A few of the artist co-ops and alternative spaces featured in this show have recently gained some art-historical due—via, for instance, the Blanton Museum’s exhibition on the Park Place Gallery and the Birmingham Museum’s survey of the Spiral Group—though more research and scholarship is still much needed. “Inventing Downtown” is a welcome antidote as the first exhibition to examine a synergy among works and ephemera from fourteen artist-run galleries below Fourteenth Street (with the exception of the City Gallery in Chelsea and Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery in midtown). It’s a treasure trove that discloses a much smaller yet wilder local scene than the sprawling and somewhat faceless one we know today.
While some of the artists will be familiar, particularly those who embraced the cheap paints, varnishes, and kitsch objects littering 1950s consumer society in the wake of the Korean War (such as Donald Judd, who reviewed some of these galleries, and Claes Oldenburg, who feels omnipresent), there are many more who have been excluded from the canon. And we really should know them better. Sari Dienes, who showed at City Gallery, took an ink-coated roller out into New York, covering subway grates and tombstones with paper or fabric to make her sepulchral transfers. Jean Follett was associated with Hansa Gallery and made sulky sculptural assemblages with trash and found objects. She also fled New York in the early ’60s after a breakdown, and a delinquent former landlord demolished much of her work. I could go on—the capriciousness of taste and luck is merciless. But what emerges most impressively here is the pervasive sense that none of the artists were merely interested in dollars. They were committed to extending, advancing, and opening up aesthetic and philosophical conversations for the benefit of the common good.
Love is rarely tender, especially with cherished objects. Sometimes they become so much a part of who we are that they, too, accumulate the scars, scrapes, and burns of affection. Steve Wolfe’s current posthumous exhibition offers up impeccable re-creations of books, book covers, and records from the artist’s personal library, made to look as worn by time and use as the originals. Every tear and scuff is fabricated through oil paint, ink, and graphite; every misaligned spine, intentional.
Wolfe’s remaking of Voltaire’s satire, in softcover, Untitled (Candide), 1988–89, surprises by its vibrancy. Its colors and textures are exquisitely vivid—more real than real life. Other books are “stained” by coffee cup rings, “faded” by the sun. The rough, painterly cover of Untitled (Anna Karenina), 1985–87, belies the coated sheen of the standard Penguin Classic. But its warped, frayed form keenly delivers the familiar story of a tome that has ventured once too often into the crushing depths of an overloaded backpack. Elsewhere, the artist’s books exist solely as covers, collaged onto a single plane (Untitled [Study for Mumm/Jose Cuervo Cartons], 1994). They flawlessly capture the brittle textures and acid-browned colors of the crumbling texts you’d fish from the dollar crate at the Strand.
Wolfe has taken the inspirational energies provided by his library and harnessed them into hours and hours of scrupulous labor. His imitations become utterly sacred through this extraordinary care. These are saintly bodies—conceived by mysterious processes and coated in precious pigments—that carry the kind of divinity one can only find in books.
Henry Chapman’s carefully gessoed canvases, smooth as polished stone, are adorned with pigments that bleed, ŕ la Helen Frankenthaler, into their white grounds. Between his spare, painterly passages, which range from assiduously prim to flagrantly scatological, Chapman adds screen-printed texts: Some are taken from a European travelogue; others rehash moments from the artist’s daily life or are just made up. If Enlightenment gentlemen traveled the Continent for enlightenment (think Goethe in Italy), Chapman’s wanderings through some of the same terrain—Berlin, Rome—are pure indulgence, pleasure: One must see the Holbein show at the Bode, after all, not on Instagram. But there’s a weltschmerz that glazes all this fabulous jet-setting, too. Maybe a visit to a brothel called the Artemis would lift the spirits—read about it in Luke in Berlin (all works cited, 2016–17).
In Greenpoint, yolky spheres linger below faint gray words crossed out by a tidy excess of ink, like an old master canceling his intaglio plate. Green Field offers up small, clocklike diagrams, with vectors that seem to record anger, sorrow, pleasure, resolve, desire, and pain. They are charts of human frailty and the vicissitudes of time. Yammerings about allergies and oysters pop up throughout Chapman’s paintings as well. These narratives are too boring to be irritatingly narcissistic, and yet—surprisingly—they draw you in, likely because the works are so pale and enigmatic. Chapman practices a very funny, wan kind of seduction—honestly, the man can’t be bothered for too much more.
Of all the deadly human sins, envy is perhaps the most unavoidable. It makes us mourn the things we never had in the first place while reminding us of what we have to lose. In “A Jealous Person,” Andrea Joyce Heimer’s new exhibition, the artist has made narrative, quilt-like paintings that yearn for some sense of firm identity. Her complex renderings of flattened domestic interiors and natural landscapes are psychological minidramas. And their titles, though verbose, are deeply personal.
I Am Jealous Of Those Who Can See Their Own Facial Features Echoing Down Their Family Lines Like A Voice Telling Them Just Where They’ve Been. (all works cited, 2016), is likely related to the artist’s disquietude reflecting on her adoptive family. It depicts a neat row of pale, similarly featured figures in a room, acting in tandem as they get ready for a meal. Standing apart from them amid some tall plants is a dark-skinned woman; opposite her is a portrait of a black swan: A pair of beautiful creatures, linked by their otherness, are alienated from all the rest. I Am Jealous Of Everyone You Have Ever Been With And There Have Been Many, And Then I Find Out Some Of Them Were Squirters And I Am Undone By This Knowledge. It Weighs On Me Like A Stone. depicts dozens of nude women seeping bodily fluids, swimming around a single eroticized male. It’s relatable—who hasn’t fretted imagining a lover’s previous exploits?
Heimer is primarily self-taught, and her pictures occupy a folksy realm: Volumes of visual information are packed into satisfying, epic stories. The carefully applied ornamentation of her works may at first strike one as surreal. But her allegories speak to a very common kind of pathos—we are indeed mostly jealous people.
Seated in overstuffed leopard-print armchairs, visitors to Lynn Hershman Leeson’s second solo exhibition at the gallery navigate, via remote control, the dumpy virtual living room of Lorna, a middle-aged agoraphobe whose experience of the world is entirely mediated through her television. Clicking on various objects unlocks bits and pieces of a schmaltzy vernacular media culture, such as boozy cowboy ballads, daytime talk shows, televangelical sermons, and amateur music videos. In one of the game’s three possible endings, its lonely heroine commits suicide.
The first interactive videodisk, Lorna, 1979–84, can claim importance in a broader media history beyond twentieth-century art, though Hershman Leeson has likened the piece’s random, nonhierarchical sequencing to “electronic cubism.” Even more fragmented and multiperspectival is Deep Contact, 1984–89, the first artwork to employ interactive touch screens. Viewers are invited to touch the virtual leather-clad physique of a Teutonic hardbody named Marion, whose various parts open onto a labyrinthine sexual fantasy with fifty-seven forking paths. In her 1985 essay “Interactive Technology and Art,” Hershman Leeson espoused optimism about the enfranchising potential of interactive technology. “The art world,” she wrote, “has long functioned on the presumption that viewing art is passive, while only making art is active. Technological change in the form of laser and video art, however, is changing this traditional way of viewing art.”
But Hershman Leeson’s avant-garde technologism is cut with camp, horror, and feminized abjection, undergirding an eerie feeling that interactivity is as much about capture and control as it is about activation and agency. Between the Snowden leaks and a Twitter presidency, the narrative around technology has acquired a dystopian charge, and Hershman Leeson’s work is increasingly recognized for its Cassandra-like premonitions of technological panopticism. Such anxieties explicitly structure her new installation, Venus of the Anthropocene, 2017. A grotesque mannequin torso faces a vanity mirror rigged with a camera and crude facial-recognition software that attempts—with modest success—to identify the viewer’s age, gender, and mood.
In 1948, six years before her death at the age of sixty-five, the poet Anne Ryan discovered the collages of Kurt Schwitters and likened the artistic technique to a visual sonnet. One can see why; both modes often scrape together disparate materials—haptic or not—to evoke a highly compressed self-expression. Ryan soon became an ardent collagist, creating hundreds of works. Unlike Matisse, who approached the same medium in his own final years, Ryan kept her compositions small. Confected from textiles as well as scavenged objects such as twine, paper, mesh, and feathers, the twenty abstract assemblages displayed here are multitudinous, by turns amoebic and explosive, vibrant and subdued.
Untitled (No. 435), 1952, fashions a crude kaleidoscope out of pastel blues, greens, tans, pinks, and periwinkles. A couple of pasted papers appear to be singed. At its top, a piece of gilded foil, like candy-wrapper shrapnel, glints.
The show’s centerpiece and largest collage, Untitled (No. 618), circa 1948–54, is gauzed entirely with skin-shaded patches. Pale hues of sand and marmoreal bisque plunge softly into deeper tones of ecru and beige, where dried glue puckers beneath the surface into tiny alpine textures. In other works, fibrous honeycombs stretch across mundane and bizarre decoupage. A tender crescent moon makes an appearance. Embracing quieter colors and quotidian materials, the collages’ presence might feel humble—the artist even signed them in pencil—yet their aura lingers, like some half-remembered dream. Ryan’s late move to collage, itself a biographical volta, shunted her legacy firmly into the context of Abstract Expressionism, where she’s been relatively overlooked. Yet to say Ryan did not devote those last years to poetry begins to feel, after seeing this show, somehow mistaken.
The “born free” generation of South Africans—those born after the fall of apartheid in 1994—has recently come into the limelight as protest movements such as #FeesMustFall or #RhodesMustFall have swept university campuses and city streets. The country’s youth have rallied against the intensification of economic disparity and the lingering effects of historical traumas. As time passes, the Mandela-era dream of the “rainbow nation” seems to slide further away.
South African photographer Pieter Hugo offers a more enigmatic vision of this generation with his series “1994,” 2014–16, employing portraiture as a means to signify, however obliquely, the immense cultural transitions it has witnessed. While the eldest born-frees are in their twenties, Hugo’s subjects are younger children, some mere toddlers, from both South Africa and Rwanda (where 1994 marked the unspeakable horrors of genocide).
Hugo is lauded for his disquieting, almost feral aesthetic; he has photographed those on the fringes of society throughout southern and West Africa. Here, though, the work is somewhat more metaphysical: Children are made archetypes of contestation, survival, and hope. They face the camera, seated or recumbent, posed within verdant landscapes or against the looming edifices of rural schools. One of his most arresting images, Portrait #3, Rwanda, 2014, shows a Rwandan girl, draped head to toe in pale-pink fabric, seated on the ground. She gazes forward solemnly as she extends a flower branch and a green frond. Elsewhere, boys and girls in oversize soiled frocks recline against grass and dry earth or pose near mossy trees. These settings invoke the unpredictability and even the cruelty of wilderness, while the children’s clothing, mostly donated from Europe, locates them within a discordant contemporary moment. The photographer’s gaze is inquisitive and searching—his subjects respond with an onerous sense of clairvoyance.
In the back room of Sophie Hirsch’s current show is Reformer, 2017, a plaster arrow riding an industrial-looking body-shaping machine. The sculpture faces itself in a pair of mirrors, recalling a Pilates studio with its BDSM-like balance of pleasure and torture. Joseph Pilates considered Contrology, his tension-and-relief method, the only route to bliss. Martha Graham and George Balanchine swore by it. If her work is any indication, Hirsch does too.
The artist approaches quick-drying materials such as plaster and silicone with an interest in posture, gravity, and compromise between flexibility and resistance. Studio props such as straps and blocks give constraints to Hirsch’s floppy bodies, which would otherwise collapse under their own weight. Bending, folding, twisting—the abstract sculptures read as instructional diagrams. Her series of shadowbox works, “Muscle Test 1–5,” 2016, strengthens this allusion.
While at first her concerns feel largely formal and materialistic, they are not what one leaves with. Hirsch’s work brings oppositional forces together to create new equilibriums, whether it be a hard-edge feminine aesthetic or a wall-mounted sculpture that begs to be called a painting. Rather than going outside for inspiration and depth, the exhibition’s bodily overtones demand inward expansion. Starting with the figure and working outward, the show feels like a rally for enlightened navel-gazing. Hirsch encourages not only self-awareness but excavation. Her sculptures seem to ask, How can we extend ourselves safely? How can we be bridges?
The photograph Earthrise, taken from NASA’s Apollo 8 space shuttle in 1968, captured the Earth as seen from the distance of the moon. Half engulfed in shadow, our home planet looks radiant and fragile—a kaleidoscopic cobalt-blue-and-misty-white shard floating in a vast and unbroken pitch-black sky.
The picture’s capacity to transmit the beauty and vulnerability of Earth is credited with helping to launch the environmental movement of the 1970s. But today, decades after Earthrise and the advent of satellite imagery, we’ve grown accustomed to such all-encompassing aerial views of the planet and, with this familiarity, more confident that we can understand (or even control) its course. We’ve also set our collective sights higher—space missions now explore far beyond our world, plumbing the outer edges of the solar system.
Peter Campus’s black-box exhibition feels remarkable for directing our gaze firmly back to the ground and for imbuing the most minuscule pieces of the Earth’s surface with a sense of mystery and magnificence. On display for the first time in public are five monumental black-and-white photographs of rocks Campus collected in Montauk, New York. The images, all from 1987, illuminate the darkened gallery walls as glittering three-dimensional digital projections. Campus’s head-on, enlarged views of the rocks—with evocative titles such as affect, schism, and half-life—reveal their intricate patterns of pockmarks, grooves, and ridges. Through the artist’s lens, the beach pebbles are transformed into precious gemstones and meteorites that demand the same awe and rapt attention as a night sky.
Fishing is a display of male sensuality that is supremely underrated. In Jonathas de Andrade’s thirty-eight-minute film O peixe (The Fish), 2016, the handsome protagonists are the ageless, chiseled fishermen of a coastal village in northeastern Brazil. Wet skin catches the glimmering sunlight on the surface of the water. They steer their boats and swing their hooks. Muscles swell.
Interrupting the tranquil ambiance of lapping water and wind drifting through the palms is the tug of a line, a ripple below. But then a sudden urgency to retract the net causes an explosion of violence and primal masculinity. From this point, de Andrade turns abruptly toward maximum absurdity. Each fisherman takes his catch and lifts it to his chest, entering a meditative embrace. As the fish struggles for its life, he strokes its scales, reversing the role of the midwife—rather than ease the entrance of life into this world, he lovingly assists in its departure.
As in much of de Andrade’s work, there is an intellectual subtext here about the relationship between modern and precolonial Brazil. But that pales in comparison to the many contrasting visceral impulses he forces us to confront at once. This imagined shamanistic ritual in which a hypermasculine, exoticized, and sexualized figure cradles an alien body—the size of an infant, with strangely human lips—is violent and bizarrely romantic. O peixe evokes a shock further heightened by the sounds of labored breathing from both parties. As viewers, we get the sense that our emotions are being played with—much to our delight.
Much Trump-related art pokes at the president’s perceived physical inadequacies, faltering at superficiality and failing to elucidate concerns within our body politic. Peter Caine’s exhibition “The Old Man and the Sheep” is an eviscerating exception.
Known for videos and installations of animatronic sociopolitical tableaux and pop-cultural critique, as well as animal husbandry presentations, Caine has an idiosyncratic on-screen persona lightened by cynical wit. Here, he shows three kinetic works with four life-size figures of a rapturous Trump in various stages of sexual degradation. Aping the protagonist’s theatricality, the mixed-media constructions operate only in response to spectators. With pendulous genitalia, the president variously brutalizes a sheep from behind; masturbates in an altered Nazi uniform into a melon; and seems ready to engage in rapey oral sex with a kneeling man. All of this is set to the pneumatic sound track of juddering, mechanical intercourse.
Despite this pungency, Caine’s principle assets are refined insight and layered meaning. As Trump rams the sheep, the term “golden fleece” gets reinterpreted—one wonders if the unfortunate beast represents America or his own voters. The kneeling individual in The Great Wall of Trump, 2017, wears a sign identifying him as homeless and offering to “suck dick” as Trump’s gripped phallus protrudes through a fragmentary wall. The subjugation and humiliation of marginalized groups raises Trump’s omnipotent tendencies and victory-mongering. Particularly horrific is the wretch’s face, which is a livid, pink mirror of Trump’s features, a detail that is biblically egomaniacal in recalling an earlier figure that cast man in his own image.
“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.