NAC in Chelsea

Josiah McElheny @ Andrea Rosen Gallery

four or five steps back

The first thing I see as I set my eyes on the artwork closest to the door is my own body reflected. It’s a mirrored sculpture—there are two actually—and as I circumnavigate them I notice each is outfitted with shoulder straps on the inside. They are evidently meant to be worn, somewhat like a sandwich board, except the contraption is made in such a way that whoever put it on wouldn’t be able to see where they were going.

            Notice the thin line on the ground. It runs a circuitous route through the gallery starting and ending at the base of these body sculptures. This must be how the wearer navigates the room, with eyes on the ground. I proceed on the line and pass by eight freestanding display cases each housing two, three, or five glass objects. The edges of the display cases look to be made of the same wood as the wearable sculptures, and the glass of which the cases’ faces are made seems consistent with the quarter-inch sheets of glass pegged to the walls, which have been cut into simplified bodily forms like stylized foosball figurines.

                                                 standing on that white line

Are the objects in the cases vases? No, clearly not—they all have open bottoms and a number have holes and notches cut into them. Vertical bands in black, white, grey, and brown, stripe each object and establish a hypnotic optical effect when I move around them, which I do several times, nearly inducing a space out. I snap to being present when it occurs to me that my orbit could be compared to that of a celestial body. I’m behaving like a moon.

I lean against a wall, mimicking the foosball figurines whose backs I imagine are also up against the walls. Contact is key and if you can touch something with your eyes why not enter it with your mind? Here then I travel inside one of McElheny’s neat vitrines with its beige linen floor and I peer out from the interior of one of these stripped objects. A penetration? Well yes, of sorts, but if you consider it sexually (and how can you not?) then the question is what’s born of the engagement?

                   two paces back

            The work is more cunning than I. It reveals itself as an inverted scenario. It is not I that have entered the work, but the work that has entered me, occupied space in my personal think box. I’m the one penetrated.

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NAC in Tribeca

Slyvan Lioni @ Kansas Gallery

sitting maybe seven steps away

I plop down on the gallery floor in a fat scalene triangle of afternoon light. The door to the street is propped open and I can feel a little breeze. I want to be eye level with this artwork: five nylon sacks stuffed with what? Hmmm. They don’t smell, so if it’s laundry that’s in these bags it’s not dirty. Perhaps whatever’s inside is less significant than the function this mystery material performs—accentuating the sacks’ physical forms. Yes, perhaps, because once form is established you can start creating structures and systems, developing matrices where color and shape might approach tangibility through recognizable patterns. If that’s the case then the next question is what these patterns might signify?

To my right three sheets of paper are thumbtacked to the wall, a legal-size sheet sandwiched by a pair of smaller letter-sized pieces. Each is painted, though not in a way that reveals brushstrokes. The coats of paint are dead even and new-car smooth, mechanical looking really, a degree of technical perfection held in balance by the crimp, crease, and crinkle of the paper itself. Wait a minute, something suspicious about these paper sheets; when I blow on them they don’t move. Hmmm.

There is some noticeable continuity in Sylvan’s work developing now; the four-cornered shape is perhaps fundamental. Not only are the bags blockish, these bogus paper sheets are flat rectangles, and the three paintings to me left are dominated by sets of squares, really neat and extremely precise squares.

I get up real close to the surface of Sylvan’s triptych looking for signs of the artist’s hand. Nothing. At certain distances and in various degrees of optical focus the work stimulates a kind of visual feedback, an illusion of vibration and the appearance of little dots like mirages at every four-way intersection the colored squares create.

It reminds me of being in Penn Station, eyes glued to the split-flap display waiting for my train’s platform to be named. Standing there with countless strangers, all of us waiting for a sign that will signal us in motion. The shuffle of the little metal flaps clacking into position is not dissimilar from the commotion those flaps cause, kind of a sonic equivalent actually, as so many hard soles and sturdy heels begin clickity-clicking in a great dissonant unison across the concrete floor.

Snap out of the reverie and here I am face to face with what looks like a commercial sign for flowers. It’s not hung, but rests on the floor leaning against the wall. There’s a faded American flag painting near the computer-engrossed gallerist. Straight across from the Flowers painting hangs an enormous canvas that from a distance looks like the work of an 8-bit processor, but is actually rendered with a touch far more refined.

fifteen paces back

I’m not too into the sun-bleached flag or the flowers—too hokey for me—but I could deposit some quality time into the vaults of this wall-size effort at abstraction. Art history blows across my brain. Old man Greenberg wants to tag Sylvan’s style as Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Barnett Neuman wants to know who is afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? Hmmm. Not me Barny! And hey, these are Mondrian colors then aren’t they? They’re close, but how about that grid? Struck me as musical, actually. What if the vertical strips’ punched-out patterns were analogous to the perforations on the paper rolls that scroll through player pianos? What would that tune be? An ordered and timely tumbling of melody, impressions of footfall on a crowded crosswalk, the swoosh and susurration of a well-oiled revolving door during peak traffic, the collective murmur of an audience between acts…patterns whose regularity is defined by constant variation within a prescribed space, be it temporal, geographic, or otherwise…

The op-arty painting in the back room is rife with thin curvilinear bands of grey and cream that appear to simmer like heat waves above a paved road. The deeper I gaze the queasier I feel. I wonder how long it would take for this painting to make me physically ill? I don’t linger, but I do discover the representational character of flag and flower to be just the palliative I need, and I depart into the sunshine most appreciative of Sylvan’s sense of parity and coordination amid the jostle and play of pattern and form.

NAC in the New Museum: UNofficial UNgovernables Catalog

A piece by piece, floor by floor, top to bottom, approach…

NAC in SOHO: Colby Bird

Colby Bird @ Fitzroy

Peering behind the frame

Pull back the curtain, peek around the side, look at what’s behind the picture—what you expected?—well, no; who hangs a photograph on a coat hook with a brass drawer pull? Colby Bird does. He also hinges them together and screws shiny doorknobs onto the backsides of others. In fact, photos that hang flat on the wall are in the minority here. You might say Colby’s photographs are on their way to becoming sculpture.

            The content of Colby’s photos remind me that the act of looking is itself always a process of becoming, never finished, always restarting, always recreating—endless metamorphosis really. In the opening image—nearest to the entry, so also the closing, to be fair—Colby enlarged a color negative  and centered it on an expanse of blackness. What we see is a hand that is either drawing back white drapes to reveal a view of a swimming pool, or closing them to conceal it.

too much glass-glare for a head-on shot

For me this piece became a stage setter from which motifs forked immediately. On the opposite wall a gorgeous still life verily celebrates a bright yellow box of Kodak Ready Load sheet film—precious stuff now that it’s a thing of the past—atop a towel-draped table. Two large photos of windows—one in full sunlight, one viewed in the reflection of a mirror at night—stand freely on the floor.

Where this travels to—the realm of Eros—is perhaps predictable, given the potential of the gaze to be a penetrating force. Colby gives us a side-by-side pairing of surf on sand, but what do I see: a crotch. And just to the left: another window’s view of two seaside bikini-clad beauties toweling off, framed, naturally, by vines and flowers. Bright as it may be, this section resolves on a dark note. It looks like a depiction of a void, a dull shine in lightless space, birth canal, maybe? No. I think it’s actually a blurry colander; that kitchen tool used to rinse dirt and grime—those unwanted elements of the outdoors—from the food we bring inside.

Down on my knees, looking at the backside of the void, with bikini babes in the background

And yes, yes, these apples and oranges that sit among the stairway’s balusters, directing one’s gaze foot-ward even as one descends into the subterranean level of the gallery; they are part of the exhibition too. I can’t help myself from personifying the sculptures down here into stage actors. Is it the lighting? Yes, partially, in certain instances the shadows seem to be as much a part of the work as any tangible element. Also the linear arrangement; they look as if they’re about to take a bow?

I get up close and it looks like these pieces are made of the struts, arms, and legs of chairs. All but one seems to be completed by a piece of fruit, a fertility metaphor perhaps? Maybe. The fruit would seem to offer a new view on to the theme of metamorphosis. Renewed is better. Like the artwork upstairs, its potential transformations may only be suggested—no tree is going to grow from these apples—they nevertheless blossom before the mind’s eye.

From the stairwell, a good fifteen to twenty paces away

NAC on the UES: David Lynch, Jack Bush, Lutz Bacher

Lutz Bacher @ Alex Zachary Peter Currie Gallery

Lutz frames pages shorn from books and hangs them up on the wall as if they were pictures. This page, the first thing one sees upon stepping into the AZPC Gallery, is about cosmology. The header reads, “Fundamental Knowledge for the Observer.” One claim made for the searcher of things is that the odds of locating an Earth-size object in the universe are about as likely as finding a particular grain of dust lost somewhere on the North American continent.

This is something to meditate on downstairs where Lutz has filled the gallery as well as the outside courtyard with sand. The tracks of past visitors are scattered here and there amidst the little dunes. I take off my shoes and meander barefoot; nothing compliments thoughts of infinite possibility quite so well as a tactile sensation between one’s toes.

Sittin in the sand

In the background there is a lilting soundtrack of twangy string instruments, the sort of music you might find in a massage parlor. A voice asks, “what are you thinking,” another responds, “how happy I am.” Both sound sedated. Back upstairs four television monitors sit on the floor displaying monotones of blue and grey. The screens flicker and if you lie down on your belly and stare, they are really quite calming.

In an adjacent room there this a photograph of a black school bus with a painting of a galaxy on its side. On a low table sit stacks of white t-shirts with the front half of self-help statements printed across their fronts, “what I needed from my mother and didn’t get was,” or, “I am a person who.” A video of an unedited conversation between a man and a woman rolls along. I sit and watch. The camera must have been left on the table, as if it were a voice recorder, because all you get to see is a knit sweater and a hand that occasionally reaches for a coffee cup.

Parts, snippets, fragments—this is how we experience everything. Wholeness is an illusion generated by the reflective division of the intellect. Wholeness takes time, occurs over time, but what about the wholeness of the integral component? Sooner or later you have to find a point where divisibility is no longer possible, right? Or would that simply signal the inadequacy of the tools one was using to split and measure?

David Lynch @ Jack Tilton Gallery

This piece is the size of a small bed, photographed from about twelve paces


        Boom! First piece to come into view is a large mixed media work in a handsome frame of a long limbed person blowing off his or her head. From there it gets weirder and weirder, but if it didn’t I think I’d be a little disappointed. After all, Lynch is the reigning king of surrealism and subconscious dream fantasies exploding violently into reality. Self-mutilation in the form of eye gouging and arm chopping recurs, as do depictions of matches and things being lit on fire by them. Lynch’s raw material—he uses cardboard to great effect, as well as plywood that is itself scored and charred—is imbued with the same injured aesthetic of much of his subject matter.

picture of "a man eating," from an arm's distance

This is physical stuff. His figures, formed of goop and stick, protrude from the surface like bones through skin. It’s unsettling, and if it wasn’t in a fancy gallery it might be frightening. There is also a thirty-second film of an egg that hatches an insect on a stage, and series of black and white photographs that could be the result of negatives collaged in a dark room. Attempting to define these images is like trying to recall a dream upon waking; you have a sense of it, a feeling even, but the edges of the form won’t come into focus. Whatever it is, it retains the mystery of its presence.

Jack Bush @ Freedman Gallery

This massive picture is the first painting discussed below

There are few flat surfaces as pleasing to the eye as the paintings of colorist illuminated in the afternoon sun. It’s as if they were made for this light. Especially Jack’s paintings, they are washy and weightless—about the opposite of those pictures made by his moody contemporary Mark Rothko. There is not a trace of anxiety or restlessness in Jack’s paint handling, nor is there a dark hue or a primary color in his palette. Edges are precise without being mechanically so, and where there are forms, they appear as natural and at ease as a duck on a pond.

probably five inches from lens to painted surface, close up of earlier pic

I spent most of my time with two paintings in particular. In the first I was attracted to the scumbled technique of the pink-toned undercoat. It reminded me of a skinned knee, stained particleboard, marbled fat, an airplane view of a flesh ocean; and on top of this layer Jack’s painted a series of curved dashes in different colors like musical notes on a score. Each of these brush strokes has a ragged edge that gives them a splintered look, or the appearance of colors quickly, even spontaneously applied. And the way these strokes bunch together and slink apart, you’d think Jack was recording the movement of an earthworm.

six paces back

The other painting I gravitated towards was perhaps the simplest of the lot. Five non-overlapping rectangles of color occupy the entire surface. There is nothing zippy, no background or foreground—just blocks of blue, pink, grey, red, and ochre. It’s a mind-clearing artwork that just seems sturdy. There isn’t a curved line in the entire composition; in fact, it’s about as organic and natural looking as the checkerboard landscape of the Midwest. Still the feeling this picture stirs in me is one of serenity, like sitting poolside on a summer day, buoyant and carefree, not because I have no cares but because I can get inside a moment where they exist free of any need to be attended to.

NAC in the LES

A.K. Burns @ Calicoon Gallery

Two steps beyond the gallery's door.

I’m standing amidst a collection of waist high quasi-modernist stone blocks and ink jet prints on linen that A.K. secured to the wall with pennies rammed halfway into the sheetrock. This may be the commanding gesture of the exhibition. It feels the most present; the most truly labor intensive. There is a busted up vase by the door that someone has attempted to repair, but that effort is more prolonged and less direct. It’s also the singular force that enables the emergence of natural forms; the rumpling linen’s folds and bends are exaggerated in the company of these rigid angular objects.

Three steps back from vase

It takes hooking of neck, craning, stooping, and up close sideways viewing to get a fair sense of the ink jet images, so obscured are they in the contorted cloth. I spy an archeological dig, a great hunk of rock, hands measuring something sculptured, someone pushing a carriage. I slide a finger along the seam of one of the sculptures and give it a slight rap with my knuckle. It’s hollow! These aren’t stone. I bet they’re made out of Formica, which would actually be more materialistically in tune with the ink jets and the vase than hewn rock would have been.

As I sit and stare through the center of one of the faux-stone sculptures the rising thoughts are all about negotiating the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces, of things being absorbed and emerging. The penny half sunk into the wall, the dominating vertical character of these rectilinear forms that seem to suggest upward movement, and of course the broken vase with its internal space open to the exterior environment. That boundary has certainly collapsed, though A.K. has attempted to reconstruct it. Archeology and childbirth both have to do with the passage of something precious across this metaphysical threshold as well.At an arm's distance

The open spaces in these sculptures seem vacated, less open than empty, or perhaps empty because an opening has been created. How similar is a womb post-delivery and a hole in the ground where an ancient pot has been removed? When A.K. digs those pennies out of the wall, they’re going to leave little gouges that will no doubt have to be filled.

NAC in Chelsea: Georg Baselitz, Harriet Korman & Charles Long

Charles Long @ Tanya Bonakdar

Charles Long sculpture at six paces

Charles Long sculpture at six paces

These naked beauties would liven up greatly if given the opportunity to be seen outside while the sun’s rays played upon their surfaces. Currently, the lighting in the gallery is a flat travesty, though it does allow the armature of the sculptures to be seen rather well. These sticks of steel, eloquently bent—as if following the lines of a confident scribbler—are the branches from which a resinous material that is alternately transparent and opaque stretches and droops. Certain of them look like stained glass windows melting. The organizing form seems to proceed with the same chaotic consistency as nature itself, reiterating endlessly though never duplicating exactly.

At an arm's distance

At an Arm's Distance

Georg Baselitz @ Gagosian

Baselitz & guard at seventeen paces

Formally, these paintings are the creaturely equivalent of noshing jelly donuts, so wonderfully sloppy and goo-filled is this old German’s painterly technique. But once those luscious colors and quick black dashes of line coalesce into form, these pictures reveal themselves to be objects of horror and disfigurement, held in this reverential sanctity of silence and white space like a victim shredded by shrapnel enshrined in a glass tomb.

The painted woman's right hand, so close the guard gets audibly anxious.

The monstrosity of scale is unsettling; if you get too close the paintings devour your field of vision. At this proximity I can make out tiny channels, like linear capillaries, that the hairs of the brush left in the paint. The thin black strokes that define the figure approximate the flight patterns of flies. I am identifying with Samuel Becket’s narrator in How It Is (1961), crawling, belly down, in the mud. From a distance these paintings remind me of the kind of love that leaves bruises and scars in its wake.

Harriet Korman @ Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

Four steps back

These paintings are delightful in the nude, pure eyeball art, which is rarely done so simply or so well. A lot of neo-geo type painters get hung up overly complicating the format of their images, not Korman. Her shapes are fundamental and her colors are damn near primary, and so what’s truly affective is the juxtaposition of colors that vibrate, each at their own frequency, in a way that is absolutely visible—and, I’ll admit, mildly disorienting.

I step in close, focus on a point where multiple colors intersect, and allow my eyes to relax. As my vision softens (as if I were trying to see through the wall) the warm colors extend off the canvas while the cool ones sink down into it. Everything appears to shake. The edges of the colors brighten and darken depending on their neighboring hue. These colors sear into my vision, and when I look away their afterimage distorts everything I see.

Close enough to kiss