Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation

The prologue to “Realities” comes in the form of a 1929 series of black-and-white photographs by André Kertész, entitled “Distorted Portraits of Carlo Rim,” in which the photographer’s old friend stands before several funhouse mirrors watching his reflection absurdly taper and swell, with Kertész himself visible in the background, The series provides an apt metaphor for curator-collector Ydessa Hendeles’s most recent exhibition, a tidy and unapologetically impassioned selection of works spanning the nineteenth century to the present, which, like a distorting mirror, offers a view of realities, bath horrific and fantastical, mediated by mists.

Following the Kertész was a remarkable collection of over a hundred cartes-do-visite and cabinet cards by mostly anonymous nineteenth-century studio photographers. Although this vernacular form of photography was to the Victorians what snapshots are to us, Hendeles’s collection favors subjects on the margins of “normal”—sitters who are tiny, giant, ultra-thin, obese, etc.—in stately poses or quirky tableaux (like the few in which a very skinny man boxes with a very fat man). These curious images foreshadow Diane Arbus’s photographs, such as A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970, and Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C., 1970, while letting differences of skill, subtlety, and intention speak for themselves. Similarly, Lewis Hine’s alarming photographic documentation of child labor in the American South earlier this century is echoed by Robert Gober’s eerie untitled sculpture of a child’s leg jutting out from the base of a wall. Hendeles’s strategy of positioning the historical alongside the contemporary, common objects alongside high art, in a way that compromises neither is one of her most significant curatorial accomplishments. The show’s installation facilitates conceptual links but honors the integrity of each body of work by according it adequate space and explanation (included unobtrusively on the works’ labels). In this way, “Realities” avoids an ahistorical relativism.

The Western Gothic, 1984, is an installation by Canadian artist Sandra Meigs consisting of two painted and illuminated hallways joined to form a U-shape, with a large diorama-like painting of the Alberta Badlands (titled Eroding Scene) nestled between the two. Entering “The Corridor of Paleontology,” one passes from what appears to be a rocky, mountain tunnel into “The Corridor of Dreams,” which has been painted with veins to look like a passageway inside the human body. Lining the walls of this second hallway, a series of drawings recounts the story of “the child whom gravity abandoned,” who “beheads her father and then . . . tries to get rid of the body”—text and images that dredge the show’s metanarrative of horror and fantasy to the surface. From within the corridor, the buoyant soundtrack to Pipilotti Rist’s two-screen video installation Ever Is Over All, 1997, can be heard, beckoning us toward another fantasy: A young woman walking up a street smashes car windows with a flower. (On an adjacent wall, a second projection scans, among other imagery, a garden of identical flowers.) Rist’s imaginative disobedience strikes the cathartic top note to a show whose ambition is not a comprehensive survey, but a field of related meanings and associations.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark