Each of Sohei Nishino’s photographic collages is a record of the artist’s interaction with a city. He spends weeks photographing on the streets and seeking out high vantage points from buildings or parks. Then he prints contact sheets, cuts out individual frames, and reassembles them into mural-size collages as large as six by seven feet, which are then re-photographed. The hallmarks of the “Diorama Maps,” 2004–, as the artist calls them, are their vertiginous shifts in perspective. From a distance they appear to be panoramic or bird’s-eye-view maps, which depict a city’s geography from a fixed, oblique angle––but up close, they reel between detached cartography and the immersive experience of walking on urban streets crowded with people and buildings.
The seven works on view from this series are anchored by their inclusion of iconic sites, so it’s easy to recognize Diorama Map Rio de Janeiro, 2011, Diorama Map London, 2010, or Diorama Map San Francisco, 2016, even if one’s mental maps of these cities are vague. Since the invention of handheld GPS devices, blinking blue dots have rendered obsolete the spatial translation skills normally required to find one’s way. Nishino makes visible the inherent partiality and contingency of situating oneself in space.
The poetry of this series is also a reminder that mapping is a discipline bound by convention, not a natural reflection of the world but rather a construction of it that privileges some sites and paths of movement over others. The kaleidoscopic perspectives of Nishino’s work challenge the unary point of view inherent in traditional cartography, offering something more organic, improvisatory, and personal.
The community of artists and writers revolving around salonièrre 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.
For the information-rich group exhibition “The Artist’s Museum,” various artists have arranged the work of others, mostly using video and still photography in order to capture and reorient their frequently modernist objects of interest. Carol Bove’s collection of brass, wood, and stone items paired with photographs recall René Magritte’s painting La traversée difficile (The Difficult Crossing), 1926, while Pierre Leguillon’s La grande evasion (The Great Escape), 2012, originally made for the Musée de la danse in Rennes, consists of mounted photographs sourced online. Many artists display their collections as overlapping three-dimensional arrangements that cover tables and floors, suggesting everything from the curator’s exhibition maquette to an Amazon wish list.
Anna Craycroft’s piece The Earth Is a Magnet, 2016, comprises two rooms of Berenice Abbott’s scientific photographs from 1920 to 1968 (a subject of local interest, since some of the pictures here were part of MIT’s Physical Science Study Committee in the 1950s) intermingling with the work of current artists such as Katherine Hubbard and A. L. Steiner. Christian Marclay’s video-in-the-round, Shake Rattle and Roll (Fluxmix), 2004, orchestrates, quite literally, historical Fluxus objects that resound musically in response to the artist’s handling.
The ability to hear (rather than see) Marclay’s piece all at once makes it exceptional in a show that otherwise demands much of the viewer’s capacity to draw latent connections among the works on display. But this is not another birth of the reader. No longer the cobbled-together images of postmodernist appropriation, these pieces perform a near-didactic role for the viewer and suggest the possibility that, if read correctly and historically, they might yield something not at all arbitrary, something nested within a set of actual conditions that produce a newly complex set of subjective categories.
“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.”
One might contend that art exhibitions, perennially hawking some ideology or creative vision, have more in common with the late-night infomercial—that most unseemly of genres—than we care to admit. Roe Ethridge makes that argument in “Nearest Neighbor,” a two-floor retrospective of sixty large-format photographs from 1999 to 2016. Aesthetically, these images hover above a Bermuda Triangle, one whose vertices are the ambience of luxury magazines, the innocent nostalgia of a family snapshot, and the corporatized, euphoric limbo of stock photography.
Pigeons midflight; empty Coke bottles; women in swimwear, double-exposed against a throb of sunset; a Thanksgiving banquet—anything goes in the aggressively styled, unsettling camp in which this show revels. Borrowing from previously published iconography to recast his works in more playful, ironic roles, Ethridge plumbs a résumé that includes showing in a Whitney Biennial, shooting for publications such as Vice, and commercial endeavors for companies including Goldman Sachs. This artistic arbitrage invests the show, whose title is both a digital imaging term and a pattern-recognition method for data optimization, with the intimate distance felt between image and intent.
These photographs mine the distrust and desirability evoked with product placement, as in Nancy with Polaroid, 2003–2006, where a dimpled, retouched model beams as the instant film is disgorged from her name-brand camera. A candle’s slavering wax and a rind of Brie morbidly deliquesce in Chanel Necklace for Gentlewoman, 2014, a starkly decadent vanitas that also includes cherries, soap, pearls, and a plastic fork. These photos could pass as editorial ads, scrapbook entries, even postage stamps. Within the idiom of the purchasable, licensable and standardized, these pictures belong everywhere and anywhere. In a post-truth world besieged by unverifiable images, it’s suggested, you too can enjoy the same majestic abysm declared by empty vessels of Coca-Cola.
An international group show featuring work by twenty-three artists, “Question the Wall Itself” probes compromised interiorities; the political bleeds into the domestic, while the institutional frames emotional bonds and bodies alike, most palpably in Akram Zaatari’s installation All Is Well on the Border, 2008. Poetic and cerebral, the exhibition features a wide range of media, including paintings, tracings, texts, drawings, moving images, sculptural objects, and room-filling installations, such as Rosemarie Trockel’s ominous As Far as Possible, 2012—an uncomfortably bright, white-tiled room where caged mechanical birds flutter and a plastic palm tree protrudes stalactite-style from the ceiling.
Curated by Fionn Meade with Jordan Carter, the show is dense with allusions to the history of art, architecture, and décor. To convey the unreliability of these echoes, Marcel Broodthaers’s parrot from Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say Everywhere I Said So), 1974, presides over the works on view. Shifts in scale, color, and perspective heighten a degree of disorientation, as in the miniature tinted interiors shown upside down in Paul Sietsema’s film Empire, 2002. Materials, too, imbue objects with ambiguous sensibilities: oil on canvas masquerades as marble in Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House, 2013, while ceramic floor tiles mimic cracked dirt and raw cement in Nina Beier’s Tileables, 2014. Things are not as they seem.
The air of uncanny déjà vu thickens with Cerith Wyn Evans’s slowly rotating potted palm. As the show unfolds, objects appear increasingly withdrawn, and our ability to know them, dubious. The empty vitrine in Danh Vō’s All Your Deeds Shall in Water Be Writ, but This in Marble, 2010–, best intimates the pervasive sense of suspended certainties, which is perhaps all the more reason to question the walls that surround us, any and all walls.
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.
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.