Mulling over his American contemporaries and their shared reach for the sublime, Barnett Newman once wrote: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.” Years later, Byron Kim seems in part to be taking Newman’s sentiment to its next logical, almost literal conclusion: Kim’s latest pieces consecrate our flesh and its sensations, via large-scale abstract renderings inspired by the bloom and flush of bruises on skin. The results will either seem mournful or erotic, depending on who’s looking.
To those familiar with his earlier output, Kim’s source material won’t come as a complete surprise: Previous works captured the skin tones of diverse sitters in grids of monochromatic panels. But whereas his interest in skin, before, yielded inquiries into socially constructed taxonomies, it now leads to visually lush records of violence and abuse—or accidents and missteps—and the ensuing limbo of recovery. While those former works’ Pantone-like precision helped make them convincing, these new pieces welcome tonal ambiguity.
Kim dyed his latest canvases with natural elements like sandalwood and ochre, then used oil- and hide-glue-soaked rags to apply more pigments. The results—stirring, almost lambent surfaces—seem to invoke the moment AbEx gave way to Minimalism’s monochromes. And if subtle folds on the canvases might resemble wrinkles, to narratively minded viewers, they also conjure painterly traditions of both measured and aleatory mark-making. But maybe art-historical references seem impotent after an election year that often felt like one long, persistent contusion. If so, Kim’s paintings also find resonance in the fact that the colors we use to describe bruises—black and blue—have racial, psychological, and musical overtones all at once. In this context, the series reminds us that bruising evinces a sort of power, too: to be responsive, sensate—alive rather than deadened. In “I Ain't Got Nothing but the Blues,” a song arguably about reaching rock bottom, Ella Fitzgerald sang, “Ain't got no feelings to bruise.” We’re not there yet.
A glass case full of household sprays and soaps—like a shaken-up medicine cabinet—opens Miguel Ángel Cárdenas’s first solo show in the United States. The assemblage, Nog schlechts enkele dagen (1) (Only a Few Days ), 1963, is a fickle and incomplete time capsule of the year it was created. The clutter seems arbitrary and provides little insight into the Colombian-Dutch artist’s life.
Cárdenas excelled at creating suggestive, elusive arrangements of everyday items. He explored the sensuality of the zipper—that teasing metal barrier between dress and undress—years before Andy Warhol’s infamous Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album cover from 1971. Open Fly Silver Star and Call Boy, both 1964, feature zippers halfway undone to reveal a collection of toys and mass-produced junk secreted beneath the works’ taut, shiny PVC shells. This erotic suspense is partially broken in later pieces. A plastic banana plays a vulgar game of peekaboo in Blue Lovers, 1965, protruding from the canvas’s cobalt-blue surface. In Hot Vagina, 1969, silver aluminum folds flank a vertical bronze coil that radiates heat.
If the assemblages are devoted to object fetish, then Cárdenas’s four films, played in the gallery’s back room, are odes to another Freudianism: oral fixation. The videos center on the artist’s mouth engaged in seemingly tame activities, such as slurping soup or sucking ice cubes. These gestures, through repetition, transform into processes both sexy and highly revolting. Examples of early food porn? If they turn you on, you’ll know.
At first glance, Hannah van Bart’s current exhibition of paintings appears to be nearly all portraits of one woman. A figure with soft breasts, solid legs, and a face of fleshy innocence stares out from the middle of each canvas. Depending on her garb and demeanor, she’s either louche or enticing, with clothes that cover or reveal a warm body ripe for bruising. The appearance of a lit cigarette held by an arm that’s slowly vanishing into the pinky-brown miasma of Untitled, 2016, seems subtly violent. The artist plays with an abundance of patterns as well, such as stripes and lattices. In Untitled, 2015, van Bart has painted a brick wall that bleeds into her foregrounded figure. All of the picture’s distinct features meld into one solid and strangely impenetrable image.
There’s a painting of a forest: Untitled, 2016. On the canvas’s left side, the quivering lines of branches and roots begin to appear anthropomorphic—are we looking at a face? This mysterious visage highlights the conceptual continuum in which the artist works, where designs melt into seemingly sentient bodily forms—the space between the two realms is purposefully murky. The exhibition’s title, “The Smudge Waves Back,” offers some insight. It is taken from David Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In the book is a scene where a father waves to his son from a distance. The boy waves back, but the father can only see an indistinct, animated form—a meaningful smear, abundant with love.
For his solo exhibition “Unavoidable Encounter,” John Dante Bianchi has made sculptures that initially register as paintings attempting to escape their supports. Concertina-like folds of what seems to be canvas—but is actually immaculately engineered strata of wood and aluminum—wrest from their stretcher bars, rising and jutting forth in sharply angled planes, revealing trusses and screws beneath. Acrylic paint is applied to the surfaces in layers, then sanded back to form warm clouds of pinks, purples, and oranges, with patches of iridescent gray where the metal is exposed. The abstract visual effect in each contused piece is at once cosmologically vast and intimate on a cellular level.
Bianchi’s work resuscitates that fatigued threshold between sculpture and painting. The canvas sections are made and colored first, and their stretchers are fitted afterward, reversing a painting’s construction. This is most strikingly expressed in the thrusting shards of Untitled (Torqued Panel #15), 2016. The suggestion of corporeal separation between the piece’s upper and underlying components, such as a tendon flayed from bone, renders the work strangely emotive rather than dryly academic, despite its architectural precision.
The ten works here are wall-mounted, except for a floor piece resembling the moldering, bleached husk of a redwood’s trunk, which plays at sculpture a bit too predictably. Pristine and restrained, yet unexpectedly vulnerable, Bianchi’s work arrestingly regards what is, and isn’t, a painting, offering crisp analysis on how porous the brink between these two media may be.
The drywall has been stripped from the side of the gallery’s entrance to expose the underlying brick and bright red scaffolding. White powder-coated steel and plywood beams populate the rooms, but instead of holding up the ceiling, they stand isolated, unattached. One beam wears a faux fur shawl draped over the top, while another stands on a crumpled floral-patterned doormat (Untitled Problem 15 and 8 [all works cited, 2016]). Omaskêko Cree artist Duane Linklater examines the oft-invisible framing that enables and prevents indigenous artwork from being seen. On one wall, a clear plastic tarp all but covers a framed digital print of an accession sheet (Accession) for a pair of white baby boots crafted from caribou, beads, and rabbit fur—valued at twenty-two Canadian dollars—by Ethel Linklater, the artist’s late grandmother. These boots were part of an exhibition in the 1980s, organized by the Ontario Arts Council, from which this show takes its name.
Paying particular attention to the structures that display and house indigenous art, from state museums to private galleries, Linklater constructs stainless-steel armatures and concrete bases to present these art objects and family heirlooms (Speculative apparatus for the work of nohkompan, 1–9; nohkompan is a Cree word that translates to “my grandmother who is passed on”). Detailed caribou, moose, and rabbit-hide mukluks, slippers, and mitts made by Ethel—owned by Ontario’s Thunder Bay Art Gallery and on loan to Linklater—are presented atop his pedestals. “From Our Hands” is a collaborative show that traces the cultural and genealogical relations between Linklater, his twelve-year-old son, Tobias (whose stop-motion video, Origin of the Hero, is also featured), and Ethel. A bouquet of flowers and a pyramid of Du Maurier cigarettes among Ethel’s belongings rest on Linklater’s dark concrete plinths. Interrogating the relationship between the materials that create the “neutral” gallery and the collections that fill it, the artist holds a space for his son while embracing his grandmother.
On November 20 of last year, the original site of this Brooklyn exhibition space in East Williamsburg, located in a former funeral home, closed its doors for the last time. The artist-run venue had an unquiet rest, however—another version of it currently exists as a projects space in Carroll Gardens, while its first body has been exhumed for a second life in Chelsea. “Cathouse FUNeral Harvested” (an extension of which will open on the Lower East Side on January 8) collects residue from twenty shows of murals and installations via fragments of sheetrock and other architectural excerpts, presented as collaborative works that have been three years in the making. Crowded with freestanding wall segments and framed remnants, the Tenth Avenue space is punctuated by dead ends and ersatz corridors. Zips of pink are in evidence from the 2014 group show “Shrink It, Pink It.” A mural by Brad Benischek begins with Harvesting: FUNeral Tryptic (w/ Brad Benischek) and ends in FUNeral Gallery-Object 2 (w/ Benischek) (both 2016), though the slabs are anachronistically joined (by David Dixon, Cathouse’s wallah, with the artist’s permission) to unlike parts. Excavated to stand like clean-cut monoliths, the “harvestings” present a mess of artifacts that refuse to straighten into a tidy narrative; even the three gypsum tablets that chronicle the Cathouse’s exhibition history are placed out of sequence. These structures share no design with their former digs and make no attempt at a documentary-like report. Although these assembled remains contain the potential for a whimsical archive, they are shown not as gestures of mourning or memory, but as celebrations of the vitality and opportunity of ending.
My punishment for being a voluble child, overflowing with words and song that grew louder and angrier as I reached adolescence, is a voice slightly down-pitched by small vocal nodules. They were discovered at fourteen, when I—a natural soprano—had trouble hitting my highest notes. “It’s like a boy’s voice cracking,” a vocal teacher joked, to my great embarrassment. I was diagnosed through an uncomfortable laryngoscopy. Once inserted up the nose and down the throat, the scope makes it impossible to breathe normally, let alone vocalize.
Marianna Simnett’s exhibition “Lies,” exploring the gendered implications of voice and masochism, vividly evoked this memory of asphyxiation. In Faint with Light (all works cited, 2016), a stack of ultrabright LEDs is synced with an audio recording of Simnett trying to faint by hyperventilating. The intensity of her breath is registered by the lights, which illuminate fully with her deepest inhalations—taken before losing consciousness—and then go dark. Although the strobe-like installation made me queasy, it’s hard to ignore its erotic implications—with la petite mort being a euphemism for orgasm. Simnett’s video The Needle and the Larynx shows the artist undergoing a temporary lowering of her voice through a Botox injection to her cricothyroid muscle. Slowed to one-quarter speed, the procedure is hypnotic, excruciating. With her large blue eyes directed skyward during the examination, Simnett is much like Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film about the young saint.
The Needle and the Larynx begins with an empowering parable of a little girl forcing a doctor to lower her voice by summoning the natural forces of heat. At the end, Simnett speaks in a startlingly feeble voice two days after her injection. Rather than masculine strength, the procedure relaxed her throat so much that she couldn’t breathe. “You suddenly become conscious of all the parts of your throat,” she says, gasping for air. “They didn’t tell me that I was gonna be so we . . . weakened by it.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
Rotting, wounded, smiling—watermelons, in Valerie Hegarty’s latest exhibition of paintings and sculptures, are depicted as sentient objects: carnal, threatening. Several wedges of the fruit, done in ceramics, rest on a plinth, their pink flesh resembling gums and growing teeth, tongues, ribs, stalagmites, barnacles. They make one think of the chemically modified watermelons that spontaneously exploded across fields in China in 2011—a warning about the perils of mutant capitalism.
The title of Hegarty’s exhibition, “American Berserk,” comes from Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral, where the writer describes the darker aspects of this idyllic genre. Hegarty intelligently references Raphaelle Peale, considered the first painter of still lifes in America, in a number of her grim watercolor works, such as Watermelon Gothic 1, Fruit Face, and Picnic Body (works cited, 2015). In the latter pair of edibles-as-people pictures, one can’t help but see homages to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the sixteenth-century Italian painter whose portraits of notable Renaissance figures, rendered as agglomerations of vegetables, fish, and books, among other items, are more horrifying than charming.
Like Roth, Hegarty is drawn to this country’s damaged history, its warped psyche. Her watermelons are the stuff of colonialism, racist stereotyping, US avarice, and gluttony. Her fruits aren’t juicy, they’re bleeding—a lacerated bounty. The show, divided into four sections, feels a bit fragmented, as each area could be its own exhibition. But these separations only aid in reinforcing our sense of distance between the idealism of the American past and its sad, corrosive present.