Some critics take pride in their judgments ("that show is overhung!"). Others hope to instruct the reader ("he's a bumpy detour in the history of modern art!"). For those of us here at Weekend Update, it's all about being topical, and today's topic is the war in Iraq.
Like it or not, we can't help thinking about the war as we make our rounds, and more than ever the shows are invariably framed by their degree of relevance (or lack of it). The strongest manifestation this month of a socially engaged sensibility was found at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts with its excellent survey show, "Amerian Dre@m." Featuring works by more than 50 artists at the Mercer Street gallery as well as a two-floor storefront around the corner on Broome, the show provides a particularly allusive esthetic analysis of the paranoid, overcompensating, sex-obsessed U.S. political unconscious.
Among the irresistible exhibits is Guy Overfelt's puffed-up inflatable Trans Am, Nina Katchadourian's comic "Artificial Insemination Series" photographs (showing a swarm of tadpoles surrounding a chicken egg) and William Pope.L's freestanding sheetrock wall smeared with peanut butter and stenciled along the bottom with the words "The inside of my father's penis (just within the tip) from beyond the edge of the universe."
Special mention goes to Michael Wilson for his slightly altered official portrait of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (he doesn't really have that lazy eye), marked with the Biblical slogan, "I will guide thee with mine eye," and to Mombert's looped videotape One Hit Wonder, where the ski-masked artist breaks a real beer bottle over his own head. Nice to see, too, a pair of stop signs painted with a lurking golem silhouette from 1979 by Richard Hambleton and a stencil drawing on a chunk of wall by James Romberger of an nine-year-old crack addict.
And especially good is TM Mark's Foodbomb (2003), a kind of metal barbeque set filled with everything you need for an backyard cookout and fitted with a parachute, so that the American way of life can be dropped on recalcitrant citizens around the world. The artists mean it as a joke, but the notion makes real sense -- dropping hamburgers (or fishburgers) on the enemy has got to work better than dropping bombs.
A more pronounced sense of anti-Americanism is being played out at Apexart in Tribeca, where British curator Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt has set up a group show called "Between the Lines," covering the walls with foreign newspaper accounts of the U.S.-Iraq war and converting the gallery into a comfortable reading room for political study. Among the magazines on the shelf are recent copies of October, in case you thought that esteemed academic journal had given up the ghost. Be sure to check out the curator's tendentious essay in the free brochure, and the videotape of Scottish artist Ross Birrell on the Staten Island Ferry, throwing a U.S. flag into the water. A foolhardy and foolish act in these times.
Images of war are everywhere in the galleries, in fact. The popular Cologne artist Cosima van Bonin, perhaps best known for "paintings" made of scraps of fabric sewn into various gnomic images, includes in her current show at Friedrich Petzel Gallery on West 24th Street a life-size missile, installed so that it aims ominously at visitors as they enter the space. Around the corner in the Condit-Lehigh Building on West 26th Street, 1960s conceptualist William Anastasi recreates his 1966 Dwan Gallery camouflage proposal at the White Box Annex, covering the interior with the U.S. Army's defensive jungle pattern. And at the 473 Gallery on Broadway in SoHo, painter Robert Reitzfeld includes a Desert Storm Landscape in his show of new works, a work that gives an especially edgy focus to his otherwise light-hearted, Krazy Kat-styled scenes.
Easier to find in the galleries are emblems of escape, which, when it comes to war, is the first thing any sane person thinks of. One telling and not uncritical example is William Wegman's tongue-in-cheek Vacationland, one of two 8 x 16 ft. paintings at Sperone Westwater in his first show of paintings in 10 years. Wegman begins with holiday postcards and paints in a fantasy connecting landscape, providing a subtly comic Disneyland of utopian views. He gets credit for introducing fanciful narrative into the avant-garde style stream way back in the 1970s (so these days, you can blame him for Matthew Barney). The big pictures are priced at $75,000, nice smaller works on paper are $7,500.
Another utopia, one set in the sunny part of the New Russia, is the subject of Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubossarsky's "endless painting" that lines the walls of Deitch Projects. In all there are 38 panels of golden picnics, parties and beautiful girls, images that channel a Felliniesque zest for life through Socialist Realist painterliness. Works by the pair of 30-something artists, who show in Moscow at XL Gallery and were included in the 2002 So Paulo Bienal, sell like hotcakes in Russia (and here) for $13,000 per panel.
For sheer cheer, go to PaceWildenstein in Chelsea to see Elizabeth Murray's new paintings. Her bright nursery-colored scenes of home-life gone bonkers, typically made up of stuck-together disjointed parts, are happier than ever, combining images of watermelon, bubble gum, hearts, eyes, bones, worms, tissues and more. Most of the eight oils are marked sold, with a smallish one priced at $125,000; watercolors and drawings, which look a little like kid's doodles, start at $3,000. Artnews editor Barbara MacAdam insists that penises are everywhere, though we say that prize goes to Sue Williams.
Arguably the greatest escape of all that the art world has to offer is into the pure utopia of abstract painting -- and there's plenty of that to go around. Ribald paint handling and over-the-top color characterize the works of Vermont-based artist Emily Mason, whose superhued paintings look especially good in the stepped spaces of David Findlay Fine Art in the Fuller Building. In the exhibition catalogue, Art in America's David Ebony likens her color to the "Fifth Element," Aristotle's "mysterious ether" that underlies the basic stuff of the world.
Down at Gale-Martin Fine Art on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, New York painter Francine Tint is having a ten-year survey of her abstractions, all sweeping brushstrokes and lava-like paint. The works have titles like Aegean, Faded Flowers and Pink Moon.
Nobody brings out the organic roots of color better than Bill Jensen, whose new paintings at Mary Boone Gallery on Fifth Avenue somehow connect the hues of the rainbow with the earth's rich humus. Jensen might configure his abstractions into seedpod shapes, or split his fields, Adolph Gottlieb-style, with a sky-above, mud-below horizon line, and manages to put new meaning and excitement in the old abstract lady yet.
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A dystopian grimness has always informed the realistic paintings of Alexis Rockman, who gives us precisely executed scenes of ecological disaster in his current show at Gorney Bravin + Lee. Rockman's painting of grasshoppers and other insects fleeing from a volcanic eruption in Hawaii is priceless (actually it's about $30,000) as are the works on paper in the back, elegant images of amphibians made on the spot in the jungle with water and mud (a bargain at $1,800).
The Apollonian sculpture of the month is by Rachel Whiteread at Luhring Augustine on West 24th Street in Chelsea, where a ghostly white plaster cast of the negative space of a fire escape is rotated 90 degrees to sit in the elegantly skylit gallery like a Minimalist stairway to heaven. Down the block at Gagosian Gallery is the month's notable Dionysian white elephant, actually a pair of them, by the irrepressible Vienna artist Franz West. Made of enameled, welded aluminum, the two comical behemoths -- Corona, a seven-meter-tall gray 3-D moibus strip, and Dorit, an almost-as-tall pink bulbous concoction -- invoke the spirit of Bacchus like few others can. In the back room is a comical congerie of sculpture of more manageable size, many of his trademark globs of papier-mch.
Curiously, two Chelsea shows feature artists making art using that yellow upholstery foam. Ernesto Neto, who in the past could be counted on highly scented sculptures done with spice-filled nylon, has converted the two galleries at Tanya Bonakdar into a kind of biomorphic yellow cave. Meanwhile, Parsons prof Sydney Blum opened a show at Kim Foster Gallery on West 20th Street that features a stove, cabinet sink and refrigerator set of foam carved with a kitchen knife and nail scissors ($30,000 the set). Blum also has several home appliances made of cast cement, peat and spices, including a herd of Electrolux vacuum-cleaners.
The funnest art installation in Chelsea was that of Rebecca Allen, whose interactive DVD, The Bush Soul, was included in the "Women in Science, Genomically Yours" show at UCU as part of a citywide celebration of the discovery of DNA. In a darkened back gallery, a viewer could use a video-game joystick to guide a digital shrimp through a changing alien landscape, an unusually absorbing pastime, at least for one senior citizen who remains uninitiated into the pleasures of PlayStation 2.
But winner of the Duchamp Bicycle Wheel prize is Jon Routson, whose artistic practice seems to consist solely of going to movies and making bootleg copies with his video camera. For his current show, Routson has converted the Team Gallery space into three darkened screening rooms, where a rotating program of bootlegs is on display. While this viewer would never go see Chicago in the theater, Routson's version playing at the opening had a magnetic appeal. For the after-party, the artist and friends went to McDonald's and then to tape the new Cuba Gooding starrer, Boat Trip.
And finally, for proof that high craft does mix with avant-garde art, if any proof was needed, see the exhibition of new works by Josiah McElheny at Brent Sikkema. Unlike most contemporary glass blowers, McElheny is a classicist, prone to remake elemental vessels of the past rather than noodle about with abstract shapes expressive of molten physics. His works here are breathtaking, and with titles like Buckminster Fuller's Proposal to Isamu Noguchi for the New Abstraction of Total Reflection, clearly witty as well. The price range is $30,000-$48,000.
The retrospective spirit afoot in the art world, highlighted by Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky's recent excavations of the downtown art community's own history, is also evident in galleries. One component of the '70s scene was the netherwold of co-op galleries, including SoHo 20, where Eunice Golden exhibited her feminist erotica, paintings and photographs of male nudes, now on view at Mitchell Algus Gallery on West 25th. A photo from the early '70s, titled Penelope's Odyssey, is $1,600, unbelievable price for important part of 1970s history.
Count as retrospective as well the photograph by Jemima Stehli, whose large black-and-white Table 2 (1997-98) is a provocative citation of Allen Jones' provocative fetish sculptures from the 1960s, in which leather-clad showgirls posed as pieces of furniture. The work was included in the excellent "Body Politics" show at Elga Wimmer PCC in the Chelsea Fine Arts Building on West 26th Street.
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Other shows of note: Four new paintings by Eric Fischl at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, installed a week late (an event that New York magazine found gossip-worthy), show an undressed burgher and his frau, posed with props set up in the Mies van der Rohe-designed Esters Haus in Krefeld, Germany. Fischl is master of a fleshy contemporary neurosis, a psychology that is even embodied in his paint handling. The pictures are marked sold at $450,000-$550,000 -- most artists would be happy to sell at one-tenth the price, hell, at one-one-hundredth. . . .
Frank Holliday at Kenny Schachter Contemporary over in the West Village, blunt lollipop Philip Guston landscapes with handmade polka-dotted frames to set off Schachter's unorthodox steel-mesh walls designed by Vito Acconci studio. . . . Documentary filmmaker Rolf Belgum's photos of his dog at the Proposition, with titles like Hair Studies, Body Gestures toward a Bone, and No Title after these Pictures Were Taken, I Took a Nap and Dreamed That He Could Speak Olde English. . . .
John Kalymnios mechanical butterflies at Caren Golden, real wings being carefully flapped by tiny machines for $2,400 each. . . .
Fractured "hybrid" photos by Christina Ray, depicting neighborhood walks, parked cars, playgrounds and architecture in combinations of fragmentary photos, paintings and etched glass, all displayed propped on a metal shelf, at the new DCKT Contemporary -- the back gallery at Charles Cowles Gallery, pronounced "docket," headed by Dennis Christie and Ken Tyburski. Coming up there are large-scale silhouette drawings by Mario M. Muller (opening May. 1) and after that the San Francisco team of Castaneda/Reiman (whose works are currently on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco).
Landscape artist Paula Hayes with her untitled installation at Ten in One Gallery on West 26th Street of a mannequin wearing a kind of child tote that holds not a baby but a green plant. With those leaves in your face, how do you keep from turning vegetarian . . . Scottish artist Callum Innes at Sean Kelly with a series of severe yet lush abstractions called "Scheveningen Beach," a thick oilstick rectangle stretching across the canvas that has been thoroughly bled away with turpentine on one half, in an ardent demonstration of the "action painting" division of Minimalism. . . . More use of gravity and color in the landscape-like abstractions of Dorota Kolodziejczyk, in her first solo show at Joseph Helman's space in the Condit-Lehigh Building.
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Ross Bleckner spotted strolling around his new show at Lehmann Maupin arm-in-arm with his dealer Mary Boone, where the feature installation is a wall of small paintings of birds done in blue monochrome, dated 1995-2003. . . . Those giant numbers on the Park Avenue Mall by Robert Indiana aren't for sale -- though others in the edition are available from Paul Kasmin Gallery at $150,000 each. We like the big zero best.
Ex-New York Doll (and TV-commercial voice for American Express) David Johansen opens a show of his paintings, titled "Saints and Sinners," at Ricco/Maresca in Chelsea this May. . . . Chicago's own Tony Fitzpatrick, with a show opening at Bill Maynes Gallery in Chelsea next week, spotted on the small screen with a supporting role in HBO's transsexual potboiler, Normal, starring Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson.
Damien Hirst making a 50-foot-tall sculpture of hats in the shape of a man. . . . Paris mega-dealer Yvon Lambert opens a New York gallery in Chelsea next September. . . . Ilona Kagan Gallery opens this May in a renovated 2,500-square-foot garage on 29th Street, down the block from Sean Kelly. . . . Rush Arts director and painter Danny Simmons has just finished a novel about art theft. . . . Painter Lisa Ruyter plans to open her new Galerie Lisa Ruyter in Vienna with a show of Brice Dellsperger.
Freelance political commentator Andrew Sullivan cites Charlie Finch's criticism of the New York Times on andrewsullivan.com. . . . New York Observer art critic Mario Naves cites Charlie Finch's criticism of him in his recent column on Fritz Bultman at Gallery Schlesinger. . . . "Congress Accidentally Approves Arts Funding," headline on Mar. 13-19 issue of the Onion, with story quoting Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) confessing, "That bill was more than 3,000 pages, single-space. . . It's pretty easy to miss something."
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.