Review /

Jack Smith Artists Space / New York

Anarchism and availabilism were the main rules of the singular utopia Jack Smith built throughout his life, a place for radical freedom. Decaying tropicalism and a sensational escapism were the main inspirations. Oneiric and erotic characters starred in his public film-performances, presided over by queer and syncretic goddesses, often after midnight in downtown Manhattan.

People still celebrate the artist’s latest myths. As the father of American underground cinema and performance art, Smith shaped his oeuvre as a political statement: he defied the capitalist nature of the art market by choosing performance art, a discipline in essence ethereal and ephemeral.

Smith started his performances in a two-floor loft space at 36 Greene Street, which he called The Plaster Foundation of Atlantis. He got evicted two years later because he refused to pay rent (rent was a capitalistic “fear ritual,” as he coined it), and moved to live on Mercer Street followed by an apartment in the East Village. It was after his eviction from Greene Street that he performed a couple of times at Artists Space and various clandestine locations. The exhibition at Artists Space, “Art Crust of Spiritual Oasis,” presents a string of byproducts from his various performances: props, photographs, flyers, notes, and of course films (all courtesy of Gladstone Gallery). Wandering through the show, it is not immediately evident that this is the same space Smith and his theater company performed in some forty years ago. If the aura persists, the material isn’t sharing its secrets. Smith’s art is almost like a civilization: if you didn’t live it, good luck spending your entire life deciphering its meaning and fantasizing the profundity of its originality. Part celestial tramp, part Dadaist, Smith used myriads of cheap props and lush metaphors to shower the audience with his exotic visions and frenetic jubilations. His goal was to merge art and life to the point where one couldn’t tell the difference, like a trance session. If it’s life, it’s a political statement (“escape far away from capitalism”); if it’s art, it’s the dream of a liberated life filled with infinite wealth, freely pouring from a mind without boundaries.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

read more
Review /

Sharp Objects: Daydreams Can Be Dangerous

“She wanted to shield her, from the bullet of an ordinary life.”

—Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park

I believe, perhaps counterintuitively and certainly masochistically, that a good film or TV show should make you feel profoundly banal. It should not transport you or give you hope that dreams come true. It is the role of avant-garde television to make you understand that you are a cliché, that there is truly nothing remarkable about you, that no one will tell your story, that everyone has been wounded and only some wounds are worth watching.

Such is the case with Sharp Objects, Jean-Marc Vallée’s miniseries that premiered on July 8 on HBO. Coming off the extraordinary success of Big Little Lies, Vallée brings us another murder story mixed with a biting comedy of manners, this time with a healthy dose of Lana Del Rey Americana. Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) has escaped her stifling, socialite mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to become a reporter in St. Louis, only to be sent back to cover the murder of two young girls.

The story is one that has been told countless times — a woman with a dark past returns home to confront traumas internal and external. To say that Sharp Objects is innovative would be an exaggeration, but this is exactly my point. So unapologetically does the series embrace the hackneyed traditions of crime shows (especially those starring women) and melodramas that it becomes something discomfiting that dares us to love it despite our entrenched desire for that wink-wink that tells us it is all a joke.

The irony never comes. In this way, the sincerity of Sharp Objects denies any such markers of highbrow enjoyment and instead provokes a hysterical need to chase the impossible — to become that booze-swigging, chain-smoking, windows-down-tunes-blasting woman with a traumatic secret you have seen so many times onscreen. Sharp Objects reminds us that some people have their lives immortalized onscreen, but those people are only characters. We can never approach that freeing artifice.

by William J. Simmons

read more
Review /

Mona Varichon Goodan Family Graduate Art Gallery, ArtCenter / Pasadena

On May 16, Mona Varichon graduated from ArtCenter’s two-year MFA program. She had her final critique earlier that day, laudable from what I gathered, and by dusk the whole scene had evolved into the usual awkward standing-around-chatting of any Los Angeles opening, right before the crowd stumbles toward the latest dive bar–cum–project space in Chinatown, this evening rumored to be serving a signature cocktail called the Mona Spritz.

(Had I known that the final critiques were open to the public — an institutional attempt at critical inclusivity — I would have been there.) But, I rocked up circa 8 p.m., fashionably late, and instantly felt like a mega-loser, stranded on the concrete plaza outside the main gallery. Adding to the scene’s Twilight Zone vibe, the signature clinks of bottom-shelf Chardonnay and shuffled plastic glasses were clearly audible from an audience absolutely out of sight. I embraced my late flop, stumbled into the exhibition.

It is so rare to have a first foray into an exhibition with the surprise unspoiled by trigger-happy social-media shares and avant la lettre documentation. Graduate shows have this debutante glow to them; the act of coming out comes with a particularly enchanting mélange of existential iffiness, studio malaise, though also freshness and excitement unfettered by “the real world.” Marking a break from the excess visuality that invariably awaits on the “outside,” Varichon has been figuring out what it means to make work beyond an onslaught of images. Visuals exist in her films to cast aspersions on the brooding tête-à-têtes, deliberations, and interviews that scroll through a screen as subtitles. Confabulatory in the senses of the conversational and conjured up, with a Proustian bent, she’s compensating for lost time by collaging past memories.

Having spent the last year recording and translating telephone conversations with her mother in Paris, from French to English, Varichon subsequently created No, I Was Thinking of Life (2018) — twelve minutes of FaceTime nonspace projected single-channel onto a wall. Theirs is a conversation that fumbles in the dark, and not just over the monochrome black of the screen; long distance, loss, improvisatory laws, and bilingualism each tie in as evasive subjects that find family resemblance in their total lack of control and risk of miscommunication. It’s straight out of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who famously said, “I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” Varichon’s take on death is far less literal, its implied finish more a daily rite of phone calls clicking to an end, or the ends we encounter in the uncertain realm of foreclosed alternatives, missed connections, and close encounters in our little lives. Looped via a two-minute transition that sees the black screen fade to gray, white, then reverse, the film’s gradational quality preserves this atmosphere. So much to muse on in the monochrome “image,” though more to the point: What does it mean for a film to be all about (its) denouement?

[The year was 2017]

As the film’s prologue, this annus mirabilis comes announced in the eldritch sheen of a neon font, its eerie FX mawkishness foreshadowing the mood of mother-daughter rapport. (“Coucou!” her mother exclaims a second later, lifting the mood in a flicked frame.) What reads like a seamless chat passed through a centrifuge of Jonas Mekas films is actually a handful of separate phone calls, collaged out of dozens of recorded hours. For a while I thought about what it means to account for everything said to one’s parent over a year, let alone return to the potentially incriminating evidence. Varichon mentioned to me only in passing that she had realized, listening back, how little she actually listened sometimes. (Personally, I wouldn’t go there.) Perhaps the reconstitution of their phone calls as partial fiction is a way to mend the gaps — make a conscious rejoinder to what was left adrift in the moment. Carefully enunciating a quote from an interview with Mekas, Maman’s French accent stumbles into a space between meanings: “Chance has its own logic. Improvisation has stronger logic. It works according to its own loss.”

No, I Was Thinking Of Life (CC), installation view
No, I Was Thinking Of Life (CC), installation view at the Goodan Family Graduate Art Gallery, ArtCenter College of Design, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Varichon hesitates: “Laws ou loss?” Despite eventually acknowledging that Mekas might have said “laws,” her ESL slip makes a more interesting point — that improvisation battens on lack. It riffs on the past to turn a profit (in the sense of profiter) with what’s available, like the “frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania,”[1] which hit Barthes in the wake of his mother’s death. Varichon skirts with graceful curiosity these privations of her mother’s life by edging what has been lost with what can be contrived. Some of the more affectionate raillery in the film occurs as she muses on her own future funeral. Laughter makes her voice crack; her mother’s tension breaks. As does the seamless cohesion of the conversation, interrupted by a chronological glitch on Varichon’s cue, “They reminded me of Jonas Mekas films, your videos of the beach.”

[The year is 2018]

With a floated serif and bright white backdrop, the film enters its changeover. Tousled winds hit the microphone, “…yeah, the blowing wind…,” and from the small nod noted above to Mme. Varichon’s own filmic oeuvre, we might assume to be listening in to her work. A mutual recognition in the works of Mekas sets the film going, though its own enlightenments on looking, loss, and language tack onto a far more circuitous source. Too cheesy to clasp at the unbearable lightness of being, I’d settle for thinking of light as the film’s unintended dénouement — not exactly clarity but maybe relief? Or not relief, as Varichon remarks on her “ceremonial” [sic], “something inspiring, to take your mind off things.” (Like how we create images of those we love, things left unsaid to them, their eventual loss.) Touching on conclusiveness but never quite reaching it, the film angles at the wicked reality of personal relationships. Put blankly by Janet Malcolm: “We cannot know each other. We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain.”[2] Instead, we improvise.

by Sabrina Tarasoff

[1] Barthes, Roland. Mourning Diary. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1980/11/24/i-the-impossible-profession

 

read more
Review /

Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher Bonniers Konsthall / Stockholm

If you are a fan of the enigmatic musician Sun Ra, you’ll already like Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher’s exhibition “Better Dimension.” It’s a handsome show, and Ra inspired most of it. His oft-cited philosophical writings are reproduced in several works, notably in The Wisdom of Ra (2018). And though the musician is absent from the film installation Highway Gothic (2017), the work pays homage to Ra’s Afrofuturism by addressing segregation in New Orleans from an ecological perspective — even the prog rock soundtrack is in the spirit of his psychedelic imagination.

All art could be made about Ra for the next thousand years and I’d never get tired of it. But ultimately the show is a practical tutorial in utopia, which explains why Cleijne and Gallagher choose to focus on the peculiarities of Ra’s philosophy, rather than on his music directly. “That which is true in the world of one is only semi-true in the world of two,” reads a statement printed on the wall of Better Dimension (2010): “1 is a number / 1 is an alphabet.” The math might be hazy, but it still conveys Ra’s bountiful conviction that a better world is to be made from the basic stuff of this one.

Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, installation view Wisdom of Ra, 2018 (detail)
Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, installation view Wisdom of Ra, 2018 (detail), Bonniers Konsthall. Courtesy of the artists. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

It’s with some amateur magic that Cleijne and Gallagher take visitors to the promised land. Better Dimension’s four-sided structure is spotlit, and images from Ra’s notebooks cover the exterior. For those curious enough, the panels slide open and grant access to a comfortable if flimsy sanctuary. Inky psychedelic slides are projected on each wall, and a hologram of JFK’s disembodied head reflects the late president’s friendly demeanor. You really feel like you could remake it from stuff you have at home. Elsewhere, Nothing Is… (2013) couples Ra with one of his successors. The film is illustrated by hand, and bookends a quote from Ra’s poetry with a monkish portrait of science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. The text is clearly meant to inspire grand, new worlds: “The nothing and the air and the fire are really the same.” Like the rest of the show, the film convert’s Ra’s utopian vision into material resourcefulness, and asks visitors to listen carefully. After all, the film’s spacy soundtrack is actually the amplified sounds of the projector itself.

by Sam Korman

read more
Review /

Reena Spaulings Matthew Marks Gallery / Los Angeles

Seascape (2014) is a Turner riff at Water Lilies scale, painted by a robotic mop. One can mostly appreciate this grand work from close up, where indeed the turbulent hues separate into “mop strokes” of uniform size. Try to see the whole painting straight on, however, at a distance, and the exhibition’s titular “male gates” invade the view: Gate 1 through Gate 5, a series of five paintings on metal detectors. Their treatments range from a beige monochrome to high-energy sprays of high-gloss enamel — all accent colors, without compliments.

Walking through the detectors is an almost harrowing moment of viewership. They’re not on, no officers wave you through, no alarms go off, but the glossy panels press in close; you can see your reflection in their sheen, and you can smell the new paint. From across the room, a series of smaller paintings (Medusas, 2018) seem to nestle inside the metal detectors’ arches: clattering pointillist renderings of clichés like a Mickey Mouse water tower or a leering skull. The points are bold, but the paintings tend toward noise and gruel.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s Gates (2005) decked central park months after Reena Spaulings opened their New York gallery. Tourists and locals alike queued slowly, rain or shine, beneath the orange flagged structures, a more optimistic version of the gates through which visitors to JFK, LGA, and the 9/11 museum must pass. In Tai-Chi and other “energy work,” the body’s gates regulate the flow of qi — much like, on another scale, checkpoints regulate the flow of bodies, subtle and otherwise. Looking at these expressive paintings, framed by deadpan gates, the dominant “emotion” is exhaustion. It is the pristine exhaustion of the international artist (Reena or her incorporated parts) who finds herself at a loss, creatively blocked, on line at airport security. These slow gates are the sphincter at the end of the fluorescent, intestinal queue; the longer she fixates on this point, the more that deeper prison starts to seem like a fresh way out.

by Travis Diehl

read more
Review /

Apostolos Georgiou Rodeo / London

Little is known of writer Peter Zabelskis. In 1986, Slate Press published his Loop: 50 Ideas for Pictures. These loops are peephole preliminaries for an absent narrative center: each remains phlegmatic as Zabelskis gestures toward tension, perfunctory absurdity, or cliché tragedy. For instance: “A shabby motel whose owner, whenever a murder or suicide occurs in one of the cabins, cuts a back door into the room as soon as the police investigation is over.” In another, the marbelized cover of a composition book reveals words that swirl into prose but don’t linger “long enough to be read.” The cover is only ever a primer, Zabelskis confirms: “Inside is something completely different. Let’s look…”

Of course, we never see. But Apostolos Georgiou’s paintings suitably deliver on Zabelskis’s cue. They are interiors to the author’s deftly executed keyholes: settings without introduction, living rooms without a welcoming entrance. In his scenes, lachrymose minds stoop as narrative skulks, either bruised by outburst or wallowing in its aftermath like a ripe contusion. Action appears habitual and despairing, at times absurd, radiating coolly from tepid mobilizers: fists, rifles, unoccupied pillows, hunched postures. The powdery palette of plum, taupe, brown, and mint green is uniformly suave, like a funereal fistful of black calla lilies.

I think: you look like you killed a man. In Untitled (2000) he sits, knee to chest, atop a charcoal mattress beside a lamp glowing with emotion. His face: when anxiety and dread reduce to stoicism. The brushwork is graphic and blocky. His shoulder catches a nectarine-hued highlight. Isolated, he looks like a man containing aftershock, swallowing the tectonic consequences, moving on. The patina of the wall is layered with sequences from pale pink and lilac to a spectral buttercup yellow. Embalmed, the colors illuminate the wall — the most lavish feature of the room.

Apostolos Georgiou, Untitled, 2000
Apostolos Georgiou, Untitled, 2000. Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo, London. Photography by Plastiques.

Spaces are mostly vacant, lending Georgiou’s figures a theatrical aplomb that seems to relish distraction in moments of rickety slapstick. Two people teeter on Mücke Melder-esque chairs, their ankles shaking. The rhythm feels percussive and brassy, reminiscent of Cathy Berberian’s zany onomatopoeia in Stripsody (1966). These rooms are a woozy mind where behavior is torpid yet barbed by emotional gravitas: a woman spoon-feeds a man on her lap; another soothes a man as he crawls over her like a sartorial schlub. He could be writhing in agony. These are places of proclamation, explosion, and seclusion; places between papers, beds, desks, chairs; between servility, solidarity, and dominion. Domestic or institutional, the environment blends salon, asylum, and sanctuary: where the psyche may obsess or decay. So often it seems these people wrestle their inner saboteur or reckon with past humiliations: a woman stands at a wooden lectern, a leader, whose own corpse lies in front of her.

Stilted by melodrama, Georgiou’s evocation of gallantry soon buckles, with glowering sadism slinking at its edges. Icons become specious lumber, thickset with hoodwinking tricks. Color is a low-pressure headache, its sultry quality numbing and imprisoning as though these actants sit between the emotional impasse of inevitability and the anticipation of looming change, between serenity and melancholy, total defeat and deliverance. The legibility of sincerity or revenge is never realized; rather, for Georgiou, they feel like two masks for one plucky harlequin.

This brings into question the title, “From My Heart. A tired idiom, to mention “my heart” is to sow a challenge in its very words; the loaded symbol petrifies into a heavy-handed burden. One can weaponize my heart, bewitch it as a tool for manipulation. It is hard to accept the heart at face value, and Georgiou gives us an escape clause from this core ambivalence, carving out the back door.

by Alex Bennett

read more