The Galleries
Michael Newton

New York, October–November, 2010


Avner Ben-Gal @ Bortolami

I assumed that these paintings were meant to evoke some sort of political turmoil, that Ben-Gal was trying, with as little information as possible, to create a sense of oppression, of a body bending to the whims of other, despotic bodies. I was sort of right: these are paintings about withdrawal from opiates. Politics, meet Percocet.


Huma Bhabha @ Peter Blum

Bhabha shoots photographs of rocky, craggy landscapes, blows up the pictures and paints over them in big, rough-edged strokes. She adds her own imaginary monuments out of paint and ink, but they’re decimated, fading, broken. It’s an act of simultaneous creation and destruction—a fitting ritual for a time when no one seems to know what helps or what hurts, when acts of creation just feel like acts of destruction saved up for later, when every right thing seems to funnel into a greater wrong.


Matthew Buckingham @ Murray Guy

For these two film installations, Buckingham draws deep from the critical theory well, presenting artwork that reflects on the history of portrait painting. Buckingham films particular fragments of old paintings, then combines the footage with things like mirrors, bundled furniture, and thoughtful, philosophical texts—on the implications of life and death inherent in portraits; on the reciprocated, looping gaze among viewer, painter, and subject; on advancing technology and social mores; on the projection and refraction of identity. For experienced art-acolytes, these subjects are not horribly new, but it’s still the case that one of the best things art can do is to change the way we see the world; it’d be hard to spend time with aging and death, illusion and reality, looking and being looked at, and not come out of it at least a little bit changed.


Yoan Capote @ Jack Shainman

The artwork “American Appeal (Postcard)” looks from afar like a simple drawing of the New York skyline, as it might first be seen by an arriving immigrant. Up close, though, it’s clear that the image is composed out of nails and fish hooks—it’s the kind of art that could actually kill you. Elsewhere, “The Window” shows a prison window constructed in a likeness of the American flag, while “Status Quo (Reality & Idealism)” is a huge balance scale, hopelessly weighted to favor the rich. Capote’s message is about as subtle as a truck backfiring, but the strength here comes from skillful execution and Capote’s dedication to his vision; I won’t be forgetting those fish hooks anytime soon.


James Casebere @ Sean Kelly

When I first saw photos from this body of work, I was ready to dismiss them. I like Casebere’s art, but those sun-drenched suburban landscapes looked like aimless critiques of middle-class domesticity (not that I’m against a critique of middle-class domesticity, but it is kind of a high-art cliché at this point). On further examination, these aren’t aimless critiques, nor are they celebrations; they’re more like explorations or quests, journeying through this pastel-painted suburban town to find good things, bad things, and, often, no things. Continuing his practice of photographing scale architectural models, Casebere was inspired by an accidental trip to an upstate New York suburb, and proceeded to construct and photograph a doll-sized chunk of the town. As with his previous work, there’s a deliberate layer of artifice and a lack of human presence; the images are lovely and scary, kind of like the real world. It should be noted, though, that one of these photos contains a detail that’s very hard to find in Casebere’s work: a person.


William N. Copley @ Paul Kasmin

Boy, did people ever have a lot of sex in the ’70s. These colorful, curvy paintings by Copley, aka CPLY (1919—1996), all of them from the early part of that freewheeling decade (this is, in fact, a recreation of a 1974 exhibition), are not pornography, at least not in any commonly traded sense of the stuff. The imagery does come from old nudie mags, but CPLY’s magic painterly filtration system renders these scenes with a remarkably low level of grimness or shame—those unspoken-of meats on the pornography sandwich. It’s not creepy, this show, it’s not cheesy and really, it’s not even sexy; it’s an idiosyncratic and happy vision of sex.


Dzine @ Leo Koenig

Created mainly during a residency in Curaçao, this suite of work revolves around the island’s particular Szwaybar subculture: young men and their swaggering, customized bicycles. The show’s sculptural centerpiece finds a bicycle turned into an ornate, funereal reliquary—nicely done, but also a predictable meld of the (pseudo) sacred and the (basically) profane. But it does help to underscore the photos and videos as sensitive documentary work with an unforced vitality. There really is a sacred quality to daily life; you don’t have to be so fussy about it.


Engineers of the Soul @ Postmasters

This is a show about big-C Communism, as it has been manifested in China and Russia. The curators combine vintage, state-sanctioned photojournalism with the work of contemporary artists examining the conflicted (and, really, very dark) legacy of Communism, bringing up ideas of what it means to establish a post-Stalin, post-Mao Left, and reminding us that for all the talk of its nascent capitalist economy, China is still governed by its Communist Party. Yevgeniy Fiks gives us simple, slightly menacing paintings of a bright red flower prized especially by Kim Jong Il, while Wang Jianwei and the collective Chto Delat? present elaborate, videotaped spectacles of contested hierarchies and power struggles. The show-stealer, though, must be Rainer Ganahl’s “I Hate You Karl Marx,” in which the artist, imagining a future Berlin conquered by Communist China, screams her lamentations at a mute Marx bust. Perhaps before it can move forward, the Left needs to figure out what in the world it wants.


FAILE @ Perry Rubenstein

I remember when Brooklyn-based collective FAILE’s work started showing up on the streets of New York: it combined stealthy pop-appropriation and bold design with the aimless, aberrant cool and itinerant revolutionary swell of graffiti. Nowadays, of course, we call this stuff ‘street art’ (kind of a debatable term; why isn’t graffiti ‘street art’? But, never mind me . . . ).  This exhibition finds FAILE’s kitschy visual litany expanded into multiplanar collage works, and it feels eminently . . . salable. Context is everything here; good design or no, gallery-ready work lacks the populism, the derring-do, the social problematics, the criminality that makes street art exciting, for better or worse.


Keltie Ferris @ Horton

Piet Mondrian’s classic 1943 painting “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” utilizes simple geometry and basic colors to capture the feeling of bustling, honking, blaring street life. Ferris’s paintings seem like a sort of update, but with additional, obscuring strata for our age of chemical dependency and text messages—bleary-eyed, stumbling, dizzy. I’d imagine that things must be more confusing now than they were in 1943. What would Mondrian say?


Dan Flavin @ Paula Cooper

When Flavin first made his now-legendary fluorescent light sculptures, he could go down to Canal Street and pick up all the supplies he needed at the hardware store. Nowadays, to install his work to his original specifications means paying good money to get specially manufactured parts, and you’ll have to look farther afield than Canal Street. So how long will it be economically or culturally viable for galleries such as this to give a massive white room over to a single Flavin sculpture, in all its buzzing spiritual dimensions, splashing lemon- and cotton candy–colored light all over the walls? I don’t know; better go while you can.


Adam Helms @ Marianne Boesky

There’s art made without overtly political iconography but with a burning political subtext, and then there’s art with issues-y overtones that’s potentially apolitical at its core. For a while now, Helms has been mining insurgent subcultures (survivalists, militias) for his effectively creepy drawings; here, a suite of charcoal portraits (after Gerhard Richter) of anonymous, frequently masked guerillas and subversive-types evokes a non-heroic, anti-canonical vision of the political unconscious. There’s a snaking current of paternalistic violence, a bleak assessment of contemporary maleness. It works, but still, the manifest shakiness of Helms’s approach kind of irks me: turning real world struggles into something blurry, impossible to decipher. It’s appropriate for our day and age, to be sure, but is it really what we need right now?


Oliver Herring @ Meulensteen

It’s gratifying to go to an art gallery and see things you wouldn’t be able to see anywhere other than at an art gallery. For this show, Herring orchestrated dozens of participatory performances; if you went on the right day, you might’ve seen a pair of naked people getting covered in glitter, or a bunch of hapless art students spitting colored liquid at one another. Herring will likely turn the happenings into interesting photos and videos, since that’s what he does, but for now, the arbitrary anarchic weirdness was the point, the thrill; that’s good enough, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.


Matthew Day Jackson @ Peter Blum

 The main event here is “In Search of,” a video in the style, apparently, of some ’70s quasi-documentary show with Leonard Nimoy. It’s a pretty goofy pop-cultural artifact to nod toward, but that doesn’t matter—the video is a multifaceted, genuinely entertaining amalgamation of murky pseudoscience, poetic imagery, literary references, and phony reporting. The work feels truly exploratory: a nature trek into the heart, a field trip into the very soul, a bike ride into the guts. Elsewhere there are bulky sculptures, artsy in-jokes, and a finely rendered, large-scale relief of an old Life Magazine cover. Interesting work, but not as engaging as the video. TV wins this round.


Anselm Kiefer @ Gagosian

We live in a time, it seems, when artists don’t want to be heroes, when people shrug off their creative work, don’t want you to make too big a deal of it. It’s nice, then, to see artwork that takes itself seriously. As for this show: Kiefer’s new paintings and sculptures are gray and massive, encased in glass or sprawled across entire walls, addressing themes of mourning, war, the Bible, the Kabbalah, the Holocaust. It’s an impressive effort, combining grandiose constructions with arm’s-length fragility, but beyond the evocation—the naming, the placing—what does this artwork tell us, what does it make us feel beyond its leaden, breakable bigness? Something, yes; absolutely something, but not enough.


Elad Lassry @ Luhring Augustine

Lassry’s photographs (some he shoots, some he finds and modifies) and films betray a formalist’s attention to (unified) color and (blithely sexy) form, a humorist’s attention to vaguely chortle-worthy subject matter, and a young man’s attention to making things that look cool. Lassry seems to draw from the soul of high-end kitsch—a sort of ’70s-era luxury that may never have existed, but still exerts weight onto whatever part of our brains is responsible for buying things. In a way, Lassry’s work can help to highlight how much of our subconscious, how much of our dreamlife has been colonized with consumer goods and glossy full-page ads; it’s an effective critique of consumerism because it doesn’t critique consumerism. Make sense? OK.


Brandon Lattu @ Leo Koenig

In the installation “Reciprocity of Light,” some photosensitive gizmos have been set up near a bare lightbulb, so that the viewer generates light by casting a shadow. Elsewhere, there are printed photographs almost (but not entirely) obscured by spray paint, and a looping video paired with a still photograph of the same site. This is a show about the underpinning exigencies of photographic production, but you can also find a sort of childlike fascination with basic opposites. Light! Dark! Visible! Invisible! Start at the gut and then move up to the brain—that’s how you get ’em.


Bertrand Lavier @ Yvon Lambert

You may have seen modernist painting before, but have you seen modernist painting that lights up?


An-My Lê @ Murray Guy

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how a native citizen of the art world, characteristically liberal and peaceniky as it is, is able to get so much continued access to the U.S. armed forces. The answer, predictably, is that Lê’s photographs of U.S. soldiers at work are not polemical. What they are is placid, refined. Lê tends to shoot from far away, capturing landscapes and settings as well as the (sometimes violent) actions of individuals. Yet, despite the lack of direct politics, I think there’s a case to be made for a focused, undergirding ideology at work; it can’t be easy to wring such peaceful images out of the preparation and practice of war.


Sherrie Levine @ Paula Cooper

It’s likely that Levine will always be best known for her early series “After Walker Evans,” in which she re-photographed the work of that august American photographer and presented the images as her own. It was a reasonably simple gesture that, 30 years later, still freaks people out with its youthful audacity and ideological entanglements. The work on view here consists of monochromatic, blue-gray paintings inspired by the palette of a Stieglitz photo. Although the mining of historically important art to create her own work is nothing new for Levine, there seems to be an especially ferocious torrent of art-history naval-gazing flooding the galleries these days, putting a show like this in awkward spot—has Levine’s art become a cliché of the approach she herself helped to pioneer? There’s a more important problem afoot, though: the work itself. It’s boring.


Miranda Lichtenstein @ Elizabeth Dee

Lichtenstein’s “Screen Shadow” photographs look like simple still lifes, obscured through some clunky computerized filter. In truth, these photos were shot through cut-paper screens—a purely analog distortion. It raises the question: in the digitized world, in the year 2010, how do you make artwork that isn’t somehow about the computer? You can’t, which is the strange situation we find ourselves in, a situation that Lichtenstein approaches with considerable delicacy.


Ana Mendieta @ Galerie Lelong

It’s old news by now that performance and conceptual art tends to live on mainly in photo/film/video documentation. In the case of Mendieta, who died in 1985 at the age of 36 (the reasons are still a cause for debate), the proximate nature of this documentation feels especially sad. Here’s a highly influential performance artist who died very young: those hastily snapped photographs and casually shot super-8 films are, from now on, all we’ll have of these works. It’s almost like the images can’t carry all that weight.


Abelardo Morell @ Bryce Wolkowitz

To create his ongoing series of hotel room photos, Morell rents rooms with amazing views and then turns the whole shebang into a camera obscura, projecting the world outside onto the darkened interior walls. The photographs, then, show postcard-worthy landscapes commingling with chairs and doors and chintzy wallpaper—it’s a wonderfully inventive process and also, let’s admit it, an estimable travel fantasy (can you believe how many fancy hotels this guy gets to stay in?). There’s public vs. private, fantasy vs. reality, the idea of psychological “projection” and such, yes, but the main event, really, is the light: natural, unnatural, shimmering, static, repurposed, uncontrollable, quaint, menacing, primal.


Kristen Morgin @ Zach Feuer

Morgin’s sculptures of pop-culture ephemera—toys and comic books from the ’40s, for example—have a curiously no-frills quality; these old, degraded objects are meticulously re-crafted by Morgin to look like old, degraded objects (with an added dollop of degradation). The darkness and poetry of Morgin’s work can be seen more clearly in her process: she sculpts out of brittle, unfired clay. This is a step beyond your average planned obsolescence—these sculptures are already disintegrating, so that the work in its infancy is also in its death throes.


Wangechi Mutu @ Gladstone

There’s a common thing that a lot of young artists do when they’re just starting to figure themselves out: interventions within mass-media images of women—glamor shots, cheesecake porn, whatever seems to be dictating the currents of desire—often guided by a grotesque or defaced take on the subject. It’s a sort of personal revolt, certainly relevant, but it’s been done before. One of the things I really like about Mutu’s collage/paintings, though, is that this is basically what they are: mass-media glamor shots, defaced with a huge amount of skill, detail, and inventiveness, and with special attention paid to the particular sexualization of black women. Mutu uses clipped magazine images (little bits of gleaming flesh) to create splattered, corporeal grotesques, channeling a litany of horrors and atrocities through one bursting body, a body that sits now before you, under the hot lights, ready for its close-up.


Youssef Nabil @ Yossi Milo

Inspired by mid-century Egyptian movie posters, Nabil’s hand-colored photographs speak of the sort of romance that you can only feel for things in the past, a romance for the dead that is a bit different from straight nostalgia. There’s an unmistakable glamor at play, yet perhaps due to cultural differences, it’s a glamor that I couldn’t connect with, an externalized glamor that left me a bit below room temperature—an unfortunately air-conditioned glamor.


Thomas Nozkowski @ Pace

The funny thing about Abstract painting is that it’s really Concrete painting: instead of signifiers, codes and representations for the world outside the canvas, you’re just given the thing itself—the painting as it is—to make of it what you will. What perhaps makes Nozkowski’s recent paintings so effective, with their lyrical turns, playacting colors, and happy indebtedness to German Expressionism, is that they graciously become their own worlds. They’re really something like good science-fiction stories, these works. As an added bonus, this show includes sketches/studies for each painting, lending a fun, before-and-after effect.


Paul P. @ Daniel Reich

Paul P. achieved art world renown for his small, painted portraits of gay porn stars from the ’70s. If that sounds like a symptom of a once-overheated art market, well, yes, but that’s alright. This exhibition has our Mr. P. turning to landscapes, foliage, and classical motifs, and he paints these things with a haunted sense of restraint, a slow-pulsed slur that borders on outright aloofness. In the end, these paintings project both detachment and sensuousness, but, here’s the thing, without irony.


Roxy Paine @ James Cohan

Paine is best known, at least to New Yorkers, for making the metal tree that was in Central Park for a while, and for having a really cool name. His work tends to be about uneasy alliances between the natural and the artificial, and this new project is no exception: sprawling throughout the gallery, even into the back rooms and the sprinkler system, “Distillation” is a spindly, tree-like vascular growth made from glistening chrome, suggesting a set of internal organs for the building and operating like a display in some otherworldly science museum. Intellectually, it’s not so challenging, but that’s not what it’s aiming for—it’s pushing deeper, simpler, shinier buttons than that.


Raymond Pettibon @ David Zwirner

Often imitated, rarely duplicated, Pettibon is probably one of the world’s most famous artists to work primarily in drawing. He’s had his coolness points for a long time, by creating album covers for several important early punk records, and his inky aesthetic has stayed perpetually hip, so it’s a fine treat, and always something of a surprise, to find that his artwork is bracingly present and honest. Pettibon combines dense, dark drawings—often from a delimited, personal vocabulary of scenes—with fragments of text pulled from a cross-spectrum of deep-reading literature. The results are never entirely easy; they speak of a messy private universe, a male id in slow tantrum, a pit-fight against the void. Naturally, some of the work here feels arbitrary, but it often feels intimate, too. And, if you’re a fan of baseball, surfing or steam locomotives, then you’re really in luck—he draws that stuff all the time.


Adrian Piper @ Elizabeth Dee

This is a mini-retrospective of the legendary conceptual artist, and as a fan of Piper, let me say that I find her work deeply hit-or-miss. Her position as a socially conscious, intellectually committed feminist (she’s also, according to her, the first African-American woman to become a tenured philosophy professor) is always welcome in any art gallery, if you ask me. But then, there’s a faltering, a waywardness—the initial confrontational or conceptual spark of her work dead-ends or dissipates, and we’re left with some out-of-context photographs and self-righteous writing, or something. Her art seems to work best when it can balance anger and understatement, as in her classic video, “Funk Lessons,” on white appropriation of black music, or the installation that asks viewers to confess their psychological shortcomings before altar-like photos of civil-rights protesters. This work will challenge you, even if you’re already on Piper’s side.


Tomas Saraceno @ Tonya Bonakdar

In the 20th century, R. Buckminster Fuller—idiosyncratic engineer and all-around visionary—came up with a ton of stuff that he hoped would create a more livable, sustainable society, much of it involving hexagons, for reasons that I’m sure make sense to somebody. Fuller’s domed buildings, space-age cars, and utopian concepts of unfettered democracy have not passed into the quotidian mainstream of the future we now live in; when Fuller is celebrated these days, it’s as an artist and a dreamer, not so much as a practical scientist. So, like Fuller, Saraceno seems to be really into polygons. His project, as shown here, imagines cities floating above the clouds, in convergent hives that stretch and sprawl like neural pathways; supposedly, it has some grounding in hard science and practicable architecture. As sculpture, it’s OK, but as science fiction, as The Future, it’s exciting. I will note, however, that Saraceno is lucky to be playing to an art world audience, since we’re too ignorant to know whether or not this is all total bullshit.


Collier Schorr @ 303

Schorr initially got art world attention for her big color photographs, of boys engaged in the rituals of sports, that worked as a woman’s adroit explorations of the nascent masculine self. Her more recent work extends her practice beyond straight photography, as she also uses restrained video, found imagery, and low-key performance art to document her experiences as an outsider in a small German town (Schorr is from New York). Masculinity is still key, as is the sense of alienation and externality, and that’s where things get tricky. The problem is one of engagement, of commitment: this is a compelling, diffuse body of work—a flower patch here, a dazed teenager there, a row of seats, a protest banner—that hints at a deeper longing, yet there’s only so much that can be told in hints. Or maybe it just needs to hint harder.


Ilene Segalove @ Andrea Rosen

One of the pleasures of gallery-hopping is finding new treasures from eras you thought you had exhausted. I had never heard of Segalove before, but she made bonafide feminist conceptual and video art in the ’70s and ’80s (though the show’s curator claims she would hate to be labeled a “feminist artist”). In this work, Segalove comes across as something like a less-acerbic Martha Rosler: sardonic and sharp, but also plainspoken, even friendly. The conceptual projects find her comparing herself with historic paintings, sizing up her boobs, and committing that ultimate art-school sin—utilizing Barbie dolls as benchmarks for female glamor (though most peoples’ Barbie-art doesn’t end up getting shown at Andrea Rosen). It’s engaging stuff, but the real treat is the video work: simple, personal narratives on herself, her family, and their relationships with the distortions and fantasies of mainstream media, delivered with a casual, bemused honesty. Even in a world now filled with unfiltered, personal videos, such honesty is disarming—it’s still not the norm.


Paul Thek and Peter Hujar @ Alexander and Bonin

As a complement to his recent museum retrospective, which features some knockout sculptures and some decent paintings, the gallery presents expressionist cityscapes by Thek (1933–1988). Thek was highly conscious of his high-art milieu, and these works are examples of what he referred to as “bad” paintings. Indeed. Far more entertaining are the photographs by famed morbid portraitist Hujar (1934–1987): shots of Thek in his studio, images bursting with irresistible hippie/bohemian romance and suffused with the two artists’ shared intimacy (they were lovers) and shared, profound fascination with the dying.


Dan Torop @ Derek Eller

I’m a bit torn on this one (so maybe I shouldn’t even be writing about it). Torop tries for a delicate balance in his photos—simple, small-scale, earthy images of nature, animals and sometimes people. He seems to want these images to be personal but unimposing, for the subject to be able to breathe and stretch, with just enough intentionality to make the work his own. The problem is that the photos can feel simply too casual or too plain. Perhaps the best way to look at this kind of work is to forget about Flickr and photo albums, or about your own camera, and to imagine that you’ve never seen a photograph before. But, no, that is not our world.


Luc Tuymans @ David Zwirner

Tuymans, with his washed-out color, infirm bodies, and trembling compositions, creates resolvedly, successfully unpleasant paintings. For this series, Tuymans focuses on the lineage of corporate power: an ominous, anonymous boat turns out to be a vessel of the East India Company; a conference room table is made to resemble a polished coffin. These paintings generate a slight but palpable sense of disturbance—exactly their goal, but maybe something of a Pyrrhic victory for us viewers. Tuymans, after all, has taken disconcerting subject matter and used it to make creepy paintings. Where do you go from there?


Michael Wolf @ Bruce Silverstein

Exploring contemporary zones of omnipresent surveillance and inescapable anonymity, Wolf photographs small people in glimmering office buildings and closes in on his computer monitor to capture scenes from Google Street View. There’s nothing terribly innovative about what Wolf does (it already seems old hat for artists to use Google Street View), but he has a keen sense for the comorbid allure and threat of these things, for the uncomfortable familiarity of mirrored windows and pallid, greenish fields of pixels, for embarrassed icons and contested spaces. He approaches things, in other words, like an artist.


Erwin Wurm @ Lehmann Maupin

These sculptures by Wurm depict clothing as a symbol of societal constraint: life-size human forms writhe in their oversized sweaters, while a giant policeman’s cap invites viewers to stand underneath and be blinded . . . by power. The work is highly well-executed, but, other than the police cap, feels too vague in its impeachments. What has gone wrong here? Society as a whole? Human nature? Or is there a particular issue with big, knitted sweaters? What does Wurm have against sweaters? I like sweaters.


Carey Young @ Paula Cooper

Young’s current work focuses on an unusual but highly relevant subject: the politics of outer space. Outer space, you see, is slowly being commercialized, militarized, and polluted, and what once seemed like an ultimate abstraction is becoming part-and-parcel of the economic and political realities of our struggling planet; what once seemed unknowable is becoming tragically known. Young’s installation “Obsidian Contract” includes a black mirror and a legal text (if you look into the mirror, you agree that that space within will be kept in the public domain), while “The Origin of the Seven Stars” contrasts a Wyandot myth on the formation of the universe with a harsh 2004 U.S. Presidential Directive, on the necessity of advancing U.S. power into the stars. It’s confident, provocative and surprisingly lovely work—the rare sort of restrained, lofty art that could actually spur someone into urgent political activism.