Articles by

<Bryony Roberts>

12/07/05 12:00am

Mike Kelley: Day is Done
Gagosian Gallery, 555 W. 24th St.

It’s rare to walk into a Chelsea gallery and feel truly disoriented. But Mike Kelley, the Los Angeles-based installation and performance artist, has succeeded in transforming the whitewashed space of the Gagosian into a raucous, troubling, and paradigm-shifting place. Day is Done is a video musical and installation based on the oddly pagan holidays and performances that take place in American high schools. Working from yearbook pictures of “extra-curricular activities,” such as Halloween parades and those terrible musicals we’d all like to forget, Kelley generated videos, photographs, and sculptural objects. Video fragments of singing witches, angels, and fascists play simultaneously on multiple screens throughout a maze of theatrical props and architectural elements. The overload of symbols and the disarming combination of narrative film, architecture, and quaint sculpture create an unnerving experience. Because of the visceral intensity and the wild juxtaposition of forms, this project is more radical and provocative than Kelley’s earlier pieces that feed on the weird tropes of American culture.

The (S) Files / The Selected Files
El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue

The fourth of El Museo del Barrio’s biennial exhibitions of contemporary Latino/Latin artists, this edition is a smorgasbord of approaches to cultural identity. Involving 40 artists from the New York area and beyond, this show samples almost every contemporary art medium, from iPod sound art to beeswax sculptures to graphic novels. Most of the pieces are ambitious, well crafted, and clever — Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz’s cartoon wall drawings, Nicola López’s sprawling woodblock prints on mylar, and Carlos Aponte’s embroidered symbols of gender roles are especially noteworthy. Issues of cultural identity are present as muted undertones, only articulated clearly in the wall labels. In a video projection that flickers between footage of flying out of Mexico City and landing there, Graciala Fuentes obliquely references her Mexican identity. Works such as these confirm that a new era of identity art has arrived, one that focuses on quiet, personal explorations rather than confrontational statements.

11/23/05 12:00am

If you, too, were disappointed with Chelsea’s blockbuster shows this month, here are some dark horses on 24th Street.

The Art of Chess
Luhring Augustine, 531 W. 24th St.

Chess turns out to be the secret theme of this November. The Noguchi Museum opened The Imagery of Chess Revisited, a recreation of Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst’s kooky 1944 show, the Projectile Gallery displayed Glenn Kaino’s chess set of ammo boxes, and Luhring Augustine unveiled commissioned chess sets in The Art of Chess. The Luhring Augustine show is a special treat because the artists — including Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy, Yayoi Kusama, Maurizio Cattelan, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Rachel Whiteread and Tom Friedman — are especially cheeky in their designs. As one might expect, the Chapman brothers flout all decency in a set where angry, sexualized white kids face off against black kids. Damien Hirst returns to sculpture with a sleek mirrored chess table and opposing silver and glass chemical bottles. Tom Friedman populates his set with miniature reproductions of his early works, and Yayoi Kasama, elegant to the end, presents a giant, patent-leather pumpkin that splits to reveal miniature blown-glass squash, which are also chess pieces that are not to be missed.

John Wesley
Fredericks Freiser Gallery, 504 W. 22nd St.

John Wesley’s paintings are baffling in the most delicious way. In Dream of Frogs, a naked woman reposes, hovering over three grinning, manic-looking frogs. In Camel, a camel-man wearing an undershirt makes advances on a pleased camelette. The style is almost pop art — heavy black lines outline flat pastel forms — but the content is too surreal, too enigmatic to easily fall within that category. A contemporary of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Wesley appropriated cartoon and advertising imagery in the 1960s with the best of them, but he also threw his personal fantasies into the mix. His work hasn’t changed significantly since then, but it never appears staid — his narratives are interminably opaque and his sexual innuendoes are timeless. Seeing his work for the first time, one might think he was a daring young painter who had rejected the current taste for baroque, exploding, phantasmagoria in favor of succinct comedy.

11/09/05 12:00am

Hiroshi Sugimoto: History of History
Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street

Not your typical retrospective, this eclectic exhibition was curated by Sugimoto and intermingles his photographs with his private collection of artifacts. Beginning with 500 million year-old fossils, Sugimoto’s collection spans the development of life on earth. With elegant, quietly playful displays of antique art objects and Sugimoto’s contemporary works, the show explores the role of art in capturing the transience of time. This loose theme connects not only vastly different objects, but also the works in his oeuvre that previously seemed disconnected — the abstract seascapes, photos of dioramas in natural history museums, and portraits of wax museum figures. Instead of appearing wry and ironic, Sugimoto’s images of museum displays read as sincere elements of his lifelong philosophizing. A few startling pieces combine his photography and antiquity, such as Time’s Arrow, for which Sugimoto embedded one of his seascapes in an ancient Buddhist reliquary. The piece unites two elegant beauties, but also violates the standard treatment of ancient objects. By mish-mashing eras, cultures, and materials, Sugimoto asserts his unconventional approach to understanding the eternal questions of life.

Stephen Shore: American Surfaces
P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City

Stephen Shore, one of the pioneers of color photography, spent the 1970s roaming across America. For his American Surfaces series, he took thousands of snapshots documenting living rooms with Astroturf, restaurant salads with orange dressing, girls he bedded, and the contents of his toilet. P.S. 1 has mounted over 300 of these 5 x 7 photographs in an impressive array, and together they offer a wry mockery of American life. Shore transgressed the mores of his time with his inclinations toward the abject, and, more importantly, he spurned the conventions of his art. His use of flash, his off-kilter compositions and his awkward camera angles established a whole new aesthetic for photography. One mundane image of a staircase in a house looks like a throwaway, but by keeping it, Shore proved that even a casual snapshot can have an exquisite composition.

08/03/05 12:00am

Barry McGee: One More Thing
Deitch Projects

In his show at Deitch Projects, Barry McGee tries to jump the fence between the street and the gallery, and gets stuck halfway. After earning cult status as the graffiti artist “Twist” in the 1980s, McGee has gradually entered the ‘high art’ world by showing his paintings and drawings at progressive museums. A portion of the Deitch show is devoted to McGee’s facile caricatures, which confirm his talent as a draughtsman, but the rest is an attempt to bring the “vitality and chaos of the street” into the gallery. Overturned, smashed trucks fill the space, robotic manikins mime the act of spray-painting the walls and a stack of monitors play footage of taggers. The simulation of street life, particularly the costumed manikins, is so unconvincing that it seems intentionally absurd. Rather than sharing his subculture experiences, McGee must be wryly pointing out the difficulty of being transgressive within the confines of a trendy gallery.

Atomica: Making the Invisible Visible
Esso Gallery and Lombard-Freid Fine Arts

Atomica is a surprisingly restrained exhibition, considering the explosive subject matter. Planned to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this joint show between Esso Gallery and Lombard-Freid addresses the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons. The topic is timely considering North Korea’s recent assertions of nuclear might, and the United States’ lack of commitment to disarmament. The artwork, which the curator Ombretta Agro Andruff predicts will encourage political action, is not exactly rousing. Of the many artists in this show, the older ones seem more willing to grab the bull by the horns; Chris Burden, Leon Golub, Joy Garnett and Nancy Spero employ biting satire or gritty expressionism to convey the seriousness of nuclear warfare. But the younger artists like Shiva Ahmadi and Marguerite Kahrl use ornate, encrypted imagery to allude to conflict. The inevitable defense is, “at least they’re not being didactic,” but it’s difficult to incite action without making a point.

07/20/05 12:00am


Idols of Perversity
Bellwether Gallery

In this season of perfunctory group shows, “Idols of Perversity” at Bellwether stands out for its eerie cohesion. A taste for the erotic unifies the works in this exhibition, which are mostly paintings of distorted, sexualized women. Executed in a fusion of science-fiction, erotica, and Romanticism, these pieces appear to be sincere, albeit idiosyncratic, expressions of sexual fantasy. The press release, however, presents another perspective. The curator-artists Thomas Woodruff and Becky Smith are paying homage to Bram Dijkstra’s book Idols of Perversity from the 1980s, which analyzes misogyny in Fin-de-Siècle art and literature. In that era, artists and writers depicted women as evil sirens who impeded man’s progress and dragged him down into erotic materialism. This exhibition encourages us to think of John Currin, Ray Caesar and Lori Earley, among others, as revisiting this genre. The jury is out, however, on whether these predominately male artists are siding with Dijkstra’s feminism or are sincerely enjoying a taboo aesthetic.

Cereal Art
Perry Rubenstein Gallery

Art and commerce have finally consummated their love and have produced Cereal Art. Founded in 2003, the company manufactures artist-designed home products that are ultra-hip and somewhat reasonably priced. The 24th Street space of Perry Rubenstein has been transformed into a glorified display case for such gems as a Yoshitomo Nara ashtray and Marcel Dzama salt and pepper shakers. The commercialization of fine art is so unapologetic here that it makes Jeff Koons look like a neo-Romanticist. The idealist in me wails at the sight of the Kirsten Hassenfeld jewelry box but the consumer in me really wishes it were a little cheaper. When the Perry Rubenstein show closes in August you can still find the products in museum stores and at which begs the question of why there was a show at all.

07/06/05 2:00am

Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South
Museum of Biblical Art

Unlike most contemporary art on display in New York, the work in “Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South” is not the product of art school grooming. Presented by the Museum of Biblical Art, this show reveals how self-taught Southern artists depict Christianity. The 73 artists included, of whom 43 are African American, use materials as diverse as crayons, carved wood, house paint, glitter, dirt, coffee cans, a beat-up pink tricycle, and, my favorite, “wood on mirrored Plexiglas, beads, and tractor enamel.” Tractor enamel? That’s right, whatever it takes to express an opinion about Christianity down South. The most memorable pieces include Jas Johns’ painted overalls titled Heaven and Hell Britches and Robert Roberg’s day-glow depiction of the Whore of Babylon riding a seven-headed beast (pictured). Compared with the affected naïveté that has overrun Chelsea, this work seems raw, funny and refreshingly unpretentious.

Max Ernst Retrospective
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Your opportunity to enter a Freudian fantasy world is about to end. The Metropolitan Museum’s lavish retrospective of Max Ernst, the impish German Surrealist, is closing July 10. Ernst is best known for his dream-like Surrealist paintings but this exhibition also shows off his collages and illustrated novels. A Dadaist in his youth, Ernst combined fragments of 19th-century engravings to create bizarre and humorous images that are among the best collages ever made. Ernst invented two painting techniques, grattage and decalcomania, which allowed him to alter the texture of the painted surface to match the complexity of his collages. The paintings from the late 1930s and 40s that use these techniques are grim, doomsday visions. Their influence can be seen in many contemporary fantasy landscapes, like the work in the Whitney Museum’s current show Remote Viewing (Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing). But perhaps the best reason to see the Ernst exhibit is to learn about his scandalous liaisons…