Live Culture: Slavs and Tatars at Tanya Bonakdar

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Reader, I drank it. A gallery employee filed a copper tumbler with a ladle of thin white liquid topped with an airy foam he especially fished out for me from the metal cart pictured above. This is the last week to visit the exhibition “Slavs and Tatars: After Pasteur” at Tanya Bonakdar gallery, where the artists have installed a bar of drinkable Turkish yogurt in a room of playful sculptural objects (don’t sit on the cots!) lit by pink and green neon. This interview with the collective Slavs and Tatars explains its origins as a reading group in 2006 interested in historical political and cultural threads in the Balkans and Caucuses. From those activities of reading, publishing, and disseminating texts developed the method of artistic presentation for trans-cultural histories on view here: a method that is playful rather than pedantic and associative rather than analytical. At least, this is part of the context for “Afteur Pasteur,” which claims to “challenge our understanding of the self through the unlikely relationship with bacteria and the microbe, the original Other or foreigner.”

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On the upper floor of the gallery, the artists show works from two ongoing series among others. Pictured above on the left, the Kitab Kebab series offers books as a “talismanic digestive, a mashup of narratives and texts to be appreciated as much through the gut as the mind.” If it’s not clear from the image, the books have been pierced through with a skewer, brutally violating and connecting texts from different cultures in a mock up of the region’s notably violent history. So, not just a light lunch for a bookworm. Pictured above on the right, colorful plastic plaques riff off of Marcel Broodthaers’ “Poèmes industriels” in form, but do so to compare the inherent power dynamics of languages through semantically off-kilter juxtapositions and one-liners.

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With all the value there is to a more playful approach, I wonder who is getting the joke? All the objects in the exhibition are beautifully produced and cleverly described. But the jokes rely on a cross-cultural knowledge of complex regions of the world that are difficult to make sense of, even for the people living there. Thus the original book club, with its research and publications, seems very much missing from this exhibition and very needed.

Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth

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Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.

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The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

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The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.

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In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.

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Charred Order: Leonardo Drew at Sikkema Jenkins

Number 185 Leonardo Drew

Number 185, 2016, Wood, paint, pastel, screws, 121 x 134 x 30 ins

Gorgeous surfaces of charred wood draw you into Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea, where Brooklyn-based artist Leonardo Drew has an exhibition of new work. Each sculptural relief hanging on the wall boasts an intricacy of material and surface that invites a closer look. Drew tends to work with new materials that he batters into a weathered submission, so that the final appearance is of found materials. The orderly nature of his compositions and aesthetic aspect of rich black textures belies the catastrophe implied by the burnt wood, as if by some kind of post-apocalyptic magic each charred remain fell into a grid pattern.

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Although the materials, which seems to drive the works, recall referents in the world, as images they are resolutely abstract. I feel comfortable talking about these three-dimensional works as images, because they hang on the wall and play with the idea of breaking through the picture plane. Number 185 comes forward slightly into the viewer’s space. More prominently, large wood pieces jut off at a vertical tilt in the top left corner of the square composition, anchored by a protruding bottom weight. The force of these divergences lies in the break that it makes from the stalwart square of the picture plane.

Number 190 Leonardo Drew

Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

As you enter the second room of the gallery and turn the corner, an arresting composition of weathered and beaten, black or colorful, composite objects runs across the two white walls like so much Morse code. Many of the same tensions of the discrete works are present here in Number 190: tensions between the roughness and variety of the material and the meticulous order of their arrangement, between the clean white gallery wall and the seemingly dirty scraps that have been applied to it, and between the suggestion of meaning and resistance to interpretation. I felt a sheer visual pleasure running my eyes over the miraculously coherent installation. It is equally intricate up close and when viewed as a whole. While it reminds me of Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, Number 190 seems more decorative or typographical than that work because it is laid out on the walls in a linear fashion. Parker’s suggestion of entropy has no corollary here. Drew has cited the influence of growing up near a dump on his aesthetic; in this manifestation of that influence, he corrals the debris of the world into order.

On view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co through October 8, 2016.

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media