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GOTHAM ART & THEATER
by Elisabeth Kley
 
"As Long as It Lasts," a summer group show on the subject of impermanence and mortality curated by Tom Eccles, is ending Marian Goodman’s 2008/2009 season on a melancholy note. The show’s most haunting piece, Polish artist Artur Zmijewski’s tragic Karolina (2002), is a harrowing video portrait of a lovely 18-year-old girl with an unlikely case of advanced osteoporosis, a disease usually associated with old age.

Confined to her bed in a well-lit comfortable room, surrounded by stuffed animals, Karolina explains that she has no hips, and is missing half of one thigh. Her pelvis is fractured in three places, causing bouts of excruciating anguish. Escalating doses of morphine that barely dull the pain will eventually kill her, and she believes there is nothing after death. At the video’s end, her nurse pulls away the blanket, revealing her atrophied legs, lying on the bed like empty tubes.

The specter of old age is one subject of William Kentridge’s Tide Table (2003), a series of animated black-and-white vignettes that begins with a close-up of a graph charting the ocean’s cycles. The stilted movement of Kentridge’s dour charcoal drawings, in which some elements of the picture remain static as others fitfully stop and start, conjures up thoughts of the shortness of human life against the backdrop of uncaring nature.   

Shifting back and forth between present reality and memory, an old white man sits on a South African beach, reading the paper and watching the tide. A row of old-fashioned bathing huts is behind him, and further back a rooming house bustles with parties. Newspaper columns about the price of cattle fill the screen, followed by images of cows being slaughtered, and then by their carcasses revealed on the beach as the tide recedes. 

In Tacita Dean’s Mario Merz (2002), a sensual portrait of the Italian Arte Povera master made just before his death, old age coexists with nature’s temporary beauty. A round-faced old man with long white hair blowing in the breeze sits under a tree, backed by dappled sunlight and bird songs. In the midst of life, Merz has mortality on his mind, and when church bells ring, he thinks it’s for a funeral. The camera lingers on a pine cone he’s dropped when he leaves to go inside, as if this fragile artifact will be his only lasting memorial. The show is up until Aug. 28.

A sensed perturbation
Matthew Buckingham’s Infinite Tuning (2007) provides an appropriately uncertain soundtrack for "A sensed perturbation," a time-warping assortment of works curated by Jacob King for Murray Guy. Buckingham’s recording of an orchestra tuning creates a state of continuous uncertain expectation, as musicians endlessly prepare for a performance that will never occur.

Years of experience disappear in Belgian artist Manon de Boer’s Laurien, March 1996 – Laurien September 2001 – Laurien, October 2007 (1996 – 2007), a filmed portrait that compresses more than a decade of one woman’s life into seven short minutes. We wait for the moment of transition between one time period and another, but the changes in Laurien’s face are subtle. She looks down and blinks, never meeting the viewer’s eye.

Moyra Davey’s 16 Photographs from Paris (2009) are unsettled records of everyday transience that have literally traveled through space and time. Each has been folded to envelope size, stamped, addressed and mailed to the gallery. Banal and wistful subjects include cluttered desktops, emptied coffee cups and flowers on graves.

Sadness and disturbance also permeate Kenneth Goldsmith’s pair of posters outlining the dosages, side effects and hazards of two antidepressants, blown up large enough to make information that is usually ignored uncomfortably easy to read. Prices range from $100 (for the Kenneth Goldsmith work) to $20,000 (for the Manon de Boer film). The show runs until July 31.

Whaddaya Wanna Be, a Flower?!
A satiric view of a usually cheerful subject can be found at "Whaddaya Wanna Be, a Flower?!," an exhibition at Alexander and Bonin that provides a tongue in cheek examination of a time-honored artistic motif by making fun of the flower’s putative sentimentality.

Three kitsch sculptures from Jeff Koons’s 1998 edition of 3,000 Puppy Vases are placed on the floor, each containing a bunch of carnations. The yellow flowers in the pooch in the back room match Joe Bradley’s nearby Untitled Schmagoo (2009), a lackadaisical painting of a backwards yellow Z on a badly stretched piece of wrinkled cotton duck.
           
Rendered with three-dimensional globs of oil paint, Allison Schulnik’s portraits of skull-faced hobo-clowns surrounded by flowers are equally goofy, while Mark Grotjahn and Jonas Wood’s 2008 inkjet prints of big round basketballs are embellished with scribbled outlines of petals. Wan little stems are dangling underneath them, like strings attached to unwieldy balloons, feminizing a sport not usually associated with flowers.

The anthromorphization of houseplants is explored in John Baldessari’s droll 1972 video, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, with a human voice repeating the names of the letters while a matching card is shown to a generic bit of greenery. Similarly, Peter Coffin’s Untitled (Shared Refraction/Reflection) (2003) features an actual Ming Aralia plant, accompanied by a sound track of a voice repeating names of colors, as if it’s learned to speak.

Another wan green houseplant in a bright orange and turquoise pot appears in Rob Pruitt’s Untitled (Spider Plant) (2009). Purchased for $5 in East Hampton at the Pollock-Krasner house, the plant has an impressive pedigree. It also has a press history, having appeared in the New York Times column "Possessed" about celebrities’ favorite possessions. A color inkjet copy of the column is pinned to the wall beside it, informing the viewer that Pruitt has named his non-ambulatory pet Dusty Krasner. Prices range from $2,000 to $18,000 and the exhibition can be seen until Aug. 14.

On the Pleasure of Hatred
Another show with a wonderful title, "On the Pleasure of Hatred: love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust; Hatred alone is immortal" (a quotation from an 1823 essay by William Hazlitt), was curated by David Hunt and can be seen at Lisa Cooley until Aug. 22.

While Hazlitt wrote about tiring of old friends, lovers and books -- familiarity breeding boredom -- the relationship of the work in the show to the essay is somewhat tangential. Hunt’s subject seems rather to be a sense of defeat and incompleteness; a fixation on losses rather than gains.

Dario Robleto’s Sinew of Purpose (2008), for example, is a memorial flower arrangement for Sonny Liston, the heavyweight fighter who lost his world title to Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in 1964 and died of mysterious causes in 1970. A black, white and grey bouquet of lead- and silver-covered roses is placed atop a pair of stitched together leather boxing gloves. Several ribbons are embroidered with phrases including "S. Liston 1932-1970," and "the phantom limb at rest."

Amputation also comes to mind when viewing Shana Lutker’s plastic crutch, somehow holding itself up in the middle of the gallery, ready to be used by the wounded. Lutker has also compiled three books of ads from San Francisco’s craigslist placed by people wanting to contact attractive strangers. Maybe they’re bored with their usual partners, or unable to hook up with anyone they actually know.

Josh Faught’s Triage (2009) is a large raggedy wall hanging of vertical strips of recycled fabric with pockets containing various books. Alluding to a metaphorical bandaging of a damaged persona, titles include Put Your Anger to Work, Beat Depression, and Sybil -- a self-portrait as fragments of unruly emotions in need of repair, perhaps?

Reminiscent of Salome and John the Baptist, the prototypical story of obsessive love turning to hate, Simone Leigh’s Head on a Platter (2009) is a featureless ceramic decapitated head covered with a matte gunmetal glaze. Wearing a headdress of white porcelain roses, it rests on a bright red platter, held up by three spindly steel legs to just below eye level. Prices range from $2,000 to $38,000.

No Bees, No Blueberries
The loss of a fecund natural paradise is conjured up by No Bees, No Blueberries, an exhibition curated by Sarina Basta and Tyler Coburn that’s at Harris Lieberman until July 30. The title was inspired by Andrea Blum’s theory that last year’s paltry crop of blueberries was caused by the declining number of bees.

Presenting a vision of the art world as a beehive of interconnected creative activity, Basta and Coburn have related this concept to the rise in DIY curating and exhibiting. Here, announcements and exhibitions are often the actual content of the art, instead of just the means of display, and many of the works recycle the media and graphic design of previous shows.

A shining example of artistic self-sufficiency can be found in Peter Simensky’s Neutral Capital Collection II (2007), in which the artwork is also the gallery. A beautifully crafted shipping container holds photography, video, painting, ceramics, sculpture and assemblage by 15 artists, including Patty Chang, James Hyde, Meredyth Sparks and Michael Mahalchick.

Upon arrival, it unfolds into a portable display module with its own lighting system -- all it needs is one electrical outlet. There is even a silver foil kinetic sculpture that breathes (with the help of a concealed fan) -- Ruth Serum, Laughing Gas and Fools Gold (2007), by Charlotte Becket.
   
In Nicolas Guagani’s State of the Art (2008) a collection of 21 posters from art events of the last four years are stenciled in silver and black with the letters of the alphabet and a telephone number. Large round circles have been cut out of each poster and rearranged in the resulting empty holes. The posters are thus rendered indecipherable and abstract, while their graphic design is retained.
  
Douglas Boatwright’s Yes or Fuseline also reaches out to other art by creating a dry irrigation system connecting the works in the show. Materials including charcoal dust, pigment, talc and bee pollen are placed in tiny grooves in the gallery’s cement floor, with colors keyed to the artworks they are touching. Red, for example, comes out of Guyton/Walker’s Untitled (from the series: Guyton / Walker: Empire Strikes Back) (2006), echoing the patches of red in their silkscreen on canvas image of a knife, which is balanced on a label-less pile of shiny aluminum paint cans.

Explaining pictures to a dead bull (2009), a piece by the quixotic Brooklyn-based artist’s collective Bruce High Quality Foundation, can be found in a side room. Written on a blackboard, the title words suggest that creating interconnecting artist hives may be more rewarding than trying to interest an indifferent outside world.

The Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde
A fascinating exhibition with only four original works of art, "The Fantastic Tavern: The Tbilisi Avant-Garde," can be seen at Casey Kaplan until July 31. The show was curated by Daniel Baumann and AIRL, an acronym for Arts Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory, a group of art historians and artists from Georgia, the country between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Following the Russian Revolution, from 1918 to 1921, Georgia was an independent state with a thriving avant-garde art scene focused on Futurism and Dada. The curators have brought this bygone hive of culture back to life with complete reproductions of nine illustrated publications lined up along two walls, four silent movies with subtitle translations in loose-leaf notebooks, and a long computer printout of twenty-three reproduced paintings and drawings.

In addition, there are two groups of vintage photographs of architecture and people in Georgian costume, two poems, an audiotape (of zaum, a radical form of incomprehensible sound poetry), and a giant blown-up photo of a theater set printed on three rolls of paper. A shelf of Georgian art books is available to read, and there is even a Georgian rug at the entrance to the gallery. Handouts, including articles on Georgian cinema, futurist books, avant-garde theater, and modernist cafes, can be picked up at the front desk.

Perusing this generous outpouring of material, the viewer can learn a lot about a previously obscure subject. The show proves that in a time of tight purse strings a lot can be done without original artworks. The familiar history of modernism is reflected in another location and what you thought you knew becomes unfamiliar and fresh. A few works are for sale at prices ranging from $250 to $3,000. 


ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic.



 



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