The second of the posts about stuff that turned me on and left me breathless this year. Every year I get a little more into visual art, with the ravenous hunger of someone trying to catch up because he wasn’t on it enough in his teens (like music or theater). I’m still a total dilettante, and these are always through untrained eyes but I’m hoping they get trained a little more every year. I saw some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen this year, all over. I felt bad I didn’t make it to any new cities – or back to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, etc – but I saw plenty of stuff that sparked me emotionally or got me writing or even made me want to be a better person.
As with the other three, unless stated otherwise it was seen in Columbus, Ohio.
1. Glenn Ligon, America (Whitney Museum; NYC) –I remember pretty clearly the first time I saw Ligon’s work (depressingly recently) at the Wexner Center here in Columbus and how stunned I was. His work still stuns me, both what I’ve seen before and what’s new to me, the potency of the narrative and the politics suffusing the aesthetic but never losing sight of the purely aesthetic pleasures. No narrative, no history, no theory is left unquestioned in Ligon’s work and the drugs all come to you through needles in your eyes.
2. Willem de Kooning, de Kooning: A Retrospective (Museum of Modern Art; NYC) – I was already a de Kooning fan but this retrospective was perfect. This is a textbook case of how to do a blockbuster exhibition that’s earned its bonafides and even has things around some corners for the true fans/geeks to surprise and awe. For me, this was more about the pastels and sketches and the final room of his late Alzheimer's paintings, all sharper lines and eye-scorching color, but if you didn’t know anything this would show you all you need to know and if you know everything this would be gorging yourself on your favorite chocolates.
3. Josephine Halvorson, What Looks Back (Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Gallery; NYC) – The most stunning new set of paintings I’ve seen in a long time, the kind of work that makes your hair stand up. Generally inert objects: a door starting to rot, a set of channel locks, masonry coming apart, in one of the most arresting moments a splayed rib cage, all in uncomfortable/disorienting closeup. They’re painted very realistically, except for inhuman perspectives, and tiny expressionistic touches – a hole that’s one blob of color – that add to the overall mystique. The color palette is muted and warm but also a little drab, shutting down the sensual eroticism as it starts to rise up. Like a Raymond Carver poem or a Gary Braunbeck short story, the straightforwardness belies other metaphors, the whiff of mortality gets overpowering at times, but even things starting to go still hum with life.
4. Nathalie Djurberg, Human Behavior (Wexner Center for the Arts) – The blockbuster of the Wexner Center’s spring exhibitions was the very fine Louise Bourgeois/Hans Bellmer exhibit but the Djurberg was what I kept going back to and kept stunning me. Her videos – with music by Hans Berg – got chuckles for their vintage claymation format, “the darkest Davey and Goliath episode ever” and it uses that childlike sense to drop the hammer. Sexual abuse, racial violence, the grinding under the wheels of avarice keep pounding at you but there’s such a strong understanding of psychology and the nuance of the medium that it never gets didactic. The audience is engaged while they’re repulsed.
5. David Wojnarowicz, Spirituality 1974-1990 (PPOW Gallery, NYC) – On a slightly smaller, more focused scale than the De Kooning, this was a blistering retrospective with a knife in the eye at every corner. This is a scalpel into the dark, crusted-over cynicism in the heart of belief. Bursting with arresting images – ants climbing over classical art, a crucifix, a gun, a conquistador; the iconic “Silence = Death” with the lips sewn shut; collages with homeless children and headlines and babies and luchadores – that led to the hope inside of all defiance and the defiance inside of all hope. I walked out of this practically in tears.
6. Alexis Rockman, A Fable for Tomorrow (Wexner Center for the Arts) – An environmental cri de coeur, full of acrylic paintings of nature gone wrong. Genetically altered animals ready for slaughter, actual trash between the painting and the surface, but kept from being an airbrushed van or a Heavy Metal cover with the intellectual rigor and deep reality under everything. There’s a playfulness that underscores the horror and a rigorous classicism in the compositions. Every time I saw these there was always more to see.
7. Various Artists, The Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven (Canzani Center at Columbus College of Art and Design) – James Voorhies blew me away with his curation of this group exhibit at the local private art school. The Love and Rockets-based title was a feint, attaching the show to a more obvious nostalgia and lulling you into false comfort before the more rigorous look at the detritus of post-modernism. Highlights included: Mark Leckey’s and Alejandro Vidal’s homoerotic, hypnotic videos, Lara Kohl’s stunning ice sculpture of a remembered fairy tale inside an unadorned old freezer, Mary Lum’s photograph and painting hybrids that re-energized things that might go unseen or unnoticed.
8. Various Artists, Nulla Dies Sine Linea (Instituto Cervantes; Chicago) – A fantastic look at contemporary Spanish drawing. Breathtaking comic strips, Santiago Talavera’s empty but overstuffed with endorsements golf island. Sure, with the 23 artists represented there was going to be some chaff but what was good left me chattering like an idiot and there was a massive bounty of riches here.
9. Frances Stark, My Best Thing (PS1; NYC) – An episodic video of Stark’s online sex chat transcripts “acted” out by what looked like digital Playmobil figures in their underwear with subtitles and read by a text reader. I didn’t expect much either, but this piece was entrancing. Suddenly three chapters later I look around and not only am I still there, four people who were in when I came into the gallery are still there too. A look at what we talk about when we’re trying to get laid and how much deeper that intimacy leads us into everything else we talk about. This was a perfect refocusing after the interesting-but-flawed September 11 exhibit upstairs and a work that gave me a lot to chew on for the trip back to Manhattan.
10. Mark Grotjahn, Three to Five Faces (Shane Campbell Gallery; Chicago) – Grotjahn’s rhythmic, tribal abstractions, layers of paint like stalagmites forming on cave walls was exactly what I wanted to see on a sunny Chicago afternoon right off the Blue line. The kind of ego-obliterating, meditative show I love and don’t see that often.
11. Frank Stella, Irregular Polygons (Toledo Museum of Art; Toledo) – A. was right. She damn near always is. The Toledo Museum took my breath away on a weekend visiting the spots where my better half grew up. And while the main collection was awesome, and the Botero exhibit was a hoot, this reassembling of these Frank Stella canvases blew my hair back and gave me a new appreciation for Stella overall. Bright colors in shapes that created the impression of three dimensions in a way I’d never seen before.
12. Richard Serra, Junction/Cycle (Gagosian Gallery; NYC) – A labyrinth of rusting metal almost reddish-brown, twice as tall as any person and curving in and back so the hallways it created suddenly narrowed. The sculpture puts you back inside your body and suddenly you’re more aware of your own mumbling through the echoes, and every step needs planned out, navigated. It almost begs to be experienced with a stillness but the closeness compels you to move on. I had dinner with one of my dearest friends on that trip and this was the one thing we were both tripping over ourselves to tell the other about.
13. Laurel Nakadate, Only the Lonely (PS1; NYC) – This piece threw me for a loop – 365 “snapshots” of the artist crying, in different circumstances, with different backdrops. It was almost daring the viewer to come up with a story, a unifying narrative for what made her cry every day. And then the other component consisted of videos where Nakadate got college girls to strip while saying in an even voice, “You’re so beautiful. You know, you’re the prettiest one.” Throwing a wrench in assumptions and inherited gender roles even if intellectually you’ve already discarded most of them. Thought provoking and deeply visceral.
14. Tara Donovan, Drawings (Pins)/Untitled (Mylar) (Pace Gallery; NYC) – These two Tara Donovan pieces spread over two branches of the Pace Gallery made my mouth dry and left me stammering. Untitled was Mylar folded into overlapping orbs with the folds visible inside like cauliflower turned inside out. The orbs are asymmetrically lined up so it’s an enormous mass, looking like it’s tumbling over itself or growing like mold, but the way the folds are used – and the combination of skylight and artificial light at Pace – gives the impression that she sculpted with the light, the Mylar’s just there to trap it. It looked like the birth of the universe. Drawings was pins of different sizes and angled different stuck in canvas to give the illusion of shading, a slower burn but incredibly complex and incredibly effective, and again, light’s the subject and the medium, metal and canvas are just the conduit for transference.
15. Uta Barth, untitled (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery; NYC) – Like the Donovan, this was also all about light. Photos of a shower curtain which were laid out sequentially so the river of light through the center made a horizon. There’s no attempt to hide the materials or the contrivance, the large format digital photos had some serious artifacting in places and a human hand – the photographer or an assistant – appears in a few pictures, clearly turning the curtain for better effects. But ultimately, it’s just the drama in light shockingly breaking up our everyday that made my heart sing.