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

Sara Mejia Kriendler’s The Anthropocene at A.I.R. Gallery

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Installation view of Sara Mejia Kriendler’s exhibition The Anthropocene. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Closing this week, Sara Mejia Kriendler’s exhibition at A.I.R. gallery in DUMBO is a measured, evocative approach to humanity’s place in the world and to waste. Distinguished from the other two shows up at A.I.R. by the careful palette, here shades of ocher, mint, and rose accent neutral whites. Kriendler’s exhibition is titled The Anthropocene, a controversial scientific term for our current age based on our perceived impact on the planet. The artist uses detritus such as plastic packaging, styrofoam, and plaster to create fragmentary leftovers, seemingly crumbling with age. Yet these are clearly contemporary materials. Intimate in scale, the works still evoke grand themes of geologic time.

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Installation view of Sara Mejia Kriendler’s exhibition The Anthropocene. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

In the midst of these environments and altars, female forms appear. The installation In Line for the Shrine features white plaster female figures on a green foam altar backed by slabs of white styrofoam. These leaning white rectangles display fossil-like patterns, slashes, and the occasional whole form, such as that of a bird. The materials are interesting not only for the ecological concerns they recall, but in their fragility. Altars are typically made of durable material. On the other hand, the styrofoams and many plastics we use today are not recyclable and will outlast us. In Line for the Shrine, like other works in the show, plays with scale in that it renders the monumental on a diminutive scale and the human as dwarfed by its surroundings.

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Detail, In Line for the Shrine. Photograph my own.

Kriendler is currently a Fellowship Artist at A.I.R. Gallery. The Anthropocene is up at A.I.R. Gallery through May 31st. More detail shots below.

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