About halfway through “God made my Face: A collective Portrait of James Baldwin”, the sprawling tribute to the American novelist expertly curated by Hilton Als, one comes across a curiously shaped tool on the floor. It is a manual railroad bender, also known as a Jim Crow, by the conceptual artist Cameron Rowland. Starting in the 1860s, these tools were used by newly-emancipated slaves in the prison system to straighten steel bars on rail roads. It was back-breaking work – done under duress and without pay under the convict lease system. Later, a Supreme court verdict affirming racial segregation led to what are commonly known as the Jim Crow Laws that legitimized discrimination towards African-Americans. Approximately two hundred years later, James Baldwin published “The Fire Next Time”, a searing denunciation on racism, oppression and violence. Fast-forward fifty years to Black Lives, Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, celebrities and politicians tweeting racist comments, and a color-skewed justice system with prisons that often charge inmates pay-to-stay fees that grossly outweigh their wages from typical work programs, the question arises: what exactly has changed? If we cannot answer, we risk falling into the perverse trap of celebrating yet another dead civil rights activist, while at the same time turning a blind eye to or own complicity in the glaringly obvious bigotry and racial injustices of today. At David Zwirner through February 16.

As the government shutdown over the border dispute drags on without hope for an amicable resolution, a timely group exhibition at James Cohan brings together a number of multi-generational artists that engage with the conceptual, historical and formal aspects of borders. Ranging from sculpture and photography to painting and embroidery, the works consider the socio-economic, psychological, historical and political consequences that barriers and walls pose for humans and nature alike. The imposing structure by Mexican artist Jorge Méndez Blake takes up almost the entire length of the front gallery on West 26thStreet and serves as the metaphorical Elephant in the Room. Titled “Amerika”, it draws obvious connections to the current situation at the Southern border of the US, and consists of a neatly arranged row of red bricks that are interrupted at its center by Kafka’s book “Amerika”. Elsewhere, the message is decidedly hopeful. A photograph of Byron Kim’s “Sky Blue Flag” erected at the border between North and South Korea, asserts not ground or control but instead signals peace and reconciliation via a placid color made from local seedlings. Yinka Shonibare’s American Library seeks to start a conversation about immigration with books and Jordan Nassar’s stunning cross-stich embroidery emphasises the shared devotion to craft in the bitter Israeli-Palestinian divide. But perhaps the most powerful statement comes in the form of a serene landscape by Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan. Hung forlornly on a large wall at the gallery’s Grand Street location, the painting’s harmonious colors merge into  a melancholic terrain where cultural identity and a strong sense of sense of heritage have no need for artificial borders. At James Cohan through February 23.

James Siena’s captivating new, large-scale compositions are perfect case studies of the push-pull between containment and recalcitrance. Corralled in by an irregular-shaped periphery, Siena sections his compositions into several autonomous parts that contain organic fluctuations and convolutions that hold the paradox of scientific experiments that appear to evolve organically. These liquid designs recall graphical landscapes that simultaneously move from side to side, upside down and expand inwards in a seemingly autonomous way. Remarkably, the artist manages to harnesses this untamed molten flow into a repetitious balance by a complicated system of expanding and contracting spacing. Graphical methodology leads the mind towards the scientific realm but is pulled back into the subjective through Siena’s highly emotive chromatic combinations and deft figure/ground exchange. Outlines within outlines within outlines make finding the optimal viewing distance a disorienting cotillon dance with the wall but Siena’s overall subtlety with lines and color lead the viewer on a meditative path that is mentally clear, harmonious, and calm. At Pace Gallery through February 9.

 “How do I sell more art?” People tell me I should use color. And less text. Less politics would probably also help. Does that go for substance in general? Will less sell more? I’ll lose it if I have to. And I should probably make my drawings all the same not too big, not too small size… kind of always the same-ish all around. Actually doing more of the same of what sold last would be good. I can’t even remember what sold last. I doubt it looked like this. People don’t buy drawings that look like this. As my daughter would say, this drawing is bore-ing. I should probably try to get my work into fashion magazines because I bet these artists make a lot of money. Actually, just get myself into fashion magazines. I’m skinny and somewhat attractive – I’ll put your clothes on. And fancy interior design spreads too. Why don’t interior designers want to hang this drawing in an unused living room? If you are still reading this, I want to assure you that I really need to sell more drawings. This is not a joke. I am running out of money. Do you know how much my health insurance costs? Mounting drawings to canvas is one strategy, because then they’re paintings. But I couldn’t do that to Drawing. Do you know that drawings are ¼ the price of comparably sized paintings? People say I would sell more if I were younger. Or older. Anything but middle aged. There is just no money coming in. It’s making me anxious and terribly irritable, like all the time. If you are one of those people who buy art, maybe you can tell me what you buy, because this clearly isn’t it. That said, I should probably stop refusing commissions. Commissions are money for art… but is it really art if it’s a commission? Really? Being a white guy probably doesn’t help. Who needs more art by us? Although am I even white anymore? I think Trump revoked the Jews’ whiteness. Maybe I can play up the Yid angle? Hitler killed a lot of my family. Does that make this drawing more desirable? Does sex still sell? TITS! DICKS! Yes? No? Don’t think that because you are reading this in a gallery that it sells. Lots of stuff doesn’t sell here. By the way, if you are still reading this, props. You probably could have been looking at something colourful instead…. Karl Haendel “Masses & Mainstream” continues at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through February 16.

Like her Romantic peers, EJ Hauser turns drawings into visual expressions of the mysticism of nature. Yet this is where all similarities abruptly end. For Hauser not only uses her drawing practice to inform on her works on canvas but also employs her paintings to report back to her works on paper. A series of new multi-layered oil paintings grouped under the title “Barn Spirits”, were spawned during a summer stint in rural New York. Semi ovals and irregular egg shapes act as outlines or are overlaid onto complicated patterns that recall the expressive and repetitive techniques of Aboriginal art. Hauser’s complex compositions contrast multiple vantage points which superimpose linear markings that recall seeds, leaves or animal trackings from a bird-eye perspective with frontal view triangular shapes that evoke mountains or barns. A mostly muted and washed out color palette supports a matrix of lines and dots that often beget shadows of the originals. As a philosophical response to the visual overstimulation and technological overdrive of our current world, Hauser’s works circle back to the Romantics where a strong connection of the individual to nature and wildlife serves as a spiritual source of renewal. Conceptually they are relating the amalgamation of drawing and painting to the hazy mélange of memory and reality. At Derek Eller Gallery through February 3.

What makes Hans Hofmann’s paintings so contemporary? Hofmann, who was born in 1880 in Weissenburg, Bavaria, enjoyed a brief period of success in Munich during the First Wold War but it was not until his move to New York in 1933 and his subsequent opening of the Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Arts, that the artist hit his stride. Hofmann became an influential teacher and spark to multiple famous artists careers such as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers and many more. His teachings were firmly rooted in a keen understanding of Cubism, Matissian color theory, and the exuberance of Expressionism which made him into one of the key architects of Abstract Expressionism. The natural world, and its inherent objectivity was the basis and framework that guided his abstractions, even at a time when most of his colleagues started to swim against such Euro-centric currents. Hofmann’s push-pull theory which co-ordinates shape, color and line into harmonious spatial compositions is still being emulated by thousands of young artists today. It is the perfect tension between positive and negative space brought forth by an intuitive color sense and the congruous implementation of objective forms that make Hofmann’s compositions look like they were painted yesterday. At Miles McEnery Gallery through February 2.

Sophie von Hellermann’s breezy and cheerful compositions are dreamy narrations grounded in real-life events and historical places. The large-scale canvases in her current exhibition at Greene Naftali are very much moored to the place where they were made. Ileden, the show’s title, refers to the historically-rich rural area in Kent where a new studio space provided much of von Hellermann’s subject matter. Pushing World War II and Anglo-Saxon history on a cloud of playful airiness seems facetious at first but deft compositional arrangements and skilful color orchestrations force multi-dimensional readings that absolve the works from triviality. Instead, von Hellermann’s paintings evoke an ethereal playfulness that allows them to glide into an abstract perpetuity where history is hinted at but remains elusive. At Greene Naftali through February 2.

Coming straight from Lisson Gallery in London, Rodney Graham’s new lightboxes display familiar elaborate stage sets where the artist is the main protagonist. What sets these new works apart, however, is a unique approach in dissecting identity stereotypes. The guy in “Tattooed Man on the Balcony”, could be anybody’s neighbor, an ageing but still muscular musician-type with an open shirt, the fold-up chair as his throne and a bright red BBQ, leaving no doubt that this man is in charge of the cooking. Yet the man’s gaze and posture are ambivalent. Violent thug or friendly neighbor? The viewer decides. A different kind of masculinity is on display in the monumental quadriptych “Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949”. Based on a photograph of famed gallerist Samuel Kootz smoking a pipe in his Picasso exhibition, Graham softens the male-dominated 1950s New York gallery scene by domestifying the setting and inserting a gender-specific household chore. Is the gallerist signalling arrogance and control or an open-mindedness towards gender roles that precedes his time? It is a brilliant piece in which Graham, ever the performance artist, cleverly supplants the Picassos with his own work (which are based on a Rodchenko drawing and are displayed elsewhere in the gallery) and forces the mammoth size and strange panorama angle into total viewer submersion. Graham’s multi-faceted investigation into masculinity extents to his process where his sharp lightboxes are made of layering multiple photographs into one final set. Graham has a firm place in the distinguished group of multi-disciplinary contemporary artists that understand cross-cultural histories and mine philosophy, literature and art history into a contemporary understanding of our culture. At 303 gallery through February 23.

 

 

 

There is a melodious rhythm and beauty in Jennifer Wynne Reeves’ body of works. Abstracted landscapes play hosts to whimsical narratives underlined by her own poetry, impastoed paint, wire, or hair. Jennifer lived and made art in a world of her own – unmoved by the comings and goings of the art world yet revered by an army of fellow artists. Living in near isolation in a small town in New York State, her window to the world was a kinder and gentler version of Facebook where she would share and discuss her art and poetry, console friends with warmth and compassion, and inspire with wit and intellectual acuity. A small gathering of her works at the Drawing Center shows that fearlessness, decency and tenderness combined with true passion can still inspire a very cynical art world. Jennifer Wynne Reeves died of brain cancer in 2004. She was 51 years old. At the Drawing Center through February 3.

A fascinating dialogue between stunningly beautiful Navajo textiles and Agnes Martin’s minimal paintings is currently taking place at Pace Gallery. When viewed side by side, a number of captivating formal and conceptual affinities unfold. Like many of Agnes Martin’s compositions, Navajo textile design embraces harmony and balance through alternating widths of banding, deploys monochrome geometric patterns, and uses a gradating mirror perspective. Although there are no accounts of Martin ever directly borrowing from Navajo textile design, her physical proximity to the culture and history of the Native American tribes of New Mexico must not have left her untouched. Agnes Martin once said that that “what we make is what we feel.” The meditative quality of repetitive forms, the silence that blankets the Mesa, a serenity that spawns dignity, the intensity of nature, and the expansiveness of the plains that is reflected in the horizonal line, are the underpinnings of the visual and emotive experience that engulfs this exhibition. At Pace through December 21.

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