The controversy surrounding the Jewish Museum's new show, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," which opens to the public Mar. 17-June 30, 2002 (after a week of previews), has been energetically advanced by right-wing media outlets, beginning with a breathless report in the Wall Street Journal and continuing in especially vulgar updates in the New York Post.
The goal is all too familiar -- discrediting liberal culture, here personified by an art museum. In this case, the smear has an ugly undercurrent of anti-Semitism.
In fact, "Mirroring Evil" is the kind of challenging show that the Jewish Museum does all the time. The first U.S. museum exhibition to focus on contemporary art using Nazi imagery, it right away invites the viewer to make moral and ethical judgments, in dramatic contrast to much contemporary art -- just compare it to the 2002 Whitney Biennial, for instance.
In the end, the show is thought-provoking -- which is the idea. Piotr Uklanski's row of color pictures of movie Nazis, which got a museum director fired over in Poland, shows clearly enough that the macho Nazi image is alive and well. A Hitler bunny toy by the French artist Alain Séchas suggests that anti-Semitism begins in childhood, as does the notorious Lego concentration camp by Zbigniew Libera.
Tom Sachs' model of a concentration camp made out of a Prada box suggests a certain immorality, not so much on the part of the Nazis or the fashion world as of the artist himself. Works by Maciej Toporowicz, a video projection that pairs Calvin Klein perfume with Nazi film imagery, and Rudolf Herz, who wallpapers a room with black-and-white photo blowups of Hitler and Marcel Duchamp (taken by the same photographer), suggest equivalences that don't amount to much.
Probably the most insulting of these works is Alan Schechner's web project, in which a computer bar code morphs into a photo of concentration camp inmates in striped uniforms. But even this could be making a point in the debate about the "holocaust industry," however puerile.
Other pieces take the approach of historical fiction, trying to imagine what it would be like to be there. Elke Krystufek poses naked alongside Nazi imagery, apparently identifying with the victims. The Israeli performance artist Roee Rosen fantasizes in his text-and-drawing installation about what it must have been like to have been Eva Braun. Two reticular light-box photos from Matt Collishaw show Nazi officers and half-dressed women in a theatrical recreation of Hitler's suicide bunker.
The Jewish Museum is to be commended for standing up to the protests, though word did come at the Wednesday night patron's opening of a bit of censorship, when Roee said that the museum had removed a panel from his fairy tale in which Eva Braun gives Hitler a golden shower.
* * *
Sleeper show of the month is "Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence" at the Metropolitan Museum, Mar. 12-June 19, 2002. First off, the things are huge, routinely measuring over 20 feet long, bigger even than Anselm Kiefer paintings. The subjects are ultra-dramatic, like the teeming, 31-foot-long battle scene from the Trojan War, Death of Troilus, Achilles and Paris (ca. 1465), and ultra-sublime, like Raphael's Miraculous Draft of Fishes (1516). Along with the 41 tapestries are several drawings by Raphael as well.
* * *
The relative chastity of the Whitney Biennial, along with Charlie Finch's article titled "The Prisoner of Sex" prompts a quick survey of women's work around town. Start with the Artemisia half of "Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy," which remains on view at the Metropolitan through May 12, 2002.
Artemisia made a lot of paintings of women as victims, beginning with a Susanna and the Elders (1610), supposedly done when she was 17 and showing a remarkable realism in depicting the young woman's body. And she made even more works showing women as avengers, notably several exceptionally dramatic versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes.
In the feminist 1970s, Artemisia was rehabilitated as a femme forte, a hero who suffered for her sex and took vengeance like a character in a Renaissance-era Spaghetti Western. In our post-Warholian time, she is seen as an artist whose production was mediated by her celebrity as a woman -- and a scandalous one at that.
Over at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in Chelsea is a group of 10 new color photographs by Dana Hoey of "women in trouble," as the artist put it. Collectively titled "Moon Bitches," the works all show women in acts of rebellion, some with more social conscience than others. Thus, there are scenes from a "die in" and a "tree-sitting" protest, as well as a picture of a pregnant woman smoking (while sensuously lying on a horse's back) and another of a tattooed girl tending to a crystal meth lab in the trunk of her car. The pictures are $6,000 in an edition of six.
Down in SoHo, Marlene McCarthy has a two-gallery show of monumental figure drawings done in pencil and ballpoint pen at both American Fine Arts and Bronwyn Keenan. The subject is sociopathic young girls who have murdered their friends or family members, real-life stories drawn from newspaper reports and then pictorially imagined by the artist. The topic is disconcerting enough, but McCarthy adds a curious affect to her portraits, showing her subjects with genitals, breasts and toes visible through the clothes, as if they were transparent. "These are drawings that are informed by fantasy as much as they are by real events," said Colin De Land, who has about a dozen ca. four-by-seven-foot tall works priced at $9,500 each.
Other examples in this vein include a video projection by Salla Tykka called Power (1999) in the booth of French art dealer Yvon Lambert at last month's Armory Show on Pier 90. The lively video shows a boxing match between the petite but game artist -- who is topless, for some reason -- and a much larger male adversary. Her ferocious and professional attack is admirable, as well as a bit comic, perhaps because the theme from Rocky plays on the soundtrack.
Speaking of soundtracks, the fabled rock star Kembra Pfahler opened an exhibition of color photographs, drawings and other documents based on her performances with her band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, at American Fine Arts at PHAG, Inc., on West 22nd Street. Sharp-eyed students of the gallery scene will note a small photo of a deranged looking Pfahler, nude in thigh-high boots, shaved and painted lavender, posing like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. Alongside her, in similar fright-metal gear, is her dealer, Colin De Land. Now that's commitment.