Harp & Altar
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Matthew Henriksen

Patrick Morrissey

Michael Newton
The Galleries

The Galleries
Michael Newton

New York, October–November, 2008


Adel Abidin @ White Box

With brochures, TV commercials, posters, and websites, Abidin, an Iraq-born artist, presents a phony travel agency hawking unpleasant vacations in Baghdad. The sarcastic commingling of chirpy salesmanship and upsetting images—an infomercial-style pitch over grainy footage of burning buildings, let’s say—is a timeworn and lazily effective confrontational strategy. But Abidin goes a step beyond by utilizing horrific, no-fucking-around video and photographs of Iraqis suffering at the hands of occupying forces. Now that’s effective, whether you like it or not.


Abstract Expressionism—A World Elsewhere @ Haunch of Venison

I was walking down the street and randomly ducked into this gallery, and suddenly I was surrounded with the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and, a personal favorite, Ad Reinhardt. One of those small miracles of life in New York (there are arguably some uncomfortable political/financial issues with this gallery, but let’s not dwell on that for now).


Tomma Abts @ David Zwirner

Abts’ intimate approach to abstract painting—she keeps her small canvases close to her body, works on them for months, and gives them funny pet-names—is romantic in the sense of the idealized life of the artist and also in the neurotic sense of interpersonal romance. You can feel some frustration in this work—like Abts has spent time arguing and fighting with these paintings, like she’s spent time hating them, just as you would anything you love (or at least, anything you’re in love with).


Rita Ackermann @ Andrea Rosen

When I was younger I was pretty enamored of Ackermann’s artwork: the insouciance, the gore, the flat-out coolness. Here was someone in the midst of conquering the art world with a bratty punk bravado and acerbic feminist pluck, and she was even in a goth-metal band and buddies with Kim Gordon. As it happens, we’ve both gotten older. Whereas Ackermann’s earlier paintings went for a clear-cut, illustrative graphic sensibility, her more recent work is either more complex or just more complicated, depending. Ackermann’s aesthetic has so much to do with youth, and so much of that just doesn’t age well. Her work still has strength, but it doesn’t pack the prize-fighting belly-punches it used to; at least, not for me.


Doug Aitken @ 303

Presented on three billboard-sized screens, Aitken’s new video project gives us beautiful American animals, stuck in some boring motel somewhere. A horse watches TV, while a buffalo stamps on the carpet and birds ruffle the bedsheets. The project is perhaps an illustration of how modern consumer culture both awakens (feeds on) and suppresses (deadens) our latent animal instincts. Appropriately or no, there’s also a whimsical, frisky quality here that wouldn’t be out of place in a car commercial (Hey, a beaver in a bathtub!). However deep the symbolism goes, Aitken’s much-admired filmmaking sensibilities and his legendary technical persnicketiness are as keen and effective as ever—this is a great piece just to watch.


Diana Al-Hadid @ Perry Rubenstein

Big, complex, dripping, sepulchral sculptures inspired by the Tower of Babel, medieval labyrinths, and contemporary nuclear physics. I’m not sure that Al-Hadid’s art quite lives up to the lead-heavy symbols she employs, but that seems like a silly concern in the face of such remarkably ambitious art. It’s so ambitious, in fact, that I’m willing to concede to any problem I have with these works as being strictly my own fault.


Carl Andre @ Paula Cooper

Rather simplistic new work by Andre involves rectangular forms out of aligned columns of western red cedar (the show is called “Western Red Cedar”). The forms feel a bit like coffins, or altars, and I approached them expecting that there was some scary, important thing at their core, something these bolts of lumber fenced and guarded out of hard necessity. But, no—just the painted, gray gallery floor, and a little bit of dirt and woodchips, which I suppose are important enough for now.


Shimon Attie @ Jack Shainman

In “The Attraction of Onlookers,” Attie circles his video camera around bright scenes of ordinary people doing what they do—a convenience-store clerk waits behind her counter, an old lady watches her TV—so they do these things while rotating, their life-sized projected forms filling up the darkened gallery. Artists in general are not known for their compassionate depictions of bourgeois townsfolk, but Attie’s work feels radiant, suggesting a fully-fleshed historical presence. And the eerie stillness of Attie’s subjects generates an accessible and not unkind field of spectatorship—a Madame Tussauds of the everyday.


Mike Bayne @ Morgan Lehman

In these small—almost snapshot-sized—photo-realistic paintings of semi-rural North American dilapidation, there are tiny details that gain force through their very fineness. A string of Christmas lights, say, or a church steeple, or an orange traffic cone. These little details gather momentum, become almost shocking. All in all, a surprisingly powerful show.


Zoe Beloff @ Bellwether

In “The Somnambulists,” Beloff updates 19th-century huckster tricks into innovative video theater: video “actors” appear in miniature wooden sets, some in 3-D, even. Beloff’s little plays involve appropriately old-timey tales of psychotherapy and mania. The work perhaps winks a little too aggressively at the viewer, is too satisfied in its own half-ironic quaintness, but that’s forgivable: if more art were this ambitious, the world would be a better place. Also, Beloff’s project raises some provocative questions as to the changing cultural values inscribed in madness.


Olaf Breuning @ Metro Pictures

Breuning is one of those artists who try to split the difference between their puerile, hungry id and their conscientious, worldly intellect. The predictable dangers of such work is that it ends up sarcastic and affectless—neither particularly visceral nor smart (“Hey, look how I feel sometimes—isn’t that so stupid? Ha, ha.”) Breuning’s elaborate composite tableaux have a built-in failsafe: they require lots of planning and time, and tend to be visually rewarding no matter what. With this show, Breuning moves a bit toward the quick, the dashed-off, the quasi-automatic: all along the walls are goofy, absurdist cartoons a la David Shrigley, on such subjects as animal-stacks (a dog on top of a shark on top of an alligator, for instance) and the exact extent to which Breuning is obsessed with boobs. These works are not without their charms, but they can’t compare with the photo-composites: bold, complex images that totally steal the show.


Jonathan Calm @ Caren Golden

I got to know Calm’s work through his photographs, of New York City housing projects reflected in rainy puddles and shards of broken glass. There are some of those in this show, but mainly it’s installations out of old-fashioned TV sets and chintzy shelves. Footage of young men firing guns right at the viewer gets juxtaposed with flickering gray static; a three-tiered stack of TVs show a condemned apartment complex as it collapses to the ground in syncopated sequence. This show proves that Calm has the gift that all artists envy: the ability to turn simple concepts into sophisticated, emotionally resonant and politically charged projects. There’s an unwieldliness to some of his source material, like a forties-era urban-renewal propaganda reel (“The slums mean disease and crime!”), but Calm’s work operates on so many levels that a bit of bluntness might be okay now and then.


Long-Bin Chen @ Frederieke Taylor

Carved out of New York City phone books, busts of historical figures including Julius Caesar, Abe Lincoln, and the Buddha are arranged around the perimeter of a model-train track. The train is equipped with a tiny video camera, and as it goes around and around, the funny, distorted heads of these Great Men are projected onto the wall (as is your own funny, distorted head, you Great Man you). It’s fun and endearing, but it feels utterly arbitrary. Why these particular figures? And why have their likenesses been sculpted out of phone books? And why is there a train going around them? And why does the train have a camera in it? And why does . . . oh, forget it.


Martha Colburn @ James Cohan

In “Myth Labs,” an animated film, Colburn presents a theoretically provocative take on American history—that is, it presents some provocative theories that will, in theory, provoke somebody. Mayflower pilgrims deal drugs with the natives, a black meth-head gets nailed to a cross, and Christ himself is posited as the ultimate meth dealer. The film is jazzy and propulsive, the cut-paper animation looks amazing and, if you’re not among those theoretically provoked, the subversive heresy is pretty fun. But what is Colburn’s polemical message? We may as well look to the press release: “[Colburn is] equating the fanaticism of religious zealots to the compulsion of addicts.” There you go.


Berlinde De Bruyckere @ Yvon Lambert

Spindly, scary, mutilated human forms create an agreeable horror-show to be respectfully ogled and then run away from. My sense of these sculptures is that they’re an interpretation of historical, anti-human atrocities; given that, it’s actually somewhat of a familiar approach to depicting atrocity, but that’s probably because history itself makes atrocity far too familiar.


Stan Douglas @ David Zwirner

Inspired by the dehumanized bureaucracies of Kafka, the looping futilities of Beckett, and the endless lunacy of racism, Douglas has created a film, “Vidéo”, in which a Josef K.-like everywoman endures the machinations of a corrupt, dominant system. For the lazy filmmaker, Kafka presents an easy, anti-authoritarian position. This could have been a problem for Douglas, except that he adds a more direct, political dimension, giving his story a critical edge. The ultimate idea (one of them at least) seems to be this: for groups of people who experience the law as an untouchable, unjust monster, Kafka’s absurd court system doesn’t seem so far-fetched.


Judith Eisler @ Cohan and Leslie

I had some misgivings about this show when I heard what it was: paintings based on photographs of images on TV screens. That sort of simulacra-of-a-simulacra-of-a-simulacra approach can get old very fast and lends itself to academicized detachment—a popular deactivation. The television in Eisler’s work is not such a blunt, commanding fact—it’s a medium; Eisler’s paintings are smart quasi-abstractions (a la Gerhard Richter), with that hazy, cathode ray glow as more felt presence than rendered object. The overall effect is reminiscent (in a good way) of being home alone, watching bad late-night TV. What could be more democratic than that?


Kota Ezawa @ Murray Guy

Ezawa makes simplified digital animations based on preexisting footage, affectionately softening the blunt force of archived media. So far, much of Ezawa’s work has been sourced off of familiar (though certainly appealing) art-intellectual mainstays: French film, historic photographs, Susan Sontag. With “Brawl,” Ezawa goes a bit into Paul Pfeiffer territory, creating a filmic animation of the infamous 2004 “Malice at the Palace” NBA fistfight. The original footage has been circulated and re-circulated, on TV and the internet, as a grainy, harsh-lit, trainwrecked mess of visceral macho aggression. Ezawa’s film turns the event into an elegant cartoon: a placid spectacle with a unified color palette, willfully distorting the truth of violence and, well, malice that ripples beneath the surface. There’s quite a bit here about how we respond to, mediate, mythologize, and avoid violence; also, it’s nice to look at.


Paul Feeley @ Matthew Marks

These nine paintings from the early sixties by Feeley show an open, curvy approach to Color Field abstraction. Maybe part of this comes from knowing that these paintings are several decades old, but I did feel a sense of exploration and curiosity from these works—something that often goes missing from the cloudy, jaded, know-it-all sensibilities that fill galleries these days (though don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that things used to be better—I hate when people say that).


Yevgeniy Fiks @ Winkleman

Not even twenty years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20th-century Communist ideology (and methodology) feels woefully passé—the stuff of tattered old pamphlets and brittle, gray-toned newspaper clippings. Russian-born artist Yevgeniy Fiks responds to the shameless marketing of kitschy Communist souvenirs with his “Adopt Lenin” project. Here, Fiks presents an assortment of Lenin-imbued gewgaws (copper busts, black-and-white photos, paperback books) that are available to gallery-goers at no monetary cost, provided they sign a statement certifying that they will never, ever sell their object. The act of removing Communist memorabilia from the market does make for powerful symbolism, but by filling a gallery with old-fashioned Soviet junk, Fiks may be reinforcing the idea of Communism as naught but a quaint or irrelevant approach to actual world problems. We must all hold vigilant against becoming the very thing we fear (if Communism has taught us anything).


Charles Gaines @ Kent

In “Manifestoes,” Gaines uses a (fairly arbitrary and also John Cage-ian) system of automatic notation to translate four important revolutionary texts, including manifestoes of the Black Panthers and the Zapatistas, into an appealing musical score. Sometimes I forget that such documents of revolution, calls to arms, statements of radical purpose, were part and parcel of real-life, practical revolts and mass movements of oppressed peoples—they weren’t just around for the edification or interest of a romantic avant-garde, coteries of smart people that don’t actually know how to plan a revolution. It’s not Gaines’ fault: we embrace these things however we can, because there are now totalistic systems of control that seem too big and complicated to even fight. I’m not sure how this kind of artwork changes the situation (assuming, as I like to, that it does have an effect).


Jeff Gabel @ Spencer Brownstone

Gabel’s sketchy pencil-portraits and loopy, shapeshifting, neurotic sentences—dense little slashes of literature—come precipitously close to perfection. Gabel’s authorial position as a spirit-questing library rat suggests a road to mystical truths: the deeply felt hope that there are answers out there, alchemized with the seething perplexity of not knowing what those answers are. So, it is with a bit of sadness that I report that Gabel’s most recent work is mainly a reflection of the gallery world itself. It works out, though: the art world is pretty interesting, after all, and Gabel’s work has the power to actually offend art-worlders rather than just congratulate them (read: us) on their prodigious insider knowledge. If Gabel wrote a book, I would buy it at full retail price.


Ryan Gander @ Tanya Bonakdar

A haphazard pile of brass tubes with a fragile, formal bond to an old Nokia ringtone; a shrinkwrapped pallet of colorful, shredded paper; the haunting remnants of some shattered fluorescent bulbs; a professionally produced animated film with voiceover narration that endlessly questions the relationships between performer, producer, and viewer. Gander deals with conceptual histories, the ineffable intellectual legacies left by works of art—he doesn’t seem to mind if no one but him knows what those legacies are. This is the blessing and the curse of these projects: at their best, they feel like the work of an intelligent artist in love with ideas; at their worst, like the work of an artist in love with his own intelligence.


Andreas Gursky @ Matthew Marks

The guy who is the best German taker of big, giant pictures is Andreas Gursky. (Was there a better way to phrase that? Oh, well.) Gursky does not claim to be a documentarian—indeed, his images are often Photoshopped to achieve harmonious compositions and to heighten the hyper-detailed gestalt. Though it looks like some sort of architectural simulation, the pictures here are purportedly of a real space: The Cocoon, an ultramodern dance club in Frankfurt with glowing, voluptuous, hive-like walls. The seas of sweaty clubbers at their ravenous, lizard-brained best make a fine counterpoint to the systemic, digitally realized, high-concept architecture. It all goes back to the rifts between human-made systems and individual humans—a perpetual theme in Gursky’s oeuvre.


Jane Hammond @ Galerie Lelong

Digitally compositing (again: Photoshopping) found photographs into absurd, lightly sneering tableaux: it’s an ostensibly “new” approach to art that has already engendered its own mass of shopworn clichés. Yet Hammond, an experienced artist who is herself new to the technology, brings fresh air to the medium with deeply imagined, surreal scenarios. It would be stupid to try to describe any of the individual pictures, but I’m going to anyway: a car with a yoke of dead deer tied to the hood, cruising through a glittering early-sixties main drag; a dilapidated quasi-Soviet apartment complex with the residents all standing on their balconies, holding oversized model airplanes; a figure-drawing class gathered around a family of naked acrobats. Hammond has things to teach us.


Midori Harima @ Honey Space

In a darkened gallery: what looks like a projected image of a Victorian carousel, evoking dimensional space through some trick of the light. Upon closer look: it’s an actual, life-sized sculpture of carousel parts, with a simple, shimmering projection floating on top of it. The perceptual loopiness combined with the carousel glyph—a strained but potent allegorical beasty—make for a unique gateway to childish incapacity—confusion and powerlessness. And, it’s rather startling as a sort of reverse trompe l’oeil: the illusion itself proves to be illusory.


David Harrison @ Daniel Reich

In work that is painterly, colorful, and a bit muddy, Harrison, a London-based artist, combines figures from English folklore and legend with a modern-day semi-bohemian aesthetic. It’s not a bad idea, but I felt a bit smacked in the face a few times here—such as, the lascivious bearded centaur with a bottle of wine and a massive hard-on. I mean, yeah, I get it.


Al Held @ Paul Kasmin

Nothing ages quite so dramatically as old visions of the coming future. I know that’s not strictly what Held’s paintings are, but let’s be honest here.


Arturo Herrera @ Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Herrera is probably best known for his singular approach to appropriated pop iconography—drawings and sculptures that zero-in on the lyrical linework of old cartoons, turning Sneezy the dwarf, let’s say, into some sort of oracle or power source. In general, Herrera’s work is very formal, relying on heavy lines and solid fields of one or another kind; his work in this show involves hanging felt and squished aluminum, prioritizing chance over diligent composition. I don’t think I like that element: what’s wrong with good, old-fashioned intentionality? Nothing, that’s what.


Nic Hess @ The Project

This show was across the street from an exhibition by Giuseppe Penone, a first-wave Arte Povera artist. The sort of modern-day associative-accumulative sculptures made by Hess (and numerous others) have a lot to do with Arte Povera—they both rely on unglamorous and discarded materials and a deliberately ragged aesthetic. Arte Povera, though, tended to be about distilling sculpture to a constitutive core—an ascetically spare approach. The current accumulative stuff often feels excessive, as if someone had an apartment just filled with consumable crap (ew), leaving them with no outlet but to try and stick it all together into sculpture. As for Hess, there are some art-historical nods and some smirky little gags, and a number of smart/hidden references to Hess’s native Switzerland that I certainly couldn’t pick out. My favorite project here was a shelf crowded with chess pieces (suggesting a bit of Haim Steinbach), which also felt to me like the most clearly deliberate work in the show.


Shane Hope @ Winkleman

Predictably, my immediate thought here was that all the art in this show had recently been taken down, as there was nothing on the walls except for some of those little “temporarily removed” placards and some descriptive text. Of course, those little placards and descriptions are the art—and, didn’t I feel like a schmuck. Hope uses witty, phony techspeak (“wikipaintings,” “emanciparty,” “infection/artist mappawarez”) to suggest a suite of imagined, unviewable artworks. The effect is something like a walk-in scene from a sci-fi novella achieved, remarkably, with a minimum of technical tools (ink, paper, some space on the wall to hang the paper on). Why don’t more artists do this kind of thing?


Matthew Day Jackson @ Nicole Klagsbrun

Inspired by Borges and by intellectual history in general, Jackson’s newer work forgoes the crafty image-interpolation of his earlier stuff, opting instead for a more slapdash jumble of symbols and forms. There, the Tower of Babel, and there, the “And Babies?” poster, and there, a Bruce Nauman print. I couldn’t help but feel that Jackson’s composites are potentially corrosive or destabilizing—they seem to make the mass of ideas bouncing around inside feel uniformly useless, rather than collectively important. That’s not really where I want to go.


Eunice Kim @ Canada

Kim works in an idiom of complicated, detrital accumulation that is, admit it, kind of a big thing right now. Time will tell what criteria develops for this sort of work; for now, it seems to function best when it combines disparate symbols to achieve a mystical or holy quality. Kim’s particular symbols feel uncared for: a patriotic shopping bag, a tacky faux-chandelier, artificial ostrich feathers. These things don’t feel like they were very relevant to Kim, and they’re not relevant to me—so, who are they relevant to?


Joseph Kosuth @ Sean Kelly

A suite of influential early work by Kosuth, the conceptual-art innovator who, for better or worse (I would say better), helped bring an austere, heady, language-laden and highly theoretical approach into the art-historical canon. Included in this show is Kosuth’s famous 1970 installation “Information Room (Special Investigation)”—a reading room, tables and chairs, where viewers are invited to sift through piles of books, newspapers, and magazines. Remarkably, the installation has been recreated using many of the same books and periodicals as before—that is, the same physical volumes that were selected in 1970; the then-current copies of the New York Times now yellowed and old-fashioned, the books of linguistic theory and leftist prognostication now looking like a charming, nostalgic throwback to old-left academia (though much of the actual writing is probably still relevant). Included in the piece is an informative (ha ha) 1970 Times article by Peter Schjeldahl, on conceptual art in general and Kosuth in particular, in which Schjeldahl skillfully lambasts the arrogance of “Information Room” (it’s true) as well as the naive pomp of the then-25-year-old Kosuth’s end-of-art theorizing (that’s true as well, though of course Schjeldahl was only 28). He also mentions that, like it or not, this kind of art will end up being influential and important—he was right about that, too.


Katarzyna Kozyra @ Postmasters

In Kozyra’s video and photographs, a lanky drag queen and several cross-dressing dwarves play their parts in a grotesque and basically incomprehensible folktale. It’s good to see artists embracing the blood-stained roots of modern-day sanitized fairy stories, but there’s a lack of familiarity here that veers dangerously close to cruelty. Really, there’s not much to let us know that Kozyra isn’t just poking fun at marginalized people, and you don’t need to go to an art gallery to see that kind of thing.


Sean Landers @ Friedrich Petzel

Each of the twelve video monitors in Landers’ “Set of Twelve” installation show Landers himself, ranting into the camera in that baseline-pissy way that people sometimes do, looking for all the world like the latest YouTube vlogger whose videos you have no intention of watching. Interesting thing, then, that these videos were shot in 1990, before there was any such mainstream culture of confessional video monologue. This sort of prescience would perhaps be more compelling if it were a more pleasant experience, that of standing in a room while twelve peevish, hungover guys yell at you.


Nalini Malani @ Arario

A sprawling show of paintings and installations by Malani, an Indian artist who, for better or worse, is unafraid to bring out some loaded symbols: guns, fetuses, Brahman bulls, fighter jets, screaming women, Cassandra, Coca-Cola. The paintings can be overwhelming. Malani’s vision seems better-suited to the video installations, which put choppy animated graphics and simple, hypnotizing shadow-casts toward anti-colonialist polemics and mythic-symbolic agglomerations. Myths are structured to survive strong currents, and that’s true even when you don’t know exactly what the myths are.


Christian Marclay @ Paula Cooper

A series of cyanotype photograms show arrays of unspooled audio cassettes: see-through husks spewing cobwebbed strands of magnetic tape in a grief-stricken shadowplay. It’s a simple-enough idea, so why didn’t you think of it first? In another room: a video called “Looking for Love” in which Marclay, himself an early innovator of proto-turntablist audio theatrics, subjects some overproduced love songs to crude, analog remixing at 45 rpm. Again—it sounds gimmicky, but there’s a power to those old songs, and it manifests even when they’re reduced to wailing, schmaltzy little bursts.


Robert Melee @ Andrew Kreps

In much of Melee’s earlier work, he utilized his mother as both a subject and as a sort of method: she appeared in videos and photographs doing weird things in grotesque make-up, sometimes even taking a spot at the gallery for a scantily-clad stint as a living sculpture. This work, with its sadistic flavor, suggested a relationship of mutual love and mutual cruelty—probably like your own family, but a touch more screwed-up. Melee has moved away from his mother, as it were, and his more recent work involves gaudy interventions within a less-specific suburban milieu. Some of this, like a housewife-y electric stove bisected with a garish, drooping abstract painting, suggests a sort of mother’s nightmare queer subjectivity descending on an unsustainable social fantasy; but overall, the act of an artist criticizing traditional middle-class domesticity is not all that interesting, in and of itself.


Matthew Monahan @ Anton Kern

I first saw Monahan’s work at the 2006 Whitney Biennial, where it usassumingly blended in with all the other heaped, broken-looking work there. I don’t totally blame myself for having been dismissive of Monahan’s art, but I see now that I made a mistake. Monahan is influenced (heavily) by the holistic unity of classical figurative sculpture. In his own work, the conceptual weight of seams and ruptures is offset with precise little details; it’s a curious and precarious sort of craftsmanship that yields a dangerous balance. Nothing like a little danger to make you appreciate this classical figurative shit.


Vik Muniz @ Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Over the years, Muniz has shown a gift for making good art out of potentially hokey gimmicks. Here, he’s revisiting his early days as a sculptor, with recreations of the backs of famous paintings (“Nighthawks,” “American Gothic”), every detail just so—splinters, handwritten notes, labels from the various epochs of various museums. Exploring the hidden history of canonical images is a grand idea, but one gets lost in the self-reflexive obsessive labyrinthian nightmare: a simulacrum of the historical signifiers of the institutional histories of historical simulacra as, perhaps, a simulacrum of history? You see where I’m going with this?


Jean-Luc Mylayne @ Gladstone

In Mylayne’s large, color photos of birds, the birds themselves appear as small actors in a large landscape, often a tad blurry, as if Mylayne couldn’t click his camera in time for his elusive subjects. Now, we all know that photos of birds don’t have to be like that; we’ve all seen skillful nature photography, the feathered subject lucid and telephoto’d, the plumage and identifying marks neatly defined. What Mylayne proposes is a naturalistic approach, where he can functionally blend in and become part of the habitat, rather than a momentary invader with a camera. Because the timbre of our dialogues with nature becomes a more pressing concern with every passing day, these photos possess a whispered, urgent quality—an urgency that haunts rather than shrieks.


Philippe Parreno @ Friedrich Petzel

Parreno seems to be operating here with a dismissive or quasi-nihilistic bent: a wordless movie marquee; wannabe punk-badass text-drawings (“Feel the fever rising,” “Ultrasonic squirrel screams”); a magician making things disappear (appropriately, the magician was not there when I saw the show). This work flirts with nothingness so much that it develops a full-on romance with nothingness, and you know how awkward that can be—watching a full-on romance, in the same room but having nothing to do with you.


Alix Pearlstein @ The Kitchen

Pearlstein’s four-channel video “After the Fall” blends video art with an agreeable, homey, community-theater sensibility—the video was shot on-stage and features actors from the New York theater community. With admirable prescience, just in time for the financial crisis, the characters in the video enact some vague ritual of dominance and territoriality, scrambling and hurting one another over meaningless props. I feel like I can see where Pearlstein was going with this, and I can see too that she didn’t quite make it there—the dramatic on-stage squabbles are too generalized to shed light on the complexities of real-time property struggle. I kept thinking that if this were an actual play, it would not be a very good play.


Marsha Pels @ Schroeder Romero

Hidden one room away from the more bombastic work—the fiberglass skeletons and neon lights—there’s a piano bench littered with faded classical scores, facing a fancy fur coat that’s been ruined with a threatful exoskeleton of plaster-cast evening gloves. It’s not a masterpiece, but there are some powerful hooks here: an engaged narrative of tragedy amongst the upper crust.


Beverly Pepper @ Marlborough

Thanks to Richard Serra, massive rolled-steel sculptures are chief among emblems of our art-historical age; other than Richard Serra, not many people make them. Have you ever tried making a massive steel sculpture? Well, Beverly Pepper has. There’s no way to say this without sounding dippy, but this new work by the highly-accomplished sculptor feels assertively, refreshingly feminine.


Jane Philbrick @ Location One

Movies provide beautiful images, books provide information and opinions, video games provide interactive worlds, and many mediums provide compelling characters and narratives. Sometimes it seems like fine art should focus on generating experiences that would be untranslatable through any other system. Philbrick’s installation “PULL” gives viewers (“viewers”) a shiny red fire alarm in a darkened room filled with the flickering, candy-colored LEDs of armed alarm systems. Having been offered the tantalizing power to pull the switch, along with the attendant hell of bleating sirens that would ensue, the viewer is forced to measure their own power and to take stock of what they would endure for even more of it. The work was unlike anything I’ve ever felt, managing to be deeply political without issuing a single polemic.


Lari Pittman @ Gladstone

Rococo place settings animated (manner of speaking) with slick technical trickery and a sharpened sense of place, in large-scale artworks that are, as a matter of fact, still-life paintings. That’s what they are. There are all sorts of ways that contemporary artists could be reimagining the still life, but when you see Pittman’s work, it’s hard to imagine that a modern-day still life would or should be anything else.


Shannon Plumb @ Sara Meltzer

Inspired as much by contemporary comedy as by the legacy of performance art, Plumb videotapes herself yukking it up as campy characters against New York street backdrops: a befuddled businessman, a vamping prostitute, a wannabe gangster thug. It looks like she had fun making the project, but there’s a problem, and a big one at that: it didn’t make me laugh.


Peggy Preheim @ Tonya Bonakdar

Of course, just because a work of art is highly detailed doesn’t make it necessarily intimate—it depends on the artist’s relationship to the details, or to detail in general. Preheim’s wee little drawings (on oversized paper) present an unavoidable sense of intimacy and, remarkably, an honest feeling of preciousness and fragility—such easily exploited sentiments. Yet Preheim’s work does not feel exploitative; I think she’s for real, I’m pretty sure she is.


Richard Prince @ Gagosian

Prince won my heart forever with his “untitled (publicities)” project—the initial New York exhibition of that series remains one of the best art shows I’ve ever seen. He’s also won a lot of other people’s hearts by being one of the most influential artists of his generation, among other things. Generally, Prince works with appropriations of one or another kind, and the strength of his work comes out of his lexicon of carefully selected symbols and their attendant cultural resonance (for example, I’ll bet that Prince’s art makes very little sense to people who have not been steeped in American culture). This new show, then, with images of virility and general nakedness somehow relating to the history of imperialism in the Panama Canal Zone (where Prince was born), pays a dear price for its symbolic non-specificity. The foxy pin-up babes from nudie magazines of yore: why these particular pin-up babes? Why not other pin-up babes? There’s likely an answer, but I don’t know it offhand, and I don’t think that’s my fault.


Michael Riedel @ David Zwirner

To produce “Filmed Film,” Riedel held several screenings of experimental cinema, including classics by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and Fernand Léger. He taped the screenings using digital video—the final project is a digital projection of the re-recorded films. There are some interesting conflicts at work here (between analog and digital, authorship and access, the old and the new), but you could say the same thing every time you watch an old movie on DVD—it doesn’t mean you have to have a show at David Zwirner about it.


Tim Rollins & K.O.S. @ Lehmann Maupin

The ongoing Rollins/Kids of Survival project is a compelling model of popular education as a fulcrum for fine art. Rollins and his students—underprivileged minors, generally—study texts and collaborate on large-scale paintings inspired by their readings. The works sell in galleries, continuing to fund the program in turn (in that sense, it’s probably not the most replicable model; still an amazing thing, though). In this instance, the artists have made work inspired by canonical black American writers, including Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X. The canvases have been covered in book pages and candy-striped in heavy black lines—they look like prison bars or the flag of some embattled nation. And no, it’s not the most visually compelling thing you’ve ever seen, but there’s so much more to the story than that.


Martha Rosler @ Mitchell-Innes & Nash

In the sixties and seventies, Rosler created her “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” series—photomontages that reconfigured scenes of domestic-consumer tranquility to include elements of Vietnam horrors, those being two of the most pervasive sets of mediated imagery at the time. Now Rosler revisits this approach by combining fashion glamour shots with embedded Iraq photojournalism. Rosler is one of my very favorite artists—she has a great history in challenging, complex, politically astute artworks. I am not, however, a fan of the photomontage work that finds her, then as now, at her most blunt, obvious, and predictable. Of course, the war in Iraq has been going on for almost six years—maybe some bluntness is what we need. Also here were some of Rosler’s “Off the Shelf” works: useful photographs featuring excerpts from her famous, prodigious book collection, kind of like getting reading recommendations from a really smart, creative friend. Included: Octavia Butler, Mike Davis, Hannah Arendt, Samuel Delany, and Edward Said, among others.


Andres Serrano @ Yvon Lambert

It’s been almost twenty years since Serrano cheesed-off a whole generation of stodgy conservatives with his NEA-funded “Piss Christ”—a photo of a Christ medallion submerged in Serrano’s shimmering urine. Ultimately I do like (not love) Serrano’s work, but so much of it feels like a half-hearted grab for attention—the sort of thing that’s potentially offensive and combative to some imagined viewership that exists somewhere else. This show, for example, consists of big, luscious photographs of poop. Oh, and what’s that over in the side gallery? That’s right—it’s “Piss Christ”!


Gary Simmons @ Metro Pictures

Like a stand-up comic developing new material, Simmons’ work often relies on the direct, punchy impact of his sardonic wit and political smarts; as such, it can be quite hit-or-miss. I would classify this work—blurred paintings of Los Angeles architecture, suggesting the city burning as in a race riot—as more of a miss. But probably more to the point—it’s less important work by an important artist.


Sally Smart @ Postmasters

Stuck to the wall are pleasant, splayed tree-like forms cut of out fabric, which slowly reveal dangling human limbs, recalling the strange fruit of murdered bodies. It’s an effective slow-burn confrontation, but the art doesn’t tell us why we’re being confronted with this: would any atrocity have done just as well?


Zak Smith @ Fredericks & Freiser

Punk is complicated—a movement with ostensible claims to liberation and freedom, with some aesthetics and attitudes that have been practically codified, rigidly institutionalized and co-opted into oblivion. What is it now to be a punk? Smith’s scratchy, inky drawings, with their bohemian settings and pretty girls, serve as bulletins from a familiar spiky-punk milieu. In other words, it feels emblematic of punky art in general—a fine continuation of a tradition, but not a challenge, not a risk; despite some smart formal innovation, it mainly looks like what you think punk art looks like.


Jennifer Steinkamp @ Lehmann Maupin

Let’s hear it for site-specificity! Steinkamp has created a large, endless projection, perfectly articulated for the looming, vertical wall at this gallery’s newish downtown space. Steinkamp’s imagery of bright, digitally patterned, poisonous flowers seems to point toward the natural underpinnings of newfangled technologies. It’s a subject that certainly could stand for a deeper exploration, but Steinkamp’s installation is pretty. Highly, decidedly, defiantly, authoritatively pretty.


Hiroshi Sugimoto @ Gagosian

“7 Days/7 Nights” re-presents fourteen images from Sugimoto’s famous 1980 series, “Seascapes”—lovely black-and-white photos of the horizon. Seven daytime shots are displayed in a bright room, while seven nighttime shots are displayed in a dark room. It’s all so simple—light, dark, black, white, the sky, the ocean. It’s almost provocative, almost too simple—what sort of insight does Sugimoto purport to give us about the horizon? Of course, it’s also a fine opportunity to ponder some of the basic, primal imagery that has helped shape virtually all human life. So, I hope you like pondering stuff.


Keith Tyson @ Pace Wildenstein

The term “conceptual art” has come to mean so many things, thanks to overuse and conflicting explanations. (I probably use the term too much, myself.) It’s good, then, to reflect on an early definition of conceptual art: art that is generated out of a specific and planned process (in the words of Sol LeWitt—“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”). For his “Fractal Dice” works, Tyson has designed a simple set of instructions for creating colorful, geometric sculptures based on the rolls of a die—the actual objects on view were built by the gallery’s staff. Surely, there’s a lot of beauty in chance, but there’s also an awful lot of chance in the world. There has to be a finely rendered shot of intentionality to filter that chance into memorable work: a combination of the random and the arbitrary is not a recipe for good art. As such, I think Tyson’s project veers too close to irrelevancy—I mean, beautiful things happen every day whether or not Tyson has a hand in them.


Lee Ufan @ Pace Wildenstein

An internationally exhibited, 72-year-old artist makes his U.S. debut. In his paintings, Ufan combines an exacting Zen-inspired methodology, Abstract Expressionist brushwork, and a classical sense of scale, yet the overall effect is actually a lot less interesting than that might sound. Still, you have to admire the gutsiness of of an artist who can make a complete, large-scale painting with a single brushstroke.


Kelley Walker @ Paula Cooper

Walker’s new paintings engage in some mighty tricky behavior with planar space, materiality, and appropriated imagery: what appears from far away as a simple geometric abstraction (or just a painting of a brick wall) reveals more and more layers the more you involve yourself with it. Yet having just described a single painting in the show, I’ve also pretty much described every painting in the show—that’s the downside.


Phoebe Washburn @ Zach Feuer

In “Tickle the Shitstem,” Washburn has created a sort of self-reflexive consumption machine—a machine powered by the contributions of gallery-goers and the labor of good-hearted, indulgent interns. The folks behind the counter sell products at varying degrees of gross—Sunkist, Gatorade, sea urchins, t-shirts—the money and waste alike shuffled back into the system, processed through the looming DayGlo retail edifice that Washburn has designed to sprawl uncomfortably through the gallery. There’s a proud tradition of self-negating or semi-useless machines in contemporary art—Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca” and Mona Hatoum’s “Plus and Minus” come to mind. I’m not sure how much Washburn’s project necessarily adds to this dialogue, but it certainly adds something. One thing that I got out of it was how weird, how grotesque it can be to put foaming, fluorescent, silly-named fluids into your body for fun.


Terry Winters @ Matthew Marks

In which paintings of semi-abstracted, bulbous, math-inspired forms (called “Knotted Graphs”) feel positively dirty; naughty, even.


Works on Paper by Gallery Artists and Ricci Albenda @ Greene Naftali

This is a show of works on fiberboard by artists from other galleries and certainly not Ricci Albenda. Okay, sorry: there is interesting work in this show, but I’m not sure how interesting it would be for people not already familiar with the respective artists. That’s a problem with a lot of art shows, actually—I guess it’s too much to really go into here.


Masao Yamamoto @ Yancey Richardson

I’m a sucker for new things in art (or at least, “contemporary” things). So it was nicely disarming to find myself drawn into conversation with these small, old-fashioned, black-and-white nature photographs—they of the finely wrought detail and deeply articulated sense of light and shadow. This show also includes a disorienting wall-installation of printed pictures, but in this case, it’s the old methods that really win out.


Zero in New York @ Sperone Westwater

The 20th-century high-art avant-garde will be represented forever by a diminutive handful of figures and movements, but, as with any history, there’s a confounding depth to it for anyone who cares to fathom the waters. The movement known as “Zero” was a loosely defined network of European artists who you may or may not have heard of, like Otto Piene, Lucio Fontana, and Henk Peeters. Zero dovetailed and overlapped with Arte Povera and minimalism; the artists of Zero held one-day exhibitions, published multilingual manifestoes, and believed in the revolutionary potential of an art pared down to its essence. Much of the work made within Zero utilized limited color palettes, industrial materials, coarse constructions, and bare-bones visual motifs; some of it still feels utterly of-the-moment. All in all, this show is a wonderful document, of artists winnowing and focusing their creative energies to achieve spiritual purity and universal truth, before postmodernism came and fucked everything up.


Xu Zhen @ James Cohan

In his “ShanghArt Supermarket,” Zhen presents what looks for all the world like a functional Chinese convenience store, complete with fluorescent lights, a sales clerk, and product-choked shelves, all of it temporarily operating out of an art gallery for some reason. The key difference, as you find out, is that Zhen has carefully vacated the packages of their contents—the empty packages are for sale, at the same price that the products sell for in China (in a one-to-one exchange rate with U.S. dollars). As far as comments on globalizing economies go, this piece isn’t the most urgent or imaginative thing out there. Then again, gallery art has unique abilities to immerse people in unlikely experience, and it’s an odd, lightly cataclysmic, pleasantly discordant feeling, to walk around in a bright store filled with boxes of pure nothing. It’s also a little bit frustrating, because some candy and a soda might have been nice.


Molly Zuckerman-Hartung @ John Connelly Presents

These paintings are small. Small and ugly. Small, ugly, abstract paintings. It would be dishonest to act like there’s not a lot of this kind of work floating around these days, but Zuckerman-Hartung’s feels stronger or more conductive than most. There’s a charge, of relationships between bodies in space and between currents within the paintings. There’s even an acknowledgement of the viewer’s body, and don’t we like having our bodies acknowledged? By the way, the show is called “An Erotics.”