Manhattanism

The new season in New York's Chelsea galleries offers a mad mixture of artful objects, photo-optics and cinematic play

New York City is the materialization of order out of chaos. Boisterous crowds of pedestrian and vehicular traffic elegantly course through its veins on a minute-by-minute basis. Its manmade mountains, what Walt Whitman called "solid-planted spires tall shooting to the stars," mark the upward thrust of an endless hustle and bustle that begins many strata below. Imagine what you see if you make a latitudinal cut through the city, say down through Park Avenue, rendering what is called in architecturalese a "sectional drawing." From the 24th floor of Lever House downward you'll find layer after layer of people moving rapidly, so many diverse and free-flowing vectors in space carefully orchestrated by the gridiron logic shot upward. Follow your vision downward vertically to street level where cars, trucks, taxis and even Hummers slither gracefully by crowds of walkers, woggers and sometimes joggers. Take your eye below street grade, to the great hulking belly of the mechanical beast buried underneath, where you'll find the complex filigree of an underground network of communication, subways bolting, waste and debris jostling and thoughts and syllables popping and zapping all in the complex reticulation of mechanical and fiber-optic technology.

It is a place that is so predictable in its layout yet so conducive to radical invention. Martin Scorsese aptly described it as the city where individual conformity takes form through the constant one-upmanship of reinvention. It is the logic of the grid, both as it runs horizontally street by avenue and soars upward tower by elevator that makes New York so readily accessible, so easy to navigate, the place to be. For the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, it is New York's peculiar combination of surrealism and pragmatism that allows a harmonious life of inversion, a life of "eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked on the Nth floor."

In homage to New York's exquisite and unassailable logic of the grid, I offer a carefully calibrated overview--a taxonomy of the new, if you will--of the opening art season in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. In keeping with this logic, I have sought to bring order to motley stuff, using idea and association to bring otherwise disparate objects into closer proximity. Word rumbled through the galleries that it is one of the best opening seasons the city has seen in years. I would argue this might have something to do with the healthy balance of media. (Or in keeping with the harmony of inversion, do bad politics reap good art? A question for another review.) While video and photography made the fairest showing, there was no hegemony of one medium. After years of a predominantly Neo-Conceptualist presence in the art galleries, that is, art so iconoclastic and often dematerialized that its presence is more about its absence, this year's scene was defined by a refreshing gallimaufry of form, media and intellectual play.


The photographs of Shimon Attie, now showing at Jack Shainman Gallery, cast an eerie sense of temporal layering over the leftover spaces of Rome. Titled The History of Another, the exhibition coalesces several of Attie's photographs, the subject being human marginalia--the history and memory of Italian Jewry and other subaltern members of modern Roman society. Attie stacks photographic technology, setting up slide projections of old photographs in the city and then photographing them. While the images verge on the syrupy, their technology saves them, casting image upon ruin in a way that makes the old photographs come to life as hauntings from another world.

If Attie tends to contain multiple media impulses in the single image, Ugo Rondinone spreads them far and wide in the broad open spaces of the Matthew Marks Gallery. Titled Long Gone Sole, the show brings together three different sculptural projects by the artist, who is also known for his expertise in video. At the back of the gallery, five translucent cast-resin trees create a striking grove of plasticine vegetation. Rondinone cast them from 100-year-old trees growing on a hilltop near Naples, near the town where his parents were born. "Rain," lines of chain pulled taut from the ceiling and fastened to the floor, bisects the gallery space. Following in front of this piece is "All Those Doors," a minimalist maze of black Plexiglas post and beams. Moving through them, one hears tiny bells ringing and sees cartoonish scribbles of white ink drawings on the sides of the posts. "Moonrise," 12 cast-rubber mask-like sculptures of human and animal faces, hangs along the wall. Altogether the pieces of the show make you feel as though you're walking through a numbingly cold and urbanized enchanted forest.


Miroslaw Balka's "Neither," showing at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, brings together video projection and sculpture crafted from base materials in order to make a commentary on the ravages of war. Three different projections, together titled Winterreise, show varying views of the Brzezinka Concentration Camp in Poland, the artist's native country. One would never know, though, as nature has recovered the land for its own uses. Filmed in the dead of winter, the site is deeply embedded in snow, and Bambi-like does scamper about, foraging for food. Rotating in front of the screens are circular wooden platforms with empty plates. As with most successful contemporary video installation, the piece unites subtle emotion--here somberness--and simple form in order to give new life to the act of contemplating art at a distance, something historically reserved for painting alone.

The exhibition of An-My Lê's photography, 29 Palms, showing at Murray Guy, offers a strange and amazing display of the already-perverse at work in the machinations of war. Lê has photographed the U.S. military's war games in the deserts of California. In ongoing preparation for the war in Iraq, Marines regularly stage a "virtual Iraq and Afghanistan," assigning Americans roles as both American fighters and would-be native insurgents in order to play out the various and sundry what-ifs of combat. The military's verisimilitude is so precise that they have spray-painted anti-American graffiti on the walls of the mock set in pidgin English. The choice of subject matter is what emboldens these images, as they are straight-shot simple photographs. Bringing to mind the photographer Nan Goldin, it is Lê's presence that becomes so important here, her ability to negotiate picture-taking under what might be otherwise difficult circumstances. Lê's success is the result of a sleight of hands, her own and the American military's.


The large-scale paintings of Will Cotton, now showing at Mary Boone, depict epicene humans, creatures neither fully male nor female, unfurled in pink and frothy cotton-candy landscapes. His paintings provide a window-like view onto fantastic and dreamlike landscapes offering a phantasmagoria of the object--a fetishization of both imaginary lands far away and painting as a commodified thing. With respect to painting as a commodity, Cotton does with the two dimensions of the canvas what Jeff Koons did with vacuum cleaners, basketballs and the Plexiglas containers in the '80s. He makes gads of money.

While showing in two separate galleries, Kirsten Hassenfeld (at Bellwether) and Sofi Zezmer (at Mike Weiss Gallery) seem the least disparate of all. The American artist Hassenfeld and German Zezmer fashion pretty sculptural objects from fragmented form. In her Objects of Virtue, Hassenfeld has made white, Rococo-esque and chandelier-like sculpture that comes across as pretty and precious as well as crystalline and raw. In "Re-Source," Zezmer has sutured together once-useful objects, everything from salt and pepper shakers to plastic threading, in order to make free-standing sculpture and wall-bound installations. They are colorful paeans to form without use.


Titled New Season, New Girls, New Looks, the exhibition of the Rotterdam-based artist Amie Dicke at D'Amelio Terras has a pleasantly tough punk-rock feel about it, as though it were put up five minutes before the doors were opened. Dicke works according to a process of negation. She appropriates fashion advertisements from various places, magazines to bus shelters, depicting scantily clad women as a means to sell merchandise. Using an X-Acto knife, she artfully negates parts of their bodies and faces. In transforming their once-legible figures into lacy abstraction, Dicke performs an act of defiant objectification, objectifying that which was already objectified in ways more in keeping with priceless ornaments than merchandise to be pushed.

Jane and Louise Wilson are up to their madcap high jinks once again, playing on what they know best, that they are twin sisters. Their new show Erewhon, now at 303 Gallery, consists of a five-screen video installation and exposé of new photographic works. The title of the show, "nowhere" spelled backward, comes from a Victorian-era novel written by Samuel Butler. In keeping with the dual theme of Victorian-era morality and topsy-turvy-ness, the Wilson twins have staged battling video projections of girls in an old gymnasium moving about slowly in period exercise dress. The rhythm of the facing projections is out of sync, and the two sets of screens are at odds with one another, further riffing on the artists' activities as both individuals and twins.

The video installations of the Swiss-German artist Pipilotti Rist are endlessly mind-probing yet suggestively playful. Showing at Luhring Augustine, Herbstzeitlose (Saffron Flower or Fall Time Less) brings together four of Rist's video-cum-sculptural objects, the most piquing of which is the one showing in the main gallery. With the same title as the overall show, this work uses video as but one element in the creation of a total environment. Encompassed by video projection on three different walls, one gazes at the wall on the right where Rist herself appears in large and happy form, frolicking in the vibrantly green landscape of her native Switzerland. Images of landscape and homey neighborhood appear in the video projected in front, and the ebb and tide of a sea occurs in a video to the left. Also to the left, hanging overhead, are large wooden branches from which dangle Calder-like cast-off plastic containers. Behind where the viewers sit, Rist has installed the façade of a mock "local" house. Rist creates an ecology of the plastic and unreal that makes us question the validity of our sense of local in a globally interconnected world.


Odd though it may seem, if you squint your eyes in just the right way, move briskly down the street at just the right hour of day and cast your head upward toward the towering ends of our own patch of skyscrapers, downtown Dallas (especially Main or Commerce streets) seems oddly Manhattan-like.

Who am I kidding? That Dallas is Dallas--exotically familiar and only on rare occasion New York-esque--is what ultimately makes it special. Let Dallas be Dallas and New York be New York.

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