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by Elisabeth Kley
Although it begins with a light-filled room of drawings and collages, darkness reigns in "Even the Ghost of the Past," Marcel Dzama’s exhibition of new sculptures at David Zwirner on West 19th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea art district. A sculpture of a seated one-legged minotaur, with a rifle hung from a strap around his neck and a can of paintbrushes at his side, guards the entrance to Dzama’s labyrinth -- a darkened room containing six dioramas lit only from within. Long celebrated for his intimate, cartoonlike drawings of almost unlimited imagination, Dzama has gone large-scale with a vengeance in new 3D versions of his signature work.

The largest diorama, On the Banks of the Red River (2008), is a gruesome extravaganza of over 300 ceramic figures, including an army of tiny men wearing business suits pointing rifles towards the sky in front of a forest of shiny red flowers. The ground is littered with animal corpses and oversized disembodied heads. A child in a red nightgown seems to float in the air at the extreme left like a levitating assassinated fairy, arms outstretched, blood seeping out of her mouth. The installation is made in an edition of three, and at least one had already sold for $180,000.

Past the dioramas, a narrow hallway leads to a small theater showing The Lotus Eaters (2005), an enchanting moving picture shot in 8mm, 16mm and Fisher Price Pixelvision, all transferred to DVD. The film features Dzama’s father as an artist whose drawings keep coming to life: a woman giving birth to tiny grown men, a dancing bear, a workshop staffed by craftsmen in animal masks. "It’s about an artist who’s haunted by the death of his wife. . . he slowly goes mad and is consumed by the world he made in his drawings," Dzama explained last year. The tinkly piano soundtrack (replaced with an improvised live accompaniment on Saturdays) carries viewers back to the magical black-and-white era of silent film.

The drawings in "Darger Discoveries" at Andrew Edlin Gallery on West 20th Street could almost be studies for Dzama’s large diorama. Henry Darger (1892-1973) was a hospital janitor and outsider genius (whose influence on contemporary artists is explored in an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, Apr. 15-Sept. 21, 2008 -- Dzama, unaccountably, is left out). Beginning with tracings from Xeroxed copies from popular illustrations, Darger created an enormous opus of watercolors and writing describing an imaginary world conflict in which virtuous Vivian Girls with tiny penises battled evil Glandelinains.

The joyful side of Darger’s world can be seen in Untitled (Grimecian Gazoonian), a colorful dragon with butterfly wings further captioned "venomous calverinia hedious but a very gentle creature it is however exceedingly ferocious toward enemies of its (friends)." Untitled (The Battle of Norma Catherine) is a horrific panorama filled with smoke, explosions and infuriated warriors stabbing each other with bayonets. Typically, however, Darger juxtaposes innocence with gore. Untitled (at Jennie Richee, they admire the beauty of the tropical nimbus clouds) features a sweet nymphet in party dress and purse standing unconcernedly over a pair of decapitated heads with protruding tongues, as a Blengin (a giant half dragon, half child, with curling horns) kneels in horrified mourning beside her.

The 15,145 pages of Darger’s epic fantasy, titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, are said to have their origin in a single newspaper photograph of a five-year-old girl who was reportedly strangled in 1911. Darger’s fascination with little girls, as well as with their imperilment and rescue, could arise from the fact that his mother died giving birth to his younger sister, who was then given up for adoption.

At 13, Darger was institutionalized (for "self-abuse") in an asylum known for forced labor and severe punishments. His work is an incredible example of an untrained, poverty-stricken, isolated artist’s ability to channel traumatic experience into an invented universe of richness and terrible beauty. Prices range from $25,000 to over $200,000 for a nine-foot long, double-sided drawing.

More luxurious nightmares can be found at Galerie Lelong on West 26th Street in Chelsea, in the Italian-born New York artist Angelo Filomeno's impeccably crafted, ominously shimmering silver or black machine embroideries on silk stretched over linen. Filomeno began sewing at seven, and he has a craftsman’s understanding of fabric. Smell of Spleen (2008) for example, features a macabre turkey head floating on a vertical field of silver dotted with tiny crystals. And As the Water Comes Rushing Over (2008), is a depiction of a skeletal hand stroking a skull that floats in a sea of black moire waves. 

Although Filomeno’s paintings are impressive, his sculptures are really the stars of the show. The Marquis's Dominatrix (2008), an impractical sadist’s delight, is a 13-foot-long black whip suspended from two S-shaped hooks, like a carcass in an antiseptic slaughterhouse. With a spiny glass handle and a length of braided leather ending in delicate crystals, it’s a cross between weapon, natural history specimen and designer handbag. Cold (2007) is a black glass skeleton sprawled across a mirror, reaching for a black satin cape and vomiting bile in the form of black crystal beads. These high-end memento mori meld painting with couture and are selling well from $35,000 to $125,000. 

Couture is also important to Hope Atherton, the young celebrity artist whose fabulous fashion sense can be seen in 49 photos on Her noir sensibility and limited palette of blacks, grays and subtle pastel are amply displayed in her paintings at Bortolami. The most compelling image on view, a mustached black man wearing sunglasses and a flowered dress, holding up a sword and a cigarette, is given in three versions. He looks like a voodoo priest and could very well be one, considering that the paintings are based on photographs Atherton snapped in locations from Miami to Trinidad and Kenya. The show also features three paintings of a female figure, sitting on a shelf with white legs provocatively crossed, that turns out to be a doll in a doll hospital. Prices range from $8,000 to $30,000.

Matthew Marks Gallery is showing a selection of East Village portraits taken in the 1970s and ‘80s by Peter Hujar, the legendary photographer who inspired Robert Mapplethorpe and died of AIDS in 1987. Many of his subjects also died of AIDS, and they are seen in all their campy glory here, in photos such as Ethyl Eichelberger as Auntie Belle Emme (1979), in ball gown next to an infant’s coffin, and Charles Ludlum as Camille (1974), in wig, veil and hairy chest. A bearded Joe Brainard (Arms Crossed) (1975), stares confrontationally from his bed, as if he has a premonition of his future illness, years before the epidemic began.

At the new East Houston Street home of Lia Gangitano's Participant gallery, Alice O’Malley’s photographs provide proof that Hujar’s milieu remains defiantly alive, in spite of its many tragic losses. "Community of Elsewheres" is a selection from O'Malley's "Rare Orchids," a series of gelatin sliver prints she describes as "black-and-white studio portraits of artists on the Lower East Side at the new millennium." The show was curated by Hujar fan Antony, the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, whose eerie and poignant songs include paeans to the possibility of boys growing up to be beautiful women.

O’Malley considers her work to be an homage to Hujar, and her subjects include writer Eileen Myles, artist Nicole Eisenman, photographer Justine Kurland, club host Kenny Kenny, drag performer Les Simpson, singer Kembra Pfahler (of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) and Dr. Julia Yasuda, a hermaphrodite mathematician who once welcomed the audience to an Antony concert in the nude. A portrait of Antony himself in a gossamer dress, almost floating in a cloud of pearly light, can be seen in the gallery's back room.

Posing her LES aristocracy against tenement walls, O’Malley recreates the textural magic of Cecil Beaton’s 20th-century portraits of upper class Brits. The show, also an homage to the paintings of masculine women by Romaine Brooks (1874-1979), is a breathtaking tribute to the serene self possession of those who refuse to be bound by societal norms. According to Sur Rodney Sur, who worked with Gracie Mansion on Hujar’s last show, O’Malley is "one of the art world’s best kept secrets." Not any more. The 24 x 20 in. photographs, printed in editions of seven, are $2,200 each. A limited-edition box containing 13 postcard-size gelatin prints is also available for $2,500 (edition of five plus one artist’s proof).

The installation by New York artist Mika Tajima (b. 1975) at the Kitchen, "The Double," is part of a two-person show with Glen Fogel (b. 1977), organized by Matthew Lyons. Combining interior architecture with formal geometric abstraction, Tajima’s row of movable panels framed in birch divides the gallery in half, forming a barrier made up of subtly-colored silkscreen paintings. Colored with grays, browns and purples embellished with gold leaf, they look like elaborations of three dimensional diagrams. Two of the panels are vertically rotating mirrors.

The photocopies pinned to four of the panels bring Tajima’s conceptual concerns to the fore. One is a press release introducing architect Robert Probst‘s 1968 design for Herman Miller’s "Action Office," and another is a copy of a poster from Cammel and Roeg’s 1968 film Performance, featuring gender shifting photos of stars Mick Jagger and James Fox. The photocopies also include a hazy picture of two people separated by the walls of an unfinished building, and a snapshot of someone painting a wall mural of a low modernist building. Together, these images suggest that the flexible architecture designed to facilitate communication ultimately wound up fostering loss of identity, isolation, confusion, and violence.

A hanging lamp copied from a scene in Performance swings menacingly back and forth behind the row of panels, casting shadows and reflections from two more mirrors with cutouts shaped like splashes of blood. Along with Howie Chen, Tajima has a band called New Humans and often activates her exhibitions with sonic art events featuring noise and music. Band members describe their work as "destabilizing into undulating segments and then finally shattering into a series of interlocking parts" -- also an apt description of Tajima’s installation.

The eerie stuttering soundtrack and the flashing images of Quarry, Glen Fogel’s video reenactment of a scene from TV’s "Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit" could also be described as a "shattered series of interlocking parts." Seen in extreme close-up, a convicted pedophile, alternatingly played by the original television actor and Fogel himself, identifies his victims by sniffing a series of tagged baseball caps.

This monumental projection fills the entire wall, generating a sense of claustrophobia as it forces the viewer to identify with the pedophile. An NBC logo is visible in the lower left corner of the screen, but Fogel’s structure of simple repetition communicates the pedophile’s disturbing emotion more clearly than it could ever be conveyed on prime-time TV. Part of an edition of three, the video is a 2:30 loop with 18 variations for a total time of 41:50. The price is $10,000, not including equipment.

A more everyday alienation is the subject of "UStrust," an imaginary bank at Schroeder Romero on West 27th Street in Chelsea devised by artist Eric Heist (who when he’s not in the studio co-directs the very real Momenta Art in Williamsburg -- where he once showed my own artworks). "Trust us" is scrawled across the surface of a teller window made from black reflective glass, but the only thing needy customers can turn to are their own reflections in the dark. In Staged Death, ($15,000), what seems to be a frustrated client has expired face down on a low square black-carpeted pedestal surrounded by black light bulbs. Covered with a blue cloth, the body is cut off from the public by stanchions, as if it has collapsed in a boxing rink for a one-sided defeat.

The exhibition also includes a series of color photographs ($1,850 each) of the accouterments of middle-class life -- home, car, supermarket -- labeled in tiny letters with quotations from texts by the poor ("I steal to feed them," "they spend a fortune punishing me"). A video features Heist himself fruitlessly threatening the nonexistent teller behind his black window with a gun, and then sliding to sit on the floor in defeat. A pair of drawings of the meager possessions of the homeless, based on photos of Miami Beach taken during last winter’s art fair season, can be seen in a smaller gallery. Priced at $2,500 each, they are quiet reminders of individual helplessness in the context of art-world luxury.

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.