Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Two Art Shows for Our Era

There are two art shows in Chelsea at this moment that everyone should see. Stylistically, they couldn’t be more dissimilar; thematically, they share a dark vision; technically, each artist has viscerally stunning command of his own individual style. The more sacrilegious of the two is Aaron Johnson’s exhibit at the Stefan Stux Gallery. With a brightly colorful, in-your-face approach that draws equally on 60s psychedelic illustration and classical Chinese iconography, his minutely layered multimedia acrylic-on-oil collages take gleeful pleasure in pillorying the axis of evil between Christian extremists and the right wing.

A soldier dog defecates in a prostrate Jesus’ mouth as the two ride the barrel of an army tank; Babe the Blue Ox is about to get even with a twisted Paul Bunyan; Michelle Bachman devours a barbecued Obama as she enjoys dinner with grotesquely cartoonish Clintons, Newt Gingrich and others, with Sarah Palin the harpy buzzing overhead. Elsewhere, the Statue of Liberty gives Jesus a blowjob, hamburgers and hot dogs attack those who’d devour them, and Jesus (or is it St. Peter) is crucified upside down, a nail through his penis. These are just several of the literally thousands of details in Johnson’s works, apropos now but with equal historical value for the future, that is, if art like this is still legal after the 2012 election.

At the Marlborough Galley in Chelsea, Vincent Desiderio’s latest exhibit goes for a more global appeal, but one that’s equally cynical, pessimistic, and symbolically charged – and also great fun if you pay attention. His large, imposing, intense oils unassumingly demonstrate a magisterial old-masters technique, yet both his brush and trowel serve to make a point or simply evince the most impactful shades of light and shadow rather than being an ostentatious display of chops. The largest and most cruelly ironic is the burial of a woman in the woods, in later winter or early spring, in frontier America – the title references “fecundity.” Blurred, diabolical expressions occupy the faces of the mentally retarded men walking past a medieval marble garden (it’s a parody – first person to identify the original wins a prize). Another equally twisted and entertaining spoof turns a well-known John Singer Sargent image into a casually oversexed mongoloid. More retards stare zombie-faced from one imposing oil, wrestle half-naked in another.

A woman’s corpse lies in a coffin doing double duty as a sink, a la the Shining, in a tremendously vivid, green-tinted photorealistic tableau. Another corpse, this one decayed and wrapped head-to-toe in grey body tape, uses a digital camera to take a photo of a Renaissance-era child with mongoloid features. Paint peels from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel roof as disembodied, toothsome mouths roar from the side walls. The artist himself looks up somewhat triumphantly from the bottom of a surreal stairwell, “after Orozco.” The most utterly chilling, least subtle of all of these is a skewed side view of a pirate ship titled Horizon, a black-caped skeleton shaded in the murk of the ship’s sails. And that uncharacteristically blithe woman in the wedding dress? That’s a self-portrait – Desiderio’s Mona Lisa! Until each of these artists gets his MOMA retrospective, these are shows to remember for years.

Johnson’s show is up through at the Stefan Stux Gallery, 530 W 25th St. through October 22. Hours are Tues-Sat 11-6 and by appointment . Desiderio’s, at the Marlborough Gallery, 545 W 25th St., runs through October 15. Gallery hours are Tues-Sat, 10-5:30.

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September 20, 2011 Posted by | Art, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

J. Henry Fair’s Environmentalist Photography: A Pre-Apocalyptic Exhibit?

Photographer J. Henry Fair’s new exhibit, Landscapes of Extraction: The Collateral Damage of the Fossil Fuels Industries at the second floor gallery at Cooper Union is as important as it is surreal. And is it ever surreal. Esthetically, Fair goes for vividly colorful landscape shots of future Superfund sites: that is, if there is any Superfund left to clean up the decapitated mountaintops, lakesize cesspools of lethal sludge, and seemingly innocuous construction sites he shoots from a distance. Fair’s photos are accompanied by a series of multimedia stations and a grimly informative running text detailing the processes he documents: deep sea drilling, mountaintop clearcutting, messy metal refining and chemical manufacturing. And those matter-of-factly calm if predictably messy construction sites are actually hydrofracked natural gas wells.

“Fracking,” in the gas business is slang for “fracture,” a necessity when drilling through shale deposits to unleash the lucrative gas beneath. Hydrofracking began in the 70s, originally a process where high-pressure water was used to break up the rock. These days, courtesy of what’s commonly known as the “Halliburton loophole,” pushed through by the Bush regime in 2005, natural gas companies are allowed to use whatever liquid they want, no matter how caustic or lethal it might be. Furthermore, the law exempts the drilling companies from having to reveal the contents of their lethal concoctions on the grounds that they’re “trade secrets.” As Fair documents, what’s no secret is that highly toxic amounts of radium have turned up in groundwater running into the water table from these sites recently (ostensibly, there’s supposed to be a buffer zone around each well, although a particularly eerie aerial photo shows a portion of Garfield County, Colorado with wells side by side – from above, the effect is that of a graveyard). And while radium is silently lethal, there’s no ignoring the water in your kitchen sink catching fire, vividly described in Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland. Gas leases are lucrative: it’s not hard to imagine the residents of a neighborhood or town hit hard by the depression signing up for them en masse, only to discover their property polluted to the point of being unhabitable, never mind unsaleable. Is the current process of hydrofracking the teens equivalent of what munitions manufacturing became in the 90s, a convenient way to dispose of nuclear waste? Fair’s investigation doesn’t carry that far.

He also takes a sobering look at mountaintop clearcutting (a cause famously taken up by activist/gospel bandleader Reverend Billy), where coal companies like Massey Energy basically blast the top off mountains in Appalachia, raining down all sorts of debris, some more toxic than others, on the community below. Ultimately, Fair emphasizes, what’s happened since the invention of the steam engine is that millions of years worth of carbon have been re-released into the environment in the last 250 years, a blink of an eye and the equivalent of an explosion in evolutionary terms. The potentially apocalyptic environmental crises we face today, from global warming, to oil spills, to the highly contested effects of hydrofracking, are the blowback from that explosion. The exhibit is a must-see; it’s up through February 26 at Cooper Union (enter through the back entrance at the main building on the triangle between Bowery and Fourth Avenue at Seventh Street). Hours are Monday-Friday, 12-7 PM, Saturday 12-5 PM.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | Art, photography, Politics, Public Health | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tamara Kostianovsky – Actus Reus at the Black & White Gallery, NYC

The phrase “actus reus,” meaning the physical commission of a crime, in combination with “mens rea,” the mind to do it, equate to criminal liability in a court of law. For her New York solo debut, Israeli/Argentinian artist Tamara Kostianovsky has created a series of mostly lifesize sculptures of beef carcasses made from used clothing. The show has all the subtlety of a Mack truck hitting a brick wall at 100 MPH, but sometimes that’s what you need to do to prove a point: these works are impossible to turn away from. The colors are bloodless, the reds muted admidst the pink, beige and white of cowskin, fat and sinew, which makes them all the more powerful: the stuffed animal quality almost makes you want to cuddle these dead animals and reassure them that everything’s ok. Of course, it’s not.

The slaughterhouse includes a quartet of “beef” sides, each in plastic bags with their own individual tag (which looks suspiciously like a recycled airline baggage label); a sink full of “blood” (knitted or embroidered), “blood” seeping all around it; several carcasses, some on hooks, others not, shown from the the underside of the ribcage; and the most striking cow of all, who hangs from the ceiling by a single leg, the other limp, the skin of her belly peeled away to reveal an intricate network of veins. The realism is striking, as is Kostianovsky’s remarkable prowess as a seamstress. As agitprop goes, it doesn’t get much better than this (is Kostianovsky a vegetarian? One would think so). If all else fails, she can always become the house artist for PETA. But the equation isn’t that simple. Most of us eat meat. Only a tiny fraction of the carnivores of the Western world actually kill what they consume. In tackling this cognitive dissonance head-on, Kostianovsky takes on the difficult task of trying to give these animals some dignity in their ugliest possible state and succeeds brilliantly. Through May 24 at the Black & White Gallery, 636 West 28th St., west of 11th Ave., Tuesday – Saturday, 11 AM – 6 PM and by appointment.

April 18, 2008 Posted by | Art, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment