Volume 80, Number 20 | October 14 - 20, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Tom Powel (courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York).
Sarah Sze: “360 (Portable Planetarium)” / 2010 / mixed media, wood, paper, string, jeans, rocks.

Leaves fall as Bowery art scene experiences renewal
Uptown, Smith & Mutu address ‘dark undercurrents’

BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN

After several weeks of scattered opening nights, fall is finally upon us — and in a time usually associated with declining temperatures and scattered leaves, the Bowery is experiencing a season of renewal. Only a few years ago, the New Museum’s move to the Lower East Side aided in launching a whole new art district. This fall, its location on the Bowery has inspired two further moves.

In September, Sperone Westwater settled in its newly designed eight-story Bowery building — and earlier this month, Salon 94 (which has branches on the Upper East Side and Freemans Alley) opened a new venue on the block.

The Argentinean artist Guillermo Kuitca is the first to try out Sperone Westwater’s new premises (257 Bowery, through Nov. 6). Three of the floors were slotted for Kuitca’s paintings, which range from somewhat referential to completely abstract. One of the most successful works happens to also open the show. Featuring an airport’s baggage claim belt devoid of travelers or luggage, the oval structure is set against a vast, much-simplified space — leaving it to metallically glisten in its loneliness. It is the most representational work in the group, which includes large compositions of fragmented maps and patterns of Cubist-inspired forms.

On the second floor, Kuitca’s contemplations on geometry and nature bring Mondrian’s early tree-simplifications to mind. Here, the iconography of the grid is counterbalanced with the irregular formations of thorn branches. A separate room, in which mattress-like objects made of maps line the walls, functions as an elevator to the final destination of the exhibition. One arrives by pondering the cartographic structures surrounding such eclectic places as Kabul, San Juan or Glasgow — or to question what it would be like to go to sleep there. Finally, we are released to face Kuitca’s crescendo — a series of paintings dominated by lush shades of red initiating a most theatric curtain call. 

It is hard not to admire the sheer complexity of Sarah Sze’s current installation at her new gallery, Tanya Bonakdar — nor the latter’s commitment to the cause (521 W. 21st St., through Oct. 23). Both are dedicated to realizing Sze’s vision of transforming simple household objects into elaborate, large-scale assemblages that can span immense spaces, penetrate walls and dig into grounds. The most successful work is a globe-like structure that is made of thousands of miniscule elements and convincingly generates an illusion of cosmic proportions. Sze’s work has the well-thought-out attributes of an elaborate architectural structure, but it also encapsulates a sense of whimsy and spontaneity. When at its strongest, it appears as both — a deep contemplation and improvisational symphony.

The work of Anj Smith is as dark as Kafka or Goya. Her technique of building three-dimensional elements into her smoothly rendered surfaces is unexpected, as well as mesmerizing (Hauser & Wirth. 32 E. 69th St., through Oct. 2). She employs it to describe a world of angst and gloom that manages to avoid being clichéd. Her paintings, when at their largest, are small and can even be postcard-sized. The concentration on detail is remarkable (one can easily imagine Smith using a one-haired brush). In one painting, a female protagonist is bleeding from a leg wound, which upon close inspection manifests as a circle of dancing monkeys holding each other’s hands like a group of witches during Walpurgisnacht. Without doubt, Smith’s work will not make you feel better about the world and future we are facing. In fact, it is frightening how well it ties into our most honest fears. 

The Kenyan-born and New York-based artist Wangechi Mutu shares Smith’s affinity for addressing dark undercurrents.  In her first exhibition with Gladstone Gallery, she will offer a new selection of works, revealing her specific mélange of violence, sexuality and Surrealism (515 W. 24th St., from Oct. 30 through Dec. 4. Reception: Oct. 29, 6-8 p.m.). Spanning a wide range of media, “Hunt Bury Flee” can be expected to manifest as Mutu’s ongoing critique of institutions of power — as well as the stigmatizations of gender and race. Images clipped from fashion magazines, pornography, books on African art and documentary photographs make up some of her visual references. She translates these into grotesque creatures that are as seductive as they are terrifying. Her protagonists appear as potentially violent, mythic, sexy and shrill. They are both luring sirens and taunting ghosts sprung from a fever dream. In addition to several large-scale collage works, the exhibition will include a series of ceramic figurines. As Mutu is not known for making sculpture, this body of work should be highly anticipated.

At Salon 94 Bowery, Detroit-based artist Liz Cohen will present “Trabantimino” — a sculpture that fuses elements from the former East German car known as Trabant with a Chevrolet El Camino (243 Bowery, through Nov. 11). It is the welded unification of two formerly opposing worldviews, going back to the Cold War era. The Trabant was the humble but functional “people’s car” for East Germans, most of whom had to wait several years to finally receive one. In contrast, the Chevrolet symbolizes the all-American, all-accessible car. Its size celebrates the economic power of a strong nation and the freedom that can be found with it on the open road. Cohen’s sculpture contains roughly equal parts of both cars, and the artist has done most of the physical work herself. In addition, the exhibition will include a series of 2005 photographs. Called “the 5 P’s” (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”), it soberly depicts mechanic’s tools in black and white on a cement ground.

Often heralded as a painter, Thomas Nozkowski will present a new body of work in Pace Gallery’s newest space (510 W. 25th St., from Oct. 22 through Dec. 4. Reception: Oct. 21, 6-8 p.m.). For more than three decades, Nozkowski has created small-scale abstract paintings that ponder the ceaseless variations of color and form — and together, reveal their psychological impact. He has worked with biomorphic and geometric elements, and his tone can range from moderate to quirky (even lyrical). Though Nozkowski’s commitment to his medium is serious, it allows for plenty of humor and occasional eccentricities. In its impact, Nozkowski’s oeuvre reminds one of the great Paul Klee — whose unpredictable work easily transitioned from being playful to profound. Nozkowski does not emulate anyone, but with sophistication and skill, he continues a traditional 20th century quest to expose the expressive wealth inherent in abstract painting.

Uptown at Davis & Langdale — and downstairs in a treasure box of a room — an installation of small collages by Robert Ohnigian offers an unusual treat (231 E. 60th St., through Oct. 30). Ohnigian layers fragments of paper, which he sources from old books, into abstract compositions rich in subtle nuances. The resulting images are of a simple elegance, alluding to 19th century landscape painting. Their palette is subdued, and the shades of crème that are characteristic to many vintage papers often serve as his white. It is striking to witness Ohnigian navigate between abstraction and lyric association. In his work, we seem to travel time and be surrounded by sheer space, the vastness of uninhabited landscapes unfolding slowly but determinedly. There is stillness, but also anticipation — and one can well imagine Ohnigian’s work to be the setting for a tale by Dickens or Molière. Upstairs a selection of well-balanced abstract paper collages by Nicol Allan round up this somewhat hidden meditation on simplicity and quietude.

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