Semiramis is the legendary founder of Babylon, the ancient Mesopotamian city known for its brilliant color and luxury. Now the celebrated German Neo-Ex master Markus Lüpertz, who was born in 1941 and has headed the Düsseldorf Academy of Art for 15 years, has produced a series of lyrical color abstractions dedicated to the mythical queen, currently on view at Knoedler & Co. on East 70th Street in New York.
Lüpertz' dense arabesques of variegated brushstrokes suggest Babylonian hanging gardens -- bright green foliage, crimson blossoms, turquoise waters -- and are indeed "anxious" yet "hedonistic," as David Cohen points out in his essay in the gallery catalogue. It's curious that ancient myth is so good at giving primitivist calligraphy -- scribbles, really -- a profound dimension of meaning (think here of Cy Twombly also), and curious how well such marks are able to transcend their simple materiality to embody those atavistic tales. Paintings hit the $50,000-$80,000 range, while watercolors are $6,500.
The Portuguese artist João Penalva, who lives in London and is having his first U.S. gallery show at Max Protetch in Chelsea, is also absorbed in tales -- not high ancient myths but rather the humble but timeless folk tale. The exhibition features a pair of projections, the first housed in a khaki canvas tent surrounded by multicolored light bulbs on the floor, as if from a traveling sideshow. A nearby signboard boasts that we are privileged to hear "Mister, the Talking Shoe," and the video offers just that -- a spotlighted wingtip whose toe is worked up and down like a sock puppet by the unseen artist. For almost 30 minutes, the shoe tells "a modern-day sorrows of Job," though in an Irish accent that is all but incomprehensible. The work was a star of the 2002 Sydney Biennale.
Penalva's second projection, a 57-minute-long video called Kitsune (2001), presents one long, continuous take of a mist-shrouded primitive landscape, with a soundtrack in Japanese of a master-pupil dialogue. The subtitles tell Japanese folk tales of Kitsune, a cunning, shape-shifting "fox spirit." As it happens, the typically Japanese panorama is not Japan but rather the Portuguese island of Madeira, and the subtitles don't translate the dialogue but instead reproduce Penalva's own version of the folklore -- as if the artist were saying that all this folkish authenticity is just some kind of farce.
An appeal to the vernacular is also central to the work of Wim Delvoye, whose show at Sperone Westwater's new gallery on West 13th Street is titled "Gothic Works." The Belgian artist, who made something of a splash last year with Cloaca, a giant eating and pooping machine at the New Museum, now gives us a fabulous scale model of a steam shovel done up in steel with gothic arches and rose windows. Also on view are nine stained-glass windows made with medical x-rays sandwiched between vintage colored glass, plus some custom-made ones of couples having sex (what else). The effect is quite nice (rather better than Delvoye's photos of faux marble floors made of slices of processed meats) and, with all those skeletons, no doubt could be put to use by the church to teach lessons in mortality. Mellifluously titled after the nine muses (Clio, Calliope, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Melopomene. . .), the windows are more than six feet tall in editions of six.
Sperone Westwater also inaugurates a new "project" gallery with an installation by RISD grad Hope Atherton, who has previously showed her work at White Columns and Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone in Rome. Shrine, as it is called, consists of a pair of dramatically gnarled trees, one with a sacrificial chicken impaled on a pointy branch. Blood and milk are involved. The artist writes: "Is it inherent in the human psyche to want to believe in superstition, ritual and myth?" Inherent or not, it's certainly popular enough in the art world.
With all this looking backward, it's a relief to see Julia Scher's big installation of chain link fence and surveillance equipment at Andrea Rosen -- even if it looks forward to a not-unlikely dystopian future. As spotlights turn on and off, casting ominous shadows on the floor from spinning ceiling fans, an audio track intones phrases like "digital prolapse victims proceed to sector one. . . . do not touch the caution vents. . . . uncivil weather. . . . continental war games" in the lilting tones of a female Hal from 2001. It's quite good, even if it does rub some visitors the wrong way (as, presumably, it's designed to). Published contemporaneously with the show is the artist's first major monograph, Julia Scher, Tell Me When You're Ready: Works from 1990-1995, a big, beautiful hardcover from PFM Publishing in Cambridge, Mass.
Homeland security is obviously in the air. California artist Sandow Birk, who was born in '62 and is celebrated out west for a series of paintings chronicling the ersatz "Great War of the Californias," has now brought "Maximum Security: New York Landscapes" to Debs & Co. on East 26th Street. A careful painter, Birk does jails -- Attica, Sing Sing, Green Haven and others -- in Hudson River School style, with guard towers framed by old oak trees and prisons seen in the distance across a pond with ducks and red maples. The prices here range from $2,000 to $6,400 -- unbeatable.
In the smaller gallery, Amy Jean Porter presents a completely delightful group of small color-pencil drawings of birds that "Sing Hip-Hop and Sometimes Pause for Reflection," in the words of the exhibition title. "Clueless like Shaggy & Scooby," says one bird in a caption that comes out of its beak, while another declaims confidently, "Whatever she said, I'm that." On the gallery table is a Modern Audubon guidebook. The cheery drawings are priced between $50 and $100.
Hollywood does such a poor job making good movies that it's no wonder that artists are drawn to the medium. Of course, their skills tend to lie in the area of form rather than script and narrative, which isn't exactly what tinseltown needs. At any rate, one of the more heralded young artists making films is the 30-something Doug Aitken, and in his current show at 303 Gallery in Chelsea he presents two works. On is a mesmerizing "abstract" projection on four tondo-shaped screens, with minimal, geometric images taken from the plain, cross-country American landscape.
In the rear gallery is New Skin, a more narrative projection on a pair of intersecting oval screens. The film tells the story of a young woman who is losing her sight, and who attempts to prepare for her isolation by studying and storing as many images as she can. It's not a plan that is destined to bear much fruit. "The more I see the less I believe in the images I find," she says, with perfect early-21st-century anomie.
In almost everything he does, Aitken is able to set an unsettling mood like that found in the best sci-fi and suspense. The Pompidou Center in Paris commissioned New Skin, and Aitken has still other projections on view at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and in Tokyo.
Among all the projects currently on view in art and film, the new installation by neo-conceptualist Silvia
Kolbowski at American Fine Arts, Co., at P.H.A.G. is most clearly structured by sociological or
anthropological ideas. For her new piece, Like Looking Away, ten young women were interviewed about shopping. Their replies were edited to eliminate direct references to the questions, resulting in an
uncertain narrative of searching and desire, guilt and hesitation. The audiotrack, which has something of a Real World feel, is incongruously (and effectively) paired with a video projection of explosions, also edited, from a Hollywood movie.
Kolbowski means to create a kind of "free association" between these emblems of social anxiety, and like a psychological insight, its impact increases as it settles in the mind. The installation includes a set of
30 color photographs of the (rather self-conscious) young women listening to a professional actress read
their words. The price for the whole kit and kaboodle is $38,000, in a edition of two with one artist's proof.