James Kerry Marshall, Black on Black

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of black people simply being human stand out in an art-industrial complex where subjects, artists, purveyors, and consumers are pretty much white folk. In his series of five large grisaille paintings, he imagines a young man lifting his girl through the air in graceful arcs. The lovers are seen from different angles, and viewing the panels in quick succession conveys a swirling, physical joy. This romantic vision is complicated by such kitsch as floating hearts, Black Power fists, and rococo cascades of flowers entwining the word “LOVE.” Marshall masterfully leavens old-school pictorial space with poster-shop sentiment, demanding classical vigor from his compositions while also embracing Everyman tastes. In a beach scene, he transcends purposeful cliché with Albers-esque color sophistication—a cuddling couple basks in an orange sunset, the dusky subtleties of their bodies echoed in the rich contrast of yellow sun flares engulfing a shadowy seagull. A series depicting black artists hefting palettes the size of grand-piano lids plays with an art-historical trope—self-portrait with the tools of the trade. A reminder that the canon has largely turned a blind eye to the black creator, each artist is posed before the ghostly grids you see on studio walls, where drawings and paintings of different sizes have been worked on and then removed. There’s defiance inherent in this poignant absence: Here I am, the subjects seem to say— I won’t disappear even if my work is unseen.

Erica Svec

These intense paintings slalom between hallucinogenic visions and Jasper Johns–ian formality. Break Thru (2008) features a flat, pale-peach human silhouette, its huge, fleshy fist tattooed with a target; trompe l’oeil Polaroids have been painted to the left of this image, creating a grid of vaguely organic shapes. The swaying tassels and enigmatic diamond shapes in Untitled are painted with vivid contrasts, everything geared to a circular motif centering on a rainbow-colored sprocket. With its obscuring vaporous clouds and peppy patterns, Svec-world offers nightmarish flights of fancy anchored by corporeal frisson. Larissa Goldston, 530 W 25th, 212-206-7887. Through June 21.

Robert Polidori: ‘Versailles Etats Transitoires’

Using an 8 x 10 view camera, Polidori captures astonishing details of both the interior and the artistic contents of the ancien régime’s opulent palace at Versailles. An oval portrait of Marie Antoinette, alabaster cheeks rouged like a kewpie doll’s, hangs atop elaborate white molding; grimy handprints mar a concealed door cut into the ornamental trim. Another shot crops a canvas depicting Louis XIV, refashioning his sumptuously flowing robe into rich abstraction; Polidori’s composition contrasts the painting’s saturated colors against tacky burgundy wallpaper and faux marble edging. The prints are all five to six feet high, and one focuses on a modern surveillance camera bluntly mounted to frou-frou cherub decorations. Other shots capture chipped plaster, peeling paint, and a janitor’s floor buffer, documenting royal excess transmogrified into scruffy national theme park. Edwynn Houk, 745 Fifth Ave, 212-750-7070. Through June 14.

Jake & Dinos Chapman

Like Fred and Ginger, sex and death are perennial partners. Here, the Chapman brothers dismember the body and force the parts—brains and genitalia, mostly—into a danse macabre with maggots, rubber chickens, and surgical gloves inflated like distended udders. Arranged on tabletops along with hammers, saws, and drive chains poised to slash, pulverize, and flay the flesh, these gelatinous concoctions are actually fabricated from bronze. Painted in candy colors, the brothers’ “Little Death Machines” feel like the workbenches of psycho-killer clowns. L&M Arts, 45 E 78th, 212-861-0020. Through June 14.

‘Amerika: Back to the Future’

Keynoted to Rammstein’s rollicking music video “Amerika,” in which the Teutonic industrialists roll their R’s while bouncing about in Apollo spacesuits, this group show imagines various and sundry apocalypses by way of South Park. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy present two spinning dioramas of strip malls, the first depopulated and overrun by globally warmed vegetation, another scorched and swarming with zombies; Old Navy and Home Depot signs have been cannibalized into a billboard pleading “HELP US.” One Anthony Goicolea photo features burned-out buildings fronted by battered 55-gallon drums, while another envisions grain elevators swamped by ice floes. In the rear gallery, sculptor David Herbert offers Star Trek’s Enterprise propped up by a wooden framework—the spaceship is covered with Paleolithic markings and riddled with sheltering caves. It’s the same old story: Imperial plans crash and burn, becoming the mythos of the next empire. Postmasters, 459 W 19th, 212-727-3323. Through July 12.


Lost and Found

In 1991, Marc Quinn cast a self-portrait head in his own frozen blood—eight pints of it—a move that was nearly as sensational as and somewhat more profound than fellow YBA Damien Hirst’s preserved shark and cross-sectioned cow. “It was an idea frozen into its own life support system,” he told Neville Wakefield in a recent interview. Among

Quinn’s subsequent works—having to do with inside and out, interior state and external appearance—were cast latex sculptures of his own body that were like flayed skins, and a garden of real flowers frozen in silicon. Nothing was quite as iconic or startling as Self, until now.

“The Complete Marbles” is a classical installation of staggering perfection. At first sight, it looks exactly like a hall of sublime white marble antiquities: 10 heroic, idealized nudes, male and female, standing or seated in classical poses on plinths. Roman copies of Greek statues, perhaps, or neoclassical Canovas. Conjuring an anachronism that reaches back to the mythic Greco-Roman core of Western civilization, Quinn’s throwback to the hallowed halls of the British Museum leaves our own weird new forms of radical conservatism in the dust. But something, you suddenly realize, has gone terribly wrong.

Take a closer look at the embracing couple at the entrance. Titled Kiss, the piece harks back to Rodin and the romantic Beaux Arts sculptors. It invokes all the obsolete clichés of beauty, perfection, and idealization. Marvel at its outmoded skill, until cruel reality sinks in. The male figure has stunted thalidomide arms. The female’s arm is normal but she has only one. Take a good look at the others too. Their truncated and missing parts aren’t due to the vicissitudes of time but are the result of accident, genetic defect, or iatrogenic calamity. Quinn exploits the romance of classical antiquity—which depends on the mutilations of time and the notion of loss—to confront us with our own avoidance of the horrific fragility of the human condition.

“If the Venus de Milo had arms, it would most probably be a very boring statue,” says the artist, who—shortly before he began this series—wondered why we gaze raptly at ancient statues with missing limbs but avert our eyes from real people in the same state. Instead of the perfection of incomplete statues, he heroicizes incomplete bodies—specific ones. These are portraits of actual people with missing, amputated, or deformed limbs, survivors of car crashes, motorcycle accidents, birth defects, or in the case of Selma Mustajbasic, a café bombing in Sarajevo. Three are athletes: Stuart Penn is a kickboxer; Jamie Gillespie, who lost one leg, is a runner. Peter Hull, born without arms or legs, won a gold medal for swimming in the Paralympics. The titles are simply their names.

“The Complete Marbles” is the toughest, most problematic show around. The peripheral issues that attach to these works are problematic too. One can’t help but think of our government’s image embargo on the coffins of dead soldiers arriving from Iraq, and of whether the same denial will greet the wounded soldiers when they emerge from rehabilitation hospitals. Quinn himself has remarked that New York since 9-11 is a city with a phantom limb. But one can’t turn these portraits of actual people into metaphors—whether for the traumas of our historical moment or our obsession with extreme makeovers, or for Britain’s culture of bodily unease, from the tortured, fleshy lumps of Francis Bacon and the scrofulous skin of Lucien Freud to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s hacked, Goya-esque figures.

It’s even problematic to note that Quinn isn’t the only one reverting to cold classicism. A couple of months ago, Danish artist Christian Lemmerz showed classically inspired white Carrara marble statuary at DCA with an equally wry title: “Dopo la Storia.” More violently mutilated than Quinn’s, Lemmerz’s figures—including a decapitated Adonis giving himself head with his own head, which had Michael Jackson’s features—were dismembered, eviscerated, overtly metaphorical, and defiantly undead.

Who did it first? Is it influence or coincidence? And does it really matter? No. The oeuvre of each artist leads with internal logic to the current work. If the form and material bear an uncanny similarity, their content and intent are quite opposite. Lemmerz, who once studied carving in Carrara, began his statues in 1997 or ’98. The first marble by Quinn, who starts with body casts, appeared a year later. But though they may well share artisans at the quarry in Carrara, Quinn tells me he never heard of Lemmerz. I believe him. He then comments on his own works with a remarkable lack of irony: “Even if they refer to the sculpture of the past, they seem to me to be about the future, which is about difference and diversity. They’re celebrations of difference and of the triumph of the human spirit. Heroes are people who conquer themselves and go on to lead full lives. We’re living in turbulent times. And we’re much more resilient and adaptable than we think.”


Agent Provocateur

Eleven years ago, back when Andrea Rosen was on Prince Street, John Currin had his first gallery show. “Paintings of old women at the end of the cycle of sexual potential,” was how he described his own work in the press release, “between the object of desire and the object of loathing.” My tiny text for this paper’s art listings quoted him. “Apart from that,” I added, “they’re awful paintings. Boycott this show.” Those last three words have stalked me ever since. Quoted and requoted and paraphrased without the context of his quote whenever anyone has written about Currin’s work, they’ve grown less flippant and more strident as the quaint concept of political correctness recedes to oblivion.

I was wrong, of course. It’s not that his words weren’t provocative. “I meant it to sound mean. And I meant it to sound harsh,” he tells me on the phone. “I was pretty depressed in those days. I know it sounds like a lame excuse, but in terms of the loathing, I was loathing myself.” And it’s not that his pallid portraits of scrawny, post-menopausal women weren’t awful. But Currin’s subsequent oeuvre reveals an artist whose work is something other than merely misogynistic, sexist, and ageist. He doesn’t just cast a cruel eye on women of a certain age, but has proved to be an equal-opportunity employer of the mocking image. The starry-eyed ingenues, mega-boobed bimbos, insipid invalids, “badly put together parodies of men” (the artist’s words), cloying couples, society matrons, and full-bellied old-masterly nudes that inhabit his subsequent paintings fare no better than his early curdled crones. Young or old, male or female—”grotesquely ripe for plucking or grotesquely over the hill” as Robert Rosenblum gracefully puts it in the catalog text—they’re equally preposterous.

On the Whitney’s walls, Currin’s work proceeds to skewer not only clichés of women and parodies of men—mock-idyllic Lolitas, pathetic lotharios—but art itself: high, low, good, bad, and ersatz. Masterpieces by dead white males fare no better than the vulgar pictures favored by live ones. Everything goes quite deliberately wrong. What’s going on within the awkward image, behind the virtuosic technique, beneath the jaded surface? Even the canvas is too rough or too smooth. Currin plays bait and switch, thwarting expectations. He’s a master of the erudite, elegant, perplexing curveball. “Just a way,” he told Rosenblum, of “making an image that’s intimidating.”

Once you get over the perversity of his anachronistic skills, frozen smiles, and contorted poses, you have to marvel at the way the works ricochet off an ecumenical array of ancestors, progenitors, and peers. Dürer, Mantegna, Pontormo, Otto Dix, and a host of others make cameo appearances, as does a kneeling figure from Courbet’s Stone Breakers, Wyeth’s crippled Christina, and a bad-joke doctor worthy of Richard Prince. It may be pure coincidence, but Michael Jackson and Valie Export (who in an early performance presented her bare breasts to be touched) both popped into my mind in front of The Wizard, with its image of a groping, black-gloved sicko. Then Currin falls in love. The angelic frolicking Eves (Cranach plus Botticelli in Hallmark heaven) he painted in 1999, after marrying artist Rachel Feinstein and honeymooning in Italy, offer sublime respite. But even so, you may catch a subliminal whiff of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s macabre sculpture of hacked bodies and truncated tree limbs, based on a Goya etching, in his ecstatic painting The Pink Tree.

Besides the mannered deformations and anatomical deformities of his images, there’s also the unmentionable issue of class. Let’s not forget Hogarth and Daumier and David Levine. While everyone ponders Currin’s contrarian revival of genre painting, his work also taps into a lost tradition of social caricature. His genre scenes, which keep growing more socially adept, are not without allusions to social status and class. Thanksgiving, his most recent painting, is a timely tour de force. The whole elaborate composition is on the verge of being sucked into the gaping oval hole of the central woman’s mouth. A woman at the left attempts to spoon-feed her with an empty spoon, while on the right, a third vacant woman contemplates another black hole: the cavity of the unpalatable raw turkey that upstages the women. We’ve come a long way from Norman Rockwell, yet he and Currin share a peculiarly American social vision. It’s a disconcerting parable and parody of consumption, lack of fulfillment, and insatiability.

Partaking of the great American craving for the uncanny, the grotesquely violent, the hideously vulgar, and the sickly sweet, Currin’s art draws on our culture’s repressed hysteria, free-floating rage, and collective taste for the obnoxious. In this season of the grotesque, his vision has begun to seem remarkably prescient. His work parallels the radical conservatism that has a grip on our government, if not our national psyche. You’ve got to admire Currin’s courageous stance. Along with Lisa Yuskavage, his classmate at Yale, he went against all the sacred cows of minimalist, conceptualist, post-structuralist theory and taste. He created a confrontation with everything that inspires the art world’s fear and loathing. He may well be our premier mannerist. He’s certainly the most profound observer of the follies, foibles, and deformations of our shallow times.


Man and Ape

This image isn’t of an artwork from “Sensation,” the “controversial” Brooklyn Museum show, although it could be. The stooped and hairy mannequins, with their ridged brows and full-body five o’clock shadow, might easily be by, say, Jake and Dinos Chapman or some other “firebrand” artist with an equally “seditious” or sacrilegious agenda. You certainly wouldn’t put them past Damien Hirst.

In truth, they’re not art at all, but didactic tools from a diorama at the Museum of Natural History’s permanent exhibit on human evolution. A text accompanying this fuzzy duo instructs museumgoers that “our place in the great tree of life is seen in the structure of our bodies. We share some of our biological characteristics with all living organisms, while others are shared with increasingly narrow groups: for example, with all animals, vertebrate animals, mammals, or just with other primates like monkeys or apes.” These two represent the evolutionary bridge between apes and man. They do, that is, if your belief system permits you to concede that such a bridge exists. “Humans,” according to scientists at the museum, “are an integral part of nature. We belong to the great branching system of living things which has arisen from an ancestry that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago.”

But not everybody sees things that way, as we know.
Interpreting Genesis literally, evangelical Christians refute evolutionary theory. Adam was made in God’s image, they claim, and Eve from Adam’s rib. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Since evolution can’t be replicated in a laboratory, there is no evidence that it actually occurred.

This kind of religious crackpotism would seem harmless enough were it not for the fact that the Kansas Board of Education this year chose to concur with the creationists by voting to eliminate anything that smacks of evolutionary theory from public schools. Kansas wasn’t alone. School boards in New Mexico, Nebraska, and Alabama (where science textbooks now disclaim evolution as an unproven theory) have all made attempts in recent years to challenge the preeminence of evolution in scientific curricula. Texas, Ohio, Washington, New Hampshire, and Tennessee also considered, and ultimately defeated, similar bills, including some that would have required those who teach evolution to present evidence contradicting it. This a decade after the Supreme Court said that states could not compel the teaching of creationism in classrooms.

In a recent Colorado poll, 31 percent of respondents claimed to believe that God created man in his present form “all at once in the last 10,000 years.” Only 15 percent supported the view that mankind developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and that God had no part in the process.

What has all this got do do with “Sensation”? Well, of the Museum of Natural History’s $111 million annual operating budget, $9.6 million comes from the city. Everyone knows that Rudy Giuliani was playing to the upstate vote when he condemned a harmless picture by Chris Ofili as an example of “Catholic bashing,” and threatened to evict the museum and withhold its city funds for nebulous violations of its charter. Catholics are the largest voting bloc in New York. But what if creationists held the power here? It’s not hard to imagine Giuliani directing his cynical theatrics elsewhere, and targeting institutions as it suited his agenda. Plenty of people in this country would find the idea of passing some hairy humanoids off as our ancestors a “vicious attack on religion,” as Giuliani termed “Sensation.” The question is, What kind of sensation will he target next?