Indirect and Unsettling: “False Narratives” at Pierogi Gallery

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones 2012, Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones, 2012. Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches.

A lady in a dress the color of a Madonnas, its rich folds of blue against the crumbling texture of a pale wall. Her hands clasped in a lady-like manner in her lap. Her tissue thin grey medical mask awkwardly covers the front of the face, where there should be sight. This photograph by Nadja Bournonville and its blinded subject opens the excellently strange group show “False Narratives” at Pierogi‘s new Lower East Side location, appropriately enough as it thematizes the potential for brokenness, puncture, and error beneath a deceptively smooth surface. Bournonville’s body of work takes the invention of hysteria as its subject matter, asserting that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot largely created the disease with the technological aid of photography in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Bournonville represents the spectacle of this endeavor in poetic images of the anonymous female restrained by science and studies of playful pseudo-medical machines that recall the work of Eva Kotatkova.

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010, Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010. Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel.

The detailed backstory, rooted in the imagined violence of another time and place, that underlies Bournonville’s photographs resembles the approach taken by Tavares Strachen in his pair of matching windows set into the gallery wall. Strachen’s duplicate white-framed windows were created with precise breaks and the gallery floor is littered with broken glass below. He modeled them on a specific window in a disused industrial building in Rhode Island. There, the artist actually replaced existing windows with matching broken ones. This discreet gesture for noone becomes immediately visible in the gallery space. Paradoxically, while the work becomes more clear, it also becomes less pertinent to the viewer, far removed from the original context. Yet the work takes on new meaning in the gallery space, accentuated by the title that refers to it as a diptych. Painting has long been credited with providing a view onto an imagined vista; here, the cracked glass presents only the gallery wall and the dim reflection of the peering viewer’s face.

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004, Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004. Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches.

One can more easily draw a formal similarity between Bournanville’s photographs and the “Linear X” body of work by Brian Conley. Both present strong photographs in delicate palettes emphasizing texture and nuance. Both track down obscure paths with rigour: Bournanville, a historic medical and cultural phenomenon, while Conley applies his investigation of Linear X markings as if he were a scientist studying remnants of an ancient language rather than the stray markings of a beetle that he found on a stick in the woods. Conley’s work expands across the room with a glass vitrine featuring loose pages and a display of the artist’s book on the subject (which mimics a scientific volume), a corner of huddled sticks, and photographs and plaster molds along the walls. Conley’s premise, rooted in a known lie, is on one hand futile as a way of knowing the world and on the other creates an intriguing parallel universe.

Installation view of Brian Conley's work

Installation view of Brian Conley’s work

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches.

Unlike these other works, rich in backstory, Roxy Paine’s diorama offers you no such guidance. Instead this fabulously constructed miniature beckons you from the far wall as you walk in, brightly lit as if by fluorescent light and featuring a prototypical American conference room. It brightness and skewed perspective to create the convincing illusion of scale hurt my eyes up close as I tried to mine its details to learn more. The scene is resolutely banal and rejects any narrative. Empty spaces maintain a psychological resonance when presented to a viewer looking in, or at least an air of expectancy. It highlights the dourness of industrial grade carpet, overpowering fluorescent lighting, stained ceiling tiles, the cold metal of folding chairs, and middling hot Folgers coffee, but to unclear purpose. By similarly indirect means as the other artists in the show, Paine tells a story, only his is seemingly without a plot or characters.

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012, Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012. Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches.

Enigmas and ruptures smoothed over by a cool perfection make for a surprisingly cohesive summer show from the disparate group of artists. Catch it while you can. Pierogi has regular gallery hours through the end of July and then by appointment through August 12.

Warped Histories: Goshka Macuga at the New Museum

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Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

What do a snake, curators of an international art biennial in Germany, and a destroyed Afgan palace have in common? Historically, very little. Goshka Macuga is known for weaving such disparate motifs together into photo-realistic tapestries that present semi-fictitious, complex narratives. “Goshka Macuga: Time as Fabric” at the New Museum presents several tapestry works, as well as the stage set from a video work, that highlight the performative and archival threads that undergird Macuga’s body of work.

Installation view

Installation view of theatrical environment of Preparatory Notes

The first thing the viewer sees stepping off the elevator at the New Museum is a quirky stage set featuring over-sized elements of pastiche, riffing on art history and politics (not unlike Jim Shaw’s Labyrinth... installed on the 5th Floor of the New Museum not so long ago). Like the tapestries, these backgrounds and props are largely black and white. Retaining this somber grey-scale palette from its photographic source makes an implicit claim to verisimilitude yet the objects and characters are blown up to absurd life-size proportions. Branches carefully prop up faces from a cast of characters ranging from Angela Merkela to the artist. Macuga has reinstalled this theatrical environment from a performance at the 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Preparatory Notes (2014). Video documentation of it is screened in the basement theater every Wednesday.

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Tapestry based on Tadeuz Kantor’s The Letter (1967)

Around the rest of the space, tapestries line the walls. They bring together intensely complicated visual–and thereby historical–manipulations onto a large scale. The tapestries, made in Brussels from large composite digital files manipulated in Photoshop, invoke a rich history. For example, Macuga, who was born in Warsaw, recreated Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor’s 1967 performance in Warsaw, then documented it, and made it into an enormous tapestry. As a medium, tapestries are outmoded wall coverings that once acted as important symbols of prestige and power, often used by rulers to tell stories about themselves. Here, Macuga uses the antiquated form to her own ends, shaping a story from the documentation of the recreation of a performance. This implicates her, and us of the contemporary moment, in the original performance. For the viewer, there is the additional pull of the fine weave and how artfully the collage registers as verisimilitude, almost seeming to be a large print rather than a woven textile until seen up-close.

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Detail, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not

Macuga’s Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not is one of two tapestries that the artist created in 2012 for dOCUMENTA. She showed one in Kassel, Germany and one in Kabul, Afganistan for the duration of the exhibition. The composition reflects these two strange dueling contexts. The destroyed Darul Aman palace in the background resembles a building in Kassel. Standing people in Western clothes (the dOCUMENTA curators) look at the sitting or reclining Afgan people in front of them. The Afgans seem to look toward the center, where an enormous snake, out-of-scale but convincing, raises its head and looks out a the viewer. If tapestry has a history of filling an political function, here the series of gazes points accusingly at the viewer. This vast panorama and impossible history laid out for the viewer suggests the warping of time and historical currents created through art to bring Afganistan and Germany, past and present, art and conflict into uneasy, unsustainable relation. Only through art can you attain that suspension of disbelief, or collapse of distinction, and I would say that the tapestry argues to questionable end.

Detail, The Lost Forty

Detail, The Lost Forty

Macuga creates thoughtfully warped views of history. For more information, a great article about the making of The Lost Forty on the Walker Art Center blog details the complex production of the composite image used as the basis for the tapestry. The Walker invited the artist to spent time in their archives, which led her to the position figures from throughout its history from its founder to herself in 40 acres of pristine forest nearby, the lost forty acres of the work’s title. The article gives a sense of how carefully Macuga creates these fictional scenes with such verisimilitude and historical perversity.

“Goska Macuga: Time as Fabric” is on view through June 26, 2016.

Soviet Photography at The Jewish Museum

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The “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography and Early Soviet Film” exhibition at the Jewish Museum offer insight into a period of rapid change in Russia in both politics and art during the 1920s and 30s through fantastic photography–masterpieces of innovative formal development. They also tell an alternate story of early photography that differs from the traditional one of Modernism. In the politically charged climate of Russia, artistic innovation was initially bound to utopian ideals of Communism. This exhibition shows how the codification of visual style from avant-garde Constructivism to a brutal Social Realism parallels a changing society: one that went from revolution and idealism to totalitarian state control over the course of some-twenty years.

IMG_7711In its beginnings, photography was both an art form and documentary tool. Formal and technical developments, such as photograms and photomontage, fascinated artists as walls like the one pictured above testify. The portable, late-1920s model Leica cameras freed photographers from the bulky equipment previously required. The Jewish Museum quotes Lenin as declaring that the camera, as much as the gun, was an important weapon in “class struggle.” Dying in 1924, Lenin would not see how photography came to be used by Stalin and other leaders of the Communist party to assert ideological control.

Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928, gelatin silver print.

Stunning compositions from 1930s, like Shaikhet’s Assembling the Globe, demonstrate growing state control over the images produced as well as strong formal composition. It depicts the installation of a decorative globe at the new telegraph building in Moscow, but also signifies the building of a new world by faceless workers who could be any man. Divided into thematic sections, one long gallery focuses on images of the “Metropolis” (cityscapes) and “Constructing Socialism” (trains, electricity, and factories). They form a portrait–largely unpeopled–of agrarian village society being drug into a progressive future of large urban areas and technical innovation. Images like Shaiket’s were frequently reproduced in newspapers and on posters.

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Military images including portrait of Stalin, far left.

Stalin, pictured above on far left, consolidated power by 1932 and experimental styles began to be frowned upon. Photography was still used for political purpose, just with tighter control. Final sections of photographs are organized around the themes of the Military, Soviets, Staging Happiness, and Physical Culture. The Military photographs emphasize might, and Soviets portray individuals in a manner that espouse the values of loyal, productive citizens. By the time one reaches Staging Happiness with its impressive fake parades that give the illusion of popular support and Physical Culture with its muscular ideal beauty, the point is clear: experimentation and artistic license gave way to strict state directives that hid the true Socialist experience. Despite this, the photographs on view are often compelling and dynamic works of art, and sometimes one can read against the grain to the shadow side of Soviet life.

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Graphic design at this time was making fantastic leaps and bounds, and fortunately there are display cases of publications throughout the exhibition. The state supported elaborate photo books, such as the one above with its inventive parachute foldout. This 1935 issue of USSR in Construction was designed by Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova with extravagant paper foldouts. The journal functioned both a propaganda tool and creative publication that influenced design worldwide. Such design-heavy books featuring positive images of the new Soviet state were also sent abroad.

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In addition to photography, there is a focus on film in a final room of fantastic movie posters and small auditorium. The auditorium regularly screens important Soviet films such as Battleship Potemkin and lesser known gems such as Aelita: Queen of Mars. The rare film posters were printed on the cheapest paper and not considered worth preserving at the time, but their dynamic, geometric designs–instep with the aesthetic of the photographs–suggest their innovation and allure. This emphasis on film makes the point that these posters and films disseminated Communist ideology just as the photographs did, heralding new mediums for propaganda.

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“The Power of Pictures: Soviet Photography and Soviet Film” traces a fascinating history of avant-garde abstraction for radical political purpose that became codified into simplified, heroic forms of Socialist Realism as a totalitarian government took tighter control over its public message. A rare chance to see many of these works together (some 180 works in all, featuring Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, and Alexander Rodchenko among others), make sure to see this exhibition before it closes February 7, 2016.