"Oh, what a superior man," Candide said under his breath. "What a genius this Pococurante is. Nothing can please him!"
-- Voltaire's Candide
"There's always a market for big things that look like art," an art dealer told me the other day, and these words came to mind at the sound-and-light show of five big photo-projections starring Madonna -- that would be the pop star, not the mother of Jesus -- by fashion photographer Steven Klein at Deitch Projects in SoHo. Pretentiously titled "X-STaTIC Pro=CeSS" and displayed in cheap-chic mini-theaters ingeniously designed by Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano of Lot/ek, these large pictures are basically stills with animated details, sort of like those illuminated beer signs that show a woodland scene with a magically moving waterfall.
The show's centerpiece, for example, shows a Budapest-style office with the East Village songbird pretzeled up into a yoga posture on one side of a door and a poster of a kidney -- actually throbbing a little -- on the other. The prevailing esthetic is gothic surrealism, the kind of thing that can be found in certain rock videos. Madonna stars in all the scenes (the collaboration continues in the current issue of W magazine). The deafening audio includes sounds of a slamming door, voice-processed singing and some fire and brimstone from Revelation.
In a mural-sized image titled Beast, Madonna wears B&D gear and crouches on a dais, which has an animated flame on it as well. In Coyote, a triptych, she poses frozen in a back-bend while flanked by two snarling canines on chains. In Queen, she wears an ornate red spangled gown. In Bed, she writhes in a housedress on a bare mattress and metal bed.
The installations are priced at $35,000-$65,000 -- though you could be forgiven for thinking it a vanity project -- while copies of the catalogue, a rather odd, lumplike object with cloth pages, printed in a run of 1,000 copies, is $350 plus tax. It's unclear whether the authorship of all this material is collaborative; in any case, this stuff is too cheesy to be art. Philosophically speaking, no slight accomplishment in an art world that privileges everything from urinals to holes in the desert.
Meanwhile, once again New Yorkers are flocking to the overscaled Gagosian Gallery space on West 24th Street in Chelsea for the month's most impressive exhibition -- a display of equally oversized paintings of a human Gargantua by the 32-year-old English artist Jenny Saville. Her subjects, done from photographs, are generally considered to be self-portraits, though it's hard to say for sure since the artist kept a low profile at her opening. According to Saville's friends, she "paints all the time," and at least one of the works was finished only days before the opening. In any case, she is certainly the most accomplished figurative painter we have, dispatching the challenge of likeness with a precision and ease that echoes the simplicity of the avant-garde gesture.
That being said, it's hard to embrace without some reservation Saville's abject self-image. In several paintings she is battered bloody, in one she's gone all post-mortem green, in another she's become a Dutch still life, that is, the painting shows the torso of a butchered female pig, complete with a double row of teats. Is this an invocation of George Orwell's ignorant, unpoliticized prole? Or just a yBa Portrait of the Artist as Pork Chop? It's hard not to see a certain self-indulgent pathos in it all, which has by the way been met with great market success. All the pictures are said to be sold, at who knows what prices (though they must be stratospheric -- Saville's auction record is over $500,000, for a painting smaller than any of these).
In distinct contrast to all this morbidity, Ena Swansea's misty, pale paintings at Gasser & Grunert on West 19th Street picture the kind of female desire that is found in Anais Nin short stories. In quite large canvases, done in oil on black graphite or lead grounds -- an alchemical lyric -- lovers exchange gazes, or damsels wait, dream and swoon. Lie down I think I want you, reads the title of one of the paintings. Another has a line of poetry that goes, "My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets." The paintings are priced at $12,000-$18,000.
A dozen blocks north, Exit Art inaugurated its new ground-floor space in Hell's Kitchen with a grand "Reconstruction Biennial." Of the 35 artists and artist-teams, by far the bravest was the naked young lady lying in the clear plastic box. The "hermetically sealed" capsule was fitted with two gloves like some kind of antiseptic science experiment, so that viewers could reach in and touch her. The artist -- Alessandra Lee Michelle Torres -- claims to be recreating the first few weeks of her life, when she lived in an incubator. At the crowded opening, she exposed herself to the spectators armored with nothing but a blindfold.
Equally melancholy, though in a more restrained manner, are the color photos of Seton Smith at Winston Wachter Mayer Fine Art on 78th Street and Madison Avenue. Mysteriously titled "Motion Fraction," the show includes eight tall pictures, six of them arrayed in diptychs that measure 6 x 8 ft. overall. Some are blurry evocations of a lost aristocratic past, a fairly familiar motif (think of the recently released art-house hit, Russian Ark) that perhaps has more impact in Paris, where the artist lives part time.
These fragmentary, blurred scenes -- some antique frames in a red room, an upholstered Regency chair in a yellow room -- are haunting, like snatches of memory, but less pointed than the photo titled One Line Way, which shows an empty highway curving off into the mountains under a blue sky. A generic image of a path into the future, all the more mournful because that future cannot be changed. According to a reviewer in Women's Wear Daily (of all places), the diptych format could well be a "subconscious" reference to her twin sister, "lost to AIDS" in the late 1980s. It would explain the sadness in these simple pictures. The price: $16,000 each.
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Certainly the most provocative exhibition to open in New York this week is the show of photos and texts by the New York artist Emily Jacir at Debs & Co. Jacir, who is Palestinian, asked other Palestinians if she could do something for them in Palestine. With her U.S. passport, she can better traverse the many military checkpoints. "Take a picture of my family home," asked one. "Go to my mother's grave, bring me some Arak, plant me a Pomegranate tree," said others.
Jacir exhibits texts of the requests, with her notes -- not everything was possible -- along with photos she takes of her modest but unnerving quests. The piece dramatically transforms an international political issue into a series of simple, selfish individual problems. And implicitly, the work demonstrates the success of Palestinian terror, which has apparently succeeded in radicalizing all of Jacir's Palestinians, and the artist herself.
One man asked Jacir to plant a Pomegranate tree, a Jordanian named Fayez who was born in Kuwait City, lives in London and carries a Jordanian and British passport. He told her something quite poignant. "Cowardice keeps me away," he said. "And also my fear of going back and seeing everything ruined and seeing my own helplessness. How heart-breaking it would be." Jacir's works are relatively inexpensive -- $500-$1,800.
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More from the kids in the audio-visual department -- Bill Viola has crafted a kind of otherworldly video gateway, called World of Illusion, for his new show at James Cohan Gallery. The 50-minute-long videotape plays on large vertical and horizontal screens that seem to reflect and play off of each other -- there's a 13 x 8 ft., 1,900-lb. pane of semi-reflective glass suspended at an angle midway between the two. Viola is perhaps the art-world's most successful mystic, and engages the Buddhist "wheel of appearances" with his vocabulary of opposing, elemental images -- rain, ripples in the water, roiling bubbles, a man diving and emerging from water and fire, glowing red and yellow, the metamorphosis ending with a floating blue orb. "You can really zone out," says Cohan.
Another video installation, at Universal Concepts Unlimited, or UCU, on West 24th, by Robert Wogan, Below (Untitled Radiance), is a fairly frenetic, green-toned affair in which the camera charges like a ping-pong ball through the below-deck passages of a dilapidated ocean liner (the SS United States in Philadelphia). It's pretty good, with the gallery converted into a labyrinth and theater of galvanized aluminum, the material quite suited to the banging and clanging audio of the multimedia projection. Wogan was born and raised in Chelsea, and has his own website at www.wogan.com.
At Kenny Schachter Contemporary on Charles Lane in Greenwich Village is a new video installation by Susan Smith-Pinelo, the Washington, D.C.-based artist who has something of a reputation for a videotape in which a girl, in close-up, jiggles her breasts in time to a Michael Jackson song. Here, she's installed two tape loops of a woman's gyrating lower half, clad in Daisy Dukes, titled Asstronomical Porportions I and II. In the gloomier back of the space is a video projection of the torsos of several young men, their jeans riding well below the tops of their undershorts. Upstairs are some color photos of the same. The videos, in an edition of three, are $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the number in the edition; the photos are $3,000 each.
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Sculpture, sculpture, sculpture. The Mexico-born Columbia University MFA candidate José León Cerillo accessorizes his jazzy, abstract Pattern & Decoration painting environment at Massimo Audiello with a hanging spider plant. . . . From Los Angeles artist Mungo Thomson, a set of brown beer-bottle vases blown from Royal Leerdam Crystal ($1,200 each), perfect for spring tulips, at John Connelly Presents in the Chelsea Galleries Building on West 26th Street. Also from Guyton, an "untitled action sculpture" that puts the chrome tubing from a Breuer chair to twisted good use ($2,000). . . . At Henry Urbach Architecture on the same floor, a 24-foot-long wooden box by Larry Mantello filled with scads of carefully arranged Pop junk, much of it orange in color, like Pooh, Garfield and Scooby Doo.
In the back room at Oliver Kamm, who recently opened his gallery on West 22nd Street in Gracie Mansion's former space, a bizarre bronze of a hotdog with faces at both ends by Ivan Witenstein. Wearing a white overcoat and holding mustard and ketchup in each hand, it's titled Watch Her Younger Year by Year / Stare Her Back in Time / Teach Her the Four Food Groups / Hot Dogs, Pussy, Beer and Crime (2003). Also on view is wallpaper by the psychedelic Eli Sudbrach and a big color photo of two wrestling cheerleaders by Luis Gispert (it's $7,000). . . . At Marcus Ritter on West 17th Street, an installation of wall comix by Jean-Franois Moriceau and Petra Mrzyk, that includes the inspired transformation of a rainbow into a multihued lightning bolt. . . .
Paintings, paintings, paintings: At Greene Naftali in the Chelsea Arts Building on West 26th Street, a show of the insouciant paintings of Cologne artist Michael Krebber, pal of Martin Kippenberger and whose last New York solo show was at Luhring Augustine in 1993. In this go-round, Krebber stretches some green gingham fabric and a kid's blanket (showing a galloping horse) on big stretchers to make "paintings," a welcome-enough revival of a strategy that the then-artist Konrad Fischer tried back in the 1970s. These are $10,000 each. . . . Tough and fancy black-ink portraits of Lower East Side beatniks by Zak Smith at Fredericks Freiser, all sold at $4,000. . . . Wistful, Klee-like abstractions by Peggy Cyphers at the Proposition on West 22nd. "They're warm and loving," says Demetria Daniels (who pens "Gotham Gossip" at demetriadaniels.com).
Eve Sonneman at Jadite Galleries on West 50th Street, with Zenlike new abstract paintings, constellations and swarms of flat donut shapes, and a survey of her patented Polaroid "Sonnegrams," Polaroid photos made with colored gels and paper cutouts. . . . Steven Harvey at Gallery Schlesinger on Madison Avenue with drawings and paintings of the eternal subject, the female nude, these posed with mirrors to double the image. They're deft, and handmade (drawings are $1,000, paintings $3,800). . . . A double portrait by Grace Roselli of Artnet Magazine's own Charlie Finch, posing as a naked Gargantua and Pantagruel, with a serenely knowing smile on his face and butterflies hiding his private parts, in a private showing at the artist's studio on East 118th Street in Harlem.
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Finally something interesting at the Chelsea Art Museum on West 22nd Street -- a show of Jessica Stockholdermonoprints made of fake fur, Styrofoam, aluminum roof patch and upholstery, cut up and mashed all together in a high-pressure press designed to stamp rubber. Like Georges Braque, says John Post Lee, her dealer. The 13 works on view mix odd abstract shapes with chunks of pink tiger skin and ersatz black-and-white Holstein cow.
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The Los Angeles artist Dave Muller has got it all figured out -- his life is one long art party, or so it would seem from his "Three Day Weekend" art events, filled with friends and enthusiasms. And what's more, he makes art out of it all. That is, he paints large-scale watercolor copies of the bits of paper that accompany him through life, or that simply catch his attention. There are copies of posters for the New School and "Jackson Pollock" at MoMA, copies of emails and letters to friends Matthew Higgs and Morgan Fisher, copies of invites to his own shows, even random pages from the telephone book and a funny, lost-and-found notice about a missing Alcoa Solar Do-Nothing Machine, present whereabouts unknown.
In the center of Murray Guy gallery, where his latest New York show just closed, was a pile of replica shipping crates for the multicolored staffs that the late performance artist Andre Cadere would carry around with him in the 1970s. Muller's show was comically titled, "May I Please Speak with Mr. Murray Guy," a joke on the names of the gallery's two partners, Margaret Murray and Janice Guy. Price range is $800-$8,000 -- I want one of the small watercolors of a blue sky, marked with crop marks and lettered to serve as the invite to his show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles.
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Next door at Wallspace, it's dirty pictures by photojournalists Matthew Salacuse and Michael Schmelling, who spent the last three years documenting low-rent strip shows in New York, ones done for both men and women, largely black and Hispanic. The pictures are fabulous, both candid and posed, though pretty much what one would expect. Male performers go by names like "Brown Sugar" and "Mr. Perfect," and wear loincloths that show ingenious tailoring. Photos are in editions of five and sell for $350-$700.
After only a few shows on West 17th Street, gallery directors Janine Foeller and Jane Hait are moving Wallspace to a new gallery building at 547 West 27th Street, opening Apr. 17 with a group show called "Photography for People: For Us."
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Big news at the Whitney Museum -- insiders say that director Max Anderson is on the way out. Budget deficits are said to have derailed the renewal of his current one-year contract, up next August. . . . According to the English tabloids, ad man and super-collector Charles Saatchi is doing a "Jay Gatsby" and will be a no-show at the opening of his new museum in London on Apr. 17. . . . New York painter Steve Mumford, known for his pictures of animals (and for being married to fellow artist Inka Essenhigh) is off to Baghdad, with hopes of becoming a war artist there.
During a break last week at his 80th Street gallery, Duchamp expert Francis Naumann taught Oscar-winning actress Hillary Swank how to play chess. . . . Jane Dickson is now represented by Marlborough Galleries. . . . Lyle Ashton Harris is represented by CRG Gallery.