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.
Anouk Kruithof’s first solo exhibition in the United States comprises a tongue-in-cheek body of work, ranging from photographic tableaux to blobby, photo-sculptural hybrids that complicate the relationship between form, content, and representation. When photography can be altered—to present “alternative facts,” for instance—the photograph’s ability to serve as proof becomes deeply problematic. Kruithof expands and exploits this now-perennial trope by turning the evidential weakness of images into a spatial, material problem.
One of the artist’s tactics is to use an accumulation of screenshots, usually of commercial images, as source material. When displayed on a two-dimensional surface in a search-results-like grid, as in Carry On (all works 2015), a montage of pictures of cutout silhouettes of guns, the studies appear to be mere formal explorations of patterns. Their content is literally absent. But when they’re amassed three-dimensionally for semiorganic sculptural forms, as in Sorry No Definitions Found . . . and Another Universe, the way in which images circulate as both materials and representations is performed gently but trenchantly: the irregular and vague shapes of these sculptures make them appear spectral and oddly insubstantial.
The series “Neutral (Sculpture),” featuring delicate, blurred-to-abstraction photographs printed onto materials such as latex, PVC, and vinyl that hang on metal armatures, emphasizes the fragility of pictures that seem to be stable when seen on flat, digital displays. Neutral (Restless) Sculpture—a precarious upright figure made of pipe insulation and a largely hidden folded photographic print on PVC curtain—seems to be waiting to unfold, umbrella-like, into a triumphant display. Meanwhile, Green Is More than Just a Color . . ., a set of images printed on Plexiglas and emblazoned across a PVC curtain, appears to be nothing more than a customized shower curtain—just one more unsteady screen through which our own worldview is mediated.
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.
Lonnie Holley’s solo exhibition “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship” is a miniretrospective of sorts, featuring some twenty works from as early as 1994, including assemblages, steel sculptures, and paintings on paper. At a time when civil rights are still under attack, the works read as poetic and powerfully charged. Take, for example, The Water Fountain, 2015, a beat-up fountain with two coat hangers emerging from the spout like a Calder sculpture, one black, one white. Or Church and State, 2014, a flag stand with a wooden crucifix hanging from its brass eagle. There is a plainspoken directness to the adjacencies of these found objects that is sincere and deeply moving.
Sounds from a video featuring Holley’s many music collaborations emanate across the galleries, adding rich textures to the show. Most of the works are accompanied by wall texts conveying first-person accounts of the inspiration or stories behind the works. Holley often remarks on the dangers of information and technology, and the way they can foster an almost paranoid need to remember the past. “The journey to the top of the mountain will be long and hard, but if we want to get there we must learn how to be a part of the change,” the text for Waking Up in the Bed of Death (Watching the Marchers’ Dream Die), 2016, states. “Become alert. We can’t keep dreaming and letting those dreams die.”
The dark heart of “Miasma” is the ten-minute video (all works titled Miasma and dated 2016) Yoshua Okón developed––along with sculptures and drawings for this living-room space located in a state associated with more than its fair share of showman politicians––amid a spectacularly disheartening US presidential election. Recorded at night, the video, presented here on a flat screen above the fireplace, features Houston’s bronze statue of the former CIA director and president George H. W. Bush backlit and shot mostly from below. This gives him gravitas, yet he is shrouded in fog and paired with a sound track that includes cawing birds and creaking doors, all of which suggest filmic facade. Standing nearby is a crudely printed foam sculpture of the monument, complete with legitimating reliefs of the welcomed solider and the benevolent leader presiding over Communism’s fall, summoning the kind of smoke screen politicians use to achieve power.
Through research with journalist Edgar Hernández, who curated the show, Okón continues his effort to lay bare the role of US policies in destabilizing Latin America and thus in causing the very flood of immigrants now decried by many on this side of the border. Two sets of drawings, hanging on either side of the video, cut to the heart of the matter with affecting subtly. Particularly haunting is the one featuring nine variations of the cover of a book—La CIA en Mexico—published in 1983 by a Mexican journalist who was gunned down the following year. In each drawing, all but a fragment of the cover is masked: A red, white, and blue letter “C” is visible here, an eagle there. These mirror the situation at hand, as one vainly tries to put the pieces together and is reminded that the truth is elusive, and likely troubling.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Questions of ecology lie at the core of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s exhibition, though her approach to the subject includes more than addressing the natural environment. The show features works produced by the artist since 2013, when she moved from Brooklyn to her birthplace of Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Her photography and videos represent a reconnection to and an exploration and celebration of her homeland, even as it suffers dramatic environmental degradation from rampant oil extraction. Karikpo Pipeline, 2015, a multichannel video presented across five LCD screens, envelops the viewer in the verdant lusciousness of Ogoniland, a landscape riven by signs of an industry’s rapacious intrusions. Masked dancers lunge and flip their way toward the camera in a performance of Karikpo, a whimsical acrobatic masquerade that’s a mainstay of Ogoni festivals. An antelope-horned visage leaps through the video like an avatar of local cultural tradition that calls forth a future where the welfare of Africa’s people and land are considered inseparable. These intersections of nature, technology, and cultural tradition are exemplary of the artist’s boundary-blurring examination of environmental issues in the Niger Delta.
Another multichannel series of videos, “Table Manners,” 2014–15, demonstrates the simple act of eating as one such point of collision. Shown across eight televisions radially aligned amid a pile of periwinkle shells, the piece achieves a quiet grace by simply displaying footage of Ogoni men and women as they eat. Their stares, which meet our gaze with wordless potency, draw us into an everyday reality in which identity can be articulated through small variations in the straightforward consumption of food. These seemingly insignificant gestures beckon the viewer into an intimate bond with the eight diners, an alternative relationship based on more than what we can extract from their world.
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.
Basim Magdy’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is the Egyptian artist’s first large-scale exhibition in the United States. Collecting a number of his psychedelic films, drawings, and photographic works from the past decade, the show offers a view into Magdy’s career-spanning fascination with dystopia, hope, and visions of futures that never came to be. From the strangely subdued neon hellishness of his early drawings to his newer experiments with “film pickling,” the artist’s term for submerging his photographs in chemicals to achieve riotous color effects, the works on display impart a cohesive if jangling stylistic approach and worldview. The drawings especially, which are exhibited in a visual heap on a large fluorescent wall painted a crepuscular pink, provide an oblique and disturbing portal into an alternate dimension of sociotechnological waning where antiquated technologies exist alongside fantastical creatures and strange extraterrestrial forces. Equal parts futuristic excess and outmoded disrepair, these small works represent a world in perpetual dusk that is occupied by spacecraft (some resembling giant squid) and weird, unidentifiable machines.
Magdy’s newest work shows a shift toward serial photography. An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale and An Island Recalls the Tangled Details of Its Past Life as a Poem of Solitude and Unrecorded Events, both 2016, dominate two walls of the exhibition with grids of brightly hued images and blocks of text. Like his films, these series tell dreamy narratives snarled with revolution, violence, death, and the potential for hope amid dystopian times. That Magdy is able to present these apocalyptic tales with such prismatic color and effervescent charm comes as a small miracle.
In David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One day this kid…), 1990, a photograph of the artist as a young boy is surrounded by descriptions of the violence he will someday suffer at the hands of a homophobic society. Curated by Danny Orendorff, this survey of contemporary North American artists’ responses to HIV and AIDS sets up similar relays between a “chronic disease” in the present, defined by unequal access to treatment, and a devastating epidemic in the past. For many younger artists, Wojnarowicz’s ominous future tense––what will happen––has shifted to what could have been, a sense of the possible marked by profound struggle and loss. For “The Papi Project,” 2010–13, Oli Rodriguez researched his own father, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993, and solicited his friends and former lovers, perhaps in vain, via Craigslist. Matt Wolf’s early video Smalltown Boys, 2003, devises for Wojnarowicz a fictitious daughter whose activism consists of lobbying for the 1990s television show My So-Called Life to remain on the air.
Contradictory registers coexist—journalistic photography, video vérité, educational pamphlets—and are matched with Orendorff’s welcome insistence on the experiences of people of color. Nancer LeMoins’s acrid screen prints testify to the challenges of aging while HIV+ on a Native American reservation. Samantha Box and Rashaad Newsome document and memorialize primarily African American and Latinx ballroom communities. Tiona McClodden’s video Bumming Cigarettes, 2012, presents a black lesbian’s first HIV test as an intergenerational encounter. Aay Preston-Myint’s supercharged violet mural is accompanied by a DJ set by Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrero, also known as CQQCHIFRUIT, linking the dance floor and abstraction in a utopian proposition (they are both members of the Chicago-based queer collective Chances Dances). Are Preston-Myint’s flitting forms simply paint, the virus regrouping, or a cure, just on the horizon?
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.
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.
Since the 1980s, Albert Oehlen has routinely deployed the tree as a programmatic conceit, a rudimentary scheme that has allowed for mischievous invention within the language of painting. As a rhizomatic figure, the tree offers vast and circuitous navigation potential. It possesses a core (trunk), diverging pathways (branches), and an infinite number of regenerating underground conduits (roots), and thus it is an ideal trope for routing and re-routing painting’s histories and influences. It is not surprising that the artist insists on using the anatomy of a plant over purely abstract and inorganic conceptions of networks to stretch, grow, and poke at painting and its potentiality. After all, the tree is a traditional and lauded vertical fixture within the genre of landscape painting.
The splintering of figuration and abstraction in this exhibition extends well beyond pictorial inventions within individual paintings. Here, the artist, along with a team of friends and arts professionals, choose to punctuate a selection of his work from the past forty years with pieces by other artists. Formal alliances are made by juxtaposing Oehlen’s painting Strassen, 1988, with two late de Kooning abstractions: Untitled XIII, 1985, and an untitled work from 1987. Three of Rodney Graham’s photographs of inverted trees make an appearance, as do pieces by Jackson Mac Low and Harun Farocki. A collaboration between Oehlen and the composer Michael Wertmüller yields a new musical score that accompanies a strobe-light projection installed at the exhibition’s entrance. Yet it is a suite of seven large black-and-white etchings (all Untitled, 2016)—each print hosting a fantastical image of a woody aberration and a hefty amount of lavish plate tone––that best demonstrates the utter abundance of pictorial invention that Oehlen has been able to achieve from pondering the tree.
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.
Joy is an uncommon aspiration in contemporary abstraction. The easy gratification found in art exclusively intent on formal pleasure leads many artists to pursue other approaches, such as irony or the suggestion of narrative. At a minimum, a countervailing formal dissonance is usually present—think of the peculiarities of a Charline von Heyl or a Raoul De Keyser. Stanley Whitney’s paintings, however, are unusual in their candor and plainness. They are bold declarations that name color as their principal subject. To his credit, Whitney evades the soppy trap inherent in such an ordinary commitment; a lesser artist would likely falter into cliché.
Whitney avoids empty formula by seeking, in his own words, “a space in color”—to paint “intelligent color, not decorative color.” One can question what this means, but these directives give vitality to Whitney’s art. All the works in this exhibition showcase this uncertain aim. For instance, Love in the Time of War, 2016, features stacks of colorful shapes, curiously bent like flexible Lego bricks. The canvas contains a landscape of mark-making; one section brushed vigorously, another flat, undisturbed, and opaque. This variation of touch and the wobbly line that delineates these gravity-bound slabs of color breathes life into the paintings. For all their structural repetition, the works have an unpredictable looseness; in Kongo, 2014, one is confronted by a turpentine-brown slush, pitted like a cratered moon and offset by an adjacent pink and a nearby resonant black. The impact of diverse paint applications demonstrates that, despite any sentimentalities of Whitney’s project, a Morandi-like directness remains an effective connection to the human facture of painting.
Against all odds, much of Andres Serrano’s photographic work remains intact. While the publicly funded Piss Christ (Immersions), 1987, is absent from this selection, a history of volatile reception lurks like a shadow throughout the exhibition. This is overtly legible in his series “History of Sex,” 1995–96, a collection of evenly lit portraits of diverse sexual practices. During a 2007 showing in Sweden, neo-Nazis mauled the framed photographs with crowbars and axes, and, in a telling gesture, the only face undisturbed among the works on view here belongs to an image of a pale man with a blond buzz cut. Following the incident, Serrano applied red semitransparent tape over the damaged sections of the other photos. It conceals as much as it repairs, deftly integrating extremist reaction into the work itself.
In his photographic series “Torture,” 2015, the artist digs into other systemic forms of violence. Each image shows a lone figure (sometimes an actual prisoner of war) assuming the role of a torture victim. These photographs of hooded men appear like staged versions of the viral image of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, which was revealed in 2004 along with other American abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Serrano saw his artwork become the catalyst for threats to abolish the NEA in 1989, with Newt Gingrich lamenting that some facets of publicly funded art are “designed to undermine our civilization.” But surely it is better that Serrano’s art alludes to the federal money that subsidizes torture and prejudiced legislation than never addressing it at all.
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.
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 déjŕ 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.
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.
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.
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.
For Portland-based painter Michelle Ross, the pictorial language of abstraction is formed in relation to the careful observation of physical gesture and its subsequent flattening and transmission through contemporary forms of visuality, such as print magazines and video. This is where Ross’s obsession with fashion comes in: Imaginatively transforming stretcher bars and their surfaces into a synthesis of good bones and material geometries, the artist paints on top of pages from W, for instance, or scans editorial spreads in order to blow them up and attach them to her canvases. Velvet, cotton, polyester, paint, plaster, and other media are stretched, folded, or layered atop these initial layouts, redacting representation. The works’ imagery sets the stage for “dressing” the paintings like a body; and if a painting fails, it’s stripped down and redressed later.
In Redress: With a Composure Periodically Fractured by Wailing (For D.R.), 2016, sheer and textured fabrics are fused with plaster and paint around a geometric portal of ombre satin. The residue of the work’s first layer and subsequent undress reveal stain-like expressionistic markings. In some places where Ross has ripped fabric away, raised scar-like edges reinforce the presence of touch and intimacy.
Her paintings often begin with small sewn-fabric constructions that she refers to as “prompts”—studies in texture and color that channel ideas into the paintings. Several are hung near their companion pieces in the exhibition. More than studies or accessories, they become a set of anecdotes for expanding the works’ style and beauty.
For those finding it difficult to see beyond a post-election haze, this show’s kaleidoscope of talismans, filmed utopias, and jazz sounds offers a welcome apparition. A room-size installation, titled Asterisms, 2016, is the most ambitious work to date by Cauleen Smith, an artist steeped in structuralist filmmaking and Afrofuturism. It conjures a future that is bright for all bodies.
A constellation of four monitors facing radially outward forms the installation’s core. Each screen plays footage recorded by cameras looking upward and outward at natural and human-made Shangri-las, such as puffy clouds, a geodesic observation tower, a modernist building, stars, and a gliding monorail. These cinemascapes serve as backdrops for tables of objects, some drawn from the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s collection, that suggest various paths to fabricating a new world. For example, in one arrangement a pair of ceramic crows (by Rick Bartow), two plastic Clonette dolls (colonial-era toys from Ghana), and a Japanese kusamono composition (comprising potted moss and grasses) stand in front of footage of the Watts Towers, and later a tree, as if populating the vistas behind them. In another arrangement, a wooden Tanzanian puppet, a translucent glass bowl (by Benjamin Moore), and a suiseki stone are set in the sea, and then against a clip of a rocket leaving earth. Elsewhere, there are sci-fi books and a pile of candies taken, according to a note, from one of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s homages to his dying lover and to renewal in the face of death. Cameras capture footage of each “diorama” against its changing background and send their feeds to projectors that cast the images on the walls above the installation. As saxophone notes by Joe McPhee soar, every register of the room is in flux. Asterisms is a reminder that we can, and do, manifest what will be.
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.
As true today as when it was published in 1977, Joan Didion’s essay “Holy Water” speaks to the Californian’s obsession with water, a fanatic preoccupation sparked by wildfires on the Big Sur coast and years of drought that have compelled the rising of the land itself. The exhibition “California: The Art of Water” traces a centuries-long struggle––a history of mercurial oppositions––over resources bestowed only grudgingly or in excess. The cerulean volume of David Hockney’s Sprungbrett mit Schatten (Paper Pool #14), 1978, acts as mocking foil to the thirsty void that opens beneath Diving Board, Salton Sea, photographed by Richard Misrach in 1983. Strawberry and peach fields flooded by irrigation networks in photographs by Thomas Hill and Peter Goin are remarkably like Henry Bainbridge and George W. Casilear’s lithographic print depicting catastrophe in Views of Sacramento City as It Appeared During the Great Inundation in January 1850, ca. 1850.
In an effort to survive, real things are made to appear like their surrogates, turning nature into a landscape of wedded polarities. Goin’s Golf Course near Coachella, 2007, shows bare, scrappy hillsides rising behind golf courses cropped into turf-green gingham. In Stephen Johnson’s California Aqueduct Near Tracy, 1984, a waterway is caught stilled to a smoothness that is more like the black uniformity of asphalt than the tempestuous course of a river. As Didion noted, “Water is important to people who do not have it, and the same is true of control.” Documented here is a state’s infinite campaign to wrest both from a reluctant and hostile land.
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.
The announcement for British artist Haroon Mirza’s first Canadian solo show, “Entheogens” at first reads like an edibles review. Promising all new work, the statement includes a list of main ingredients as pseudospiritual anchoring points: a scattering of the scientific names for LSD, magic mushrooms, and peyote. The artist’s previous self-regulating installations provided an interesting context for his recent references to ethnobotany and West Coast trip culture, especially when examined by a Brit in a city with a strong First Nations artist community.
Mirza often works with light and sound, and he refers to everything he produces as an act of composition, whether or not it’s audible. That said, some of his pieces are a bit too on the nose in using audio components as drawing materials. Those that feel more engaging take chances with imperfection, and even push the envelope on some of the wordplay underpinning his overall project. For instance, take Acid (all works 2016), a copper PCD blank over which the artist sprinkled a handful of morning glory seeds (natural producers of LSD) that had been dipped in ferric chloride, the same acid used for etching copper circuit boards. While Mirza’s Lamp for Williamsii, made up of blinking lights and peyote, is the show’s main attraction, other more subtle copperplate works captivate, too. For those pieces, Mirza elecro-etched photogrammic analogs of Psilocybe cubensis––the mushrooms appear as a kind of hallucination themselves.
Henry Moore once said, “A sculptor is a person who is interested in the shape of things.” Simon Starling is an artist who is interested in stories, and, as evident in his exhibition here, they often involve the twentieth-century sculptor. Starling’s photograph Musselled Moore (Reclining Figure, 1950), 2008, depicts a maquette that riffs on a Moore sculpture—Warrior with Shield, 1953–54—acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 1955. In 2006, Starling submerged his steel copy of Moore’s work into Lake Ontario, where it became covered with a foreign species of mussels. The creatures, introduced to the lake by trading ships in the 1980s, were intended as a metaphor for the tension following the AGO’s purchase of a work by a British artist, when many felt the Canadian gallery should be focused on supporting more local artists.
In 1963, Moore was commissioned by the University of Chicago to create a public artwork commemorating the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The shape of the bronze work, Nuclear Energy, 1966, suggested an atomic cloud, but Moore’s later guilt for exalting a destructive technology led him to suggest the form was more innocent. Starling’s eight spotlighted masks in Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), 2010, all made in collaboration with a traditional Japanese Noh theater mask-maker and facing a mirror, represent various characters in the sculpture’s history: the sculptor himself, scientists, and even a likeness of Colonel Sanders, who has the most unlikely connection to the narrative. Opposite this plays a video with an actor’s voice-over recounting Moore’s conflict about his own piece, reminding viewers that art is often used as a smoke screen for troublesome objectives.