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by Elisabeth Kley
A tale of dismemberment and decomposition rendered in a series of animated charcoal drawings, Jag sysslar givetvis med trolleri (Of course I am working with magic) (2007), is one of two films by the young Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg on view at Zach Feuer Gallery until Jan. 24, 2009.

Known for nightmarish stop-motion animations made from handmade Plasticine puppets (recently seen at Performa 2007, Tate Britain and the 2006 Berlin Biennale), Djurberg has brought violent scenarios to life, including scenes of a child molester cutting himself into pieces, excrement-smeared children attacking a prostitute, and a boy abusing a hairless cat.

This time around, Djurberg’s heroine, a naked woman metamorphosing from passive victim to active self-destroyer, is splayed between two gnarled trees. Branches rip away her head and limbs, and new extremities sprout up in all the wrong places. When she tosses aside her decapitated head, replacement eyes and mouth appear on her buttocks and back.

As she rolls her eyes and moves her lips, Swedish words appear and are erased, translated by subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Flayed to the bone, she grows another set of features on her pelvis, and her skeleton disappears, along with the trees. "I shall rip and tear apart," she says, "so I dissolve. . . turn to dust. . . and penetrate the smallest element with myself."

Stop-motion animation was first given an avant-garde twist in William Kentridge’s menacing films on South African racism and brutality. In a very different manner, Djurberg also takes on the subject of race for the show’s major work: I found myself alone (2008), a claymation video of a tiny black ballerina wreaking havoc on a table piled high with luscious pastries.

Enraged by a candle dripping wax on her shoulders, the dancer abandons her carefree pirouettes to jump on some Oreos, pour tan clay tea over the tablecloth, and cover the crockery with chocolate sauce, violently applying dark colors to a creamy white world. Climbing a staircase of sugar cubes to the top of a pitcher, she falls into a cup, knocks over a glass, sheds blue clay tears and drowns in a pile of sliced bananas.

Sparkling with varnish, glue and glitter, the video’s actual colored clay set can also be seen as it was at the end of the film, protected by a Plexiglas case. In addition, Djurberg has framed the two video gallery entrances with sets of white flowered curtains that are caked with a nameless brown substance also streaked across two of the gallery’s walls.

Djurberg’s rail-thin, pitch-black ballerina, in pink toe shoes and a tutu bedecked with roses, wreaks chocolate havoc on a tabletop landscape of candy and cakes before falling to her death -- this is an allegory of sweet destruction, to be sure. And paralleling Kara Walker, Djurberg gives her saccharine melodrama a provocative edge by flirting with stereotypes equating blackness with anger and lack of control. Prices range from $20,000 to $72,000.

Of course, someday, perhaps, we will all be able to imagine ourselves (or be) any color or gender we want. Trenton Doyle Hancock is already illustrating this scenario, in a raucous series of paintings depicting narrow-minded black and white vegan control freaks that can’t see colors, fighting it out with a tribe of more flexible rainbow-hued carnivores.

In 2000, when he was 25, Hancock was among the youngest artists ever in the Whitney Biennial. The latest installment of his Darger-esque fantasy war narrative appears in "Fear," an exhibition at James Cohan Gallery until Jan. 10. Layers of detailed drawing, bold collage and graphic paint are applied with the prolific ease so often seen in artists using cartoon-based imagery, and Hancock appears to be having a ball.

Labeled with the letters F, E, A or R, big black drops that could be tears, sweat, blood or nuclear rain cover two of the gallery walls. Eight square paintings hung in two rows feature cartoon heads or mounds rising from the bottom of each canvas as if peeking over a fence. With eyeholes repeating the shapes of their heads, they resemble ghosts hidden under sheets and are reminiscent of Philip Guston’s cartoon Ku Klux Klan ghouls.

The drop motif continues through most of the paintings. In A Hello Hollow Lullaby (2008), for example, a head covered with liquid transparent splotches of colored paint is pierced by cutout drops that are pasted on the background like a rainbow of precipitation. And Eye Red (2008), a close-up of one bloodshot eye, has red and black vein/trees scattered across its surface, along with intestinal squiggles that bring both Jean Miro and R. Crumb to mind.

The Legend is in Trouble, a wall hanging from 2001, can be seen in the gallery’s back room. Festooned with pieces of carpet, a rollicking mountain snowman holds up tree branch hands, and paper notes reading "let’s kill" are pasted all over his body. Prices range from $9,000 for a complete series of prints to $75,000 for the exhibition’s largest painting.

Scrawled, scraped and almost gouged directly on the wall, an equally obese figure greets visitors to Joyce Pensato’s drawing exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. Approximately 12 feet tall, with open arms and a buttock-shaped stomach, Pensato’s legless character (Mickey Mouse ears, Donald Duck face and Daisy Duck body) floats above the floor, resembling a phantom Thanksgiving balloon.

An artist who manipulates two-dimensional space like a genuine Abstract Expressionist, Pensato is known for her powerful paintings and drawings of cartoon characters from Felix the Cat to Homer Simpson. A war between black and white seems to unfold in her works, as Pensato fearlessly obliterates each with its opposite, often destroying the paper in the process.

Drawing and erasing emphatically in every direction, Pensato sets her charcoal figures dancing with the movements of her hand. Going to the Other Side (2008) features one mouse following another, rolling along like manic wheels in an old black-and-white cartoon film.

Splitting Hairs (2008) and The Big Mouse (2008), two fat characters with pinhole eyes, hang side by side. One raises his arms and the other holds them down, as if pinioned against the wall by a firing squad. And in Get Me to the Other Side (2008), space presses in on an electric-haired hybrid with Mickey’s ears, Donald’s beak and Felix the Cat’s fur, recoiling from some unknown force.

Like cartoon characters instantly recovering from horrific accidents and violent attacks, Pensato’s characters peer out joyfully, undaunted by the abuse they have undergone. All of the drawings seem to emit an unearthly light that can’t be seen in reproduction. The works are priced from $8,000 to $35,000.

A more tragic small figure appears in Nayland Blake’s retrospective, "Behavior," another exploration of black and white (among many other things) at Location One on Greene Street in SoHo until Feb. 14. Homunculus (1992), a black leather costume for a very small person, hangs on a stand -- deflated, empty and alone. Body sections are incongruously joined together with little white bows, and the head is complete with a hairy beard and eyebrows.

Blake was included in the 1991 Whitney Biennial and exhibits with Matthew Marks Gallery. Harrowing videos documenting performed ordeals, including Gorge (1998) (hand fed for an hour by a shirtless black man standing behind him) and Starting Over (2000) (tap dancing in a bunny suit of the same weight as his lover, Philip Hurvitz) are among Blake’s most well-known works, but the Location One retrospective is confined to sculpture, paintings and objects chosen by the artist himself.

A small metal pen called Arena #1 (1993) features a square black rabbit-eared fabric mask hanging on a T-bar rising from the center of each side, with medical white crosses for eyes. Like S&M scarecrows guarding an undersized boxing rink, the masks are tethered to the fence with the steel cables often used to keep fur coats from being stolen.

Restraint Chair (1989) is a metal Breuer chair with a black leather back and seat outfitted with black leather cuffs, more steel cable and a mirror hanging under the seat. Made at the height of the AIDS crisis, the work takes on a tragic resonance. References to leather fetishes and antiseptic metal hospitals conjure up hedonism, mourning and loss.

In 2002, Blake, who appears to be white but is actually bi-racial, exhibited a video installation called Coat. After covering each other’s faces with black and white frosting, he and the artist A.A. Bronson are seen kissing, blending the colors and perhaps looking forward to a day when differences of race and sexuality become matters for celebration rather than forces that divide.

More delicate recent works sometimes resemble disco Richard Tuttles. Untitled (2008), a wispy wire construction, combines three locks of blue back hair, some thin metal chains, a mirror in the shape of a three leaf clover and a few strings of beads -- a collection resembling the shiny things picked up by crows for their nests. (Location One is a non-profit gallery and the works are not for sale.)

Lily Ludlow and Allen Cordell also find magic in the mundane. Sowing Circle, their collaborative three-channel video projection, can be seen at Canada on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side until Jan. 18. A gaggle of downtown art-world divas, including Chloe Sevigny, Rita Ackermann, Agathe Snow and Lizzy Bougatsos chat, eat, smoke and drink wine, seated around a large table, enjoying an all-girl party.

One by one, each whispers a secret in their neighbor’s ear. Two of the projections then fill with images of curling clouds of smoke while the third is transformed from black-and-white to saturated color. A series of nearly wordless paeans to domesticity unfolds.

Chopping vegetables, sewing, preparing coffee, gardening and hanging laundry, they go about everyday activities as if wandering in dreams. Lingering over the rich surfaces of wood and cloth and the varied greens in Sevigny’s lush community garden, a bucolic serenity suffuses these actually urban locations.

Video is a relatively new medium for Ludlow, who (with Marcella Mullins) is the designer of a fashion line called Somnus, and also paints and sculpts. A selection of Ludlow’s nearly white sculptures and erotic paintings can be found in the front gallery.

Stylized pastel bodies with pencil outlines are constructed from billowing, curvy shapes, bringing Laurencin, Picasso and Cocteau to mind. In Darwin and Ophelia (2008), flowerlike pale green background shapes play off the pale pink skin of a couple intertwined with a four-legged animal whose dark pink tongue dangles from his mouth.

Untitled (2008) is a white papier maché sculpture featuring four detachable legs hanging below an armless solid dress. A wooden shoe form with a small pencil-scribbled eye is placed in its hollow headless neck, and a white pair of papier maché high-heeled shoes rests on the floor nearby. The soft pale paintings and the faux antique sculpture echo the video’s sensuality. Prices range from $3,000 for the smallest painting to $6,000 for the video (in an edition of five).

"18 Iniquities," Josef Strau’s exhibition on view at Greene Naftali in Chelsea until Jan. 10, is also suffused with creamy light, this time illuminating language. Strau is a Viennese artist who founded the popular Meerretich (horseradish) Gallery in Berlin in 2002, showing works by Jutta Koether, Isa Genzken and the Bernadette Corporation, among others. He closed the gallery in 2006 to concentrate on his own work. Prices are $5,000 to $15,000.

Resembling an office in the process of being furnished, Strau’s installation includes three tables/tunnels of cardboard and Styrofoam that are also oversized sculptures of the letters J, L and E&N. More letters are written on tags that dangle from numerous floor and table lamps, and pasted on eighteen delicate paintings that also include pencil drawing, collaged inkjet texts, dust and strings of tiny beads.

Other copies of inkjet texts are pinned on walls and placed in piles for visitors to take. Excerpts from a rambling Kafkaesque narrative about the Biblical Josef, psychiatry, writing, religion and Strau’s life in Berlin lend a dark Teutonic flavor to the pearly installation, which also includes a whispered soundtrack. Meditation on the relationship between painting and writing, and the physical and mental illumination necessary for perception of both, is provoked.

Uniting real and represented light, Untitled (2008) is a two-part work consisting of a lampless lampshade / cylinder of painted fabric placed in front of a canvas on the wall. In addition to a hint of decoration in a penciled arabesque on one side, the painting contains a long text about the act of confession, the soul, Guttenberg’s invention of printing, and Jacob Macaria, a pioneering Jewish publisher of Hebrew literature, who was also typesetter and printer for the Council of Trent (the sixteenth century Catholic convention that began the Counter-Reformation).

A shorter text appears on In the Greatest Strategies (2008), a pale grey painting that includes a string of black pearls outlining a thought bubble that reads "the beautiful and elegant story line of a ruined political system and the man whose moment has arrived." The juxtaposition of pearls and words, reminiscent of the use of beads as an aid to prayer in so many religions, sends the words floating upward towards the sky, while the faint penciled silhouettes of the back of the speaker’s head and the listener’s profile make it clear that a conversation has occurred.

Bits of more saturated color are provided by red or blue lampshades on lamps scattered among paintings vaguely tinted in pink, yellow or blue. The extension cords crisscrossing the gallery and the haphazard variety of lights create a dreamy atmosphere suggesting unpacking, construction, makeshift interiors, and new beginnings.

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.