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by Elisabeth Kley
You don’t have to be a drag queen to dress in drag, or so Cindy Sherman proves in her new exhibition at Metro Pictures. Huge photographs of well-preserved women of a certain age, presented in fine traditional frames, progress through the gallery like paintings in an ancestral hall of modern dowager queens. Oozing privilege and entitlement, Sherman’s caricatures of high society divas stare coldly out at the viewer, backed by digitally inserted environments of over-the-top vulgarity.

A Texas dame in a cowboy hat smirking front of a murky swamp; a mature southern belle in pearls and a low cut evening dress hovering over a grove of plantation era trees; and a southwestern senora smoldering in a patio holding a Spanish fan are just a few of the frightening ice queens looking down from the high walls. Each woman has one particularly repellent facial feature: overly puffed lips too darkly outlined, lizard-like skin caked with foundation, blood-shot eyes, pencil lines above eyebrows plucked bald. Sherman styled every detail of their makeup and outfits, including ornate jewelry, sequined gowns and wigs.

A more eccentric munchkin with imperfect teeth can be found upstairs, wearing a voluminous polka-dotted shirt. She stands wide-eyed inside what must be a cavernous lobby or church, with a circular portrait from younger days hanging high on the wall behind her. Like a septuagenarian Eloise, she reappears in another photograph, posing before a building that resembles the Plaza Hotel.

Sherman works alone, with herself as her only model, but instead of making self-portraits, she aims to transform herself until she is unrecognizable. Her last big show featured clowns -- a universal disguise. This time she’s created an unsavory group of individuals that mostly don’t look like her at all.

In a recent interview in Time Out New York, Sherman called her characters survivors, “tough broads who have lived through a lot and are kind of sad,” but in fact they barely seem alive. With their exaggerated faults and artificial appearances, they could be exhibits in a wax museum, illustrating the folly of trying to hide the signs of age. Done in editions of six, the pictures range in price from around $200,000 to $250,000.

If Sherman has materialized female fears of growing old, Richard Prince brings male apprehensions of the other’s sexuality to life in “Canal Zone,” an exhibition on view down the block at Gagosian Gallery. The 15 large paintings began as inkjet prints on canvas. Images of balloon-breasted women cut out of porn magazines were assembled into groups, along with numerous images of a muscular black man with thigh-length dreadlocks.

Against backgrounds of blood-colored paint or inkjet prints of scrubby vegetation, these 21st-century versions of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon loom throughout the gallery’s monumental rooms. Some faces are rendered mask-like by small flat disks painted over their eyes, nose and mouth. Others have graffiti-style teeth inspired by de Kooning’s women, or extremities replaced by Picasso-esque feet and hands.

The naked white woman in the center of Inquisition (2008), her senses canceled out by four pink ovals, plays an electric guitar as a large black dog slobbers at her feet. Eight Rastafarian heads surround her, with smudged faces, skull teeth and blinded eyes that resemble vandalized subway advertisements, or an assembly of ghostly male Medusas ready to turn viewers into stones.

Far from relaxing into submission, Prince’s voluptuous Amazons seem to dare us to confront their sexual power. Set in a small gallery all by itself is Dear Mary (2008), a 1987 Buick completely covered with photo-screened images of mostly topless women posing on motorcycles -- presumably the artist’s “Girlfriends,” from a previous series, dangerous females ready to run over anyone in their way. And in Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Renee Vivian and Roman Brooks take over the Guahnahani (2008), Prince even appropriates the names (however misspelled) of four iconic early-20th-century lesbian artists and writers.

The images of “wild” Rastafarians, whose uncontrolled locks make them all the more threatening, increase the work’s potential to offend by making race a factor. Gagosian’s plush environment, where the only black people to be seen are usually the security guards in every room, adds a problematic layer to this already disturbing show. The works are $475,000 to $1,200,000.

Marking the historic election of the first African American President, Jonathan Horowitz’s optimistically titled exhibition, “Obama 08,” opened Oct. 15-Nov. 15, 2008. Reproduced portraits of every president hung in chronological order along the walls, with texts of the Constitutional amendments guaranteeing the vote for African Americans and women printed on the portraits corresponding to the terms when they were passed.

Horowitz made the division between Democrat and Republican concrete with two carpets covering Gavin Brown’s main gallery, one blue and one red. A pair of large screen televisions stood back-to-back between them, playing election coverage from Fox (red), and CNN (blue). On Nov. 4, an election-night party turned the exhibition into a celebration. Red, white and blue balloons held in a net just below the ceiling were released to float down to the floor, and a photograph of Obama smiling against a clear blue sky was triumphantly hung on the wall.

In spite of his sincere support for the Democratic candidate, Horowitz’s brand of racy social satire was far from absent. We the People Are People Too (2008), a table jammed with scores of plastic joke dolls, filled one side of the room. Each figurine had a different identifying label, including “terrorists are people too” (a little girl holding a cake with one candle) and “pederasts are people too” (a grandpa with a tot in his lap).

Three framed covers of the New York Post in the front gallery wittily (and rather misogynistically) connected Britney Spears to Hillary Clinton, progressing from Britney’s head-shaving (with the headline reading “Shear Madness”), to Britney’s attempted suicide sharing the page with Hillary’s anger (“Hill Fire”), to Clinton’s looming nomination defeat (“Panic”).

And in a pair of photographs titled CBS Evening News/ (2008), Katie Couric’s chirpy upper half (reminiscent of Sherman's well preserved dames) is placed above a view of Britney’s hairless pudendum, with one side of the white jackets both are wearing perfectly aligned. The works were priced from $3,000 for a limited edition print with small images of every president united on one sheet, to approximately $200,000 for the entire back gallery installation.

Back in Chelsea, a film by Stan Douglas made in honor of the 100th anniversary of Samuel Beckett’s birth can be seen at David Zwirner until Dec. 23, 2008. Vidéo (2007) recounts an ordeal undergone by a nameless woman of African ancestry. Arbitrarily abducted and tried, she is constantly ascending various flights of stairs, approaching a dreadful fate. Lips move in this nearly silent film, but we can never hear the words they speak, making the heroine’s victimization by a meaningless sadistic bureaucracy all the more tragic and absurd.

So murky that it takes at least one viewing to adjust to the limited light, the 18-minute-long video begins with a shot of a surveillance camera’s red light moving restlessly from side to side. The heroine, seen only from the back through the entire piece, is repeatedly awoken by plainclothes officials and taken through narrow hallways, until she arrives at a circular courtroom where she stands in a witness box, trying to defend herself.

A horde of people waiting on stairs inside another building motion her to the front of the line and she goes through a door marked “archives.” Outside, two officials reappear and march her to a rubble-strewn lot in front of an abandoned building, handing her a gun that she points to her head and fires. The shot, the video’s only sound, is shocking. As a weak morning finally dawns over the apartment complex, the surveillance camera returns and the loop begins again.

Combining references to Kafka’s The Trial and Beckett’s only film (which stars Buster Keaton and is also almost completely silent), Vidéo is relentlessly dour, but also hauntingly beautiful, with a palette of numerous shades of darkness punctuated by electric lights and reflections shining on rain soaked streets. The colors bring Whistler’s nocturnes to mind, while the atmosphere is reminiscent of Godard’s Alphaville.

Titled “Humor, Irony and the Law,” the show also includes five staged photographs, commemorating political demonstrations that took place in Douglas’s native Vancouver during the last 100 years. For these works, multiple shots were digitally combined into images resembling cinematic stop-action history paintings that (compared to the video) seem a bit obvious. The photographs are priced from $75,000 to $200,000 and the video is on reserve.

Films are customarily shown in unlit rooms, but in “Mutinous Meadows,” an exhibition by Christopher Brooks on view at Moeller Snow Gallery on Bond Street, paintings are also displayed in the dark. The artist’s name and the title of the show are illuminated by a square of light on a white wall. Otherwise the gallery’s gloom is only interrupted by spotlights shining on the work. Featuring black backgrounds embellished with halos of sprayed white enamel and collaged geometric shapes cut from metallic vinyl, they glitter like magenta and silver jewels.

Around a decade ago, Brooks filled the Rupert Goldsworthy Gallery in Chelsea with a series of minimalist geometric paintings in which small rectangles reminiscent of pits, graves, and lonely empty spaces were placed in fields of glossy bright enamel. Since then, Brooks has been painting lusciously colored pop-influenced shapes marred in critical places by distracting little stickers and other found objects, as if he is trying to cancel out his images.

Flaws have been banished from this new group of works, and their shiny black enamel surfaces shimmer with tiny points of light. The 16 paintings stretch around the room like frames in a science fiction movie, with fragments of disassembled starships marking out areas of space. Brooks has transformed the morbid emptiness of his gloomy early work into sparkling fields of infinity, and an aura of sleazy ‘70s décor spices up the exhibition’s beauty. Paintings are priced from $5,000 to $8,000.

Unearthly lights and encroaching shadows can also be found in “The Last Polaroids,” an exhibition by Gail Thacker on view at Safe-T Gallery at 111 Front Street in DUMBO. Her eerie pictures, which really deserve to be seen in a Manhattan venue, are reminiscent of the spirit photographs from the late 19th- and early-20th centuries seen in “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005.

Thacker was given her first box of professional Polaroid 665 black and white positive/negative film by her close friend and collaborator Mark Morrisroe, who died of AIDS in 1989. In addition to one small positive photograph, 665 produces a negative that can be used to print multiple additional images. The negatives are supposed to be separated from the positives and rinsed after a certain amount of time, but Thacker allows them to develop for periods up to a year.

The resulting transformations are entirely random, as the images literally begin to decay. The color that occurs is reproduced in large c-prints made from the degraded negatives. Changes begin at the edges and sometimes work their way almost to the center, threatening to engulf her contemporary photos of artists in oozing chemical floods of brightness or gloom -- creating an effect of artificial age. Brandon Olson, Lance Cruce and Robert Appleton as Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling (2008) makes two leaps into the past. Three young men in satin and lace pose as Andy Warhol’s ‘60s drag superstars, done up in sequins and lace like vamps soliciting customers in a jazz age speakeasy.

A (purposely) double exposed portrait from 2007 features the wonderful artist Tabboo! in black wig and zebra striped jacket, crouching over a menacing motorcycle. His doubled eyes and headlights burn as intensely as the four eyes in Man Ray’s portrait of Luisa Casati (the Italian Roaring ‘20s muse famous for fabulous outfits and fearsome pets).

In Miss Gowanus Canal - Rafael Sanchéz (2003), another great artist and performer poses bald and made-up in an aptly polluted locale. Wearing a full body leotard and holding an umbrella, he seems oblivious to the dark arabesque that divides the entire image. And Thacker herself (resembling Casati) appears face down in Spirit in the Sky (Self-Portrait) (1995), resting her cheek on a couch. A chemically generated outer space spotlight illuminates her body, probably sent by the ghosts of the bygone costumed revelers that inspire her. The photographs are priced from $800 for the small original Polaroid positives to $2,000 for C-prints and $3,200 for digital inkjet prints. 

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.