Excrement is big this September -- Andres Serrano’s luscious photographs of feces can be seen at Yvon Lambert Gallery on West 21st Street, and a group show called "Shit" is the first exhibition at Feature’s new space on the Bowery. And the artist Sue Williams, now showing at David Zwirner Gallery, has long been involved with poo, as well as blood, semen and vomit. Bodily fluids and solids of all sorts (and the actions involved in producing them) were among her main subjects when she first gained notoriety for her scathing representations of sexual warfare in the early 1990s. She subsequently transformed her gritty depictions of angry encounters into airy abstractions that resemble finicky late works by Willem de Kooning. Allusions to bodies remain, but her colors glow with painstaking finesse.
Williams has now returned to more overt grotesquerie, meticulously rendered in a style reminiscent of Dr. Seuss illustrations. Her new paintings, resemble cartoon maps of the world -- polished doodles that metamorphose, upon close inspection, into anuses, teeth, intestines, testicles, eyeballs, fetuses and distorted little facial features. By rendering ugliness in pretty colors and graceful outlines, Williams echoes Roy Lichtenstein‘s joke of turning a dripping Abstract-Expressionist brushstroke into a flattened sign.
Williams’ interest in broader social commentary is also longstanding. The show’s title, "Project for the New American Century," echoes the name of a Washington neo-conservative think tank. That, and the equally political titles of the paintings themselves -- 1-800-Empire, for instance, or Leo Strauss, Theoretician -- turn the work into a statement against the policies and actions of Bush’s capitalist America across the globe, especially the Iraq war.
Two blocks away at Anton Kern Gallery, the painterly abandon Williams appears to have outgrown can be found in "Lebenslieben," an exhibition by the Hamburg-based artist Bendix Harms. Harms went to school with Jonathan Meese, and both could be thought of as second-generation German Neo-Expressionists who trowel on their colors with gusto, in a style that brings children’s art to mind. But while Meese creates an over-the-top celebrity world and cultivates a crazed persona, Harms depicts feelings about his everyday life and hopes.
Like Pablo Picasso (whose late works his paintings also resemble), Harms celebrates family life, and the show’s main subject is his desire for babies and a dog. His wife, Mari Susanne Kollerup, appears in many of his paintings, and in MS Kollerup (2008) she is depicted as the captain of his boat of life, sailing on a sea of choppy waves. Rotes Schloss (Red Castle) (2007) is a self-portrait head topped with a castle containing a nest filled with eggs. Harm’s portrayal of his big fat nose through negative space is especially endearing.
Marievogel (2008), the show’s most sentimental painting, features an enormous red bird spreading its turquoise wings as it hovers over the couple in bed. In a 2005 interview with his wife, Harms expresses admiration for paintings that "hit you deep in your steak," his term for a fluttering heart. He’s certainly laid out his emotions for all to see in this exhibition. The paintings cost between $8,500 and $24,000.
Kern’s back room contains an installation by the amiable German performance artist John Bock, who also went to school with Harms and Meese. Sheltered by some precarious white wooden screens, a DVD of a Bock performance (acted out upon the same lumber in its previous incarnation as a stage) is playing on a monitor. Looking like a mad doctor in a white coat and a headdress of pink daylilies, Bock discourses in German on "thought clouds, Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), Charles Darwin, his inside-the-art-work-world-view, cybernetics, and filmmaking," according to gallery director Christof Gerozissis, who provided an English translation of the vid’s German narration.
Later, Bock tosses the dying flowers from his headdress to the floor and spreads some inky goop over a reel of film running through a bicycle wheel. All of the props from the performance can be seen in the installation, most of them heaped in an old trunk that could have belonged to a bygone vaudeville performer. The installation is $84,000.
A lighter spirit of play animates "Tiam O’Shian IV," an exhibition by the New York-based Japanese artist Tam Ochiai at Team on Grand Street in SoHo. For his 2005 show at the gallery, Ochiai enlisted the help of children, but this time his collaborators are cats, upping the ante in terms of unselfconscious creativity. The exhibition’s title is taken from the name of a prize-winning purebred Siamese cat born in 1899, whose name is fortuitously close to that of the artist.
On one side of the main gallery is set up a large tunnel made of two huge cardboard tubes, while the smaller back gallery is nearly filled by a plywood cube loosely painted white. Before the show opened, some borrowed cats were let loose in the rooms. Ochiai was hoping that they would make drawings with their claws on the sculptures, but if they did, the work is invisible. The only obvious sign of their presence is a few bits of dry food scattered in the tunnel.
Virtual cats do play a part in the show, in the form of a video of felines frolicking on various minimal constructions. The monitor is placed so it can most easily be seen while sitting in the cardboard tube. As everyone knows, cats like nothing better than enclosed spaces, so it was ideally situated for them to watch while "working" on their exhibition.
Ochiai’s sculptures and video add some unpretentious weight to the display of evanescent letter-sized drawings hanging at eye-level along the walls of Team’s imposing space. The interplay between titles and images gives rise to linguistic jokes, as minimal spots are called on to represent benign tumors, koala eyes, an LP record, a floating contact lens and Matisse’s glasses. The otherwise unseen cat scratches appear in several sketches, complete with paw marks. And a representation of the conclusions of several French movies (television screens showing the word "fin") is titled A Lot of fins. The tube installation is $23,000, the cube is $18,000, the framed works on paper are $1,000 each.
At Rivington Arms on East Second Street off the Bowery, "You Are Nothing to Me, You Are Like Air" by Leigh Ledare is a rather more taxing exhibition. Ledare is blessed with a fascinating mother, named Tina, who is, at the moment, the engine that drives his art. At 59, she’s an elegant ex-ballerina who has also worked as a stripper, and Ledare takes full advantage of her exhibitionistic side.
Ledare (who was once an assistant to photographer and film director Larry Clark) has published a limited edition book, Pretend You’re Actually Alive, containing material featured in this and a previous exhibition. It chronicles his mother’s life and their relationship in text and photographs, and includes some explicit scenes of sexual display and images of her encounters with younger men. Other pictures are poignant rather than lurid, including several pictures of his grandmother at a nursing home towards the end of her life. The result is a tragicomic study of one woman’s unusual approach to growing old.
Photographs from the book are on view at Rivington Arms, but two videos are the heart of the show. Mother and son can be seen in Shoulder (2007), which looks like a straightforward record of two actors rehearsing a scene, and which is shown on a monitor in the back room. "Let’s start," says Ledare, "just make sure the red light is on." They embrace and she cries, quite desperately, on his shoulder. When he leaves, she looks around quite calmly -- is she so constantly sad that she can weep whenever she wants, or is she simply a very good actress?
The Gift (2007), projected on a nearby wall, is taken from footage of Tina’s abandoned project for a soft-core fetish spanking video. Ledare removed the narrative elements, leaving a scenario resembling a risqué jewelry ad. Spreading and crossing her legs, Tina follows an unseen director’s orders as she plays with a sparkling tiara and necklace, "kiss it like it was a cock," he says, "and don’t look at the camera." The vids are $4,000 each; photos range in price from $1,400 for a 9 x 14 in. C-print to $20,000 for a set of ten.
Agathe Snow has also served as a muse, notably when she was married to the artist Dash Snow (grandson of the legendary collector Christophe de Menil), whose youthful adventures in graffiti and shoplifting were described in a notorious 2007 article in New York magazine. Agathe staged a weeklong dance marathon for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and her first solo New York art show was a performance/installation last year that transformed James Fuentes’ gallery into a pawnshop inside a beached whale -- a refuge from an imagined deluge.
This time, for a second show at Fuentes titled "Just Say Yes," a series of fables by Leonardo da Vinci provide the underpinning for a series of assemblage sculptures constructed from old clothes, toys, jewelry and other materials, all embellished with papier-mâché, paint and glitter. Suspended from the ceiling, the works seem to have materialized from leftovers found in an imaginary junk shop that might have previously occupied the gallery’s gritty space. Snow, half Corsican, half Tunisian, has lived in America since she was 12 years old, and she aims to evoke the sense of possibility she felt as a new emigrant to the United States. Hence, perhaps, the patriotic color scheme of the show as a whole -- deep blue walls, white ceiling, red foam carpet -- and the sense of making something out of whatever is at hand.
The exhibition is anchored by The Tongue and Teeth (2008), a piece that stretches through the gallery. Leonardo’s fable describes a mouth containing a chatterbox tongue that is finally bitten off by its exasperated teeth, represented on the back wall by two groups of awkward silver rectangles. Starting between them, a length of thin foam hangs down to the floor and proceeds through the space, forming a dingy red carpet that eventually emerges from a pile of debris in front of the gallery -- thus turning the entire room into a gaping mouth that opens to the street. The works are priced in the $10,000 range and above.
Personal rather than architectural transformations are on view in "Outtakes" at Luxe Gallery on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side, an exhibition by the French filmmaker Marie Losier that documents an amazing muse. When he helped invent industrial rock in the late 1960s, Genesis P-Orridge began one of the most extreme performance art careers of our time. A pioneer body piercer who occasionally masturbated on stage, P-Orridge once made a sculpture out of bloody tampax and maggots that turned into flies, decades ahead of Damien Hirst.
P-Orridge’s late wife, Lady Jaye, was a beautiful blonde dominatrix, and they expressed their love by metaphorically trying to become one person, undergoing matching breast implant and cosmetic surgery that made their faces and bodies more similar. Although Lady Jaye died this year, she lives on in the now hermaphroditic P-Orridge, who follows her raw-food diet, dresses in her clothes and uses the pronoun "s/he" to refer to himself.
The show consists of three viewing machines (constructed by Jean Barberis) playing short films made out of unused fragments from Losier’s upcoming movie, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. Pushing a button on the largest apparatus starts Papal Broken-Dance, a music video set in a wrestling gym. Dressed in white and wearing a blond wig, eyes outlined in black, with surgically enhanced lips and gold teeth, P-Orridge belts out a song about love, backed by a dancing troupe of beefy men in one piece wrestling underwear and women in tutus with spots painted on their cheeks.
Two smaller viewing machines -- a birdhouse with a peephole and a small monitor perched on a three-legged stand -- display more intimate bits of film, and a group of portrait photographs are pinned to the wall. P-Orridge poses in a cat suit, a silver Mylar ball gown, and in the nude, displaying extensive tattoos -- a flamboyant pansexual beauty ready for the coming feminine millennium s/he is convinced will soon arrive. Prices range from $2,400 for the set of 12 portrait C-prints to $18,000 for Papal Broken-Dance, complete with its Scopitone machine.
ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.