As the “season” picks up, one can be put off by the petty, repellant parts of the art world: cliquey openings, too-sweet champagne, gross excesses of money held by questionable figures. However, resident art critic Rob Goyanes is here to wade through the trash and pick out the gems. What follows are exhibitions that are aesthetically proper, conceptually solid, and historically significant. And it’s all drawn from an equal mix of institutions and small galleries. Herewith, a few of the best shows in October.
MIAMI: ‘Adios Melancholy’ at Emerson Dorsch
Magnús Sigurðarson, a sad and pale Icelander, has been searching for melancholy in Miami for over a decade. The lugubrious state is natural for the conceptual artist. He’s accustomed to lullabies about death and frigid weather. But apparently he’s had a hard time finding familiar despair—at least in a recognizable form—in sunny Miami. His latest exhibition is all about his failure to be sad.
Clay paintings of parrots, an installation, and a video adorn the gallery of Emerson Dorsch, each documenting his defeat. The parrot serves not only as content, but as emblem. And before you regard this as some cheap adoption of tropical signifier by a northern European, consider this: the Gulf Stream extends all the way to Iceland, bringing warm weather to the southern part of the country. (Also, several Caribbean islands, as well as Iceland, were all under the colonial yoke of Denmark.) In light of this, Sigurðarson considers Iceland to be the northernmost Caribbean nation.
Add to this the fact that the parrots which currently flock and chirp—ganged up on palm trees and power lines—are actually not native to South Florida at all. They’re immigrants, just like Sigurðarson and everyone else. There’s a sweet sadness to be found in the fact that there’s no home to return to, only the one we have. Through October 20.
MIAMI: ‘Surrounded Islands’ at PAMM
Before Miami was considered a hub for contemporary art—Christo and Jeanne-Claude surrounded 11 islands in Biscayne Bay with pink plastic fabric. The images quickly became iconic, and were a point of departure for Miami’s art world identity. An exhibition at PAMM presents sketches, logistical preparations, and documentations of this giant-scale floating installation, which caused quite the controversy at the time.
The married duo of Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude are known for huge artworks that significantly alter the landscape: covered bridges, monumental barricades, curtains over valleys. Surrounded Islands likewise caused a huge stir in Miami, spurring countless city meetings and public debate. Once the 6.5 million square-feet of pink were draped around the islands, there came aesthetic derision from those who thought the work ugly and/or effeminate. Protests had been in full swing by environmentalists who charged that it would disrupt marine life.
The exhibition at PAMM doesn’t seem to adequately acknowledging the problematics and debates (“…the project had a unifying effect on the city as a whole,” as stated in PAMM’s press release, is rosy revisionism). Still, it is certainly a good starting point for understanding the gargantuan project, and for thinking about the birth of a new art city. Through February 17, 2019.
NEW YORK: ‘Art in the Age of Black Power’ at Brooklyn Museum
In a much-needed, wide-ranging show, the Brooklyn Museum is presenting Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. The 20 years between 1963 and 1983—not to mention the many before and up ’til today—were fraught with the struggle for civil rights in the face of white supremacy. Besides the known social movements and legal upendings, black artists were generating a swath of art at the time that needs public and canonical recognition.
The show contains over 150 works, from abstract and figurative painting to photography and performance. Faith Ringgold, an artist born in Harlem and known for her narrative quiltmaking, has a painting of a bleeding American flag on view. The mangled steel sculptures of Mel Edwards, created using the literal materials of oppression, push viewers to consider the political nature of abstraction.
Besides the lamentations of the prison-industrial complex, histories of lynching, and economic disenfranchisement, there are celebrations of black life. Roy DeCarava’s “Couple Walking (1979)” shows two people from behind, locked in geometric embrace. Emma Amos’s paintings explore poses and attitudes, ideas of sass and backtalk, and how everyday gestures can function as resistance.
Also in the show are the many cooperatives and collectives who worked together, not only to make aesthetic breakthroughs, but to organize politically. The works and histories presented in this exhibition are as important today as they were back then. Through February 3, 2019.
NEW YORK CITY: Chelsea Culprit at Queer Thoughts
If DMing Purgatory as a title isn’t enough to get you in the door, then hopefully the following words will convince you. Chelsea Culprit’s new exhibition at Queer Thoughts is hypnotic, visually and metaphorically. The paintings are a fresh mix of abstraction and figuration, with bodies contorted in a way that you can’t figure out where they start and where they end.
Primary colors and paneled partitioning draw the eyes in, but the inclusion of oil, gouache, enamel, acrylic, and fabrics dazzle them with textures once there. Philosophically, they probe ideas of the body as contested political site, but not in a direct way. Giant heels upturned, neon eyes, and variegated patterns cause disorientation, leaving the brain to search for signs. More orderly are the fabric and hardware works.
These two pieces are stunning for their geometrical language and interpretive scope, i.e., they’re just really fun to look at and think about. “Black Widow Anarchist Hour Glass (2018)” sums up the potency of the work’s multiplicative effects: four legs straddled in an hourglass shape, two black and two red, with a series of chains meeting in the middle. Not only a beautiful object, but a reminder that time’s running out for the oppressive powers that be. Through October 28, 2018.
LOS ANGELES: ‘Artists and Their Books’ at the Getty Research Institute
Books are not just vehicles for information, narrative, and lyrical play. They’re aesthetic objects in their own right, which is why such attention is paid to covers, and why readers so like to display them. An exhibition at the Getty Research Institute shows how contemporary artists have pushed the concept of the book, or how they’ve compellingly complicated the function of printed, bound tomes.
One example is Barbara Fahrner and Daniel E. Kelm’s “The Philosopher’s Stone (1992),” which is a foldable, sculptural box with arcane illustrations on parchment-like paper. Other artists challenge the material of books, such as Tauba Auerbach’s book from 2013, made of plastic and plexiglass. Barbara T. Smith was using a photocopier in her living room in the 1960s, long before the current trend of zines, to document her life and the struggles of women.
Besides the many fascinating political examples of artist books—especially from Latin America, books which transmitted messages outside and underneath the nose of oppressive governments—there are cruder takes on the role of the book. Dieter Roth’s urine-soaked pages, which continue to yellow over time, reflects upon the transient nature of knowledge. Luckily, you can witness this work, but not smell it. Through October 28, 2018.
LOS ANGELES: Hayv Kahraman at Susanne Vielmetter
Born in Baghdad in 1981, Hayv Kahraman came of age during the brutal Iran-Iraq war. Her parents managed to get her to Sweden in 1991, after Saddam Hussein started attacking Kurdish communities like hers with chemical weapons. An experience that has deeply influenced her arts practice, Kahraman focuses on the experience of refugees and the complex circulation of bodies. Silence Is Gold reflects on the role of neocolonialism in current humanitarian regimes, especially when it comes sex trafficking.
The exquisitely textured paintings and sculptural works at Susanne Vielmetter scramble expectations: fair-skinned women with Persian features reveal themselves to the audience. Those exposing their bodies are alone with the viewer. Those that are in groups are dancing or chatting in solidarity. At first it might not seem obvious how the figures who populate these works are challenging Western conceptions of altruism.
When women are seeking asylum and aid from other countries, particularly the U.S., those who have been involved in sexual trafficking are given higher preference. Kahraman is pointing out the fact that those who experience domestic sexual violence are not considered as significant, a suggestion that the everyday violence is less pressing. Issues of desire and sexual autonomy are also at play in Kahraman’s show, a timely meditation on the global struggles of women. But also, when is that not timely? Through October 27, 2018.