The Galleries
Michael Newton

New York, December, 2006


Abstract @ Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Many abstract painters these days seem to be going for a highly stylized ugliness. Is this a movement? The New Ugly?


Adam Bartos @ Yossi Milo

Large format, late-seventies photos of Los Angeles that make the city feel barren, with hints of apocalyptic finality. I won’t say whether or not that’s an appropriate portrayal of L.A., as I’ve never been there and that would be unfair of me.


Robert Bechtle @ Gladstone

Paintings from photographic sources are exceedingly common these days, but the paintings of Bechtle, himself an early photorealist, are all about the photographic medium’s unique and uniquely problematic mode of freezing light and history into a little rectangle. That’s actually what a lot of early photorealism was about. Now in his seventies, Bechtle’s paintings—based, as they have been for decades, on snapshots of San Francisco—feel especially, notably well-thought, well-crafted, and emotionally resonant.


James Bidgood @ ClampArt

Campy, delightfully softcore gay-fantasy portraits. I had seen some of these photos before, and I naively assumed that Bidgood was a contemporary commercial photographer, being paid to emulate the likes of David LaChapelle or Pierre et Gilles. What I didn’t know was that these pictures were taken in the sixties, while Pierre and Gilles were still kids and before LaChapelle was even born. Plus, Bidgood made these pictures with homemade props in his cramped apartment. Ironically, that these images could now look like banal glossy-magazine photos shows just how unique and innovative they were forty years ago.


John Bock @ Anton Kern

A surprising element of these junk-y accumulations is their unmoored, shifting focal points—you go a little crazy trying to look at them. There’s a lot I don’t get about this new wave of junk-y art that’s popping up all over the gallery scene, so I’m probably just getting old.


The Bong Show @ Leslie Tonkonow

I wasn’t expecting to like this show—weed-smoking in-jokes bore me to tears. Oh look, a pot leaf. Hilarious. But, the artists in this show, who are smart, have found in the bong a useful gateway to biomorphism, the phallus, and bohemian nostalgia.


Jason Brooks @ Stellan Holm

Photorealist paintings of heavily tattooed folk strike an interesting sort of bargain with the viewer: you can stare at these people’s tattoos for as long as you want, but you have to take the painter’s word for it that the tattoos exist in real life, on real bodies.


Roz Chast @ Julie Saul

Original drawings by everyone’s favorite New Yorker cartoonist—they look pretty much the same here as when they’re printed. There were several other people in the gallery, but I was the only one laughing, so either they knew something I didn’t or vice versa.


Chinese Relativity @ Stux

Let it be known: there’s an awful lot going on in Chinese contemporary art right now. Which is to say, there’s an awful lot going on in China right now. There was some boring art here, but some definitely non-boring art, too, like Wang Qingsong’s striking digital photo tableau of clashing, contested histories, and Wei Dong’s fleshly female soldiers—like if Lisa Yuskavage were in the army.


Color Aside @ Luhring Augustine

A show of paintings with restricted palettes—black, white, maybe a little brown in there, too. Included: near-past melancholia by Norbert Schwontkowski, pixel-y digital harbingers by Albert Oehlen, and effectively ill-formed squeegee paintings by veteran conceptualist Christopher Wool, among others.


Brian Dettmer @ Art & Idea

Who among us has the willpower to resist the charming, nostalgic allure of obsolete media? My favorite thing here was a group of corny old paperbacks which Dettmer sliced into compelling, layered collage-sculpture things. The skulls made out of melted audio tapes were not as interesting—media, death, dead media, okay, okay.


Noah Fischer @ 5BE

Called “Rhetoric Machine,” this ambitious (if somewhat rickety) sound/light/sculptural installation takes a dim view of the construction and idealization of American history. But there was something missing amid the noise and flash, and were I Fischer’s crazy piano teacher, I would admonish him: “More feeling, Noah! Feeling!


Michael Fullerton @ Greene Naftali

Delicate yet menacing oil portraits co-inhabit the gallery with harsh installation effects—stained mirrors, dirty prints on cheap paper, a malfunctioning hard drive. There’s misogyny and hostility afoot, to be sure, but what I took from the show was critical anger rather than cathartic anger—an illumination of some of the nastiness to be found in classical art and modern life.


Maureen Gallace @ 303

Small paintings of suburban tranquility that look like they could have been done in a hurry, by an artist who seems to have a nice life in, yes, the suburbs. As for why these paintings get shown internationally in high-rent galleries and museums, rather than in a Starbucks in Hartford, you will have to defer to the art world. The art world knows something you don’t, I guess?


Felix Gonzalez-Torres & Agnes Martin @ Andrea Rosen

This was a small, stunning show in the gallery’s project room (part of an ongoing series on Gonzalez-Torres). Some of Martin’s canonical gridded abstractions appear next to small grid drawings by Gonzalez-Torres, which are awfully similar. The Gonzalez-Torres drawings, though, were based on medical documents—graphs of a falling t-cell count. And so work that strives towards a transcendent ethereality is juxtaposed with work capturing a darkly resonant moment in history, culture, and individual bodies. Gonzalez-Torres was amazing—I wish he were still making art.


Jeff Jacobson @ Peer

All of these photographs contain some sort of face-forward postmodern referent—a projection, a reflection, a camera, a frame within the frame. But while that approach could lead to boring, Postmodernism-101-type posturing, Jacobson’s chops as an image maker, and his care in choosing subjects, make these pictures worth your while.


Ezra Johnson @ Nicole Klagsbrun

Johnson has a background in painting, and with this work, he utilizes the visual language and physical materials of paint(ing) to create pleasing animated videos. The cartoons are accessibly homespun, but are also the clear result of laborious, disciplined craft. One of the cartoons is about art thieves stealing some paintings, and that bugs me a little—I wish painters wouldn’t paint so many paintings about paintings.


Ray Johnson @ Kinz, Tillou & Feigen

Johnson was at the center of the pop art movement and a mainstay in the 20th century New York art scene, but today he’s known more as the subject of the film How to Draw a Bunny than he is as, you know, an artist. To be honest, I found the work in this show—illustrated correspondence between Johnson and his famous friends—sort of walled-off, inaccessible. But it wasn’t really meant for me anyway, was it?


Ellsworth Kelly @ Matthew Marks

So, what is it that Kelly did that other artists hadn’t done? Is he still doing it? What if you made your own ‘Kelly’—a flat-color painting on an oddly-shaped canvas—and brought it to a gallery? Would they show it? Would they sell it? Why or why not? What does Ellsworth Kelly do that you can’t?


Jannis Kounellis @ Cheim & Read

An ironic thing about Arte Povera is that a lot of it is probably really expensive to ship and install. Anyway, Kounellis was an influential part of the original Arte Povera movement—a slice of the Italian avant-garde which sought to find poetry in leaden, industrial materials—and is still doing similar work today. This exhibition, with its rust and dirty mattresses and overcoats bound in wire, has something to say about displacement and imprisonment and totalitarianism, but I’m not sure what. It may be that this work makes more sense in Kounellis’ adopted country, Italy, or his native country, Greece. In a fancy New York cube gallery, something goes missing.


Jonas Mekas @ Maya Stendhal

It used to be that making some sort of a motion picture, even a little one, was a pretty big deal—it had to be done on film, which is pricey and finicky and hard to edit. So, how does someone like Mekas, who has a history in quick, diaristic films about his life in the fabled New York art scene, maintain this tradition in a world where twelve year olds make videos on their cell phones? Well, he kind of doesn’t, but that’s alright. One thing he has done is maintain a YouTube-y video diary on his website.


Andrew Moore @ Yancey Richardson

Moore’s talent and professional success allow him to take grand pictures of architectural sites, which look like quasi-cinematic fantasy but are actually, well, actual. The soft palette and classical landscape composition recall chintzy calendar photos, but the images are uniquely challenging. The monumental, the decaying, the placid—it all looks weird.


Trevor Paglen @ Bellwether

This is pretty amazing. Paglen has developed his own sort of telescopic-photographic technology, and has used it to take photographs of CIA airports and prisons, which the CIA is still kind of reticent to admit are actually there. The images themselves aren’t the most eye-pleasing things ever, but Paglen stands to make valuable contributions to geography, social activism, photographic practice, and history. Who needs pretty pictures?


Dan Peterman @ Andrea Rosen

A paradox: art with noble, ambitious aims at social and political engagement demands harsh criticism as to whether or not those aims have been achieved; meanwhile, the vast majority of art is not similarly taken to task for its lack of political relevance. There are indeed some truly sinister politics behind the painting of, say, a bowl of fruit (or a unicorn, or whatever), but no one talks about it. In this show, Peterman has made gallery-filling objects informed by conceptual and process-based art, and by concerns of environmental exploitation and sustainability. But will these artworks do anything to actually help the situation outside the gallery walls? Maybe not, but Peterman has done lots of work around community organizing and consensus building and the like, so don’t worry—he still gets an A.


Photo Femmes @ Caren Golden

A timely show of contemporary photos of women, by women—you could even call it a feminist show, though I’m not sure if that’s what the artists themselves would say. An example: Francie Bishop Good’s ongoing series of askance, vérité photos of her niece, Carly, who just so happens to be a young, pretty, blonde, American girl. In a way, it’s hard to think of a more politically loaded subject.


Tal R @ Zach Feuer

This is from the so-ugly-it’s-beautiful, so-primitive-it’s-sophisticated set, of which there’s no shortage in Chelsea these days, but I feel that Tal is particularly good at it—especially when it comes to strong, memorable iconography. A complaint: there’s a streak of self-referentiality running through these paintings, which I find unnecessary. Paintings are always about painting even when they’re not about painting, if you catch my drift.


Cheyney Thompson @ Andrew Kreps

Artists want to make artwork that directly engages its own surrounding environment; a lot of artwork is displayed in art galleries; so, artists make artwork about art galleries.


Brian Ulrich @ Julie Saul

As long as first-world consumer fantasias continue to be psychologically manipulative and generally unsustainable, it will be important for photographers to go to the mall and take lots of pictures. As such, a lot of photographers have done just that, sometimes poorly, but Ulrich’s work is good—strong compositions that ably manage the balance between pleasant and queasy.


The Way of All Flesh @ Bravinlee

Shows like this make me feel sort of like a mad scientist. The body! The corpus! The flesh! Good work, including an atypical Vik Muniz sculpture, an eerie, vintage Käthe Kollwitz drawing, and stuff by Isabella Kirkland and Daniel Hesidence.


Ryan Weideman & Sarah Stolfa @ Silverstein

Weideman was a cab driver in New York for a long time, and managed to take many off-center black and white pictures of his fares; Stolfa, who must cop to her own hipness in the here and now, worked as a bartender in Philadelphia and took intimate, color pictures of her regulars. Together, it’s a smart pairing in which the artist/subject dialectic is tempered by commerce, forced conversation, and drunkenness.


Peter Welz & Jenny Perlin @ The Kitchen

In Welz’s project, a piece of text (by Beckett) is translated into a dance, the dance into a video, the video into a sculptural installation. It sounds like an academic exercise, and that’s pretty much what it looks like, too. But Jenny Perlin’s project is great—an installation of projected images and text based on research into fifties-era FBI surveillance of alleged friends of alleged Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. For the textual element here, Perlin made a filmic animation which creates a sort of poetry out of the inaudible passages in the initial FBI transcript. I wish this particular moment in American history weren’t so relevant today, but it is, that’s the thing.


Mike Womack @ ZieherSmith

Rows of just-so mirrors reflect things that appear to be old-fashioned, formalist, abstract sculptures, but which are actually grubby agglomerations of rubber doodads, Cheez Doodles, cinder blocks, and so forth. It’s a surprising, playful experiment, and what’s wrong with that?



New York, February, 2007


Doug Aitken @ 303

I saw that there was a Doug Aitken show up and was hoping to be entertained a bit with some snazzy multichannel video art—it’s something he’s particularly good at. That snazziness, instead, found a home in space-age bachelor-pad sculptural work—a sort of interactive marimba table and a wall of rotating mirrors, among other things. There was an offputting detachment to it, though—like being at said bachelor pad but being afraid to touch anything, a feeling that persisted even in the interactive work, which I could touch all day if I wanted to.


Francis Alÿs @ David Zwirner

Revisiting a project he did in 1995, Alÿs presents a video of himself in which he surreptitiously, illegally drips a can of green paint along the physical length of the cartographic ‘green line’ separating Israeli and Palestinian territories. The piece, which includes recorded interviews and historical documentation, ostensibly raises questions on the political value of a poetic act, and the question is occasionally answered in ways that we might not like. To paraphrase one of Alÿs’ interview subjects: “. . . your line, one rain will wash it away.” Still, it’s a fascinating and—this is important—educational body of work.


Gillian Carnegie @ Andrea Rosen

In Carnegie’s paintings, the paint itself feels weighted—traditional fine art subjects throb with ominous portent, the structure of the paint compelling the viewer and image to a dialogue in hushed tones. She is, in other words, a very good painter.


The Cement Garden & Anthony Lepore @ Marvelli

In “Bird Shop,” Lepore set up his camera in an exotic pet store and photographed people’s reactions to the beautiful birds in the window. Voyeuristic photography of this sort is arguably kind of creepy, but still—it’s nice to see people geeking-out, with their defenses turned down a few notches. Meanwhile, in “The Cement Garden,” some recent MFA grads strut their stuff in a Chelsea gallery, making me jealous as such.


Justine Cooper @ Daneyal Mahmood

A fake ad campaign for a fake pharmaceutical—Havidol—this project includes a slick website, authentic promotional schwag, and real-looking advertisements that ran in real magazines. The studied, simulated realness of the campaign provoked real people to ask their doctors for the drug, and there were even (real) news reports about how some sleazy pharmaceutical corporation had bought-out a New York art gallery, and was using it to promote their new pill. The unfortunate thing is that there’s not much of a statement to be made here—yes, yes, Americans are spoiled and overmedicated and the drug companies are run by Machiavellian slimeballs and so on . . . . As a result, this is a wonderfully implemented but somewhat shallow work of art (which is arguably preferable to art that’s overly theoretical and poorly executed).


Andrea Fraser @ Friedrich Petzel

Fraser’s work is sort of like institutional critique meets stand-up comedy—something I wish I could say about more stand-up comedy, too. This show included images of fine art museum masterpieces superimposed one on top of the other—a series of work made by Fraser way back in 1984. Not very funny.


Isa Genzken @ David Zwirner

Shoddiness is big in galleries these days: artwork that looks slapped-together, like the artist didn’t really care—shoddy chic, you could say. Genzken’s new sculptures, of junk heaped on top of wheelchairs, end up not quite fitting the bill—they’re a little too thought-out for it, though they come awful close. I felt like these works were supposed to grab you by the guts, and my guts were not grabbed as such.


Robert Gober @ Matthew Marks

A small show, but I guess new Robert Gober work is a big deal, no matter if there’s not very much of it. Gober’s specific little niche—actual-size replicas of dust-bowl Americana, gently tweaked for maximum creepiness—continues to delight and amaze: it gets me every time.


Nan Goldin @ Matthew Marks

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a remarkably talented painter: is it his fault if a bunch of drugged-out college kids make bad abstract paintings about their record collections? Robert Crumb is a brilliant cartoonist: is it his fault when guys draw self-obsessed, misogynist comic-strip rants about how they’re the only smart person in the world? So it goes, too, with Nan Goldin—her photos, of herself hanging out with her artsy friends, are touchstones of contemporary photography, and have birthed legions of art students who think they can take pictures of themselves and their artsy friends, and it will be great. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. For evidence, behold the work of the young (18-, 19-, 20-year-old) Nan Goldin—black and white photos of her friends in Boston’s drag community—which are an interesting document of a scene, but which aren’t very good.


Group Show @ Protest Space

Amid the Chelsea monster galleries, this wee little storefront seeks to be a vital space for grassroots, political art. It’s a great idea, but the trick for them will be to avoid aimless agitprop and choir-preaching solipsism. I want to know what happens.


Jason Hackenwerth @ Lyons Wier Ortt

A sort of crustacean-creature made out of pink balloons, flanked by sharp color photos of said creature floating around. What more do you want?


Rachel Harrison @ Greene Naftali

Artwork about artwork can be frustrating—there’s an unhappy element of surrender to it, and it doesn’t sit well. That said, Rachel Harrison’s work is amazing: sculptures that are so perfectly ugly, they achieve an almost mystical quality. But is it all just a big art-world in-joke? Maybe, and perhaps it’s just as well—contemporary art essentially plays to a members-only crowd, and maybe we (I) shouldn’t pretend otherwise.


Kim Keever @ Kinz, Tillou & Feigen

Keever uses dioramas, liquid pigment, and large-format photography to create gorgeous updates on 19th-century landscape painting. So, is straight-up gorgeousness reactionary? Yes or no?


Toba Khedoori @ David Zwirner

Drawings/paintings of combustible objects in fields of negative space. It’s interesting to see contemporary artists doing still-life painting, which is what this is, sort of. Not much more to say. Let’s continue.


Justine Kurland @ Mithcell-Innes & Nash

There’s a whole crop of Yale MFA photo graduates who are trying to reinvent the female nude for the contemporary age, with mixed results. In this case: Kurland lived in a van for a while with her baby son and drove across the country, meeting other mothers and their children and photographing them, naked, communing with one another and with the rocky natural landscape around them. At this point in my life, I tend to view such utopian fantasies as inherently dangerous, but there’s a personable and, sorry, earthy quality to these images—maybe it’s not such a fantasy. Or, wouldn’t we all like to think so, hence the danger. Conflicting!


Rosemary Laing @ Galerie Lelong

Laing is an accomplished photographer, and she seems especially to like taking pictures of lithe women in strange and potentially disastrous moments and situations—in this instance, her model gets caught in whirlwinds of newspaper strips. Called “weather,” the work raises questions of how women will be specifically effected by global climate change. I think.


Eva and Franco Mattes @ Postmasters

For “13 Most Beautiful Avatars,” the venerable (well, in internet time) digital-art duo creates Warholian portraits of pretty avatars from the virtual community Second Life (avatars are the digital stand-ins for people in online worlds, if you didn’t know). There’s a lot to be said here about how community, identity, and sexuality are being mediated and transfigured by recent technology, but this artwork isn’t saying it, exactly. This work belongs in that valuable but awkward category of art: stuff that would make a really good illustration for a critical essay.


Anthony McCall @ Sean Kelly

McCall fills galleries with fog, turns down the lights, and projects simple, geometric animations across the room. What you get, then, are shimmering fields of light, inhabiting the space with a sculptural presence. The work is totally fun. As in, theme park, cinema, playground fun—genuine fun. But it’s not bombastic or cloying—it’s a liberated vision of fun, if you will.


Suzanne Opton @ Peter Hay Halpert

As part of an ongoing photography project by Opton, this show includes several portraits of American soldiers, recently returned from the Middle East. The photos are big, and their subjects appear lying down and looking vulnerable. They’re good, these pictures, and they seem like a solid response to the dehumanization of U.S. soldiers, which happens on both sides of the red/blue divide in one or another form.


Tony Oursler @ Lehmann Maupin

Oursler is famous for his haunting, sculptural video installations. For several years, though, his work has become less moody and more zany—a more honest approach, perhaps, though not really as satisfying for us humble gallery-hopping types. This work incorporates laser-cut aluminum blotches and distorted video eyeballs—a space-age update on Play-Doh and googly eyes.


Walid Raad @ Paula Cooper

Raad, aka The Atlas Group, is a Lebanese artist whose work deals with memory and the individual as threaded in the brutal mesh of history. For this show, Raad revisited photos he took as a teenager of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut, as well as bullets from the Lebanese civil war that he collected as a child. But part of Raad’s method includes a sort of ultra-sophisticated fibbing—facts and evidence become questionable as ‘truth.’ Conclusion: Raad’s work is very rewarding, even if you walk away from it not knowing what you think you know.


Martha Rosler @ Electronic Arts Intermix

After decades of highly influential, scarily intelligent and, sometimes, hugely scaled work in video, photography, installation art, and critical theory, Martha Rosler presents a new video work. It is—ready?—a video of a creepy bugle-blowing dancing soldier toy thing. I was a little disappointed, but that’s alright—Martha Rosler can do whatever she wants, I think.


Claudette Schreuders & Leslie Wayne @ Jack Shainman

Being as she is a descendant of white, Apartheid-era South African colonists, Schreuders’ wooden sculptures of squat, unhappy white people carry with them a sense of alienation and deep confusion without falling into political didacticism. Meanwhile, Wayne’s layered, sculptural paintings are always a pleasure.


Tunga @ Luhring Augustine

I walked into the gallery and there was creepy furniture all over the place and I was like, what’s a Tunga? After reading a little bit more, I found out that Tunga’s sculptural works also serve as props for dance-y naked performances, and I think that that may have been the problem—the work did feel more like an unused stage set than it did like a series of sculptures. There was nothing in places where there should have been naked people.


Unsung @ Nicole Klagsbrun

There was some stuff here that could have been silly, but ended up being successful thanks to sophisticated craftsmanship. For example, Ellen Harvey’s work—photorealist paintings, based on flash photos of herself taken in mirrors—sounds a bit like ‘post-conceptual art for beginners,’ but the paintings are really very nice to look at. Also here were paintings by Roy Ferdinand, Jr., which seemed like honest accounts of life on the rough streets of New Orleans—they’re good, but there’s a whiff of exploitation, seeing them in a ritzy Chelsea gallery like this.


The 2007 Armory Show

So, this was my first ever Armory Show experience. What’s the Armory Show? The Armory Show is New York’s biggest art fair and one of the bigger art fairs anywhere in the world. What’s an art fair? An art fair is like a big contemporary art convention, where lots of galleries set up shop in little booths and hawk their wares. The sales made at fairs can be very important for the financial sustainability of small galleries and less-established artists, so the whole phenomenon is grudgingly accepted and tacitly despised by artsy types. Why are art fairs despised? Here’s why. For artists raised with idealistic visions of art as liberatory and revolutionary, a tool to dismantle the status quo, the art fair represents fine art’s revolutionary surrender: contemporary art relies on the dirty financial and social capital of the status quo to survive. And, for artists who would like to see fine art as having deep social and cultural relevance, seeing artworks as just so many high-end consumer products, occupying such a limited cultural space, only reinforces the tragic detachment between art and public life. No one cares except for rich people. Ouch. So, ultimately, art fairs expose the fragile lattice of contradictions that allow the art market to keep booming along. They offend the delicate, idealistic temperaments of people like me, but they’re also a valuable reality check and a sort of challenge, a sort of dare—will we do the necessary work, log the necessary hours to make truly expressive art, to hold our own amid the glut? Rebut the glut!