In his recent essay “Human Nature” for Artforum, Dan Nadel considers the art of Ellen Berkenblit, Carroll Dunham, Sarah Peters and Kyle Staver through the weighty question of what it means to be human. He adds twelve more artists to aid with the visualization of this inquiry in a sprawling but rewarding group exhibition at Eva Presenhuber Gallery. Big questions require strength in numbers and the help of language, so this admittedly quixotic task sets its goalposts in form of Will Oldham’s graceful poem “I see a darkness” (1999) which is split evenly between hopefulness and crushing pessimism. Figuration and narrative link most works in this exhibition which also includes Huma Bhabha, Joe Bradley, Joan Brown, Steve DiBenedetto, Christopher Forgues, Jason Fox, Mike Kelley, Takeshi Murata, Gary Panter, Laurie Simmons, Alan Turner, and Michael Williams. In the entrance hall, a conversation between Takeshi Murata’s “Xeno” (2017) and Joan Brown’s “The Golden Age: The Jaguar and the Tapir” (1985) seems to ask whether co-existence is possible despite our inherent differences. Formal associations and juxtapositions abound in the main gallery where Sarah Peters’ serene plaster busts collide with the emotional intensity of Mike Kelley’s repressed finger-painting memories. If closed spaces sharpen the senses, then the basement gallery provides ample opportunity to investigate the complexities of the human race. This may happen through the lens of gender whereby Carroll Dunham’s toxic masculinity is juxtapositioned with Ellen Berkenblit’s prickly unmanliness; or via mythology as in Huma Bhabha’s totemic sculpture; or in the paradoxical biblical narratives of Kyle Staver. That these and other threads run through almost all artists assembled in this exhibition, attests to the brilliance of the curator and makes this an intellectually rewarding exercise on the condition of humanity. At Eva Presenhuber through March 3.

On Mithu Sen’s website the word “un-home” floats searchingly across the screen. Enter her virtual home, and it becomes clear that the unlocking of the negative prefix “un” parenthesizes much of the work of this West Bengali artist. Sen’s multidisciplinary practice folds poetry, drawing, performance and video work into lyrical contemplations on sexuality, identity, and loss. Language, with its calamitous force to unite or destroy, lies at or near the core of many of her endeavours. Her dreamlike video installation “I have only one language; it is not mine”, created for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014, seeks to transcend the boundaries of conventional language in search of non-verbal dialogue. A fictional young woman named Mago, who communicates in a made-up language, whiles her days away seesawing between boredom, loneliness, gossip, and despair. She lives with other emotionally and sexually abused young girls in a government orphanage in Kerala whose lush settings and tropical climate masks its grim reality. A haze of ambiguity hangs over the production that veils identity and perspective. As the camera shifts from her body into the hands of the girls and back, the artist fluctuates between observer and collaborator and from confidante and the observed. The emotive nebulousness is underscored by the sketch-like quality of the film which fuses tropical plants, red carpeting, drawings, and small hanging sculptures into an immersive environment that draws the visitor into these young women’s lives and demonstrates that memories and emotions are the true semantics of our shared humanity. At Thomas Erben through February 16.

Look at some of Roy McMakin’s furniture and you just know who made it. No nonsense chairs, plain but sturdy beds, comfortable armchairs covered in handwoven fabrics: the kind of furniture that could only have been lovingly manufactured far away from New York in a small bespoke workshop in Seattle by nice, plaid-shirted, clog-wearing crafts people. An exhibition at Garth Greenan Gallery wants you to hold your triple latte. What looks at first like a pleasant trip to a furniture showroom, quickly turns into a family outing to the fun house. While it is true that the objects are hand-crafted by the good people of Big Leaf Manufacturing in the Emerald City, McMakin slyly denies them their functional purpose. Try sitting on a chair with a glass back or open the non-existing drawers at that charming dresser or attempt to fit a mattress into a white bed-frame that appears to be too big and too small at the same time. How exactly are you supposed to eat on half a table? Sometimes, it’s hard to determine what the object is. Is a lamp, or a vase? Both or neither? This is precisely the disorienting place where McMakin wants you to be. Through a clever mix of honest design and the shrewd exploitation of pre-determined assumptions about domesticity, McMakin’s work dances on the precipice between when an object loses its functionality and moves into the cerebral realm of sculpture. Add some deadpan humour and everybody knows what he means by the sculpture “The Bed I Bought When I was a Teenager That was Later Put in the Creepy (maybe haunted) Room in my Parents Basement Where I had to Sleep until Mike Refused”. At Garth Greenan Gallery through February 16.

In “In Lieu of a Louder Love”, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye returns with expressive portraits of fictional figures and settings that are at once lyrical and pensive, harmonious and lush. Yiadom-Boakye, who effortless pivots between writing and painting, cross-fertilizes narrative and character development in each genre and exploits their limitations to achieve supremacy in both. Her intimate moments-in-time tap into a strange familiarity that spark imaginary narratives of the before, the after and the in-between. Serene and elegant, the paintings ooze an unapologetic self-confidence toward figuration and a deep understanding of the history of painting. They are not, as sometimes falsely claimed, concerned with enticing the black figure to a white audience. Hung low and awash in warm and muted colors, they invite us into a shared humanity that transcends race. At Jack Shainman through February 16.

The element of chance in making perceived reality visible in early photography is at the crux of an interesting collaborative  project between Carrie Yamaoka and Thomas Fougeirol. The exhibition takes as its starting point a beautifully back-lit photogram of a hand by Géro Bonnet from 1912. Like Susan Hiller’s Aura works, the image is not so much a recording of the supposed electromagnetic waves that emanate from the body but instead opens the door to wider discussions on what roles chance and process play in the depiction of the invisible. Both artists are deeply concerned with questions of what is real and how to measure perception. Fougeirol’s practice employs the liquidity of paint to record actions such as the falling of debris, the gathering of dust or the dropping of rain. The influence of Yves Klein, in accessing the spiritual and visceral core of objects and their recordings on the surface of his paintings, is unmistakable. Carrie Yamaoka works with light in exposing the limitation of perception. The artist rubs a mirror-like substance on surfaces that are determined by chance. The results are flawed transcriptions of reality where the viewer gets implicated through the reflective surface. Seen side-by-side, both artist’s works force reflections on painting’s historical predicament to create a presence from absence and the shaky territory of our own perception. At Albertz Benda through February 16.

In the years following the Second World War, and after enjoying a relative brief period of economic independence, working women across America were expected to return to the home and family. Home sewing, with its associations of virtue and thrift, was a convenient mechanism to enforce a re-alignment of gender roles where men were earning the money and women stayed at home and spent it. A proliferation of sewing patterns in women’s magazine and girls’ curriculums emphasized quasi-Victorian values and the understanding that the safest place for a woman was in front of her sewing machine. In her new series of photographs, Erica Baum subverts twentieth century sewing patterns and instructions into conceptually driven abstractions. An elegant reciprocity between language and geometric forms invites beguiling art-historical metaphors that lead from the Supremacist drawings of Kazmir Malevich, via the non-objective patterns designs by Russian Cubo-Futirist Olga Rozanova to the austere fashion outlines of Lyubov Popova. This time around, Baum used pre-existing folds to add additional lines. Detached language fragments and the peculiar mustard yellow of sewing patters contribute to the sense that these works are scientific artifacts, or perhaps relics from a bye-gone era; as photographic evidence they function as imprints of imprints of imprints. Philosophically, the reductive state of these abstracted sewing instructions and their inherent flatness encourage associations not with the finished product but with the objectification of their makers. At Bureau through February 17.

Dana Schutz makes a triumphant return at Petzel Gallery with a series of grand and self-confident disaster paintings that narrate fragmented tales of greed, ecological calamity, political turmoil, and emotional poverty. Wilfully vulgar and raw, her rebellious compositions are loaded with dark premonitions and inhabit cartoonishly grotesque creatures in apocalyptic scenes where the vulgarity of the human condition is laid bare. Schutz’s malignant contortions are underscored by a foreboding color palette where even the occasional ray of sunshine seems to be clouded by acid rain and by a virtuosic line that serves only to underscore pompous vain-gloriousness and greed. Amidst the chaos, Schutz does not shirk personal demons. The controversy surrounding her “Open Casket” painting at last year’s Whitney Biennial and the ensuing public outcry is stalking the artist in “The Visible World”. Here, Schutz appears to be sacrificed on an island in the middle of a landfill (or an ocean resembling a garbage dump) and given the raspberry by a seagull with an overly big beak –  a bitter allegory perhaps to the sacrificial offerings that art sometimes must make in order to move forward. When formal excellence, intensity and symbolism get paired with a healthy dose of unflinching personal introspection and an uncanny ability to perceive our current world, we know that we have found a painter in the truest sense of the word. At Petzel through February 23.

The eponymous Paula Cooper Gallery, which helped launch the careers of several important conceptual and minimalist artists, is paying homage to some of its most famous stars. Echoing the history of the New York art world since the early 1970s, the gallery has been nurturing the talents of artists in ways that seem antiquated by today’s standards. Recent much-publicized financial troubles aside, the gallery continues to put together important exhibitions that influence the trajectory of art. A new group exhibition circles back to the beginnings when Soho was at the center of a new wave of artists who explored new media, performance, and feminism in alternative art spaces in what was then a largely forgotten part of town. Jennifer Bartlett, Lynda Benglis, Jonathan Borofsky, Elizabeth Murray, Joel Shapiro and Jackie Winsor are among a diverse group of artists who rejected the traditional art-world status-quo of uptown institutions in search of fresh, innovative ideas. They are a dissimilar and often contradictory bunch, yet all possess a highly personal style and a compulsive drive to break free of the established art canon. This is Elizabeth Murray’s magnificent C Painting (1980), a fine example of her irregular shaped canvases that opened a new space for painting at a time when it was all but declared dead. At Paula Cooper Gallery through February 9.

Female sexuality narrated by women has always carried a radical tint. Add the ageing body and the mixture becomes outright toxic. A new series of powerful nude self-portraits by Joan Semmel take on the cultural obsession with youth and the idealized body and engage the viewer with a mature corporeality that is at once sensual and sexual. Semmel is often lazily lumped together with Jenny Saville whose overflowing, female flesh possess a remorseless carnality that Semmel eschews. Instead, Semmel takes an unflinching look at her own body and finds that sagging breasts, love handles, and wrinkles are signposts but no guideposts for visceral pleasure. Seductive color, expressive brushwork and luxurious angles imbue Semmel’s bodies with a sensual intimacy that signal autonomy and strength. They are the antidote to Lisa Yuskavage’s mindless bimbos and prove that Joan Semmel still occupies the placeholder as the foremost feminist painter. At Alexander Gray through February 16.

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.

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