The community of artists and writers revolving around saloničrre Mabel Dodge Luhan’s compound in Taos, New Mexico, in the early twentieth century provides the fulcrum for this sprawling exhibition. Works by well-known artists, such as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, occupy space alongside pieces by more obscure figures, including Rebecca “Beck” Salsbury James, Dorothy Brett, and Agnes Pelton. Many artists and writers traveled to Taos at the behest of Luhan, a prolific writer herself. Her fourth husband, Taos Pueblo Indian Antonio Lujan, opened the community to artists and writers, thus fostering a creative exchange between modernist and native traditions.
A highlight of the exhibition is an upstairs gallery where Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh’s watercolors and Brett’s vivid paintings depict native dances. The exhibition repeatedly refers to Luhan’s own complicated relationship with New Mexico’s multicultural heritage; her relocation to Taos was partly motivated by what she believed was a need to “save” the Pueblo culture endangered from American encroachment. Luhan’s exhibition of “primitive” (her term) devotional objects as modern art in a New York exhibition in 1919 likewise points to Luhan’s—as well as many modernist artists’ and audiences’—difficulty accepting the art of non-Anglo cultures on its own terms. A striking visual example of this complex dynamic between modernism and Hispanic art is on view in another gallery, in which Luhan’s own Hispano santos, which she donated to the Harwood after she was criticized for her treatment of the paintings in a 1925 essay she wrote, appear with Hartley’s own riff on a santo. The juxtaposition underscores the ways in which modernist artists often appropriated other cultures’ works, emptying them of original meaning yet creating new meaning as well.
Responding to a 2015 article on the status of women in contemporary art, Carrie Mae Weems concluded that in order to resist the splintering of social movements into competing interest groups, “we need a narrative change. We need a new set of terms.” This miniretrospective of her work from the mid-1990s to the present has a lot going on but pays particular attention to her strategies of narration and staging across her many series. The play between image and caption explored most famously in “Kitchen Table Series,” 1990, is certainly the most well known of these strategies. On the entry ramp into the galleries, a mirror reflection of Weems, nude and perched on the edge of the bed, asks us to “imagine my fate had De Kooning gotten hold of me.” A large part of the show is dedicated to Western conventions of beauty and juxtaposes the conceptually flattened space of the modernist canvas with the reality of black female bodies as they are seen and unseen by modern masters. In an especially moving part of the installation, pages of a children’s coloring book about the Obamas face off against a video of two silhouetted women telling racist jokes and a video of Obama’s face altered to conform to the contradictory caricatures made of him during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. Weems’s search for a narrative change is a search for a more humanizing and unifying language but also one that does not efface the dehumanizing language of the recent past and its unsettling persistence in our culture.
“Concealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value,” Norwegian diarist Karl Ove Knausgaard told the Paris Review. Uninhibited, soul-baring autobiography has never been more in demand, and the demand has never been easier to fulfill. Which makes Frances Stark, whose recent videos incorporate dialogue plucked from her online sex chats, possibly the most representative artist of our navel-gazing age. This retrospective, which originated at the Hammer Museum, in the artist’s hometown of Los Angeles, attempts to encapsulate Stark’s rambling, passionate career but fails to capture how complex and radical her oeuvre truly is. Her numerous collages (most shown here were made between 2005 to 2010), which often feature strutting peacocks and women in frocks, are overly precious, compositionally inert, and lack muscle—one searches in vain for a sense of challenge or risk on the part of the artist. In this entirely too-conventional exhibition, these facile works dominate––a format that is particularly ill suited for Stark, whose ideal métier is media-driven. Fortunately, Stark’s peculiar and fearless brilliance comes through in her writings used in the wall labels. One text, commenting on the architect R. M. Schindler’s relationship with his wife, bemoans the “unfathomable struggle of human being vs. artist/author.” The artist also deploys her confessional practice to great effect in videos such as My Best Thing, 2011, in which she appears along with one of her online lovers in the form of toy avatars, discussing David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the LAPD, and other topics. If only the MFA had downplayed the two-dimensional pieces and used their ample galleries to give pride of place to Stark's 2013 video installation Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free, in which an intoxicating hip-hop beat accompanies images and text that sum up the artist’s admirable MO: “As I prance about/ club in hand/ seeking new idols to smash/ I am precise man and I take a chance man.”
Spread into clusters over a whole wall, Wolfgang Tillmans’s nineteen-part installation Folding, Refraction, Touch, 2013, marries his early sensual nightlife portraiture with his later conceptual, self-reflexive photography. In his images of bent limbs, used sheets, and discarded clothing, folds appear on human bodies and the objects used by people. Joints and wrinkles fleetingly bear witness to a presence that, for this artist, can only be preserved through photography. The largest piece in the show, Silver 101, 2012, is simply a beige striated sheet of chromogenic paper that was made by developing a blank sheet in a dirty print processor. Through its emphasis on materiality and malfunction, this image brings to mind the common chemical backbone shared by all the photographs on the wall. Scale is used ironically as well—Silver 101 has the subtlest content, while some of the smaller snapshot prints contain far more information than is visible to the eye.
Facing this installation are photographic and sculptural works by other German as well as Czech artists, selected by curators Lynette Roth and Olivia Crough. These range from photograms by Oskar Nerlinger and Jaroslav Rössler to a sculpture of bent brass rods by Brigitte Matschinsky-Denninghoff and Martin Matschinsky-Denninghoff. They are rather oblique in their relationship to the main installation, refusing a contrived narrative of development that places Tillmans’s work as some sort of culmination in photographic experimentation. Admittedly, though, it is difficult to form a dialogue with an installation that only wants to talk about its own construction.
Without a doubt, Georg Herold’s 1989 untitled piece develops the most wholehearted repartee with Tillmans’s work. Showing Herold’s intervention with a copper electroplating process on a photograph of wooden planks, the result is a large-format ashen frame that surrounds a flattened wooden pattern. Like Silver 101, the work is large but only whispers.
As Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Okwui Enwezor, and many others have observed, the photographic archive inevitably exceeds its function as repository of exhaustive records; the viewer adds mnemonic and affective experience in encountering this informational space. Focusing on Rifat Chadirji, a key figure in Iraq’s postwar modernization, “Every Building in Baghdad” accentuates this archival excess to devastating effect.
Chadirji copiously photographed his nearly one hundred realized architectural projects—factories, universities, and office buildings, as well as other sites in and around Baghdad and northern Iraq between the 1950s and 1980s. Many of his images are black-and-white snapshots, some taken in haste (passersby frequently mistook him for a government spy). Sensing that the times in which he lived were precarious, Chadirji aimed to preserve memory of these structures ahead of their possible damage or destruction. As a result, images of demolition prior to construction grimly anticipate the future obliteration of such buildings amid countless wars.
The title’s vexing reference to Ed Ruscha positions the exhibition, curated by Mark Wasiuta, Adam Bandler, and Florencia Alvarez, somewhere between academic research and contemporary art. Unframed pages from the archive featuring two to six photographs apiece are mounted on black metal armatures that recall both Minimalist sculptures and military barricades. These armatures thrust this fragmented archive up to eye level in an accusatory manner, rendering the exhibition’s context—and country—unavoidable. Far from innocuous shards of the past, we confront our own complicity in what has happened to these places, stripping bare the explosive politics of the archive.
Lexington Camera Club produced thousands of photographs and numerous publications over its forty some years of activity, and this compelling exhibition reveals what an enthusiastically interdisciplinary practice, mutual support, risk taking, and a disregard for regional isolation can achieve. This group pushed itself to explore the limits of what counts as a photograph, and in the most surprising section of this show, we see thresholds of representation tested through camera movement, unfocused images, multiple exposures, X-rays, and abstractions.
Ralph Eugene Meatyard joined the club in 1954 and became its best-known artist. He enjoyed a close partnership with inventive photographers including Van Deren Coke, Zygmunt S. Gierlach, James Baker Hall, Robert C. May, Guy Mendes, Cranston Ritchie, and Charles Traub, all well-represented here. The group acquired idiosyncrasy and depth through engagement with writers Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, and Jonathan Williams, as well as Thomas Merton, who was also a photographer. Images taken by camera club members were featured in books by poets, who reciprocated with essays in the photographers’ own books.
In their works, the camera club frequently obscured the human figure through montage, blurring, or shadow. Committed to a kind of selfless witnessing of interiors and landscapes, these photographers surrendered to the affect of settings in which people were treated as another surface on which the light played, as in as in Robert C. May’s Chris Meatyard, 1973. Densely detailed photographs of Kentucky woods by Meatyard, Mendes, and others suggest a visionary experience with nature. No doubt influenced by Merton’s writing, this kind of spiritual exploration extends to the artists’ experimentation with photographic processes. The club disbanded the year after Meatyard’s unexpected death in 1972, leaving an exceptional body of work that in many ways could be regarded as a collective effort.
In the poem that serves as the namesake for this sweeping exhibition, the French writer Francis Ponge describes the sun as “the formal and indispensable condition of everything in the world . . . The condition of sight itself.” In his first exhibition as a curator at the museum, Drew Sawyer picks up this charge in order to contemplate all manner of ways in which our source of light and energy both complicates and enables the task of the photographer.
“The Sun Placed in the Abyss” is divided into three sections: the intersecting histories of photography and science; images of the sun itself, or in which solar rays have been used as a medium; and works that picture sunrise and sunset in order to confront the possibilities and limitations of photographic materials. The themes are specific but just expansive enough to bleed into and reinforce one another. Lisa Oppenheim’s 35-mm slideshow The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else, 2006, is made up of appropriated images of sunsets originally posted by US soldiers deployed in Iraq; Wolfgang Tillmans’s oversize color prints in Venus Transit, 2004, picture the planet through his childhood telescope as it rotates––and is dwarfed by––a pale purple sun; stills from Tacita Dean’s 16-mm film The Green Ray, 2001, captures the last fractional ray the sun emits before retreating beyond the curvature of the earth. In these works, natural light performs overlapping and often conflicting functions for the photographer. It behaves destructively by burning through camera lenses and photosensitive paper. It foils and abets the technologies that attempt to catch, describe, and harness it. And, most persuasively, it functions as an agent of the metaphorical, keeping time (as only that bright star can) as our lives advance and recede.
This exhibition comprises new iterations of two long-standing projects that take complementary looks at commerce, identity, and shared space in the age of globalization. Both projects initially functioned as critiques, but at this political moment, viewers may suddenly find themselves acutely nostalgic for a time when establishing a shared currency and visual language—as opposed to building walls and retreating behind borders—was seen as a good thing.
Martha Rosler began her ongoing “In the Place of the Public: Airport Series” in 1983, photographing airports as she traveled around the world. Thirteen color photographs from the series line three walls of the show, clad in heavy frames that recall the light-box ads so ubiquitous in airports. These photos of luminous but lonely spaces (moving walkways, an empty luggage carousel) are surrounded by ominous phrases printed on the walls: “mergers and acquisitions,” “total surveillance,” and so forth. A video screen displays additional images.
Sarah Staton’s first SupaStore popped up in 1993 and was reprised several times throughout the decade. Installations functioning as working retail stores for artist-made multiples, the “SupaStore” series both facilitated exchange and commented ironically on the marketing of creativity. Here, SupaStore Air includes examples of pieces from that era (for example, Hadrian Pigott’s 1993 Girl ? Boy Soaps) and newly made pieces by dozens of artists (screen-printed shirts, modified sunglasses, and more).
From today’s standpoint, the SupaStore concept looks prescient: From 3-D-printed sculptures on Etsy to architect-designed toasters at Target, commercial products have been embraced by many artists as valid media for their work. Rosler’s “Airport Series” resonates differently. While the project reflects past preoccupations with corporate homogeneity and the surveillance state, the photos also evoke a more hopeful time in geopolitics. Dare we wish for that time to return?
When the legendary Minneapolis hardcore punk trio Hüsker Dü titled their 1981 self-released debut LP Land Speed Record, it was the perfect heading for the raucous single-take live recording, a seventeen-song masterwork. Chris Larson has fixated on the album’s twenty-six-minute, thirty-five-second duration in his own multipart film installation of the same name. The fixation stems from Larson’s longstanding friendship with Hüsker drummer and co-songwriter Grant Hart. In 2011, a fire partially destroyed Hart’s childhood home in St. Paul, and Larson quickly offered his nearby studio space to serve as a repository for the drummer’s belongings.
At the center of Larson’s Land Speed Record, 2016, is a slow-pan shot of Hart’s stuff, as seen from above, sprawled across the concrete floor of the artist’s studio. The video is projected onto an entire wall, the camera’s horizontal movement across the studio appearing as a careful cascade of Hart’s possessions down the wall. The work is joined by a black-and-white 16-mm film loop that shows Hart’s objects from more conventional close-up shots. It’s a material account of a collector of various rarities—drum equipment, vintage records, Studebaker car parts—and of a tireless custodian of a widely revered musical legacy.
Larson enlisted local heavy-metal drummer Yousif Del Valle to learn and eventually record an exact facsimile of Hart’s drumming from Land Speed Record. As Larson’s films repeat, Del Valle’s drumming plays intermittently. In spite of Del Valle’s virtuosity, dissecting Hart’s Dionysian approach to rhythm proved to be difficult, if not revelatory. Hart’s original contains manifold layers of meaning, intent, and idiosyncrasy that need to be understood or at least acknowledged before being reconstructed. But it works. The copy is sound. Hart and the band’s entire sonic character can be heard careening along with Del Valle’s re-creation.
Eric Avery studied printmaking and later trained to become a physician. His artistic production blends these two practices, resulting in woodcuts that draw on his personal and professional history as a gay doctor to express the HIV-positive experience. In Blood Test, 1985, a woodcut on molded paper shows Avery’s veiny arm during the two weeks he waited for his HIV test results. The pulpy quality of the molded paper makes the background of the print resemble fluffy medical gauze. Most of the prints here also reference a broader visual history of health and disease.
One wall of the exhibition is mainly devoted to prints from his series “The New Face of AIDS – Patient Portraits in Frames of HIV Risk,” 1994–2011, which depict stories inspired by his HIV-positive patients. With permission, the artist made portraits of them and surrounded their likenesses with the type of scenes that may increase one’s likelihood of contracting the infection. At times, this moralizing mission seems to strip context from the subjects—in the piece Compulsive Sex, a frame made up of queer sex scenes does little to distinguish the risk factors between protected and unprotected sex, falsely implying that queerness itself is a factor.
A vitrine in the center of the room contains various artists’ books, including a digital letterpress pamphlet titled Pictures That Give Hope, 2001. While the zine appears to be simple, Avery considers this work his most successful project. It sidesteps the common pitfalls that haunt artistic responses to the AIDS crisis, allowing a directness that escapes heavy-handedness, a call to emotion that is not propaganda, and the display of a sick body that is not alone in its sickness.
Ulises is a collectively run art bookstore and exhibition space—modeled after venues such as Printed Matter and Dexter Sinister in New York—whose quarterly, essayistic presentations constellate works of art, publications, and public programs around a curatorial theme. “Active Voice,” this season’s apt focus, places the politicized, pop-inflected narrations of Hannah Black’s recent videos and Steffani Jemison’s looped sound work Same Time, 2014, into dialogue. In Jemison’s recording, which is softly amplified throughout the room, an a cappella group weaves lush harmonies around the text of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton’s Vietnam War-era speech at Boston College. The immersive aural pleasure of this work signals Newton’s desire, expressed in his closing line, “to develop a value system that will help us function together in harmony,” despite seemingly insurmountable differences between radical communities. On a monitor with headphones, Black’s video Intensive Care/Hot New Track, 2014, collages spoken fragments of stories of sexual violence, celebrity, and extradition over disembodied floating limbs.
Mark Beasley’s Twelve Books & Seven Records: Re-Voice, 2016, comprises a reading and listening list available to browse onsite, as in a reference library, and as a printed takeaway card. Its references include Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997) and Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s jazz LP We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960). The bookshop’s shelves display a range of on-theme materials, which supplement Beasley’s concise syllabus, including Pascal Gielen’s The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude: Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism (2010) and filmmaker and performer Wu Tsang’s monograph Not in My Language (2016). Communal furniture—long, low benches and a wide central table designed by Jody Harrington—invites extended reading, active listening, and conversation, all essential in these troubled times.
Ann Hamilton’s Philadelphia miniretrospective was accompanied by a here-and-then-gone waterfront installation of pulley- and wind-activated Tyvek curtains, but the crux of the matter is on the eighth floor of this museum—a materialization of the nerve center from which springs Hamilton’s tender and spectacular whimsy. On the right side of the gallery, twenty-four steel carts function as museum cases. They look like four-post bed frames from an infirmary; instead of mattresses, though, they hold sample books overstuffed with all manner of swatches, from goat hair to lace. There, too, are twentieth-century Amish dolls, faceless and outfitted with tiny aprons and bonnets.
On the left side of the gallery hang twenty-six understated checked and striped blankets. They’re from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, folded and hung neatly in a long row high up on the wall. Running underneath, a section of habitus • commonplace, 2016, which exists online as a Tumblr open for submissions, is set up as a shelf with stacks of takeaway printouts of images and literary quotes related to the human experience with cloth. There’s an excerpt by Alice Walker about lavender quilt pieces from her mother, another by Sylvia Plath about her protagonist feeling uncomfortable in expensive duds, and another by Eileen Myles about a madras shirt faded to resemble paisley.
Hamilton proposes: We are fundamentally intimate with blankets, pockets, tablecloths, and windbreakers. Yet the police lieutenant’s soft hat, the voting booth curtain, and the forlorn sofa’s tattered upholstery threaten to inhibit our imagination. Perhaps these objects might as well be fleshy and alive.
In an intimate gallery below a spectacularly fabulous Andy Warhol prints retrospective rests Sister Corita Kent’s contemplative antidote: a pithy hotbed of rainbow-hued prints that chart her trajectory from art-teaching nun to politically radical Pop art maestra. While at first one might feel that Big Andy upstairs dwarfs Underdog Kent in a wrestling match for best silk-screener, looking at Warhol situates Kent as a fellow genius appropriator of commercial advertising and lover of mechanical art’s democratic potential. This art-historical repositioning is significant because the forthright, earnest messages in her early works have arguably, and unfortunately, freaked out some viewers. Now, those squeamish about spiritual conversation can simply eye-candy away on the formal splendor of the artist’s geometric overlays, valiant treatments of scale, unorthodox typographic experiments, and striking color palettes. In The Word Pitched His Tent, 1962, solid cadmium red, magenta, and black tunnel shapes are stacked on top of one another, with a crude yellow sun stamped above them. The title references John 1:14, in which Jesus pitches his tent with humankind: With this, the image becomes an abstract ode to alliances and modesty.
To detach Kent’s empowering sociopolitical, epigrammatic slogans from her graphic sensibility, though, would mean missing her subversive wordplay: memos about benevolence, love, peace, and transforming media bombardments into simplified, reflectively humane insights. Later works borrow snippets of D. H. Lawrence, Navajo chants, and e.e. cummings, such as Crazy Enough, 1968, a lush, shoegaze-y yellow-and-black floral collage (a paean to a bumblebee?) with the poet demurely quoted at the bottom: “I thank heaven somebody’s crazy enough to give me a daisy.” Absorptive and inviting, Kent’s prints leaves one invigorated.
One corner of Rick Bartow’s retrospective, organized just before his death earlier this year, features a suite of early drawings and prints dating back to 1979 and a later painting of a male figure with a crow twice its size resting on its torso. The crow in Hunter’s Tale Remembered, 2009, seems poised to devour the man. The painting’s rich black background and the furious marks shading the animal’s body are as ominous as the sinister situation depicted. Bartow consistently returned to this tension between human and animal—the idea that there is an animal inside all of us and that this hybridity lends us power as well as the potential for self-destruction—throughout his nearly five-decade career.
He developed a mastery of pastels and exploited the medium’s velvety textures to portray men as bears and dogs, skull-faced figures sprouting wings amid vibrant colors thickly and almost violently applied to paper. The exhibition’s centerpieces, though, due to their large scale, are his acrylic paintings on canvas and wood sculptures. The sculptures convey a physicality and force through their use of raw wood and hardware: nails hammered into a face or neck, or a hatchet used as a leg on a human-headed dog, as in Man Acting Like Dog, 2009. His gestural style, distorted figuration, and the crabbed, handwritten text on the paintings suggest an interest in artists such as Francis Bacon or Jean-Michel Basquiat. But his content hearkens to the traditions of his Wiyot Tribe ancestors, evoking an exploration of his identity as a Native American as well as a Vietnam veteran and a recovering addict. In this light, Bartow’s composite forms speak to his own desire to represent complex and often conflicting historical narratives.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s mid-career survey is on tour. Following a first showing at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, this US venue adds to the mix Woman in E, 2016, a daily performance originally conceived for a different show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The titular woman wears a gold dress and stands on a round gold platform and rotates slowly, repeatedly strumming melancholic chords on an electric guitar. At the opening of the exhibit, the performer looked regal but stiff, constrained by her dress and pedestal that seemed to send up American triumphalism and mourn the continuing American economic crisis clearly articulated in the decay of urban centers such as Detroit and Washington, DC.
Kjartansson is a troubadour of doomed idylls. In the exquisite defeatist video God, 2007, for example, he is coiffed and tuxedo-clad, fronting an eleven-piece band. For thirty minutes, on a set a shade darker than Pepto-Bismol, he repeats over and over the warbling refrain “Sorrow conquers happiness.” These kinds of gestures feel teenage-cult-worthy; their wallowing and bloated casualness is their charm.
The sculpture Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only He Who Knows Longing), 2015, is representative of Kjartansson’s approach overall and of the naive watercolor doodles, notes, and paintings-as-performance relics also featured in this survey. A series of freestanding plywood set pieces, they are blank on one side and painted with snow-covered rock formations on the other side. Meant to be walked around, this scenery evokes an artificial journey or a failed search, incomplete by design because Kjartansson never intends to realize any serious outcomes. Droll and grim, he doesn’t want to.