Critics’ Picks

  • Katie Bethune-Leamen, The accumulation of pictures of your tattered asshole on your phone 01, 02, 03 (detail), 2019, ink-jet prints, artist's frames, tile, 75 x 101 x 2 1/2".

    Katie Bethune-Leamen, The accumulation of pictures of your tattered asshole on your phone 01, 02, 03 (detail), 2019, ink-jet prints, artist's frames, tile, 75 x 101 x 2 1/2".

    Katie Bethune-Leamen

    Susan Hobbs Gallery
    137 Tecumseth Street
    November 28, 2019–January 25, 2020

    In “La douche écossaise,” Katie Bethune-Leamen's recent irregularly shaped porcelain sculptures are complemented by bronze casts of similarly lumpy forms. Embellished with imperfect pearls, these new blobs sit atop thin, brightly colored steel rods with wide bases, whose height gives the works a human scale. Indeed, the mushy abstractions of these objects make bodily associations hard to ignore—each piece could be an ear, a tongue, an internal organ, or a thing one ingests or expels—even as the luster of bronze and pearl creates an equally compelling sense of the ornamental.

    The pearl, a hardened animal secretion laden with human-assigned value—both gross and precious—is perhaps the ideal material flourish for Bethune-Leamen’s work. The artist’s interest in generating tension through associative opposites is foregrounded throughout the exhibition, including in its title, which translates as “the Scottish shower,” referencing a hydrotherapy practice of standing under alternating hot and cold streams of water. Upstairs, three circular frames connected by a wiggly line of forest-green tiling house images of pale pink flowers. Pretty and innocuous, the blooms are on the verge of wilting; some petals are already darkened and mottled. Bethune-Leamen produces further contrast by likening each flower to a “tattered asshole” in the work's title. There’s a messy joy in her titling process; each one unfurls with associations and exclamatory remarks. Take, for example, Cherry studded ham wall cloud (your tiny beautiful body! torn open and this brought out! x210), 2019, which features a constellation of dozens of pearl-and-bronze pins corralled by burgundy tile. The title lends vulgarity and scattered sweetness to the work, a charm that’s slightly uncomfortable and wholly infectious.

  • View of “A Manual for Saving Head,” 2019–20.

    View of “A Manual for Saving Head,” 2019–20.

    Lili Huston-Herterich

    Zalucky Contemporary
    3044 Dundas St. W.
    November 23, 2019–January 25, 2020

    “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” demands the voice of the Wizard of Oz, after he is exposed as merely a man behind a velvet curtain. Lili Huston-Herterich’s exhibition “A Manual for Saving Head” likewise plays with the dissonance between seeing and believing, the fabrication of spectacles.

    A drawing of the show’s title, framed with a pewter-stained stretch of velvet, serves as a title card. Deeper within the gallery, a heavy red curtain hangs from the ceiling, landing just high enough off the ground to expose a pair of boots—made largely of lost gloves and socks—on the other side. A shirt sewn into the front of the curtain furthers the illusion of a body. Only by walking around the curtain can a visitor confirm that no person sports the shoes. The misplaced garments gesture toward the adage that our clothes help construct our sense of self, but they also sketch a portrait of loss. “People are losing their gloves like crazy,” Huston-Herterich writes in the exhibition text. The people are gone; only their belongings remain.

    Chromogenic prints hang on the walls surrounding the curtain. The vivid photograms are tinted blue, green, orange, and black, and depict layers of discarded objects—glass, scraps of metal, dental floss—that here resemble fossils. So heavily pigmented that they seem to glow, the works could be X-rays of objects lodged somewhere in a body. The images were built up in a color darkroom, forcing the artist to rely on touch to make her compositions. The resulting ghostly traces are not unlike the boots or the bodiless shirt: absences visualized.

    A giant constellation-like weaving delivers the show’s finale. The design of the tufted piece is based on an image in a manual for braiding bread—a practical technique here applied to a disjointed medium. The rug is simultaneously domestic and celestial, familiar and strange, human and mystical.

  • Slavs and Tatars

    Sugar Contemporary
    5 Lower Jarvis St
    October 17, 2019–January 31, 2020

    “Pickles are stupid media,” declared Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars on the opening night of “Pickle Politics.” The deceptively sparse arrangement of works—benches, a carafe of pickle juice, a short video comprising text in Farsi and phonetic Polish, and a horseradish-shaped rug—demonstrate the collective’s tendency to use simple, humorous imagery to access complex issues. Soaked in brine, where bacteria catalyze fermentation, the pickled cucumber, which humans have enjoyed for thousands of years, represents a challenge to the Enlightenment concerns with pasteurizing and purifying in the name of “progress.”

    The most emphatic element on view might be Ogórek Trocki, 2016, an image of two cucumbers wrapped like a Torah scroll, which is reproduced in dozens of prints covering the benches and framing the video. The work references the variety of cucumber cultivated by Crimean Karaites, a sect of Turkic-speaking Jews whose practices bear surprising similarities to those of Muslims. Slavs and Tatars’ religiously inflected rendering points to one of their primary assertions: Religion can be progressive—it is not the enemy. 

    The pickle has been a point of focus, and an idiosyncratic mascot, for the collective, whose research-driven oeuvre examines the syncretic makeup of the former Soviet Union and neighboring parts of Eurasia. In a series of lecture-performances at the gallery, Sharifi laid out the functional (albeit imperfect) ways in which Islam has historically existed alongside Christianity, Judaism, and atheism in the region, where ethnic diversity is high. For Red Black Thread, Sharifi occasionally referenced quotes printed in minuscule font on a tiny scroll. For another, Sharifi introduced the collective’s other mascot, Molla Nasreddin, who often figures in Muslim folklore as both a Sufi wise man and a fool, known for facing backward while riding his horse. Nasreddin’s ridiculous reorientation alludes to Slavs and Tatars’ proposition: Look carefully at both history and pickles, and you will find that seemingly opposing elements—food and bacteria, Islam and Christianity, atheism and religion—often coexist and even nourish each other.

  • View of “Dye Lens,” 2019–20.

    View of “Dye Lens,” 2019–20.

    Eric N. Mack

    Scrap Metal
    11 Dublin Street Unit E
    September 19, 2019–January 25, 2020

    Eric N. Mack’s sewn, taped, painted, bleached, and dyed assemblages evoke the ephemeral architectures of circuses, children’s forts, and encampments as much as the decorative vocabulary of high fashion. With their altered, locally gathered, secondhand materials, the works pose questions about the reasons, from playful to desperate, behind building precarious structures. 

    Paramount, 2015, the largest hanging piece on view, is suspended by ropes in the center of the gallery. Its sail-like rectangular swath of fabric is almost always visible as one moves throughout the space, and functions as a theatrical backdrop, echoing Sam Gilliam’s massive drapes. The monochromatic fabric ends, silk scarves, quilted moving blankets, newspapers, and magazines that make up Mack’s other paintings (as he sees them) exude memories of former utilitarian lives. In their newly abstracted and modified forms, his ingredients also suggest that his process is somewhat diaristic. In The Endless Seed of Mystery, 2018, stained newspaper clippings from The Washington Post advertise condos, and The Harlem Community News shares event listings for Black History Month. For part of the floor work Dye Lens (Title track), 2019, the artist partially dyed a program from the Ryerson Image Centre listing events for the photography exhibition “The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture.”

    Other references return to a commentary on value and quotidian objects: A thrift store price tag dangles from a red scarf in And Re said: Ras Protective Collection, 2019. In employing both excess (as in the swaths of fabric that fold and pile on the ground) and scarcity (as in the modest source materials), Mack recalls and replicates cycles of valuation, accumulation, neglect, and eventual reuse or decay, without a clear critical lens. The works feel unresolved—and perhaps that’s the point.