Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward often works with the detritus of the world and fashions it into installations and assemblages that are sobering reflections on society’s socio-economic and racial shortcomings and the fear and despair they beget. Ward has an uncanny ability to coax meaning out of materiality. Displacement, poverty, and racism are the fault-lines around which Ward operates. To that end, a room-full of discarded baby strollers becomes a searing indictment on the appalling plight of homelessness; broken furniture an emblem of gentrification and displacement; and an assemblage of charred baseball bats a symbol of broken dreams. Folk traditions, such as quilting and story-telling and the spiritual cure these ritualistic disciplines bequeath, are particularly important touchstones of Ward’s practice. In the monumentous sculpture “We the People” (2011), the first three words of the pre-amble to the US Constitution are spelled out with hundreds of colored shoelaces which renders this absolute manifest blurry and unclear. It is a brilliant attempt to repurpose the familiar in order to expose its alien. At the New Museum through May 26.

Finally, at age 96, Beverly Pepper is getting the credit she deserves. Recent revelations that Pepper worked with Cor-ten steel years before Richard Serra discovered the material and a belated recognition that she pioneered linking sculpture to landscape, cement the artist’s place at the vanguard of innovation. Pepper came late to sculpture. The artist was already forty years old and living in Italy, when she got introduced to David Smith and, in a baptism by fire, learned welding and metal work in a factory in the small town of Spoletto. A series of recent large-scale works circle back to the artist’s infatuation with Cor-ten steel. The monumental works are at once poetic and bold. Dynamic half-circles and buoyant loops in a weathered patina seemingly defy laws of physics and affirm Pepper’s superior proficiency with materiality, color and form. The illustrious art critic Clement Greenberg was supposed to have told Pepper once that women can never be great sculptors. It is fair to say that she proved him wrong. At Marlborough Gallery through March 23.

Arthur Schopenhauer once famously observed that “genius lives only one story above madness”. Nowhere is that more congruous than in the life and work of the late Italian artist Carol Rama. Rama was born in the last throes of World War I into an Italian family straight-jacketed by religion and repressed sexuality and spent her young adulthood witnessing the steamrolling ascent of fascism. When Rama was fifteen, her mother Marta was committed to a mental institution which, with its disturbing scenes of forced confinement and intense physical and physiological pain, made a deep impression on the young artist. Her early pastels and watercolors are raw depictions of disembodied limbs, figures trapped in wheelchairs, and frontal nudes defiantly sticking their blood-red tongues out. A series of works titled “Appassionata” links the hellish prospect of the Passion of Christ with the psychological torment of inhibited sexuality. In the magnificent “Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni)” (1939), named after her mother, three nude figures are trapped in a tightly cropped composition. Two males, in barely visible outlines with stark-red lips and bloodied genitalia, masturbate or copulate in front of a woman wearing a flowery crown of thorns. That these types of works were a direct affront to the stifling patriarchal environment of Mussolini’s Italy was clear and intentional and led, not surprisingly, to the police shutdown of her first gallery show. In 1942 Rama’s father, who owned a bicycle factory, committed suicide. Subsequent works abandoned figuration and often incorporated deflated rubber tires, tar, and doll eyes on dark canvas. Carol Rama died on September 25, 2015 at age 97 in the same town where she was born. Throughout her self-taught art practice madness, sexuality, violence and repression was matter-of-factly tied to the inevitability of family blood which also was the cauldron that gave birth to Rama’s genius. At Levy Gorvy through March 23.

2020 promises to be a banner year for Jasper Johns. Duelling exhibitions at The Whitney Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art predict the most comprehensive consideration of the artist’s oeuvre to date. A small teaser of thirty-eight works made during the last six years is currently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery. A sombre color palette and the re-workings of earlier themes of death and dying invite the reading of the work of an artist at the twilight of his career. It absolves the show of the sort of didactic interpretations that have become de rigour when considering Johns’ work. The great quantum leap in linking language to experience and image to emotion which in turn are distilled into an artwork is the artist’s legacy and nowhere more apparent than in his searing drawings and monotypes based on the Life magazine photo of a grieving Lance Corporal James Farley during the Vietnam War. Elsewhere, Johns circles back to his Seasons paintings from the mid-1980s with two new interpretations that superimpose the artist’s shadow with a jolly skeleton. Recurring subjects and motifs serve as armatures for a continuous mirroring and rewriting of gestural form and provide the springboards for the artist’s relentless experimentation with materials that place him into the distinguished category of one of the most gifted living artist in America today. At Matthew Marks through April 6.

The armature around which Judith Linhares builds her expressive compositions has its origin in color. Acid greens, electric yellows, and artic blues dislodged from the brain without logic or intent find a sudden purpose in hallucinatory narratives where nature, animals, and the female form languidly commune. Dramatic bands of color inject movement and energy into nonsensical scenes where women are often the sole protagonists. Occasionally, Linhares places her own spin on art historical gems such as in “High Desert”, when she awakens Rousseau’s poetic Sleeping Gypsy (1897), strips her of her clothes and dips the scene in acid. A strange scene of domesticity plays out in “Saturday Morning” (2017) where two women cheerfully work and play in front of a pyramid-like structure. These narratives neither need nor miss men. Graceful, unhurried, and utterly unrestrained, the women go about their business in a world that feels natural on their own terms. At PPOW through March 16.

The idea that sparked Kevin Beasley’s brilliant installation “A View of a Landscape”, currently on view on the 8thfloor of the Whitney Museum, came from a trip to a family reunion in Virginia. For the first time, Beasley noticed a nearby cotton field and pondered his own connection to its violent history and acts of displacement. Beasley, who is black, tracked down a motor of a cotton gin that ran a field in Maplesville, Alabama from 1940 until 1973. He encased the motor in a sound-proof glass box, hooked up microphones and connected it to a synthesizer that allows him to manipulate the sound and vibrations which he then plays in an adjacent listening room. The resulting experience is sobering and profound. The mute segregation of the motor as a strong metaphor for the machine as a witness connects intuitively to the silencing of voices and the haunting of absent bodies. Time and place distorts historical narration and gets channelled into fragmented sound and vibrations that lets visitors process history on their own terms. For Beasley has morphed his own personal experience into a physical experience for viewers who can feel the pulse of the motor through the benches in the listening room. The buzzing and vibrations get transmitted into their bodies and stay as reverberations long after they have left the gallery. At the Whitney Museum of Art through March 10.

For much of the second half of the past century the concept of American Suburbia was synonymous with the American Dream. Space, a resemblance of nature, and the promise to leave behind poverty, noise, and violence seemed a sure-fire bet towards a cleaner, healthier lifestyle that rewarded upward-mobility for the family. Almost immediately, however, the carefully applied white paint on the picket fence started to bubble and peel, spawning darkly fore-boding cult-movies like “The Stepford Wives” and elegiac novels by Raymond Carver and Philip Roth. Two of Larry Sultan’s most iconic photographic series “Pictures from Home” and “The Valley” occupy this nether space between the eternal sunshine of the spotless lawn and the hallucinogenic horror of American Beauty. “Pictures from Home” unflinchingly chronicles the sunny loneliness of Sultan’s parents in a retirement community near Palm Springs. Tender and melancholic, the carefully staged scenes are both memento mori and an homage to the gift of immortality that photography bestows. A different kind of ambiguity is at play in the series “The Valley”. Here, the peculiar habit of staging pornography movies in rented middle-class homes takes us into the psycho-emotive field of stardom and boredom. Connecting the familiarly mundane, such as family pictures and floral couches with lewd carnal fantasies is, of course, something that the adult-film industry has figured out long ago. Sultan, here, is merely the documentary photographer that lifts the veil from our own intuition. In both series, as well as Sultan’s other distinguished works, the artist is able to coax ambiguity out of a carefully manufactured reality that seems at once absolute and fictitious. That he is able to lead us on shaky ground without an ounce of cynicism speaks entirely to the brilliance of his artistry and proves that there really are two sides of everything: authenticity and subterfuge, the mundane and the bizarre, happiness and despair. At Yancey Richardson through April 6.

The Argentine-Italian Surrealist artist Leonor Fini (1907 – 1996) moved effortlessly between painting, drawing, costume design, and illustration and drew inspiration from a variety of art forms including dance, theatre and film. An early disciple of the Freudian theory of tapping the subconscious, Fini nevertheless resisted being drawn into the male-centric Surrealist movement spearheaded by André Breton and Max Ernst, in favor of her very own radical version of extreme erotic Surrealism. Shattering the taboo became the theme for both subject matter and modus vivendi. Uncanny scenes of sexual violence, bestiality, witchcraft, and ritualistic sex, rendered in sketch-like drawings or thinly layered oil paintings have strong affinities to Art Nouveau and Mannerist portraiture. The mythological imagery of the stealth-like Sphinx, with its hybridization of the female and animalistic, often provided the hook for Fini’s explorations into the deepest reaches of sexuality. Technically adept, her voyeuristic explorations into the human psyche are both tender and unsettling – they are dramatic visual expressions of what lurks behind the facade of reality. At the Museum of Sex through March 4.

The ephemerality of time and the slippery ambiguity of memory runs like a thread through Michelle Stuart’s multi-faceted art practice which stretches from large-scale earth works and photography to multi-media installations, drawing and print. If archaeology is the study of artefacts then photography must be its modern apprentice. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Stuart’s majestic grids of inkjet photographs that combine images of birds, plants, landscapes, planets and fossils with fossilized shells and bones, earth and rocks. “Flight of Time” (2016) combines eighty-eight mostly black-and-white inkjet photographs into a striking mise-en-scène that spiritually links Stuart to Joan Jonas’ on-going engagement with nature and the pursuit of the vexing question of how we perceive time. Like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, fragmented imagery and archaeological artefacts provide the wobbly cornerstones that links history and time. For our conception of history is based upon the modern innovation of chronological time and scientific inquiry that replaced the mythological and spiritual readings of early humankind. Stuart’s compositions take us back into that metaphysical realm of intuition, freed of  linear history, where a multitude of images provide the string on which time itself hinges upon. At Galerie Lelong through March 9.

“I became an artist because of nature.” For more than seven decades Luchita Hurtado has cultivated a multi-faceted art practice that is firmly grounded in a fundamental kinship with nature and the belief that the natural world, as we experience it, is merely given to us on loan. An exhibition that focuses on the artist’s prolific output between the 1940s and 1950s reveals her restless experimentation with materials and style. A decade-long stay in Mexico and a subsequent move to New Mexico, ignited a desire to visualize the spiritual and mystical connection to nature and land. From the beginning Hurtado surrounded herself with artists, writers, and intellectuals whose working methods and philosophies she readily absorbed. Her second and third husband were the artists Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican respectively, and her friendship circle included renowned artists such as Agnes Martin, Isamu Noguchi, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Wilfredo Lam, Man Ray, and Rufino Tamayo. Hurtado’s abstracted flora as well as her melancholic figurative landscapes veer strongly into the Surrealist realm where moody color schemata play host to dreamlike figurations, biomorphic compositions, and sketch-like primitive drawings. They are extraordinary explorations into the interrelationship between man and nature and are the benchmark of a well-deserved, if belated, recognition of an astonishing art trajectory. At Hauser & Wirth through April 6.

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