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Everything Old School Is New Again

When you’re hosting an art opening it’s probably not a good idea to leave a six-foot-long two-by-four stud propped up where it can accidentally fall and smack a visiting critic on his writing shoulder. (Though, God knows, there are a few artists who wish it had landed on his head.) But raining lumber is of a piece with the rough-and-tumble ambience of “Painting to Survive,” a group show of works created between 1985 and 1995 that embody the fervid energy and off-kilter beauty of a moment in history when AIDS was ravaging the artist community and gentrification was pricing painters out of lofts. But it was also the age of Madonna and Public Enemy pouring from the radio and adventuresome theatrics in the downtown clubs, captured at the opening by the Frank’s Museum Project’s reunion performance of a sweetly melodic ditty about “the mayor’s boyfriend” fixing parking tickets and cadging restaurant meals “all over town” — verses that might have been cribbed from one of Wayne Barrett’s Voice articles about street-level corruption during those years.

It was the best of times and the harshest of times in New York City, and the contrasts and connections between hard partying and tragic illness emanate from a number of the works on the walls of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition’s vast, raw spaces. Lushly painted canvases by Jonathan Weinberg combine vistas of crisscrossing girders and staircases with triple-X signs and grappling nudes, conflating the labyrinthine structures of the West Side piers with intimations of the hardcore sex that took place in those derelict spaces back in the day. Weinberg also curated the show (in addition to his studio work, he is an art historian and teaches at Yale). The press release notes, “The early ’80s saw an explosion of possibilities in Lower Manhattan for young artists to make and show work. Taking advantage of the economic upheavals of the 1970s, these children of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ viewed New York with a sense of great optimism.” Indeed, though gentrification was about to descend, the early ’80s were similar to the late ’40s and early ’50s, when the Abstract Expressionists could find cheap lofts as military contractors left the city at the end of World War II.

Jonathan Weinberg, “XXX” (c.1994)

Joel Handorff’s livid colors channel this careening vibe. With magenta, yellow, and orange skin tones edged with acid-green highlights, the figures in Mary (1988) might recall German Expressionist works from early last century or a particularly garish MTV video. This aura is enhanced by Handorff’s technique of painting on the back of Plexiglas, adding a heightening gloss to his hues. Conversely, the quieter colors in the artist’s strong composition of two strolling men, one lofting a young boy onto his shoulders (#8 Three, from 1990), winningly convey the relaxed body language of a tight-knit family out together on a weekend.

Joel Handorff, “Mary” (1988)

Audrey Anastasi similarly delves into relationships. In Leaving (1993), a woman sits on the edge of a bathtub, fully clothed and adjusting her beret. The figure is naturalistic but the paint handling is invitingly limber, quick slashes of gray imbuing her forearms with luminous shadows engendered by the sun bouncing around bathroom tiles. A knotted tie is draped over the tub’s rim — one of the androgynous accessories of the era that she’ll put on as a final touch, or evidence of a relationship she is ending? In 1991’s Balthusian, a young woman splays herself atop a table, a long coat hanging open to expose her thong and bare legs. She looks frankly at the viewer — who, of course, was initially the artist. The challenge in her stare, as the title informs us, is directed at the painter Balthus and his penchant for painting provocatively posed pubescent girls as being passive and welcoming of the male gaze. Questioning the French-Polish painter’s Lolita-ish subjects is nothing new, but Anastasi was certainly ahead of the current controversy surrounding Balthus.

Audrey Anastasi, “Balthusian” (1991)

With titles such as Growth and Against All Odds (both 1995), Fran Winant’s contrasting colors and fluttery shapes — basically symmetrical, save for the odd waxy drip — might be insects, or maybe flowers. Or possibly manifestations of the biomorphic machinery that permeated one slice of the zeitgeist from the mid-Eighties on, whether in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer or in The Terminator onscreen (both debuted in that auspicious year of 1984). In Winant’s imagery, nature is adulterated by forces beyond evolution.

Fran Winant, “Against All Odds” (1995)

Snarls of rich black paint partially obscure the eponymous blob in Suzan Courtney’s Yellow Shape (1993–1994), but glimmers of white within the yolk-like form pull a viewer past the bold composition and into an abstract narrative of shifting space. In large oil-stick drawings from the early ’90s, fittingly titled Metamorphosis 1 and 2, the artist’s imaginative forms oscillate between biology and architectonic structures.

Suzan Courtney, “Scapegoat” (1993-94)

Jean Foos brings a vibrant formal wit to her slathered matrices of paint. Hudson and Spring (1995) was perhaps titled for the street intersection in Manhattan, but the mossy flagstone pattern overlaid with a sinuous net of color-shifting strokes conjures the primeval geometries of nature, before humanity segmented the island into a paved grid. Spheres reminiscent of buckyballs seem to hover within a red web in Foos’s gorgeous, octagon-shaped canvas Snowball Sale (1991). The title made at least this viewer laugh, as he recalled a piece by David Hammons performed near Cooper Union, in 1983, in which the brilliant conceptual artist sold snowballs to passersby from a red-striped blanket stretched out on the sidewalk.

Even if the viewer is wrong about that antecedent, the enthralling visions arising from Hammons’s aesthetic jujitsu helped define the most trenchant cultural currents of those years. New York City was in thrall to the spectacle of vulgar consumption practiced by voracious real estate speculators and hedge fund manipulators. At the national level, President Ronald Reagan saw government not as a tool that could solve society’s problems but as a cudgel with which to further afflict the afflicted, including those affected by a mysterious illness some were calling “the gay plague.”

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This official neglect took a high toll on the community of artists, including two painters in this show. Judging from the photo on display, Richard Hofmann (1954–1994) was marquee handsome, but the expressionist figures in his large woodcuts and even bigger paintings all look to have spent plenty of seasons in Hell. Twisted, stretched, crushed, and tortured, these characters give as good as they get, accepting both pain and pleasure as the price of our carnal desires. A sense of youthfully boundless energy emanates from some of the huge canvases here, not surprising coming from an artist who painted murals in such East Village meccas as Danceteria and the Pyramid Club. But it is the small work Aqua Man (c. 1985) — which features a Polaroid print of a man’s blurry face peering out from a surrounding maelstrom of paint and wax—that crystalizes how an individual soul must always negotiate the hurly-burly of humanity.

Richard Hofmann, “Aqua Man” (c.1985)

Marc Lida didn’t make it out of the decade either, but his art exudes a frank freshness. In the acrylic painting on paper Sex Series (c. 1985), a pair of entwined men are caressed by a skeleton while a naked figure observes from a brightly lit doorway. Studded with silvery stars and half-moons, the composition delivers Eros and Thanatos to beat the band. In a fatalistically droll watercolor, Art Dealer at Leisure (1985), Lida imagines the scene when, in a drug-fueled frenzy, the 57th Street art dealer Andrew Crispo ordered his coked-up chauffeur to shoot a man after an extended bout of sadomasochistic sex. The underling went up the river for 25-to-life, but Crispo, like Al Capone decades before, was sent to prison on a mere tax-evasion rap. Through his title, Lida (1957–1992) allows a wry humor to acknowledge Crispo as an outlier, understanding that most art dealers are merely mercenary as opposed to murderous. Think of Leo Castelli, who, when asked about Andy Warhol’s condition as the Pop artist underwent surgery for gunshot wounds, in 1968, replied only, “I’m afraid there are not that many paintings left.”

Marc Lida, “Art Dealer At Leisure” (1985)

Stephen Lack is another painter undaunted by the dark side, perhaps not unexpected from an artist who early on exhibited in Gracie Mansion’s first gallery — the bathroom of her East Village apartment. In one work, Lack depicts a fallen wrestler in slashing pink strokes as bright as neon (On the Ropes, 1989); in another, a figure spread-eagled against a wall is menaced by a man whose arm and barely seen face glow as if radioactive (Calisthenics, 1991). Lack’s ravishing paint handling belies the brutal ambiguities of the scenarios in which his lithe characters find themselves.

Stephen Lack, “Calisthenics” (1991)

Michael Ottersen’s abstractions also traverse ambiguous realms — is that an old-school keyhole or a mutant treble clef in the bizarrely titled Silver (Drool), from 1991? Perhaps the variegated blue-green and black bars of the background augur for the first interpretation, but both possibilities are likely wide-of-the-mark whimsies of a particular viewer. Still, the gray and blue biomorphs of 1990’s Throat (Lake) cry out from a narrative miasma, separated as they are by a metal screen taut as a tennis net. Madder Lake is an ancient color that can be as intense as dried blood and as buoyant as pink roses, both notions easily subsumed by the rich, murky depths of the purplish background.

Michael Ottersen, “Throat (Lake)” (1990)

At first glance, Jane Bauman’s paintings on aluminum come across as brash abstractions, as in the roller-coaster-like orange struts placed on a polka-dot ground in 1990’s Chair for Dean. But even without the title, one might soon comprehend the symmetrical form recalling those sling chairs where canvas is stretched over a curving metal framework to provide a seat and back rest. Bauman’s surfaces radiate like sunlight through smog, imparting a tarnished loveliness. More blunt, but equally compelling, are stencils that look, through accumulated layers of spray paint, to have done some serious street duty. One, of a now old-fashioned phone handset hanging from a coiled cord, will make viewers of a certain age laugh, recalling dead pay phones drooping around the city like urban Spanish moss.

Jane Bauman, “Green Phone Stencil” (1983-1990)

A number of the painters here achieved success in those days, and continue to show, sell, and teach today. In the work on display in this sprawling exhibition, you can feel the pulse of that decade, an era overripe with painting. It was a time when surveys of works by the German artist Anselm Kiefer — paint slathered over woodcuts, straw, or lead sheets, evoking the blasted interiors of Nazi-era buildings or desolate, wintry fields — barnstormed major American museums. And few painters in New York City at the time missed Terry Winters’s late-’80s drawing shows at Sonnabend Gallery, or his 1992 Whitney retrospective of paintings that ranged from taxonomies of fungus and seedpods, diamonds and spores, to evocations of dystopic landscapes. Add to that the posthumous exhibitions of Eva Hesse’s organic abstractions found up- and downtown, inspiring artists all over the city.

Exhibitions like “Painting to Survive” throw into relief the loam of culture, that deadfall of late-night studio jags that may blossom into the new and, sometimes, the frighteningly original. Of course painters want to sell scads of their canvases, but the truest ones keep working regardless, and decades after the fact maybe their work will be truly seen.

John Bradford, “The Butchering of Agog” (1994)

Which brings us to the final painter in the show, John Bradford, who ignored the era’s landscape of neo-expressionism and the later conceptual undulations of the neo-geo movement in favor of intense religious visions. Bradford’s vibrant compositions exquisitely balance dramatic figures against large swathes of mottled background colors, imbuing his scenes with a down-to-earth grandeur. In 1994’s The Butchering of Agog, one man raises a wedged sledgehammer above a kneeling figure, the soon-to-be murderer’s robe a checkerboard of dark and light that heightens the eternal tension of the blow that never falls. This is a painting, so we have time to take in the victim’s upraised face, his eyes meeting those of his executioner. The King James Bible reads, “And Samuel said, ‘As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.” The biblical names don’t quite align over the millennia, but the impulse to violent revenge is understood in the darkest reaches of our viscera. It is no small feat to compel a viewer, through roughly brushed pigments, to contemplate just what it means for one human being to kill another, breaking through history’s numbing repetition of such acts. Bradford at times paints with a splashy abandon, but rather than expressionist bombast, his energetic brushwork seems a way to leaven the purity of the divine with the messiness of the real world. If I gotta go to church, these would be the paintings I want on the walls.

Overall, this is a powerful show — exuberant and rough, joyful and tragic, it leaves you with mixed emotions. A bit like getting a love tap from a falling two-by-four.

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‘Painting to Survive: 1985–1995’
Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition
481 Van Brunt Street, Door 7

bwac.org
Open to the public weekends from Sunday, March 18, through Saturday, April 14, 1­ to 6 p.m., and by appointment weekdays from March 13 to­ April 14 — to arrange an appointment contact 917-603-2154 or paintingtosurvive@gmail.com.

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Babbo in the Bardo: Life After Mario at a Village Landmark

Had I visited Babbo but a few months ago, I could have waxed poetic about how, as one enters the doors of the gracious former West Village stable house, through brocaded curtains into a hard-partying cathedral of culinary splendor, the light glows divine and the stereo blasts R.E.M. It would have been a paean to pasta, an encomium of agnolotti, a panegyric to panna cotta. Had the muse sung in me, as it sung in the New Yorker’s Bill Buford — Mario Batali’s Boswell, who more or less made the man with his book Heat! — more than a decade ago, I might have exalted Babbo and its flame-headed creator, a son of Dionysus and Seattle named Mario. Praise be unto the house built of flour and water.

It’s easy to see why Buford cast Batali as his Hemingway-ian hero. The man behind Babbo — incidentally the Tuscan word for papa — had rescued Italian food from both the red-sauce ghetto and the unambitious luxury of Il Mulino and its ilk on the other side of Washington Square Park. He had spread himself like ’nduja into the West Village with Otto and Lupa Osteria Romana and positioned himself as the profane savior of vera cucina italiana. He worked and lived and partied in the Village, zooming through the narrow streets — a big man in orange clogs on a tiny bike, half SNL send-up, half commedia dell’arte. Then came more restaurants like Bar Jamón and Casa Mono, La Sirena and Del Posto; even larger deals; television shows with Gwyneth Paltrow; television shows without Gwyneth Paltrow; a library of books; more restaurants; a piece of the Spotted Pig; Eataly, a massive Italian emporium; products from orange clogs to pasta sauces; and a production company, no joke, called Alta Via, the High Road. Mario Batali was too big to fail.

But that was then. In late December, after Eater revealed allegations of sexual harassment by the chef, Batali was banished from his own castle and Babbo entered the bardo, that cosmic Buddhist waiting room where sins and mitzvot are tallied. “Revelations,” ha! What soft-shoe self-exculpatory hogwash I find myself peddling. What was revealed wasn’t Batali’s behavior but our long-standing tolerance of it. Go back and reread Heat!, because if that isn’t a slavering apologia for a creep, written by a pie-eyed prig for the delectation of the inner men’s-rights activist that lurks in the hearts of all bourgeoisie, I don’t know what is!

In the fall, cast out too was Frank Langello, Babbo’s longtime lieutenant and chef at Babbo who, in an almost touching act of idolatry, imitated his boss’s inappropriate touching. Joe Bastianich, another partner at Babbo, has come in for censure for comments that can only be described as deplorable and, more damningly, for knowing lots and doing nothing to stay Batali’s lech. As it happens, Babbo was built on a lot more than flour and water. It was a boys’ club in which many women were viewed as little more than skirt steak, which, coincidentally, appears on the menu today, barbecued, with endives alla piastra — that is, grilled — and is, like everything I ate on a pair of recent visits to Babbo, delicious.

A portrait of the chef: Mario Batali in his NYC restaurant Otto

How do we solve a problem like Babbo? What to make of the $95 pasta tasting menu, still one of the best surveys of pasta’s promise in the city? Whither its tangle of jet-black tagliatelle tossed with crisp pancetta, and what of the sunny UES-via-Vicenza casunzei, half-moons of brightly colored ravioli stuffed with beets and topped with scallions and a peppy poppyseed sauce? Where does one cram or cache, how does one launder or withdraw the joy that comes from Babbo’s kitchen, now that the kitchen has been shown to be an ethical Superfund site? Into what secret moral pockets does one slip the floppy tricorner ravioli, stuffed with crushed squab liver and beef cheek, buried under a flurry of black truffle? Is even the straightforward pleasure of an appetizer of fresh marinated sardines drizzled with lobster oil, pinwheels of headless fillets arranged like a small fish mandala, tainted by the untoward actions of the hands of the man that made them?

With Batali gone and Langello axed, the new man in the kitchen is Rob Zwirz — a “very Zen guy,” according to the tie-wearing bartender — who came from Lupa Osteria Romana across the park. Zwirz has been well-trained. From a gustatory perspective, Babbo has lost none of its zing. Special mention must be made too of the work of Rebecca DeAngelis, Babbo’s pastry chef, who zhuzhes staid offerings like tiramisu in a perfect discus of cacao and espresso and tops a silky vanilla panna cotta with huckleberry compote. 

But I cannot speak of DeAngelis’s work without thinking of Isaac Franco Nava, a former pastry chef who was fired in 2017, hounded out by years of homophobic and racist harassment. Nava sued Batali et al. for discrimination, alleging, among other things, that DeAngelis, his supervisor, did nothing to stop it.

Perhaps because we — me! yes, me too — celebrated Batali’s prodigal persona as integral to his prodigal flavors, Babbo’s hidebound menu serves as a damning bill of indictment. Every squab liver crushed; every cow’s tongue charred or sweetbread dusted with fennel; every act of culinary bravado summons from the shadows its ballast, that inexcusable act which we chose not to see because, damn, the man knows from flavor.

Babbo in the West Village, New York.

On a recent Monday night, Babbo’s dining room was buzzing with people who either didn’t know or didn’t care that the chef de maison had been run out of town. In the most charitable reading of the situation, perhaps they had read that Batali had “stepped away” from his businesses and had assumed this put them in the clear. But to “step away” is as vague and ill-defined an act as sending thoughts and prayers. There is no legal or financial implication to “stepping away.” Mario Batali gently wafted away from his businesses, he hoochie coo’d, he saut de basqued. There are many ways to step. What he hasn’t done is divest. And what that means is that a non-negligible fraction of the monies one leaves on the white tablecloth at the end of the meal finds its way into Batali’s pocket. He is not here, but his dividends are. His sins squeeze through the tables. He is a hungry ghost.

Arguments can and have been made that avoiding Babbo — or, for that matter, John Besh’s restaurants or Ken Friedman’s or the enterprises of any of the other chefs, artists, businessmen, producers, showrunners, actors, singers, politicians, sculptors, photographers, editors, writers, illustrators, entrepreneurs that have been called out for harassment — just punishes those who have already been victimized: the employees. Surely not every member of the waitstaff or kitchen staff at Babbo is guilty. And despite glib claims otherwise, restaurant jobs don’t grow on trees. There would be real disruption to lives and families if everyone boycotted Babbo. Burn it all down and years of wisdom and genius become ash too.

But the question is: Who lit the match? Certainly not the patron who wishes to avoid supporting a predator. Batali built his foundations rotten, buried in Babbo a secret bomb, stank up the place with his moral flatulence. Our responsibility isn’t to provide sin absorption, by frequenting the place out of misguided noblesse oblige for his staff. Our responsibility is not to eat the fruit — or farfalle — of a poison tree. If Babbo fails, this is the inexorable ripening of karma, the late-onset mortalities of years of depravity. The blame, like the money, flows to Batali.

There is, however, a glimpse of how Babbo is reborn. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the kindest things one can do to a dead person is to tell them they have died. This allows them to enter more quickly into the bardo. It convinces them to unpry from this life the cold fingers of ambition, the grasping of ego in rigor mortis. I can see why Batali might dread that calculus. But his ghost haunts Babbo these chill nights, spoiling the extra-virgin olive oil and tainting the pasta. Someone should whisper in his ear that he has died. For it is time for him to go. And until he does, Babbo will remain lost in limbo.

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Celebrating a Year of Women in Music

“Stop talking about women’s involvement and creation of rock music as if it is brand new phenomena, or their appearance on Billboard rock charts as a new incursion and not one happening regularly in the 40ish years of Rock Chart history,” Jess Hopper, music critic and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, tweeted just two weeks ago in response to a Billboard article implying that women are just entering the scene.

As anyone with ears, a decent record collection, or a passing familiarity with Sister Rosetta Tharpe already knows, that’s a pretty silly notion, as old-fashioned and blinkered as the equally predictable cycle of “Rock Is Dead” headlines that surface every few years. While male-fronted rock has indeed undergone a bit of an identity crisis in the last few decades, women have continued to turn out brilliant, emotional, entertaining-as-hell rock — and pop and hip-hop and rap and jazz and folk and country and on and on. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It isn’t a trend. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating.

Looking back over some of the female musicians that the Village Voice has profiled over the last twelve months offers a pretty good snapshot of the current state of women in music. Among them are the indomitable Princess Nokia, the effervescent Maggie Rogers, the fragile Julien Baker, and the insanely brilliant SZA. They are all talented, wildly creative artists who’ve produced music we put on repeat and songs we can’t forget. Oh, and they happen to be women.

Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko

For Vagabon, Indie Rock Is About Creating a Voice and a Community

“Women of color exist in this scene. Just not many.”

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s New York Story

“The more I learned about Puerto Rican history, the more I was like, ‘Oh, I make total sense.’”

Princess Nokia

Princess Nokia Is Ready to Reign

“At the end of the day, I’m still a ‘hood bitch, no matter how punk I am.”

Maggie Rogers

Maggie Rogers: The Making of a 21st-Century Pop Heroine

“My entire life I have felt this incredible sense of predestination.”

Amber Coffman

Amber Coffman’s “City of No Reply” Is More Than a Dirty Projectors Breakup Album

“Since I had a good decade of working with other people, I had a long time to marinate on what I wanted to do.”

SZA

SZA Sizzles on Her Triumphant Debut, CTRL

“I just started getting into optimism yesterday. Anything is possible. I’m optimistic as fuck.”

Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield

Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield: “I Can’t Believe People Are Going to Hear This”

Indie rock’s sharpest self-scrutinizer has made her most personal album yet.

Japanese Breakfast

On New Album, Japanese Breakfast Is Floating in Space

“I don’t want any moment to go by where I’m not creating something, sharing something, or interacting with people.”

EMA, also known as Erika M. Anderson

How the New Weird Suburbs Inspired EMA‘s Noise Folk

“I like the idea of multiple realities layered on top of each other.”

Downtown Boys

For Downtown Boys, the Political Is Personal

“When people need to hear something about someone being brown and smart, they can find us.”

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and the Secret Life of Synths

“Whatever I’m frightened of or I’m bad at, I love stepping closer to that to see what’s there.”

Julien Baker

How Julien Baker Learned to Embrace the Ugliness of Existence

“I am me, and that is inescapable, so maybe I should stop trying to escape that and learn to embrace it.”

Tegan and Sara

How The Con Raised Tegan and Sara to Indie Pop Royalty

“I still identify strongly with the helplessness and grief I was suffering with at that time in my life.”

Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen Isn’t Trying to Make You Cry. Really

“I just want to write something that’s honest and that people can really feel.”

L’Rain

L’Rain Weaves an Aural Tapestry Out of New York’s Chorus of Sound

“When I’m around people and I get nervous or excited, I like to record our conversations.”

Melanie Charles

How Jazz Outlaw Melanie Charles Found Voodoo in Brooklyn

“It’s answers to questions that I didn’t even realize I had before I started going to these ceremonies.”

Lucy Dacus

On HistorianLucy Dacus Has Something to Say

“At the core, my message has pretty much been the same since I was, like, thirteen.”

Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison

As Soccer Mommy, Sophie Allison Sings Herself Clean
“It’s strong to admit, ‘Yes, I have issues. I’ve suffered too.’”

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Scotland’s Newest Export, ONR., Is Pop Music With a Purpose

For Robert Shields, something clicked in that old, beat-up, battered van. There was no iPhone hookup. The van only took CDs, which in the summer of 2016 felt like relics of another time, old-school, and Shields had only one of them. So, for the entire summer, as he drove to gigs around the United Kingdom, he listened to The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning album from 2010. He listened to it on repeat again, and again, and again. “A masterpiece,” he calls it now. “It was a real sort of wake-up, a key moment for me — listening to that album, it became really sort of obvious that this was going to become an important thing for my life, my next step.”

A couple of years later, rebranded as ONR., Shields is carving out a new lane in pop music that’s unapologetically emotional and personal. He grew up in the lowlands of Scotland — a place, he says, so small that people still point at helicopters — on a farm that his parents ran. In Glasgow and Dumfries, he’s been a staple in the local music scene for almost a decade. Shield’s previous band, Finding Albert, was a local sensation, but its songs tended toward the generally indie, with a moody Joy Division vibe that was much slower and much less personal than what he’s doing now. Now he’s something else. When Nate Albert, executive vice president of A&R for Capitol (who has worked with stars like the Weeknd and Florence and the Machine) saw Shields perform a year and a half ago, Albert was blown away. “I was in a band and toured for years. I’ve seen so many people perform over the years,” Albert says. “We flew [Shields] over from Scotland to play and it was just stunning. To have someone able to play at that caliber out of the blue was absolutely nuts.”

Since leaving high school almost a decade ago, Shields, 27, had been trying to grow up: to find the kind of artist he wanted to become. He wrote songs, and toured with various groups, but it was that summer of 2016, when everything was tense and sunny and changing, that Shields finally figured out what he wanted to do. “It’s as close to a road to Damascus kind of experience as you can get, I guess,” he says. “I started writing really honestly, writing only to please myself.” 

He named the new venture ONR., pronounced “honor,” but shortened to an acronym “like R.E.M,” he says. The name is intended to connote the dignity, the truth, he wants his music to hold. The Suburbs was, in Shields’s words, “only true to what [Arcade Fire] wanted to achieve from it.”

He gave up deliberation, gave up going into songwriting with a mission, gave up anything that wasn’t exactly what he wanted. “Ironically, that ends up being what people like the best,” he says. Specificity — in a world that feels so often like it is in upheaval, where so much conversation snuggles into grand propositions and universal truths — feels more relatable than ever. Maybe, even, more relevant.

“He’s going against what’s currently popular, and stepping out of this place where everything is cool and calculated, and creating something less interested in performance and more interested in emotion,” Albert says. “His songs definitely have political commentary, but it’s not heavy-handed.”

Pop music, made to be consumptive, to lift spirits, to bring joy, is often dismissed as irrelevant in a political landscape as divided as this one. Pop songs are supposed to provide escapism. They are supposed to give us license to let our hair down and have another drink and breathe for the first time all day, even when the world feels like it’s crumbling all around us.

ONR.’s third single, “AMERICAN GODS,” out last week, certainly doesn’t sound like a resistance anthem. When Shields talks about artists he admires, he always circles back to David Bowie, and the sonics of his music are much closer to that kind of bombastic theatricality than to a resistance band like the Clash. Shields’s work at times sounds like the Killers, like New Order, like U2. There’s more subtlety there, an arena-pop beat with a stealthy message. It’s pure pop, high BPM, a perfect dance number. “It’s like he synthesized all those records he grew up listening to into a performance,” Albert says.

“Empires fall/when we move the unmovable,” Shields sings on “AMERICAN GODS.” It’s a subtle, direct hit at revolution, at challenging the status quo. “AMERICAN GODS” sounds like the backdrop to an indie movie where the teenage protagonist dances in the living room, a red cup in hand, the night before everything changes. But behind that big American production and finessed British songwriting is something a little bit darker. It’s in that darkness that ONR.’s music sounds like it particularly belongs in 2018.

“I’ve been very conscious of trying to maintain a sort of relevance to the world around me without sounding preachy, or even overly considered,” Shields says. “I think writers should reflect the world around them. [The songs] don’t have to be about those topics, but they do have to be set against that background to be truly relevant.”

Shields refuses to explicitly state the politics of his songs. For example, he says that fans are always explaining the meaning of his single “Five Years Time” to him, saying it’s about the average length of time before a couple gets married, or the amount of time until the next U.K. election. In the two years since Shields began ONR., the world has certainly changed. Britain voted to leave the European Union. North Korea began testing nuclear missiles. The United States elected Donald Trump. What draws listeners to ONR.’s music is that, in particular in songs such as “AMERICAN GODS,” it sounds like a great day in an absolutely terrible year. Those days still exist, when the light is gold and the air is brisk, and we put our phones down for an afternoon, or an evening, but they are rare, and they are personal. We know on those too-warm winter afternoons that the world is not entirely good even if it is good for us in that instance: the personal more palpable than the universal.

“The stories that really hit home with people the most are personal stories about love and about loss set against backgrounds of political and cultural upheaval,” Shields says. “There are these huge political agendas across the world, and ever-changing landscapes, but it’s the small issues that really affect how you pay your rent, and how you’re going to make some kind of difference in the world.”

When ONR.’s first two songs, “5 Years Time” and “Jericho,” came out in the fall of 2017, reviewers branded them as political missives. But Shields is right, they aren’t. There’s something more subtle in their despair and joy, something more complicated than just a stance. He’s not an established voice yet. But with a mind and an ear for the nuance of our age, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on.

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Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier Pays Homage to Her Heroines and Heroes

One morning last June, Sylvie Courvoisier logged onto Facebook in her Brooklyn apartment and, like much of the jazz world, was profoundly saddened to learn that Geri Allen, the visionary pianist, composer, and educator, had passed away unexpectedly at age sixty.

Courvoisier, one of the most consequential pianists to emerge from the downtown free-jazz scene in the last few decades, had been a longtime admirer of the older musician ever since seeing Allen perform at the Jazz Festival Willisau, in Courvoisier’s native Switzerland, when she was sixteen.

Her father, Antoine, a travel agent by day and amateur boogie-woogie pianist on weekends, filled the Courvoisier home with music and taught Sylvie to appreciate swinging rhythms and melody, though he never encouraged a career in music, and certainly not in free jazz. Still, she went to the conservatory in Lausanne at eighteen, where she was raised. Courvoisier père never came around to his daughter’s kind of exploratory jazz entirely, but they remained close, and in April of last year she took him to see Geri Allen perform in Cully, just down the road from their hometown.

“She sounded amazing,” says Courvoisier. “And I talked to her a little after the gig. I had no clue she was sick. When Geri passed, I was so shocked. She changed my way of seeing the music and was also kind of a role model, being a woman, a pianist.”

Courvoisier had finished recording her latest album days before the somber news, and, as an homage, dedicated one of the nine tracks to Allen, naming it “D’Agala,” which she also titled the album, out January 19 on Intakt. The name comes from a Sicilian red wine, Terre d’Agala, and Courvoisier has always loved the name (and the wine, too). The song, a kind of abstract ballad, and the album, is vintage Courvoisier, a thoughtful admixture of earthy, supple writing and astringent improvisation, all of a certain New York terroir.

Sylvie Courvoisier

Courvoisier recorded the collection with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen, fellow veterans of the downtown scene who date back to the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street, and became mainstays at Tonic on the Lower East Side and the Stone on Avenue C, where Courvoisier plays a residency at the Stone February 6–11. The downtown scene was defined by a free-leaning eclecticism, descendant of the Loft era in the 1970s. It’s where the David S. Ware Quartet would play one night, John Zorn’s Masada the next. By 2000, Courvoisier was playing with Mephista, an improvisational trio with drummer Susie Ibarra and electronics master Ikue Mori. The music, and the sensibility, stood in opposition to the traditional revival going on at the time in the more staid jazz clubs and at Lincoln Center. Since then, those rigid walls have slowly crumbled.    

Wollesen, in the free jazz tradition (read: Henry Threadgill and Cooper-Moore), constructs homemade instruments, and two of his “Wollesonics,” as he calls them, are overdubbed on the plaintive title track, where he creates a slow, rhythmic squeaking sound.

“He sounds fantastic on this tune,” Courvoisier says. “He’s not swinging at all, but at the same time he’s really swinging a lot, because it’s this weird machine he constructed with a crank, and he’s cranking it. It’s nothing the way Geri plays, it’s just a thought for her.… I didn’t want to do something with an ostinato for Geri, I wanted to do something very poetic, and very simple with my right hand.”

Besides the piece for Allen, Courvoisier dedicates each of the other eight pieces to those she’s drawn inspiration from, like John Abercrombie, the jazz guitar giant, and Simone Veil, the French politician, women’s rights advocate, and Holocaust survivor, both of whom also died last year.

On the postmodern opener, “Imprint Double,” for her father, Courvoisier reimagines his favored shuffle style into something buoyant but avant-garde — her left hand thunderous, while her right tinkles — before returning to her off-kilter shuffle. It’s a stunning seven-minute tour de force. Ornette Coleman is remembered on “Éclats for Ornette,” where Courvoisier comes out swinging and then turns the piece into something freer, with a technique that recalls the signature flourishes of one the most original pianists of the last quarter of the twentieth century, Don Pullen. On “Bourgeois’s Spider,” for the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Courvoisier plays the inside of the piano with, she says, whatever happened to be within arm’s reach: a drumstick, tape, or her own fingers, plucking it pizzicato. What could’ve been a conceptual mess holds together beautifully, thanks in no small part to Wollesen and Gress, her triomates of four years.  

“They both listen to what you really want,” she says. “It worked from the beginning when I played with them. I think we’ve developed our own way of improvising, and we’ve begun to have the sound of a group. I’m really bad at talking” — she’s not, by the way — “and I think I don’t need to say one word with them. We understand each other.”

Sylvie Courvoisier

This year, Courvoisier will turn fifty, midcareer for sure, but one of the many qualities of jazz is that it doesn’t age-discriminate; musicians often get better, and proper due, as they get older. And she’ll be as busy as ever in 2018. She was at Winter Jazzfest last week, and besides her upcoming residency at the Stone, she’ll tour Europe in the spring. She’ll also be appearing on two new releases — one with Ken Vandermark, Nate Wooley, and Tom Rainey; another with Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock  — and will also record an album with the superb violinist Mark Feldman, her husband, whom she collaborates with frequently, as on their splendid 2013 album Live at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. “I think we share the same aesthetic,” she says. “He’s clear in his mind of what works and what doesn’t work.”

Feldman was a major reason Courvoisier moved to New York in 1998, and looking back, she says, she’s glad she made that move. “When I was young, I had all these ideas, but now I think I have the tools to do those ideas. I think in my piano playing, I feel that I can express what I want to say. And also, the writing is getting clearer. I’m happy I moved to New York because that obliged me to work with different musicians, and great musicians — always different styles. I grew up a lot living here.”

Sylvie Courvoisier will perform at the Stone from February 6 to 11.

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Five Shows to Catch at This Year’s Winter Jazz Fest

Now in its 14th year, the Winter Jazz Fest kicks off this week with over 130 acts across eight days and 12 venues, its biggest and most diverse lineup yet. There’s Blue Note recording artist José James debuting a new project inspired by Bill Withers, Ravi Coltrane paying homage to his mother Alice Coltrane with an evening inspired by devotional and spiritual music on Sunday the 14th, a soundclash between Deerhoof and trumpet great Wadada Leo Smith and four different performances from the Fest’s artist-in-resident, Chicago based composer, flutist and educator Nicole Mitchell, including a rare set of her critically lauded Mandorla Awakening II project. There’s also the Winter Jazzfest Talks  with figures including Archie Shepp, Angela Davis, Antonio Sanchez and Vijay Iyer speaking on jazz music and it’s ever evolving role in the sociopolitical discourse of our nation. For jazz fans, it’s almost too much to take in.

With that in mind, here are five showcases well worth venturing into the arctic snap of a particularly cruel New York City winter, especially if there’s some hot jazz waiting to help warm your frozen bones.

Gilles Peterson hosts British Jazz Showcase
January 10, Le Poisson Rogue

One of the most exciting scenes to have emerged from modern jazz is the one thriving in the United Kingdom. And what a way to kick off this year’s festival than with a showcase featuring  some of Britain’s most exciting young acts. Hosted by Gilles Peterson — the French-born, London-based DJ and label head, the lineup include tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and trumpeter/composer Yazz Ahmed, two of the leading women on the London jazz circuit, as well as South London singer/guitarist Oscar Jerome, whose sound has bern compared to both John Martyn and George Benson. Meanwhile, headliners The Comet Is Coming — a London-based trio comprised of saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, synth player Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett — close out the night with a mind-melting update on the Soft Machine.

Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die
Nublu, January 12

For the last few years, Long Island-born trumpeter Jaimie Branch has been defying expectations with every move she makes. After many years making waves in the Chicago underground jazz circuit, she’s back in New York, and last year released Fly Or Die, her long-overdue debut LP. Cobbling together influences from the worlds of hip-hop, the avant-garde, noise rock, classical and indie rock into one seamless skronk of freeform pulchritude, the album topped many year-end lists in 2017. Featuring cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian, Chad Taylor of the Chicago Underground on drums — as well as special guests Matt Schneider on guitar and the twin towers of jazz cornet, Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman — Fly Or Die re-established Branch as a vital force, which will be on display at Nublu as part of the Friday marathon.

Mark Guiliana Quartet
Le Poisson Rogue, January 13

Over the last few years, drummer Mark Guiliana has backed Dave Douglas and Donny McCaslin, and he was a key member of the elite team of jazz musicians who helped create Blackstar, David Bowie’s swansong from 2016. But last fall, he returned to captaining his own outstanding quartet with Jersey, a lyrical love letter to his Garden State roots. Featuring pianist Fabian Almazan, Jason Rigby on saxophone and bassist Chris Morrissey, the collection evokes Columbia Records-era Monk, and is highlighted by “Rate”—a solo tribute to the Mt. Rushmore of jazz drumming (Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones)—and a gorgeous reading of Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” off his penultimate LP The Next Day. The MGQ will be performing at Le Poisson Rouge as part of the jazz marathon on the 13th.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson
Bowery Ballroom, January 13

It’s early days, but 2018 is already looking to be a banner year for Topanga Canyon maestro Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, one of this country’s most talented composers. The man who transformed the beats of J. Dilla into sweeping symphonies has utilized a successful Indiegogo campaign to help fund the long awaited release of his first solo album, a double LP tentatively called Les Jardins Mystiques — featuring Bilal, Deantoni Parks, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Herbie Hancock, Karriem Riggins, Mia Doi Todd, Nai Palm (Hiatus Kaiyote) and Seu Jorge, to name a few — as well as a string quartet recording of film music with his Quartetto Fantastico. On Saturday, Atwood-Ferguson returns to NYC for the first time since last September as a member of Thundercat’s live band, bringing his ensemble to the Bowery Ballroom.

A Tribute To Geri Allen
Tishman Auditorium, January 15

https://youtu.be/INcuvX6oudA

When Geri Allen lost her battle with cancer at the age of 60 on June 27th, the renowned pianist was in the midst of late career renaissance as one third of an amazing trio with Esperanza Spalding on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. Under the musical direction of Ms. Carrington comes this special tribute to Allen, featuring Spalding and a remarkable lineup including Angela Davis, Craig Taborn, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Ingrid Jensen, Jack DeJohnette, Jaimeo Brown, Jeff Tain Watts, Kassa Overall, Kris Davis, Linda May Han Oh, Maurice Chestnut, Mino Cinelu, Ravi Coltrane, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tia Fuller and Vijay Iyer. All proceeds from Monday’s concert will go to the Geri Allen Estate.

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Deck the Halls With New York’s Greatest Christmas Movies

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in New York City — when the throngs of tourists crowding decked-out store windows threaten to devolve into a stampede at any moment, and the waffle cone filled with mysterious chicken chunks you bought at a holiday market that shall remain nameless brings on a DEFCON 1, 24-hour stomach crisis. (That second thing? Happened to me, last week. Be careful out there.) But from Dyker Lights to Radio City, there’s something extra magical about Christmas in the city, a phenomenon of which Hollywood has taken note. Here are seven of our very favorite New York–centric Christmas movies. Can’t you smell the chestnuts roasting on an open street cart already?

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Don’t be fooled by its title: This Warner Bros. classic is very New York. Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) leads a professional double life, writing a popular newspaper food column in the persona of a married mother living on a farm in Connecticut. In reality, she’s actually just a champion scammer. Our proto-lifestyle blogger heroine lives alone in her tiny Manhattan apartment and never cooks — instead, she orders in from the restaurant downstairs, whose proprietor ghost-writes Elizabeth’s recipes for her. Her publisher, unaware of Elizabeth’s true life circumstances, demands she host a war hero at her (nonexistent) family home for Christmas. Her sort-of boyfriend offers up his Connecticut farm and his hand in marriage to help with the ruse. They even borrow a neighbor’s baby. When the soldier arrives, though, he turns out to be unexpectedly hunky. It is crazy that there hasn’t been an Instagram-age remake of this movie.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
Ah, 1992! When anybody, even a small child, could just wander onto any old plane going anywhere and no one would say so much as a “bah humbug.” For a second consecutive year, Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) gets separated from his family when they leave on their Christmas vacation. This time, he ends up all by himself in New York City, in a swanky suite at the Plaza Hotel, no less. Let Home Alone 2’s tear-jerking mother-and-child reunion beside the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree serve as a heartwarming reminder of the meaning of the holiday. And let the rest of the movie serve as a chilling reminder that the creepy businessman who gave you directions in a hotel lobby could one day become the president of the United States.

Scrooged (1988)
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is the ultimate Manhattan Scrooge, a power-hungry TV network executive planning a sexy, action-packed, and altogether family-unfriendly live musical production of A Christmas Carol. Lo and behold, Frank gets the Charles Dickens treatment himself. The New York Dolls’ David Johansen is a delight as the Checker cab–driving Ghost of Christmas Past, but Carol Kane’s violent fairy version of the Ghost of Christmas Present is possibly the single most compelling reason to revisit this dark comedy.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Erotic thrillers sure are an underrepresented genre of Christmas movie. You might have forgotten amid all the nudity, but Stanley Kubrick’s final film very much takes place during the holiday season, which apparently has rendered everyone in the five boroughs both extremely horny and extremely terrifying. The warm Christmas lights and wreaths of Greenwich Village — the streets of which Kubrick meticulously re-created in a London film studio, having dispatched envoys across the Atlantic to measure their exact dimensions — serve as an unexpectedly chilling backdrop for the journey Bill (Tom Cruise) takes through Kubrick’s paranoid fever dream. By the end of Eyes Wide Shut, the bright colors and oversize teddy bears of the packed FAO Schwarz–like toy store where Bill and Alice (Nicole Kidman) take their daughter shopping somehow seem just as obscene as the movie’s infamous orgy.

Serendipity (2001)
Just as much a Christmas movie as it is a rom-com, Serendipity begins just five days before the holiday, when Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) meet cute over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at a jammed-to-capacity Bloomingdale’s. The one romantic night they share is a solid itinerary for anyone visiting New York City in December: ice skating in Central Park, joyriding the elevators in the Waldorf Astoria, and frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity 3. That said, it’s worth noting that the main characters in Serendipity did not have to wait in line at Serendipity, given that in their universe the movie Serendipity had not yet come out. Rude.

Elf (2003)
What Miracle on 34th Street did for Santa, Elf does for the big guy’s little helpers. Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human raised as an elf, travels from the North Pole to New York City to track down his long-lost biological dad, Sonny Corleone (James Caan). Buddy finds himself a fish out of water at the department store Santa Land where he accidentally lands a job, but he saves Christmas when the real Santa’s sleigh crashes in Central Park. Come for Buddy perilously squeezing his way through Lincoln Tunnel traffic on foot; stay for Buddy losing his mind with excitement over the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” sign on a nondescript diner.

The Night Before (2015)
For more than a decade, Isaac, Ethan, and Chris (Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie) have gotten together every Christmas Eve to drink enough booze to turn the rest of the reindeers’ noses red. But now that the men have grown older and drifted apart, they have just one last chance to track down the fabled, invitation-only Nutcracker Ball, a mega-party that turns out to be accessed via the freezer in the back of an unassuming bodega. This all-of-the-drugs-fueled riff on A Christmas Carol takes the best friends from the holiday glitz of Fifth Avenue to the dive bars of Alphabet City, with stops in between to perform Kanye West’s “Runaway” on the FAO Schwarz keyboard and to puke in the middle of midnight mass at St. Bartholomew’s.

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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.”

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The Year in Overlooked Art

In 2017, more than most years, art supplied solace and refuge. The exhibition that healed my soul was “Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals,” the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective, last winter, of the late painter, sculptor, and land artist. Buchanan’s slow, stubborn, quiet involvement through her art with the American — specifically Southeastern — landscape and its histories helped settle my agitation in the wake of the presidential election, and strengthen me for whatever came next.

The exhibition that taught me the most was “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” also at the Brooklyn Museum, an illuminating and necessary survey that warranted multiple visits. And the show that dropped my jaw to the floor, for sheer mastery and emotional depth, was “Nkame,” the retrospective of the Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, at El Museo del Barrio.

Great art opens horizons, develops alternative histories, presents ideas for the new world. I visited dozens of shows, and wrote about many. Below are ten more that time and space constraints did not allow me to cover. I wanted to note them before the calendar turns to 2018.

M. Pravat, “From Today I Have No Future”
The Delhi-based Pravat had his first U.S. solo show this year, and it was a small revelation. His mixed-media works on paper often start with architectural plans, of real or imagined structures and sites. He adds color, collaged photos and images, and sometimes textural breaks, such as punctures and rips in the paper. It’s a distinct visual language, technical and lyrical, that renders the built environment as emotional geography.
(Aicon Gallery, January 20–February 18)

M. Pravat
Untitled (3)
2016
Mixed media on paper
8 x 12 in.

“High John the Conqueror Ain’t Got Nothing on Me: American Hoodoo and Southern Black American-Centric Spiritual Ways”
Hoodoo — the work of seers, healers, root doctors — is both country wisdom and a Black survival practice going back to slavery days. Here, thirteen artists added to this living tradition in works suffused with mystical information, such as Nyugen Smith’s suspended purses adorned as “Spirit Carriers,” Allison Janae Hamilton’s horse-mane staffs, and the beaded and feathered wands by Deborah Singletary.
(Rush Arts Gallery, January 21–March 18)

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, “Figures, Grounds and Studies”
Sepuya, based in Los Angeles, has a striking style of deconstructed portraiture: He uses curtains, mirrors, and other props to scramble the studio space, and assembles composite images, rich with photos-within-photos, in which his own body and tools are often seen. Sepuya photographs handsome gay men, often undressed, but we see them in fragmented, elusive ways that complicate both their role and ours.
(Yancey Richardson Gallery, February 2–March 18)

“Architecture of Independence — African Modernism”
Architecture shows demand work from the viewer, reliant as they are on models, photos, and documents; this show rewarded the effort with a fascinating study of five African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia. In the 1960s and 1970s, banks, ministries, universities were sites of architecture experimentation. Some of these modernist edifices aged poorly or got engulfed in sprawl; others are enduring landmarks.
(Center for Architecture, February 16–May 27)

La Pyramide, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), von/by Rinaldo
Olivieri, 1973,

Valerie Maynard, “Artist in Print”
An undersung elder whose work in multiple media stretches from the Black Arts era to today, Maynard, who was born in Harlem in 1937 and remains active, now in Baltimore, has influenced several generations of Black creators. This show in a community space tucked at the foot of Sugar Hill focused on her printmaking practice, with black-and-white works made over several decades, by turns abstract, informed by African iconography, or expressing civil rights and anti-apartheid politics.
(LeRoy Neiman Art Center, March 10–April 15)

Postcommodity, “Coyotaje”
This year’s Whitney Biennial offered an introduction to Postcommodity via their room-scale video speeding along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. The collective of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, who live in the American Southwest, also had this small, effective show at DUMBO’s Art in General, mixing photography, sound installation, and an eerie chupacabra sculpture, glowing green in a dark space as if seen through night-vision goggles — part of their ongoing exploration of the border and its pathologies.
(Art in General, March 25–June 3)

Postcommodity Coyotaje

Sanford Biggers, “Selah”
While Kara Walker’s raw, brash, difficult new exhibition drew — with good reason — great attention this fall, her contemporary Sanford Biggers offered new work in sculpture, installation, and compositions of painted fabric rooted in the quilting tradition. The materials and motifs made this seem a softer, more sedate show than Walker’s, but one of Biggers’s methods — shooting bullets into sculptures inspired by African statuary — was just as devastating if not more so, particularly in a harrowing video installation.
(Marianne Boesky Gallery, September 7–October 21)

Meriem Bennani, “Siham & Hafida”
Hafida is an older, conservative woman, unable to read and write but steeped in Aita, a Moroccan song and dance tradition; Siham is a young, modern performer, who wants to shake up the genre and takes lots of selfies. Bennani’s thirty-minute film, presented in immersive fashion on multiple screens and projected onto objects in the Kitchen’s upstairs gallery, delved into their world, mixing documentary and animation sequences. The two women’s tension — polite but real — resolves into tenderness in a stirring, unscripted unfolding.
(The Kitchen, September 13–October 21)

Dominique Duroseau, “Black Things in White Spaces”
Garbage bags, a hand truck, a broom, mannequins, and other objects are raw material for sculpture by Duroseau. The Chicago-raised, Newark-based artist’s show appeared gloomy at first, with its evocations of racial trauma, violence, and death. Seen closer, it contained a wry but bracing humor, with its limited-edition “legacy jars” said to contain unguents and spells, and the stack of giveaway cards printed with messages like “Shut da fuck up!” to hand out when responding to microaggressions becomes too tedious.
(Gallery Aferro, Newark, September 23–October 28)

The Cleaner. 2017

Jill Freedman, “Resurrection City, 1968”
Weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the Poor People’s Campaign he launched came to Washington, D.C., where 3,000 people set up in wooden shanties on the National Mall. Freedman joined them, and photographed life in “Resurrection City” until its demolition by police in late June 1968. Her black-and-white images eschew heroism or pity; they are simply present, and deeply humane. They remain on view through next week.
(Steven Kasher Gallery, October 26–December 22)

Jill Freedman
Resurrection City, Poor Peoples Campaign, Washington, D.C., 1968
Vintage gelatin silver print, printed ca. 1968
11h x 14w in

 

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Datebook

Today: The Coen Brothers Take MoMA

“Modern Matinees: The Coen Brothers,” a new retrospective of the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen, kicks off today at the Museum of Modern Art and runs through December 29. In January 2016, Lara Zarum wrote about the Coens’ movies for the Voice on the occasion of a Film Forum series spotlighting the brothers’ work.

For more information on this and other events, openings, and happenings, visit our Datebook section.