“All of us face days when it can seem like change is hard — days when our opposition and our own imperfections may tempt us to take an easier path that avoids our responsibilities to one another. But even when little sunlight shined into that Robben Island cell, he could see a better future — one worthy of sacrifice.” -President Barack Obama on Nelson Mandela
The eminent artist K8 Hardy presents Kate, a series of new sculptures and one “selfie” for her her third solo exhibition at Reena Spaulings Fine Art.
They are crap. Literally! Scrapped together from “flotsam” washed ashore at Fire Island, the sculptures are radically provisional, combining odd garbage with painted sticks of wood. They appear fragile, with an arbitrariness verging on accidental; they seem intentional only in their uprightness. Then again, a sign of tight control grounds the show at its physical center, in the form of a fist gripping driftwood.
But they also strike lively, fabulous, and humble poses like dancers or models, if we mean faceless dancers or models who can hardly stand and are missing limbs. Still, despite their decrepit depravity, these “precarious bodies” are survivors who exude a winning vulnerability. In fact, these “bodies” become “figures” when we pause to admire their adornment.
Visitors can join this cast of harried models by posing before K8′s eponymous, peach-tinted mirrors. As K8′s press release says, “Viewers can photograph and share their own reflections in the artists’ name: a narcissistic work for multiple selves, this sculpture holds its space in the gallery and in the cloud.” Post your #K8Hardygram!
On the wall directly across from that is Ur-Selfie, K8′s interpretation (and restating?) of Courbet’s The Origin of the World, a work of art that isn’t as social media friendly, because it can get you kicked off Facebook.
Is this K8′s departure from performance? In the recent past, her live events and performative photos rightly intensified her audience. But actually, these static objects do seem performative. It is performative to present as sculpture such found materials, especially those made from pollution. Here, K8 performs radical resourcefulness: an attitude materialized as practice; an outlook extruded as behavior.
More brilliant, however, is the way she channels those qualities into the sculptures. Indeed, as she writes, “These are works whose sense of belonging in the world can only be found in their struggle to show up here.”
I imagine Benjamin Degen’s figures to be vacationers at a cabin upstate. Perhaps they are a group of couples visiting for a long weekend, or maybe they scored a late-summer rental. They swim by day, drink at night, and cook hearty brunches the next morning. It’s folksy and relaxing – no Decameron orgies, no Ken Kesey oblivion (but why not?).
In Shadow, Ripple and Reflection, his first solo show at Susan Inglett Gallery Degen gives us new paintings of figures that look life-size, built from impasto techniques that seem to weave fibers of pure color, while using hue and space to deliver glimpses of their internal states of mind. The paintings feel parsimonious in gesture, yet generous and ecstatic in material and spirit. He paints like a warmer, more indie Georges Seurat.
In the lush green Lakeside a woman wades into a lake, seemingly entranced by the surface ripples. There’s no reflection, so it’s not a Narcissus moment. Instead, it’s a case of ego giving into pure sensations: the water ringing her thighs, the radiating ripples, the glistening colors on the surface – haptic, mechanical, retinal phenomena. Meanwhile, the water seems to reach vertically as it expands deeply, blanketing the canvas and stuffing our minds.
In Sea, the same woman (I assume) strikes a surveying contraposto to look over the moonlit lake, her hair and diaphanous dress billowing in a night breeze. She clutches a beer bottle, while an empty one lays at her feet. Did her companion finish that beer, and then go for a dip? Is she looking for this companion in the water?
Or is she content to be alone, as in the magical moment during which she reclines with a book and a bottle of wine? In Winding Leaves, her pose is classical and time-tested, spanning Olympia to Demoiselles, but Degen bends her dappled body and grass to subsume volume, color, and position to the speckled and vibrant surface. And yet the blanket seems to have unfurled and levitated, like a magic carpet, perhaps a textile ship of the imagination.
Is it the same woman in Nostos (Greek for “homecoming”) who dashes through a door, keys in hand, shirt half-removed? The crackling, lurid colors seem to verify her adrenal state. The same might be true of the “turned-on” light switch. One can only imagine the narrative while combing the details and composition: the wall and shadow on the left, with the door and shadow on the right, create a near symmetrical proscenium; and the stray running sneaker seems to symmetrically balance the forward foot of this canvas-consuming fox.
The show reaches its symbolistic zenith in Men. As from a Greek vase, or baton relay, or both, an utterly trippy sequence of male figures cascades across the picture, limbs superimposed and chromatically tangled. Save for the reiterated contours of their bodies, this work of radical figuration summons the starry sky to vaporize the male corporeal masses, rasterizing them as twinkling neural clusters. Likewise, a dozing reclining nude male in Night Wave seems transported to the constellations above, as if sleep is a tunnel to the cosmos.
An interesting issue for photojournalists: press photographers are mad at the White House! Major news organizations petitioned the White House for access to photograph events involving the president. Their letter argues that access “has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents.” The letter also suggests that access restriction is unconstitutional, and it lists some examples, including meetings with foreign leaders, U.S. senators, and Malala Yousafzai.
The White House argues that these events are private. Journalists object that the White House releases through social media some of the images captured by the official White House photographer. If these events are so private, then why do they pop up on social media? Does the White House need to adjust its privacy settings? And are these vetted images really a substitute for independent press attention?
But social media outlets were unavailable to previous administrations! Past presidents might have stored these images in archives less readily available. To release images of private presidential events does not necessarily contradict the privacy of these events; it could actually expand the availability of private events.
Meanwhile, South African photographers illegally photographed President Jacob Zuma’s private residence, which features ”a mini-football pitch, gym, helicopter pads, a tuck-shop for one of his four wives and even a reported 98,400-dollar pen for his livestock.” To photograph Zuma’s residence can get you arrested, but aerial views are available on Google Earth: a tweet with the Google Earth co-ordinates of the compound, released by journalist Barry Bateman, was an instant hit on Twitter.
Absence, on view now at Paula Cooper Gallery, is comprised of four different bodies of work by Sophie Calle, but Where and When? Lourdes is the most psychologically compelling work. It opens like this: “I had asked Maud Kristen, a clairvoyant, to predict my future so that I could catch up to it and meet it.”
Where and When? includes photographs, texts, and sculptures that document Calle’s series of consultation with a card-reading psychic. After a few false starts, the psychic ultimately directs Calle to Lourdes, the famous religious pilgrimage destination credited with more than sixty miraculous interventions by the Virgin Mary. Throughout the journey to Lourdes, Calle processes thoughts about her ailing mother, a recent break-up, the possibility of random and imminent life changes, and the constant return of absence. She also selectively documents her interactions with the locals of Lourdes, some of them humorous, others profound. But the real project here is to see what happens when Calle surrenders control:
“The point of this game is not to confirm or deny Maud Kirsten’s gift for clairvoyance. I want to let myself be manipulated, controlled. To go into a future that I never imagined and, even if Maud refuses to give me orders, become the passive object of my destiny through her visions. Relinquish myself. Give up.”
Then again, racing after her future is more like an excess of control, a usurpation; it’s like a coup against destiny.
Facing this destabilization of control, Calle encounters resistance on the part of control, in form of rules and customs. -There is crowd control, for example: “A couple walks past. A man with his arm around the waist of a woman pushing a pram. Their looks order me to step aside: a descendant gives you certain rights.” -And there is decorum: “How do I speak to the Virgin? I take advice from friends. ‘If it’s a first interview, say vous not tu,” advises Fabio. Florence suggests: Dear Miss, dear Madam, or dear Virgin. She adds, ‘If you come back in a wheel chair, it means everything’s fine.’” -Finally, there the way Calle records the haunting surveillance of a numerological follower, which is the number eleven. She has a consultation on November 11th at 11am. A ride in train car number eleven. A mass with an audience of eleven. A “medium-size” candle for 5.5 euros. And so on.
Throughout this work, Calle delivers with great agility some combinations of wit and wonder, such as this one about an effervescent interpreter of miracles: “He suggests a meeting with the bishop. ‘You won’t be bored. His name is Perrier, like the sparkling water, and he is incredibly bubbly. The man is unique. He is the only person in the world who does what he does. A doctor who does not treat anyone. A doctor who only examines patients who declare themselves to be cured. A doctor for the miraculously cured.’”
Finally, there are limits to Calle’s willingness to relinquish control. Calle has traveled all the way to Lourdes, and even considered walking there, but now at Lourdes’ sacred grotto, she can’t bring herself to kneel (“That’s going to be difficult.”), nor can she hold her attention for more than the prescribed ten minutes (“I could stay longer, it’s not unpleasant, but the restaurant closes at nine.”).
One lesson from Calle’s story is that absence is not always counterbalanced with physical presence. It’s possible to have both simultaneously. Calle’s mother has three months to live, but Calle already invokes her name in the past tense. “Was my mother a good mother? I’m already using the past tense…”My mother, still alive and already absent.” “Was my mother a good mother?” is the same as “Will she be remembered as a good mother?” which is a speculation about how the future will evaluate the past, not to mention the unattainable standard set by the Virgin Mother; her time-tested criteria make us bound to fail.
The closing line could be the opening to a sequel: “Now the cards know that they can send me anywhere.”