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by Elisabeth Kley
There’s certainly nothing distasteful about the first work to be seen in "Pretty Ugly," the enjoyable summer group show put together by Guggenheim adjunct curator Alison Gingeras at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Maccarone, July 10-Aug. 29, 2008. A rainbow of sequin-like plastic reflective lights on a wooden board, Rob Pruitt’s Prince William Sound (1989) looks like a monochrome painting in drag.

If you’re looking for ugliness, Piotr Uklanski’s Untitled (Kinski/Cicciolina) (2008) is definitely the most hideous work on view. Displayed in a two-sided standing frame, this pair of appropriated photos shows the dissolute European actor Klaus Kinski and porn star Cicciolina (formerly Mrs. Jeff Koons) embracing nude non-Westerners of opposite ages and sexes. Kinski has his arm around a young African girl, while Cicciolina embraces a toothless bald man. One wonders how these nameless people, obviously chosen to represent so-called tribal innocence, could bear to be touched by such loathsome European celebrities.

Across the room, her glazed eyes attesting to inner visions, Alice Neel’s Religious Girl (1958) couldn’t be less interested in their questionable activities.

Down the block at Maccarone, a rare early painting by Paul McCarthy (with Mike Cram), I’m really worried about you (1967-1969), dominates a gallery called "Head Room." A colorfully childlike composition featuring a mushroom with eyes, it’s amusing -- but hardly as disturbing as the assaultive installations by the same artist now at the Whitney museum. Nearby is Disasters of Yoga (1997), a classic sculpture by Jake & Dinos Chapman of a child whose head and asshole have changed places.

Plenty of sparkle can be found in the "Pink and/or Gold Room," with John Armleder’s Untitled (2008), a set of grenades covered with gold glitter arranged in a grid on a canvas, and James Lee ByarsWorld Flag (1991), a six foot tall gold lamé fringe. The "Shades of Green Room," another gallery organized by color, includes a moody 1925 Picabia of women metamorphosing into plants, a 1978 Schnabel plate painting, and Karen Kilimnik’s festive Beluga caviar $65 -- Firebird (2004), an avian rendered in glitter on a background of forest green. Very few of the works are for sale here.

Up in Chelsea, "Painting: Now and Forever, Part II," a slightly more focused two-gallery group exhibition, runs until August 15. Spread over Matthew Marks and Greene Naftali galleries, it is billed as a "highly subjective, celebratory survey of contemporary painting," and is a follow-up to a previous show with the same title, held ten years ago at Matthew Marks and Pat Hearn galleries.

Weightless luminosity is the predominant impression this time at Marks, aided by the gallery’s eight skylights. The exhibition’s definition of painting is elastic enough to include a tablecloth from a dinner at the Guggenheim stretched over wooden bars by Reena Spaulings, and a framed mirror by Katherina Fritsch.

Artists who use real paint tend to be equally flippant. Untitled (2000), by Michael Majerus, is an insouciant sprayed side-view of a skull that says "fuck the artist" in small letters on the bottom. Michael Krebber’s lackadaisical scribble of blue and green acrylic, Contempt for One’s Own Work as Planning for Career (2001), gains a dash of black humor from its caustic title.

Textiles make a strong showing at Greene Naftali’s slightly darker toned portion of the exhibition, including two predominately black, red and blue works hanging in a corner of the main gallery. Moving Circus (2008), an unstretched collaboration between Kai Althoff and Erin Allen, features various dilapidated tent-like fabrics painted with tiny black bicycles and dribbled with grids of glue.

The bold striped fabric appliqué on Cosima Van Bonin’s Straight, No Chaser (2007) is also stitched together, and embellished with tiny embroidered cartoon figures. And in Carpet #2 (2003), Mike Kelley gives painting a metaphoric raspberry by rolling some red fluorescent acrylic over a section of an ordinary rug and sticking it in a frame. Prices range from $9,000 to $1.4 million.

More juvenile irreverence can be found in "I Won’t Grow Up," a group show curated by collector Beth de Woody and artist Donald Baechler, at Cheim and Read, June 26-Aug. 29. 2008. Rob Wynne’s sculptured wall text in mirrored glass letters is the first work that comes into view, shimmering like a pool of melting light. "The Last Fairy Tale," it reads -- providing an epitaph for the innocence that is definitely not in evidence in most of the works on view.

Will Ryman’s Rat Trap (2007) sprawls on the floor below, an over-life-sized sculpture of a gangly cartoon character whose hand has been practically chopped off by a mouse trap baited with a fifty dollar bill. Will is the son of artist Robert Ryman, but his raucous creation couldn’t be further away from his father’s cool investigations of painting’s nature.

Further back, a wall of works on paper by such artists as Warhol and Basquiat includes Steve GianakosHis Thoughts Were To Be Considered Among the Finest in the World (1996), an image of a woman’s buttocks protruding from under a desk. The style brings turn-of-the-century book illustration to mind, but the drawing is decidedly mature, save for the detail of a bunny rabbit holding an ashtray atop the desk.

The poignancy of youthful helplessness is beautifully portrayed in the earliest work in the show -- The Runaway Girl, circa 1938, by Louise Bourgeois, a painting of a sad preadolescent levitating over a pale blue sea, carrying a tiny white suitcase. It’s nicely paired with Kiki Smith’s Pool of Tears 2 (2003), an etching of a doleful Alice leading a pack of swimming animals. Prices range from $5,000 to $2 million.

Summer high jinks continue a few doors down at Moti Hasson gallery’s "intransit," July 10-Aug. 30, 2008, the latest exhibition put together by independent curator Omar Lopez-Chaoud. Known for featuring more than the usual token Hispanics and African-Americans, Lopez-Chaoud has packed his show with works by artists whose names are not yet art-world household words. Quite a few include domestic objects gone wild -- Michael Delucia’s Corner Mop (2008), is a gathering of mops stuck in a mound of plaster, and Simone Leigh’s ceramic urn has erupted with numerous breasts, their nipples covered with ant-like spots of black glaze.

A foreboding pair of black-and-white photographs titled Bye-Bye Blackbird by Wayne Hodge features African-American go-go dancers in cages suspended from the ceiling, being gaped at by men staring up from below. Props, programs and costumes handmade by Larry Krone for his country music performances can be seen across the room. A red, white and blue pair of overalls and a gingham Dorothy dress (in men’s large) are both studded with Swarovski crystals. Hanging nearby from the ceiling, an acrylic blanket is embroidered with the words "Warm Until I Die." Prices for these particular works range from $4,000 to $10,000.

Work by more artist/performers appears three blocks away, in "West Nile Style," at D’Amelio Terras, July 9-Aug. 15. More than a thematic potpourri, this dense exhibition by a cohesive group of artists known for their involvement in experimental music (complicated things like walls of sound, fragmented field recordings, and extreme frequencies) seethes with the excitement of communal creation. Members perform and make videos, paintings, sculptures and installations at a warehouse they’ve named Paris London / West Nile, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Channeling ‘60s and ‘70s modernism, the show has a tattered retro/futurist/utopian vibe, with affinities to Buckminster Fuller (whose kooky inventiveness is on display right now at the Whitney) and the work of Carol Bove (who often re-presents books and paintings of the period). A series of large mathematical/musical diagrams on plastic tablecloths by Tony Conrad, whose first recording, Outside the Dream Syndicate (1973), is considered a classic of minimal music, provides a living link to avant-garde history.

An elaborate altar including a pentagram, antlers, mirror shards, and crystal bottles of blood, semen, urine, flies, sand and soap has been constructed in the front project room by Severiano Martinez (who is also a published poet) and Zeljko McMullen (who toured for a year mixing sound for Lou Reed). A central monitor plays their video version of 22 major tarot card scenes, acted out in improvised skits.

Inside a cave of black cloth near the entrance to the main gallery, a blue searchlight revolves, illuminating a prehistoric submarine world by M. V. Carbon (a.k.a. Violet Raid). A video of a bikini-clad woman swimming is projected on the surface of a painting that sits on a shelf made from an old piano lid. Another colored painting of a whale has a light behind it, and there’s a black-and-white depiction of a Viking ship.

Other works include Brooke Hamre Gillespie’s installation of vintage found books (including The Children of the Light, Clouds of Destiny, and best of all, Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine). Hollowed out, fitted with audio wires and switches, and then connected to an amp in an old wooden table, they become homemade musical instruments, capable of emitting evocative squeaks and static when played. Prices are surprisingly low, ranging from $200-$300 for digital prints to $8,000 for a large installation.

A similar esthetic can be found in the summer group show downtown at Canada. Titled "Journey to the Center of Uranus," July 11-Aug. 10, the exhibition is named, of course, after the second furthest planet from the sun (now that Pluto has been downgraded to a dwarf). The artists seem to be trying to look at our world from a similar distance, as if they are living in the future and excavating the present as the past.

Thus, Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ combinations of ceramic and paper maché look like they could have been unearthed in an archeological dig. Paul Slocum’s four giclee prints on canvas turn his present-day computer desktop into a relic, with a theme that reaches back to the ancient Romans -- each colorful image represents one of the seasons of the year. And Ida Ekbald dyes everyday dollar bills (rapidly becoming worthless, these days) with rich dark hues, turning them into a moody rainbow arranged in a Nazi swastika -- money as the root of all evil? The works are for sale at prices from $2,000 to $8,000.

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.