Enda Walsh’s Revived “Disco Pigs” Channels a Shattering Masculinity

When it was first performed, in 1996, Disco Pigs set tongues wagging, and Enda Walsh on his way to becoming an award-winning playwright. (Among his many credits: He’s won a Tony Award for the Broadway hit Once, and also collaborated with David Bowie on the musical Lazarus, shortly before the musician’s death.) Revivals are always interesting as origin stories of sorts, a chance to look back on a career that’s since bloomed and grown. Yet watching Disco Pigs twenty years on, it isn’t Walsh’s prodigious voice that strikes one the most. The production at Irish Rep — smart, sharp, and tight as a time bomb — is perhaps most interesting now for the way in which the play captures the trials and errors of a certain harrowing masculinity.

Runt and Pig — Sinéad and Darren to their mums — were born in the same hospital at the same time in County Cork. Ill-fitted to the world around them, the two protected themselves and each other by creating their own. They anoint themselves king and queen of “Pork Sity.” They speak their own language, too, gargling and spitting slipstreams of slang, a Poto and Cabengo of their council estate.

Walsh has long been praised for his whirligig wordsmithing, inventing syntaxes and slangs that bend our ears to the particular music of his characters’ minds. (Audiences craving more Walsh this season can also catch Ballyturk, currently in production at St. Ann’s Warehouse.) Runt-and-Pig-ese is not unlike the Nadsat tongue Anthony Burgess crafted for his teen sociopaths in A Clockwork Orange. It’s dissonant, disjointed (“A hippidy happidy innit?”), as well as lavish, romantic: “Pump pump pump pump oh fuck my head ja luvly beat deep inta me an take me home ta beddy byes an pump me more to sleep soft and loss lost…” swoons Pig about the thumping club rhythms that move him.

As plots go, Disco Pigs belongs to the lineage of Bonnie and Clyde, though Runt and Pig aren’t motivated enough for stick-ups, or to go on the lam. (“Ya seen da movie!” Runt exclaims, in a wink from Walsh to the audience. “Fannytastic, yeah!”) Though anti-establishment, the teens live only to guzzle down pints of beer and bottles of Bacardi, steal rides on the bus, pick fights, eat cheap food, soak up whatever’s on the telly, and dance in their favorite clubs. Richard Kent’s set is designed like an underground cell, a dank pressure cooker in which to watch their tale unfold.

Director John Haidar smartly preserves the feeling of a world of Runt and Pig’s own making, giving the actors no props to play with, their movements tightly choreographed to their words. As they mime the drinking and the beatings and the bus rides, they appear always to be battling forces seen and felt only by them. Although they’re working-class types, Walsh never goes looking to answer the why of their disaffected condition. Disco Pigs isn’t social commentary. It’s a love story.

It’s also a coming-of-age story, and a tragic one at that. Pig is violent; remorse eludes him, confuses him. Yet beneath the smoke and mirrors of his macho bluster is a young, delicate heart that’s all muscle and no grace. He terrorizes in great part because he is terrified. How is he to be a man in a world that has little use or understanding for him? The more pressing question: How is he to be a man who’s fallen in love with his best pal, Runt? Colin Campbell beautifully grounds the man-boy in each and every one of his registers — from the lashes of his unbridled id to his panicked flailing in the unknown depths of feeling. Evanna Lynch (beloved to Harry Potter fans as the ethereal Luna Lovegood) captures with clarity and compassion how Runt’s inner light is beginning to flicker on, and how thrilling and painful is the realization of what she may have to do in order to follow her own destiny.

Of the two, Runt is more interested in a life beyond her received lot. Pig, by comparison, isn’t much of a dreamer, living moment-to-moment like a foraging animal, following his nose, whetting his appetites. On their joint birthday, he surprises Runt with a trip to the sea, and they sit staring at the water, the waves, the night sky. We see the chasm widening between them: Runt wishes to immerse herself in it all, as Pig fantasizes about seeing it from above. “I wanna huge spaceship rocket la, take it up to da cosmos shiny stars all twinkle twinkle an I shit in my saucer an have a good look down on da big big blue.”

“Wha color’s love, Pig?” Runt asks him early in the play. It is at once a genuine question, and a test of his mettle. “Donno!” he shrugs. He’s later asked the same by a bouncer working the entrance at the Palace Disco, a near-mythical nightspot they’ve been searching for. Pig’s answer now — a simple, poetic password — opens the club door wide for them both. For Pig, this is a new place to dance; for Runt, it’s a new place to dream — but in the end, knowing what love is isn’t enough to keep these two from writing their own fates.

Disco Pigs
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through March 4


The Year in Art Was All in the Details

Grand narratives appear to make sense of the world, but the world doesn’t hang together as neatly as all that. Rather than honor and applaud a sum total work of art or culture, I’d rather tip my hat to the explosive detail, a move that proposes a possibility outside itself, and throws down the gauntlet to others. Some of the most vivid to me from 2017:

YOU MUST HATE BLACK PEOPLE AS MUCH AS YOU HATE YOURSELF. These words emerged from — or were otherwise drowning in — the inky blackness of the great artist Kara Walker’s canvas “Storm Ryder,” one of many gut-punchers in her fall exhibition “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!” The damning word in that sentence: you, unnamed, unspecified. Standing before her work, no one is exempt from the poisoned tines of hatred — of black people, of oneself, each a mirror for, and measure of, the other.

Choreographer-slash–human hurricane Sarah Michelson shattered the quiet of West 19th Street as she welcomed her audience to the Kitchen for her performance October2017/\ by pointing at each of us and shriek-shouting “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO! YEAH!” as we took our seats. Her relentlessness smartly sharpened the edge between rah-rah enthusiasm and look-at-me desperation, taking aim (for one) at art and artists — performers and performances — for whom attention-seeking might in fact be their only real talent.

Total silence seized the audience in the moments before Doreen Garner’s harrowing performance Purge on November 30, part of her exhibition “White Man on a Pedestal” with Kenya (Robinson) at Pioneer Works. It felt as though all were held in suspended animation, not unlike the spirit of J. Marion Sims, “father of modern gynecology,” a statue of whom was — at the hands of Garner and her assistants — about to experience a taste of his own medicine: a vesicovaginal fistula, which he performed without anesthesia on Anarcha, an enslaved black woman, more than thirty times between 1845 and 1850. (The man remains honored here in New York City for his contributions to science with a public sculpture.) Garner’s re-enactment of his violence wasn’t healing so much as it was the long-overdue reopening of a wound that demands to be tended to properly.   

Laura Owens’s hare-brainy clock paintings that hang high on the wall at her outstanding retrospective at the Whitney Museum sound no tick-tocks as the hands spin at their own pace, keeping no time except their very own. (Another possible punchline: The power of painting, like comedy, is all in the timing).

The Wooster Group at once found and lost the momentum of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s radioactive 1971 documentary, Town Bloody Hall, which recorded an unwieldy and almost unthinkable public debate on the subject of feminism between Jill Johnston, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, and Diana Trilling, moderated by Norman Mailer. The aim of the Wooster’s deconstruction was off, but shimmered for a moment with the appearance of Greg Mehrten as the literary critic Trilling. His eyes round and tired like hers, a haughty bun pinned to the back of his head, he embodied both her nobility and her vulnerability — her snoot, her self-possession — even as she was held up to the audience for comic relief.

“Everywhere I go I see losers. Misfits like myself who can’t make it in the world,” wrote the singular artist and writer and performer Constance DeJong in her iridescent 1977 novel, Modern Love, which was republished this year. She wrote then not about the well-documented world of men, but of a world with men, reimagining the romance novel by mapping the magnetisms that push people together, then pull them apart, in time and out of time, in characters who collapse into one another all around the I of the storm.

Joan Didion, too, in a few sentences and with a candor that was somehow surprising if not at all unexpected of the iconic woman of letters, rewrote the genre of the love story. “I don’t know what ‘fall in love’ means,” she said of her marriage to John Gregory Dunne in the tender documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. “It’s not part of my world. But I do remember having a very clear sense that I wanted this to continue. I liked being a couple. I liked having somebody there.”

“Of all stupid art, the poem is the most stupid,” quipped poet Lisa Robertson at the symposium Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do? hosted by Contemporary Calgary. There, Robertson read a passage from a titillating work-in-progress titled “The Baudelaire Fractal,” in which she imagines waking up one morning to realize that she is in fact the author of the complete works of Baudelaire. Poetry, like stupidity, obeys no outside rules, bending history and good sense to its own agenda, its own desires: another reason to pick up a pen, twist it, and see what spills out onto the page.  

Or the grass. After her father’s death, performance artist Michelle Ellsworth launched Manpant Publishing. Instead of using paper and ink, she spells the 111 words of each of her commissioned texts with her dad’s trousers as well as other pairs from the Salvation Army, laying them out on a beautiful clearing by a river in Colorado, and recording it all by tapping into a live weather cam. To think of absence as a new alphabet with which to write and circulate the words of others seems a most generous use of grief.

Michelle Ellsworth, “Impossible Motherhood” 2016

In conversation with the New Yorker’s David Remnick and playwright Tony Kushner one evening before a recent performance of A Room in India at the Park Avenue Armory, the French theater director Ariane Mnouchkine talked about the responsibilities of being an artist. “I am not paid to be desperate. I am not paid to be blind,” she explained, her current production in part mocking ISIS as inhuman and ungodly, while also taking us all to task for the fear that holds us back from the risks inherent in the creation of wonder, beauty. What is an artist to do in these harrowing times, then? “To continue to have faith in people,” she said, giving much-needed instructions on how to best rise from the ashes.

Poet Eileen Myles places her faith not in God, but in dog — right-minded creatures who allow the world to be what it is, without heaviness, just following their noses from moment to moment to moment. Her exquisite slapstick tragedy Afterglow is a radical memoir about and for and by her now-deceased but forever-beloved pitbull Rosie, who the poet believes is a dead ringer for her dead father. Myles’s words of goodbye — to her, to him — are simultaneously a hello to her own unknown future.

“Travel well, I said. All the seeds of you; and the dream of you, the rot.

“Then I stepped back into the world.”


The Sensory Overload of Ken Tisa’s ‘The Color of Sound’

“The Color of Sound” is Ken Tisa’s first paintings exhibition in more than twenty years. It’s not that he wasn’t making art all that time. On the contrary: For Tisa, art is a daily practice, and his involves not only painting, but also ceramics, collage, textile design, and scenic design. Some think of him as an artist’s artist, one who believes in the essential pleasure of expression, who delights in the sensuality of material wisdom. It’s no accident that the title of his current show at Kate Werble Gallery connotes synesthesia, an implosion of the senses, for his is art that’s trippy, stirring, and charged in a most transcendent way.

Tisa holds a particular place in New York lore. He was close friends with the luminary performer and drag artist Ethyl Eichelberger (1945–1990), and a collaborator of the poet Max Blagg. After nabbing his MFA from the Yale School of Art in 1972, he landed in New York in time for the downtown art explosion and, later, the AIDS crisis. The artist’s most recent show here in town last spring was of older work. A poignant three-part installation titled “Object/Time/Offerings” at Gordon Robichaux covered the wall of one room with a selection from Tisa’s vast collection of puppets, masks, and dolls from all over the world, throughout which he hung postcard-sized paintings. (The artist claims to be a dedicated lifelong enthusiast of stuff.) In a second room, a floor-to-ceiling collage of his personal ephemera was installed next to another floor-to-ceiling installation of more small paintings, which Tisa made throughout the 1980s and 1990s as AIDS took the lives of his friends, his collaborators, and his partner. The artist painted more than a thousand of these canvases, figurative works possessed of a single striking image possessing something of the mystery and magic of a Tarot card: a nude bum, feet levitating above the ground, a smiling woman being pummeled by raindrops, a muscle man in bright red briefs. These paintings, intended to be shown together as a single work of art, register sex and death and grief and humor as equal, inseparable conditions.

Ken Tisa, “Night in Istanbul,” (2017)

Love is never uncomplicated. Life is rife with dazzle pains. “The Color of Sound” deals in a similar mire, temperature (perhaps sensibility is the better word), but Tisa’s new paintings, all made in the last three years, reveal his inner formalist: all abstractions in gouache and watercolor, typically muted media that he gives the scale and the self-assurance of oil paint. His titles are lucid, giving nudging narrative by summoning particular points here on earth as well as in less tangible realms: Spirit Song, Night in Istanbul, Dreamtime Maze, Burning in the Flames of Love. His compositions — polyrhythmic, unruly — are multidimensional, magnetic chaos; their many elements advance and recede, come together, and fall apart, all at once.

“Heartthrob,” (2017)

The molten orange and red-rose trail that dominates Heartthrob screams for attention, smearing itself over a delicate web of multicolored orbs, calling for us to look closer while pushing a viewer away with its scorching palette. Squint at Big Bang, and its teeming center takes the shape of a psychedelic portrait in profile: a dark blue tadpole(y thingy) as its eye, streaming yellow masses becoming its nose, mouth, and neck. Lost and Found is a dizzying tangle of tightly drawn pathways — a candy-colored network to nowhere. Night Out is sensual, sexual, its freaky green lattice winding through a wiggling jungle of oddball stuff, some open and penetrated as orifices. Though his paintings appear to scramble or explode almost as though in a sudden flash, it takes time for Tisa to achieve such intricacy, density, and depth. It is this sense of duration, of return, that infuses his work with a meditative, spiritual frequency, as though Tisa made them, perhaps in part, as prayer.

“Night Out,” (2017)

Kali’s Dance, titled for the Hindu goddess who liberates all and destroys all evil, is the largest work in the show. Free-handed forms — like innards or comet trails or maybe a goddess’s choreographic notations — loop across the canvas. Beneath them are frenzied configurations of even more kooky, kinky figures, layers to be excavated or collapsed by the eye as it takes in the marvels of Tisa’s cosmic elsewheres made for the here and now.

‘Ken Tisa: The Color of Sound’
Kate Werble Gallery
83 Vandam Street
Through December 22


Under the Spell of Sculptor Kelly Akashi’s Eerie, Tactile Elegance

There is an eerie loveliness, a troubled elegance, to the work of Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Akashi. Insides and outsides are defined, then confused; materials behave as themselves, then pose as something else; objects look familiar, but perform strangely. In other words, she’s a sculptor in the classic California tradition that celebrates eccentricity as a kind of instinctive intelligence. (Akashi completed her MFA at the University of Southern California in 2014; her BFA at Otis College of Art and Design in 2006.) An exhibition at SculptureCenter, her first solo institutional show, is formally tight, conceptually brainy, and materially astute—not to mention appealingly weird.

Art traditionally forbids touch (as in: look, but don’t…); it is principally the territory of vision. Though visitors aren’t allowed or encouraged to meddle with Akashi’s sculptures, the artist offers cerebral encounters with tactility, invoking the hand as a maker of things, and as a thing made. Hands and fingers cast in bronze—her hands and fingers, one presumes—appear throughout. Amputated (loosed, freed) from the body, an appendage becomes yet another object in the world: a shape, a weight, a sign. In Feel Me (all works 2017), a pair of hands is slung across the top of a tall concrete incline, tethered together by a rope. It’s a balancing act: One scales up by its fingertips on one side, anchoring the other which hangs down on the other, the end of the rope wildly frayed beneath it — a cushion against the cold, rough surface of the cement.

Detail from “Feel Me” (2017)

Looking at Akashi’s body/objects (or object/bodies) feels a bit like watching the material world sense itself, encounter itself, shift and repurpose its constituent elements, natural and otherwise. The lone cast bronze digit of Finger Figure hangs from the ceiling at the show’s entrance by a bronze wire rope, and points down toward the subterranean galleries of SculptureCenter where most of her exhibition is installed. The finger casts a stubby shadow onto the floor, like a morbid sundial tracking the passing of time by the movement of light. But here, the main light source is electric, somewhat constant, so the finger and its shadow are suspended not only in space, but in time.

Details from Kelly Akashi’s “Long Exposure,” 2017

Long Exposure also muses on object, light, and time (titled as it is after the photo strategy of leaving the aperture open for an extended period). A round, mossy, blown-glass vessel (shaped not unlike a Japanese fishing float) is tied by a rope to a cast-bronze tree branch installed beneath a skylight. On the branches are perched what looked to be curls of metal—solar panels, we’re told. The panels are slowly charged by the sunlight, which in turn charges a hidden element inside the glass vessel; duration brings illumination. The day I visited, there was no detectable glow coming from the sculpture; rather, I was struck by how difficult it was to see the bronze branch, read its details, since against the lightwell it mostly disappeared into silhouette.

Detail of “Carbon Copy” (2017)

Although heady and entirely graceful, there is also something decidedly macabre about Akashi’s art. Severed extremities, curling candles burnt, wax drippings, hanging ropes, glass vessels flayed open like skin and half-filled with still water: the undercurrents of her installations aren’t exactly violent, but carry an energy that might be called “post-event,” possessing an unsettled presence somewhere between detritus and memorial. The SculptureCenter’s drafty, raw-walled basement galleries always feel more like a crypt beneath a cathedral than an exhibition space, and Akashi’s work makes best use of its unshakable creepiness. Down here, her oddities—candles wrapped around a bronze branch; creamy, abstract photograms made by placing her glass works onto paper; more vessels, hands, and fingers—take on the aura of relics.

Detail of “An Archive from Two Perspectives” (2017)

Double Penetration is a jaundiced-yellow transparent glass orb with gaping holes blown through it – like a buoy designed to sink. Long strands of rope—knotted at the top, tatty at the ends—thread through its top, wind inside its interior, then snake through its punctures, dropping limply onto a round  cherrywood platform. The title tips its hat to perversity, pleasure, and the pornographic, but any transgressions are formal, straight-faced, simply demonstrating that what goes in must come out.

“An Archive from Two Perspectives” installation view (2017)

An Archive from Two Perspectives is installed inside the basement’s central tunnel. In metaphor, as in fact, it cuts through (and to) the heart of the show. Akashi set two tall tables flush against the wall, on top of which she placed objects and materials we know well by now—bulbous-bottomed glass pieces, more long ropes—and some we don’t: ortho litho film prints of tree leaves, a delicate glass funnel that bores straight through the table top. The installation is a bit like a Kelly Akashi Reader, the elements of her work laid out for closer study, though she calls it an archive, so perhaps it’s more accurately understood as a repository of sorts, a time capsule for objects she’s made and declared things of the past.

“Image of Two Things” (2017)

In one of Akashi’s weirdest moves, a bronze finger with a torn-up nail pokes out the top of a pale blue glass funnel lying on the Archive table. Out its rear extends a generous tail of rope—a bizarro creature, unnatural if logically constructed. A hole occasions one of two conditions: emptiness, or occupation. (Nature abhors a vacuum; art despises a lost opportunity.) With this piece, Akashi seems to signal a future phase of all this collapse: Out of the old come new beings, new beginnings, new unearthly concoctions.

“Finger Figure” (2017)

Kelly Akashi: Long Exposure
44-19 Purves Street, Long Island City
Through December 18


A Half-Century After Hitting the Art Scene, Sam Gilliam’s Legacy Blossoms

It’s a story the art world loves to tell itself: how it valiantly recovers and revives the career of a forgotten artist. In 2015, an article ran in The Guardian about the “rediscovery” of painter Sam Gilliam, claiming he was working in obscurity and near destitution until artist Rashid Johnson and gallerist David Kordansky offered him a solo show in Los Angeles, after which his career took off like a shot. As it happens, the story wasn’t wholly true: at the time of Johnson and Kordansky’s visit, Gilliam was living comfortably, working in his studio with the help of assistants — painting, exhibiting as he always had, if not always squarely in the glare of the spotlight. Heroism had less to do with Gilliam’s taking center stage than the ways in which audience attention waxes and wanes over time. So let the story be rewritten this way: it was Gilliam who, later in his life, recovered and revived something lost from the art world when it finally regained sight of his work.

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, Gilliam moved in adulthood to Washington DC, and by the 1960s made his name as part of the Washington Color School. His reputation thrived, with solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Cocoran Gallery of Art, among others, as well as inclusion in the 1972 Venice Biennale. At this very moment, his work is hanging in the Central Pavilion of the 57th Biennale, forty-five years after he first appeared there—and a breathtaking exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery curated by Sukanya Rajaratnam of fourteen paintings made between 1967 and 1973 presents an origin story of sorts, bringing together some of the earliest examples of the innovations and ideas that have now secured Gilliam’s status as a seminal American Abstract painter.

“Bow Form Construction,” (1968)

At the outset of his practice, in the early to mid-1960s, Gilliam was producing minimal, non-representational paintings, vivid discourses in line, color, and geometry in a spirit similar to contemporaries Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and others who were also dubbed part of the Washington Color School. These paintings flexed the two-dimensional to assert riotous, intelligent optical pleasures within the confines of flatness. To look at the artist’s work from those years now (not on view at Mnuchin) is a bit like watching a jazz musician mastering the scales, fine-tuning himself and his instrument, preparing to receive the transmissions of higher dimensions. (Gilliam has cited the visionary composer John Coltrane as one influence for his thinking).

“Spread,” (1973) and “Spring Thaw,” (1972)

In 1967, Gilliam radically shifted his approach to create his Slice series, for which he stretched canvases onto beveled-edged frames so — like a tile or a tablet or some sort of architectural element — the painting’s surface appears to push away from the wall and into the gallery space. At this time, the artist also embraced a different approach to the medium itself, setting his brush aside for a moment to first soak raw canvas in diluted acrylics, so the colors would run and bleed. From there, he would improvise a sequence of actions, gestures — folding, hanging, shaking — to compose the rest. Lighter colors were applied first; darker, after. Depth was achieved by layering the paint, building the surface; whether the pigments sink in, or are daubed on top, the colors blend, overlapping to create still more tones and textures. In a bit of reverse engineering, when all was dry, the canvas would finally be stretched around its frame. The combination of applied alchemy and freehanded choreography in Gilliam’s Slice works lands them in a rich, affecting territory bordering the states, the conditions, of painting, sculpture, and textile.

Thrust and With Blue, both on view, are two of the radiant results from that year, each in possession of their very own mood. At eight and a half feet tall, With Blue is the most melancholy work of the exhibition, its dark blue–to-gray palette lifted, made luminous, by the aluminum powder Gilliam applied throughout. Shimmering lines from where the artist creased the canvas run from top to bottom of the painting, and something about its verticality along with its silvery aura gives it a contemplative quality. Thrust, in counterpoint, is a more fiery and gregarious work, with wilder whirls of color — from lilac to ruby red, tangerine to khaki green — marbling across the surface, which appears purer (as in more painterly), unbounded by line or composition, but propelled instead by rhythm, roil.

Sam Gilliam,
“Idle Twist” (1972)

It would seem paradoxical for a painter that chance or improvisation would allow for mastery, and yet they push an artist to attend to other facets of craft — or at least attend to their other angles. Throughout the exhibition, one sees how Gilliam’s hand commands a canvas. The life force within the spontaneity of his approach never dims, but it is harnessed. Time is the secondary subject of the artist’s work — captured in paint that was pushed this way or pulled that way, dripped here and plopped there, never to be repeated; color becomes its marker. Temple Fire (1970) is nine feet of Day-Glo pink, periwinkle blue, livid yellow, foggy gray, and more and more all running together, fanning over each other so the colors never settle, are ever vibrating, emitting, or soaking up the light depending on their proximity to one another.

It was apparently an accident that led Gilliam to his most beloved and influential Drape works in 1968. Simply told, one of his unstretched canvases fell to the ground one day, sparking the idea to create and install paintings without a frame — paintings that would instead be draped, tied, folded, and hung in space, and thereby placed in more intimate conversation with sculpture. Bow Form Construction of that year is ten feet of canvas tied at either end and suspended from the ceiling as oversize fabric swag. With bulky grace and terrific drama, it shape-shifts before the eye, its massive folds seeming to take on the weight and appearance of ceramic, or carved marble. Little Dude (1971) and Idle Twist (1972) are hung like punctured blossoms — rather, small, stilled explosions — loosely bunched in the middle, their corners tacked up on the wall, spreading outward.

“Carousel Change,” 1970

The exhibition’s grandest piece is Carousel Change from 1970, for which seventy-six feet of canvas is gathered and tied at the top in five places. Monumental in scale, its overall palette is light, joyous, splashed, soaked, and slapped in hot pinks, peaches, yolky yellows, dark sky blues. It is, as the title suggests, dizzying. The eye has nowhere to land, no choice but to keep moving over its lush, popping terrain. At the risk of overreading, there is something prophetic about it too — how the painting speaks to the ways in which attention (of an audience, of the art world, and otherwise) like a carousel ride is cyclical, moving “forward” only to come back around as it must, as it will, and as it rightly should.

‘Sam Gilliam: 1967–1973’
Mnuchin Gallery
45 East 78th Street
Through December 16


Freaks and Geeks: Revisiting the Legendary Club 57 at MOMA

In 1978, Stanley Strychacki, who oversaw the basement space at the Holy Cross Parish at 57 St. Marks Place, decided to rent the place to performers and musicians for cheap, anywhere from five to twenty bucks a night. The vibe was friendly, unpretentious. No velvet ropes; no celebrity attitude. Strychacki was a Polish émigré who was also working as the manager for Irving Plaza, another downtown music venue. That’s where he met Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully, two graduates of the School of Visual Arts, who — along with performer Ann Magnuson — had put together “New Wave Vaudeville,” a wild alt-variety show. Impressed by what he saw, Strychacki offered them the run of his basement space, and by January 1979, they were turning the now-legendary Club 57 into a playhouse for downtown’s avant-garde.

Club 57 calendar, July 1980. Design by Ann Magnuson.

Almost every night, the club was host to parties, performances, movie series, music shows, poetry readings, and any other mutant forms of culture-shocking. Through the door and onto its floor came downtown luminaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kathy Acker, Joey Arias, Ethyl Eichelberger, Chris Kraus, Agosto Machado, Tom Murrin, Fred Brathwaite (a/k/a Fab 5 Freddy), Kenny Scharf, Marc Shaiman, Sur Rodney (Sur), John Sex, and David Wojnarowicz. This Fall, MOMA is celebrating the scene and those who made it with ‘Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983,’ a much-needed exhibition that’s as loose and exuberant as the club itself.

The show is more a portrait of a moment in time than a dutiful, dry historicizing of it. In truth, it’s a bit of an endearing mess, a little like a teenager’s bedroom: The walls are covered almost haphazardly, though expressing total fandom and devotion. Films and film series, slide shows and videos, zines and flyers, photographs and paintings, art and ephemera are all installed throughout the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Galleries, down in MOMA’s basement — though not the airiest, easiest space for a show, it feels apropos to Club 57’s subterranean spirit. (How else should this scene hang on hallowed museum walls other than oddly, densely, and even slightly askew?)

Keith Haring, Acts of Live Art at Club 57. 1980.

The club’s many artists, musicians, performers, and revelers were of the generation that was both post-pop and post-punk. Growing up, they’d feasted on the ditzy glitz of popular culture, and learned preparedness in the event of nuclear attack. These kids were the weirdos, the ones who left their hometowns to seek refuge in the broken cradle of the East Village: Magnuson from West Virginia; Haring from Reading, Pennsylvania; Scharf from Los Angeles. The East Village scene may have been hedonistic, but it wasn’t apocalyptic. After all, it embraced the city’s depressed economy. Cheap rents enabled artists to create and evolve outside of professionalism’s pressure cooker. (No urgent need for an MFA when there’re affordable spaces for forging community, opportunity, and audience). If anything united Club 57’s otherwise eclectic bunch, it was a desire to twist the mainstream of their childhood inside out, to show “normalcy” as the absurd condition that it was. Parody, satire, or just a simple send-up: These were the means to stick it to power, and hilariously.

For Made for TV (1984), film–video artist Tom Rubnitz (1956–1992) collaborated with Magnuson to produce a daffy, dizzying simulation of flipping through television channels, past goofy ads for unappetizing burgers, cans of generic chicken broth, and bacon bits–stuffed baked potatoes. A charismatic, chameleonic comedienne (think: test-tube progeny of Lucille Ball and Cindy Sherman), Magnuson plays a veejay, a televangelist, a soap queen, a lead singer for a metal band, a newscaster, and other characters squeezed from the boob tube. Performer John Sex (née McLaughlin, 1956–1990) wore his hair in a tall pompadour-cum-missile silo, spoofing crooners of yore, singing dance hits like “Hustle With My Muscle” and “Rock Your Body” while wearing flashy, tight suits that might made have made Liberace green with envy.

It must be noted that it took not just craft but a lot of work to make the fun happen. Magnuson’s monthly event calendars were meticulously hand-collaged together. Every event had a theme — “Amazon School of Modeling”; “Fashion Moda: Rape, Ravage and Roll”; “Debutante on Parade”; “Freudian Slip/Psychotic Underwear Bash”; “Hair Extravaganza” — and seemed to have had its own flyer (some of them silk-screened by Sex, others made by artists Barry Masterson, KENE, Stacey Elkin, Richard McGuire, and more). Movie nights required notes; there were newsletters and zines that needed writing, designing, and circulating. Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Closet, a reproduction of the dance room he first installed in the loft he shared with Keith Haring, is a psychedelic accretion of hundreds upon hundreds of Day-Glo-dipped plastic toys glued together to create a colorful cavern. Standing in it feels like being inside the belly of the party beast.

Joey Arias in 1980.

Of course there was also the art, some of it for display, some of it circulated more personally. Photographer Marcus Leatherdale’s tender series Urban Women was exhibited at Club 57 in 1980, and featured feminine ferocities including Mapplethorpe muse Lisa Lyon as well as two of John Waters’s leading ladies, Divine and Cookie Mueller. A pair of portraits (one of himself, one of an unidentified other) on found ad paper from 1982 by artist–drag performer Stephen Tashjian (a/k/a Tabboo!) are rendered in a serious, agitated hand, giving his characters an intense, rather sickly appearance. The sinuous lines of Kitty Brophy’s ink drawing Vacation From My Suicide (1979) infuse its nude female figure with both an elegance and a darkness. A pencil drawing Keith Haring made on graph paper, “For Kenny,” is a sweet testament to his and Scharf’s friendship — half of it filled with what looks like small cartoon cock-and-balls.

One of the exhibition’s most magical objects is a clear plastic cape made of nothing more than a shower curtain and wire that was worn in performance by the alien-genius singer-performer Klaus Nomi (1944–1983). Something about the costume’s unabashed flimsiness speaks to the secret to successful self-styling: Otherworldliness isn’t had by money, it’s achieved in the mind.

The club closed in 1983, but the parties and performances continued in other equally legendary East Village spots — the Pyramid Club, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut — until AIDS descended and carried off so many of the artists who’d given the scene its energy: Nomi, Rubnitz, Sex, Haring, to name only a few. “None of us could have predicted we’d experience such soul-sickening sadness while still so young,” writes Magnuson in her poignant essay for the show’s page-turner of a catalog. “All these faded memories begin to emerge with greater clarity, deeper love, and fewer tears.” Club 57’s explosive moment is gone from New York now, and yet here in this exhibition, it appears again like an oasis: beautifully, riotously present.

‘Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through April 1, 2018


When the West Coast Art Scene Got Serious

In the mid-twentieth century, New York City was asserting itself as the new global center for modern and contemporary art. Fifty-Seventh Street was lined with galleries showing the Modernists and Abstract Expressionists, while downtown, artist-run spaces were giving a place to the next generation who were dissolving the boundaries among media by embracing bold, anarchic gestures in performance and installation.

As the buzz of that art scene gathered volume, the trailblazing Ferus Gallery lassoed the art world’s focus westward to Los Angeles. Ironically, it was in Los Angeles where Pop in fact popped. California was always the more eccentric, free-minded coast, now producing artists such as Wallace Berman, Jay Defeo, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, and John Altoon, to name a few—and Ferus, run in its heyday by legendary curator Walter Hopps with gallerist Irving Blum, was the gallery that brought them to wider attention.

Portrait of the Artists: A group shot from a 1962 group show at Ferus Gallery

It took Todd Alden of Alden Projects™ twenty years to collect the sixty-six exhibition posters on view in Ferus Gallery: Between the Folds, a rare and sparkling gem of a show that tells the story of Ferus through its graphic output. If art traces a history of ideas and aesthetics, ephemera like this highlights the ways in which artists projected themselves and their work, strategizing how all would be received and understood. In retrospect, Hopps and Blum—a pair of autodidacts who were a study in opposites—were instrumental in the imaging, and imagining, of American art and artists.

Walter Hopps was an uncommon animal in the landscape of American art: brilliant, sensitive, unyielding, eccentric. His colorful story—as told to Deborah Treisman for his posthumously published memoir, The Dream Colony: A Life In Art—reads as though his life was propelled by a kind of manifest destiny, as though art was always his rightful kingdom. Born in 1932 and raised in Eagle Rock, just west of Pasadena, Hopps recalled the pleasure he found at the age of four or five in cutting and pasting images of the American flag and ads for Campbell’s soup cans into his scrapbook. (He would go on to curate the first exhibition of American Pop, New Painting of Common Objects, in 1962.) As a first grader, he got into trouble for creating collages with wallpaper intended for his class’s dollhouse. After a school trip to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, he skipped not a few days of high school to spend time, at their invitation, to learn about Modernism from their unrivaled collection of Dadaist and Surrealist art — which included three iterations of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

Andy Warhol, “Andy Warhol (Pepper Pot)” (1962)

When he first met Irving Blum in 1958, Hopps was at work at Ferus in West Hollywood, which he’d founded with artist Edward Kienholz in the spring of 1957. Blum was a once-aspiring actor who was making ends meet working in sales for the luxury textile brand Scalamandré. The elocution lessons he’d taken in his theater days gave his speech a honeyed, moneyed affect and, according to Hopps, Blum — a self-taught art enthusiast — just showed up at the gallery one day and began wooing a pair of collectors with a silk-tongued sales pitch. Near to closing time, he introduced himself to Hopps, who quickly figured that Blum would be key to turning the upstart gallery into a more profitable, powerful venture. Shortly thereafter, Hopps bought out Kienholz, and the rest — as they say — is art history.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Ellsworth Kelly” (1966)

Under Hopps and Blum, Ferus presented the art of those-in-the-know as lit by the ambient Hollywood glow. If the gallery’s previous incarnation advertised itself with tactile letterpress graphics that echoed those of the book covers of Northern California’s Beat poets, the new Ferus portrayed itself as a birthplace of future legends. The posters of this era illuminated less about the art on view than about the artist on view; creating an aura—from the sacred to the silly—was everything. To announce the opening of John Altoon’s show on October 15, 1962, a moody, mysterious portrait of the artist was commissioned from celebrity photographer William Claxton, best known for his iconic images of jazz great Chet Baker and heartthrob actor Steve McQueen. (Another young photographer they tapped for portraits of Craig Kauffman and Roy Lichtenstein was film actor Dennis Hopper.)

Billy Al Bengston, “Bengston” (1962)

In a more playful hat tip to Hollywood, painter and sculptor Billy Al Bengston appropriated a production still from Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent comedy The General for the poster of his exhibition the following month. Bengston doubles the Keaton image, composing them as a call-and-response: one, the set-up; the other, a punch line. In the first, the words Where’s Bill? Buster Keaton are handwritten in the top right corner; in the second, Bengston cut and pasted a photograph of his face—sporting a bushy mustache and a toothy, goofy grin—into the scene. One way to interpret the joke: How does an artist make cultural history? With scissors and glue, of course.

The Ferus artists almost always had a hand in the design of their posters—or at least consented to the images that appeared. Two announcing the 1959 and 1961 shows by sculptor John Mason (a dead ringer, as it happened, for the deceased AbEx master Jackson Pollock) presented portraits of the artist, stone-faced and oozing machismo, posed in front of his totemic, brutally forged ceramic works—a not-so-subtle bid for his ascendancy. However, the real scene stealer in the Alden Projects™ exhibition is Ed Ruscha, who took complete charge of his posters every time, eventually placing hybrid ad/artworks in the pages of Artforum (then located upstairs from Ferus), where he worked from 1965 to 1967 overseeing the magazine’s layout. His are most complicatedly works of Pop Art in their own right, collapsing art and commerce with true wit.

Ed Ruscha, “Ruscha (Double Standard)” (1964)

Ruscha designed one announcement to mimic a Western Union telegram: “Los Angeles Fire Marshall says he will attend STOP See the most controversial painting to be shown in Los Angeles in our time STOP.” His poster for his 1964 exhibition of Standard gas station paintings featured an unattributed photograph by Hopper above a dizzying typeface in which a single word was written: RUSCHA. In the pages of the magazine, the artist created ads tinged by the consumer smuttiness of Madison Avenue. One “caught” the artist in bed asleep with two women dozing on either side of him. The caption: ED RUSCHA SAYS GOODBYE TO COLLEGE JOYS.

In 1962, Hopps left Ferus to become curator at the Pasadena Museum of Art, where he would organize the globally lauded Duchamp retrospective of 1963. Blum kept the doors open until 1967, when he started a new gallery under his own name. The posters from that era are flashier, each designed from the same template and almost corporate-looking by comparison. Most of these highlighted a single work of art, the primacy of aura now more often bequeathed to the objects rather than to the artists. In the gloss of these images, one sees a certain tipping point into the polish and professionalism that have since overtaken contemporary art. Blum’s gallery focused on bringing New York artists West, rather than the other way around, representing the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, whom he’d given his first show of the Soup Cans in 1962. With this seismic shift, New York artists took center stage at Ferus, and the Californians—as per their nature—were left to plot future eruptions.

Ferus Gallery: Between the Folds
Alden Projects™
34 Orchard Street
Through November 19


What a New Show at the New Museum Gets Wrong About Gender

Walking through the New Museum’s seductively titled but rather sleepy exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” I wondered, unhappily, if gender has become a null, dull subject, or if the problem is that artists and/or art institutions have become too risk-averse to take it on with palpable force. The headlines, of course, point only to the latter — or some explanation like it: Trump’s ban on transgender people from military service; his recent “joke” about gay people and how Mike Pence “wants to hang them all!”; Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s directive effectively eroding federal protections of LGBTQI rights; the calling out of Harvey Weinstein for decades of sexual harassment, and the declarations of #metoo that swept across social media in support of those who had spoken out; a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs from this past August that announced a 29 percent increase since last year in hate-fueled homicides of LGBTQI and HIV-affected people. Gender may be considered one of culture’s first acts of conceptualism — a received idea about one’s body, one’s identity, largely still precedes our own articulations — but the violence and fear with which its expressions are met remain all too real.

Patrick Staff, “Weed Killer” (2017)

So why, despite the promised detonations of its premise, and the tumultuous times in which we live, does the show fail to go off? Interestingly, it seems that the lack of charge is, at least in part, by design. “The feeling of stalemate is palpably in the air,” writes Johanna Burton, the Keith Haring director and curator of education and public engagement, in her introductory essay to the show’s catalog. She goes on to explain that we presently suffer a “paralysis within discourse” around the fluidities of gender and identity. The curatorial remedy is simply to present the art and allow viewers to decide for themselves how it all adds up, how it reflects and refracts our contemporary moment. There is no narrative thread to follow across the sculptures, paintings, photographs, videos, and performances of the forty-plus artists included, most of whom place themselves somewhere along the spectrum of LGBTQI and beyond — and in theory, this lack of navigation presents an interesting opportunity to push back against the ways in which cultural institutions prescribe the meaning of an artwork.

Diamond Stingily, “Kaa” (2016)

As in every large group show, there is much to see, some of it worth looking at. The divinely weirdo sculptures of Los Angeles–based multimedia artist Harry Dodge are tender, awkward meditations on the strange bedfellows we know as form and function. One titled Pure Shit Hotdog Cake (2017) is a hideous-regal assemblage, topped like a totem with an oversize faux hot dog, multicolored glossy paints dripping down its tiered platform as though reveling in the indignities of postcoital (post-aesthetic?) reverie. Diamond Stingily’s Kaas 4C (2017) is a long woven braid of hair that penetrates through four floors of the museum, a quiet piece one might not even notice, but one that speaks loudly to the unseen, unacknowledged ways in which black women pierce through the powers that be. Vaginal Davis’s clay wall sculptures look like a body was pulped and pounded into pieces to create a grisly frieze, while Connie Samaras’s series of photographs titled Edge of Twilight (2011–2017) document the humble homesteads in an all-women’s RV retirement park.

Vaginal Davis, “Cybelle-demanding your gonads to make a necklace of testicles” (2015)

“Trigger” is the most recent addition to the New Museum’s proud history of exhibitions taking on the subjects of gender, sexuality, and identity — among them: “Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art” in 1982, the first museum show in America to take stock of how art embraced and advanced the visibility of the gay male community; and “Bad Girls” in 1994, which highlighted the ways in which artists were dealing with gender and feminism in ways that were both outrageous and outraged. From the feminist movements to gay liberation, through the AIDS crisis and the culture wars, the politics of gender has had a rich, kinked history in art. As we’ve come to understand, contemporary is often code in the art world for young, though now by definition should include any and all artists working in this moment, regardless of age.

Tuesday Smillie, “Street Transvestites 1973” (2015)

“Trigger” claims to be intergenerational — and it is, technically — though largely the artists are Generation X through to millennials, which means that part of our moment feels underrepresented. It is, however, interesting to see where and how history does appear. Mariah Garnett’s Encounters I May or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin (2010) features the artist as Berlin, re-performing moments from the gay porn auteur’s films. Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s Lost in the Music (2017) celebrates the grande dame of gay liberation, drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (here played by actress Mya Taylor), who died under mysterious circumstances in 1992. Chris E. Vargas’s Transgender Hiroes (2013) is a broadside for MOTHA (Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art), for which he collaged photographs of some of the most beloved transgender and gender-nonconforming artists in history to create a group portrait — and with this fiction, playfully tears into memory with a tender “what if,” spinning a new image of community, of collectivity, from which culture can imagine itself forward.

Troy Michie, “La Bicicleta” (2015)

Like gender, narrative too is elastic, molten, potent — able to perform as both weapon and tool. Why not pick it up and use it with all one’s might? To abdicate its power in a time when the slippages between fact and fiction have fatal consequences is to valorize theory perhaps too much — to use it to justify a certain inaction — and to miss an opportunity to speak and, therefore, to resist. Without strong curatorial muscle framing the artists chosen for “Trigger,” without placing stakes in the ground that they share or don’t, a beautifully ambitious museum exhibition starts to dissolve into the crowd-bowing chaos and bulk of a contemporary art fair. Audiences are left to navigate the works via lengthy wall texts written on each artist, which produces a strange selfie effect that quarantines the artists rather than opening them up to each other for cross talk. We write to be written; we write to rewrite and then, in our turn, to be rewritten. If there is a paralysis in the discourse around gender in the art world, this kind of curatorial forfeiture may just be one of the contributing causes. Otherwise, as is one of the frustrations with “Trigger,” one risks saying too little about our overwhelming lot.

Installation views, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon”

‘Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon’
New Museum
235 Bowery
Through January 18 


How Susan Cianciolo Spun Art Out of Fashion

Before Susan Cianciolo began creating her noble, nuanced multimedia artworks, she was one of New York’s most beloved avant-garde fashion designers. Having graduated from Parsons in 1992, she came up alongside fellow experimentalists like Bernadette Corporation and Miguel Adrover a few years later. She tried being the designer-businesswoman for a while — producing her Run line from 1995 to 2001 — but the role didn’t suit her, didn’t accommodate the freedoms her hand and mind required to create the sum total of her visions. Where fashion typically traffics in seduction, Cianciolo’s clothes proffered enchantment instead, subtly spinning narrative threads regarding female bodies, the material world, and the conditions required for physical and metaphysical transformations.

“DIY” was the go-to description for her hands-on, collaged aesthetic, but that didn’t accurately capture the precision, the canny intuition, with which her garments were conceived and constructed. She repurposed pieces found at thrift stores, cutting them up and incorporating them into her designs. She embellished her collections with embroidery, crochet, and other bits of craft. In her clothes, a body wasn’t up for consumption or control; it was something to adorn, and thereby to contemplate. Cianciolo’s was a humbler, more spiritual couture. Seams out, her garments appeared vulnerable, ethereal, even as they protected a wearer — not like armor, impenetrable, but like a medicine pouch: assembled, talismanic, healing.

From wearable to habitable, the Brooklyn-based Cianciolo continues to center her art around the body, and what and how it means to be present, to be a presence. For her current exhibition, RUN PRAYER, RUN CAFÉ, RUN LIBRARY, she has created four muscular installations possessed of her signature raw elegance: two designated for the soul’s engagement and expression, one for nourishment, one for reading and study. Inside the gallery, the artist invites visitors to explore and use these spaces — entwining the natures of public and private — which offer in turn, and over time spent inside the work, reflections regarding how a self may be dispersed in the world.

The spaces of RUN PRAYER, RUN CAFÉ, and RUN LIBRARY (all 2016–2017) are each designated by light architectural structures, like drawings made in wood and metal, which frame and contain the assorted objects and ephemera they hold. Without walls, these rooms breathe, one flowing into the next, and Cianciolo has filled each of them with collections of things both found and made; here, a sense of placement is as strong as a sense of place. On the floor of RUN LIBRARY are boxes, some filled with papers, DVDs, magazines. In one: a cupping kit, for use in Chinese medicine; in others, Cianciolo has arranged homemade objects including Styrofoam peanuts painted periwinkle blue, tiny clay sculptures, and a small paper doll. A stool and a table stacked with books —among them, Hysteric Glamour: Terry Richardson, Early American Design Motifs, and Direct Experience of I-AM APAROKŞHĀNUBHŪTI — stand in the corner for those wanting to sit and browse. 

Cianciolo has always included her personal effects in her work, and though her art also stands as a record of her life, it never dissolves into the confessional. What other artists would guard as archival matter, she uses as material: whether letters or magazine tear sheets, or drawings and other musings by her nine-year-old daughter, Lilac Sky, who is occasionally referred to as her collaborator. Books sometimes serve as filing cabinets of a kind. In one titled History of Africa, Cianciolo has stored stacks of paperwork: correspondences from a colleague (“I applied for an apartment down the street from here today. Fingers crossed, it would start in July”), as well as a pink piece of notepaper on which Lilac has written: “Malia is not nice to me she dos not like me for evin being kind to her.” Books, whether we ourselves author them are not, are records of memories — of thoughts and information — so why shouldn’t they hold their keeper’s memories too? (A thought: To connect more deeply to objects like this allows one to disconnect from crude materiality. Another thought: Open yourself up wide enough to your audience, no one can see you. At least, not really).

Ring the bell inside RUN CAFÉ, and treats will be brought to you. (On the day I visited, chocolate-dipped macaroons and cups of tea were offered.) For Cianciolo, an artist must also be of service to her audience; art, at least in part, is a production of gratitude. (Cianciolo has also organized free performances and events that will run throughout the exhibition.) RUN PRAYER and Prayer Circle sit at opposite ends of the gallery from each other, bookending the show with two spaces built for faith. On the floor of RUN PRAYER (as on the floors of all the installations), Cianciolo has placed a tapestry hand-stitched together from odd cuts of different fabrics. One can sit and read the two prayers she’s provided or, of course, simply read one’s own. Although roomy enough for more than one person at a time, the setup encourages a certain solitude. (Sitting in the middle, one is encircled by plants, and more of her magical objects).

Prayer Circle is otherwise set up as though around a campfire, a hodgepodge of chairs (folding, lawn, office) placed next to bundles of wood logs and kindling. Instead of fire and smoke at its center, strings of yarn decorated with drawings and notes ascend to the ceiling. On the seat of each chair, Cianciolo has left other ephemera: a page announcing grocery store specials; other works by Lilac. This is the only space one can’t sit inside during the show — presumably because it’s communal, to be shared, occupied, by a group together rather than just by oneself. Asking, receiving, gathering: these too are high art forms, inspired, inspiring, and — as practiced by Cianciolo — restorative of the knowledge that the Greater What and Who outside ourselves is, ironically, what most powerfully sustains us within.

Bridget Donahue
99 Bowery, 2nd floor
Through December 3


Girl Squad: Vaginal Davis and Louise Nevelson on the Lower East Side

“Blessed be the Goddess that I was not born a man.” So proclaimeth Vaginal Davis, the iconic gender-queer artist known as the founding mistress of terrorist drag. She of bands like Black Fag and the Afro Sisters; she the writer and publisher of the radical zines Shrimp (“the magazine for licking and sucking bigger and better feet”) and Fertile La Toyah Jackson, which offered readers scandal, gossip, and makeup tips; she who self-describes as a “societal threat,” and once told an audience, “In the words of my immortal mother: ‘I’d rather suck the three horns and hooves of the Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan than deal with a well-meaning white liberal’ ”: She has twenty new paintings on view at the Lower East Side’s Invisible-Exports, alongside a single sculpture by the grande dame of modernist sculpture, Louise Nevelson. If some think these women make an odd couple, this small, smart show proves that in many ways, they’re the perfect imperfect match.

Nevelson and Davis #twinning

Both Davis and Nevelson are forces of nature, albeit descended from different heavens. Davis was born intersex sometime circa the 1960s (like any good lady, she keeps her age a secret) and raised as a woman in a matriarchal South Central Los Angeles household. She got her start performing as part of the city’s punk scene, and later created a stable of radical drag personae — characters that included a black revolutionary and a white supremacist — through whom she transmitted ferocious and complex interrogations of racism and sexism. (She named herself after the great American revolutionary Angela Davis). Nevelson was born in Russia in 1899 and studied art in her adopted hometown of New York City. She was a larger-than-life figure, as well known for her striking style and figure as she was for the wood assemblages that eventually made her an art star when she was in her forties. The hilarious promotional image for the show — titled “Chimera” — collages a photograph of Nevelson wearing her signature mink eyelashes and a scarf tied tightly around her head next to Davis dressed in a matching outfit she describes as “Louise do-rag drag.” The message is clear: These women will perform as themselves, and as a mirror for each other.

“Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones” (2017)

Davis’s paintings (all 2017) are handheld in scale, many smaller than a postcard. Each is titled for a female film or television actress, most of them women of color: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Della Reece, Kitten Natividad, Susan Kohner — Imitation of Life. (The gallery provides a cheat sheet with brief bios, for those visitors unfamiliar with these icons). These are portraits of a kind, though Davis isn’t trafficking in likeness; she’s dealing in aura, form, hand. She summons her figures like a witch might, bringing them forth not in oils or watercolors, but in other paints and potions that summon, and signify, the feminine: nail polish, mascara, Jean Nate perfume, eyebrow pencils. Davis’s figures are luminous apparitions, their outlines loose and curvy, their palettes soft and pleasing. Brenda Sykes (named for the actress and former wife of Gil Scott-Heron) is rendered in lavender, half there against a silvery-gray, scribbly background; Linda Christian (who was the first Bond girl), in thick licks of white warmed by peach-pink tones beneath. 

“Colonne II” surrounded by Davis’s portraits

At the center of the gallery is Nevelson’s Colonne II, a tall, totemic sculpture from 1959 built of two stacked triangular-shaped pieces of lumber adorned with scraps of wood and odd ends of molding, all coated top to bottom in matte black paint — one of her signature gestures. In 1976, Nevelson explained why she used this technique over and over again in her sculptures: “[Black] wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all.” She felt black ennobled her materials, and here in the gallery — its floor painted the same flat black, and its walls, a dullish brown — there is something cosmic about the work’s presence. Lit from above by a square neon fixture, Nevelson’s sculpture sucks in the light, tears into the space, interrupting — commanding — the room around it. The exhibition’s installation is theatrical enough, charged enough, to allow narratives to take shape, if you want them to. Davis’s mystical women may seem to order themselves around Nevelson’s sculpture, almost as acolytes. Or they may look as though they’ve got the giant thing completely surrounded, like Lilliputians seizing Gulliver.

“Pearl Bailey”

Another narrative takes shape too: of Davis and Nevelson in a dialogue across space and time on blackness — as a color of both skin and paint, as well as metaphor, as presence, as absence. Nevelson saw black as a color full of possibility, and used it to transform her sculptures into portals, escape hatches out of the present reality. Blackness isn’t containable in the same way for Davis. Her women have been reduced, abstracted by her hand, yes, but as well by the dominant white culture in which they role-played, not simply as actresses (in character), but as women of color. For example: Louise Beavers may be best known for playing Delilah, the maid whose light-skinned daughter refuses to acknowledge her, in the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Her performance was considered a breakthrough at the time, deserving of an Oscar, but she went unrecognized by the academy because she was black.

“Ruby Dee”

The show makes no overarching, didactic point about art, artists, and race; that wouldn’t suit the insurgent spirits of either artist anyhow. In her keynote speech at the 2016 Creative Time Summit, Davis took the stage holding a red telephone receiver, its cord hanging loose, while the audience listened to a recording of her talking to Communism. “Over the years I’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to a much more subtle racism among the left,” she explained. “Racism is a much more clandestine, much more hidden kind of phenomenon, but at the same time perhaps far more terrible than it’s ever been.” How to bring the hidden aspects of racism to light; how to illuminate the disparities even of language, of image, of representation? Perhaps seen here, Davis and Nevelson, performing as a chimera — as the distinct if equally muscular parts of a mythical creature — can together articulate a certain disaster among us, and excavate deeper tectonic tremors and shifts that might otherwise go unseen or undetected. 

Vaginal Davis | Louise Nevelson: Chimera 
89 Eldridge Street
Through October 22nd