Cape Town–based sculptor Simphiwe Ndzube’s debut solo exhibition, “Becoming,” bookends a year of sustained buzz around the artist’s accumulative sculptural installations. In late 2015, he clinched the prestigious Michaelis Prize at the University of Cape Town for his undergraduate body of work composed of found materials—notably fabrics and cast-off fashions. Centrally occupied with the human figure, his standout piece, Raft, 2015, presents a densely packed assembly of objects that includes tenuous figural elements; it references both the Mediterranean migrant crisis and plight of Cape Town’s slum settlements, where Ndzube grew up. This show extends Ndzube’s figurative concerns and additive aesthetic, though his works now possess a more atomized form, reaching to encompass assemblage paintings and photographic tableaux presenting the artist in disheveled costume.
But it is still his sculpture that compels. To Dream Without Land to Plough, 2016––an installation which quotes Kendell Geers that is composed of a primitive wheelbarrow flanked by three suspended blocks of burnt wood––describes, in an Arte Povera grammar, the precarity and frustration of slum life. In the room-spanning installation The Rain Prayers, 2016, Ndzube conjures attenuated figures in procession from a tangle of untreated timber poles shod with black work shoes and topped with gaudy party wigs, protective gloves, umbrellas, and neckties. The work invokes the carnivalesque spirit of Cape Town’s annual minstrel festival while speaking to South Africa’s crippling drought, a rolling event that has drawn out deep reserves of faith, ritual, and community engagement. A series of three life-size corpulent, headless male figures, Untitled I–III, all 2016, each idiosyncratically styled in worn jackets and protective work wear, affirm the primacy of costume, disguise, and the fragile body in Ndzube’s practice.
Jody Paulsen did not have art historian Robert Pincus-Witten in mind when, in a summary of his personal aesthetic credo, he told an interviewer in 2015: “Right now, artistically, I’m in a maximalist phase. I don’t like any blank spaces.” If anything, Paulsen was describing his generous approach to composition in his felt collages, pieces featuring pithy text slogans referencing his mixed-race queer identity that, as finished work, operate as soft sculpture and exuberant public confessionals. His propensity toward visual surplus is also a hallmark of this show: Here, Paulsen manages to fit nearly all twenty-one of his felt collages, eight photographs, seven assemblage pieces, and three floor-based installations featuring branded handbags and stuffed birds, as well as a display of forty white shirts and black ties, into one room.
Paulsen’s collages dominate. They invite comparisons with Jeremy Deller’s processional banners and Tracey Emin’s quilts, although, attitudinally at least, the work is closer to Warhol’s in its love affair with consumer culture. Paulsen rarely ironizes the fashion brands and mainstream icons quoted in his work. Homoexotica: The Real Housewives of Disney, 2016, a nine-by-fourteen-foot collage, is exemplary: It offers straight likenesses of various Disney characters fringed by a tropical border of delicious monster fronds. His neo-Pop method is not without a critical conscience, however. The Love Algorithm, 2017, anatomizes the prejudices of queer cruising sites by simply quoting user preferences—“no blacks” and “no fats”—while Uganda and We’ll Never Have Jamaica, both 2016, skewer Uganda and Jamaica’s homophobic laws with speculative heraldic designs featuring exotic birds and bare-chested men wielding clubs. Heartburn, 2016, shifts the register: Picasso’s 1937 cubist portrait of Dora Maar, faithfully reproduced here, emerges as an unexpected source of his color-drenched maximal aesthetic.
In a 2009 performance titled Knitwit, maverick artist Barend de Wet, sporting a churchly suit and calling himself the “Knitting Bull,” loudly—like a lay preacher—implored his audience to “Knit!” In light of the sixty-four mostly contemporary works by thirty-three artists and collectives assembled for this concise survey of weaving, knitting, sewing, lace making, tapestry, beading, and embroidery practices, his entreaty was also a declaration of fact. De Wet is represented in this exhibition by Crochet (Shroud), 2013, a candy-colored knitted garment draped over a standing figure. It appears next to a color photograph by Siwa Mgoboza, Les Étres D’Africadia (After Les Demoiselles D’Avignon), 2015, a Picasso-parodying tableau with five black figures in costumes made by the artist from Shweshwe, a printed cotton fabric common in southern Africa.
Although mostly occupied with mapping the present, “Women’s Work” includes historical pieces that underscore the show’s thesis: Textile arts are often a collective endeavor and are encumbered by prejudicial, gendered assumptions. Africa, a large seventeenth-century wool-and-silk tapestry of Flemish origin that offers a hoary allegory of bounty and danger replete with the folkloric Queen of Sheba, is installed opposite two wool tapestries by Athi-Patra Ruga, The Glamouring of the Versatile Ivy, 2015, and Invitation . . . Presentation . . . Induction, 2013, both figurative works that portray the artist’s queer-influenced matriarchal reimagining of postapartheid history. A rectangular lace insert produced in the 1830s by a Cape Town slave known only as Melati smartly draws attention to the city’s history as a garment-making center—this once robust industry has been gutted by globalization. Zyma Amien memorializes this proximate history in two installations composed of found objects: Unpick, 2015, a display of atomized sewing-machine parts, and Paying Homage, 2016, three vintage sewing machines framed by vertical lengths of fabric decorated with sewing pins.
Travel, one could argue, spans three basic notions: time, displacement, and experience. The artist-curator duo Guo Xi and Zhang Jianling have not only adopted travel as a narrative device in their artistic practice in the past (their nautical expedition in 2015 resulted in the work The Great Navigation) but have also translated their shared intrigues, in discovering an alternative narrative, into their work. This exhibition offers a survey of artist peers who have taken up the torch and explored journeys of their own making.
Whether it is through hypothetical time travel to the future in order to examine the present retrospectively (Joeun Aatchim’s series “Draft,” 2016, is made up of uneven pieces of stone mosaics on which the viewer finds text from an unfinished email) or piecing together the memories of lost footage to reconstruct a travel experience (Yunyu Ayo Shih’s postage stamp), the works allow viewers glimpses into slippage: the unexpected and uncertain moments in each artist’s oeuvre. Tong Yixin compounds quotidian experience into tapestries, while Zhu Changquan collages various visual elements of travel into moving images that defy linear notions of time and displacement. Feng Chen’s Single Eye, 2013–14, and W, 2015, are mechanical inventions; the former, inspired by an artist’s friend’s limited eyesight, is an ocular device that adds 3-D depth to a visual field; the latter mimics the sound of waves. Meanwhile, Su Yuxin condenses temporal and geographical experiences of displacement onto canvas. While exploring peripatetic themes, these devices serve as meditations on popular culture, fiction, identity, institutional critique, and art-historical references, to name a few, in which the exhibited artists’ practices are deeply engaged. As a viewer traverses these vignettes, visual clues act as pinholes through which one may peep into journeys taken by others choosing the road less traveled.
Moving through the dark labyrinthine space of “The Serenity of Madness,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first survey of video installations and short films in his home country of Thailand, which later travels to Para Site in Hong Kong, is like making a nocturnal journey into a primitive cave of delirious unknowns. In other words, it is an experience not dissimilar to indulging in any one of his films.
The selected works span from 1994, when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to 2014. His earliest experimental films are the most revealing. In Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (Mae Ya Nang), 1994; 0116643225059, 1994; and Windows, 1999, most of the elements—in both style and substance—associated with Weerasethakul are already established, including structural dualities, play with light and shadow, poetic intensity, mnemonic autobiographical anecdotes, superstitions and local tales. Weerasethakul is arguably one of few leading directors who move effortlessly and successfully between the film and art worlds. His films and installations feed and implement each other symbiotically: Most of his short works are experimental sketches for feature films.
Given Weerasethakul’s nonlinear, dreamlike works one can presume why the thirty-two pieces at the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum are presented in nonchronological order and with little contextual information, though these curatorial choices might work less successfully for audiences unfamiliar with his oeuvre. However, for avid followers of the artist-director, this show offers a rare opportunity to perform poetic and political excavations through layers of strangely familiar images, to trace his works from the quiet mystery to the surreal spectacle of the mundane, and to be, as Weerasethakul once said, “suffocated by beautiful memories.”
The Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage was thirteen years old and waiting outside a cinema in Nairobi when he witnessed a bizarre scene: A naked man with a tire around his neck was being chased through the streets by a mob, in an act of unlawful gang justice. Necklacing (all works 2016) depicts Armitage’s memory of the pursued subject, with his head turned to reveal a clownlike face. The haunting and humorous image is framed by two sutures in the canvas’s surface. Armitage paints with oil on cloth made from Lubugo bark, which is more commonly used to make sacred fabrics. When stretched across a frame, the material naturally perforates.
Several other works concern Baikoko, a sexually explicit dance that originated in coastal Tanzania. In Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River, the dancers seem to hover above the ground. Their ecstatic practice, performed by women only, has faced growing government censorship. For Strange Fruit, the artist drew on a news item from Kenya in which a man accused of witchcraft was killed by a mob. His wife, bereft, committed suicide. A tree is portrayed from the vantage point of someone looking up at its canopy of leaves. The small soles of a woman’s feet dangle high among the twisting branches—the subtle horror of the scene is sharpened by the title’s reference to a well-known protest song about lynching.
The exhibition offers a curious and compassionate study of sexuality and survival in contemporary East Africa. There is a duality of feeling in these images—as though, to Armitage, the society he represents is both flawed and sacrosanct, like the cloth on which he paints.
In The Shoe Wearers (all works 2016), two lines of 3-D-printed, hand-painted sculptures queue along the sides of the entrance stairs to the rest of Austin Lee’s current exhibition at BANK’s new semi-basement venue. The show’s sculptural touch provides clues about the artist’s interest in humanizing digital materials. Lee transfers iPad sketches to canvas via airbrush and paintbrush, involving his hand in compositional shifts even while preserving the initial sense of the digital generated by drawing applications. Paintings such as Light Weight, involve 3-D-modeling software that fully enables the artist to manipulate his perspective at will and to capture one such perspectival moment on canvas. The resulting imagery often renders familiar-looking figures performing a bizarre gesture. Another twisted pose is found in Lee’s Self Portrait, wherein his neck is bent so that his head and shoulders become parallel. The work encourages visitors to imitate the hilarious position, as is in evidence on Instagram. The identities of other figures depicted are not as obvious as that of the self-portrait, even though the artist draws from personal experience. Hard edges appear now and then as if to bring narrative clarity, in works such as Sunday Drive, but even here the faces of the people (presumably seated in a car) look blurry due to Lee’s airbrushed rendering of his subjects.
The ease with which Lee switches between digital and analog platforms points to the flexibility of the artist, who uses multiple approaches in representing the world around him. But the tools featured in iPad drawing apps also simulate existing painterly techniques, so in themselves they do not necessarily introduce a radical break with older methodologies. Rather than being the ultimate problem-solving device, an iPad functions as a processor where visual information is temporarily saved and edited. Moving from screen to canvas, Lee explores what sort of human touch is required to affect viewers either lightly or profoundly.
The first solo exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres in China, at the Rockbund Museum of Art, includes not only his signature participatory works—such as the candy pieces “Untitled” (Public Opinion) and “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) and poster pieces such as “Untitled” (We Don’t Remember)—but also his photography, collage, advertisement, and tattoo works. The show’s scale and range of works make it seem much like a retrospective. Due to the museum’s architecture, visitors—as they ascend the narrow building’s five floors—find themselves on a sentimental journey through which the artist is revealed, layer by layer. In “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991/2016, a performer shows up at a random time every day to dance to music only he himself hears via headphones. Viewers gather and watch in silence, prompted to contemplate public and private spaces, majorities and minorities. Who transgresses limits? Who fears and who is feared? This live work connects the late artist and his era to the here and now.
Various curatorial decisions and the exhibition design make evident the museum’s ardent attempts to cultivate the audience’s experience and its understanding that participation lies at the core of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. The unconditional generosity in his work contrasts with the public’s indefensible response to HIV; the gentle and sweet nature of his oeuvre opposes the abyss of death and terror. In this presentation, then, what does the participatory aspect mean for an audience weaned on an urban Chinese culture that has never processed the spread of HIV/AIDS and that is only beginning to take part in an unfolding discourse around LBGTQ rights. Is it the responsibility of the curators and the museum as a public institution to contextualize the exhibition so that what a visitor takes home from the show is not only the sweet taste of candy?
Ni Jun’s “Deep Blue Sea” opts for bilgewater over Condé Nast vistas. The exhibition is filled with mostly small, nautically themed paintings lashed to the gallery’s pillars with twine and wire. A few paintings are scattered randomly atop large stock photos of sea vessels and waterways that cover every wall. The space is awash in dark blues that seem painted, perhaps, from the perspective of a seafarer, a castaway, or maybe even a drowning victim. In part, Jun seeks to redress the absenting of the sea from Chinese painting, as exhibition texts suggest, not so much to fill a void but to return to a premise: the spiritual and worldly balance of water and its indifference to us even as it forces us to yield. Jun resuscitates the sea with equal doses of Lao-tzu and Steve Zissou.
The two most recent works in the exhibition are the most impressive. Indian Ocean, 2016, is a large-scale painting whose composition lists heavily to one side, the horizon line tilted as it portrays the view from the deck of a vessel caught in unpredictable currents and violent waves of green foam. Passing Through the English Channel, 2016, is subdued: a small boat seen at a distance through hazy moonlight, passing into a blue-gray nothingness. Even the smallest works offer impossible depth. Tianjin Bay, 2013, is filled with intense blues, a tiny cargo ship in the distance. The beach in Morning Sea, 2007, shares the precision of a Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph. The still life Old Cowboy, 2011, depicts a fishmonger’s catch of the day, showing Jun’s lightness of touch. The artist’s paintings can be quiet and meditative or they can be filled with the sounds of engines and waves and the taste of salt and Dramamine.
“Overpop” is a curatorial collaboration between Jeffrey Deitch and Karen Smith featuring works from seventeen artists who define a “new contemporary aesthetic” (as Deitch calls it) across two distinctive artmaking contexts. The curators describe this as a dialogue. Viewing it feels like eavesdropping—we gaze longingly at the cool Chinese and American kids sitting together in the lunchroom; we feed on their cues. The show is an arousing curatorial vision filled with beauty and gall that keeps its viewers at an admiring distance.
A few artists make “Overpop” exceptional. Ian Cheng’s video projection Emissary in the Squat Gods, 2015, explodes with scenes of ancient, carnivalesque violence, like an 8-bit version of Pasolini’s Salň (1975). As priests and acolytes maneuver awkwardly through pixelated scenes of sacrifice, the video holds us transfixed, teetering on the edge of irony. Wu Di’s The Mother’s Milk – Hi Mama, 2012, toys with both Lucas Cranach the Elder and Jeff Koons: A painting of a woman’s torso, breast emitting cartoon milk, sits behind a yellowing plaster cast of a hybrid Shar Pei–human child. With nightmare machines, animals, and baby-doll parts, Kunniao Tong reminds us that these artists have gone to art school. Camille Henrot’s simple and otherwise prim paintings turn brilliantly toward dark sexual tropes (think New Yorker cartoons with boners and regret). Borna Sammak’s seductive video screens of nature films spliced into splatters of Guy Fieri–style action painting are the perfect summary of the exhibition’s tangle of technology and wit.
In “Regarding Embodiment,” Naiza Khan and Manisha Parekh bond over their shared preoccupation with the morphological. An exploration of shapes––biological, cartographic, and symbolic––is the dominant theme of the exhibition, which at first glance seems to be orchestrating a duet between very different materials.
Belonging to a long tradition of South Asian works that render the geographic through representation (Sudhir Patwardhan) and abstraction (Zarina Hashmi), Khan’s matte oils on linen feature multicolored mazes while her monochromatic screen prints show civic plans and dust-hazed cityscapes. That Parekh is inspired by the natural world is most apparent in her expressive graphite drawings that look like diagrams. The hyperfeminine craftsmanship of the series “Enshrined,” 2016, with its rich fabrics, rubs up against the subcellular forms it suggests. Jute pretzels reminiscent of the sculptor Ranjani Shettar adhere to the walls, looking like plasma under a microscope from afar.
Both artists’ desire to examine spatial logics is the abiding focus of the show, pertaining to bodies both biochemical and urban. Also important is the way in which memory imprints itself on physical matter—Parekh titled her ink works after the places in Japan that inspired her, for instance, while Khan’s attempt to highlight the palimpsestic nature of the built environment is more obvious. While emphasizing the violence that underlies industrial development, Khan’s cool palette and sedateness is in sharp contrast to the drama of Parekh’s mediums—silk, velvet, graphite, charcoal, jute, ink, and different grains of paper—though, curatorially, the show doesn’t quite manage to capture this tension.
Prabhavathi Meppayil’s second solo exhibition in New Delhi reflects her curiosity about spatial logics and her interest in using intensive and vernacular processes. A descendant of goldsmiths, Meppayil uses the tools and techniques of the craft to trouble the boundary between artist and artisan. Her stark white gesso panels in d sixty one, d sixty, d fifty seven, d sixty two, d fifty six, and d fifty eight (all 2016) almost blend into the walls––the incisions and embedded wires are revealed only as one nears the works. The lines of the delicate metal contrast sharply with the thick mass of substratum through which they are glimpsed, and this creates a songful effect.
One of the works on view here, d fifty five, 2016, is a five-part piece featuring intricate etchings of patterns on gesso—made with a goldsmith's tool, a thinnam—and each unit features a different design. Her engagement with Minimalism is shared with artists such as Nasreen Mohamedi and Agnes Martin, but it is also informed by traditional practices, which prompts the viewer to reflect on the intersection between individual imagination and inherited methods of artmaking.
In d sixty four, 2016, Meppayil coated 144 molds used for making traditional earrings (called jhumkas) with gesso and mounted them on the wall in the form of a grid. From afar, the spherical dip in the middle of the cubes mimics the surficial interventions in the other works, drawing out the artist’s preoccupation with planes and dimensionality. Her attentiveness to geometries, particularly in how depth is interpreted in the gap between painting and sculpture, is also apparent in d sixty three, 2017, a series of 225 gesso blocks arranged as a grid, the cubes uneven and imprecise like the handmade markings on the flat works.
In his latest exhibition, “Ether is all that is,” G. R. Iranna examines the fragility of life through holy ash. His interest in using religious material to ruminate on existential questions was apparent in his recent contribution to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, From Ash to Ash (all works cited, 2016), a giant egg of cinders that references the origin of the cosmos in classical Hindu philosophy. On view in this show are paintings and installations that feature the sacred residue of ancient fire-based rites, alluding to the cyclical inevitability of birth and death and the impermanence of matter, including the self.
The ash-on-paper work Heaven on Water achieves an evocative quality by facilitating a restrained but soulful dialogue between its surface and the faint lines of powder arranged on it. Meanwhile, the three-part series “Ethereal Beauty” offers works that resemble complexly patterned carpets in the form of singed ash-on-paper tapestries as well as vividly painted blocks of ash; both reiterate a desire to replicate the care and intricacy that characterize rituals. Along with the carpet, other idioms and media from Iranna’s oeuvre that recur in this exhibition are arboreal motifs and the tarpaulin base on which they are rendered—in particular, The Tree Disappeared into Ether and Lofty Tree bring to mind his 2014 New York show “Tempered Branches.”
Apart from the diptych Beautiful Burning Tree, with its silver foil highlights, the most striking piece on display is Loved Ash, in which ash blocks are set into the framework of an old-fashioned mirror, meant to expose the absurdity of vanity and ego in the face of mortality. This earnestness does sometimes go overboard: One work spells out a sentence from the Upanishads in embers, making a fetish out of the eschatological that is almost banal.
No matter how “smart” our objects may now be, we don’t expect them to discern whether they’re used correctly, or if it all. But Iskandar Jalil believes there is such a thing as an ethical pot or vessel: It embodies the maker’s aesthetic ideals and value placed on the medium. A pot made in the right frame of mind would actualize the spiritual dimensions, time, and place of its creation, similar to how a bottle of wine can disclose much about the conditions and influences of its site of origin. Such a theory may carve out a space, in fine art, for studio pottery—a mode of artmaking that has come about only within the last century—cracking a strained boundary between the categories of artist and artisan, one tested by the mid-twentieth-century emergence of modernism’s insistence that art refuse any functionality. Iskandar, a Singaporean artist whose course of practice dovetailed with the ascendancy of the nascent group movement of the Modern Art Society in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s, initiated the discourse around the intersection of ceramics’ functional underpinnings and modernism’s fascination with the new; here, he presents a survey of works made from that time to the present.
References from decades of extensive travels appear throughout Iskandar’s sculptures, all made from local clay: Vessels are covered in Arabic-Jawi and Roman text and incorporate influences such as Japanese shibui and wabi-sabi, while his signature blue glazes are inspired by land- and skyscapes across Scandinavia. Certain works such as the undated (Untitled) (Mangkuk Tingkat)—a stack of stoneware tiffin boxes—and (Untitled) Water Container, 1999, can fulfill what are apparently their utilitarian purposes. However, many others serve more poetic means, including the ongoing, undated “Culture” vessels, a series of totemic pillars, each one too narrow for the wooden ladles that crown them; Untitled (Mother and Child), 2004, a pair of codependent, multitextured donut-shaped azure moldings that prop each other up; and the undated amorous S curve of She, a vertical stoneware strip that folds back in a slight, provocative recline and is adorned with a single delicate broach sphere. We may no longer employ ceramicists to make dishes; these humble forms transcend tugs of obligation.
Connecting the materiality of film to corporeal life, “Negative Horizon” politically locates urgency where image touches skin. Concentrating mostly on the global South, the screen-based works in this exhibition interrogate the conditions of this contact and speculate possibilities of other histories and encounters.
In Jakarta-based artists Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett’s disquieting installation, the video Inseparable Flakes, 2016, is projected onto a fragile screen made of skin collected from the children of indentured Indonesian fisherman, literalizing a site of trafficked images and real bodies. Through a montage of appropriated film and found WWII Japanese photography, Chung Li-Kao makes a rigorous case for how our collective images are totally subsumed by a mechanical and colonial apparatus. Exhibition curators Fang-Tze Hsu and Pei-Yi Lu also take this critical position in highlighting poetic and activist positions in various works.
In A Romantic Composition, 2015, Futoshi Miyagi reframes the longstanding US military occupation of Okinawa as an untold site of libidinal encounters by creating fictional narratives based on actual ethnographic research of postwar gay life at the US base and nightclubs. Set against the backdrop of nighttime Taipei, Jun Yang’s somnambulistic video meditation on memory further underlines the subjective ambivalence of place and image. In A Short Story on Forgetting and Remembering, 2007, the narrator asks of images of the past, “ What was real? What did we add, imagine or wish?”
The complexity of this experience best reveals itself on the back of a noisy motorcycle taxi traveling through the winding hills of Beitou. As part of an expanded project by Akira Takayama, viewers tour the conflicted vestiges of colonial Japanese and American quarters in this hot-springs resort area, guided by both a smart-phone app and a local driver—a theater of screen and body.
Connected Vessels, 2016, a work in Micha Ullman’s current exhibition, features water flowing through linked containers placed within an iron structure that resembles a table or the tree of spheres from the Kabbalah. Manifesting the law of equilibrium, the water gradually erodes the metal, creating reddish rust. Every so often, the sculpture requires refilling because of dehydration and the creation of this corrosion.
Ullman, a wizard of Israeli art, is best known for his Land art, particularly his dramatic static structures that have a strong presence but that are sometimes almost invisible. For Land Exchange, 1972, he dug three cubic feet of earth from his town and exchanged it with the same from a neighboring Arab village. For Water, 1996, he installed two sewer lids imprinted with his hand, one in West Jerusalem and the other in East Jerusalem. For the most part, equilibrium is maintained under the surface in his works, whereas above ground there is human strife and conflict. In this show, balance is brought above ground, creating a tension between conflict and its resolution. The water, both still and coursing, produces an equilibrium that is never perfect, forever held in expectation.
Apart from Connected Vessels,, there are two more metal and water sculptures, as well as a series of delicate water drawings produced like photograms, for which Ullman placed objects on paper and then let water trace their bodies and contours. Ullman likes to describe himself as a photographer, throwing sand on people and objects that are then removed, leaving their mark. In this case it is not sand but water that works like light on paper. As in early photography, the water drawings require a long exposure, registering the passing of time as well as the pendulum of memory and forgetfulness. His body of work heightens our attentiveness to transience as well as to the fact that transience itself testifies to the eternal.
A sharp intimacy suffuses Dubai-based Pakistani artist Raja’a Khalid’s show like the warmth of late afternoon sunlight. Reflections bounce off the iridescent automotive-paint-coated panels of High Noon (all works 2016), where tangerine gives way to deep orange, and Santa Barbara, which itself is seafoam but casts onto the floor a lurid green. Perhaps donning the US military-issue Oakleys set on a dune-textured altar of a shelf in sun and sand worship, or the bomber jacket, Solaro, would shield one from the light. Made from the titular suiting fabric, the latter’s underside is shot through with red, which colonialists believed would protect their pale skins from harsh tropical rays.
Two photographs of a bonding ritual that happens here each summer lie at the heart of the exhibition. When falcons begin to molt, they are blindfolded, leashed, and placed in a protective tent. After a week or so, they are untethered; after another, their hoods are removed and they see each other for the first time. The acculturation process is designed to slowly build trust and feels like a mirror of Dubai’s complex demographics, where only twelve to eight percent of residents are citizens.
Local references abound in Tom Ford Oud Wood, an industrial diffuser spewing out the sultry musk of the perfume, and in the plasticized Palm Leaves that are the primary flora of shopping malls, as well as in the diamanté car decal Buraq, which shows a winged horse with the face of a woman from Islamic mythology. Yet Khalid reaches beyond the easy seduction of Gulf imagery to tap into the region’s underlying economy. The UAE’s failed transmutation of Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism into Pan-Arabism and the emotional textures of never belonging are captured here, like a single drop of sweat trickling to a stop halfway down your face.
Since launching their couture house in 1998, Dutch fashion designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren—also known as Viktor & Rolf—have been lauded for their imaginative womens-wear lines and runway performances that so often directly respond to the conventions of the high-fashion industry. Here, over forty of Viktor & Rolf’s most iconic haute-couture and ready-to-wear pieces are displayed on headless mannequins standing on low-lying plinths. Interspersed with these displays are miniature versions of their designs on porcelain dolls, one of which is a robot that walks, waves, and turns on a scaled-down runway. Placed in front of wallpaper that features thousands of the duo’s design sketches spanning their entire career, standout pieces include a gray wool trench coat featuring a three-dimensional rendering of the word “NO” protruding from under its collar, and a fanned black pleated dress suspended from an aluminum harness with small runway spotlights and working speakers attached, intended to be mounted on the shoulders of some unfortunate model.
Presented in beautiful lighting, Viktor & Rolf’s “Russian Doll” collection, 1999–2000, comprises nine jute haute-couture dresses that are as much nostalgic remnants of the duo’s 1999 autumn launch as they are fresh displays of impeccable craftsmanship. (For its inaugural unveiling, the designers themselves dressed the doll-like model Maggie Rizer as she stood on a rotating platform: Rizer began the performance of sorts outfitted in a frayed burlap slip before gradually being transformed into a heavy haute-couture sculpture.) While one premise of the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition—that fashion can be art—seems a symptom more of status anxiety than of serious inquiry, it is Viktor & Rolf’s technical proficiency that resonates most strongly here, transforming borderline gimmicks into exquisite experiments with line, shape, color, and volume.
Three artists whose work seems both conceptually and materially dissimilar and five press releases with different interpretations can be found here, though the title of Fiona Connor’s All the Doors in the Walls, 2016, is to be taken literally. Each door in the gallery was stripped of its function; they no longer serve as mediators or passages from one place to another but as static objects of art, disposed toward admiration for their simplicity.
Two women, two beds, and two scars intermingle in Audrey Wollen’s Objects or Themselves, 2015, a twenty-minute video with a voice-over monologue by the artist and a background of a single image, Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, 1647–51. A paradigm of female beauty, Rokeby Venus depicts a woman lying on her bed, looking at her reflection in a mirror––but she actually is looking at us, the viewers, admiring her. In 1914, the suffragette Mary Richardson slashed the canvas multiple times in London’s National Gallery in protest of both the arrest of the British suffrage movement’s founder, Emmeline Pankhurst, and the fetishization of the female body. The video’s narration mixes this historical incident with Wollen’s own account of coping with cancer as a teenager, involving a surgery for removing a tumor and the degrading of her body as object during subsequent medical treatment.
On a more playful note, Sydney de Jong’s stripped and multicolored cups and plates (all 2016) are not passive and untouchable artworks. Used on a daily basis by the gallery’s staff, these homewares move from one room to another, oscillating between clean and dirty along the way. The work of these three very different artists becomes connected via mutual transitions from public to private, questioning the modes of presentation that condition us to experience something as visually pleasing.
Kylie Banyard’s previous work mostly consists of nostalgic scenes from American counterculture, focusing less on historic pioneers than on alternative forms and technologies connected to radical visual practice in the 1960s and 1970s. Comprising four framed paintings and five painted banners, this exhibition sees the artist transform her typically muted creative environments into sites of joyful contemplation. Using black-and-white photographs as source material, which were taken at Black Mountain College between 1933 and 1957 and which Banyard found online, she has concentrated not on the celebrated male artists of the famed art school but on its female cohort, many of whom are unidentified. For instance, Anni #1 (all works 2017) is a sparsely painted portrait of textile artist and printmaker Anni Albers absorbed at her loom, and Ruth shows the under-recognized sculptor Ruth Asawa on her back, tending to one of her tubular wire pieces. In all the works here, Banyard employs appropriation to great effect, enlivening her sources through careful color combinations and subtle erasures.
Particularly in the large-scale paintings, Banyard’s enthusiasm for her subjects is obvious, portraying teachers and students working together, including on the preliminary construction of an early version of one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes (Group work) and in a photography class held in a cabbage patch (Photography and Cabbages). Suggesting that the job of all good art schools is to foster a community of artists to engage in serious play, the show reminds us that process-based, interdisciplinary, and communitarian ideals became central to fine-arts education in the second half of the twentieth century, setting a laudable standard that seems increasingly out of reach today.