Articles by

<Deirdre Hering>

02/15/12 5:00am

Even if you’ve never heard their names, odds are that if you live in New York, you’ve seen artwork by a pair of brothers named “Ad” and “Droo.” They’re the twins behind Skewville, one of the most prolific street art teams in the city. For over a decade, the Queens-born brothers have installed sculptures on sidewalks and tagged buildings with their signature block-letters—they’re the duo responsible for the “All Supply, No Demand” wheatpastes and the (appropriately) green “Keep on the Grass” stencils. Retro Retrospective at Factory Fresh (through March 11) takes Skewville’s vast amount of work off the street and crams it into the gallery space. The result is a charming, hodgepodge history of the twins as they moved from graffiti to gallery. Luckily for us, it’s a story that’s already been played out on the streets of New York.

Skewville’s sculptures occupy the front room—a set of playing dice the size of ottomans spell out “Bushwick,” a small but fierce plywood dog grips a sneaker in its mouth. Their text-based work is punchy and defiant, but never preachy and always familiar. A smiling chef takes a toke on a poster called “Baked Fresh Daily.” “Do Your Homework,” says a chalkboard; two canvases hang backwards on a wall, “Fame Game” spelled out in balsa wood across the backs.

It’s their sneaker project, though, that has gained Skewville the most attention. For “When Dogs Fly,” the brothers began cutting the silhouettes of sneakers from sheets of plywood in 1999. After fastening them in pairs with laces, they tossed them up onto telephone wires across New York and other far-flung locations like Spain, Holland, and South Africa—you can still see many in Bushwick. Sneakers rescued from sagging cables and sidewalks hang from the gallery ceiling, their laces gray with age.  They aren’t for sale; the sneakers, as well as any other works that were once displayed on the street, won’t be sold. At Factory Fresh, they’re artifacts—Skewville’s public art stays public.

(Images courtesy Factory Fresh)

02/01/12 4:00am

Anyone can tell you that relationships are complicated, but there isn’t one as urgent or all-encompassing as the one between the earth and its inhabitants. Front Room Gallery’s group show In-Habitat (through February 26th) deals with four artists’ concern for the natural world, and what it means to live here.

Painter Gregory Curry creates abstracted figures in oil using classical techniques. Barely distinguishable from their brightly colored backgrounds, the bodies are at once familiar and otherworldly. Photographer Lisa DiLillo captures nocturnal landscapes up close. Peppered with sparks of light, her images are wonderfully dynamic—shafts of wheat bend low in a breeze; the pale stem of a young flower stretches painfully skyward.

The lone sculptures in the show belong to Kim Holleman. Her landscapes thrive in artificial surroundings; Holleman’s miniature ecosystems live and breathe inside of chemistry equipment (glass beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks). Though the forms inside are organic in shape, they look anything but natural—the leaves and rocks come in an array of Crayola colors. Their borders defined by human intervention, Holleman’s sculptures reflect the environs of today’s natural world: severely limited, and marked indelibly by human influence.

The works by Julia Whitney Barnes indicate a desire for a more harmonious relationship with nature. Barnes combines organic imagery—think abstracted clouds and roots —with renderings of man-made materials. In a mixed-media piece, Barnes affixes an image of a tree house over a dusky forest scene. The house melts easily into the trees, creating a touching visual balance between what is wild and what is not. The piece seems to almost sigh—if only it was this easy in real life.

(Kim Holleman, “Ferrous Tree”; Courtesy the artist, Front Room Gallery)

12/21/11 4:00am

The objects that David Gilbert creates are humble enough—garlands of crumpled paper, tangles of yarn. One of them, entitled “Hung Paper” (2011), greets the viewer upon entering the Lower East Side’s Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery. The work is true to its title: a wrinkled sheet of paper just barely grazes the floor, hung from the ceiling on a single length of yarn. It’s an unassuming piece on its own. But the rest of Gilbert’s sculptures take on a new, grander life through photography. Angels (through January 22), features dramatically lit and carefully photographed portraits of his otherwise modest sculptures. Gilbert then enlarges the images into giant prints; with this added layer of representation, he monumentalizes the otherwise messy and mundane.

In “Blue Angel” (2011), a piece of white fabric hangs carelessly from a blue-painted wall, stuck with stickers and bits of tape. The objects are instantly recognizable—the sculptures that he captures are not transformative on their own. Rather, they showcase the formal qualities of each element of the object; fabric is draped, paint is splashed, lengths of string are knotted. It is the remarkable clarity of his prints that alter the sculptures. The prints are so crystal clear that it is almost like looking through a glass window onto the scenes themselves. The prints shown in Angels are proof of photography’s capacity for changing a subject. The sculptures that Gilbert makes are familiar (especially when showed beside “Hung Paper”), but their representations render them anything but expected.

(Images courtesy the artist, Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery)

11/23/11 7:30am

The platitudes painted by Bob and Roberta Smith (the curious, dual pseudonym for singular British artist Patrick Brill) are not at all ironic. When he paints the words "Art does real and permanent good," he means it.

For The Art Party (Gotham Golem) (at The Boiler through December 18), Smith employed his signature sign-maker's technique—think bright, bold colors and a very steady hand—to paint his manifesto on, among other things, planks of wood, cardboard and car parts. "The Museum of Modern Art is too expensive," says a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. "Dancers Make New York Dance," says an old headboard. An un-finished documentary on Smith's work plays on the gallery wall. But Smith's "Gotham Golem," a hulking, boxy sculpture, takes up much of the space, its purpose loosely defined as a protector of the arts from budget cuts (particularly severe lately in the UK) and ideological opponents.

With all too familiar slogans painted on pizza boxes and empty milk containers, none of Smith's objects are all that impressive on their own, but then that's the point, isn't it?

"Everything is made," Smith painted on a ratty suitcase that sits on a pedestal. "All production has been designed by human beings," says another. The point of Smith's work isn't necessarily the objects that he produces, but rather the idea that everything is, in fact, art. For Smith, the chemist who develops a color "creates" (with a capital "C") the same way that a painter does. The documentary's closing line sums it up more succinctly than this reviewer can.

"Make your own damn art," Smith insists. "Don't expect me to do it for you."

(Images courtesy the artist and The Boiler/Pierogi)

11/09/11 7:00am

In “No More Picture with a Dead Body,” participants lie down on circular pedestals in the middle of the gallery. Their heartbeats activate cameras positioned around the room—with every pulse, the cameras capture onlookers and immediately project their photos onto the wall. There is no escape—if the viewer doesn’t offer herself as a participant outright, she is still implicated. What makes “No More Picture” so tense is that it is impossible to interact with it as just a viewer. Every photo is a collaboration—audience is subject, always.

“Staying Alive,” the only other piece in the exhibition, follows in this vein. On one of three screens, the viewer watches Ahram Jeong dig her own grave. On another, the beats of her heart transform into musical notation. On a third screen, a drummer “plays” the beat of Jeong’s heart on a drum set at the bottom of the same grave. The obvious question is this—does Jeong’s work trivialize the body? She equates one of its most vital tasks to flipping a switch or beating a drum. Still, she tasks the heart with determining the outcome of her work, a duty usually left to the eye or mind or both. Either way, one does not leave the show with more or less respect for the heart’s lifelong occupation—just an acute awareness that it’s still there.

(Images courtesy the artist and Momenta Art)

11/04/11 3:38pm

Rico Gatson installation view at Exit Art.

  • Rico Gatson installation view at Exit Art.

Last night in Exit Art’s basement space, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, led a discussion with Brooklyn-based artist Rico Gatson. The 45 year-old’s retrospective, Three Trips Around the Block (through November 23), was installed in the gallery just upstairs.

Gatson began the evening with a virtual walk-through of the exhibition, starting with an early performance-based work like 1994’s “Two Heads in a Box.” Arguably his most famous piece, the video shows Gatson in black-face lip synching Al Jolson’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” Gatson told the audience that although he’d thought of himself primarily as an “object maker,” he was inspired by Conceptualists like Adrian Piper, artists who were out intervening in the world. “It was like a whole new language,” he said.

By the early 2000s, Gatson had grown tired of playing characters and returned to painting and sculpture—but don’t call him a painter. Or a sculptor, either. For Gatson, the medium has always been separate from the message.

“I give myself license to use media that best conveys what I want to say,” he said.

When an audience member pressed Gatson to elaborate on the role of his medium, specifically texture, he contemplated for a moment, and then shrugged.

“I like stripes, I like glitter, “ he laughed.

His later, minimalist-inspired works proved even more difficult for Gatson to discuss. He told the audience that he found a certain power in simple geometry, citing the time he came across a collection of Donald Judd’s sculptures piled high in the basement of Pace Gallery. He described it as a “spiritual” moment, yet he couldn’t, and still can’t, quite pin down exactly why. Regardless, interacting with works by Judd and Dan Flavin led directly to the paired-down aesthetic of his “magic sticks,” spare black-and white sculptures that he showed in Dark Matter at Ronald Feldman in 2009. Subtler than some of his earlier objects, they’re still informed by the same preoccupations with identity that influenced his early video work. He began to delve into the influences behind the sculptures—as varying and as personal as religion and rap music—but he quickly demurred.

“When I start talking about this stuff I get self-conscious that it sounds cheesy. But it’s (the influences) all in me—the Christian, the African. How can it not be?”

10/31/11 4:00am

Rico Gatson‘s mid-career retrospective at Exit Art wrestles beautifully with issues of racial identity and intolerance. The canvases in Three Trips Around the Block(through November 23) ripple with color and texture along the wall—Gatson’s subtly pebbled surfaces, vivid stripes, and finely ground glitters stand in bright contrast to the neat, stark sculptures gathered in the center of the gallery floor. Pleasing to the eye as they are, a bleak subtext quickly reveals itself in nearly all of his works—think a Christian cross that doubles as a pillory, or the stars and bars of the Confederate flag incised on a canvas painted over with stripes reminiscent of African textiles.

Gatson has a true talent for seamlessly combining innocuous materials with powerful and polarizing symbols. With “Approximation of the Ku Klux Klan Symbol” (2006), Gatson re-imagines a burning cross with household items. His version doesn’t smolder on a front lawn, but is instead surrounded by ordinary light bulbs and mounted on drab wood paneling—the same sort you’d find lining the walls of a basement rec room. Similarly, “Picket Cage” (1999/2011) depicts a truly chilling video image of a Klan member and a roaring fire. The video is installed within a tall cage built from white picket fencing (as the title notes), the end result an unsettling subversion of what once represented the American Dream. As infamous as they are commonplace, Gatson’s objects serve as a grim reminder that racial intolerance lives, and is learned, in some of the most familiar places.

(Top image: Rico Gatson, “Nigeria Power” (2009); Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.)

08/31/11 4:00am

What’s most often challenging about video art is the time that it takes. More often than not, gallery go-ers will stop in front of a screen for just a few seconds before moving on to a more static, less demanding medium. But the video works displayed at Famous Accountants‘ refreshingly humble basement space shouldn’t be denied for the sake of time. The works in Per-son-age (through September 11) are remarkably eloquent, even pithy, for their medium; most don’t last for more than five minutes.

Of course, there’s more value to them than just their succinctness. Curated by Rico Gatson and linked together loosely by an “artist as protagonist” theme, the artists on display in Per-son-age drive their narratives themselves by taking on the starring roles in their own videos. Using humor, metaphor, and the monotony of routine, the artists at Famous Accountants provide an insight into perception, artistic method, and the underpinnings of social systems that often go unnoticed.

Brittany Prater‘s extremely quick video “The Bee” (2010) melts grainy footage seamlessly into hand drawings and Disney film footage. A honeybee trapped indoors dreams of freedom, and Prater opens the window so that it can escape. The bee flies away, but Prater faces dire consequences, the details of which go undisclosed. The video is both sweet and tragic, all in a minute and a half.

Laura Parnes takes the superficiality of the art world head on in an episode of her video series “The Real Art World” (2004). In episode 4, Parnes plays an artist making a proposal for a 9/11 memorial. The two slick businessmen to whom she’s speaking, however, seem less interested in her method and theories than just dollars. What the video lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in good humor, not to mention its frank portrayal of the imbalance of power between the artist and the buyer.

In “Anatomy Lessons,” Lars Kremer addresses formal artistic practice by inserting himself into anatomical sketches. Kremer shows the viewer an anatomical drawing sketched out on paper and then reduces it to white lines against a black curtained background. Then, Kremer himself enters the frame#&8212;in his boxers, no less#&8212;and with mock seriousness contorts himself until he fits snugly within the contours of the lines. It’s an interesting, almost absurdist, take on artistic convention. In “Anatomy Lessons,” it’s the medium that shapes the artist, not the other way around.

(Photo: Dan herschlein, “sounds of hot” (2010, still). Courtesy Famous Accountants.)

05/24/11 4:00am

In Gathered, Lorna Simpson's ongoing show at the Brooklyn Museum, the artist takes on the colossal task of challenging her viewers' collective memory—her photographs and films shine a spotlight on the marginalized past lives of African Americans in the 20th century. Simpson's much smaller exhibition at Salon 94 Bowery also focuses on memories, but the recollections that literally take the stage in Momentum (through June 18) are Simpson's own.

When she was eleven years old, Simpson performed in a ballet at Lincoln Center, one of the most revered stages in the world. Her memory of the performance is fleeting, but she's done her best to recreate it with a taped performance exhibited on the sidewalk—passers-by can watch her troupe of professional and student dancers decked out in afros and head-to-toe gold paint on a giant screen on the gallery's exterior wall. They spin and pirouette in a seemingly endless cycle, before taking their places back along the walls of the stark white room where they perform.

But the performance isn't a recreation of Simpson's actual experience—it's the recollection itself. Thus, it's a bit disjointed—the quick, jarring cuts in the film echo the lapses of our own memories. And the dancers' routines are punctuated by minutes of rest, replications of the long lulls during rehearsals. These moments are some of the most arresting in the film—Simpson's dancers stretch and spin and even fidget beautifully, their stone-carved bodies gleaming under the white-hot stage lights. In these moments, Simpson's dancers are completely unselfconscious in a way that no Lincoln Center audience will ever see.

Huge felt photographs of the Avery Fisher Center hang on the walls of the gallery's bottom floor. Enlarged versions of vintage postcards, the slightly kitschy images are reminiscent of Zoe Leonard's installation You See I Am Here After All. Printed in gold ink and slightly blurred, Simpson's images perfectly encapsulate the inevitable condition of a memory—gilded with idealism, and faded with time.

(Images courtesy the artist, Salon 94)

04/13/11 4:00am

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” So wrote Susan Sontag in her essay “Notes on Camp,” a 58-point thesis on all things ostentatious and overstated, works of art that delight in their own aestheticized hollowness—from which Tiffany lamps and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake were born.

Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports is offering its own take on Sontag’s 1964 work with Notes on Notes on Camp (through May 8), a group show that crams 16 equally outrageous objects into the narrow gallery space. Works like Brent Owens‘s “Softee Log” (2009), a piece of driftwood full to bursting with ice cream, and Bob Mizer‘s “Unknown” (1973), a photograph of a handsome Marine who mugs for the camera in full military dress—minus his pants—are slick and silly. For an object to be worthy of Camp, style must trump content, and Notes delivers plenty of nonsensical niceties.

Artists Cary Leibowitz and Mike Bouchet both exploit antiquated, overly serious media for their self-consciously silly pieces—Leibowitz’s candy-colored, polka-dotted diptych scolds the viewer in a feminine scrawl, “I Told You I Was Wearing This.” And Bouchet’s set of spare ribs seem as grim as any Dutch still life rendered in somber oil paints and hung on a gallery wall.

The modern king of all things Camp, John Waters, is represented by two pieces. “Rush” (2009), a giant bottle of the combination incense-party drug of the same name, lies on its side in the middle of the gallery floor. Oversized and soft to the touch, it’s reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s inflatable food sculptures. In the photograph “Destroy All Screeners” (2006), Waters is pictured tossing a handful of DVDs into a fire, a benign smile on his wrinkled face.

Sontag concludes that authentic Camp is overly sweet and earnest in a world overrun by the sardonic. As she wrote in point 18, “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.” And in a cultural climate where irony reigns supreme, one gets the sense that the works at Invisible-Exports fall into the latter category—perhaps the time for pure Camp has passed. That being said, a log filled with fake soft-serve (and market-valued at $3,500) is still pure fun.

(images courtesy Bob Mizer, John Waters and Invisible-Exports)