1.3.18 — Aiming for Gender

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For the New Museum, gender is not just a fluid concept: it is dissolving into a mist. Along with a related report on “Queer Archaeology” it also gets a distinctly longer review in my latest upload.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya's Self-Portrait Study with Two Figures (1506) (Yancey Richardson, 2015)At “Trigger,” the first thing one sees may be a smoke machine. Thanks to Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, it emits an almost invisible spray—of fog fluid touched only lightly by an herbal tincture. The show’s subtitle speaks of “Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” through January 21. Could this, too, be a tool or a weapon, only turned back on gender itself? One could ask much the same about the entire show. It aims high, and it rewards looking, but it cannot quite pull the trigger.

It brings together forty artists and nearly as many approaches to gender. Some positively shout at the viewer, literally or figuratively. Seemingly endless text on the facing wall, from the House of Ladosha, uses block caps on an acid green to rub in its point. Others do their best to vanish, like Carolyn Lazard, who does no more than pipe white noise into the elevators. Many are among the most interesting artists out there. Yet the chaotic presentation may leave visitors and gender alike lost in a fog.

If so, it is the fog of the culture wars. To speak of gender as a fluid concept is already to take a stand. (The museum will not insist that one use the rest room for one’s gender at birth, and neither will I.) And the New Museum has been taking a stand since its birth. It was among the first to place “the concerns of the homosexual community” at the heart of contemporary art with “Extended Sensibilities” in 1982. It angered practically everyone with “Bad Girls” in 1994.

With so few artists and collectives over all three floors for major exhibitions, plus the lobby, it sounds well-paced and conducive to thought, like the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Yet it takes serious work. The curators, Johanna Burton with Sara O’Keeffe and Natalie Bell, arrange matters by neither subject, theme, nor anything else that I can determine. Wall text begins with each artist’s past work, leaving one unsure just what it is describing. Much of it appears in low light, daring one to read it. I am still frantically turning the pages in a list alphabetical by artist, trying to recover my notes.

“Trigger” opens with relatively quiet pleasures. One could mistake the smoke machine for a press photographer’s equipment or an item in the gift shop a foot or two away. Now and then, one might encounter Nayland Blake in the lobby as well. One is unlikely to recognize him or his gender in a bear suit. Upstairs, things get louder fast but no less elusive. Blake’s bear suit more often hangs upstairs, too, like the victim of illegal hunting.

Some artists refuse to shout, not even about gender. Diamond Stingily hangs a thick black cord by the elevators, as if it had woven through every floor. One might never know that it owes its blackness to human hair. Yet it allows “Trigger” to offer new perspectives on both gender and the show’s contributors, and my longer review has many more examples. Connie Samaras photographs a queer retirement community at night. In a show just short of coherence, it could be the one place to call home.

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

11.14.17 — Wide Aisles and Tight Spaces

Let me pause this week to catch up, with some reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back, but give it a try. I shall post a little extra, meaning Tuesday and Thursday, as well.

Kaari Upson spends way too much time shopping—and, she wants you to know, so do you. She is also fiendishly attached to what she finds. It takes her into tight spaces and dangerous territory, but then new media are supposed to do that. Yet the same media are also used to numb the senses and to sell you something, and she plays on that as well.

Kaari Upson's Untitled (1000 cans) (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of Massimo De Carlo and Sprüth Magers, 2015)Waif-like, with short blond hair, she sprawls on cartons of Pepsi, stacked like a supremely uncomfortable throne. She might have been wearing that plaid work shirt and those jeans for days now or even years. She might have been wearing them when she sculpted soda cans for the High Line in 2015. She might have been wearing them, too, when she arranged furniture like flayed skin for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Maybe they provide the comfort of familiarity. Maybe they make up for the failed promise of her show’s title, “Good Thing You Are Not Alone.”

She dresses, she explains, as her mother, and her mother’s felt presence could provide a greater bond and a greater comfort or leave her still further alone. My mother never dressed like that or drank Pepsi, but then boomers and Gen-Xers are now mothers, too. She also dragged me on her weekend shopping tours through department stores, which terrified me—but never to Costco, where the soda resides. Upson is alone there on another video as well, driving her cart through its wide aisles. She could almost be stocking the shelves rather than shopping, as if too attached to them to see them empty. Sure enough, she stocks them in quite another way off video, in dozens of stuffed replicas piled high earlier this fall at the New Museum, through September 10.

Their materials include cat hair, Complete Idiot’s Guides, and pages from Artforum—only reasonable for an artist with attachment and achievement issues. The limp bodies look almost tragic, but the shelves invite one in to find still more video channels. In one, Upson drags a sofa through a watery landscape, the close-up making it all the more unintelligible. She is determined, one day, to drag the purchase home. If she does, she will find more soda cans in a second room, hundreds of them, cast in aluminum from the real thing. She will also find the inscrutable objects that rest on top of them, like twenty-first century fossils.

She may not make it home all at once, for another video has her checking out Las Vegas real estate, as In Search of the Perfect Double. There, too, she takes her lost original seriously, comparing home after home to it and finding them wanting. (Oh, for goodness sake, Formica!) Maybe she is addressing a human lost original as well—or her mother. Of course, taking the job seriously means crawling into absurd places, as if to replicate once more the stuffed bodies. She identifies the potential home buyer only as her.

The walls surrounding the aluminum cans contain more inscrutable sculpture, in foam shaped like sagging curtains or unmade beds. One bears the teeth marks of, she swears, her mother. Another bears the title Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue after Barnett Newman, for yet another kind of doubling. But then the very look of bedding splattered with paint goes back to a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg—and “Wall Hangings” to women like Sheila Hicks. Another video closes in on Upson’s eye, split in two by a mirror, for a further equation of looking with doubling and of mothers with mirrors. The mirror’s touch brings tears.

The death of the originality of the avant-garde sounded downright liberating for critics like Walter Benjamin or Postmodernism, but here it takes on personal significance. Upson drives the point home in large drawings right off the elevator—as always, with repetition and overkill. More images of herself spill over one another, surrounded by words directed at herself or you. They speak of mediated and medicated experience, the endless reproduction of the self, guilt, and the difficulty of love. Their skilled realism in graphite, ink, and gesso helps to moderate the diatribe, as does their reflection of the video and sculpture. When all else fails, she can always go shopping.

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