Alone in a Crowd 

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With the contemporary art scene in seasonal flux from the dead of summer to a full-on fall schedule, art world populations are migrating back to gallery-rich districts. Two late-summer shows at LES galleries deal with crowds in different ways: wishing they'd go away, and making them disappear.

You could get lost for hours in the Birch Forest Project at White Box (329 Broome St, through September 7), a two-part show set in a forest and now in its second phase. The first part in July, titled Waste Land and curated by Raul Zamudio, was more sparse and relentlessly grim: neon barbed wire, feasting vultures, a trash totem and other signs of end times lurked in Tatyana Stepanova's titular installation, hundreds of white paper tubes hanging from the 20-foot ceiling. The forest is fuller for part two, curated by Juan Puntes and titled Stirrings Still after Samuel Beckett's final work, a constant play of movements and pauses. The dense installation is impossible to avoid knocking into while passing between clearings around individual artworks, making the towering tubes sway. This fosters an air of sanctuary, concealing visitors from one another.

The works, too, speak of concealment, isolation and absence. Another forest appears in Mary Mattingly and Rosemarie Padovano's hilarious video "Lumber" (2010), which shows the artists waking in the woods as opposite ends of a fallen tree. With branches strapped to their arms and a sewn trunk binding them like a giant Chinese finger trap, they roll clumsily over fields towards freedom. In Todd Knopke's massive embroidered collage, "Interface" (2008), a manic woman works on a canvas in a fake forest while a man, concealed under the floorboards Vito Acconci-like, watches. Not all the best works are enviro-feminist comedies. In the gallery basement, Carlos Irijalba's beautiful and non-vampiric video, "Twilight" (2008), shows an empty soccer stadium's massive lighting system switch on, brighten and dim, like an artificial sun over a barren planet. Then, the dazzling lights rise and fade again, but now they reveal a verdant forest. Lesser pieces like Anton Kandinsky's ironic neo-figurative paintings do little to chop this superb show down to size.

Ten blocks north, Fuse Gallery, the bizarro art space tucked behind Lit Lounge, is crowded with Brooklyn-based Aussie Tim Evans's solo show Population (93 Second Ave, through September 11). His messy acrylic and pastel works on paper and canvas are full of wretched figures, almost always in big groups against bleak abstract backdrops, their scraggly bodies propping up bulbous, grimacing faces. These demented expressions, accentuated by Heath Ledger Joker-like rouge, evoke anger, agony, fear and sadness. In a few of the dozen paintings, white outlines of bent arms reveal the cause of these acute emotions: the figures are on their cell phones. The New Yorker cartoon-ish joke about our over-communicative tendencies undermines the works' intensity, but also acknowledges that we've seen this type of tortured ensemble before (Otto Dix, anyone?). Still, the works are formally rich, and Evans's short video of distorted surveillance footage with an arresting soundtrack overpowers the sarcasm of the prop cell phones. It also makes one want to be alone in the Birch Forest, away from the fall crowds of phone-toting 
gallery-hoppers.

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