1. Keith Edmier at Friedrich Petzel Gallery
535 West 22nd Street [through Dec. 23, 2004]
...in a dark corner, down by the floor, a soft white light appeared. He went up to it and discovered that it came from a clump of Rhizomorphs, which, as they breathed, shone like tiny night-lights. These plants are really astounding,' he said to himself, stepping back to appraise the entire collection. Yes, his object had been achieved: not a single one looked real; it was as if cloth, paper, porcelain, and metal had been lent by man to Nature to enable her to create these monstrosities.
-- J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature
In the darkened gallery, spotlights cast theatrical halos around four sculptures of ancient plants and a single large seahorse. They appear before you as if summoned from a nether-realm where surreal clones of our world thrive in mockery of the mortality that plagues all living creatures.
Visually, they are spectacular -- evil almost -- a diabolic scheme of trickery and illusion. Hardest to bear, perhaps, is that the objects are more beautiful than their living, earthly counterparts. What's more, Edmier has used a mind-blowing technique to fabricate the sculptures -- they are cast from life in molten basalt lava.
The masterpiece of the show is Cycas Orogeny,a large sculpture of a male and female cycad with their reproductive organs rendered bare and throbbing in vivid red and yellow, a bold contrast to the deep molten gray of the sculpture's body. A primordial tree coveted by botanists and movie stars as the crowning gem of their arboretums, the cycad is a rare and ancient genus that has inspired a small industry of specialist thieves.
Edmier's sculpture costs around $250,000. The actual tree, if a rare species, can fetch up to $100,000 on the black market -- not too great a difference. One wonders which would be preferred by Huysmans' decadent hero, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes.
2. "The Realm of the Senses" at James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th Street [through Jan. 22, 2005]
Apropos to Huysmans Against Nature, the new show at James Cohan Gallery also addresses the five senses, prompting the viewer to the brink of synesthesia. (Five possible art mediums are also represented: installation, sculpture, video, drawing-painting and photography.)
Vito Acconci's photowork, Trademarks, documents a 1970 performance in which the artist sat naked, Indian-style, making bite marks in his own skin. Perhaps more tempting is Janine Antoni's chocolate bust, the non-soapy part of Lick and Lather (1993-94). Another tasty piece is Untitled, Blue Placebo, a candy carpet by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, installed beneath 13,000 (1996), a painting by Fred Tomaselli that is made with innumerable stacked aspirin pellets.
The narrow focus here on the sense of taste adheres to Hemingway's notion that some art improves if viewed when hungry. Other artists in the show include Nobuyoshi Araki, Sophie Calle, Patty Chang, Sean Duffy, Tom Friedman, Douglas Gordon, Rodney Graham, Mike Kelly, Christian Marclay, Gabriel Orozco and Bill Viola.
3. John Cage and George Quasha at Baumgartner Gallery
522 West 24th Street [through Dec. 23, 2004]
The element of chance in the works of John Cage serves as muse to George Quasha, whose exhibition of new sculptures, titled "Axial Stones and Drawings," embody a reoccurring theme in his works -- the notion of the axial. Like the I-Ching that guided the decisions in Cage's New River Watercolors on view in the front of the gallery, Quasha's axial is an invisible line that draws and links together the natural forms of his sculptures.
Quasha collects alluvial rocks and allows the stones to "find each other," he says, at points of balance by which they are rendered "the optimal statement of apparent impossibility." The resulting sculptures seem suspended and weightless, breaking all gravity's axioms -- a truly surreal experience. Accompanying these works are pencil drawings of amorphous pairs of forms, drawn with both hands rhythmically moving in tandem.
4. Neil Farber at Clementine Gallery
526 West 26th Street, Suite 211 [through Dec. 23, 2004]
A member of the now-infamous Royal Art Lodge, the Los Angeles-based Canadian artist Neil Farber makes magical and amusing drawings that cast elephants, serpents and frogs opposite strange little children that swarm through of the works like an army of androgynous Fisher-Price dolls. Close inspection is rewarded by details such as the bubble-like texture of the children's heads or, in one piece, by the painting within a painting that is set in the bottom right corner like a compass rose on a map.
5. Katharina Fritsch at Mathew Marks Gallery
523 West 24th Street [through Dec. 24, 2004]
In her latest installation at Matthew Marks, Katharina Fritsch translates her typically confrontational, colorful and solid sculptures into a whimsical inventory of French cultural symbols. The gallery walls are lined with large blue-toned posters depicting the Eiffel Tower, Hector Guimard's Metro entrance and other postcard images of Paris, part of the obligatory decor for any Americanized French Bistro. The ceiling is a rain shower of purple, black, white and green umbrellas, all cast in carbon (and esthetically similar to Fritsch's past production).
In the center of the large gallery is Woman with Dog, a lifesize sculpture of a Belle Epoque lady and her small pet, assembled from enormous pink seashells. The installation as a whole is like a mirage, a fantasy from another era that continues to live on in our time despite its blatant insubstantiality.
6. "Comic Grotesque: Wit and Mockery in German Art, 1870-1940" at the Neue Galerie
1048 Fifth Avenue [through Feb. 14, 2005]
Today's art is at home with the grotesque, which long ago emerged as a vehicle for social commentary. The exhibition of more than 70 works, organized by Berlin curator Pamela Kort, begins with Arnold Böcklin, whose paintings of fantastic humans, sea creatures and strange birds were drawn from mythology and tweaked into a state of moral and visual decline.
A century before, Jacques-Louis David and the other Neoclassicists appropriated myth in order to ennoble the military ambitions of Napoleon. Böcklin, as did James Joyce with Ulysses, used mythology to expose the flaws and mediocrity of the modern world, opening the door to a new realm of visual fantasy. The show also delves into the grotesque in the guise of satire and caricature in the works of artists like Lyonel Feninger, Thomas Theodor Heine and Emil Nolde.
The grotesque came alive in the Dada cabaret, here represented by little-seen films of clown performances by Karl Valentin. Stenciled on the wall in the back gallery is Tristan Tzara's nihilistic quote from 1918, "Freedom: DADA, DADA, DADA, the howls of forced pain, the intertwining of opposites and all contradictions, of all that is grotesque, and inconsequential: Life."
7. Franz Ackermann at Gavin Brown's Enterprise
620 Greenwich Street [through Jan. 22, 2005]
Franz Ackermann's paintings are like raging eyesores, so loud that they can almost be heard. Large, neon-colored canvases of tornado-swept, geometric shapes share the gallery space with a desk and heap of clothes, a prop that seems to have either inspired or been hurled out of the foreboding painting behind it. The experience is visceral, like being in a visual explosion. The installation's haphazard air adds to the sense of excess and chaos -- and provides a good introduction to the rising German art star.
8. "Frogs: A Chorus of Colors" at the American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street [through Jan. 9, 2005]
The most poisonous creature on the planet is phyllobates terribilis, a tiny gold frog that is simply beautiful. The exhibition presents 200 live, jewel-toned amphibians from all over the world, and they don't even look real. The range of colors surpasses the Impressionist palette -- and perhaps even approaches Franz Ackermann's. The show incorporates funny frog facts, such as the news that a frog was cloned 30 years before Dolly the sheep.
9. Raymond Pettibon at David Zwirner Gallery
525 West 19th Street [through Dec. 24, 2004]
Raymond Pettibon's new works are as zany and potent as ever. An animated film on a monitor in the front gallery provides a soundtrack to the exhibition of his infamous text-and ink on paper illustrations. The back gallery space is a sea of color with a corner actually dedicated to a shrine of watercolors of the sea. Viscerally stimulating and consistently amusing, Pettibon's show is a no-brainer.
NICOLE DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet magazine.