Critics’ Picks

  • Ho Tam, The Yellow Pages, Z (Zen) A-bomb explosion, 2020, ink-jet print on Xuan paper, 13 x 19".

    Ho Tam, The Yellow Pages, Z (Zen) A-bomb explosion, 2020, ink-jet print on Xuan paper, 13 x 19".

    Ho Tam

    Paul Petro Contemporary Art
    980 Queen Street West
    May 1–May 30, 2020

    Western imperialism requires an ideological substrate, a web of signifiers that establishes illusions of ethnic and cultural superiority. A Canadian immigrant from Hong Kong, Ho Tam has been attuned for decades to the accompanying stereotypes permeating North American mass media, his observations on which culminated in four projects made between 1993 and 2020 that are currently on view at Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

    Tam’s artist’s books, magazine, video, and set of prints are formal variations on a single theme and structure: All include twenty-six components corresponding to the English letters A to Z, each of which is complemented by a collage of images (Bruce Lee appears next to Mulan and Astro Boy) and a caption (such as “M.S.G.,” “Yellow Fever,” and “Whiz Kids”). Together, the projects explore Western representations of Eastern culture, which, though diverse, is often lumped into one threatening, alluring, or ridiculous entity. Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, eviscerated gendered language; Tam makes alphabet soup from a mash-up of racialized (and often racist) signs.

    The exhibition’s title, “The Yellow Pages,” and the 2016 magazine’s bright color lend a playful air to Tam’s response to Asian stereotypes. But bemusement gives way to anger with some of the text-image pairs: “Invasions” is illustrated with a New York Times front page proclaiming US victory at Iwo Jima, and “Zen” captions an image of an atomic bomb explosion. In the most recent project, Tam registers affinities with other racial and gendered groups: A Black Lives Matter poster is captioned “Solidarity”; an illustration of “How to Wear a Hijab” is keyed to “Choice”; and montaged banknote portraits are subtitled “Patriarchy.” The old stereotypes, repeatedly refreshed for political expediency, are resurfacing today. Hate crimes against Asian North Americans are rising due to their imagined connection to the “Chinese virus.” Tam’s project reminds us just how ingrained these stereotypes are, and how urgent their dissolution is.

  • Spring Hurlbut, Otis and Barley, 2019–20, ink-jet print, 25 3/4 x 25 3/4".

    Spring Hurlbut, Otis and Barley, 2019–20, ink-jet print, 25 3/4 x 25 3/4".

    Spring Hurlbut

    Georgia Scherman Projects
    133 Tecumseth Street
    April 23–May 30, 2020

    During week six of isolation, I heard a man yelling, “Black holes! Black holes!” into a train yard. The following week, I saw Spring Hurlbut’s “Dyadic Circles” in the Georgia Scherman Projects online viewing room, and the man’s cries came into eclipse-like focus.

    The photographs in “Dyadic Circles” inevitably read as somber: Each depicts a neatly bisected circle of funerary ash from humans or animals arranged on a square black background that recalls the zero-point energy of Malevich’s Black Square, 1915. The halves of each vertically divided sphere are different tones of shimmering gray or sandy beige. The variations in color reflect the temperatures of the crematory fires in which the material was formed, a contextual detail that lends physical and psychic weight to the works’ geometric abstractions.

    The works’ titles—such as Eleanor and James and Logan and Huntley (all works 2019–20)—apparently identify the represented subjects, formerly animate. The alternately delicate and gritty crescents of powder look as though they could easily blow away and, indeed, in several works, the ash has drifted below the circles’ circumferences.

    Returning to the man’s refrain, I wonder why a perfectly round disk—whether a circle or a hole—so often suggests both profound presence and infinite absence. Hurlbut’s pieces, with their insistent materiality and direct titles, provide an encounter with mortality that, refreshingly, neither eschews nor affirms rote sentiment. It is ill-advised to stare directly at an eclipse, so Hurlbut slows down the sun; her half-circles invite us to ponder half-lives—molecular, metaphorical, and metaphysical.

     

  • Lynne Cohen, Loan Office, Louisville, KY, 1973, gelatin silver print, 30 x 34".

    Lynne Cohen, Loan Office, Louisville, KY, 1973, gelatin silver print, 30 x 34".

    Lynne Cohen

    Olga Korper Gallery
    17 Morrow Avenue
    April 20–May 30, 2020

    Lynne Cohen’s online exhibition focuses on photographs the late artist took between 1973 and 2012 that capture spaces devoid of human protagonists but structured by human existence. Cohen often remarked that her images of unoccupied commercial and institutional spaces tend to provoke Foucauldian projections of anxiety and punishment, but that she identified much more with their humor, citing her attraction to Jacques Tati’s films.

    Model Living Room, 1976, illustrates Tati’s levity. The furniture in Cohen’s photographs usually offers some information about the spaces, but here we see no furnishings except for a floor lamp. A fern on the parquet floor is surrounded by two Plexiglas silhouettes of people reading, suspended by chains from the ceiling. Cohen captures a simulation of domestic life that, although awkward, represents a playful example in the stale theater of model homes.

    Loan Office, Louisville, KY, 1973, operates a little differently. Here, a set of armchairs flanks a matching side table holding an ashtray for four. Above hangs a sizable picture of a horse whose slender legs compositionally echo the chairs’ tapered wooden legs. The scene is certainly comical—one pictures the chain-smoking clients dominated by the unblinking animal—but read alongside the work’s title, the image is recoded, signaling the looming financial risk associated with Louisville’s Kentucky Derby. The heavy projections that Cohen identified are elicited not by the absence of people but through the presence of such details.

  • View of “Shedding,” 2020.

    View of “Shedding,” 2020.

    Eduardo Basualdo

    Scrap Metal
    11 Dublin Street Unit E
    February 20–May 30, 2020

    Open the door to Scrap Metal Gallery and you will walk right into the first work, Estanque (pond) (all works 2020). Standing tall from floor to ceiling, the matte-black, obdurate mass resembles a meteorite. Skirting gingerly around its perimeter, you will find a slim opening that leads to the behemoth’s center. From here, the rock looks less substantial: Thousands of perforations form a galaxy of light. To create this and other works, Eduardo Basualdo manipulated large sheets of Cinefoil, a black aluminum foil used to block light in stage productions. The resulting objects borrow theatrical techniques to play with viewers’ expectations.

    The second work in the exhibition is Brumaria. Sprawling across the gallery floor, the crumpled foil resembles magma, enveloping what seem to be humans. To make this work, the artist had people lie on the floor while he carefully sculpted his material around their prostrate forms. Taking in the haunting result is akin to stumbling upon a battlefield littered with the dead. Unlike in Estanque (pond), no lightness counters the heavy tone; the viewer is left to imagine what the prone models must have felt as the artist encased them in the sharp, obfuscating foil.

    At the back of the gallery hangs Razón y Fuerza (reason and strength), a bare, blinding LED fixture with a large, roughly constructed Cinefoil shade suspended above it. A pulley system mechanically raises and lowers the cover over the light at regular intervals. The optical effect is so harsh that the brief eclipse is a relief. Here, the Cinefoil is not menacing or suffocating, but protective. In the context of the exhibition, what seems to be the most literal play with light and dark ends up adding nuance to Basualdo’s metaphorical explorations.