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Can the Modernist Canon Please Make Room for a Woman?

Picasso, Dubuffet, Braque: The circle of avant-gardists in Paris during the first half of the 1900s is so mythologized within the history of art, that its members have become mononyms. Baya Mahieddine — an Algerian artist who inspired all three of these men, and whose early gouaches are at the Grey Art Gallery — seems, in this sense, ready for entry into the Modernist canon. Throughout her career, she went by her first name only, and her biography, too, is the stuff of lore.

Born Fatma Haddad in 1931 near Algiers, Baya was orphaned at five and sent to live with her grandmother on a farm belonging to the Benhouras, a wealthy Algerian family. She displayed an early aptitude for art, and often drew and sculpted in the sand — a habit that caught the attention of Marguerite Benhoura, who, the exhibition’s catalogue notes, remembered Baya as a “wild and barefoot child making fascinating small animals and strange female figures out of dirt.”

Baya at the Galerie Maeght in Paris during her exhibition, 1947.

The French-born Marguerite Benhoura was an avid art collector with close ties to Paris and encouraged Baya to take up painting, later adopting her and introducing her to prominent gallerists and dealers. In 1947, at just sixteen, Baya showed work in Galerie Maeght’s “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme,” curated by André Breton. Later that year, the same gallery mounted a solo exhibition of her gouaches and ceramics. Its success prompted the Madoura ceramic studio to invite Baya to Vallauris, southern France, to work as a summer artist-in-residence alongside Picasso. She spent the summers of 1948 to 1952 there; in 1953, a year before the Algerian War of Independence, Baya returned to Algeria and married El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine, a musician thirty years her senior. She began making art again in the 1960s, and continued exhibiting in North Africa until her death in 1998.

“Baya: Woman of Algiers,” curated by Natasha Boas, is the artist’s first exhibition in North America, and is admirable for attempting to find her a suitable place within the well-trod narrative of Modernism — one that can feel stultified and remains, despite recent interventions, largely Western- and male-dominated. The twenty-odd paintings on view — all from the period around her Paris debut — prove that Baya was an artist of exceptional vision. Her images of bright, bold, swirling women would pair nicely with works by Braque, Dubuffet, and especially Matisse. And they hold their own beside — and in fact, surpass in quality — several Picasso ceramics from the Grey’s permanent collection, included here to suggest the work he did with Baya at Vallauris. (Baya’s own ceramics are, unfortunately, not displayed.)

“Femmes et orangers fond blanc (Women and orange trees on a white background),” 1947

But is such loose juxtaposition the best means of capturing Baya? Movies have the so-called “Bechdel Test” to affirm whether a filmmaker has met minimum feminist criteria. While there are many Bechdel variants one might propose for curating an art exhibition, leaving “Baya: Woman of Algiers,” I wished particularly for one with a Modernist spin. Call it the “Baya Test”: Can an exhibition on twentieth-century art reference at least one female artist, and can it elevate her work without showing how it “inspired” that of a male Modernist? “Baya: Woman of Algiers” passes the first part with flying colors — literally, if one considers Baya’s spectacular patterns and palettes. But in featuring Picasso so prominently it falters in the second. All the more so given how assiduously Baya seems to have avoided any hint or trace of men in her artwork: With the exception of one landscape, all the paintings in the exhibition are of female subjects, alone or in pairs, their serpentine bodies curving majestically from the edges of the canvas. Not a man is in sight. Instead, the figures are often surrounded by natural motifs. Woman with a basket and a red rooster (1947) shows a young woman flanked by a black butterfly and a rather flamboyant, peacock-like rooster. In Women and orange trees on a white background (also from 1947), a mother and daughter frame a cross of orange-dotted branches.

“Femme attablées (Women at table),” 1947

Although each of Baya’s women looks distinct, they share a set of basic, stylized features: lips of two conjoined squiggles, turned up into a haughty smile or down into a swollen pout, masses of hair in different hues that ooze from the scalp like inkblots, and darkly lidded, narrowed almond eyes. They also all wear long dresses inspired by Algerian Kabyle textiles, suggesting that Baya wished to paint a world in which specifically Algerian women — that is to say, colonized women — could move and gesture freely.

Telling a story of twentieth-century art without male Modernists is hard. (As hard as trying to write a review without them.) It is rather like being asked to tell a story without any prepositions, or conjunctions, or adjectives. Especially so when the story in question is an introduction, for which some measure of context and familiar background is needed. A bit of Picasso is forgivable in this initial glimpse of Baya, but one hopes it will not set a precedent. Though Picasso, Braque, Dubuffet, and others wished to claim Baya for their own, in the end, Modernism may be a wrong — or at least, unnecessary — lens for “Baya-ism,” as she liked to call her style. Could we give Baya an exhibition that, like the women she painted, seems unencumbered by Western art historical and colonial baggage?

Like any great first encounter — and there is no doubt Boas has, overall, achieved something great — “Baya: Woman of Algiers” electrifies but leaves you wanting more.

‘Baya: Woman of Algiers’
Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East

greyartgallery.nyu.edu
Through March 31

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Bunny Rogers Explores Columbine Through Her Own Private Cosmology

In 1998, Tracey Emin exhibited her unmade bed — filled with used Kleenex, filthy underwear, and empty cigarette cartons — as testament to the psychic and physical trauma induced by a bad breakup. Multimedia artist and poet Bunny Rogers references My Bed when describing a trio of computer chairs included in her exhibition “Brig Und Ladder,” her first major museum show, at the Whitney Museum, on view through October 9.

The chairs are standard computer-lab fare save for their dreamy, washed-out colors and nearly identical blemishes — a fist-size chunk of foam ripped from each back. The holes are modeled on bullet-ridden computer chairs Rogers saw in police photographs taken of the Columbine High School library after the 1999 massacre.

Rogers had long wished to make a piece using computer chairs, furniture she sees as highly evocative. Born in 1990 and raised in Texas, Rogers spent her formative years in front of a computer, inhabiting the space at her desk as intimately as Emin inhabited her bed.

Much of Rogers’s art considers how images and memories coalesce online, and in turn, how screenshots or icons can take on synecdochical meaning, especially in childhood. From 2011 to 2012, she collaborated with Filip Olszewski to convert a Flushing storefront into an abandoned flower shop, filled with black roses — real-life incarnations of a rare item available on the virtual pet website Neopets. Prior to that, Rogers had earned the attention of the online art community with her beguilingly labyrinthine personal website, home to a catalog of digital disease awareness ribbons and other poignant screen kitsch.

It is from the vantage point of a computer chair that Rogers presumably saw her first images of Columbine, a tragedy that haunts “Brig Und Ladder” and was the subject of two of her recent gallery exhibitions, “Columbine Library” and “Columbine Cafeteria,” the latter of which showed at Greenspon Gallery in Soho last summer. As in those earlier series, the shooting is depicted here not in graphic fashion but rather as one reference in an intricate tangle Rogers pulls from to conjure feelings of loneliness or grief, and to explore the ways we digest and perform them. In her words, the work considers how we “express individual loss collectively” and seeks to capture the “ornate nature” of sadness.

In the case of “Brig Und Ladder,” the primary inspiration was a personal loss: the dissolution of close friendships. “The idea was to talk about the devastation of losing a friend; in this case, two,” Rogers says. (The title of the show is meant to recall the words bridge and ladder but also contains a coded reference to one of her friends’ names.)

Beyond this, there are few others clues as to the precise meaning of the sculptures on view: in addition to the chairs, three wood-stained industrial mops with wilting whiskers, a squat female Thomas the Tank Engine painted a desaturated pink and gray, and three dyed ladders, two of which have missing rungs. There is also a small square of chain-link fence hung delicately with pine-tree air fresheners, which resembles an impromptu roadside memorial.

The color-coding and repetition of the chairs, mops, and ladders correspond to a private numerology and lexicon. But Rogers is masterful at mood-setting, and one can still — as with Emin’s work — feel her objects’ palpable ache, even without knowing the stories behind them. The defiled computer chairs warn of the fragility of comfort, perhaps, or the danger of isolation. The train car, called “Lady,” is a token of girlhood gloom. The ladders and mops — items that might be found in a school janitorial closet — suggest disarray, escape, and frustration. They also possess slight sexual undertones: the ladder, an emblem of climax in Freudian dream psychology; the mop, a tool associated with domestic housework and femininity.

Rogers’s inner angst is given a more public face in the exhibition’s first room — an architectural setup she describes as front- and backstage. Entering “Brig Und Ladder,” one walks into a mock theater set with plush folding cinema chairs. A large screen plays A Very Special Performance in the Columbine Auditorium, Rogers’s third in a suite of animations centered around the shooting.

In the nine-minute video, characters from the 2002-03 MTV cartoon Clone High — stand-ins for Rogers, a friend, and a family member — perform a somber Russian-language rendition of “Memory” from the musical Cats.

Rogers was just nine when Columbine occurred, and listened to the dialogue the shooting sparked — on the dangers of the media, of disaffected youth — with kid ears. Her mournful performance here drips with aggrandized adolescent angst, deliberately conflating favorite childhood musicals and cartoons with national tragedies and personal ones.

There is something undoubtedly profane, even exploitative, about mining the events of a school shooting that left fifteen dead to personal ends. But this is a critique Rogers nimbly anticipates with her inclusion of Tilikum body pillow, a cute plush of the Sea World orca responsible for killing three people, described by PETA and others as an embodiment of the cruelty of animal captivity. On his side, Rogers has sewn a patch dedicated to Elliott Smith, a musician idolized for his sullen, wounded air, and canonized on many moody teenage bedroom walls after his apparent suicide in 2003.

As Smith and Tilikum show, sorrow is often referential and allusive, clarified and strained through images, objects — even animals and other people. Out of the confusion of “Brig Und Ladder” comes a deeply moving and honest portrait of the emotion.

Bunny Rogers: “Brig und Ladder”
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
whitney.org
Through October 9

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Martha Cooper Captures the Transient Splendor of Eighties-Era New York Graffiti Art

In the wake of recent calls to “delete Uber” — spurred in part by the app’s lowering of surge prices during a taxi workers’ strike at JFK airport amid the January protests against Donald Trump’s immigrant ban — the company’s San Francisco employees launched a guerrilla PR campaign. They took to the streets to spray-paint the message “#undelete” on city walls, pausing, of course, to snap a photograph kneeling before their handiwork, all smiles and jocular start-up swagger.

A welcome antidote to this image — which was posted, reposted, and ridiculed online — can be found in an exhibition of Martha Cooper’s photography, on view at Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea through June 3. The show, which centers on a thoughtfully curated selection of her output from the early Eighties, serves as a reminder of a time before street art went corporate, before it even had a marketable, and thus appropriable, genre.

In the late Seventies, Cooper, then in her mid-thirties and working as a photographer for the New York Post, became interested in what New Yorkers, in varied tones of admiration and contempt, called graffiti. In that day there was no Banksy or Shepard Fairey, and although some of the pieces Cooper photographed would later accrue art-market value — Keith Haring’s Pop murals, for example — that wasn’t true of the majority of the looping, freeform drawings and names (or, simply, “tags”) spread across lampposts, buildings, and train cars.

Most wouldn’t even survive into the next month or year, let alone the next decade. And, indeed, visitors accustomed to the look of today’s subway system may be surprised by images that depict MTA trains as they appeared over three decades ago, covered wall-to-wall in thick paint that obscured windows and doors. Photographs taken in Queens and the Bronx, where subways emerge above ground, show trains spray-painted with block text in sunny pinks, yellows, and greens — bright bullets rocketing past rows of dull-brown apartment buildings.

Subway exteriors and interiors were delectable spots for graffiti artists and, in turn, a favorite subject of Cooper’s. The exhibition includes one of her most iconic photographs, of Dondi, the aerosol virtuoso responsible for inducting her into the graffiti scene; set in a train yard, the image presents Dondi spraying in a hero’s pose, straddling two subway cars, his lithe figure silhouetted against a soft and misty sky. A shot from two years later, in 1982, catches a young boy as he runs buoyantly across parked trains. Another picture taken that same year features Lady Pink, a rare female graffitist, perched on a subway bench and smirking in front of her freshly applied tag; her hands are still clenched around a spray can, her white Keds stained by a film of sidewalk grime.

Hung on the gallery’s backmost wall are highlights from Cooper’s ongoing series of global, contemporary street artists at work, a complement to the older portraits that shows how younger generations — including Fairey and other bold-name graffiti artists like Space Invader and Swoon — expanded upon the form Dondi and Lady Pink helped pioneer. But these photographs, constrained by their purpose of documenting graffiti’s past and present, prove far less memorable in composition than the images of ordinary New Yorkers merely going about their daily routines.

<i>South Bronx Wasteland, Bronx, New York </i>(1979).
South Bronx Wasteland, Bronx, New York (1979).

If, as Susan Sontag wrote, “to photograph is to frame,” then what Cooper did throughout her early series was an act of framing squared. One of the extraordinary things about what we now term “street art” is its ability to envelop unaware passersby in its narrative, and Cooper had an incisive eye for the moments when graffiti lent particularly surreal or droll character to everyday life. Meticulous shots capture adults made captive and complicit in the feverish, often adolescent, fantasies of the city’s young artists. A subway conductor peers out of a car spray-painted with the video game character Luigi, turning the workday into a game of Mario Kart. At the 96th Street station, a middle-aged woman boards a train decorated with a hyper-curvy and orgasmic blonde — the sort of dirty cartoon that would send a kid to detention if doodled in the margins of a pop quiz.

Cooper also recorded instances when commuting bodies interrupted or altered graffiti’s effects. A businessman buried in his newspaper, photographed through the sliver of closing doors, embodies a sense of profound calm at odds with the frenzied energy of the subway’s outer-shell mural, his focus a gently funny testament to the absorptive power of reading. At 180th Street, the outlines of people waiting in the shadows on the subway platform make black imprints on the multicolored train stopped on the opposite side of the tracks.

Cooper distinguishes herself from other street-art chroniclers by operating not only as a documentarian or a photojournalist but also as a street photographer in the tradition of such New York greats as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. This is evident in both her New York subway scenes and in a suite of black-and-white pictures shot between 1978 and 1980, among the earliest works included, which explore children using the city landscape in imaginative play: leaping across puddles and out of fire escapes, or racing across the now-vanished West Side piers. Street-art diehards will cherish Cooper’s exhibition for the rich graffiti archive it comprises, but these silver-gelatin prints offer the key to a second interpretation: namely, that the show is as much about graffiti as it is about youthfulness — its creativity, its rebelliousness, its wisdom, its folly.

Martha Cooper
Steven Kasher Gallery
515 West 26th Street
stevenkasher.com
Through June 3

 

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Lynn Hershman Leeson’s New-Media Experiments Bend Reality

“In the beginning, it seemed innocent enough.” These words open Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Seduction of a Cyborg, a dark tale for the Information Age included in “Remote Controls,” the artist’s second solo exhibition at Bridget Donahue Gallery.

The short video, made in 1994, follows an unnamed blind woman who undergoes an unspecified procedure that grants her sight via computer transmission. At first, she is enraptured by her techno-gift and gazes blissfully into simulated landscapes made of the pixels that beam from her desktop’s screen. But soon she is paralyzed by it, unable to turn away from a flood of images –– no longer just pristine natural vistas, but also scenes of human civilization — that becomes increasingly rapid, indiscriminate, even violent. As Hershman Leeson narrates, the woman bears witness to “the pollution of history,” and with it the pollution of her own body, which weakens and falters under the stress.

This parable of data overload is particularly chilling today, when the internet and media’s capacity to overwhelm, skew, and bury facts is demonstrably powerful. The piece is one of many included in the exhibition to anticipate the emotional and physical consequences of now ubiquitous forms of technology and mass entertainment.

Home Front — completed in 1993, just one year after MTV debuted The Real World — considers how television impels us to dramatize and perform everyday routines. Gallery visitors peek into the bay window of a dollhouse-size home to watch a monitor that loops a video of the house’s inhabitants, an unhappily married couple, bickering and screaming. The film is made for not only our benefit, but also the characters’: As the husband says in an aside to his wife, they are supposed to be taping a video message for his in-laws. Instead, they mug for the camera, using its presence as an excuse to stage a burlesque of heterosexual marriage that culminates in an act of domestic violence.

Just as reality TV makes stars of ordinary people and situations, so does Hershman Leeson’s art make voyeurs and participants of its spectators. Throughout her career, she has experimented with interactivity, frequently collaborating with scientists and programmers to develop new responsive technologies and apply them to the fine arts. Lorna, 1979–84, is the first-ever interactive laser disc artwork, and is shown here at the front of the gallery inside a replica of the eponymous character’s apartment. Visitors sit in a chintzy leopard-print armchair under dim, bordello lighting to play through different menu options with the goal of getting an agoraphobic Lorna out her front door.

The innovative laser disc <i>Lorna</i> still enthralls today.

Despite its cheesy, lo-fi quality, the “game” — too elliptical and non-narrative to fully merit the term — remains immersive today. The same is true of Deep Contact, from 1984, which includes an early touchscreen. A Fassbinder blonde in skin-tight eveningwear emerges at the start of the piece with the simple request of “touch me,” then waits for you to tap out your “yes” before leading you into a paradisiacal Japanese garden. Each choose-your-own-adventure style decision from here — to turn left or right; remain in the garden or move to a new location; continue or quit — dictates how far your interaction with this screen siren will progress.

While it is not wrong to call Hershman Leeson’s art and technology prescient, to do so would downplay her accomplishments in both fields. She does not consider her work speculative or sci-fi, but rather sees it as rooted in the current moment. As she said in a recent interview in Artforum, “If you’re dealing with the present…people think that you’re in the future, because they don’t know what’s going on in their own time.”

Her commitment to producing art that reveals the truth of its time explains why she refuses to remove or smooth over glitches left in her pieces from the Eighties and Nineties. It also makes her new installation, Venus of the Anthropocene, worth a serious and considered look. A mannequin with a Frankenstein’s-monster-like open torso and a cheap, ghoulish white wig sits in front of a vanity table strewn with DNA serums. We are invited to peer over her shoulder into a mirror on the wall enhanced with facial-recognition software that guesses our age, gender, and mood. From moment to moment, the answers change: Gaze into the magic mirror from an oblique angle with downturned eyes and you appear to be a sad 34; look again, straight on and with a smile, and become a happy, doe-eyed 19.

I manipulate myself, therefore I am. If this vision of how millennials construct and remix identity — both online and off — feels too inorganic or mechanized, it may help to remember that the line between human and device has always been hazy. After all, even the least sophisticated aesthete among us has the processing skill to take in the shadowy, long-haired figure in Hershman Leeson’s backlit photograph Cyborg Lightbox, 2003–06, and compute it as female.

Then again, this capability may have more to do with social conditioning than biology. After all, what is sexism if not a type of dehumanization that turns women into objects for pleasure and play, or reduces them to datasets like bust/waist/hips? Indeed, it is no coincidence that so many of Hershman Leeson’s avatars and half-human/half-robot protagonists are women. Though we all fall prey to the influence and expectations of the media, Hershman Leeson’s work demonstrates that women may be the most vulnerable. Lorna sits glued to her TV, afraid to venture outside, while the wife in Home Front is a victim of soap-operatic male aggression in her own kitchen. The Venus contemplates genetic modification to improve her looks, while the blind woman’s body fails as a result of her data awakening. Nothing, it seems, is truly innocent.

Lynn Hershman Leeson: ‘Remote Controls’
Bridget Donahue
99 Bowery, 2nd floor
646-896-1368, bridgetdonahue.nyc
Through March 12