Volume 77 / Number 52 - May 28 - June 3, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

From magic portals to enchanting mindscapes
Where vulnerability confronts the sublime

Julia Oschatz
Through May 31
Leslie Tonkonow Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
(212-255-8450; tonkonow.com)

Yoko Ono
Galerie LeLong
Through May 31
528 West 26th Street
(212-315-0470; galerielelong.com)


What’s black, white and wistfully grey all over? No, it’s not the news. It’s a Wesen (pronounced VAYZ-in) on an existential expedition through Julia Oschatz’s paintings and the lone star of her videos. The Wesen—the German word for ‘being’—is a featureless and genderless rabbit-like creature with big feet, and a surrogate for the artist. Eyeless, and having no mouth, it can’t see where it’s going, or explain its presence. It rambles sightlessly through abstract space, the cosmos and Oschatz’s surreal landscapes which reference prominent paintings of the past—aimlessly exploring every nook and cranny, in search of an ambiguous holy grail.

I found myself looking for the Wesen in every painting, like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” (or ‘Wo ist Walter?’ in German). In “Untitled (Munch -The Scream),” the Wesen gazes from a narrow bridge over a scream-shaped lake. In “ Untitled (Botticelli – Birth of Venus)” the Wesen contemplates a boat-size seashell that has floated to shore minus its Venus. In “ Untitled (Bosch – The Ship of Fools)” the Wesen waves from a small island as though stranded and in need of rescue, and in “ Untitled (Da Vinci – Mona Lisa)” we see the creature perched on a plateau, taking in the view of Da Vinci’s backdrop. The paintings are densely layered with washes and impasto, resembling the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Chinese landscapes with their vastness of space. And like a tiny figure in a Chinese landscape, the Wesen evokes that humble feeling of inconsequence in the midst of the majestic or the awe-inspiring, whether it’s nature or a great work of art.

In “Diversum” (one of two videos in the show) Oschatz wears her Wesen suit while wrestling with abstract form like a cartoon Buster Keaton. S/he appears to be looking for a way in or out, or maybe just exploring the strangeness and relativity of matter in a place where liquid becomes solid, light becomes a heavy object, and abstraction drips into representation. Armed with a magical can of spray paint and a flashlight, the Wesen never really gets stuck. S/he can always paint holes to crawl through or poles to slide down. Imagination saves the day.

The other video in the show, “Fiction Follows Form,” accompanies a series of black and white paintings with the same title. Here we see Oschatz as the Wesen standing on top of the world playing catch with the cosmos in a game of planet dodge ball. The 40-some black and white paintings from this group are much looser and spontaneous. The Wesen treks through a different space here, less encumbered by impasto and less idyllic. It’s more expansive but harsher, with an increased sense of danger and desolation. The migratory Wesen appears more desperate in these unfamiliar and unwelcoming worlds, running the rim of the Milky Way, crossing a tightrope over a rectangular abyss, standing at an intersection of cone-shaped peaks with two moons above, walking along a bulbous black hole snaking its way through a void, or hiding under a tent in a concrete cave. But it’s also the surprisingly unfamiliar that make these places so enchanting.

Oschatz is remarkably prolific and inventive in her use of form that seesaws between abstraction and representation. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Two frequently occurring images in both series of paintings are the searchlight and the campfire, metaphors for the Wesen’s perpetual pursuit and for an existence that is nomadic and ephemeral. The searchlight transforms into a spotlight for the artist/Wesen to stand in or hide from, to guide or illuminate something for us, or to sail away on like a cloud.

While Oschatz travels solo, Yoko Ono generously invites us along for the trip. In her show “Touch Me,” Ono revisits an earlier work, “Cut Piece,” a performance from 1965 where she asked people to cut away pieces of her clothing. A second version, performed in Paris in 2003, is played along with the first on four different monitors, each slightly out of synch with the next. The 1965 performance (in black and white) is shot from above, at a side angle, Ono’s head twisted towards the camera. It shows a slightly more apprehensive Ono than the 2003 performance, where she sits on a stage putting more distance between herself and the audience. Giving up control or handing it over to the unknown and acknowledging vulnerability can be liberating. And transforming that vulnerability into freedom is what Ono does best.

Taking stock, cutting away and harnessing memory seem to be the impetus and the key elements in this show. In “Vertical Memory,” we see a more personal side of Ono. Memory also works like a slice, something cut from the past, like a snip from Ono’s dress.

“Touch Me I,” is the show’s centerpiece, and another artist/audience collaboration. A large canvas with holes cut at different levels, is stretched across the gallery, and viewers are asked to stick their extremities (or whatever they can think of) through the holes. Cameras are available to record these spontaneous performances, and the photographs can then be hung on another canvas, “Touch Me II.” This piece also brings to mind Ono’s earlier conceptual paintings to be watered, smoked, or slept on, and “Painting to Shake Hands” from her magnum opus, “Grapefruit.”

Ono is a master inventor of ideas for overcoming our existential dilemmas, for shaking up the way we view ourselves, and the world. Imagination not only saves the day, it saves us all.

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