Theme Party

John Haber
in New York City

Summer Group Shows 2013

One of the pleasures of summer group shows is that you do not have to attend. Dealers know it, too, since they are planning their own getaway—not to mention planning for the fall. That can lead to a lazy excuse for a show, but not necessarily. It can be a time to try out new faces, to take stock of the present, and to think about the future. Oh, and a time to reach for a theme.

The themes in 2013 do not add up to a trend for once, and thank goodness. Even with the more and more frequent guest curators, you may come away less with a thesis than with a dealer's sensibility. It could jump out from little more than gallery artists—or from an unholy mess. Allow me, then, some highly arbitrary selections. So what if the theme goes really, really wrong? Sometimes one can even find one's own. Anne Collier's Open Book #8 (Prints)(Anton Kern gallery, 2012)

Serious business

In just the last few summers, shows have played around with the space of a gallery, the everyday object, childhood memories, and "sign and symbols." If that sounds like a Neo-Minimalism, it could reflect merely my own bias, but I doubt it. Just two years ago, a slew of Lower East Side galleries even cooperated on shows of abstract art. Surely something has changed since irony ruled and since installations and egos got a free pass. One simply hears that change more easily without the din of fall. If the silence of summer is unnerving, you can always attend three or four humongous, noisy, R-rated, and thoroughly infantile shows of Paul McCarthy and be done.

The stakes are growing higher as well—and not just because dealers are struggling to maintain a role in the buying and selling of art. Those cooperative shows of abstraction in 2011 were also making a case for the Lower East Side, but how could I not love a lavish selection from the 1980s this year in Chelsea, at Cheim & Read, accurately or not titled "Reinventing Abstraction"? Nothing ever quite shuts down these days, even apart from gentrification and tourists on the High Line. And you really do not have to attend. Maybe that is why I could swear that I am seeing more shows, later shows, larger shows, and more tendentious themes. They are both taking chances and clamoring for attention, not a bad mix at all.

This summer's award for most overbearing theme goes to Untitled and Zach Feuer, hands down, for "Jew York." The title alone could have me giving up my birth right. You probably do not need a reminder that Marc Chagall and Deborah Kass are Jewish—and why everyone needs her version of Warhol's tired legacy with the equally tired cachet of Barbra Streisand (in place, I suppose, of Jackie, Marilyn, or the electric chair) is beyond me. You may find it provocative to think of N. Dash, Orley Genger, Peter Halley, Alex Katz, Sol LeWitt, or Roy Lichtenstein as Jewish. You may even wonder if Diane Arbus or Hannah Wilke could have been half as disturbing without it. Mostly, though, one sees too many artists and too little beyond the provocation. And yet one does see how these two galleries are consistently "in your face."

The award for least overbearing theme could be a tie. Looking at the mess on the floor and hints of sex in "No Name" at On Stellar Rays, I thought less of issues of anonymity and authenticity than of small transgressions that resonate far more than Chelsea's huge piles of trash. Looking at Guy de Cointet, Cameron Crawford, Glen Fogel, and Steffani Jemison at Laurel Gitlen, one can see the gallery's usual question of how ratty gestures can add up to real or imagined architecture. Their very spareness undermines the theme of "Every Act a Repetition," although Crawford's open weave is a kind of repetition. One might never think of African American identity when it comes to Jemison, just the roughness of her art in black. One ends up mostly with a reminder of why downtown galleries matter.

Most overused theme might go to Derek Eller, Yancey Richardson, or Lisa Cooley (which subsequently presents a terrific conceptual take on sound art) for the body in art, mostly female. But then the first two are edgy and startling, with such surreal pairings as crotches from Hans Bellmer and Davina Semo or poses from Cindy Sherman and Yoko Ono—and the third is a step ahead of my criticism, in calling its show "Antibodies." Matthew Brannon still has a door seen from the inside but leaning against a wall, and Anne Collier still has her hands holding blackness in place of an open book, but the old pomo defenses still work wonders. The bodies flitting past on canvas for Carter, in photographs for Helen Chadwick, and in text and video for Ed Atkins still feel sad but alive. The real people in the gallery window, sticking their faces through a curtain for Eva Kotátková, are probably even having fun, and so are those who dare to sit on "soft sculpture" by Anthea Hamilton of decidedly mod nudes. This time, one remembers a gallery whose terse installations avoid a lecture.

Weightiest theme goes, as always, to Miguel Abreu for "Conspicuous Unusable." If the title's critique of capitalism were not enough, one can read how objects for Martin Heidegger acquire meaning in use—and when use fails. I might argue that this takes the philosopher totally out of context, but then the artists are out to do much the same with the plain sense of things, to the benefit of both. Rey Akdogan does it with metal tiling as incomplete as that of Carl Andre, Olof Inger with trash bags converted into the painting of light and space, Gabriel Kuri with black slabs crushing beer or soda cans like a Richard Serra that collapsed during an opening, Charlotte Posenenske with heat ducts as building blocks, Cameron Rowland with shelving brackets as line drawing, and Jean-Luc Moulène with rebar as an open cage. Dorothea Rockburne may have never had a darker beauty than with chipped, smeared, faded, and nailed boards from 1970. One remembers a gallery never short on intellect but willing to gamble on what one sees.

The theme that got away

Most tantalizing theme must go to Simon Preston for "On the Passage of a Few." Terence Gower turns an entire wall over to red as frame for a photograph of Portugal, Luis Molina-Pantin assembles a long row of nonexistent book covers of airplane disasters or terrorism, Lisa Tan almost abstracts away from a cemetery in Munich, and Alexandre da Cunha imports a rusted cement mixer wrenched out of a narrative of class struggle. Nothing here even says that this is a themed show, and yet I felt a political engagement deferred hanging over each. Is it just that I know the gallery for its sparsely hung but loaded histories? Is it just that I had seen John Gerrard there acting out the Mideast wars as a slow dance on an endless highway? Maybe, but the moment is either past or still to come, as in a parable of revolution.

Biggest missed opportunity goes to McKenzie for "Reticulate." The opportunity starts with some nice art and every sense of the title word (which I like to think of as articulate with a networked nuance). It has rigorous geometry in a single brushstroke from Mark Sheinkman, the bright and spidery weaving of Vija Celmins or Yayoi Kusama, the tauter networks of Laura Watt or Lori Ellison, the art-world networking of Marc Lombardi or Loren Munk, and the colored weave against deep space of Jason Karolak. Yet it reminded me all too well of a gallery dedicated to the abstraction I love but not always cutting deeply. What has a network come to mean, and has the late modern grid become a postmodern virtual reality? Someone else will have to ask, and Brice Marden could knock the entire show out of the park.

Silliest group show goes to LMAK "Characters and Figures," but think of it as a compliment. I could also have said the most fantastic, because the four artists indulge in fantasies. All are dark fantasies, but the art itself is light and fun. Brent Green's video sees an American life through artificial lights and the rain, while Chloe Piene starts with William Butler Yeats in "The Second Coming"—but things do not fall apart, the center holds, and a skeletal falcon takes flight. Jonathan Ehrenberg acts out another poem, Elizabeth Bishop's "The Man-Moth," taking a joke literally enough to blend into wonder (or vice versa). For once, one's evil twin looks like a real schlub. Silvia Russell swears that the terrors in her 3D "extended drawings" happened to her, but they sure look like a Freudian unconscious, and maybe I shall join you there.

Sara VanDerBeek's Foundation, Dorgenois Street (courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures/Altman Siegel, 2010)Best group show without exactly a group goes to Sikkema Jenkins. This winding gallery likes to give works lots of space and accepts the consequence. "I Am the Magic Hand" takes its title from John Guttman's 1937 photograph of chalk on stone, almost like street art. Carmelle Safde's lyrical hangings lead naturally enough to Lisa Milroy's dresses, but what of Allison Katz's painted cabbages and Jane Corrigan's overheated scenes? I returned more than once for a single revelation, Paula Wilson's fabric wall simulating bricks (both tidy and worn), grillwork, decorative reliefs straying into praying hands, and graffiti. It has something of Jennifer Bartlett and Rhapsody in its warm, bright colors and its catalogue of painting, architecture, and remembered pleasures.

The most straightforward group show turns out not to be not so straightforward at all, at Tracy Williams. Sure, the nearly thirty artists in "Chick Lit" are women, and there is plenty of text. Alice Attie draws abstract traceries with it, Simryn Gill fashions it into paper boats and spheres, Erica Baum gently folds it, and Jackie Mack collects it, starting with the first and last word of "every book I own." Barbara Bloom again weaves her stories through words and collectibles, with the letters of Gustave Flaubert in glassware and with the cover of Lolita (Volume 2, to be precise) as a rug. Still, what chick lit lit a fire under the "Hippie" series of Liz Markus, the face distorted by Photoshop or pain for Sara Greenberger Rafferty, and the seeming abstraction or "Photo-Poetics" of Sara VanDerBeek? The last claims inspiration from Walt Whitman, much as Molly Springfield appears to keep Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf as eBooks, but does it matter?

Perhaps, but I shall remember instead a new meeting ground for text art, literature, narrative, and feminism. It is not the overt messaging of Jennifer Holzer, the irony of Richard Prince, the conceptual art of Lawrence Weiner, the artist book itself, or the cool withholding of a book from Ed Ruscha. It is more a space between a narrative drawn from fiction and a life. And here, too, it is also a sensibility. It comes from a gallery that often combines an intricate conceptualism with a quiet abstraction. It is also another show that, along with summer, so quickly slips away.

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"Reinventing Abstraction" ran at Cheim & Read through August 30, 2013, "Jew York" at Untitled and Zach Feuer through July 26, "No Name" at On Stellar Rays through July 25, "Every Act a Repetition" at Laurel Gitlen through August 2, "Hair and Skin" at Derek Eller through August 15, "Desire" at Yancey Richardson through August 23, "Antibodies" at Lisa Cooley through July 26, "Conspicuous Unusable" at Miguel Abreu through August 17, "On the Passage of a Few" at Simon Preston through August 4, "Reticulate" at McKenzie through August 17, "Characters and Figures" at LMAKprojects through July 26, "I Am the Magic Hand" at Sikkema Jenkins through July 19, and "Chick Lit" at Tracy Williams, Ltd., through August 9.


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