Tag Archives: Studio Museum in Harlem

Icons and Scripture at The Studio Museum

At the Studio Museum in Harlem:

Regarding the Figure; through August 6.

Rico Gaston: Icons, 2007-2017; through August 27.

Jamal Shabazz; through August 27.

Excerpts; through July 2.

Graphic Design from the Studio Museum Archive; through July 2.  

Spring at SMH kicked off, as it has in recent years, with “open studios,” at its in-house spaces, recently inhabited by this year’s three winners of its astute, important artist residency program that has launched many a serious art career.  The event was a breath of fresh (as opposed to gallery) air for visitors and seemingly energizing for the artists, whose light-filled niches were scattered mainly with studies and works in progress.  Andy Robert had already covered his walls with color grid-charts – quickly reminiscent of Albers, Chuck Close, Stanley Whitney –  and had several mushy and atmospheric, deep bluish canvases leaning around.  I asked him about Ab Ex; he implied that, in the end, figuration will emerge.  Julia Phillips had some small, highly crafted metal and ceramic objects, several  strung up on rack-like fixtures—absurd and slightly scary.  Autumn Knight confronted me as I entered the circle of visitors seated in her room, which was punctuated by a string of colored light bulbs strewn across the floor.  Although admittedly jaded by decades of lukewarm performance art and make-shift “happenings,” I still succumbed to her passive-aggressive entré and the relational group around her.  Museum director Thelma Golden was on hand, cheering on her young charges and us, despite her copious globe-encompassing activities as a leading art curator, educator and advocate.  A brilliant program developed nearly at the founding of this indispensable institution, which culminates in an exhibition of a body of work by each in the museum proper.

Main gallery (street-level):  In the featured show of figurative works from the collection Barkley L. Hendricks’s divine  painting, Lawdy Mama (1969) presides like a Byzantine icon—both mortal portrait and female deity; also, at the moment, a moving tribute to his recent passing. Another show-stopper is Jordan Casteel’s putty-painted, pudgy, in-your-face stroller-age twins (2017), which will melt anyone without a heart of stone right into the pushed-up picture plane. Lynette Yiadom Boakye,* known for imaginary painted portraiture, is here (as well as currently at MoMA, in “Unfinished  Conversations”); make sure to look closely at Eldzior Cortor’s sensitively painted, slightly melancholic women against a Surrealist-tinged backdrop (1949).  Some photo stand-outs: Lorraine O’Grady’s** dual photo portrait profile of a young woman and an Egyptian bust (conceived in a series of c. 1980); a back and front self-portrait head-shot diptych by Lyle Ashton Harris* (1990s); a sitter on a bed seen in a mirror Zanele Muholi (2015). That’s for starters.  As is often the case with SMH’s collection shows, the cross-chronological installation proposes and reveals engaging links (and at times even lineages) that distinguish an amorphous African diaspora art, within historical American art and the larger art world.

Upstairs: Rico Gaston’s throw-back ‘70s poster-album cover, graphic commemorations are, further, subtly crafted, color-coded Op art, with Precisionist linear rays emanating from sparse portrait montages, in a dizzying serial presentation.

More twins and twinning–a winning trope a the selection of street photography by Jamal Shabazz.

Downstairs:  The “Excerpts” show gets into a greyish area of postwar aesthetics known colloquially as “word art” – and its vicissitudes, in terms of form/s, content, and presentation.  Among the artists included: Charles Gaines, master of this (and other) reputedly esoteric conceptual art sub-genre; Glenn Ligon, near-exclusively a “language” artist who first brought layered expressions of personal and shared identity and history inhered in literature into the mix in the early 1990s; and Kara Walker, with a shocking, brave, and powerful piece (her “sign” doesn’t translate into mere text – you’ll see).  A coolly printed, breezy but compelling narrative piece by outré hipster Juliana Huxtable moves far into the new millennium; along with an alternative, low-tech, large-scale scrawl by Xavier Simmons (better known as a photographer).

Bonus: A display of graphic materials related to the museum and its exhibitions from its founding (1968) to the present; which finds an interesting counterpart in the current show, “A Bit of Matter: the MoMA PS1 Archives, 1976-2000” (MoMA/PS 1, through September 10).

*Also in the current “Whitney Biennial” (WMAA, through June 11).

**Also in the current exhibition, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985”;  (Brooklyn Museum, through September 17); several others also in both shows.

Salvaged Furniture; Pink Playroom; Bling-based Illusions; at the Studio Museum in Harlem

At the SMH (125th St.) through June 25th:

“Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street” (main galleries)

“Ebony G. Patterson: . . . when they grow up . . .” (downstairs)

“Rashaad Newsome: This is What I Want to See” (upstairs)

Although their sensibilities could not be more different, both McMillian and Patterson share an impulse to recoup real lives through found objects, sometimes with a heavy, manipulative hand, sometimes simply through juxtapositions.  Both are invested in material and social bricolage–the kind of upside-down–or rather downside-up, make-shift visual punning that art-magician David Hammons introduced into the mainstream postmodern art world in direct context of “black experience.”

McMillian’s approach is conceptual; yet, he has a palpable empathy for material (full-formed and fragmented) that has been interpolated by extensive use until thread-bare and discarded.  His sculptural wall and freestanding works can appear the result of rescue operations–a Sisyphus-like recovery of the spirits of those who marked and imbued them with meaning over time.  A broken couch crudely cemented together.  A defunct refrigerator-turned-sentinel-monument; bed sheets used as canvases.  A giant, abstract “painting” comprised of cracked and repaired linoleum flooring.  (Many among the 99% will identify with the periodic decorating event of choosing from among conventionalized faux-stone linoleum patterns, a cheap way to spruce up kitchens and easy to clean, though not especially durable.)

One tableau, in which a pile of paperback books stands in for a coffee table between two serviceable chairs (despite their missing seat cushions), perhaps nods most closely to Levi-Strauss’s anthropological concept of bricolage, whereby re-purposing cast-offs is propelled by economic necessity, and which breeds ingenuity. There are also a few enigmatic, thickly “tarred” wall-work abstractions that have affinities with the painting surfaces of Rashid Johnson; a melting “Hall of Justice” cut-out canvas; and several other assisted readymades wide open to myriad interpretations.

Patterson’s installation comes on the heels of her brilliant show at The Museum of Arts and Design, in which a definitive move from collage-ornamented painting to profuse assemblage was featured (see post).  Since her first wide exposure (c. a decade ago), her oeuvre has centralized Jamaican ethnic and social identities; and been characterized by a convulsive link between a contemporary neo-baroque surface beauty–especially “dancehall” style–and oppressive, economic and physical violence–with particular focus on post-adolescent young men.

Here, a candy-colored, furry-carpeted “playroom,” replete with dangling balloon-baubles and all manner of toys strewn about, looks to a younger set – and takes viewers down to their level to peruse the specifics — from chalk boards to superheros to guns to game balls; and especially, a mini-teepee with a floral memorial tucked inside.  On the walls are profusely ornamented portrait photographs that stare, icono-like, into the pink void, along with montaged individuals now “playing,” imaginatively, together.  The grounded objects incarnate the real childhoods shortened and lost, upon which her deeper, suggestive commentary revolves.  If the word “authentic” has any meaning any more, it fits Patterson’s committed and always eye-popping art.  She sticks emphatically to both focused concerns and a hot-house aesthetic strongly associated with Caribbean cultural heritage, energetically spinning it personal.

Ebony G. Patterson, detail of installation the Studio Museum in Harlem (3/25/16)
Ebony G. Patterson, detail of installation the Studio Museum in Harlem (3/25/16)

Newsome’s first widely exhibited works (creeping up on a decade) were small, sharp-cut collages of bling from fashion-type ads to create heraldic, interlacing designs.  As signifiers, the shiny, anamorphic illusions suggested queer hip hop aesthetics, sometimes infused with body parts and other disparate images for a Surrealist edge.  Gradually they grew larger and more complexly Photoshop-kaleidoscopic, with spell-binding results in a solo show at Marlborough Chelsea in 2011.  Since then, he has also picked up with related Op-Art-ish videos and a further push into non-objective abstraction, though generated from the same sources.  In the selection here, the all-overall patterning is at a premium, with the photo-works eliding into a large-screen video fantasia in a darkened viewing room; while two shorter videos in smaller format centralize the calligraphic motions of a dancer against the dizzying backdrops.  Again, an artist immersed in his niche who has not yet exploited its potential yield.


Tried and True next to New in Studio Museum Winter Shows

At the Studio Museum in Harlem; through March 6:

A Constellation” /

“Black: Color, Concept, Material” /

“Marc Andre Robinson: Twice Told” /

The large show, “A Constellation,” juxtaposes diverse postwar works by artists in the museum’s collection with those of artists exhibiting at the museum for the first time who expand in some way on themes and/or forms of the predecessors. Visually, it’s not always clear what is linked or why, as the curatorial/press  statement concedes; the tentative, non-exclusive schemata is meant to be reflected in the exhibition title.  More important, everything on display is engaging on an individual basis.

Best parts, for those of a certain art world age, are works that have become “classics” in living memory, including: a late, life-size carved wood mother-and-child sentinel by Elizabeth Catlett; a post-minimal grisaille painting experiment by Jack Whitten; a mid-1970s female-spirit-themed window construction by Betye Saar; Faith Ringgold’s quilt painting, Echoes of Harlem, 1980, a portrait-enhanced, patterned banner that initiated her subsequent signature medium; a shape-shifting, rusted “lynch fragment” by Mel Edwards from his decades-long series of small-scale, anamorphic metal wall sculptures; David Hammons’s 1995 Dada-ist African American piggy bank–which, cracked open, reveals a cache of cowrie shells (historical currency in many regions of Africa), and which he titles, Too Obvious; precisely–that’s the impact or coup of the absurdly unified conception. (Speaking of circuitous connections, I’ve always associated Too Obvious [it’s been periodically on view at SMH in recent years] with a print image by Hammons’s immediate predecessor, Charles Wright, titled Sounds of Silence, 1971 [litho., issued in color and black and white editions] which depicts, in a naturalistic style, a young Afro-crowned man with a large seashell in his belly.)

Of work among the younger artists that stuck with me: a Hugo McCloud rough-surfaced, vermilion-pigmented palimpsest abstraction trapping traces of of structural scaffolding in its layered–nominally connected to Whitten’s formal approach, but recalling more so the urban build-up of early Mark Bradford; and Aaron Fowler’s huge, Family, a large-scale, slightly chaotic mixed media wall tableau with titular signage slipping onto the floor.

Aaron Fowler, "Family" (2015) [taken at SMH, 11/21/15)
Aaron Fowler, “Family” (2015) [taken at SMH, 11/21/15)
The central component of the Fowler is a painted procession of variously costumed individuals set onto a backdrop of re-used  wood planks and ornamented with small objects that suggest associative bridges between time and place, public and private.  In Family viewers can glean aspects from virtually all of the elders represented in the show, along with Rauschenberg and Whitfield Lovell.


Beyond the literal monochrome and/or chiaroscuro of most of the work included, “Black: Color, Concept, Material” is nearly a smaller version of “Constellation” with its fluid cross-section of provocative selections, here all from the permanent collection.  I was surprised the introductory text did not mention Raymond Saunders’s famous, seminal essay, “Black is a Color” (1967).  Maybe I missed it somewhere, or, perhaps it may be considered something of a trope by now that need not dominate all related art conversations; yet, I would say that it is that important and (still) bears a lot of repeating.  (The California-based octogenarian, Saunders, is currently having a solo show of that title at UC Santa Cruz; through Nov. 25; Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery).

Personal faves: Nari Ward’s metaphorically and materially resonant, transformative ironing board sculpture, in which the content-loaded object of domestic labor has been cloth-wrapped and thickly tarred and “feathered” (with cotton) into a kind of New World boli (the amorphous traditional power votive type of the Senufo, comprised partly of ancestral materials); Leonardo Drew’s chunky, rough-cut, black-painted abstract wood wall-leaning sculpture, recalling Louise Nevelson;  Glenn Ligon’s glinty coal dust painting of obscured stenciled text; a sculptural self-portrait as nkisi (central African) or (related) vodun (Haitian) votive by Vanessa German.

Vanessa German, “Self Portrait of The Artist with Physicalized Soul,” 2013 [taken at SMH, 11/21/15]
Vanessa German, “Self Portrait of The Artist with Physicalized Soul,” 2013 [at SMH, 11/21/15; background and right wall: works by Glenn Ligon]
‘Floating” (with the aid of clear fish-line) in the downstairs project space: a gallery-scale, undulating, “cloud” comprised of chair appendages (arms and legs) by Marc Andre Robinson. The artist’s pruning and cobbling of worn, discarded furniture into cultural expression aims to trace, in abstract art terms, the renowned double-identity thesis of W.E. B., Dubois. Formally and in relation to the missing but evoked bodies, there are affinities with several projects by Doris Salcedo; and, just formally, Nancy Rubins and Frank Stella.

Covered previously, also on view downstairs: Lorraine O’Grady’s art-politically pointed yet delightful early relational performance, “Art Is . . ., ” 1983, represented in photo-documentation (extended from a previous closing date).

Lorraine O’Grady’s Resonant ‘Happening’ Framed at SMH

Lorraine O’Grady, “Art Is . . . ,” Studio Museum in Harlem, extended through March 6, 2016.

Good art accrues meanings through time, dragging along those seminal semiotics reflecting the circumstances in which it was created and the humanity of the artist behind it.

That’s what we see in SMH’s current exhibition version of a happening (action; relational performance) conceived and enacted by artist-activist-intellectual-polymath-octogenarian, Lorraine O’Grady, with assistants, in 1983.  On the cooperatively bright day of the annual African American Parade in Harlem, O’Grady and her team commanded a float of gilded, empty picture frames, and (physically) “framed” anonymous bystanders along the route–the photographic documentation of which is on view.  The straightforward presentation and snap-snot quality of the images conveys an aesthetic for the work (qua work of art)  that wrangles organization, excitement, and intellectual energy.

Literally moving whatever “art is . . .” out of the mainstream (downtown; white) art world and its partisan definitions (at that particular moment), O’Grady delivered a nuanced meta-art proposition as well as myriad messages and themes of invisibility and exclusion, and the social implications of interactive art, in the event of the piece and its aftermath, which lives on (not only here).    Nari Ward, in his 2014 project, “Sugar Hill Smiles,” in which he “canned” reflected smiles of passers-by (in the Harlem neighborhood, Sugar Hill) to create conceptually individualized multiples, is heir (see post). So are Kehinde Wiley‘s Baroque-ish-framed portraits of anonymous African American youths.

Nari Ward; 2014; see post.
Nari Ward; 2014 (see post).

The same O’Grady presentation was recently installed at P.S. 1 in the context of an international exhibition dealing with class and race politics and oppression (“Zero Tolerance“); it can withstand and well deserves the increasing exposure. Even stronger resonances are forthcoming at the history and heart of the piece, here on 125th St.

Abstract Painting Hangs In There: Stanley Whitney; Albert Oehlen

Stanley Whitney,” Studio Museum in Harlem (through 10/25/15).

Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden,” New Museum of Contemporary Art (through 9/13)

Abstract paintings are tough–in more ways than one.  Have been from the beginning.  But the charm is in the challenge–escapist idealism (no “thinking”); impossible, idealist . . . part spiritual/part scientific–art as innate impulse.   The digital age of endless reproduction–even more so than the photographic “mechanicism” that preceded it–is not conducive to generating engagement with abstract painting, which is predicated on material nuances,  non-illusionism, (in short) presence.  Abstraction that . . . surprises (in terms of preconception as well as perception) has really accomplished something.  So, (in short) Stanley Whitney (American; b. 1946) does that–sparingly, primarily with color, evident immediately upon entering the main gallery here.   What he does with the color is turn it into light.  Pace Rothko’s layered, glowing rectangles, to  which Whitney’s paintings broadly connect, their luminosity comes in the pure skin of oily, barely opaque though bright pigments, arranged in squares playing off each other in slightly wobbly grids.  Compositions can appear brick-wall-like; or blown up, woven-textile-ish.  The fully initiated may associate modernist stained glass windows; neo-Colorfield; Hofmann push-pull, vis-a-vis slips between skeletal frameworks and building blocks. The most engaging abstraction conveys the intuitive expression of a singular vision of the world that pulls in others.*  This is that.   In a fresh, as opposed to ponderous, way.

Albert Oehlen (Geman, b. 1954) came of art age in the milieu of Neo-Expressionist painting in the 1980s.  Along with his own contributions to gestural figuration through that decade, some on view here in which a roster of immediate predecessors and peers from across the continent are recalled, Oehlen experimented heavily with (nearly) pure abstraction as well; and since has added new kinds of imagery from the digital world to whip up a new, synthetic formal language.  I say “formal language” because the increasingly appropriated, nominally representational digital imagery progressively incorporated his painting brew contribute more so qualities like implied textures and ephemera than conventional iconography.  His surfaces can evoke a compressed, ahistorical “now”–non-reflective.  In that sense, the works of the past decade (at least) are, mainly, essentially “abstract.”  There is surely visual interest in the laminate-screen and digital print effects, airbrush-y swatches, and splashy (good old) painting mashed up in Oehlen’s work.  It pulls together a number of international trends  through the 1980s-1990s that, above all, sought to reclaim painting from “new media” and second-generation conceptual art in an authentic (for lack of better term) way.  The show (two floors) makes best aesthetic sense chronologically from the early, mainly figurative, to the later, mainly abstract work, although part of the equation is in the fluidity between them throughout.  I would repeat my advice concerning the MoMA show of Oehlen’s obvious early teacher, Sigmar Polke, last year (here): don’t overthink.  Just, are you / how are you feeling his studio struggles?

An anomaly in Oehlen’s oeuvre that you won’t miss is the 2005 untitled “bed” installation.  Artists’ beds–or bedroom-studios–and angst.  Doubt.  Isolation.  Van Gogh.  Philip Guston (see Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973).  Rauschenberg’s art ur-bed (MoMA). Lucas Samaras (back in ’64).  Rirkrit Tiravanija. Tracy Emin.  And like that.

Albert Oehlen, installation at the New Museum (7/31/15)
Albert Oehlen, installation at the New Museum (7/31/15)








*Adolf Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman: “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way–not his way”; quote from a letter published in the NYT, 1943; in American Artists on Art, 1940-1980, ed. Ellen H. Johnson (NY: Icon, 1982).



Snapshot: Spring Shows at SMH

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, through June 28:

Harlem Postcards

Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones

Salon Style


In Profile

The spring edition of Harlem Postcards is, as usual, a lively and intriguing welcome into the galleries (“Harlem Postcards”).  Love the “golden grapes” by Awol Erizko, inspired by an Egyptian kitsch image (T-shirt), and Elaine Reichek’s embroidered interpretation of a beaux-arts architectural detail (“Harlem Arcadia”).

The featured show, TDH (Amer., b. 1974): Sprawling, subversive, naughty, adolescent, densely-doodled cartoons; as per the title, the insides and outsides of human anatomy, real and imagined, rubbery, R. Crumb-“screwy,” Kerry-James-Marshall comics c. 2000, prehistoric and futurist, interspersed with hand-scripted odd-ball texts to match.  Keith Haring-like autonomy in the continuous, fluid contour drawing and mixed male messages.  Not particularly my sensibility; but surely, interesting critical investigations will be derived from this first (mid-career) retrospective for a driven, idiosyncratic draftsman.  If you do get caught up, you’ll be spending a good chunk of time unraveling it all.

More me (metaphorically; isn’t that the bottom line?) was the upstairs group show, “Salon Style.” (I once wrote a review, “Make-Up and Art” — see “Publications” page, 2012).  On the one hand, hair and (more recently in the grand scheme) nails, have become overdetermined tropes of black womanhood (globally), in specific terms of representation; on the other, related representations have been enormously influential, socially, politically and aesthetically, in the art world and beyond, since the early postwar years; and continue to be explored energetically. (I didn’t mention, in my post on the BMA Kehinde Wiley show, 2/23/15, the monument to ancestral-goddess hair, Bound, 2014).  Here, I was happy to see one of Chris Ofili’s idealized 70s-style fantasy watercolor portraits juxtaposed with one of Lorna Simpson’s similar photo-collage image-concepts (I noticed a kinship while both had simultaneous shows in NYC last year; see post, 11/3/14); as well as a demure Hank Willis Thomas manipulated “re-photograph”–ode to the perfect (female) Afro, and a small-scale Chakaia Booker (just because Booker’s formal “rubber-tire” inventiveness is always amazing).  But the star of this show is surely Pamela Council, with her “blaxidermy” (the artist’s term) art of artificial nails, from a series homage to the late, great Olympic runner Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner).

Being partial to both bricolage and Minimalist aesthetics, I was engaged by the bookish installation downstairs, Unbound (2015), in which artist Samuel Levi Jones has lined the gallery walls with tattered book spines, bindings, and covers, faded to beige and rust tones and arranged grid-like, to suggest both the immobility of entrenched, institutionalized epistemes and the malleability of collected knowledge vis-a-vis new contexts.

Highlights from two smaller installations of works from the permanent collection:

Upstairs in “Concealed” I would note: an early Willie Cole “domestic iron” piece, in which iron-burnt impressions suggest spear-shaped, worn masks (early 1990s); a realist charcoal portrait of a contemporary figure turned hybrid under a under a heavy, Baga-type mask by Robert Pruitt; and a manipulated photo-portrait by Paul Anthony Smith, in which a Kuba mask is superimposed on the sitter and “flecked” (actually pricked over with a sharp implement) to appear as shining.

Downstairs, “In Profile”: a small Barkley Hendricks “icon” of a shaded-glasses-70s dude that resonates right now with the similar recent, gold-backed portraiture of Titus Kaphur (see post 12/8/14) and Wiley (at BMA); also, a ceramic rosebud-blooming head by Simone Leigh, and a rough-hewn hair-shop-sign assemblage by Alison Saar, both of which would have looked great upstairs in “Salon.”


Titus Kaphar’s New York Moment

Titus Kaphar at Shainman: “Asphalt and Chalk” at 24th Street space; and “Drawing the Blinds”; 20th Street space; through February 21.

Titus Kaphar,  The Jerome Project,” Studio Museum in Harlem, through March (linked post).

“Asphalt and Chalk” at 24th Street offers insight and coda re:  “The Jerome Project” at SMH, a poignant yet sharp-pointed series of Photorealist, gold-grounded icons representing imprisoned men whose respective individuality is blended through status, name, and tar-like veils partially covering their faces. The veiling also creates half abstract / half figurative paintings, a formal play that, in the 24th St. display, is pushed to the brink with two large-scale examples; one of which becomes an apparent total abstraction of black and gold that has us reading it nonetheless as a hidden portrait in comparison to the other.  Drawings here reveal Kaphar’s Warhol-like process of exploring subjects at the surface through juxtapositions of altered photos, tracings, and overlaid contours that become nearly–alternatively–Cubist and Surrealist in the multiplying eyes of  several examples.  Others put the news back into platonic Pop by taking on Ferguson, and recalling, in viewer-troubling ways, post-Rodney King art responses, including a sharp journalistic turn by many African American artist-photographers in the 1990s.

Kaphar’s newer series at 20th Street picks up the intertwined metaphoric and formal twists on erasure and exposure of the Jerome work with riffs on 18th and 19th-century paintings featuring persons of African descent.  In most, the cohesive picture plane of a  faithful, if slightly, purposefully flimsy copy is disrupted with cut-out and collaged portions; several include a ceremonious co-conspirator seen “drawing the blinds” or peeking through the curtains. In one example, the artist’s own visage peers through the loin area of a life-like, processional crucifix; others deal with skewed mirror images of black and white painted “ladies,” and the ambiguities of race in both Orientalist and American history painting.

Kaphar’s aesthetic sensibility and form invoke  strains of late-Depression Regionalism and postmodern verbal and visual punning, as well as the bold anatomical structure of Kerry James Marshall and Whitfield Lovell’s anthropological draftsmanship. The potent post-colonial perspective of the 20th Street display is also kin to the more bombastic (in a stunning way), full 3-D version by Nick Cave seen here last fall (see post).

Titus Kaphur at Jack Shainman 20ht St., 1/23/15
Titus Kaphar at Jack Shainman 20th St., 1/23/15

Outer-Space in Chelsea: Art/B-Ball Extravaganza; Aerial, Back-lit View of the Boroughs

At Marlborough Chelsea, through Feb. 14:

Devin Troy Strother, “Space Jam”


Colin Brown‘s painting, Blackbird (2014; acrylic/canvas w/ lights; 44×77 in.); in a group show at Fischbach Gallery, through Feb. 7

I first saw Strother’s work on a postcard at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2011), part of its great on-going series, “Harlem Postcards,” which commissions artists to create images for the purpose, then offered gratis to visitors (see “Harlem Postcards”).  Strother  reproduced a patchy collage representing six (numbered) Harlem Globetrotters in faux-naïve, vertically stretched form, lined up with their tiny (white) coach against a swatch of graph paper. Infused with a kind of nostalgic, political, personal, and communal playfulness,  Strother (b. 1986) also found, in this over-determined  subject, an analogous entertainment factor, in terms of how he approached his art (as recorded in an artist statement). A recent group show at The Hole (on Bowery) featured two laugh-out-loud, yet sensitive take-offs on Matisse’s primitivized, monumental dancers in small-scale, craft-store-glittered, paper-doll-“darky” versions (see post).  Strother’s sinewy figuration and adolescent art instincts in general recall the black-ish, bobble-head-alien drawings of immediate predecessor, Layla Ali—all of which culminates in his current mash-up homage to and investigation of Michael Jordan, as physical being and cultural sign, via the 1996 crossover kid hit “Space Jam” starring His Airness.

While representing the moment a black sports star definitively usurped the mainstream (white) throne of American boy-man sports-hero worship, the film also tinged Jordan’s legacy with superficial, economically-motivated elisions of real racial divides, addressed influentially in the mid-1980s by David Hammons in his hoop-appended telephone-pole installations, Higher Goals (Brooklyn and Harlem), which spawned a continuing sub-genre of b-ball-themed art in relation to African American subjectivity (led by Hammons’s own subsequent projects); Strother gives dual throw-back props here and furthers each cause.

Standing in the entrance area like sentinels are sky-high cut-outs, sketchily painted in Strother’s rough-hewn style, of suited up b-ball idols. One main gallery is carpeted in a rec-room outer-space pattern recalling not only the film’s animation but the Fun Gallery graffiti of the 1980s aka the early (racial) of hip-hop days; with a big shout-out to still truckin’ Jetson fan-artist, Kenny Scharf–an aptly juvenile metaphor for Jordan’s outta-this-world status while goofing on the film’s title (which never quite made sense).

Collectively, and at odds with Strother’s thus far idiosyncratic figurative bent, the several series of paintings on view exemplify major trends in “new abstraction” for a combined airbrush/CGI look (see, e.g., MoMA’s current show, “The Forever Now”; post).  Several include bright, pasty brushwork on gradated Day-Glo  backdrops; others sneak in tiny cartoon  black faces into abstract areas recalling early Ellen Gallagher, and a main group features appropriated action shots of Jordan  splattered and streaked with paint for a futuristic Leroy Neiman effect. The centerpiece is a color-coded pseudo-basketball court with memorial overtones, as punctuated by obstacle-opaque surrounding barriers and deflated golden basketballs.  The occluded, layered messages, somewhat ambiguous, don’t impede the appealing visual energy, minimal irony, and main ideas of the overall presentation.

Devin Troy Strother installation at Marlborough Chelsea, 1/22/15
Devin Troy Strother installation at Marlborough Chelsea, 1/22/15

The galactic journey at Marlborough was the perfect mind-set in which to stumble upon Colin’s Brown’s twinkling night panorama of a plane landing at JFK in a group show of otherwise earthbound, realist paintings at Fischbach. With a cropped plane wing barely visible in the foreground of the indigo void, Brown’s piece evokes a Kodak travel-promo light-box while actually an obsessively painted and pricked surface in a unique method developed by the artist, then lit from behind, so that the geometrically organized colored specks shine into the viewer space.  It stands out above all for unabashed  idiosyncrasy–all we can ask of artists.

Colin Brown painting, 2014, detail.

Colin Brown painting, 2014, detail; at Fischbach Gallery, 1/24/15.

Past is Prologue: Nick Cave at Jack Shainman

At both the 20th St. and 24th St. Shainman Gallery locations, through Oct. 11.

Starting at the end: anything put out there by Cave (b. 1959) is worth not missing.   More to the point, the appropriated cliché of my title above (dating at least to Shakespeare) has found particular resonance in contemporary, mixed media work by African American artists. (The association has been facilitated via the hindsight “Prologue” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, c. 1952, which has had notable influence on postwar African American art broadly–see the discourse surrounding Thelma Golden’s game-changing Black Male exhibition at the Whitney, 1994.)  Cave has recently re-directed into this vein, pioneered by Betye Saar (b. 1926), and including David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Willie Cole, and Radcliffe Bailey (prominently and at the tip of my tongue, among many others).  A now canonical example of the mode, which entails collecting and recycling material resonant with history—objects, images, fragments—into (new) art is Saar’s assemblage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972).

(UC Berkeley Art Museum; image: wikipedia).

At 20th St., Cave’s sculptural arrangement, Star Power (2014) specifically recalls Saar’s icon, with its vintage Black Power fist sculpture atop a stack of worn steps, before a backdrop of a red-black-green-quilt-patterned emblem in the shape of the (symbolic) North Star.

Nick Cave, "Star Power" (2014; at Jack Shainman)
Nick Cave, “Star Power” (2014; at Jack Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)

It also recalls David Hammons’s textile multiple, African American Flag (c. 1990), as well as his punning constructions and concepts, such as the “higher goals” of his so-named, breakthrough  telephone-pole basketball hoops of the mid-1980s .  Star Power belongs to a mini-group of relatively stoic, if not quite quiet, wall-bound pieces at 20th St. that can suggest cultural memento mori.

David Hammons, "African American Flag" 1990, collection Museum of Modern Art; image from MoMA website ("collections"); it was subsequently issued in a small edition.
David Hammons, “African American Flag” 1990, collection Museum of Modern Art; image from MoMA website (“collections”); it was subsequently issued in a small edition.

Other works exude Cave’s more exuberant, flamboyant aesthetic characteristic of the signature masquerade-like “soundsuits” that have dominated his oeuvre.  Those alien-mannequin sculptures, which share a gene or two with the headless humans of Yinka Shonibare, took a slight turn in 2011 (in simultaneous shows at Shainman and Mary Boone), where their layered cultural and gender evocations began extending literally, in sprouting ornaments and near-tableaux set-ups.  This formal direction is established in several of the new works centered around mass produced black-child-servant figurines—both upholding and obscured by elaborate bird’s-nest “auras” of Eurocentric tchotchkes—miniature faux flora and fauna, twiggy  filigree, assorted, glittering baubles.

Nick Cave (2014; at Shainman).
Nick Cave (2014; at Shainman, 20th St, 9/13/14).

In one variation, a “boy” is transformed into an ithyphallic votive on an electric-candle-lit, make-shift altar that recalls (with divergent sensibility) Willie Cole’s lawn jockey-orisa figures, c. 2000, and Kara Walker’s recent similar figures cast in molasses at her Domino Sugar factory extravaganza in June).

At 24th St., exhibited under the title, “Rescue,” a group of metaphorically enthroned ceramic canines hold court, embellished with similar, even more dense and glitzy entanglements. Among many other things, this collective tour-de-force suggests ancient Egyptian zoomorphic divinity.

The title at 20th Street, “Made by Whites for Whites,” comes into focus cumulatively; I read the Star Power piece as the one weighty foil.  Of the compelling cacophony of colors, textures, mediums, methods, and messages on view across the dual installations, one final highlight here that outs sublimated stereotypes with a humorously blingy art-sartorial statement:

Nick Cave (raincoats, neck and wrist bling, etc.; at Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)
Nick Cave (raincoats, neck and wrist bling, respectively, at Shainman, 20th St., 9/13/14)

Charles Gaines, SMH and MoMA

Obsessive, artistic madman (I mean that in the most revered art-sense of the term) Gaines has a show stopper in the current MoMA show,  “Sites of Reason: Recent Acquisitions”: a multimedia installation including sound, video with text, and visually appealing, large-scale, hand-drawn sheet-music with lyrics.  Gaines devised a system to create  four related “scores” that equated and translated words of four political manifestos into corresponding musical notes (a la Sol Lewitt and an acknowledged influence, Hanne Darvoben, as well as Dadaist sound-meister John Cage).    At the Studio Museum in Harlem, “Gridwork” traces the genesis of Gaines’s self-perpetuating stylistic modus operandi  in dizzying, puzzle-like compositions from the mid-1970s-mid-1980s that recall the “counting” art of Roman Opalka as much as the Zen-focused detail of Buddhist mandalas, another acknowledged influence.  The few with color also anticipate the pixilated “bit” mosaics of the pending (at the time) digital age.