References to sex pervade the culture, yet the intricacies of sexuality are deeply private. With their current exhibition here, “Who Am I to Judge, or, It Must be Something Delicious,” Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg upend this space with a joyous, dreamlike anxiety that’s suffused with the scatological, sensuous, and phallic.
The exhibition’s titular sculptural installation, 2017, features cartoonish characters made of silicone and resin upon a raised platform, engaging in orgiastic debauchery. Spindly-armed acorns wrestle with a red-nosed banana; anthropomorphic turds weep aqua-blue tears; a cotton-candy-pink My Little Pony lies on its back, tossing a jubilant, big-bottomed moon into the air with its hooves. The piece has three turntables—each one plays a record with various instrumental tracks and sound effects (Djurberg is responsible for the visuals; Berg, the audio work). We are wrapped up within a rich sonic atmosphere.
Some of the show’s creatures reappear in a trio of stop-motion animations. Worship, 2016, references the gnarlier aesthetics of contemporary hip-hop—it gives us oiled-up dancers writhing upon jewel-encrusted corncobs to throbbing rhythms. Delights of an Undirected Mind, 2016, meanders through more Freudian terrain, where tigers, wolves, and a sloppy condensed-milk can—continually spilling its creamy-white contents—take part in a raucous tea party in a child’s bedroom. The subtlest of the grouping is Dark Side of the Moon, 2017, depicting a girl wandering through the forest at night, recalling fairy-tale scenarios. It is a narrative of innocence, fascination, and mischievousness, haunted by woodland noises. Djurberg and Berg connect the darkness and all of its intoxicating wonders to our most hidden desires.
Looking fairly flat in reproduction, John McAllister’s paintings reveal, in person, a delicate concern with spatial conventions. Recurrent motifs include linear, Matissean still lifes, landscapes, mise en abymes, and striped or hatched patterns, often merging into an implied surface as wallpaper or parquet flooring. But these are not merely reframed Matisse, or neon Nabis. Slackening the tight calibration and push-pull dynamics of The Red Studio–era Matisse, McAllister often situates the main compositional tension in the relations between the rectangular framing devices. A shallow illusionistic depth is established between two or three layers of pictured reality. Detail is then freed up, the component objects becoming less anchored within the overall play of compositional forces. Fronds, palms, and flowers cluster in loose tangles, decorative yet alive (bestir duskbright, all works 2017).
McAllister’s limited palette also acts as a unifying principle. In a number of images, a narrow range of violets, mauves, and grays on a fluorescent-pink ground describe a crepuscular nature that’s both distanced and artificial—a sort of Kenneth Anger pastoral. Within the paintings’ shallow plastic depth, minor tonal shifts take on greater significance, as do such subtle touches as the reality effect created by the softening or refraction of an object seen through water in a vase (amidst bliss be, for instance, and among spectral sounds).
In the panoramic burst into dazzling daze, the background pattern of repeated triangles is pushed out to the edge of the canvas, a floral idyll filling the viewer’s field of vision. In these larger landscapes, reticence and sophistication give way to an enveloping painterly generosity.
The Drift, 2017, is Maeve Brennan’s major film commission and first institutional solo exhibition. Brennan’s practice—exemplified by previous work such as Jerusalem Pink, 2015, which considered the relationship between the role of stone in Palestine and her great-grandfather’s occupation there as an architect during the British Mandate—merges serious investigative documentary practices with a sensitive and poetic relationship to using moving image as a means to create subjective and/or staged moments: footage meets fiction.
Brennan has been based between Beirut and London since 2013. The Drift explores the shifting economies of objects and materials in tandem with the sociopolitical developments of contemporary Lebanon. Multiple characters appear throughout the film: a self-taught archaeologist; the gatekeepers of the Roman temples in Niha; and a joyriding mechanic from Britel—a town in the Beqaa Valley close to the Syrian border, known for trade in used cars and historical artifacts. These objects sit at the center of the film, and the narrative arc provided by the people is important. The power of restoration is a resonant theme within The Drift, which moves effortlessly between gentle long takes of clay artifacts being slowly glued back together and frenetic moments of cars being swallowed up by clouds of dust while “drifting,” as the film’s title references—a kind of balletic, controlled speeding technique. This oscillation between intimacy and urgency is key to the beauty of Brennan’s film. It is quietly political, carefully sidestepping the singularity of mainstream media representation and creating an alternative set of images.
London has been reevaluating what it knows about the Italian neo-avant-garde of late: Exhibitions of Claudio Parmiggiani, Irma Blank, Emilio Isgró, and Vincenzo Agnetti at this space have revealed the depth of postwar Italian art histories. Agnetti had a significant role alongside Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani in the early life of the journal and gallery Azimut/h. In his writings, Agnetti searched for new languages of expression, favoring work in novel materials and with a relationship to language, philosophy, and information.
Agnetti demonstrates how his own work echoed this experimentation. Focusing on language and its productive arbitrariness and doubt, a highlight is La macchina drogata (The Drugged Machine), 1968, a reconfigured Olivetti calculator that replaces the machine’s inked numbers with letters from a typewriter. Pressing the numbered keys results in fragmented nonsense that undoes the fixity of writing, making poetry on a scroll intended for accounting. Produced at the time of student occupations, the work’s provocation to the language of bureaucracy is incisive, disarming.
The series “Feltri” (Felts), 1970–81, presents further explorations of memory and forgetting in short, aphoristic forms. One example, Paesaggio (Landscape), 1971, is engraved with a single painted word, “TERRITORY,” linking title to text in a gesture that unsettles the relationship between national identity and possession. “Assiomi” (Axioms), 1968–77, by contrast, combines statements with charts and diagrammatic drawings. Here, a work titled Assioma - Il valore culturale di un'opera è direttamente proporzionale alla necessità che suscita in noi (Axiom - The cultural value of an artwork is directly proportional to the need it arouses in us), 1971, draws connections to intangible value while perversely showing an attempt to measure it. This is part of Agnetti’s mission: to exploit the black holes between signifier and signified, using language to open to thoughts, questioning value and knowledge.
Christopher Williams’s recent exhibitions have been prefaced by open letters. Sometimes addressed to the models participating in his images, the letters act as a strategy that cuts across intimate dialogues and public debate, unveiling constructions of the self and the institutions of everyday life. He opens up the deep complexity of institutional structures while putting human detail into the frame.
Williams’s newest images reveal objects of domestic consumer desire: designer cooking pots here, stalks of wholesome wheat there, or the back window of a car with happy children performing for the camera. The labor on which this image of perfection depends is revealed textually, as the letter alludes to instructions and dialogues from within the photo studio, drawing attention to the control of gesture in the production of normality.
Williams retains an interest in the exhibition at the same time. Present are the temporary walls that form a key part of Williams’s vocabulary. A specimen from the artist’s collection has been refabricated six times—notes, holes, and all—positioned to narrow and unsettle the regularity of the gallery space. The theme of repetition traverses walls, imagery, and technologies, but takes aim specifically at the reproduction of conditions within everyday life, especially toward institutions that have hidden their institutionalizing tendencies. Williams makes another distinctive gesture at the show’s beginning: He turns the gallery’s front desk and entryway, understood as a kind of nonspace, into a site. Using the reception area to display his letters, he extends the parentheses of the gallery frame—now the desk staff comes out of the shadows and into our view.
Throw a visionary, abundantly talented, half–Sri Lankan fashion illustrator into London’s 1980s anarcho-punk and fetish milieus, and you get these brazen oversize drawings that Jo Brocklehurst effortlessly generated during a high-octane career—almost as marginal as the lives of her demimonde subjects. The prejudice her mixed origins had attracted, typical of the insular 1940s and 1950s England of her childhood, must have warmed her to these countercultures, including those of New York’s gay and s-m clubs where she drew in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the theater and dance scenes she collaborated with in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Salzburg later on.
Few contemporaneous artists drew their subjects as exuberantly as Brocklehurst. She developed an alt portraiture that hybridized body and costume into quasimythological creatures. Brocklehurst turned these punks and fetish-club denizens into heroes of modern life, a century after Charles Baudelaire devised the concept to describe the contemporaneity of anarchistic, downtrodden Parisians. In Untitled (Portrait of Angie), 1984, a single pink breast protrudes from a black-clad, spiky-haired figure that sinuously curls upward across the page. With Change, 1995, the space is flattened into a classical frieze to show the lissome bodies of a long-haired topless man in leather pants seated in front of a woman, presumably in head-to-toe rubber—with daggerlike points for nipples—all set against a flat, fluorescent-red background.
It’s entirely fitting that the last drawings of Brocklehurst’s shown here are characters from Through the Looking Glass (1871), reimagined as an eroticized menagerie wearing vibrantly colored lingerie and bondage gear on flat black or lemon-yellow grounds. The virtually naked and defiant-looking heroine of the drawing Alice, ca. 2000, with playing cards tumbling around her, must be how Brocklehurst imagined herself, a proud outsider completely at home among exotic clans.
Zhang Enli’s art stands in opposition to the cynical realism and political Pop of his contemporaries and predecessors. His works are more of a celebration than a critique of daily life. For some time, the Shanghai-based artist has been emptying out the more recognizable content of his canvases. In the beginning, depictions of people gave way to large still lifes; now, representational bits of the world get transformed into vast painterly abstractions.
For instance, at the center of Tension 1, 2013—the earliest of the ten paintings currently on view—a tangle of emerald ropes wraps around what appears to be a pair of dark, thick wires. The rendering of these humble materials within a large space—the piece is more than seven feet wide—allows the artist to paint with a great physicality in long, loopy gestures. More lyrical and syrupy brushwork appears in Black and Red Lines, 2016, a lush abstraction rife with murky, watery forms. A grid underpins the imagery of each painting, underlining the work’s formal architecture while subtly transforming the paintings’ surfaces into fragile, translucent veneers.
Trees are also a popular subject with Zhang. Over a ten-day period in the exhibition space, he created a mural dense with them (Space Painting, 2017) that stretches along a curving, tilted wall within the gallery, producing a kind of forest backdrop for the rest of his works. Zhang cleverly nods to English academic pastoral painting with this effort, of course—but what comes through is not a fidelity to detail or verisimilitude but rather the sumptuousness of Zhang’s painting itself.
The city––its development, the facts of its habitation, its destruction, and its potential to be reimagined––encapsulates many of the themes of the Anthropocene. The works in this exhibition touch on issues of industry, capital, ecology, the displacement of people, war, and racism in a metropolitan context. The sense of entropy or collapse implied by the exhibition’s apocalyptic title is an important link between the individual pieces here.
Clara Ianni’s video Free Form, 2013, centers on two separate interviews from the late 1950s with Brasília’s planners, Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, in which they deny knowledge of protests by employees who worked on their urban utopia during that decade. Ianni’s architectural focus leads well into both the satellite images in Dora Mejia’s installation The Garden of Eden, 2014, and Carol Rhodes’s paintings and drawings of aerial views. Baghdad, obscured by black smoke, poignantly stands out among the cities printed on the satin cushions of The Garden of Eden. Rhodes’s intricate works trace and develop imaginary edgelands, highlighting the often invisible complexes that supplement the activities of a contemporary city. Both Black Audio Film Collective and Laura Oldfield Ford populate their works with narratives linked to social and political histories. Ford’s psychogeographic monologue takes as its subject demolitions, redevelopments, and changing lifestyles in Glasgow. Likewise, the postwar narrative of BAFC’s film Twilight City, 1989, focuses on the financialization of London and the plight of communities displaced by this process. Together, these distinct works build an expansive and lateral view of the city, centered on questions of progress, sacrifice, idealism, and reality in our collective activities.