Views: New York
The Bronx Museum
4.11.2015 – 14.2.2016
In the late 1960s, Martin Wong (1946– 1999) dubbed himself the “Human Instamatic” and made money by drawing portraits of people in the streets of Eureka, California. A decade later, he was living on the Lower East Side – a self-described “Chino-Latino” in Loisaida – painting portraits of the neighborhood, his friends, the collapsed buildings and shuttered gates, the endless brick facades. Wong charged his particular realism with recurring symbols, which he infused with personal significance: hands “speaking” sign language, eight balls, guns and hearts, firemen and constellations. He never allowed the hard edge of the world to undercut his imagination.
At his retrospective – breath-taking and moving, his first, and long overdue – I linger longest in front of Orion (1986), in which a stack of books with titles like ELECTROMAGNETISM AND ANTI-GRAVITY, WRESTLING, and WHEN THE RANGERS WERE YOUNG are painted against the night sky. The book on top is opened to an illustration of Orion, and beyond it is the constellation itself, presiding over all. (An aside: Wong often plays with levels of belief, of “realness”. Here, the stars of his painted book are less true than those in his painted sky, which appear far brighter and more correct.)
On the faux wood frame around this scene, he writes a telegraph to viewers, in neat capital letters:
ORION IS SUCH A BEAUTIFUL CONSTELLATION THAT MANY GREAT CONQUERS [sic] HAVE SENT OUT DECREES THAT THE CONSTELLATION BE RENAMED FOR THEM THESE NAMES HAVE NEVER BEEN USED THO THEY HAVE BEEN PROPOSED BY MEN MUCH MORE REAL TO US THAN THE MYTHICAL ORION
Wong’s work is a reminder that reality bends to myth and not to decree – that the hand is stronger than its subjects. “I can’t really paint the neighborhood because the time is too different now,” he told curator Yasmin Ramírez in 1996, three years before he died. His New York had cleaned up, changed – perhaps one of the many reasons why his paintings are so real to us now.
“Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015”
Museum of Modern Art
7.11.2015 – 20.3.2016
I will admit that I look at a lot of “new photography” with a concern that what I’m seeing is at best a cool sleight of hand, and never much more. The recurring formulas don’t help matters either. So much smart talk of concept and software and tools and manipulation. It can seem to the skeptic that if you just string all that together and hang it on any image, poof! You’ve got art. I see it – yes, of course – and I don’t. Poor me.
“Poor photography” is what I thought when I walked into the Museum of Modern Art’s biennial exhibition of new photography, which features 19 artists, and the first thing I saw – and heard – were two eye-searing videos commissioned from DIS. I suppose what this means is that in the mouthful of blergh!argh! that is our so-called “image- based Post-Internet reality,” video is also photography? How now.
A rhetorical question: If the Internet has collapsed chronology – and all the information, events, materials, and tools of the world are ours all at once – why is youth still considered such prime real estate? “Posterity doesn’t exist anymore,” tweeted Bret Easton Ellis, his comment (content) and its punch line (form) so neatly rolled into one. It’s certainly a museum’s job to argue otherwise, though I’d believe MoMA’s show was really onto something if it also admitted to featuring the latest in obsolescence.
That said, the show isn’t short on beauty, ideas, or a sense of the uncontainable world outside the frame. Some examples: John Houck’s still lifes are nearly lickable; Yuki Kimura captures landscapes and architectures with chilling elegance; Lieko Shiga’s large prints grow stranger and stranger the longer you look at them.
Union Gaucha Productions
6.11.2015 – 10.1.2016
Film is not photography, although that’s how you’ll see it in a magazine: still. For fun, imagine the films of Union Gaucha Productions (UGP) from the following images.
UGP is the collaborative practice of Karin Schneider and Nicolás Guagnini, each filmmakers in their own right. See how the camera is always searching for its subject, even when its subject is in frame.
See destruction in a battle for who wins the eye.
See silence and decide: Is this destiny or a prank?
See sculpture and architecture transformed into epic heroes.
“The End is Here”
7.10.2015 – 10.1.2016
From 1992 to 1999, Los Angeles-based artist Jim Shaw (*1952) made visual records of his dreams – Dream Drawings – initially to keep track of the artworks that appeared to him while he slept. Soon after waking, he would recite into a tape recorder what he’d seen. If a vision was indescribable – if words couldn’t contain the image – he’d quickly sketch it. When time allowed, he would turn these notes into drawings. At some point, he realized that he was working around the clock, making art in his studio and in his sleep. This practice of Shaw’s (and he has many others) begs a beautiful question: Are his Dream Drawings artworks? Or are they merely documents, residues, of the true works of art, on view only when Shaw is getting a little shut-eye?
I sometimes lose sleep when I’m writing, trying to make deadlines. When exhaustion sets in – when I can’t think or write anymore – I find myself wrestling with the suspicion that in art as well as other things, too great a premium is placed on what something means. I’ve listened to lectures in which artworks are explained as though they’re algorithms for message production; I’ve read criticism on gestures so empty they can do nothing except be filled. I wonder how writing can take effect when meaning – so easily concocted, projected, and absorbed – comes so cheap?
Jim Shaw’s spectacular exhibition at the New Museum is, on an essential level, a lesson in how to reinvigorate the meaning of meaning, experienced as a derangement of the world we think we know. His hand and eye never seem to rest, and the breadth of his output might convince you that he can do anything. From his Dream Drawings to the infamous Thrift Store Paintings; from his uncanny portraits of friends (including his lifelong pal, Mike Kelley) to the series of pop relics that make up the object narrative My Mirage; to his overwhelming collection of religious ephemera: all this to enlighten and befuddle all at once.
“Artist Theater Program”
Presented at Roulette as part of Performa
15 12. – 13.11.2015
To sit in a theater and have one’s attention tuned to the charisma of objects: this was one delight of Erika Vogt’s Artist Theater Program. Another: to watch artworks double for props, set pieces, and characters. As part of Performa 15, this iteration of Artist Theater Program (there have been three others) gathered together artists Shannon Ebner, Silke Otto-Knapp, Adam Putnam, Math Bass, Lauren Davis Fisher, Dylan Mira, and Nora Slade to see what would materialize between them and their work. The most compelling moments: sculptures of wood, wire, and mirror that were placed beneath the stage lights to create reflections on the floor and ceiling, revealing portals into ethereal, undefined elsewheres; oversized props/sculptures held up by certain audience members, blocking their view of the action; calligraphic notations and illustrations painted onto boards and hung from frames that rolled around like display racks; two paintings that faced each other from across the stage, as though in a silent duet.
Performa can sometimes be a bit of a disappointment; many of the pieces in the festival end up feeling like mere one-liners. The achievement of Vogt’s theater, her happening, is that it doesn’t offer a clever angle or a tidy idea; rather, the piece makes its point by continuously pointing to what might be possible in both performance and visual art.
To borrow a line from the Romantic sculptor Antoine-Augustin Pr.ault: “Je ne suis pas pour le fini. Je suis pour l’infini” [“I am not for the finish (the finite). I am for the infinite.”]. After all, how else should an artist be?
15.10. – 15.11.2015
Scribbles and scratches and lists and clips: Brice Marden is certainly no slouch, but he’s no John Ashbery either.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer and critic based in New York.