Kai Althoff at MoMA (Spike Art Quarterly, #50)

January 9, 2017

Kai Althoff “and then leave me to the common swifts”

Although Kai Althoff moved from Cologne to New York some years ago, this whole-room installation at MoMA is profoundly European in character. A gauzy tented gallery with diffuse light and a rather close, painty smell is furnished with a multitude of different items, as it were, displaced together. They are gently or “domestically” historical, spanning perhaps three generations reaching up until the 1990s, from parasols to chairs and sneakers, presumably mostly from Germany. Over their arrangement along the walls, on stepladders, in glass cases, on partition walls and on low platforms plays a soundtrack also composed by Althoff; this varies from low humming to childish squeaks, creating extra atmosphere around the nostalgic trove that surrounds one like a story.

Treading the white-painted floorboards, one passes by loose groupings of objects and artworks, many of them paintings or coloured-pencil drawings in Althoff’s vivid figurative manner, redolent of Schiele and other early twentieth-century Expressionists. One has a sense of a temporal progression in the way the props go from the more positive and youthful at the beginning – a collection of shadow puppets, for example, or two life-sized stuffed-fabric dolls passed out by a coffee table as if after a twenty-something party – towards more frightening things, such as a metal chair with stirrups and glass panels in place of padding, and, still later, episodic scenes suggesting horror or its aftermath. A wrecked sleeping area with bundled clothes occupies some of the third section of the room, near which rounded objects like large cowry shells spread away from a sort of effigy of red and yellow scraps. Not far off, a black cardboard set-up has a miniature church and blank-windowed buildings, with life-sized footprints stamping past them and, at the edge, a strange deposit of fine coal. After that, the installation quietens into a kind of attic storage. The last wall has a mixture of paintings and drawings hanging on it, while further canvases and boards lie packed up in brown paper to the side.

As this suggests, “and then leave me to the common swifts” carries a pervasive melancholy. It is evident in the taut, Nietzschean attitude of Althoff’s bodies, in the bygone aura of old lace and other familial detritus simultaneously kept and forgotten, in a rather childlike compulsion to arrangement and display, in its abstract noises and the mock purity of its blanched housing, not to mention in its title. It’s impossible to take in this show without also feeling one’s knowledge of the events that unfolded in Europe – particularly Germany – in the period of time these objects collectively recall. The way they have been gathered, somewhere between abandonment and rediscovery, conjures a delicate ambiance evoking pain or distance. While fresh images of displacement, loss and migration increasingly populate the news, this disparate installation reaches for a certain past (not unlike a squatter in MoMA’s otherwise very ordered rooms) in a very personal way. Walking back towards the entrance, one finds oneself wondering about the present and how it can be grasped, if at all.

Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth (Spike Art Quarterly, #50)

January 9, 2017

Untitled, 1971
Ink on paper
27.6 x 35.2 cm / 10 7/8 x 13 7/8 in
© The Estate of Philip Guston
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston “Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975”

In case anyone should suspect too much novelty in the current state of US politics, Philip Guston’s drawings in response to the presidency of Richard Nixon prove that while the present rot may be freshly negative in character, the sense of revulsion is nothing new. While many other exhibitions that opened close to the election pursued their usual brand of introverted conceptualism, Hauser & Wirth realised that there was no time like the present to show this group of works in full for the first time, and rushed the show up a week before Trump’s acceptance speech.

Now, as then, it is unusual to find a fine artist, less still a famous one, producing works of fervent political satire. With expectations that the art world would engage with any politics other than its own at an enduring low, one feels grateful for the wealth of expression on show here – and wishes, perhaps, that someone would match it to portray the incoming US President. The Nixon drawings Guston made in 1971 and 1975 were a reaction on two fronts: to America’s leadership, and to attitudes within the art circle that slammed the turn to cartoonish figuration by this revered exponent of Abstract Expressionism in Guston’s solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Signaling the reign of lumpen tribes of staring heads and pudgy post-classical objects in place of the high, optimistic abstraction of previous years, the show was widely seen as a betrayal of both his artistic abilities and the institution of AbEx.

Holed up with the writer Philip Roth in Woodstock after eight months in Italy (to escape the Marlborough backlash), feeling spat out by the New York scene and disillusioned with abstraction’s phony purity amid the troubled sociopolitical climate of the 1960s, Guston started drawing Nixon. His depiction of the president’s face with a penis for a nose flanked by the bristly scrotum of his cheeks is nothing short of sardonic genius; that the penis grows longer, Pinocchio-like, as time and Nixon’s lies went on is cleverer still.  On show here are some 180 drawings which include Guston’s selection from the “Poor Richard” series (published as a book in 1980) and later works viciously caricaturing his affliction with phlebitis. Two large paintings hung at the start of the exhibition, In Bed II and Alone (both finished in 1971 after the first batch of Nixon cartoons) add existential and painterly mass to the numerous drawings. In them, a characteristic late-Guston figure is seen lying in bed, facing up at the ceiling or down into the pillow, openeyed and block-nosed, anxious.

Among the numerous ink drawings that follow in this historic display, Guston’s aptitude and sentiment are striking. The force of repetition and the simultaneous development of a visual character clearly communicate the passion the artist was able to channel into his subject. There is Nixon recumbent, Nixon by the sea, Nixon ingratiating himself with a blank-looking old couple and a head-banded hippie, Nixon on TV. In some of the best sketches, the president’s full figure is drafted inside the jaws of a gleeful, stylised dragon head (following the news of his plans to visit China), or communes with the swollen triangle-being of Vice President Spiro Agnew and disembodied square spectacles representing Henry Kissinger. The penis-nose doubles up sometimes as a rifle or tank-gun, rests its heavy end on a scroll marked with imagined Chinese script or presses up against a wall.

As in all excellent satire, dismay and energy infuse these drawings in equal measure. During an interview at his studio from a later time, Guston remarks, “What I’m always seeking is some great simplicity where the whole thing is just there and can’t be this and that, and that and that.” Although their backstory is more complicated, the lucid, snorting economy of these cartoons is a brilliant overture to that simplicity, saluting an altogether different type of creative purity.

Not Missing Much: Pipilotti Rist at the New Museum (Sleek magazine, Winter 2016)

November 29, 2016


Beyonce has Pipilotti Rist to thank this year for the image of her striding down a street jubilantly smashing car windows with a baseball bat in the video for Hold Up. The sequence is drawn from Rist’s 1997 video Ever Is Over All, made when the Swiss artist was 35 (the same age Beyonce is now), in which a woman does the same with a plastic flower while a policewoman looks on approvingly. Seen from the vantage point of the present in this 3-floor retrospective at the New Museum, Rist’s work is disarmingly timeless. It speaks to the culture we inhabit, where references swim between genres through the media, bodies and genders are on the line and immersion is key.

Rist’s other works stand up equally well to the present moment. In Mutaflor (1996), Rist wheels about, naked, on the floor while the camera lens zooms into her mouth and out again from her anus. This work is apt for body politics, selfie culture and exposure and sexual expression. It is also a short video projected at our feet, thus contending with the stereotype of video art as a “difficult” (read ‘boring’) medium, both inside the art circle and for the public. Similarly enduring (though it was better installed at MoMA PS1 directly into the floorboards than here, where it plays from an iPhone on the floor), is the strange 6 minute video Selbstlos im Lavabad (Selfless In The Bath of Lava) (1994), in which Rist, again naked, reaches and shouts incomprehensively up to the viewer against a backdrop of digital flames. These idiosyncratic yet confident early works possess a sense of narrative and of an interior world being offered out.

In Rist’s installations as a mature artist, that possible story has been absorbed by a realm of pure sensation. Projections swim on the ceiling, cover whole walls or are cast onto translucent drapes, bathing viewers in oversize footage with oddball, psychotropic soundtracks (Soap&Skin—the musician Anja Plaschgis Rist’s frequent collaborator). At the New Museum, the giant new installation 4th Floor to Mildness epitomizes Rist-world. Visitors lie on beds looking up towards a pair of huge wavy-edged panels (not unlike abstracted water lilies), over which plays a close-up video of underwater scenery replete with swaying, slimy leaves, puffs of algae, silt and other subaquatic stuff, crystal water through which light filters from the near-surface and, occasionally, pale fingertips or a passing nipple. Just as in Mercy Garden (2014) on the third floor and Administrating Eternity (2011) on the second, one has the sense of being received into an environment that is perfectly balanced for the purpose.

Rist’s great popular achievement is this pervasive balance, this seductive sensorial pitch; her outlook is infused with ecumenism. Always skirting the pitfall of spectacle, her work conveys respect for the muculent majesty of the natural world, a humble awe made clear by her love of colour and a vibrantly intelligent sense of humour. Rather than traditional screens confronting the viewer in a black box dialectic, her setups find equal potential in the ceiling, floor and empty volume of a room. One of her expressed aims is for the viewer and image to be on the same level, to “feel like one.” This desire is what makes Rist so prescient and her work so inviting, instinctively grasping a context in which attention is constantly sucked in and spliced between different focal points by all-pervasive media.

Met with so much positive attention for her big installations, Rist thinks her best work is I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, also part of the current retrospective. In this blurred, glitchy student video (made while she was studying in Basel in 1986), Rist dances erratically in a wig and low cut black dress that her breasts mostly spill out of while a squeaky voice sings the first line from The Beatles song Happiness Is a Warm Gun —”I’m not the girl who misses much”—over and over. It’s a video sparked with powerful feminism, mania and pathos, and while her work has grown increasingly popular, Rist has also suggested it has “replaced” her individual personality, coming to represent her entirely. As if mirroring the current condition of human culture, she has been absorbed by media of her own making.

For its innate equality, social fluency and sheer, zeitgeist-ready temptation, then, Pipilotti Rist’s work has universal appeal. Critics over the years have rehearsed the same adjectives: “immersive”, “kaleidoscopic”, “mesmerizing”—almost as if it would be difficult (or dreary) to break the cycle. But while Rist’s oeuvre appears uniquely open and visible on the surface, it contains an element of hiding in plain sight: where is Rist herself, and where are we as individuals in this immersive media world mimicking our own? These are works that signal the real ambiguity at the heart of contemporary experience, if we choose to look for it.

The Unbearable Tightness of Being (Ran Dian, October 2016)

October 9, 2016

“No Cause for Alarm”

La Mama Galleria (47 Great Jones St, New York, NY 1000), Sept 15 – Oct 8, 2016

In a video of his performance “Farming the City”, a caption in amiable white lettering accompanies footage of Tsui Kuang-Yu planting seedlings in the dirt around a tree on the sidewalk; it wonders, “Can we eat things grown here?”

The question is less straightforward than it sounds “here” in the contemporary city, and draws towards it further questions, for example about public and private space, individual agency, need, nature and artificiality, social conduct, economy, and time. “Farming the City” was part of “No Cause for Alarm”, an exhibition of works by eleven artists from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong assembled for the theme of anxiety in contemporary urban life. Curated by Chen Wei-Ching and Ying Kwok, the show envisioned “suggestions and consolations” and a humorous perspective from which to view daily life which, for the majority of people, plays out in a city.

Tsui’s attempt to grow food in the street furniture fails, quashing the suggestion of self-sufficiency (or just some supplementation) without a shop, transaction, and shared habitual structure. “The city seems to be all about how to accommodate to our needs in daily life” (sic.), he muses, with an affected innocence. The sight of his hands patting soil in around the seedlings and their small shock of green among the greyer hues of sidewalk and stoops proves a truthful exercise in relative scale, intimacy, and futility.

Tsui Kuang-Yu,

Tsui Kuang-Yu, “Farming the city”, video still, 2016

Sustainability in cities is less about objective resources than subjective ones, and despite increased interest in mind-clearing self-help activities like yoga in metropolises like New York, people are struggling with what Tony Crabbe recently called “an infinite world” in which work, thanks to technology, is not statistically more, but is always accessible. Wang Ding-Yeh’s painful “Portraits under electric shock” (2014) and “Madness electric shock—Flag song” (2014) could scarcely do more to illustrate the unnatural compulsion to continue and to keep doing under convulsive and ambiguous pressure.

Elsewhere in the show, physical action was put to more sublimely satiric ends. In Musquiqui Chihying’s applaudable video piece “The Jog” (2014), a man runs against the direction of a conveyor towards the checkout in a supermarket; the second video channel in which he stretches in the aisles is surplus to the incisive distillation of flows—at once economic, individual and societal, of leisure and commerce, convenience and resistance—that are conveyed by the runner’s footfalls on the belt. The exhibition text spoke compellingly about the rolling belt implying “the objective of consumption behaviour and the end of movement”, a statement somehow helped by slight vagueness in its English translation.

The shortening and narrowing of perception, too, are general effects of prevalent technology and saturated environments. Elvis Yip Kin Bon’s brilliant wall installation of 260 newspaper clippings, all excerpts from a speech by Qiao Xiaoyang (as former chairman of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [HKSAR] Basic Law Committee), sees each cut away differently and zipped into a cellophane bag. According to Yip, the work is meant as an exercise in defiance against “evidence of a general absurdity” conveyed in Qiao’s words; the scraps provoke the speech to speak against itself by amplifying, isolating, and collaging its quotes into an altogether different medium to better reflect its message. Yip’s work—long and meticulous in method and subversive in effect, opposes different forces that act on perception.

In its use of black to hide content in a video, Ocean Leung’s “Black Shapes” (2016), in which eponymous black areas obscure footage of a fire and billowing smoke on a street at night, also implies a response to this situation by evoking censorship. At first hand, however, one thinks more simply of the challenge to clear, focused vision thanks to the clamor of varied focal points for attention. Nearby, the acrylic and stainless steel wall piece by Chou Yu-Cheng with a deliberately long title (recounting all the words printed at the bottom of the panel)—“Chemical Gilding, Keep Calm, Galvanise, Pray, Gradient, Ashes, Manifestation, Unequal, Dissatisfaction, Capitalise, Incense Burner, Survival, Agitation, Hit, Day Light. II” (2016), aims to look at the socio-political chaos currently contained by capitalism. While these two pieces are fairly literal in responding to the current situation, one wonders whether this isn’t an apt approach.

Writing “In Praise of Idleness” in the early 1930s, Bertrand Russell imagined a world where, thanks to advancements in technology, people need only work for four hours a day, with far more time for productive leisure. Little could he foresee the amalgamation of the two, when so much and so many different economies—not only of money, but also of time and emotion—combine to generate the “infinite world” most prevalent in urban centers. This is a state of being which entails high levels of ambiguity (arguably, this is not acknowledged often enough), and for which there is no real strategy for those overwhelmed by it. Under the droll public service announcement manner of its title, the artists in “No Cause for Alarm” admitted this ambiguity, along with states including inertia, innocence, resistance or absurdity which could arise as a result. More than this, they seem to seek these states as channels for empathy and relief—sensations on which this show finally, if indirectly, insisted.

Musquiqui Chihying,

Musquiqui Chihying, “The Jog”, video still, 2014

Ocean Leung,

Ocean Leung, “Black shapes”, video still, 2016

Yip Kin Bon,

Yip Kin Bon, “Speech from Qiao Xiao Yang on 24th March 2013?, (detail), 260 pieces of newspaper, 2013 – 2015

Chou Yu-Cheng,

Chou Yu-Cheng, “Chemical Gilding, Keep Calm, Galvanise, Pray, Gradient, Ashes, Manifestation, Unequal, Dissatisfaction, Capitalise, Incense Burner, Survival, Agitation, Hit, Day Light II”, acrylic, stainless steel, 140 x 300 cm, 2016

Wang Ding-Yeh,

Wang Ding-Yeh, “Portrait under electric shock” C-print, 100 x 100 cm, 2014

Expo Chicago: First Impressions (Ran Dian)

September 24, 2016

For those who haven’t been before, Chicago is singularly solid, clanking, and built-up; population-wise it ranks in the country’s top three, and in atmosphere it is certainly a Great American City. In the Chicago district near the Expo site, the subway crawls between the rectangular masses of buildings at second floor height, sporadically flashing blue sparks at them; thousands of office windows stare at each other.

The city’s art fair, Expo Chicago, this year in its fifth edition, is contrastingly light amid this overbearing environment. It is inside the Festival Hall on the Navy Pier, which stretches its pedestrian walkway out into Lake Michigan with a ferris wheel, restaurants and boat-tour docks; especially at night, it is a scene straight out of an architect’s rendering for public space. The fair occupies one floor of the Hall with (this year) a very manageable 145 galleries. The list shows no particular bias other than a majority of mid-level American galleries ranging from Chicago locals (for example, Corbett vs. Dempsey, The Mission, and Rhona Hoffman), to Minneapolis, San Francisco, and twelve that are based in LA. There is a small sprinkling of big names (David Zwirner, Daniel Templon, Paul Kasmin, Marlborough, Pace, Perrotin and Matthew Marks) and some edgier offerings from New York (Team Gallery, Bortolami, Maccarone, Salon 94), as well as a couple of engaging booths from further afield (The Breeder, Athens; GRIMM, Amsterdam). The layout is low key and linear, with a rather flat VIP area (in which Rashid Johnson’s works—wooden chairs with blocks of shea butter on their seats—stand awkwardly at neck-height on big white box plinths), and a lifeless (at least during the preview) magazines area along the back wall. The Editions and Books section at the other end is contrastingly good, if quite limited.

The general impression from the fair’s content is of a lot of highly colored painting—if not all of it bombastic, then much is still over-charged. What this does serve usefully to do is to make clear a small number of pieces that are really worth a close look; at least to this pair of eyes, there are some real treasures to be found, some of relatively modest size or status and which feel fairly unusual in the context of a fair. San Francisco’s Crown Point Press has a truly arresting etching from an edition of ten by Bruce Conner (“Dennis Hopper One Man Show Vol. III, Image VI”, 1971–73) in which tiny figures scale a snowy, mountainous landscape depicted in brilliant chiaroscuro. It takes some moments to notice eyes open in the jagged spine of rock running up the middle of the composition. At Alexander Gray Associates there is a metal sculpture by Melvin Edwards, “Good Friends in Chicago” (1972), with half oil-drum-shaped ends and slim trestle legs.

Melvin Edwards,

Melvin Edwards, “Good Friends in Chicago” (1972) at Alexander Gray Associates

Very surprising is the collection of Roy Lichtenstein work at Alden Projects’ booth which includes a flattened-out paper cup design, a “Foot Medication Poster” from 1963, and a framed patch of used wallpaper from 1968. Nearly 50 years later the foil is cracked, but the dots are resiliently intact. Seen at both Jane Lombard Gallery and Rhona Hoffman are works by Michael Rakowitz. At Jane Lombard, a mini-exhibition from the current series May the Obdurate Foe Not Stay in Good Health contains small works coupled with quotations and recollections. The objects, made from the packaging of Syrian foods imported to the US which are increasingly hard to buy in Syria, are reconstructions of artefacts destroyed, looted or at risk amid the civil war. This is an extension of the project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”, compiled in cooperation with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and Interpol’s website, which in turn recreates objects stolen from the National Museum of Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. Not at a gallery but at the Chicago Conservation Center’s side booth is a large vertical graphite and oil wash drawing by Mauricio Lasansky. One of The Nazi Drawings (#19) made in the 1960s, its brutal composition appears gradually, with a naked figure attacked by the harshly-rendered bodies of birds, each a rash of hard lines.

Appealing among the technicolored paintings at the fair is Hernan Bas’s “Who the hell is Robert” (2016), which has a Vuillard feel (at Galerie Peter Kilchmann). Martin Wong’s work, too, is here with P.P.O.W from New York. James Cohan declined to bring any Xu Zhen, whose paintings from the cake-frosting-like series Under Heaven are by now an art fare staple, but did show two Anselm Kiefer works. Of these, “Untitled (Secret Life of Plants)” (2004) is absorbing, its foreground dominated by a deeply cracked clay surface while grey, boxlike towers lilt in the background to the right.

Expo Chicago falls this year at one of the most politically-charged moments in US history. The fair, doesn’t obviously register this—one might say “of course”—unless a proliferation of saturated paintings speaks of escapism. The sales, perhaps, will tell; or not. Meanwhile, the Trump Tower protrudes to a height of ninety-eight glassy floors, just up river.

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Magdalena Abakanowicz for one of the Expo Projects (Marlborough Gallery)

Magdalena Abakanowicz for one of the Expo Projects (Marlborough Gallery)

Michael Rakowitz at Rhona Hoffman

Michael Rakowitz at Rhona Hoffman


Lichtenstein “Foot Medication Poster” at Alden Projects

Mauricio Lasansky at the Chicago Conservation Center

Mauricio Lasansky at the Chicago Conservation Center

Richard Hamilton,

Richard Hamilton, “The Critic Laughs”, 1971-2 at Alan Koppel Gallery

Ren Ri's beeswax sculpture as part of the Projects, brought by Pearl Lam Galleries

Ren Ri’s beeswax sculpture as part of the Projects, brought by Pearl Lam Galleries

David Kordansky Gallery with works by Betty Woodman

David Kordansky Gallery with works by Betty Woodman

Martin Wong at P.P.O.W.

Martin Wong at P.P.O.W.

Hernan Bas at Galerie Peter Kilchmann

Hernan Bas at Galerie Peter Kilchmann

Anselm Kiefer at James Cohan

Anselm Kiefer at James Cohan

A detail of Bruce Conner,

A detail of Bruce Conner, “Dennis Hopper One Man Show Vol. III, Image VI” at Crown Point Press

Lichtenstein wallpaper at Alden Projects

Lichtenstein wallpaper at Alden Projects

New York Hit List: Futures, Lightness and Noir (Ran Dian, August 2016)

August 11, 2016

“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future”

Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014, USA), until Sept. 25, 2016

In about 1969, as he showed photographs he took in Colombian brothels five years earlier, Richard Avedon laid into the then-27-year-old Danny Lyon, asking “Who’s the real Danny Lyon? You photographed civil rights, you photographed prostitutes, you photographed bikers.” Moving through this meticulously hung exhibition of over 150 photographs and films shot by Lyon over his deeply committed career, one could see this attack, in hindsight, as a compliment. Lyon’s huge output is one propelled by a sense of empathy and responsibility to his subjects, which include the Civil Rights Movement (during which he was the photographer for the SNCC), inmates of American jails in the 1960s (shown on film as well as in photographs), motorcyclists in the American Midwest, Lower Manhattan before it was razed to make way for the financial district, street scenes, couples, kids and their dogs, Colombian urchins and rural people in Shanxi, China. Although every lens needs to be pointed, Lyon’s intense documentary impulse serves almost to dissolve one’s sense of his presence. This is an immersive and raw purview that absorbs one in a multitude of small frames.

Danny Lyon,

Danny Lyon, “Shakedown at Ellis Unit, Texas, 1968?, vintage gelatin silver print, 21.6 × 31.3 cm. Museum of Modern Art. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

“MoholyNagy: Future Present”

Guggenheim Museum (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave, New York, NY, USA), until Sept. 7, 2016

Another future-titled exhibition, this large retrospective of László MoholyNagy’s oeuvre, as is customary for Guggenheim exhibitions, attracted comments about the selection of works and what might be missing from it. To the non-scholarly eye, however, this is more than a sufficient introduction to the priorities and energy of the Bauhaus professor who died in Chicago aged 51. The compositions on show are hugely enjoyable, and extend through geometric paintings and a series of deft photographic collages. A stern photograph of Moholy-Nagy from his 1930 “Declaration of Intention” supports the seriousness of his vision—but there is a distinctly playful spirit evident from the works, too.

La?szlo? Moholy-Nagy,

La?szlo? Moholy-Nagy, “A II (Construction A II)”, oil and graphite on canvas, 115.8 × 136.5 cm, 1924. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 43.900 © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Lauretta Vinciarelli: Light Unveiled”

Totah (183 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002), until Sept. 18, 2016

At Totah, a relatively new commercial gallery established by the collector David Totah on Stanton Street in the Lower East Side, there is a memorable exhibition of watercolors by Lauretta Vinciarelli. The late artist’s mastery of her medium is singularly impressive, put towards beautifully subtle renditions of mostly cuboid shapes suspended in a gentle warm and cool palate of emerald greens and shades of orange and blue. The iterative impulse that plays out here is testimony to Vinciarelli’s architectural background (she taught at a number of schools including Pratt and Colombia in New York, and was married to Harvard architecture professor Peter Rowe); meanwhile, the minimal urge behind these paintings speaks in part to her personal and working relationship with Donald Judd, whose complete writings, incidentally, have just been republished.

Lauretta Viciarelli,

Lauretta Viciarelli, “Suspended in Green (A7)”, watercolor on paper, 70.8 x 56.5 cm, 2005.

Pei Li: “Greater New York”

Klein Sun Gallery (525 West 22nd Street New York, NY 10011, USA), until August 19, 2016

Those who saw a sombre installation based on Pei Li’s grandfather’s abandonment of the bonsais he had been tending for twenty years at Taikang Space in 2010 (#9 in the 51m2 exhibition series) will recognize the use of containers of ink combined with sound or vibration in the current exhibition. But the highlight here is a video called “The Moles” in which Pei recounts life with a pet dog who eases her depression. Loneliness, vulnerability, intimacy and the mundanity of daily life are mixed together humbly in this short narrative filmed using a camera attached to the scruff of the dog’s neck; Pei’s themes have not changed, then, but her mood appears lightened in this new work.

Pei Li,

Pei Li, “The Moles”, video still, 2016


Simuvac Projects (99 Norman Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222, USA), until Sept. 4, 2016

Ivy Haldeman’s “Pulp” at the four-shows-deep Simuvac Projects in Greenpoint is arguably one of the best solo exhibitions of the year so far. Haldeman’s first individual outing in New York, it has a brilliantly strong aesthetic using a limited number of elements, namely a “hotdog lady” clad in a soft yolk-colored bun, her high-heeled pumps, and open books pressed beneath tapering pink fingertips. Through a range of poses, Haldeman paints a strange icon fusing tenderness, grace, and disgust in ways that only an intersex anthropomorphic snack at leisure could. Drawing on memories of her grandfather’s takeaways from the plastic factory where he worked, taxidermy, and the physical attitudes of a tired female figure reworked by a procession of artists throughout history but who is now to be found softly reading, the paintings in “Pulp” occupy a supple world of their own.

Ivy Haldeman,

Ivy Haldeman, “Full Figure, Sitting, Hand Pulls Back Bun to Reveal Thigh, Fingers Splayed on Open Book”, acrylic on linen, 24” x 18”, 2016

Danny Lyon,

Danny Lyon, “Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas, 1968?, vintage gelatin silver print. Collection of the artist. © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

“Moholy-Nagy: Future Present”, installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Lauretta Vinciarelli,

Lauretta Vinciarelli, “Incandescent Frames (Study 2)”, watercolor on paper, 57 x 38 cm, 1998.

Pei Li,

Pei Li, “The Moles”, video still, 2016

Ivy Haldeman, Ivy Haldeman, “Pulp”, installation view at Simuvac Projects

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In Character (Ran Dian, July 2016)

July 21, 2016

Song Ta: How is the Weather?

Practice, New York

Jun 30–Jul 10, 2016

smallroom_closeupHere, Song presents his calligraphy along with three pen drawings and one exam paper (not his) with a perfect score that is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a room. Ho King’s thoughtful installation shouldn’t go unnoticed: twists of electrical cable under display screens were deliberately left visible to echo the movement of written characters; in playful acknowledgement of the suggestion that expert calligraphers are  learned in general while less is expected of those who draw well, Song was encouraged to show his cartoons of animals. With simple black line, these deliver a flair for shape and his enjoyment of the demeanors of creatures.The calligraphy (shown mostly as digital images) inscribes unrelated fragments—”Rotate resize select paste drag into wind crab by the street eat what what”—and copies quotations (from Mao Zedong’s “A Little Spark Can Kindle a Great Fire” or the great “wild grass” calligrapher Huai Su’s Autobiography (Zixu Tie)) or other extracts as an excuse to practice writing. That no reason was given for the choice of texts contributed to a certain feeling of detachment around the display—a lack of context (or the need for it) that in some way echoed the mood of its name.

“Perhaps the only decent calligrapher in Mainland China in the past two decades” was Song’s idea for a title. Equipped with this attitude and a trove of gawky, unbalanced, sprawling characters, he put up what could be called a “bad calligraphy” show after Marcia Tucker’s now-historic 1978 exhibition “Bad Painting” at the nearby New Museum, which asserted a positive, liberal attitude to the mixing of art historical references. But while “Bad Painting” featured “artists who consciously reject traditional concepts of draftsmanship in favor of personal styles of figuration” as Song does for his characters—this is certainly a tease aimed at the calligraphy establishment—Tucker also felt the bad painters’ work bypassed aesthetic progress as a goal affecting the determination of value. While his writing is irreverent, Song would like his pieces to be considered and properly appreciated (indeed, he invites their “review”, and the exhibition includes a video of a child remarking on his writing and comments from an artist friend who responded with her own calligraphy). For him, to entertain this calligraphy would be a step forward, though it’s not clear whether he wants this for himself alone, or the discipline in general; again, Song’s sphere of reference is only minimally sketched.

His approach might more simply be a “deskilling” of his own. The term was first used in hindsight (by Ian Burns in his essay “The Sixties: Crisis and Aftermath (Or the Memoirs of an Ex-Conceptual Artist)” in Art & Text in 1981) to appraise artists like Seurat in the late 19th century who invested new energy in their work partly by fritting away at the idea of virtuosity (in so doing, in a sense “de-historicizing their art”); in this lay the kernel of fine art’s challenge by industry and the consequent turn against manual as opposed to machinic or “readymade” effects—one deepened by the possibilities of photography. There followed the self-conscious rejection of technical drawing and other skills at many western art schools.

Though his anti-academic stance is nothing if not low-key, Song clearly has no interest in emulating master calligraphers or perpetuating formalism. Then again, neither do his scrawlings here suggest a path away from the individual hand— quite the opposite. He seems quietly confident, and like a lot of his work, these writings harbor a certain scorn clad in deadpan humor and an inclination to simply do something, and share the results. Song’s amiable, “dysfunctional” characters are thus very much in-character—they best convey an art of attitude, the hopes of which begin and end in the moment of making.

Read it on Ran Dian

Larry Bamburg (Art in America, May 2016)

May 19, 2016

Larry Bamburg: TalctoTile, PL’d to MDO

Simone Subal, New York

Feb 14 – Mar 20, 2016

LB-TalctoTileTower, from a unstable foundation_1

A saccharine, minty scent greeted visitors to Larry Bamburg’s solo exhibition. It emanated from three large, weighty, pastel-colored forms standing on the floor, two centrally placed so that viewers could walk around them, and one positioned to the left against the wall. These sculptures, from Bamburg’s “TalctoTile” series (all works 2016), were composed by stacking four-inch-thick layers of bathroom tiles (some oriented frontally, as on a wall, and some side-on) and handmade soap. Each work is topped with a piece of raw talc, the shape of which dictated the contours of the layers beneath it.

TalctoTile PL’d to MDO, shown in Pink might remind one of topographic models of hills, while TalctoTileTower, from a unstable foundation has the look of a strange, leaning, six-foot-tall pink cake. The colors of the tiles and the soap mimic the tones of the talc, so that the works are solid masses of pale pink, yellow, or green. Each of the sculptures bears a range of textures, from the smooth, clean surfaces of the tiles at the base to the central portion of soft, greasy soap to the dry craggy formation of talc at the top. Bamburg made the soap with tallow, lard, and different animal fats. I was told by gallery staff that TalctoTileTower, from a unstable foundation is “three cows’ worth.” A framed sketch for that work highlights those slaughterhouse origins in a scrawled inscription: “meat glue.”

According to the press release, these works began with Bamburg’s interest in the unresolved relationship between an original and its copy. The show included a series of color studies of a cross-section of a mulberry tree. A piece of bark was encased in a wall-hung vitrine. Framed photographs of the same bark appeared alongside it, and color charts were hung beneath them. Analogously, the “TalctoTile” sculptures echo the outline of a piece of mineral without copying it precisely. Yet it’s hard to see the soap works merely as formal experiments in copying, given the sensory associations with domestic and private experiences and Bamburg’s playful twists on form and meaning. The sculptures’ minty smell conjures memories of bathing, cosmetics stores, and hotel bathrooms. SeasShellSoap, shown in Peppermint takes the shape of a giant clam shell, as if to parody conventional molded soaps. The fatty texture of soap dimples when coerced into a sculptural body, rather like human skin. Bamburg’s use of FDA-approved dyes makes the works safe for domestic use, as if such a function were necessary now. While bathroom tiles usually line interiors, Bamburg places them on exteriors. The physical memory of such tiles as markers of a private enclosure is turned inside out in these public objects.

TalctoTire, shown in Black—a dirty pile of old tires, trash bags, acrylic sheeting, and other detritus—was positioned in a corner, and visitors would most likely have noticed it only on their way out of the gallery. It left a black smear on the wall behind it. An antithesis to the clean, benign forms that otherwise pervaded the exhibition, the work suggests that the mild horror attending them—and not just a play with concepts of original and copy—is indeed part of the artist’s intention.

Justin Berry (Art Review, May 2016)

May 15, 2016

Justin Berry: Photographs

Essex Flowers, New York

4 March – 10 April 2016


For some years, Justin Berry has been shooting landscapes from within videogames. The ten photographs in this exhibition (all but one in black and white) have each been stitched together from 100 or more high-resolution shots taken while playing a first-person-shooter game. Using the game’s built-in camera, Berry takes the photographs at moments when his player’s weapon is lowered, leaving an unobstructed view of the surrounding environment. The pictures include scenes of human settlement (sometimes ruined) in rural settings, natural vistas (for example a path through trees with majestic mountains ahead) and land- scapes seen through simple courtyard buildings in a vaguely oriental style. People are visible in only two of the photographs: one is barely noticeable, while in Perch (all works 2016), a figure sitting atop a wall is a focal point in the composition.

Printed in a square format and simply framed, the photographs are of modest size. Berry could easily have presented large images in the high-definition his method affords, but it’s not his intention to immerse the viewer in a given scene; his chosen scale instead invites one to contemplate the landscapes as contexts in relation to our own. Their scenes are fairly still, lacking the more ominous feel of Berry’s earlier works, such as Tail Wind or Last Palm (both 2012, not on show), in which waving palms in heavy jungle evoke a sense of impending drama or threat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now (1979). The most visually effective work (and the poster image for the show) is Cap, in which a rocky outcrop is seen partially covered by drifts of snow that contrast powerfully with its dark layers. The dense textural detail and striking chiaroscuro between snow and graphitecoloured rock add up to a rewarding image.

It is not part of Berry’s design to include any element of trickery or trompe l’oeil in the production of these photographs. In a spirit of experimentation, he produces images that tread an undetectable line between submission and suspicion in the eye of the viewer. In these landscapes, he tests photographic conventions, a certain artworld discomfort reserved for virtual reality and digitally generated work, and what can only be described as a human urge to fully understand what is seen. Berry challenges one’s suspension of disbelief, which in a videogame is offered willingly but becomes brittle when presented with these frozen scenes IRL (‘in real life’). Here one is compelled to figure the scenes out by minutely examining their nonreality.

This tension between belief in the imagery and a rejection of it as unreal is most effectively staged in the contrast between More or Less, an enticingly natural alpine scene under dappled light, and Perch, which confronts one with an obviously fake figure. Through the virtual landscapes he shoots in acute detail, Berry explores ill-defined territory between perception, interpretation, expectation and dismissal – in his own words, seeking ‘to look at the virtual world with the same kind of steady gaze one applies to the real world’. The photographs are arguably addressed to that most human satisfaction in naming what is, and what isn’t, and serve to question the com- pulsion for such ‘knowing’ in this day and age. Humour, too, features in what could be a sardonic reaction to attitudes that take the ‘real’ seriously while dismissing the virtual (according to the press release, ‘in order to get the pictures he wanted, Justin Berry had to kill more than one person’). This ongoing series signals a personal quest upon which he has embarked through the conventions of imagemaking and interpretation. It questions why landscape photography should be insulated from the glare reserved for everyday reality.

A Scratching Not a Biting (Art Review, Mar 2016)

March 15, 2016

A Scratching Not a Biting

Bureau, New York

10 January 10 – 14 February 14 2015


The words ‘A Scratching Not a Biting’ evoke wilful action and physical sensation. Picture a dog scratching purposefully at the ground, creating both a performance and a visible mark. ‘Not a biting’ suggests an avoidance of direct aggression, however; despite their expressive or sensual tenor, the works in this exhibition – which encompass performance (captured on video), painting, sculpture and photography – don’t force their presence or stray far from a sense of humour or self-effacement.

Like that scratching dog, the motivation behind Aaron Garber-Maikovska’s movements in the video Kitchen (2011) remains unclear. Nonetheless, the fervent gestures he performs in a nondescript kitchen are highly compelling. He homes in on the bare countertop, slapping it with his palms, plotting swiftly with his fingertips and bouncing his hands as if follow- ing an invisible plan, almost as if the surface were hot to the touch. In this wordless demonstration one senses that the strength and determination of his actions, which flow without pause, are born not of forethought but of an obsessive compulsion he has come to accept and to use. These movements appear refined by the force of habit and repetition; the sound of his gasps and short breaths adds to this atmosphere of urgency and dynamism.

Garber-Maikovska’s performance is echoed nicely in three of his ink-and-pastel compositions (all 2015), whose coloured patches and black swipes testify to the energy that drives his artistic  output. Two oil paintings by Charlie Billingham, Strike 1 and Strike 2 (both 2015), express a similar expressive force, though this time it is contained within the subject matter and its implicit narrative: in each painting a figure in profile, the head and legs of which have been strangely cropped, hugs its torso tightly, giving off an air of stubborn anticipation; the paintings are hung next to each other so that the figures appear to be standing back-to-back. What looks like a truncheon is thrust beneath their arms, and the unruly, outdated clothing combined with a certain cartoonish handling implies that these are characters culled from nineteenth-century satirical drawings. The paintings are compelling not least for this unusual air of anachronism and the swapping of colours between them: denied any background context, one figure wears a blue shirt and is placed against an emerald green field; the other sports a shirt of the same green against a background of the matching blue.

The work of the other three artists in the show is loosely conversant in a different way. Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel work together, often learning a new craft technique for the purpose of making something as a combined effort. Their humbly titled Stoneware Mural with Pipes No. 2 (2015) is an uncanny piece. From a roughly two-metre-wide landscape panel composed of fired ceramic tiles in varying shades of yellow and light brown protrude ten curved or comically straight-stemmed pipes attached to the tiles by their bowls. Their placement is odd,  and without apparent reason, reminding one perhaps of crustaceans that have affixed themselves to a sea wall. They point across the room towards two sculptures, demurely titled Stoneware Vessels (2013), also by Dewar and Gicquel, which are modelled on a toilet bowl and bidet. The wall flanking the Stoneware Vessels displays two untitled photographs by Carina Brandes, in each of which two naked figures recline and slide over a bronze bear statue. Slightly blurred, the people strive to cling to the polished, rounded body of the animal (a form slightly echoing the Vessels), while each person’s gender is kept hidden. We see only their forms in profile, torsos curled over with their behinds facing each other (echoing Billingham’s figures), or holding on by the hips, legs bent with hair falling over their faces. One detects a deliberate play by the exhibition’s organisers here between phallic pipes, bathroom-related sculptures and these slippery, noir-ish bodies.

In tune with its title, which conveys expressive curiosity over conclusive action, A Scratching Not a Biting assembles a group of works that might at first seem ambiguous in their intentions. As one explores the show, however, subtle connections – between figures who don’t face each other, for example, the shapes of bathroom ware and bodies, or move- ments exacted on a kitchen surface or canvas – reveal simultaneously the strength of each artist’s work and an intriguing cadence of sensations among them.