10.21.16 — A House Built on Sand

In one of New York’s most remote and abandoned corners, Katharina Grosse imagines a house swept away by sunlight, as a project for MoMA PS1. It is an actual house all the same, and it was almost swept away in the darkness of a storm. I have gathered this along with previous reports on summer and fall 2016 shows inside and out, as a longer review and my latest upload. Katharina Grosse's Rockaway! (photo by John Haber, MoMA PS1, 2016)

I can never forget leaving my apartment and descending nine stories after Hurricane Sandy, emerging from lack of electricity into the light. I can never forget, too, the many days after, getting to know neighborhoods again in the quiet of shuttered galleries. As I wrote then, I feared most for midlevel galleries and their artists. I feared for those who thought that they were helping one another and even succeeding. Even before I could reach out to those I knew, I could only imagine what they were thinking, assuming that they had time to think about anything other than the inventory of their losses and their art. In a business better known in the popular press for celebrity artists and big money, had they built their house on sand?

Still, for all its show of empathy, that question overlooks something more urgent: some people woke up to find that they had lost everything, because they really had built their house on sand—the kind that burns and gives way beneath one’s feet. And Grosse insists on the urgency in calling her summer project Rockaway! She saturates a building in Gateway National Recreation Area in bright red, inside and out. You might see it as drenched in blood, although she wanted to capture a sunset, extending to painted pavement on the ocean side. It stands abandoned and empty but for sand, and it will be demolished soon after the project ends on November 1.

I cannot swear that I would recommend it to anyone not dying to devote hours this wet weekend to a tour of the city’s dingiest subway stations and worst neighborhoods. I approached it the long way, by subway to Rockaway Beach in Queens, off Jamaica Bay. One discovers not a beach but a community, very much still standing after the storm. It takes nearly two miles to reach Jacob Riis Park—and a further mile or so along the Atlantic Ocean before that, too, comes to an end at Fort Tilden. Thoroughly lost but with no easy turning back, I eventually found my way across a football field long overrun with weeds, past fences that all but shout keep out, and to three empty buildings near the water. All three rest on sand and are covered with graffiti, but only one is also painted red.

The spray paint leaves swirls of white, the better to evoke a sunset. Yet it has to compete with mixed messages every step of the way. A bus from the subway runs all the way to Fort Tilden, although one would never know it, while the house lies outside the fort’s fences. Two horses greeted me at the fort’s entrance, but neither was talking. Riis Park has no signs other than to say that one is there. So what's NEW!Another sign, right in front of the house, forbids entry, but the work demands it.

The work may look better still in photographs, where the reds deepen and bounce off sunlight on sand. From the outside, the pattern looks less intense and less like a sunset. The nearby buildings and their graffiti offer serious competition as well. As with the house on the Met roof by Cornelia Parker, the reach for theater may even get in the way of the work’s message. With its exclamation point, it almost sounds like a Broadway musical, awaiting tourists who will never appear. MoMA’s description does little to ground it in climate change—or in the gains and losses of an island community.

Yet the context is real, and it does almost as much as the paint to bring the work alive, between public sculpture and community. It came together for me as I rode a different bus, up Flatbush Avenue into Brooklyn. After the immensity of the Atlantic, I was passing chain stores on the way to Brooklyn College and a very urban community. I could finally bring together the disparate experiences of being lost and found. Thinking further back, I could hope again for galleries and artists. Just do not wait for them to paint the town red.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.19.16 — That Guy

For a moment, Rashid Johnson has set aside the personal. Is he too mature now for anything less, or are things too urgent? Yet once you get past a searing room of black faces, like street art run mad on its way to Chelsea, you get even more heartfelt associations as well.

Four rows of faces stare out from six large paintings. They blend together as caricatures, somewhere between horrified and grinning, at Hauser & Wirth through October 22. They would look at home in a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Johnson works on tiles much like subway walls. MutualArtYet he conceives them as individuals, every one of them “that guy,” as he pours on a mix of black soap and wax—and then cuts into it before it dries.

The faces occupy a kind of negative space, the space of what deconstruction might call “under erasure“—and what the black community might know as invisibility to white eyes. They also endure further omissions, from gaps in the grid here and there without a face. Black lives matter, they say, except when they do not. Painting is serious business, except when it is exuberant and funny. It bears witness, but then so do its viewers. What began as Anxious Men, at the Drawing Center in 2015, has become Anxious Audiences, including you.

Johnson has made a career out of riffing on personal associations, ever since his appearance among emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. He might toss in a space suit out of Sun Ra or a photograph of his father, an exemplary text in African American literature or a comic novel. It works because he is a consummate riffer—and because his associations speak to others, too. Here there is no getting around not just street art and politics, but also the grid and monochrome of Minimalism. Anxious audiences may remember Abstract Expressionism as the “anxious object” for Harold Rosenberg, Rashid Johnson's The Ritual (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2015)and those black faces arise from poured paint (or a reasonable substitute) and the artist’s gesture. More than before, though, they ask to collaborate with others.

Not that Johnson has set his obsessions behind. Besides ceramics, his grids often include shelves and mirrors, as in “Storylines” last year at the Guggenheim. And here soap, bathroom tiles, and broken mirrors outline the upside-down stick figures of his Fallen Men, as pixilated as an old video game. That photo of his father sneaks back into a medley of black silhouettes, colored tiles, and stock photographs of tropical plants, as Escape Collages. Johnson has used actual house plants before, in the hope of producing something alive. The show’s final room recaps it all on a mammoth scale, with shelves of plants, books, heads sculpted in shea butter, and videos going back to his years at the University of Chicago.

Still, he is not just baring his soul, but embracing its place in public art. If a falling man makes you think of the Twin Towers, in an instantly famous photograph, this show opened just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Johnson has often used shea butter, the bright yellow gunk sold on the streets of Harlem and used in Africa for anything from cosmetics to foodstuffs. (His mother is a professor of African history.) Here he lays out a large table of it, fragmented and unsculpted, to expose his materials and his art. That mammoth final installation is an active collaboration with a pianist, Antoine Baldwin, who shows up when he pleases and produces swelling chords out of Keith Jarrett or McCoy Tyner.

The show also has an implicit narrative, from anxiety to escape and back again. Do not, though, expect too tidy an ending. The installation, Antoine’s Organ, refuses to wrap up its themes in a neat package. Its books include Native Son but also The End of Blackness, for an artist often associated with “post-black identity” in art, and Sellout, for an artist who has moved to one of Chelsea’s largest, whitest, and wealthiest galleries. It even hides the pianist on a high shelf within. If you spot him, bear witness.

10.17.16 — Abstraction’s New Media

The resurgence of abstraction is cause enough for celebration, but also suspicion. It thrives on sheer exuberance and eclecticism—between pattern and decoration, formalism and allusion, geometry and gesture.

But if anything goes, why do anything, and how is anyone to judge? I feel guiltier than ever picking winners. Consider some, though, who are going about the old modern or postmodern work of looking hard at their medium. Cordy Ryman's Door (Lesley Heller Workspace, 2007)It just so happens that their medium may have elements of painting, photography, and sculpture.

Cordy Ryman is pushing himself further toward painting and sculpture, at Zürcher through October 30. The largest work still sticks to the wall, with painted sides that become more visible and less predictable as one circulates. The most impressive, though, leans its slim white planks against a wall, painted only on the back. It makes use of a gallery’s intense lighting seemingly to paint directly on the wall in shadows and reflections. If its shifting angles suggest a huge wave coursing through the wood, its title refers to Moby-Dick, and a facing work arches outward like a whale skeleton. Its bolts and hinges also have the prominence of hardware in white paintings by his father, Robert Ryman.

Sara VanDerBeek still uses photography for art akin to Minimalism, but with a greater translucency than before and a greater distance from streetscapes. Now, too, she is expanding her practice to the real thing, at Metro Pictures though October 19, with simple but successive elements in plaster and wood that ripple upward or across the floor. Kate Steciw, in turn, would rather combine the two practices recently at Higher Pictures, through October 12—to the point of challenging her own identity as a photographer. Her photos now extend beyond stock footage, with images of plants and skies, but printed on cut metal sheets and fabric. The metal’s dangerous edges have a presence very different from that of nature, but maybe even more real. The fabric tubes form a colorful monster reaching to the ceiling.

Eve Aschheim finds a closer affinity between abstraction and photography, but she also finds them as different as night and day, at Lori Bookstein through October 15. Aschheim, who shares the gallery with political art from the Nixon era by Louis Kruger, uses ink, graphite, and gesso on Mylar for layers of white with traces of black. Then come her photograms, with equally short and sudden marks in white on black. For her, both series are rooted in drawing. Both, too, feel as lasting and evanescent as the movements of her hand. It takes time to assimilate the layers and the changing thickness of her marks, just as it took her time to make them.

Others return to late Modernism’s shaped canvas, but without the canvas. Reliefs by Rachel Hellman, at Elizabeth Houston through October 23, recall Charles Hinman, but in wood. Her bright colors may connect or leap across edges. David Scanavino uses industrial materials akin to fiberboard, but gathering light like resin, at Klaus von Nichtssagend through October 16. His fanciful shapes range from keyholes to speech balloons out of the comics, but leaving the words or the key to you. Stripes out of Frank Stella gather in thickness toward the edge.

New materials keep turning up as fast as they become available. I had not even heard of vinyl-based paints like Flashe until recently, and now they are all over the map. Debra Ramsay uses actual resin, at Odetta through October 9. Her multiple panels again recall Minimalism, as for Brice Marden, but with less regular edges, quieter colors, and a glow seemingly from within. They also begin as notes on her walks through the city, rooting their shifting colors in industrial neighborhoods and the light. Eclecticism may have a point, in taking painting both toward its elements and into the world.

10.14.16 — No/Body Home

Everyone has those embarrassing moments when the body takes on a life of its own. For a man, they may come in the pain of aging joints or the inexplicable rising between his legs in the middle of the night. For Aneta Grzeszykowska, the uprising verges on mental as well as physical abuse.

Her four limbs, separated from each other, take her face out of hiding, assault it from all sides, lead it on, and then punish it again. Their torments continue in photographs, where again the body parts refuse to add up. This is not all in her head. Aneta Grzeszykowska's Negative Book #39 (Lyles & King, 2012/2013)

Or is it? Grzeszykowska created that video, head and hands together, to reclaim her mind and body as her own, from what a French theorist might call “the abject.” In bringing her head and her feelings out in the open, it also serves as a revelation—and the ritual continues in a second video, where sparks fly from her mouth. She becomes her own creation in the photos in another way as well. What looks like her amounts to a paper doll in progress, but molded in parchment and pigskin from her flesh. It is also, often as not, a mask.

It is, she asserts, the body in “No/Body,” a two-gallery exhibition at 11R and Lyles & King through October 16. The other gallery contains the defiant no. There she blackens her entire body on video, except for her tits and crotch. And then she recovers it again in photographic negatives that turn her ghostly presence into white. Nude black and white sculptures, nearly life size, further challenge which version came first. One looks more self-contained, the other more vulnerable, but both could have stepped right out of the negatives and fallen to the floor.

For a woman, who commands her body is a feminist question. And the act of reclamation targets the viewer, not least when male. Grzeszykowska links her work to Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, and a fellow Polish artist, Alina Szapocznikow—and she could well have mentioned Laurie Simmons playing with dolls. She inserts her torso in photographs by another, too, much as Sherman places herself in film noir. She has roots in Surrealism as well, as in the choreography of naked and prosthetic limbs for Hans Bellmer or Pierre Molinier. There, too, heads get lost.

Surrealism or domestic habits may account for still another alter ego, a black cat. One overlooks her naked body stretched out on a sofa, in one of the borrowed photos. Another sculpture, this time in leather, makes her into a cat woman, with pointy ears to show for it. And Grzeszykowska is at her most domestic at her most surreal, in the negatives. They show her with family and at leisure, at home and at the beach. Even there, she is applying makeup.

They have their own threats to her body as well. Knee deep in a turbulent black ocean, beneath a black sky, she looks anything but secure. At home, she shares space with what might be children or dolls stiff on the ground. She is still searching in the mirror for her reflection and herself. Yet she shows no sign of terror. No/body is at home.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.12.16 — Two Views of Aging

If you are like me, you have trouble approaching Joan Semmel, at Alexander Gray through October 15. You think you know her by now, and you know what to expect.

You expect a display of skill, from an artist on intimate terms with portraiture, anatomy, and her own flesh. You expect an unblinking frankness, from a woman in her eighties willing to confront the harsh toll of age. You expect a certain self-obsession, because she takes that as her subject. You know her filling a canvas and then some.

Joan Semmel's Untitled (Alexander Gray, 2016)Once again she rewards those expectations. She is literally baring herself. And once again she accepts the limits of realism, long after art began to link honesty not to the truth in painting, but to skepticism. She portrays herself as vividly three dimensional, but also up against the picture plane and at alarming angles. You know by now to associate that defiance of convention with Mannerism or expressionism—further markers of physical and emotional pain. You expect it to earn extra credit for defying sexism and ageism as well.

Still, you might have to look again. She is not striving for photorealism, whether in the atomization of its subject for Chuck Close or the Neo-Mannerism of Philip Pearlstein. Nor is she at the opposite extreme, with twisted features as an obvious emblem of revulsion for Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon. She does not spend much time on her crotch and public hair, unlike Betty Tompkins. She has even less in common with what has become a kind of official style for American realism, after Alice Neel—with breezy gestures and colors skating over an apparent concern for the individual. She is just going about her business, she seems to say, with pleasure.

I admit to finding all these versions of realism a little too easy, including much of her own past work. (Perhaps I can accept detail and gesture more easily in landscape.) They can look even less relevant now that abstraction and realism so often blend together. Semmel, though, is also defying expectations. She may throw an arm across her face, as if in shame. She may cut off her face, as if in agony, but her features, when they appear, look calm and measured.

They also leave much of the action to her breasts and lower body. They come off not as disfigured, as for Aneta Grzeszykowska, but proud, monumental, and even sexy. If that sounds like still another version of politically correct, there, too, she plays against stereotype. More than before, she seems to be searching for herself rather than sending a message. How can someone in those poses simultaneously observe herself? And where exactly is she?

Most of her latest paintings or works on paper combine two images, one in bare outline and one in full. They play off against one another, as two views of the self, or combine into a single elusive body. They also bring out the display of painting for its own sake, in the translucency of oil and oil crayon. Colors run from flesh tones to exaggerated yellow, pink, and blue. She still sees self-portraiture as feminist, much as for Mira Schor—and the aging naked body as a means “to fully experience our common humanity.” At her best, that common humanity will always lie first and foremost in paint.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

10.10.16 — Figure and Ground

Any New Yorker can tell you: there is magic in the streets. Maybe not the actual sidewalks, where one looks down not for the play of light and shadow, but to avoid chewing gum or worse. (How do those people who cannot stop talking or texting cope?) Rather, the very grid of pavement and, on a larger scale, urban planning carries one to that ever-changing mix of old favorites and chance encounters to all sides. Cindy Sherman might serve as an emblem in that shot from Untitled Film Stills—looking up warily, offering the choice of a woman’s self-possession or fears and, to either side, architecture old and new. Sarah Cain's Balls to the Wall (Galerie Lelong, 2012)

Of course, the grid also belongs to Minimalism, and so do light and shadows. Where older sculpture rose into an endless column, it lay flat to the ground—all the while taking in the viewer and the surrounding space. And where older art shouted don’t touch, invited visitors to walk on it. So, big time, does Sarah Cain. She covers the floors with stripes, grids, and swirls at Galerie Lelong through October 15, but as anything but minimal. Step right in, they say, but this time to join the party.

Her very title out of astrophysics, “Dark Matter,” promises to suck you in. It also promises, well, a gravity that she happily denies. Colors and patterns run riot, all the way to the walls and then some. Canvases continue the compendium of styles. Curves out of Christopher Wool overlay stains in party colors. Just in case that were not enough, some paintings throw in found objects—including sunglasses, pinwheels, and money.

Ryan Wallace, too, plays with figure and ground. His title, “Surveyor,” also suggests an eye on the city, at Susan Inglett and again through October 15. His quiet passage between collage and paint recalls Henry Rothman, who did indeed find inspiration in sidewalks. Wallace, though, takes matters indoors quite as much as Cain. Previous installations began with raised floors, and his large canvases, overlaid with additional strips, play on reflections from those floors on the space of the gallery. For good measure, he now sets his old floors vertically.

Like Cain, Wallace presents two bodies of work while plainly linking the two. The turn to the vertical enhances the effect twice over. On the one hand, it feels more self-effacing than a false floor. On the other hand, it focuses more clearly on the gallery, by covering the entrance partition. Like Andre, it also presents a tiling, in Perspex and other materials. They vary from shiny to worn with, as for Robert Ryman, the bolts and tacks all part of the show.

If Wallace is deadly serious, Cain is anything but. The objects become a little too precious. Few paintings stand out on their own, apart from the excess and mixed media everywhere else these days. Then again, they do not have to stand out. They need only find a space for painting between two and three dimensions, like the colored disks in her previous work. Chelsea streets seem downright calming by comparison.

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