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GOTHAM ART & THEATER
by Elisabeth Kley
 
Notorious for her bad-girl YBA reputation and works of sculpture that make the notion of the "abject" distressingly evident, Tracey Emin has somehow become an expert draughtsman along the ways. Her expressive lines are beautifully evident in the monoprints featured in "Only God Knows I?m Good," her fourth solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York, this show installed at the gallery?s space on Christie Street on the Lower East Side. Drawn with a shaky, unselfconscious hand, her images have an automatic quality that took Paul Klee years to achieve, along with a pathetic sense of haplessness that brings cartoons by James Thurber to mind.

But Emin?s subject matter, which conveys an overwhelming feeling of self-disgust and abandonment, is far from light-hearted. In More Nothingness (2009), a faceless nude female in stiletto heels sits in the center of the page with her legs spread, masturbating. "I CAN?T FEEL" is scrawled above her head, as if sexual excitement is the only sensation that can make her believe in her own existence.

Nearby hangs Nothing Touches (2009), a blanket embroidered with a drawing of a female figure whose face is blacked out. A spindly line that seems to outline a long skirt could also represent a pair of stick legs enclosing a void. The appliquéd flowers around her provide the only spots of color in the show (aside from a pair of glowing neon signs). Smudged monoprints, yellowed fabric and weathered wood provide the muted tones that otherwise prevail.

In Strangeland, her 2005 memoir, Emin describes her early teen-aged passion for disco dancing and sexual coupling. Competing in a Margate dance contest, her potential triumph was derailed by jeers and catcalls from men in the audience, most of whom she?d had sex with by the age of 14. The message is that promiscuous lust is normal for men, but for women, it?s pathetic.

Playing in the back gallery is Those Who Suffer Love, a 20-minute-long animation. Sketches of a prone woman lying on a bed, seen from the vantage of the footboard, flash on the screen, while she jerkily spreads her legs and reaches for her genitals from the front, the back and either side, as if striving for satisfaction she can never achieve. In a reading for Performa on Nov. 8, 2009, Emin remarked that she hardly ever masturbates. "I?m approaching 50," she said in another interview, "and my sex drive is not what it used to be." Prices for the monoprints begin at £10,000, with other works costing as much as £170,000. The show remains on view till Dec. 19, 2009.

Steve Gianakos at Fredericks & Freiser 
A stripped-down perversity also pervades the 21 paintings (all made this year) by Steve Gianakos on view at Fredericks & Freiser until Dec. 7, 2009. Sharp and clean yet devilishly smutty, they play on the meeting between innocence and depravity with sly, sidelong wit. Gianakos has a peculiar graphic style that is all his own, somewhat resembling a collage of antique linocut illustration, and the intersecting black-and-white shapes of his paintings seem to fill the gallery with startlingly sharp light.

In Sometimes, Her Mother Would Send Her Frozen Meatballs (2009), a picnic goes horribly wrong. A pigtailed girl examines a necklace while grilling a hot dog speared on a barbecue fork emerging from her buttocks, ignoring the marvelously rendered black curved lines of smoke that pour out of the cooker behind her. And a bow-wielding elf in a beanie hides behind the white curtain of negative space that dominates the center of Even beyond Ethical Concerns (2009), aiming an arrow at a grasshopper balanced on a pair of zeppelin-shaped breasts.

The truly malignant Baby what? Take out? (2009) is an image of an infant with chopsticks stuck in its eyes and a tangle of noodles emerging from its skull, stuffed into a takeout container. Gianakos has been painting these killers for more than 30 years. He?ll probably still be dreaming up his mordant scenarios long after everyone else is dead. Prices range from $8,000 to $15,000.

Sister Mary Corita Kent
The light emitted by almost incandescent colors comes to the fore in works by the late Sister Mary Corita Kent (1918-1986), an activist teacher and nun whose bold serigraphs were seen in numerous 1960s publications and antiwar demonstrations -- she even had her face on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Filling Zach Feuer Gallery until Dec. 5, 2009, Corita Kent?s art brings a time of glowing optimism expansively back to life.

When she concentrated on lettering, which she most often did, the artist?s limpid expansive style is reminiscent of Henri Matisse church decoration, and graphics by Alexander Calder and Ben Shahn. Like her contemporary Andy Warhol, she appropriated ?60s food-package design, but she replaced Pop Art?s consumerist mummification with religious transcendence and exhortations to end world hunger.

Enriched bread wonder (1965), for example, appropriates the label of the prototypical junk food bread to spread a message of joy. The word "wonder" appears in red capital letters that gradually enlarge, as if the term is levitating, while the "enriched bread" resting delicately in blue above takes on connotations of Jesus distributing loaves, rather than mushy tastelessness.

Two of the three bands of color hovering below "wonder" feature cutout quotations that let the pure white of the background shine through. An uncharacteristically hopeful Camus quote, written in neat cursive script, describes the nourishment provided by "the gentle stirring of life," while banal Wonder Bread slogans like "helps build strong bodies 12 ways" and "no preservatives added" seem to comment on the Catholic belief in eternal life and physical resurrection. Prices for the works range from $900 to $9,000.

Jonas Mekas at James Fuentes
The cinematic light shining through the monitors of Jonas Mekas? Destruction Quartet (2006) delivers a much more ambivalent message. This solo installation by the renowned 86-year-old filmmaker, Lithuanian poet and Anthology Film Archives founder can be seen at James Fuentes LLC until Nov. 22, 2009. Four televisions play out varying scenes of demolition, ranging from joyful to horrific.

On the installation?s two upper monitors, the Berlin Wall?s gleeful 1990 dismantlement unfolds, next to a film of Nam June Paik wrecking a piano during a 1997 performance. Below, Australian artist Danius Kesminas? creation of a 1991 fire sculpture in an empty New York City lot uncannily rhymes with the World Trade Center?s destruction, shot by Mekas from his Soho roof in 2001.

Sitting in a wheelchair, Paik pounds piano keys with a mallet and directs his assistants to push the instrument to the floor. The soundtrack of ominous thumps joins the sirens that howl throughout Mekas? riveting 9/11 footage, as smoke pours out of the towers. A woman wryly observes that everyone will soon be running to Gourmet Garage for food, and then begins to scream. 

Mekas begins and ends his 9/11 film with a still image found in a flea market of a 19th-century photo of a child. The filmmaker?s voice can also be heard, reciting some lines by the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine:

Listen my child
Listen my child
It was a horrible story
It was a horrible story

Which I will never forget

These lines add a sense of doomed historical innocence to this documentation of all too recent tragedy. The entire installation is $25,000.

William Kentridge, performer
The Performa09 performance-art festival has taken over New York City for the month of November, and William Kentridge, the wizard of black-and-white charcoal animation, was appropriately dressed in black and white for I am Not Me, The Horse is Not Mine, a solo performance presented at Cedar Lake on Nov. 9-10, 2009. The work was both a preview of and a meditation on Kentridge?s upcoming production of the Shostakovich opera based on Nikolai Gogol?s The Nose, which is slated to open at New York's Metropolitan Opera in March 2010.

Kentridge acted and directed in Johannesburg's Junction Avenue Theatre Company from 1975 to 1991, and his stage experience was apparent in this vibrant exposition of real and projected identities and the modern fragmentation of self. (He made his first film from animated charcoal drawings in 1989.) The haunting poetic melancholy that his films communicate was tempered by macabre black humor.

Alone with his shadow onstage, standing in front of a projection of a blank sheet of paper bearing the traces of multiple erasures, Kentridge introduced his audience to Gogol?s tale. A man wakes up with a blank space on his face where his nose used to be, and later meets the nose (who is pretending to be human) dressed in the full regalia of a more highly ranked bureaucrat, an absurdity the author himself concludes by not believing.

As Kentridge traced the unreliable narrator back to Sterne?s Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, a projection of his own image suddenly materialized on the screen. Glaring indignantly at his double as it tossed phantom papers to the floor, Kentridge frantically picked up the real papers he had previously dropped. After a description of waking at four in the morning full of doubts about his project, his projected double reappeared, this time tossing and turning in bed as his wife lay beside him attempting to stay asleep.

Kentridge?s live reading of the transcript of Nicolai Bukharin?s absurdly tragic trial was next, accompanied by photos and drawings of Stalin, Lenin and a black nose shape that moved across their faces. An animated parade of human shadows and puppets passed by, finally pulling black emptiness across the screen to end the performance.

Joan Jonas, Reading Dante
Identity was dissolved in a much more fluid manner in Performa?s production of Joan Jonas? Reading Dante II, at Performing Garage, Nov. 10-14, 2009. This mesmerizing spectacle featured all of Jonas?s signature motifs, including live movement and video feeds, readings from classical literature, the manipulation of unusual props, masks and projected live drawing. 

Random highlights included a playful boxing match between Jonas and her longtime collaborator Ragani Haas, both wearing white paper gloves. A color film of children rearranging dollhouses suddenly reversed into a ghostly black-and-white negative, accompanied by a horrific spoken description of a starving man eating the corpses of his offspring. Later, paradise was evoked by footage of a woman bouncing sunlight off a light-bulb shaped piece of clear plastic held over her face, in the midst of an abandoned modernist arena.

Jonas?s performance ended with footage of a midnight dance with Pat Steir on the streets of New York City that was filmed in the 1970s. Blowing on long metal horns, they were joined by an obese male stranger who lay on the ground, as occasional cars drove by and steam rose out of manholes as if coming out of hell. The footage was overlaid with a live projection of Jonas? hand repeatedly drawing and erasing with chalk on a board, overlaying present day creation and destruction on top of the shadowy magical past. 

"Untreated Strangeness"
As a board member of the nonprofit exhibition space Momenta Art (I showed my own work there in 2007), I can?t resist mentioning here its current show. "Untreated Strangeness," organized by the art-world author Chris Kraus, is an integrated installation of works by three artists -- George Porcari, Jorge Pardo and Naomi Fisher.

Porcari is an artist, writer and book maniac who used to work at the Strand and is now a professional librarian. Born in Peru, Porcari immigrated to Los Angeles when he was 11, in 1968. He took his earliest picture the same year, a view of artificial Christmas trees on traffic islands of a Los Angeles highway seen through a car windshield.

The barrier the window created between his camera and the outside world became characteristic of his future (uncomposed) images of dense yet transparent layers of reflections so complex that it is difficult to comprehend where anything material begins or ends. (France) Public Phone and Passerby (2008), for example, feature a city street seen through an interlocking maze of glass, plastic, white graffiti and sunlight.

Porcari?s works are pinned to the walls, but an additional supply of loose prints is piled on two Pardo table sculptures, and pushpins are available so that viewers can add them to the exhibition. Naomi Fisher?s film of improvisational dances in Florida?s Oleta State Park is projected on Partition (2009), another Pardo sculpture. The unplanned movements of Fisher?s performers are reflected from Pardo?s surfaces, echoing the layered reflections in Porcari?s photos.

A year-end contribution to Momenta of any amount, no matter how small, entitles you to a raffle ticket, with the prize being one of Porcari?s pictures. For more info, click here.


ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer. A show of her ceramics is currently on view through the end of the month at Rose Burlington Living Room Gallery at 15 Park Row.