New York

Mitchell Algus, Doll I, 1987, fabric, trim, vitrine, 10 3⁄4 × 36 3⁄4 × 13 1⁄2".

Mitchell Algus, Doll I, 1987, fabric, trim, vitrine, 10 3⁄4 × 36 3⁄4 × 13 1⁄2".

Mitchell Algus

47 Canal

Mitchell Algus is best known as a gallerist of a particularly rare stripe—one with a singular heart, famous for resuscitating the careers of great artists such as Barkley Hendricks, Lee Lozano, Joan Semmel, and Betty Tompkins, who, once upon a time, were nearly swallowed up by obscurity. He’s been showing art in New York for more than three decades, in various spaces and capacities, though he’s rarely made a proper living at it. (He was a science teacher for twenty-three years at Long Island City High School in Queens, which allowed him some freedom from having to sell art to pay the bills). His tastes and passions have never been dictated by art-world consensus. Part thanatologist, part reanimator, Algus loves scrutinizing the histories everyone else has left for dead in order to gently coax them back into existence, even for just one last breath.

So it’s no surprise that the man is an artist whose wonderful mind yields some exquisitely strange objects. His exhibition at 47 Canal, a mini survey of sculptures and paintings created between 1987 and 1989 and between 2017 and 2018 (Algus took a seventeen-year hiatus from the studio and in 2016 picked up where he’d left off), felt like something that could have been excavated from the cellar of a neglected Surrealist. The press release for the show was excerpted from the essay “The Solar Anus” (1931) by one of the movement’s most renowned pervert philosophers, Georges Bataille: “It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.” Maybe the snippet was supposed to be self-protective, meant to forestall any accusations of unoriginality? But Algus doesn’t strike me as someone beholden to any romantic notion of sui generis creativity. He’s simply seeking out novel ways to extend the conversation.

Several paintings in the exhibition, such as Arverne, Swinburne Island (both 2017), and Tottenville, 1989, carried more than a little of Max Ernst’s DNA. The abstractions’ sumptuous, lavalike blobs are the products of decalcomania, a technique quite popular with Ernst, in which one alters a wet area of paint on a picture by pressing it against glass—or another painted surface—to create an assortment of squishy, psychedelic effects. Pelham, 2017, was an especially fetching example: The craggy, alien landscape it depicts—in mustardy yellows and sooty browns—seems as though it’s not resting on top of its sky-blue background, but emerging out of it, like a hidden island that has finally revealed itself from abating waters. Unlike much of the work made by the Surrealists, Algus’s paintings don’t seem burdened by any kind of extreme psychological or sexual horror. But his soft sculptures most certainly do. The three weird sisters installed here made for one of the creepiest encounters I had this past summer. Nestled into vitrines that served as tiny glass coffins were a trio of small pillows upholstered in antique-looking fabrics and fringed with ruffles, tassels, and delicate, ropy bunting. Their titles—Doll I, 1987; Doll II, 1988; and Doll IV, 2018—obviously reference Hans Bellmer’s poupées. Yet Bellmer’s effigies were overtly erotic, often designed with a number of limbs and holes to satisfy all manner of Sadean fantasies. Algus, by contrast, sublimates the dark eroticism of his works. These plush, truncated bodies—baby-like presences with an oddly geriatric aura—are decorated with buttons that could very well be perceived as eyes, navels, or, yes, orifices. One could envision the objects, reeking of vinegary perfumes and buried under hills of dust, sitting in some decrepit nursery. Or perhaps even showing up in Buffalo Bill’s abattoir-cum-dressing room in the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs. Eek! And wow.

Alex Jovanovich