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Art et Liberté Museo Reina Sofia / Madrid

The Museo Reina Sofia’s current exhibition “Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism (1938–1948)” is perfumed with the politics of desire, yielding to an excavation of spirit through the sibylline energies of youth. Founded by Georges Henein, Ramses Younan, Kamel El-Telmissany and Fouad Kamel, the movement’s immersion into the psyche was a libertine effort that blurred the present with thoughts of an untapped future.

Delightful incongruities, fraught with the tipsiness of young adulthood, were used to dissolve the bourgeoisie’s conservative aesthetics and mindless autocracy in solutions similar to Walter Benjamin’s most “excoriated and ridiculed ideas” during his period in the German Youth Movement.

While contemporary conservatives have co-opted the surreal, “Art et Liberté’s” debauched unveiling of its unconscious still has a political charm. To give in to an illogical and unnerving human psyche, with all its pulsions and desires, is to stretch the empty literalism of an oppressive and systematic reality to the breaking point. This is particularly true of Inji Efflatoun’s painting Untitled (1942), wherein female bodies are composed of malleable substances somewhere between muscle and hair. They cohere with Mahmoud Said’s La Femme aux Boucles d’or (1933) in which cleavage takes center stage, the subtle tan line emphasizing a plump command. Reality’s osteoporotic nature fractures, revealing cracked passageways into body, mind and matter. As Robert Rauschenberg noted of his “Early Egyptian” sculptures — his cardboard sarcophagi stacked at zero degrees of surrealism — bodies allow for “a silent discussion of their history exposed by their new shapes.” Such was the caustic psychoanalysis of the Surrealists: an idealistic reform of spirit, and a desire to work through the rubble of war, its waste, through a soft and pliant psyche.

by Sabrina Tarasoff

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Gavin Kenyon Blum & Poe / New York

There are no bodies in Gavin Kenyon’s exhibition at Blum & Poe New York — only their contours in the garments that cover, seal and protect them. Titled “Shrouds,” the show draws on the burial tradition of using cloth as an obscuring veil between the looker and the mourned body, which in turn is only visually registered through its material registration onto fabric.

Paradoxically, three free-standing sculptural works immediately undo this logic of material concealment: large, cast-iron quilted blankets suggesting the anthropomorphic contours of a figure reveal upon inspection a cavernous inside, a negative, body-less space. With their carefully rusty patina, these iron “wraps” provoke a trompe l’oeil effect in their mimicry of fabric and the pillowed texture of quilted garments.

In the north gallery, a single totemic sheet-metal pillar (Untitled, 2017) sculpturally reiterates the familiar yet mysteriously named “gentleman’s fancy block” quilting pattern taken up by Kenyon throughout his works. Arranging metal sheets in various states of erosion like mosaics, some covered in a frazzled lacquer and others seemingly brand new, they echo the nonlinear form of history writing traditionally associated with the quilting tradition. At his debut at Calvin Klein, designer Raf Simons recently evoked the quilt as one of the strongest symbols of American design history. It is both kitsch and ambivalent in its overlapping of the nation’s many narratives of indigeneity, slavery, religion, industrial capitalism and women’s work. Which bodies are lost, and which ones leave traces? How is folklore usurped and ejected from a wider national history of craft — only to find itself reified as post-minimalist artwork in the white cube? The only named sculpture, Penitent (2016–17), offers a suggestion but ultimately leaves the viewer pondering in front of patterns that are at once beautiful, cryptic and ubiquitous.

Subtler are the smaller wall-based works in cast iron and bronze in the upper galleries, which do not produce whole representations as much as fleeting imprints of bodies once there. A crease, a fold, a frill turn into three-dimensional haptic images, frozen in time. In the hands of Kenyon, quilting (literally) unfolds as a lyrical device for marking material time, both remembered and forgotten.

by Jeppe Ugelvig

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Andrea Longacre-White Various Small Fires / Los Angeles

To be left with a mess: a pair of mangled headphones, a car to sell, arrangements to be made (floral, funerary, and otherwise), certificates to draw up, a body to “handle.” Logistics aside, the days that follow death are often experienced — by the surviving — as a state of intoxication, a hyperawareness, a laser-sharp focus to which we are forced to apply the same vocabulary of the everyday for lack of an alternative code, though it would merit it.

It sounds trite to say that nothing else in that moment matters, as things recede in urgency. In this version of living, reason and strategic hierarchies have been upset; the worst, having arrived, is no longer anticipated. There is a freedom, a release, an unleashing to grief that undoubtedly explains its oft-noted likeness to sex.

There are two rooms to this show; one is lined with a display of harnesses and hooks, ikebana-like compositions held together by ropes, Shibari suspension rings, funerary flowers and equestrian halters, each in a tastefully paced color palette. They are visibly used. They are decorative accessories that betray recent pain, restraint, and pleasure. At off-center intervals of the room, two of the rope-ring-harness-hook-compositions are, eerily enough, freestanding. As a whole, they are leveled as instruments of torture, pleasure, and fashion.

In the second room, burnt pieces of bark protrude from the wall, each one mirrored by a 3-D-printed double of its form, and each one overflowing with — unexpectedly — glitter. Like poltergeist hands pushing out of walls, the low-hung pieces stress the surrogacy of their materials: plastic for wood, glitter for ash, and by doing so complicate the casual, sophisticated, finish-fetish read one might have had of this coded show.

It is safe to put these works in conversation with Senga Nengudi’s flesh-colored stockings-and-sand sculptures activated by elaborate pulling and stretching performances, they are sculptures that invoke resistance. Or with Longacre-White’s peer and friend Rachel Foullon’s invented-tools sculptures, which make new, colorful rope, leather, and metal compositions that weaponize art with feminine mystique. In both instances, as in Longacre-White’s sculptures, a series of knots tighten and complicate the individual pieces; a chain reaction of micro-compositions unfold as the viewer approaches the work.

All this drama, however, is scaled back by a little bit of humor: the sculptures in the exhibition are neutralized by its iodine title, “New Sculptures 2016–17,” and the sex/death/suicide/longing/desire effect is diffused as the viewer remains at a safe “screen distance,” a convention that hearkens to entertainment: leaving us to wonder whether, when forced to contend with these heightened life experiences, art can/should be the illustration of such things, or perhaps embody the tools to achieve the thing itself. In this case, these compositions of weapons and toys are easily both.

by Lauren Mackler

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Michael Jones McKean The Contemporary / Baltimore

Michael Jones McKean’s newest sculptural project, “The Ground”, occupies the ground floor of Hutzler Brothers Palace Building, a department store opened in 1888. After its closure in 1981 the building was gutted and left empty for over thirty years, save for its basement, which hosts a server farm.

Neighbored by a mosque, unoccupied stores and precarious enterprises, Baltimore’s former shopping emporium sits opposite a busy stop on the light rail line shuttling people between nearby suburbs, the BWI airport and Union Station. “The Ground” sits at the crossroads of critical systems and networks.

Like many of McKean’s earlier projects, this one employs an array of techniques, from ceramics to cabinet-making, set and exhibition design, to harness its site by folding the deep past into the distant future. Speculative and performative, the four-sided, two-story, rectangular structure latches onto cast iron pillars, emitting light. The hum of the building’s systems — its metabolism — composes its soundtrack.

One side of the sculpture is visible from the street, twenty-four hours a day, through large store windows. Polyptych-like, its seven parts weave an elaborate narrative: a birth scene, a tree (of life?), a comparative study of mammal brains (intelligence?) and a retro-futuristic tribe. With this civic address, “The Ground” produces its publics.

At close quarters, archways, ladders, and staircases join real and fictional spaces, opening and denying views through the sculpture, connecting and confusing. They also intimate an inaccessible core, invisibly inhabited. Embedded in one of the narrow sides, two small climate-control chambers conserve seeds, rocks, meteorite fragments, fossils, and Atlantic Coastal Plain artifacts. Elsewhere, an empty bed furnishes an expectant scene, clinically lit; spaces and samples that point to a future performance of embeddedness. Remixing systems aesthetics and site-specificity, “The Ground” calls on the material power of wonderment.

by Sylvie Fortin

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Jef Geys Essex Street / New York

In spite of the fourteen paintings on view at ESSEX STREET, Jef Geys isn’t interested in making abstract paintings, per se. Having served as the editor and publisher of his local newspaper in provincial northeastern Belgium, Kempen Informatieblad, he’s a self-appointed newspaper man, and his exhibition “Bubble Paintings” — which essentially seems to collect paintings from his storage unit and exhibit each work in its bubble wrapping — demonstrates a plainspoken and unceremonious approach at odds with the art world’s often self-fulfilling specialization.

In fact, it’s Geys’s straightforwardness that makes him so enigmatic, because it requires us to grapple for who, what, where, when and why.

The only gestures that are recognizably “painterly” or “artistic” in the entire exhibition are the daubs of red, blue and yellow paint that mark the packaging, as one might seal an envelope with wax. Were we to begin looking for further clues about these works, the press release assiduously explains that Geys updates the dates of each to 2017; that prices correlate directly to scale; and that the artist designed the entirely nondescript shelves that support each piece. By emphasizing these details, Geys prioritizes the bureaucracy surrounding an artwork, and though it is possible to have a pleasant visual experience — the purples and yellows in Violet (2017) pierce the muddying effects of the plastic wrapper — the show poses the visual as incidental, or merely a matter of taking note.

All this suggests that Geys sees artmaking and viewing as redundant enterprises. The show itself intimates that there’s an overabundance of art packed up and stowed away. A banner hanging high on the gallery’s back wall reads “Marie Gouze” (MARIE GOUZE, apparently undated), which the press release leads us to believe refers to an eighteenth-century French abolitionist playwright and pioneering feminist figure. Attempting to reconcile the reference against the show’s systematic redundancies, however, instills a sense of doubt. “Marie Gouze” merely sounds like a typical French name.

I once encountered an entire storeroom of Donald Judd sculptures that had been stored so long in bubble wrap, the plastic off-gassed and imprinted the bubble pattern across every pristine surface. They had been authored by a collective assumption in their value, which remains a part of them even in their ruin. I saw them underneath a more sophisticated encasement — a walk-in shadow box also composed of bubble — but what difference did it make? In effect, they could never be unwrapped.

by Sam Korman

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Adriano Amaral Vleeshal Zusterstraat / Middelburg

An atmosphere of nonspecific impending doom seems to pervade the spaces of Adriano Amaral’s “Alloy Alloy.” Set against sterile white walls and floor, a deep violet-black platform of solar panels covers most of the gallery’s surface.

On it are objects positioned in pairs, abstract at first sight, then revealing recognizable elements when inspected more closely: two horse jawbones encased in prosthetic rubber resting on aluminum rods; a pair of sneakers clad in prosthetic rubber mounted atop ultrasound gel containers; aluminum-powder-coated equine ribs fastened to white oxygen cylinders.

Co-commissioned by and taking place in Vleeshal Zusterstraat and Bielefelder Kunstverein, “Alloy Alloy” is Amaral’s first institutional solo show both in the Netherlands and Germany. Since his 2012 debut at São Paulo’s Galeria Transversal he has pursued a body of work based on an interest in matter, surface, fragility and process that manifests itself in predominantly site-specific installations.

As the title of this exhibition suggests, Amaral’s ongoing fascination with a given component’s fusion and mutability is apparent here, too. Whereas previous exhibitions consisted of more ephemeral gestures within an architectural frame, here the trajectory through the galleries seems to almost offer a narrative. Some works interact with the walls and ceiling of the exhibition space: ultraviolet tubes covered in silicone and attached to stainless-steel wall protrusions correspond with the gallery’s fluorescent lighting. Silicone casts of heavily bolted connections hang limply from vertically mounted stainless-steel brackets, echoing a columnar work that connects the platform to the gallery’s skylight through a prosthetic rubber ribbon, a stainless-steel amnihook, a neon lamp and a suction cup. Iron sulfide spheres lie casually scattered in various corners.

The rib-like shape of the Zusterstraat’s arched ceiling support resonates with the shape of the paired up objects, the doubling emphasizing their anthropomorphic qualities. They stand erect like artificial limbs or indexes of bodily presence; with works and gallery now compounded, the space becomes an object itself — heavy with some untold dystopian storyline.

by Suzanne van de Ven

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