Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, June 8, 2006
 

 

THE DARKER SIDE OF SUMMER

NIGHTMARES OF SUMMER
Marvelli Gallery

RE:LOCATION
Alexander & Bonin

A BRIGHTER DAY
James Cohan Gallery

Barnaby Furnas Holiday 2005
mixed media on linen, 46 x 34 inches
Courtesy Marvelli Gallery

Summer is for group shows in art galleries and innocent family fun on the beach. Right? Not on the second count, if you believe what a slew of group shows in New York have to say.

Marvelli even title their seasonal grouping “Nightmares of Summer.”  It is co-curated by Marcello Marvelli and his collector friend George Robertson.  An earlier summer presentation at the gallery in 2004, “Black Milk, Theories on Suicide” curated by Monica Espinel, suggests that a sombre, if not sinister worldview might reflect the gallery’s sensibility as much as a war and terror-torn zeitgeist.  Mr. Marvelli and Mr.  Robertson have gathered images that reflect “the darkness inherent in all paradigms of light, the dark cloud contained by every silver lining.”  Rather than a gothic horror fest, however, this strange gathering is characterized by a perverse good cheer.

Barnaby Furnas sets the tone with “Holiday” (2005), an angel of the apocalypse masquerading as a kid on the beach.  Mr. Furnas has made the terrifying exhilerations of battle his distinctive theme in images, often in watercolor, that at first read as joyous explosions of beauty, and only yield their awesome portents on closer examination.  Here a young, fleshly beauty with golden wings wears a gormless, demented expression on her face and splatters what could be blood in all directions.  A second image by him in the show is a red glowing composition that looks a bit like a close-up of a molten oil rig: the image itself isn’t as sinister as the title and the medium: “Dead Red” (2005), dispersed pigment in urethane and ink on bald calf skin.

This keeps company with a pair of nautical drawings by Francesca DiMattio of Nineteenth Century battleships caught in distress.  These crackle with a sense of danger in the way that recalls David Fertig’s neo-romantic Napoleonic battlescenes.  The DiMattios in turn flank a dense, brooding charcoal drawing, “Untitled (Situation with Octopus)” (1998-2004),  As with the second Furnas, context is all: the octopus looks like he is having a whale of a time.

Several collages by Nils Karsten have a maccabre humor: he gives spiky body hairs to the smooth legs of the appropriated little Victorian girls who populate his ghoulish compositions.  A theme running through this show is the ickiness and unappeal of sweating limbs, parched throats, and exposed body parts.  Several historic photographers induce degrees of alienation at the thought of nakedness: Diane Arbus with her loadedly, unconvincingly non-judgemental view of “A Family One Evening at a Nudist Camp, PA” (1965) with ill-at-ease looking corpulent couple and their child under an ominous sky; an André Kertesz distortion; a Hans Bellmer puppet.  Bellmer’s awkwardly thrust together mannequin parts and prothetic limbs find echo in a pair of poignant collages by Robert Beck that focus on press photos of the naked corpse of a murder victim at a gay pickup beach.

Michael St. John brings an “In Cold Blood” meets the Mansons sensibility to his nighmarish evocations of murder.  One canvas, “Dead Body Inside” (2006) scrawls the words of the title in a demented scrawl next to photograph of a forlorn cabin.  Marilyn Minter (of Whitney Biennial poster fame) takes body squalor to Dantean depths in her blown up C-Print deconstructions of the beauty myth: “Soiled” (2000) has copious dirt between a cropped image of lurid, green-painted toe nails, while “Drool” (2004) focuses on a menacing, saliva-filled mouth animated by a vampire-like grin.

Then there is guilt by association for some of the remaining images: Ann Craven’s saccherine Hallmark Card-like portrait of two pink birds in a tree and Stuart Elster’s dense, sickly monochromatic seascape at dawn become convincingly nightmarish for keeping natural company with overt horrors.

Doris Salcedo Untitled (C) 2004-05
stainless steel, 42 x 48 x 27-1/2 inches
Courtesy Alexander & Bonin

The miserablism of “Re:Location” is neither fantastic nor seasonal—it derives from the alienations and privations of exile and war.  Some are overt in their politics, others more oblique, but all are pervaded by a sense of frustration and fear.

Willie Doherty shows three sets of five c-prints laminated on aluminum from the larger “Apparatus” (2005) series which dwell on scenes of grim decay in Northern Ireland: boarded up houses, tattered flags, graffitied projects.  “The Troubles” has been Mr. Doherty’s career theme.  Previously he has dwelt on such issues as surveillance, or riot control; these images concern the banal, day-to-day squalors of a divided society.  Somehow he finds hidden poetry in his hideous landscapes, creating constructivist patterns, for instance, in the way he crops a bird’s eye view of hemmed-in, barricaded walkways.

Cages and barrier are often Mona Hatoum’s metaphor of choice for oppression, alienation and exile.  In superficially lighter mode, her work here is a curtain on which a newspaper article has been printed.  The title, however, hints at political portend: “Every door a wall” (2003). 

The visitor passes through this curtain/door/wall to the back gallery where an intriguing object by another artist of Palestinian extraction, Emily Jacir, takes on added meaning from its placement and company.  “Embrace” (2005) is a pointlessly mini-luggage carousel, around six foot in diameter, motion sensor activated by the viewer—a complex metaphor perhaps for exile and the frustrations of reconcilliation. 

I preferred the poignant little paintings after emails from Gaza residents that she last showed at this gallery, but the cool meanness of this object sits well with other exhibitors: Diango Hernández’s “The underdevelopment is a long game, do you want to play” (2005) which has the words of the title in shiny little letters along a rusty pipe that is placed within an oval toy train track; and an inscrutable 1970s-style hexagonal brass architectural fixtures of unspecified usage by Rita McBride installed at ceiling level.  Relief from such pretense and tedium comes in the form of an untitled Doris Salcedo sculpture, as ever poetic and enigmatic in its melancholy description of the human condition.

Alison Elizabeth Taylor Russell Road 2006
wood inlay and polymer, 36 x 47 inches
Courtesy James Cohan Gallery

No one would accuse “Re:Location” of being laugh a minute.  If you prefer your nihilism with a smile James Cohan has a group show titled “A Brighter Day,” a hint of Monty Python sarcasm in the title.

It’s a sprawling show of eighteen artist united in their chirpy interpretations of apocalypse, oppression and decay.  Several artists bombard the viewer with despondent or desparate verbal messages delivered with beguiling visual upbeat: Jenny Holtzer inscribed “What urge will save us now that sex won’t” onto a white marble footstall; McDermott & McGough emblazon the sadomasochistic song lyric, “Violate me/ in violent times/ The vilest way/ that you know/ Ruin me ravage me/ Utterly savage me/ On me no mercy/ Bestow” in multicolored letterpress fonts on a torquoise ground; Alejandro Cesarco prints “When I am happy I won’t have time to make these anymore” in pretty colors on a page; Trenton Doyle Hancock compulsively scrawls “You deserve less” like schoolboy lines to fill a whole wall with designer intensity.

Other exhibits render the macabre in saccherine colors and delectible surfaces.  Folkert de Jong’s Polyurethane, silicone rubber and styrofoam sculpture “Dust” (2004) has a survivalist sitting astride oil barrels and supplies with guns, megaphones and a kerosene lamp to hand in nursery pink and blue.  David Altmejd renders a cadavre in an advanced state of decay amidst cracked mirrors and neon lights in “The Settler” (2005), a work of weird beauty.  The marquetry compositions of Alison Elizabeth Taylor of survivalist girls in a bombed out wilderness, and Eric Swenson’s meticulous rendering of the hideous decapitated head of hybrid animal similarly collide luxurious craft and dark message.

There are pleasurable surprises in this studiedly strange show: The

tight, anachronistic realism of Michaël Borremans enigmatic miniature “Flattening of a Hellhound” (2000), the collage of a cellphone transmogrifying into a ghoul in the lotus position on William Morris wallpaper of Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, “Dread Medley (Sapphire version)” (2004), and above all, the exquisite 11 minute video installation, “Bellona (after Samuel R. Delany)” (2005) which quotes a passage from the cult sci-fi writer on an imaginary city where subterranean motors rearrange the streets after visitors have passed through them and then segues into gorgeous video animation of rooms melting into color-coded reconfigurations.  Emerging from the subdued mystery of Ms. Lislegaard’s installation, it really is a brighter day.

 

Nightmares through July 8 (526 West 26 Street 2nd Floor, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 627 3363)

Re:Location through July 28 (132 Tenth Avenue at 19 Street, 212 367 7474)

Brighter Day through July 14 (533 West 26 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 714 9500)

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