First prize this weekend goes to "Africaine" at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Jan. 27-Mar. 31, 2002, a show of photo-based works by four young, African-born women artists -- Candice Breitz, Wangechi Mutu, Tracey Rose and Fatimah Tuggar. Organized by SMH curator Christine Kim, the exhibition christens that whole body of work about African identity politics with a tag that is aptly French and feminine. Certainly Yinka Shonibare, whose Victorian-styled costumes made of colorful African-Indonesian cloth are given the museum’s main space, fits into this category, too.
As for the women, their work has an undercurrent of sex and cruelty. "Africa is a place of incredible violence," noted Breitz, a white South African who has been living in Brooklyn (and is leaving for Berlin because her visa has expired). Breitz is known for works that abruptly collage together, Frankenstein-style, mass-media images of Western and African women. In "Africaine," she is represented by her 1996 "Ghost Series," large color photos made by rephotographing magazine images of African villagers whose skin she has painted over with white-out.
Tuggar also uses rephotography, montaging images of a pre-modern Africa with consumer icons of the West, like record players and kitchen appliances. One large photo has the interior of a grass hut hung with decorative, collectible plates; another shows a smiling African woman in a magenta dress posing in front of a 1950s stove. In a small theater, Tuggar shows a three-minute video that includes a sequence of the police hovercraft from The Fifth Element lining up an African villager in its sights.
Mutu, a young artist who was born in Nairobi and lives in Brooklyn, makes expressionistic watercolor and collage pinups that channel Romare Bearden through Hugh Hefner. "The women are metaphors for the African nation state, for the African psyche," she said. "Africa has historically been seen as fertile ground, for colonization, for miscegenation, for culture and history. Images of women can be representations of all this..."
Rose’s work, large and theatrical photographic self-portraits in which she pantomimes media icons like Cicciolina, is perhaps the most vulgar of the things in the show; she wasn’t at the opening.
Shonibare has several of his trademark bodiless mannequins on view, some quite flamboyant -- a headless lady walking several stuffed bulldogs, a woman on a swing in the manner of Fragonard. Also on hand is a wall of small "abstractions" made with African fabric (a la Konrad Fischer and the other German pop artists) and a series of five, large color photos (borrowed from the Norton Family Foundation) that show Shonibare posing like a 19th-century British aristocrat -- sort of Upstairs Downstairs, art-world style.
Nearby, as if to round out what is both a complex and simplistic picture, is a 1971 black and white photograph by Malick Sidibe, The Wannabe Musician, showing a jaunty young man with a guitar posing by the front of a car. Back then, the advent of consumer culture may have seemed more cheerful.
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"It's all about women and how they are change, they are vessels, bells, they capture vibrations from space!" So proclaimed sculptor Saint Clair Cemin, whose new show opens next month at Cheim & Read, when asked to explain the large-scale works by Tunga at Luhring Augustine.
In the entryway was an odd sculpture of bulbous brass and iron shapes marked by protrusions and indents, propped up on tripods and linked by chain, called La Belle et la Bête. In the back is Scalp, a pole covered with magnets and copperleaf, trailing a long veil of copper hair held by a large copper comb.
Occupying the large central gallery is Tirade Trindade, a huge iron tripod of oversized canes, caked with magnets, hung with metal hair and piled with caldrons, funnels, chains and the like. Huge slabs of red and ochre makeup filled one bowl. "Nice shades," said a woman onlooker, who looked like she should know.
(The prices for these sculptures are roughly $90,000, $150,000 and $250,000, respectively.)
Did someone say something about women? Like some Brazilian alchemist, Tunga, dressed in a tweed suit and confined to a wheelchair -- "I hurt my foot!" -- let loose three topless Venuses who proceeded to cover themselves and the sculptures with greasy red makeup in a two-hour performance on Saturday afternoon, Jan. 24.
In another, less interesting corner, three young men did the same, using the ochre glop on the entryway sculpture.
"It's the festivalization of the galleries," said Jerry Saltz, who seemed prepared to be above all this foolishness.
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"Warning, broken glass on gallery floor, visitors enter at their own risk," reads the sign on the door of the Swiss Institute on lower Broadway, where Lori Hersberger has an installation titled How Can You Kill Me (I'm Already Dead). In the rear gallery, the one with the broken glass, are several projections of Westerns. In the front is a huge canvas, which was covered with marks by a motorcycle during a performance at the opening on Jan. 24. "It's about being a man," said Hersberger, who promised to ride the motorcycle himself next time.
Meanwhile, down in the lobby, are three artworks by Michael Ross that are rather difficult to find. One that I particularly like is a gold doorstop, its surface patterned with little knobs the artist insists aren't a secret Braille message to a blind person about closing the door. Ross works "at the threshold of the visible," as the title to a 1997-99 exhibition put it -- but it strikes me as a tad too modest. Michael, I'm telling you, someone's going to steal it...
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It's bad enough that the New Museum devotes its cavernous main space to a giant machine that turns cuisine into caca -- Wim Delvoye's Cloaca, Jan 25-Apr. 28, 2002 -- did it have to be imported from Belgium? The big machine, fed at one end by master chefs (from SoHo's most popular art hangout, Jerry's), turns out a single tiny cookie-sized poop per day, at about 2:30 p.m. -- a feat that was greeted by a round of applause on one recent afternoon, along with a flood of poop jokes. "Very regular," noted one viewer. "Would go well with R. Mutt's Fountain," said another.
Delvoye admitted that the mechanism isn't really a model of the human digestive tract, since there's no vat of nutrients or energy output -- just the turd at the end. "I though of making it self-powering," he said. "But decided it would be easy to simply plug it in." Implicit here is the vanguard's flaunting of waste (in more ways than one), in terms of food that might otherwise feed real people.
One final word of sympathy for the poor museum curator, whose plight it is to produce the plummy words that go on the wall to dress up what is, in the end, an elaborate anti-art gesture. "Digestion depends on a unique fusion between socially codified rituals... and a vast and complex inner network of organs, enzymes and bacteria... Cloaca reminds us that art plays an important role in questioning longstanding cultural beliefs about the uniqueness of our existence." A sort of cloaca of the word processor, I suppose.
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Easily the sexiest show to open this week is "Behind the Surrealist Curtain: Sex, Sensuality and Silence" at Ubu on East 78th Street, Jan 26-Mar. 16, 2002, organized by the gallery's Adam Boxer with top private Surrealist dealer Timothy Baum. Among the treasures are a 1964 etching of Courbet's Creation of the World by Andre Masson, done to illustrate Le Mort by Georges Bataille, and another Masson, a 1928 etching of a daisy chain, dubbed Irene's Cut, I, a swarm of naked bodies that is a figurative precursor to Jackson Pollock's paintings.
Speaking of Pollock and allover composition, another source is found in the work of Janet Sobel (1894-1968), a Ukraine-born Brooklyn émigré who became a "Surrealist" painter in the 1940s, snitching her son's paint supplies to make the abstract skeins of color that she showed at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in 1946. "Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him," wrote Clement Greenberg. A complete survey of Sobel's work, which includes lively, naïve-style figurative gouaches, is on view at Gary Snyder Fine Art on West 29th Street in Chelsea. The allover abstractions are all sold (one to the Hirshhorn Museum, another to the San Diego Museum), and the Outsider works are moving fast at $2,800-$7,800.
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Love those "through tomorrow" notes on the art reviews in Friday's New York Times, which dispatched viewers this week to Albert Oehlen at Skarstedt Fine Art at 1018 Madison, where a show of eight self-portraits (one with one eye, another with three), all but one from the 1980s, were marked sold at $60,000-$150,000... And, over at Michael Werner it was the last day for a show of a group of seven untitled oils by Per Kirkeby, most of them ochre, green and brown landscape forms as if seen between the rails of a wood fence. Many were still available at $70,000-$80,000... Meanwhile, at Fredericks Freiser in Chelsea, all five portraits by raver skateboard artist Zak Smith were sold before the opening. Measuring about 40 x 30 in. and done on coated paper, they go for $4,000.
The huge Gagosian gallery space on West 24th Street is something of a Saturday afternoon agora, with people taking their ease among the dozen large abstractions by Cy Twombly that ring the space. "He's in his Monet water lily phase," ventured latter-day Minimalist Tony Feher... Check out the suit made of old newspaper in David Shapiro's new show at LiebmanMagnan across the street. Shapiro's the guy who made the portraits out of tofu in 1999. This time around, he's given us the exact opposite of the "white cube" -- a square room made of pegboard, dubbed "100,000 Holes," holding all the residue of this life and imagination... Clay Ketter at Sonnabend with "paintings" made as if they were sections of an apartment renovation. Tobacco Motel Wall #2 (2001), with its neatly carpentered hollow-core door and window fitted with blinds, takes the notion of art as a "construction" to the ultimate...
Village Voice art critic (and Artnet Magazine contributor) Jerry Saltz, finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in criticism last year, has been nominated again for this year's award... Julian Schnabel's show at Gagosian is slated for the Los Angeles venue in the "Academy Award" slot... Marlborough can't sell abstraction? Neon sage Keith Sonnier now represented by Sonnabend... The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art said not to be even interviewing candidates for the director's post left vacant by David Ross...
One barking good show is "A Thousand Hounds: A Walk with the Dogs through the History of Photography," Jan. 17-Mar. 29, 2002, at PaineWebber Gallery in midtown at 1285 Avenue of the Americas. Spotted at the Jan. 24 opening was Chevy Chase, a film comedian, and Winston Churchill granddaughter Edwina Sandys, whose multidimensional poodle sculpture has pride of place in the gallery window... The Guggenheim Soho gives up the street-level ghost at last and closes its store next door to the new Prada outlet designed by Rem Koohaas. Times must be tough...
WALTER ROBINSON is editor-in-chief of Artnet Magazine.