PRINT December 2008

Matthew Higgs


1 Klara Liden, Elda för kråkorna (Heating the Crows) (Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York) At Reena Spaulings’s Lower East Side space, the Berlin-based Swedish artist Liden constructed a temporary waiting room–cum-antechamber that prevented access to the unseen gallery space beyond it. Upon entering the claustrophobic structure, the viewer was unaware that Liden had left the gallery’s street-facing windows wide open, encouraging the neighborhood’s pigeons to take up residence in the walled-off space where birdseed had been strategically placed. Inside Liden’s melancholic lair, one sat in a gloomy silence, interrupted only by the occasional scrapings of birds’ feet—an unsettling sound track to a maudlin yet strangely moving experience.

2 “Jeff Koons Versailles” (Château de Versailles, France) Wow.

3 “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” (Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York) Conceived by artist Urs Fischer and art dealer Gavin Brown, this aesthetically and conceptually flamboyant group show served to remind us just how little experimentation takes place with the exhibition format. On top of 1:1 scale photomurals of Shafrazi’s previous exhibition—images that included not only the artworks but the ceilings, the wall fixtures, and even the security guards—Fischer and Brown (with notable assistance from artists Lily van der Stokker, Rudolf Stingel, and Rob Pruitt) installed a haphazard, but not random, collection of blue-chip works by artists ranging from Francis Picabia to Rirkrit Tiravanija. A thrilling Gesamtkunstwerk was created: a genuinely disorientating tableau of overlapping and overlayered imagery in which art and images of art were consumed by one another and their setting. I saw this show at least six times, and it only became more complicated with each viewing.

4 Dark Fair (Swiss Institute, New York) At the time of this writing, the art world’s economy was starting to look precarious (once again). This past spring’s inaugural Dark Fair, organized by the Milwaukee International collective for New York’s Swiss Institute, was a poignant argument to advocate for more artist-created marketplaces. While employing the formal grammar of conventional art fairs—booths, commissioned projects, even early VIP access, etc.—the Dark Fair’s sardonic twist was that the proceedings took place in total darkness, with the art illuminated only by candles, flashlights, and the like. With some thirty participating galleries as different as London’s Maureen Paley and Winnipeg’s Other Gallery, the weekend-long bacchanal was a joyous, combined invocation of a nightclub, a ghost house, and the high-spirited camaraderie of New York’s 2003 blackout—everything that an art fair typically isn’t. That any business was done at all was a small miracle.

5 “Glossolalia: Languages of Drawing” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) This overlooked gem of a show—organized by MoMA’s chief curator of drawings, Connie Butler, and the department’s curatorial assistant Esther Adler—juxtaposed works by outsider, self-taught, and folk artists with works by practitioners such as Jim Nutt and Mike Kelley, who have been inspired by such untethered methods. Drawn entirely from the museum’s deep and clearly eccentric holdings, some one hundred works were mounted by Butler and Adler without any hierarchical or categorical distinctions, setting up visceral and often unexpected correspondences both among the artists themselves and among their work. Eschewing didactic wall texts typically employed when outsider art enters contemporary art museums, “Glossolalia” miraculously freed up the material—both “insider” and “outsider”—allowing the show to work its own strange and idiosyncratic magic.

6 “Wolfgang Tillmans: Lighter” (Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin) This sprawling solo exhibition was an exhaustive and exhilarating journey through more than two decades of Tillmans’s images. Having worked in—as well as combined—virtually every idiom of photography, including documentary, fashion, editorial, and fine art, Tillmans evidently has not lost his curiosity and genuine empathy for the world around him. Even the show’s epic scale both mirrored and amplified the persistent inclusiveness of this most generous and self-consciously mercurial artist.

7 Ed Hall’s banners (Palais de Tokyo, Paris) In nearly thirty years, London-based former union leader Hall has produced more than four hundred lovingly handcrafted banners for the British labor movement and other sociopolitical causes in his sympathy. At the invitation of artist and guest curator Jeremy Deller, Hall installed in Paris thirty-nine banners, originally created for events such as library- and school-closure protests, anti-Nazi rallies, and pro–sex workers’ union demonstrations. Hung from the ceilings of the Palais de Tokyo’s airy spaces as part of Deller’s larger exhibition, “From One Revolution to Another”—an exploration of the complex relationships between vernacular art and key historical moments of social and cultural change—Hall’s banners were inspiring for their aesthetics and political optimism.

8 Jim Lambie, “Forever Changes” (Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow) Titled after Love’s seminal 1967 album Forever Changes, Lambie’s first major exhibition in his native Glasgow transformed the gallery’s ornate, Neoclassical main hall into an uplifting and occasionally hallucinatory spectacle. This notoriously difficult space, which invariably overwhelms the art on view, has never looked better. Lambie’s flea-market and thrift-store alchemy is deceptive; its seemingly offhand, casual nature belies the perfectly pitched, uncanny inventiveness of the artist’s transformative gestures. In Lambie’s hands, the mundane detritus of real life becomes seductively unfamiliar.

9 Tris Vonna-Michell/Henri Chopin (Cabinet, London/Cubitt, London) Last fall at Cubitt, London-based artist Vonna-Michell presented his Down the Rabbit-Hole, a performance and installation that centered on the elusive sound and concrete poet Henri Chopin. One year later—nine months after Chopin’s death at age eighty-five—Vonna-Michell and Cubitt’s Bart van der Heide presented a deeply engrossing posthumous presentation of Chopin’s personal archive (including typewriter poems and documented sound performances) staged in a mise-en-scène. For a concurrent show at Cabinet Gallery, the artist presented a new work, < >>, a thirty-minute recording of a previous spoken-word performance that took the form of a looping narrative. There his usual staccato delivery was amplified by the jerky, twin slide projections of loosely related and mostly banal imagery, including recurrent snapshots of fish tanks and urinals. Employing one of the oldest forms of communication—storytelling—Vonna-Michell’s art somehow feels stridently new.

10 Wyndham Lewis, “Portraits” (National Portrait Gallery, London) Lewis (1882–1957) was a complex and often controversial figure who adopted multiple identities as an artist, writer, and critic, as well as editor of the Vorticist journal BLAST. Cocurated by Paul Edwards and Richard Humphreys, this wonderful, tightly focused, and intimately installed exhibition surveyed Lewis’s often theatrical, highly stylized portraits and self-portraits, and located the artist’s own chameleon-like persona amid key figures of the modernist avant-garde—James Joyce, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound—that he famously depicted.

Matthew Higgs is a New York–based artist, curator, and writer. A regular contributor to Artforum, he is currently the director of White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space, celebrating its fortieth anniversary next year.