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by Elisabeth Kley
The young London-based Japanese artist Natsuki Uruma, who specializes in acts of intimacy in unexpected places, certainly has guts. Her past public performances include peeing on a rug in a New York Chanel boutique, performing a pole dance on a London subway and kissing a corpse in an Osaka mortuary. For her first solo show in New York at Rivington Arms, however, Uruma isn’t out to shock. Instead, two music videos and a series of elegant silk-screens clarify the mythical and art-historical references in her work.

In v.o.y.a.g.e (2006), Uruma’s modern version of the spirit’s ancient Greek journey down the River Styx to Hades after death, the artist stands on a raft wearing a tank top stenciled with a portrait of Che Guevara. A sculpture of a fearsome black animal’s head is strapped around her waist -- Cerberus, perhaps. Like Orpheus descending to the underworld, she sings as she passes through footage of oozing molten mountains. Fellow artist Lucy Apple, who is physically challenged, serves as a guide, gamely raising and lowering her weakened arms over a pair of steel drums in the role of Charon, pilot of souls.

Another video, called In-Da-Realmoo-Ou-Dada-Deadymade (2008), has an unwieldy title that manages to reference both Darger and Duchamp. It documents a performance featuring Uruma and collaborator Philippa Horan pedaling on exercise bikes on a darkened stage amid flashing white lights. They are crowned with headdresses of penis-shaped stuffed toys, and the bellies of their flesh-colored bodysuits are filled with lumpy material, simulating pregnancy.

The sexual overtones of the costumes are echoed in the lyrics of the song they sing, seen in subtitles at the bottom of the screen -- "Magnificent Grip, with your fist, we coexist," is one of the lines. Moving on stationary equipment, dressed in clothing that evokes both genders, the performers thus become living versions of Duchamp’s masturbation machine, tirelessly generating the energy of creation. The videos are priced at $5,000 and $1,500, respectively.

Four silk-screens printed in black ink on brown paper also bring Dada to mind, specifically Francis Picabia’s black silhouettes of helmeted nudes with triangular eyes from the 1920s. They depict a garden with rope-trimmed rocks arranged on combed pebbles, sexually ambiguous wrestlers and a chin restraint used to shape facial features -- all referring to nature tamed by training, an apt metaphor for the artistic process. Also reminiscent of late nineteenth century woodcuts by Felix Valloton and ancient Greek vase paintings, the prints are $2,000 each. The show is on view May 30-June 29, 2008.

At Mitchell Algus Gallery, there is an exhibition of another Japanese artist whose work, refreshingly, has nothing in common with the relentless Murakami machine, June 5-July 18. E’wao Kagoshima (now living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) was an important presence in the East Village art scene of the 1980s, but since his 1983 solo exhibition at the old New Museum, his oil paintings have rarely been seen in New York. Algus has curated a wonderful selection of work from 1976 to 2008.

Kagoshima became widely known in Japanese Pop Art circles in the late 1960s for a series of small bronze sculpture of cups and cans balanced in the air over their descending solidified contents. He then developed a wildly personal figurative language, creating fetishistic sculptures of high-heeled shoes and hallucinatory images of extraordinary characters that bring Leonor Fini to mind.

Jupiter Symphony (1976), painted the year he arrived in New York, is the earliest work in the show. An acrobatic green nymph with unusual extremities sprawls across the canvas. One leg ends in a box of Easter eggs, and the other in the head of a bird. Strangest of all, her left hand is replaced by a green TV set with a screen showing multiple Statues of Libertys. A network of decorative trees blooms in the background.

More recently, Kagoshima’s style has morphed into a perverse orientalized impressionism that borders on kitsch. Prime Garbage (2005) is a teeming magical universe reminiscent of Ensor, Bosch and Chagall, in a palette of pastel colors set off by burning vermilion and turquoise. A red-faced samurai with a bulbous Pinocchio nose presides on the right side of the painting, armed with two swords. A squirrel sits on his arm as he points to a glowing white figure throwing a glob of paint into a wire trashcan. Behind him, tiny nudes frolic over a large pagoda. Elsewhere are a bus in a bottle, a multi-armed Hindu deity and a pair of horned goats.

Monkey Smoking (2007), a pale confection of delicate smudged paint, features an adorable simian with one cigarette in his mouth and another in his hand. Their red-hot tips are formed by the thickest brushstrokes in the work, and really seem to burn. And Overtime (Black Fate) (2008), the most recent painting on view, offers a goblin-faced train puffing out a toothy mouth, a creamy ghost and a jumble of clotted gooey brushstrokes that could be scrapings from Kagoshima’s palette. The paintings are priced from $2,500 to $30,000.

Palette scrapings also appear in three of the acrylic paintings in Black Romantic, Kerry James Marshall’s latest exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, May 22-July 3. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, raised in South Central Los Angeles and now living in Chicago, Marshall was the recipient of a 1997 MacArthur genius grant. His work has been included in Documenta and the Venice Biennale, and a solo show in 2003 traveled to museums in Chicago, Boston and New York.

Marshall’s previous paintings have featured crowded interiors and exteriors replete with multiple figures, thought bubbles and lettering. At the moment, however, he is taking inspiration from generic romantic landscapes and portraits rather than comics and folk art. In fact, the exhibition reuses the title of a 2002 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem exploring popular self-empowering "Black Art."

There are three traditional portraits, created this year, of a confident black artist holding her palette, posing in a paint-splattered smock. The same woman appears in a pair of large paintings of an idyllic vacation on the beach, also dated 2008. In one, she wades with her lover among shells and driftwood, as gulls soar, surf surges and sailboats glide. In the other, his hand cups her buttocks as they gaze at a Technicolor sunset, standing on a sand dune peppered with wildflowers. Marshall’s keen depiction of his character’s pitch-black skin is what gives the work its striking power.

More melancholy feelings are provoked by a multi-media installation (2003-2005) on view in the same room. A large model of a black sailboat is set on an inky rectangular mirrored sea. Medallions containing copies of antique photographs of African-Americans, connected by gold chains, flow out of the boat, bringing to mind the obstacles black Americans must have often overcome to enjoy the idyllic romances depicted with subtle irony in Marshall’s paintings.

The front gallery contains Vignette (2005), a 5-panel work with colors restricted to black, white and pink. In five different views, the jubilant reunion of another black couple is represented. The man lifts up the woman as if carrying her over the threshold of their new home. Pink hearts float in the sky, and each image is decorated with the word "Love" in huge lettering. Fists in broken chains also appear, however, and a few black power flags are fluttering. Taking aggressive possession of sentiment, Marshall repositions lowbrow greeting card imagery to create a complex statement of African-American identity. Priced at a hefty $1.5 million, the group of paintings is already taken. In addition, many other works have sold, at prices ranging from $12,000 for one of many pencil drawings, to $400,000 for a large beach scene.

Love is also the subject of Iranian born Laleh Khorramian’s painterly video animation at Salon 94 Freemans, May 30-July 12. The New York-based artist, whose work was included in the 2005 edition of "Greater New York" at P.S.1, honed her skills of fantasy construction making scenery for theme parks -- but her creations are far more subtle than anything found in Disney World. 

I Without End (2008) is a three channel video installation featuring animated vignettes in the life of a pair of lovers. The figures are constructed from bits of glowing orange peel pierced with pins, and they curl erotically around one another in the dark. A vaguely Islamic setting is evoked by faint middle-eastern music, patterned stained glass windows, and tablecloths and rugs made from scraps of fabric found in Iran. 

Khorramian uses a stop-motion technique to bring her constructions to life, periodically photographing the orange peel every 30 seconds as it changes shape over the course of four days. By the end of the video, daylight streams into the set, and the lovers have separated, one resting in the bedroom and the other gazing out the living room window, sun-bleached and dry. The video is $15,000.

The show also includes a related stained glass sculpture ($9,000) and a large work on paper representing an agitated landscape of marbleized paint ($18,000). Several luscious drawings priced at $2,000 each, representing more entwined orange-peel silhouettes, enlarge upon the animation’s light-filled paradise of love.

Sex and romance, both idealized and disillusioned, are often on the mind of London-based artist Ellen Cantor, who also makes drawings and films. Her internationally exhibited wall and paper drawings feature such Disney characters as Bambi and Cinderella engaged in erotic activities, and her meticulously edited videos often combine footage from wildly divergent classic movies. In Within Heaven and Hell (1996), for example, Cantor recounts a personal story illustrated by juxtaposing parallel scenes from The Sound of Music (1965) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) -- one film a fable of hope and the other a spectacle of savage violence.

At Participant, May 22-July 6, Cantor’s current show is called "Within the Budding Grove," after the title of the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust describes his young narrator’s discovery of love and heartbreak through observation of a group of young girls at a seaside resort. Similarly, Cantor’s exhibition concerns brutal reality’s conflict with optimistic dreams. It is also about the loss of her friend Deborah Drier, a writer and critic associated with artforum and the Guggenheim Museum, who died last year after a long battle with lung disease.

Death Skull (2008), an enormous, almost incoherent black drawing with collage, delineated in a style that combines scribbled graffiti with decorative tattoo imagery, dominates the exhibition. Curvy shapes barely coalesce into a death’s head, and enormous letters spell out "CHAOS PANIC AND DISORDER." The words "You pissed me off" and "my work here is done" are also scrawled across the paper, perhaps an expression of Cantor’s rage at the death of her friend. The drawing is $21,000.

Circus lives from Hell (2004), a harrowing 82-panel storyboard for a future film, includes idyllic and nightmare scenes drawn in a delightfully naive manner reminiscent of the female images in Candy Darling’s diary. Possible scripts are outlined, capsule biographies beginning with imagined perfect childhoods and ending in the disorderly tragedies of adult life. Some of them seem to take place in an unnamed Latin-American country, and names have been pasted over with other names, as if anonymity is necessary to protect the subjects. Cantor thus points to the larger atrocities foreshadowed by personal turmoil.

One sequence features "Paloma" and "Pippa" sitting on the knees of their father, who is labeled "a great master of war." In the following drawing, he molests a female servant and spanks a little girl, with his weeping wife nearby. Paloma grows up, has a gorgeous wedding to her father’s friend, and leaves him for the young "Guillermo," a drug addict who eventually marries someone else. After various other adventures, Paloma sits alone at a bar, contemplating leaving for Tenerife and planning to get her hair styled. A few scenes from the storyboard have already been filmed, and may soon be projected on to gallery walls. The entire suite of drawings is $40,000.

The exhibition also includes Deborah 1948-2007, a small memorial video projected in a corner of the gallery, priced at $3,500. It begins with a close-up of flowers, and then cuts to the streets of the New York neighborhood where Drier, now missing, used to live. Arms around each other, two women walk away. A motorcycle and a Time Warner truck are seen, and the camera zooms in on a tiny image of a female face hanging on a door. The video ends with a bit of serendipity -- a still photo of an unknown little girl’s back, inserted somehow during processing.

A stand-in for Drier as a child, perhaps, or for the child in all of us, hoping for the perfect happiness we’ll never get.

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.