4.14.17 — Saddling Up

If you want to elevate a medium associated more with craft than art, some might say, you have two choices. You can make it artier, or you can make it funkier—anything, in other words, to destroy its use value.

When it comes to ceramics, I could be speaking of its leading lights, in Ken Price and Arlene Shechet. Yet it also describes Elizabeth Jaeger and Bruce M. Sherman. Altoon Sultan's Convergence (McKenzie, 2016)As it happens, their galleries share an entrance on the Lower Side, and ascending the two-tier space is all about exploring the possibilities. Yet they also share a fascination with the medium and the human body.

Jaeger offers one body after another, and they do not look happy, at Jack Hanley through April 16. Female torsos lie draped over steel bars as if skinned alive. The lack of heads and feet underscores the objectification of women in her art and, by extension, a dominant art and culture—and she has in the past portrayed the sex act and animals. The sheer array adds to the anonymity of its subjects, and the slices lead to an asymmetric placement of breasts that adds to the discomfort. They avoid big boobs, too, refusing to play to male expectations. If they offer any comfort, it is in a woman’s art.

Still, there is no getting around the art and craft. They retain the smooth surfaces of both female beauty and stoneware, with neither scars nor blood. The slim black bars and their twin supports are just as elegant and minimal. Jaeger calls the installation Pommel, evoking the saddle shapes, as if women should expect to be ridden, and the pummeling of naked flesh. Yet it also evokes gymnastic equipment, with women capable of athleticism and grace. Besides, the word alone sounds sophisticated.

Sherman takes things back to ceramics in another way—not with stoneware but with its shapes. One or two even look like vases. Yet he makes them fun, funky, and punning, at Nicelle Beauchene. They have sharp edges, irregular outlines, and bright colors from their glazing. They morph easily into bodies or architecture, like castles, and in real life both are inhabited. A woman’s face appears on the vase.

One could call the opposition modern and postmodern, much as for Price and Shechet, although those categories are as slippery as ever. Price has his contoured shapes, but speckled with color and riddled with cuts, like Isamu Noguchi or Constantin Brancusi and his tea ceremony after an encounter with pattern and decoration. Shechet has her crusty textures and Pop imagery, but also a closer approach to tradition—because now, after Modernism and the demand to “make it new,” anything from any time is available. She curates a collection of Rococo porcelain and her own at the Frick. Jaeger and Sherman recap a similar history, but with a difference. Here the modernist is the imagist, the feminist, and the threat.

Then, too, history keeps reversing expectations. Modernism embraced design and use from the very start and, by the end, industrial materials. The present, in turn, has been relishing fine design and folk art, including tapestry. Altoon Sultan, recently at McKenzie through March 26, has three concurrent approaches to abstract art—in rug-hooked and hand-dyed wool, porcelain bas reliefs, and egg tempera. The tapestries have the nested geometry of Minimalism, while the paintings and sculpture borrow from both industrial parts and the Renaissance sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and she titles one work Convergence. Jaeger in particular, though, makes all the possibilities personal, pressing, and one.

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

4.10.17 — A Woman’s Planet

With Trump in office and a solid GOP majority in Congress, humanity is one step closer to destroying the earth, but try not to worry. NASA is already on the lookout for habitable worlds. A Web page ranks the current top twenty candidates, and even then it has forgotten to look on the Lower East Side.

With “Exoplanet,” at Nicelle Beauchene through March 12, Jordan Kasey takes the search for extraterrestrial life to the most obvious place of all, art. As tends to happen in painting, it looks disorienting but strangely familiar. Jordan Kasey's At the Table (Nicelle Beauchene, 2017)It also looks built to last. (And apologies for not having posted this at the time, but she is also in a show that opened just yesterday at MoMA PS1, “Past Skin” through September 10. So here I am catching up.)

The show’s title borrows the term for a planet orbiting a star other than the sun, but Kasey updates Fernand Léger for contemporary Brooklyn. With his late work, Léger already adapts the monumentality of Renaissance art and Neoclassicism to modern life. Like Pablo Picasso around the same time, he was setting aside Cubist fragmentation, give or take cascading walls and shifting breasts. His three women share morning coffee and patterned flooring out of Paris in the twentieth century, but with rounded flesh, nude bodies, unsmiling faces, and an otherworldly detachment. In reviewing his 1998 MoMA retrospective, I spoke of his icy humanism. Kasey just takes things one step further, to people you only thought you knew.

It may help that she is a woman, allowing her to dispense with nudity and to restore a degree of privacy. At the Table returns to the scene of Léger’s Three Women (Le Grande Déjeuner), but for a single woman seen only from the rear. Women at poolside or in a backyard at night have their faces cut off by the picture’s edge or a head of hair. Still, the table’s plates stand empty, and the pool is nowhere to be seen. All appear in harsh colors and a ghostly light. A woman at the piano leans close to the keys in a kind of rapture, but ordinary pleasures seem far away.

They challenge one to engage them or to identify the scene at hand. Before too long, angled planes and dark waves define an open box crossed by shadows, but full lips and eyebrows may never quite cohere into an upside-down pink, gray, and yellow head. Its nose looks like hair, maybe pubic hair, because sensuality is never quite present and never far away. It may also owe something to the style of a graphic novel. Kasey has kept her sense of humor along with her emotional life in the face of global warming. When it comes to another planet, men may or may not be welcome.

Rita Lundqvist brings a simplicity to her women, too, recently at Tanya Bonakdar through February 4. She picks up on Modernism as well, although the later kind associated with formalism. Her compositions run to grays, plain horizontal divisions, and lush brushwork akin to early abstraction by Brice Marden, before he discovered curves and colors for their own sake. They run to squares as well, accentuating their small-m minimalism. The women look anything but at home, though, even on the rare occasion that they share a canvas. The small dimensions heighten their isolation.

They do not come from another planet, but they do come from Sweden, and Lundqvist’s grays and isolation may reflect long winters and a northern light. Like Kasey’s, her women also bring with them a melancholy comedy. One sinks into the ground as if stuck in Kasey’s cardboard box. Others pose against a great deal of ice or just the horizon. Yet they keep their composure, their nuanced expressions, their hidden narratives, and their hopes. Even a Nordic landscape has a flowering tree.

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