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GOTHAM ART & THEATER
by Elisabeth Kley
 
Miss Havishamís ghost has plenty of room to dance in Virgil Martiís ghoulishly opulent show at Elizabeth Dee on West 20th Street in Manhattan. Marti (b. 1962) is famous for beatifully kitschy allegorical installations using things like mirrored Mylar and chandeliers made of resin antlers; here, he's presenting an over-the-top environment thatís up-to-the minute and spare, while at the same time enfolding multiple layers of recollection: a 21st-century look back to an ersatz 1970s version of Baroque grotesque decoration, by way of the Victorian obsession with mourning and death.

The exhibition opens with Memorial Gardens (2008), a floor-to-ceiling panel of horror vacui wallpaper with a pattern that includes a photo of a flower bedecked cemetery plot, a snapshot of Elvis tucked into a wreath, and a grave-shaped dirt brown rectangle framed by blue and white artificial roses -- a lugubrious nod to our current obsession with tributes to worm-eaten celebrities. 

Inside is a pair of large circular poufs, the couches with raised middle sections often seen in Victorian ballrooms. Each is divided into sections like an orange, upholstered with different fabrics. Pouf, of course, is a derogatory word for gay men, but these are actually metaphorical portraits of Martiís parents as pieces of furniture.

His version of his mom, titled A Pot of Paint (2010), is done in fleshy hues of makeup- and lipstick- colored velvet, plus flowered chintz, fake leather and fake fur. Dad, on the other hand, titled (after Whistler) Arrangement in Black and Blue (2010), is dressed in darker tones, as if he is wearing a spotted business tie and a brown seal coat.

Another wallpaper called Austrian Swag (2009), pasted on the surrounding walls, is based on a photograph of off-white fabric draped like a high-end coffinís lining, or the hangings in Mae Westís boudoir -- an enticing illusion of a cloth cocoon that ultimately repels by its flatness and falsity. Several similarly resistant decorative silhouettes made of chrome-plated weathered plywood hang like pictures with their faces to the wall, or worn-out mirrors that glitter but refuse to reflect. They come in an assortment of succulent metallic colors, such as lavender, blue and gold, and each has a different ornamental shape.

Object Relations (2010), a grouping of three round fake fur tuffets sized large, medium and small, can be found in the back room, huddled together like father, mother and child. A silver-plated branch protruding like a misplaced antler from the father cushion ends in three holders, each containing a burning candle. Wax falls down on the floor and on the littlest pouf, as if a Victorian ghost with a taper is carelessly defacing Martiís luxurious interior by piling up evidence of disappearing time. The show is on view Jan. 9-Feb. 20, 2010.

Claire Fontaine at Reena Spaulings
At Reena Spaulings on East Broadway in Chinatown is an exhibition titled "Inhibitions" by Claire Fontaine, a phantom artistic entity made only of assistants that was dreamed up by a pair of French women in 2004. Extending Duchampís concept from object to creator, Fontaine describes herself as a readymade artist whose oeuvre resembles copies of work by others. Nevertheless, her sculptures and installations are witty materializations of failure and regret.

The showís largest work, Greve Humaine (Interrrompue) (2009), which translates into "human strike (interrupted)," consists of its title, spelled out in huge block letters with 50,000 wooden stick matches placed in tiny holes in the wall. Five workers toiled for five eight-hour days to make the piece, but it still isnít finished. They drilled all the holes but ran out of either matches or time, so the word seems to disintegrate at the end. The matches have been dipped in flame retardant and so are unable to burn, eliminating the danger while redoubling Fontaineís clever metaphor for the unfulfilled potential of most liberation movements.

More meaningless toil is evoked by Recession Sculpture (American Gas) (2009), a whimsical but ominous assemblage in which the hose of a (Jeff Koons-style?) shop-vac is attached to the pipe of a gas meter; the vacuum cleaner turns on when the viewer walks by, as if invisible forces are at work. It could prevent the inhalation of dangerous gas, or even discourage suicide, but itís mostly a menacing classical Rube Goldberg-style contraption, fueling nothing.

This group of memorials dedicated to capitalist paralysis is rounded out by Untitled (Sculpture Suspendue) (2009), a trio of fake hanging plants set uselessly revolving by disco ball motors, and Bijoux de Famille (2009), which translates as "family jewels," a cat litter box filled with seven glittering kilograms of Swarovski crystals, a rather luxurious costume jewelry site for feline defecation. Prices range from $5,000 to $65,000 and the show goes on until Jan. 30, 2010.

Omer Fast at Postmasters
The Israeli artist Omer Fast has distinguished himself with complex narrative films in which a postmodernist uncertainty afflicts both their contentious political subjects and their professionally crafted artistic form. His newest work, a two-channel video titled Take a Deep Breath (2008) at Postmasters in Chelsea, received favorable critical attention (from the New York Times) even before it opened to the public.

A medic bent over a blood-covered man missing both legs and an arm is the gruesome central image of Take. The film is a tale of a purposely failed attempt to recreate a real-life incident -- a bombing at a Jerusalem falafel shop -- as a Hollywood tableau vivant. Helped by a smartass cast of collaborators including a bossy assistant director and a pair of boorish cameramen, the director (named Omer but played by Andrew Ralston) is an ineffectual figure at the center of the action, bullied by all.

In spite of the gory prosthetic torso and severed limbs, the filmís heightened color and sassy repartee bring to mind a sanitized television crime drama, and its artifice is revealed when the victim climbs out of the hole concealing his intact body. The tragedy only seems real during the medicís narration, especially his disturbing description of obsessively washing himself after he realizes he was trying to save the actual suicide bomber.

A bump in the clothes on the phony torso that looks like an erection is just one of the productionís nonstop succession of mishaps. The actor playing the victim is fired for insisting that open-eyed death is most convincing, citing his probably fake experience of massacre in Kosovo. Later, two smug policemen spoil a crucial shot by barging in and demanding a permit, and an actress in bloody makeup is hit on by the replacement victim, who may or may not be a real amputee.

Time goes in both directions and everything happens at once in this frustrated tale of a perpetually unfinished project. Making sardonic fun of an extremely fraught subject, Fast turns the international trauma of suicide bombing into an excruciating Hollywood farce -- reflecting the media sensationalism that ultimately turns tragedy banal. The video is $75,000 and the show is up until Feb. 13, 2010.

Sharon Lockhart at Gladstone Gallery
In distinct contrast to Fast, the Los Angeles artist Sharon Lockhart makes non-narrative photographic works that combine the intense, immutable gaze of Post-Minimalism with the high-key attention to detail of Photo-Realism -- and frequently uses young people as her subjects. Her latest video and sound installation, Lunch Break, has her signature dignified stasis, but takes up instead the world of blue collar labor.

Lunch Break presents a protracted instant (elongated to 83 minutes) of every workerís second favorite time (the first being the end of the day) -- though its real subject, as befits a formalist filmmaker, seems to be the corridor where the workers gather. On view in a special theater at Gladstone Gallery (designed by Escher Gunewardena architects), the work was shot on film inside Bath Ironworks, a factory for making navy destroyer ships in Maine. The film was inspired by (and the title was taken from) Duane Hansonís 1989 sculpture of helmeted builders relaxing on a scaffold.

Beginning with a woman raising a sandwich to her lips, the video is one long tracking shot down a seemingly endless passageway formed by the space between lockers and machinery. The cameraís movement has been slowed to one-eighth speed, and the people -- who are only seen obliquely, rather than studied closely -- are nearly as immobile as Hansonís uncanny body casts. Within its specially designed, black-interiored chamber, the screen completely fills one wall, increasing the illusion that the viewer is actually walking down the corridor.

A smattering of workers dressed in plaids, jeans and work boots eat, read or simply sit. Fluorescent lights dangle and thick power cords snake across the ceiling. On one side are racks of sticker-covered lockers and chests, and the other has tables, scaffolds and equipment. The piece ends abruptly when the exit is finally visible, but there is no escape. After a momentary darkening of the screen, the film begins again, a reflection, perhaps, of workís endless repetition.

Smaller, more personal details of factory life can be seen in Lockhartís photographs, close-ups that sometimes bring Chardin or Irving Penn to mind. A triptych, for example, features a lunch box in three states: closed, open with a newspaper tucked under its lid, and with its contents taken out -- newspaper, pencil, and cigarettes ready to be consumed.

Other photos document small self-service catering businesses selling coffee and food, set up by workers around the factory. One owner has posted some price increases with a note saying "Pain at the pump and pain at the coffee shop." Another little shop is called "Dirty Donís Delicious Dogs." Such whimsical signs of human ingenuity cheer up a chilly environment of toil. The show is up Dec. 11, 2009-Jan. 30, 2010.
 
Robin Graubard at Participant
"The Hold Up," a stunning exhibition of photographs by Robin Graubard, can be seen at Participant until Valentineís Day. Graubard has published her work in major newspapers and magazines, and was even nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes. Venturing into volatile territories all over the world, from Mafia hangouts in New York to war-torn Sarajevo, she quietly snatches gripping moments out of a hauntingly vulnerable world.

Progressing from past to present, the exhibition opens with Crash Pad, a slide show including a wide range of 35 mm images shot in the 1980s, from teenagers shooting up in squalor to Elizabeth Taylor walking the red carpet. The point-of-view is much shared, from Nan Goldin to Weegee, but Graubardís particular combination of detachment and empathy is uniquely her own.

The selection in the main gallery opens with a devastating black-and-white portrait called the doll hospital (all works are undated). Waiting for surgery after being hit by a sniperís bullet, a girl sits on a hospital bed in Sarajevo, surrounded by strands of her just-shaved hair. Nearby is blue, a lush color image of a little boy stretched out in a bedroom next to a bowl of soup that looks comparatively serene -- until you notice the long scar bisecting the childís forehead.

Black comes next, a photo of a barefoot man who lives in a nightmarish warehouse for unwanted people with disabilities, deep in the mountains of Bulgaria. Standing on a cot with one ankle held by a metal chain, he glares at the wall as if ready to explode in rage. Other notable shots include Bernie Madoff emerging from a car, a table of seated Mafiosi in their clubhouse, and a desolate image of a tennis court owned by a hedge-fund banker.

"I lived in Eastern Europe for a few years in the early Ď90s after the fall of Communism," Graubard explains. "I spent one Christmas and New Yearís in Bucharest, Romania, with a sort of family of nine to 17 year-old runaway and homeless kids who lived in tunnels near the railway station. They were scruffy, happy go lucky, dirty, bloody and sad. They were beaten up and kicked around but they scavenged leftovers from parked trains, stole, sniffed glue, begged and did whatever they could to survive."

Images of of these runaways appear in the back room, part of a second slide show called "sound of waves," set to a soundtrack of music by Laura Nyro, Moby Grape and the Raincoats, among others. Digital pictures taken all over the world flash by -- including Chinese workers in rich green rice paddies, wrinkled Eastern European grandmas, teenagers in a public shower and a boy emerging from a tunnel.

The people Graubard portrays often seem unaware that they have been photographed -- she must have a particularly unobtrusive presence to go with her very sharp eye. Her down and out, often scarred subjects are sometimes so disturbing that itís hard to imagine how she finds the courage to point the camera in their direction. Graubard, by the way, was herself a teen runaway. Prices range from $600 to $2,400.

Hélio Oiticica at Galerie Lelong
A calmer abstract world is explored in "Drawings: 1954-1958," an exhibition of early gouaches on paper by the late Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) at Galerie Lelong. Approximately 2,000 works by the Latin American pioneer of movement in color and space were unfortunately destroyed in a fire last fall at his brotherís Rio de Janeiro residence, making what remains of his output all the more precious.

The earliest piece, Untitled (1954-55), was created when Oiticica was only 16. Itís a quivering abstract composition reminiscent of Paul Klee, made of clunky overlapping geometric shapes in piercing lavender played off against quieter browns, blues and reds. But Oiticicaís rendering quickly became more hard-edged and rigorous, as seen in Grupo Frente 24 (1955), a red, white and blue composition of circles and rectangles he made as a very young member of Grupo Frente, a radical art organization based in Rio de Janeiro that emphasized geometric forms, using color to activate flat surfaces.

Works in the main gallery, from a 1956-58 series called "Metaesquemas," are more dynamic, exploring what Oiticica once described as "an obsessive dissection of space." In Metaesquema No. 209 (1956-58), for example, four sets of four rectangles with slightly diagonal sides are each arranged in a cross pattern resembling a windmill that almost seems to turn. And in Metaesquema (black/white) (n.d.), three rows of jostling black rectangles crowded within the paperís edge seem to be fighting for room to move.

Oiticicaís interest in the movement of abstract shapes had only just begun. In the early Ď60s, he went on to make 3D reliefs that intersected with light and changed as the viewer walked around them. His work culminated with the still revolutionary Parangolés, a series of colorful painted capes, banners and tents made to be worn while dancing to samba music, turning them into inhabitable paintings that move. Prices range from $120,000 to $180,000 and the show is up until Feb. 6, 2010.


ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.



 



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