Volume 79, Number 23 | November 11 - 17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Post-minimalism humor, vintage porn and subtle sculpture

Three art exhibits worth your time, effort

By Stephanie Buhmann

Photo courtesy of Stephen Iriwn and Invisible-Exports

Stephen Irwin’s “Rubbed” (2009, Altered vintage pornography, 11 x 17 inches)

“Stephen Irwin: Sometimes When We Touch.” Through November 29, at Invisible-Exports (14A Orchard St., btw. Hester and Canal St.). Call 212-226-5447 or visit www.invisible-exports.com.

Stephen Irwin transforms vintage pornography — which dates back to the time of his own adolescence — into images of mystified erotica. The Kentucky based artist does this in an almost Romantic fashion while honoring the “less is more” principle.

In his hands, formerly explicit magazine spreads become obscured, be it through undoing their once lusty plastic polish, by rubbing out parts of the image or veiling them in layers of neutral paint. It is a process that adds mystique by taking away information; but as much as Irwin disguises the original porn, he also zooms in on some specific details.

In one work, a finger recedes into a nest of hair. It is the only recognizable image left and it becomes further crystallized as Irwin surrounds it with marble-esque layers of white paint. The attention is driven towards the anatomy of the finger, single hairs, and the skin, which has the complexion favored in Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits. The obscured image becomes isolated and even iconographic. It is a good example of how Irwin denies us access but also keeps us focused. It is this divide, which reveals the artist’s witty sense of humor and playfulness that makes Irwin’s work especially enchanting.

Irwin’s images are canny and his transformations of something blunt into something ethereal and poetic are skillfully realized. In addition, his work expresses a gentleness that seems to hint at physical fragility. Singled out body parts, no matter from which part of the body they have been taken and no matter in what kind of act they might be engaged, can appear vulnerable and Irwin treats his subjects almost tenderly. His images manifest as glimpses of deeply personal fantasies, but they are also highly associative.

When surveying the compositions on display, viewers will repeatedly find themselves pondering what exactly has been omitted. What fleshy details or what kind of person are hiding underneath Irwin’s veils? Occasionally, faint images can be traced through thinner layers of paint, but the works that are the least clear and most suggestive are the ones that are the most engaging. They succeed in opening up a vast erotic landscape for us to explore.

“Ree Morton: At the Still Point of the Turning World.” Through December 18, at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster St., below Broome St.). Call 212-219-2166 or visit www.drawingcenter.org.

It is astonishing to learn that the late American artist Ree Morton (1936–1977) produced her versatile body of work in just a single decade. Her career began in her thirties — after she already attended nursing school, married, and had three children. She later completed her BFA at the University of Rhode Island in 1968 and her MFA at Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia in 1970. Just before her 41st birthday, her life was tragically cut short by a fatal car accident.

This drawing-based show, which further includes a selection of notebook sketches and major drawing-based sculptural works, reveals the profundity of Morton’s perception and the unique spirit that drove her work. The exhibition title was taken from a T.S. Eliot poem, which Morton kept above her studio desk. It is a gesture that leads to the impression that we are meant to discover the artist here as much as the person, who worked ceaselessly to create a voice that would be heard.

Post-minimalism had a strong impact on Morton’s oeuvre, which was further infused with a keen sense of humor. This made for an unusual mélange and Morton was one of the first to employ a minimal vocabulary for deeply personal statements. According to the press release, it was Morton’s wish to be “light and ironic on serious subjects without frivolity.” In Morton’s body of work, Americana, kitsch, cartoonish illustrations, formal abstraction and language are fused into a harmonious jumble.

Morton was considered part of the feminist movement and her loss, not unlike that of Eva Hesse — who died while in her thirties in 1970 and who also had only worked for a decade — was a major loss for the community.

A career suddenly cut short always leaves a void and the question of how this artist might have progressed. Morton’s work is sensitive, elegant and has an air of post-modern classicism. It is a shame that despite two posthumous exhibitions — a retrospective at The New Museum in 1980 and a 1985 solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York — her work has all but vanished from the public eye and left her oeuvre largely unrecognized.

The Drawing Center, under the curation of João Ribas, has set sails against this unjust drift towards oblivion. Some of the works on display have never before been shown publicly, making this exhibit a treat for those who know Morton’s work well and those who just encounter her for the first time.

“Harold Ancart: Within Limits.” Through December 6, at LMAK projects LES (139 Eldridge St., at Delancey St.). Call 212-255-9707 or visit www.lmakprojects.com. 

A thrillingly modest yet elegant installation of two sculptures and a drawing mark Harold Ancart’s first New York solo exhibition. The examination of space and its inherent limitations are key concerns for this Belgian artist.

Ancart favors simplicity, minimal gestures, and clarity over visual noise and convolution. The most elaborate work in this installation is made of nearly invisible nylon wire. The different wires, spanning walls and ceiling, are organized geometrically, enveloping the space in-between the architectural confines. While this method of drawing “into” space might be seen as an obvious homage to the oeuvre of the formidable Minimalist sculptor Fred Sandback, Ancart offers his own take by adding a notion of painterly gesture. He has altered some parts of the nylon wire by painting it with layers of polymer and raw black pigment. As a result, the sculpture upon close inspection disproves the illusion of homogeneousness. Certain parts of the wires receive more attention than others, vary in density and hence, offer establish an overall sense of individualism.

Ancart’s preference for subtlety manifests in another sculpture — a steel multiple structure with cross-like shapes at the ends — which derives its meaning through the simple interplay of light and shadow. It is the gallery’s wall on which the sculpture is installed, that captures the shadow and because of that becomes an integral part of the work. There is no doubt that Ancart’s sculptural works aim to draw as much attention to the architectural characteristics of their temporary settings, as to themselves.

Though Ancart’s work is well thought out and requires careful planning, it contains a certain sketch-like quality. This is partially due to the restrained nature of the artist’s gesture, but also to the fact that each work embodies a clear set of concepts. It seems fitting that the only two-dimensional work in this exhibition features the word “IDEA.”

It is Ancart’s challenge of course to translate his ideas into three-dimensional form and to transform these three-dimensional works into a spatial experience. His ambition to let each space’s physical limitations provide him with a set of parameters leaves no doubt that there is plenty of room for exploration.

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