New York

Haley Hughes, Just because it’s not happening here doesn’t mean it’s not happening, 2014, oil on canvas, 56 × 72". From “MAD.”

Haley Hughes, Just because it’s not happening here doesn’t mean it’s not happening, 2014, oil on canvas, 56 × 72". From “MAD.”

“MAD”

“MAD,” a group exhibition at Assembly Room that featured the work of women artists, cohered around anger, or at least the idea of it. Per Angela Conant, who organized the show, anger “spreads easily from one susceptible entity to another,” like fire. The gallery is run by women and holds monthly meetings to bring female-identifying curators together. Yet the disparate works in the tiny Henry Street space weren’t only chosen according to theme; they were united by a low and reliable force: more blood than flame.

In all three of Haley Hughes’s oil paintings, fire was both a character and a force. Her hand is fast, and her motifs—bombs, blazes, and people—merge into wild conflagrations. The artist’s Just because it’s not happening here doesn’t mean it’s not happening, 2014, draws us in toward the work’s vortical center: the White House, painted black. All of the thumb-headed figures in the building’s windows are pale pink and yeti-like, except for one. The surrounding buildings, all filled with black figures, are burning, while a weave of missiles descends upon the presidential mansion. The waterline for panic has risen, and the chaotic sweep of Hughes’s painting is reassuring, like an old friend—or sweet oblivion.

Ana Mendieta was here in smaller flame. Bird Transformation, 1972, is a photo of a woman covered in white feathers. She is squatting, legs apart—possibly as the sacrificial chicken of a Santeria ritual. The subject is serene, in caramel light, a phantom with onyx eyes. Sweet, deadly, half-awake yet unbothered, this is a creature hovering between two worlds: animal and human. The analogue to this figure, less than twenty feet away, was the flat-out terrifying Water Mask, 2017, a photograph by Adama Delphine Fawundu. A face, clearly dark-skinned but not clearly anything else, presses against a shower curtain, mouth open. If the person is alive, she is not at peace. The image spirals into horror without being sensational.

In Vanessa Gully Santiago’s graphite drawings, light shone on shadowy acts. The visibly spooked woman in Administrative Assistant, 2018, bends over to pull something from a file-cabinet drawer. Behind her is a too-large man with blank, Oreo-cookie eyes. He fondles her ass with one hand while the other disappears, maybe into her. Or perhaps that limb is making an appearance in Autopsy, 2016, a nightmarish work in which a woman with a spectral gaze is splayed upon an operating table. A doctor pushes his arm deep into her, the gesture one of brutality and violation rather than care.

The quietest work here was Kiki Smith 1983—a dollop of the titular artist’s blood on a glass slide. In that year, at the beginning of the AIDS panic, anybody’s blood could seem like a radioactive threat. The sanguine fluid of Smith’s piece signifies, in its unity, the arc of both death and life. Not much can outlast fire, but the bonds of blood have a good shot, and they were on bright display in “MAD.”