here. Made of nylon and emblazoned with the names of her nearest and dearest, Something in the Wind, 1975, was strung up on a ship docked at the South Street Seaport that same year, gaily sending affections and affirmations in the breeze. Morton dealt in giddy ideals—if a rose could last, then a prince for a princess, always. For Kate, 1976, a bouquet of roses frozen mid-scatter and made of her sensational celastic—a plastic-impregnated fabric—is a dedication. Hers were works that were always made for. Rather than staging a dialogue, blurring a boundary, or any of those other tiresome parlor games, Morton’s works, in all their unassuming loveliness, mark their own territory wherever they stand. But, indeed, their borders are porous—observe Column Piece, 1972, where there’s a break in a ring of geranium-stained wooden blocks, topped with canvas, and a painting lying flat on an elevated platform. That wheeled wooden slab, coated in charcoal, watercolor, and acrylic, depicting some vague coordinates like a map to a place unnamed and unknowable, sits in the center. It commands so much space yet remains so quiet. The blocks’ ranks don’t close, as if daring the viewer to step in—an enormous gesture in comparison to Morton’s Minimal contemporaries.
A succinct selection of archival materials is presented in two vitrines, testifying to the artist’s sincere collaborative tendencies and forthright struggle to make her way as an artist with three children to raise. A typed narrative of her career pecked out for a grant application rests in the middle of a partially unfurled scroll of wallpaper with painted enamel celastic bows—or, as the artist liked to call them, “beauxs”—placed just so, framing the request for funds. Next to it is a photo of herself, with a similar beaux pinned to her sweater—a token of commitment to her vision.
Lodged in the cavity of a commercial-grade washing machine in Aki Sasamoto’s installation Washer (all works cited, 2016) is a copy of the Book of Insects (1921) by nineteenth-century entomologist John-Henri Fabre. The volume is open to a passage on the life and labors of the dung beetle, which is recited off-camera by the artist in the single-channel video Birds, Dung Beetles, the Washer looping overhead. “The peasant of Ancient Egypt,” it reads, “as he watered his patch of onions in the spring, would see from time to time a fat black insect pass close by, hurriedly trundling a ball backwards.”
This humble creature, which folds its filth and food into a spherical mobile home, provides the central parable for “Delicate Cycle,” Sasamoto’s solo exhibition here. In the installation Shoelightbox, viewers reencounter Fabre’s text, this time printed on wadded-up sheets of tissue paper visible through peepholes cut into a wall of designer shoe boxes. Through shifts in color and scale, the beetle’s fecal loaf becomes something immaculate in The Ball, an enormous boulder of white cotton bedsheets blockading a vaulted corridor. Laundry motifs continue upstairs, where crisp white sheets hang ethereally from a clothesline in the courtyard (Laundry Line) and an old-time washboard, suspended by a leather harness, doubles as a kinky surrealist object (Washboard Belt-Maidrite). On some level, these works are about the cyclic, mundane labor of maintaining and reproducing the self—the compulsory hygiene of our bodies, clothing, and habitats. But there’s also an obdurate materiality to Sasamoto’s sculpture that resists metaphorical elevation. According to Fabre, once celebrated as the “Homer of insects,” the ancient Egyptians believed the dung beetle’s ball to be “a symbol of the earth” and that the beetle’s actions “were prompted by the movements of the heavenly bodies.” Be that as it may, it’s also an animal that makes things out of shit, and that logic of agglutination is what drives Sasamoto’s earthy pleasures.