New York

Maryam Jafri, Boy & Boy Continued (detail), 2017, ink-jet prints, two sheets, 6 x 9“ and 7 x 5” (depicted).

Maryam Jafri, Boy & Boy Continued (detail), 2017, ink-jet prints, two sheets, 6 x 9“ and 7 x 5” (depicted).

Maryam Jafri

Maryam Jafri, Boy & Boy Continued (detail), 2017, ink-jet prints, two sheets, 6 x 9“ and 7 x 5” (depicted).

I confess I’ve always secretly lusted after the giant, wall-hung crossword puzzles sold by such estimable purveyors as SkyMall and Hammacher Schlemmer. Measuring seven by seven feet and containing tens of thousands of squares, this is the kind of crossword that would require true commitment and would provide an unrivaled source of procrastination. Imagine my delight, then, upon seeing Maryam Jafri’s crossword installation Where We’re At (all works cited, 2017). Built within a one hundred-inch-square wooden frame in collaboration with New York Times puzzle maker Ben Tausig, Jafri’s thirty-six-clue crossword was so large relative to the gallery space that it could be viewed in its entirety only from an angle. In the black squares that separate answers, the Pakistani-born American artist had placed books befitting the current political climate, from P. T. Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting; Or, Golden Rules for Making Money (1880) to Friedrich A. von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash (2016). Jafri’s purpose was to heighten the sense that “where we’re at” is downright dire. Still, I saw a silver lining: Solve this caustic crossword, I thought, and you might even become 7 Down (“female with a perfect work-life balance”).

The logic of self-help extended more literally to the exhibition’s back room, where Jafri presented several sculptures assembled from silicone body parts, yoga mats, acupuncture needles, and cupping jars. The mixture of indignation and humor that governed the crossword—two clues: “TERRITORY POPULATED BY DISENFRANCHISED U.S. CITIZENS: ABBR.“ and ”AMERICAN REALTY MOST EASILY GRASPED IN FICTION"—was replaced by cool sarcasm in Self-Care, a purple yoga mat cut and rolled onto a toilet-paper holder, and ANT (Automatic Negative Thought), a white pill captured beneath a cupping jar like a bug trapped under a glass. One photo, however, maintained enough affect to make me wince: a framed image of a naked back with about a dozen cups distending the skin into bright-red welts. A torn photo of a smiling boy, casually dropped on the ground beneath a work called Schadenfreude, provided a bit of relief. It took a minute to recognize the patterned pillowcase underneath him; only then did I realize that the image was the right half of the one hanging on the adjacent wall, the one that had caused such discomfort. I had assumed that the torso was that of an adult, but returning to the image, I could clearly see the child’s delicate features.

Almost as absurd as the juxtaposition and subsequent severing of the boy’s face and body was the prominent digital watermark that labeled it as a stock photo. This image had none of the slick and sterile qualities of stock imagery; the boy lay on a jumble of sheets atop a black leather couch that appeared too haphazard to have been staged and too idiosyncratic to be sold—which made it that much more effective. The two-part piece Boy & Boy Continued stood apart in its simplicity and intensity, and served as a powerful reminder of how forceful Jafri can be with the barest of means. It was the visual equivalent of the answer to 1 Across in Where We’re At: “SNAFU” or Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.

When leaving the gallery, visitors could take a printout of her crossword to complete on their own time. There was an implicit understanding that the puzzle, if done at all, would be completed privately, despite the invitation at the bottom of the page to contact the dealer for answers. By couching her critical commentary in a pastime—one that touts itself as more erudite than a coloring book but is just as escapist—Jafri generously, if counterintuitively, provided a chance for meaningful rumination, one that had the potential to spur outrage and even action, as opposed to just killing time.

Rachel Churner