Wicked Artsy: In Dark Humor

04/17/2009 11:30 AM |

In an art environment and market where noisy spectacles prevail over well crafted, self-conscious and clever formal exercises (witness the spectacular shouting match of the New Museum’s Generational triennial), artists who evince traces of modesty through self-deprecating dark comedy show some refreshing humility. After all, everything has been done before — often by these artists themselves — so the pursuit of bigger, brighter (and hopefully better) art should be cut with a healthy dose of modesty. Four examples of restraint in the pursuit of grandeur are currently on display in Lower East Side galleries.

At Simon Preston, Brooklyn-based sculptor and installation artist Michelle Lopez jammed a tree (donated by the city’s parks department) through the gallery wall and reveled in the destruction of one of her public artworks she considered a failure. The Violent Bear it Away, which includes these two pieces along with a self-portrait that consists of a hair sculpture placed on the gallery floor, exemplifies an increasingly prevalent willingness for artists to revise, update, edit and scrap their own work. Between the dramatic violence of the tree — its one sculpted branch barely touching the floor like a new, artificial root — and the sad silhouette cut by her bombed-out car, Lopez engages various artistic and political debates. The economics of art galleries seem the subject of her tree assault, though this might also be a premonition of environmental disaster. The trashed car sculpture evokes terrorism, a critique of consumerism on par with John Chamberlain’s crushed vehicles and a productively self-critical art practice.

Productive self-examination appears to have been both the genesis and result of Luke Murphy’s video installations at Canada. Combining high-tech and familiar means, his projections evolve randomly, set in motion by the digital artist’s interests in surrealism, Dadaism and millennia-long geological processes. At the gallery entrance, Murphy engages our critical and voyeuristic eyes with a giant projection of an eye that melts down the wall in a continuously looping cycle — the effect is like seeing Oz’s wizard unmasked over and over again. The centerpiece of the Certainty Shelter — an exhibition title that knowingly underlines our tendency towards the comforts of familiarity — is an installation of three projections organized around a tacky false wood cabinet where a glowing green vase made of uranium glass and three Geiger counters generate the projected patterns. Suddenly the artistic impulse of ceding control to some agent of randomness becomes invested with a kind of mythic gravity, but also a disquieting danger. Left to chance, Murphy’s art is fascinating, funny and a little ominous.

A similar balance of strange eclecticism develops in Miami Noir, an exhibition of Miami-based artists curated by Adrianna Farietta at Invisible-Exports. Jason Hedge’s circle of peppercorns on the gallery floor gives the whole show an intense olfactory edge that’s surprisingly exhilarating. Other artists — Matthew Schreiber, Gean Moreno & Ernesto Oroza, Nicolas Lobo — approximate a satiric regional vernacular, imagining what kind of art the products and materials of South Florida might generate. The results — a laser-lit incense burner, a lamp assembled from found objects and a kind of post-apocalyptic poncho, respectively — undermine the very idea of a “Miami aesthetic” and similar movement-coining curatorial projects. The most memorable entry in Miami Noir runs in a loop inside a dark, peep show-like room at the back of the gallery. Clifton Childree’s 32-minute 16 mm film It Gets Worse expertly melds period details of silent cinema (make-up, static framing, gentle editing, over-emphasized facial expressions) with 60s stop-motion humor à la Eliot Noyes Jr. and Norman McLaren. Highlighting plurality rather than consistency, Farietta showcases the inventive and critical thinking of Miami’s early-career artists.

Another young artist with a promising and diverse production is showcased in the current exhibition at NY Studio Gallery. Emmy Mikelson’s In Bloom showcases paintings, drawings and sculptures by the recent Hunter grad that are macabre, violent and satiric. The central sculpture, “Coyote,” features a pack of coyotes cast in matte black urethane foam jumping, flying and falling around a series of shiny golden blobs. Without the polish of Damien Hirst’s auction block-ready animal exhibits, Mikelson’s sculpture is somehow more effective, substituting the spectacle of real flesh for imperfect visions of destruction. Elsewhere, works on paper show bodies and buildings burning, decomposing and collapsing, creating new spaces, patterns and potentialities. Like many of the artists above, Mikelson coyly suggests how liberating it would be to scrap everything and start over with an empty frame.

Michelle Lopez: The Violent Bear it Away at Simon Preston Gallery, 301 Broome St (between Forsyth and Eldridge Sts), until May 17

Luke Murphy: Certainty Shelter at Canada, 55 Chrystie St (between Canal and Hester Sts), until May 3

Miami Noir at Invisible Exports, 14A Orchard St (between Canal and Hester Sts), until May 10

Emmy Mikelson: In Bloom at NY Studio Gallery, 154 Stanton St (at Suffolk St), until May 2