David and Chie Hammons, Jan. 18-Mar. 24, 2007, at L&M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
For this quietly fiery exhibition at a fancy Upper East Side townhouse -- a gallery no one including the gallery itself expected Hammons to exhibit in -- the 63-year-old artist contacted the dealers "out of the blue," according to L & M, with an idea that he said "would perfectly fit the gallery’s space and history." True to his double-edged Garbo-meets-assassin form, however, Hammons -- here, working with his wife, Chie Hammons -- didn’t divulge the idea, saying only that he’d fund the project, the work wouldn’t be for sale during the show, and there’d be no press release. The gallery still doesn’t know the price of the installation. To seal the deal, Hammons uttered two words most artists wish they could get away with but can’t, for reasons of clout, money or nerve: "Trust me." We should be thankful that the gallery did because Hammons and his wife are presenting something that, while stagy and seemingly simple, is also bitter and fairly brilliant.
The only thing you see upon entering L & M is the empty, opulent front gallery. In the elegant space beyond this, however, are five antique dress forms. Each has been outfitted with a full-length fur coat -- two minks, a fox, a sable and a wolf. Alone, upstairs, is a chinchilla. That’s the whole show. A fashion friend told me these coats, if bought new, could cost more than a $100,000 -- which is either mind-blowingly expensive for clothes or cheap for art. If you Google "killing animals for fur" you’ll learn that, "To make one fur coat you must kill at least 100 chinchillas, 55 mink, 15 wolves or 11 foxes. Animals that have been trapped die slow, excruciating deaths. If farmed, they are gassed, suffocated or electrocuted through the mouth and anus so the pelt is not singed or stained with blood."
As if this weren’t enough, Hammons and his wife have also painted, burned, burnished, and stained the backs of all of these coats, turning them into aesthetic/ethical/sartorial traps. This transforms the coats into paintings and the paintings into something much more double-edged than usual. At L & M, Hammons is also activating something he’s often put into motion: The idea of a specific audience for art. Many clients who normally frequent this tony space aren’t quite the same hungry hyenas prowling Chelsea for paradigm shifts. Thus, the specificity of this audience is skewed and erratic. The work is not only meant for "us" and "them," it throws these terms into question. In no time we’re them, they’re us, and it’s not clear who’s who. Hammons fans know this is the tricky quicksand he thrives in. As Hammons has said, "I like to talk in confusions."
This confusion has not only been influential, if firmly rooted in Dada, Duchamp, assemblage and something deeply maverick, it’s been intensifying for 40 years. Hammons has made and sold snowballs outside an art school; slung shoes over an outdoor Richard Serra sculpture; installed 50-foot poles with basketball hoops in Harlem; festooned trees in upper Manhattan with empty wine bottles; constructed a "Spirit House" in Battery Park; raffled sheep in Dakar; installed urinals in a Belgium wood; and performed on the streets of Zaire. As for the furs, not only are they an emblem for an art world in the midst of a feeding frenzy, and a world with little regard for the natural environment, they’re an extenuation of the eccentric materials Hammons has always used, including hair, chicken bones, stuffed cats and elephant dung (this last in 1978).
At L & M, Hammons adds his considerable feel for absence. Over the last 40 years this artist has made installations that entailed leaving a lot of galleries empty or semi-empty, notably the gigantic Ace Gallery in New York, which in 2002 he cast in total darkness, providing tiny blue flashlights with which to navigate, or his 1998 installation at the Kunsthalle in Bern that entailed a bluish light and the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, among others. Hammons has said that he wants "to slide away from visuals and get deeper." At L & M, not only does Hammons do this; along the way he conjures thoughts of shamanism, politics, consumerism, animism, genre painting, animal rights and jokes. Here, we’re treated to a sensibility as barbed, serious, maybe fearsome, and as passionate as any in the art world.
I imagine that Sarah Anne Johnson self-identifies as a photographer. What’s so refreshing about her work, beyond its weird, wistful, even wise vision, is that Johnson is nervy and curious enough not only to make straight and set-up photographs but also dolls, drawings, architectural models and dioramas. In other words, Johnson is a photographer who allows her visionquest to extend beyond the boundaries of her chosen medium.
In "The Galapagos Project" at Julie Saul Gallery, her second solo outing since her outstanding debut at this gallery two years ago, that openness to other materials, as well as the ambition of her vision, allows her to cross-breed genres like documentary, fiction, fantasy, nature photography, diary-writing, posters of cute guys and even travel and adventure novels. Basically, Johnson is using photography as a type of philosophy, a way of thinking -- that is, mainly as a tool, not a crutch.
For this show Johnson presents more than 60 photos, a handful of drawings and a grouping of small sculpted figures. All are based on her recent visits to the Galapagos Islands, where young, idealistic fellow travelers volunteer to clean the local environment in the face of encroaching civilization. You get the sweet pathos, grungy glamour, camaraderie and hopelessness of the endeavor. There are pictures of kids clearing invasive undergrowth, butchering animals that aren’t indigenous to the region, or just staring into space as if they were lost. Johnson’s way of zeroing in on the private aspects of this global thinking is also brought home in a huge model of the bare-bones cabin these devoted souls inhabit. You can almost hear the crickets and smell the bad body odor.
It’s great that Johnson isn’t fenced in by one medium. Still, there’s a scattershot quality to this otherwise excellent show that suggests that she does need to hone her skills in all of her media in order for her to be the kind of quadruple-threat artist that I think she has every possibility of becoming.
Sarah Anne Johnson, "The Galapagos Project," Feb. 16-Mar. 24, 2007, at Julie Saul Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011