Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Good Pictures From McNair Evans

A Disclaimer

As I get older, life becomes filled with responsibilities, and very often when I go out to see art, it is work by people I know and like. I enjoy writing about art, and it serves as a way for me to process my thoughts about work. Many of the people I have written about below are people I know and am fond of, to one degree or another. I apologize if that colors my thoughts and feelings.

Naomi Reis @ The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey

Every time I am in front of Reis’s work I find myself think about the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the fifties black and white movie monster who rises from the swamps to chase unsuspecting victims. The woods of my childhood in New Jersey were not nearly as overgrown nor were the greens ever as varied as in Ries’s leafy collages. The work has a layered density that is stunning and overwhelming, an impenetrable visual wall of greens. Like walking through a moist jungle far away or the glimpses that fly by when running away from the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Reis’s work is dense, but her palate is crisp and upbeat. It celebrates the source material and reflects an artistic view that seems much more at ease lost in the woods. In contrast to me, whose only reference point for this kind of nature is movies and scary ones at that.

Through June 25th

Adriana Ramic, Machine that the larvae of configuration @ Kimberly-Klark

Man, Kimberly-Klark is doing interesting stuff. I am a little uncertain what to make of Adriana Ramic’s work or, for that matter, her two-page press release made up almost entirely of grids of letters. Understanding the press release and maybe the show hinges on possibly understanding what a “achromatopsic optical character program” is or what “k-nearest algorithm to read a photo” might be. But I very much enjoyed the smell of the gallery as I walked on the dirt-covered floor scattered with little patches of moss and flowers while looking at a floor-to-ceiling grid of small pictures matched with letters. It was a very pleasant way to climb inside contemporary society’s digital onslaught of images.

Through June 4th

Ryan Oskin, Subdivision @ Rubber Factory

It is MFA season, and I have seen a lot work by young people of late. As a result, I have no idea where photography is headed or what it even is now-a-days. The one thing has jumped out at me: the assortment of random pictures that look good together and kind of make sense is certainly an ongoing proposition for graduate students. As a photographic trend, I have officially had my fill.

The blending of sculpture and photography is not inherently new, but Ryan Oskin’s installation is starting to suggest what might be coming next for photography. The work is made up of pictures that I can’t always figure out, printed with high contrast in blue, making them look like experimental architectural drawings. The images are printed on vinyl and hung by blue bungee ties which lends a materiality to the work, which feels both practical and the kind of thing you would find on a construction site.

The best part of the work is that the installation turns the gallery into an almost untraversable web of blue. When you walk in the door, the space looks like a flat layering of blue. Stepping inside, the installation quickly becomes a wonderful three-dimensional piece, giving the impression that you have crawled inside a photo collage of layered images. The work isn’t unprecedented and in the long run might feel of the time, but it is hard to ignore that Oskin is successfully pushing the medium forward by making interesting looking work.

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Erin O’Keefe, Book of Days @ Denny Gallery

Erin O’Keefe and her work have had a rather profound effect on my thinking about photography. For some time, I’ve had a hard time not evaluating photography by how effectively it communicates an idea about the world.  In my mind, photography was certainly able to be about the medium of photography, and there was work from the Picture Generation that I very much enjoyed, but I tended to draw a line at abstract photography. I thought it was shallow and better left to painting.  But a year ago, I stumbled on O’Keefe’s work in a group show at Ortega y Gasset, and like many, at first didn’t notice that it was a photograph, I was generally struck by what I recall as a wonderfully bright, peppy highlighter palate that was more vibrant than your standard painting. It took a second of non-lazy looking on my part to realize it was a photograph, and the image stayed with me ever since.

In her current show, O’Keefe seems to be having a good time playing around with the way the camera renders physical space. In some of the work, it is almost impossible to discern that what she is photographing is a three-dimensional studio set-up, but then as in some of the larger more monotone images, there are pockets of focus or glimpses of a clear foreground where the picture instantaneously snaps from two-dimensions into three. For a viewer, it is not only exciting, but makes you feel like you have figured something out. Now if playing around in the optics of the medium seems dry and academic, it is hard not to appreciate O’Keefe’s sense of color. For me personally, it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve let go of some old photography baggage and just liked photographs for how they looked. At the end of the day, recognizing that something is visually compelling is not a bad basis to value work.

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Siebren Versteeg, Reflection Eternal @ Bitforms Gallery

I have long since given up trying to wrap my head around how Siebren Versteeg makes work. It involves computer code to automate computers into making art (I think). Which alone is the kind of thing that one can easily make a compelling art career out of. In the past, the results of his “algorithmically generated images” was a mush of wide pho-brush strokes in an often-muddy green palate that would be off-putting if it didn’t so mimic the result of lots of young, popular human painters. The new work has a palate like the past work but now forms star bursts of angular strokes that are downright painterly. It is so aesthetically pleasing that I find it harder to believe the production of the paintings are completely random, but then again who knows if it ever was? What I do know is the wonder of Siebren’s work hasn’t grown old, and the results seem to get more and more appealing. Which ups the ante for process-based painting, as well as what it means to make art. As with much of Siebren’s work, it raises the question does your computer dream of electric sheep?

Through May 28th

Lauren Portada, Josh Slater, Leah Tacha @ Kristen Lorello

Another good show in one of Lower East Sides best little galleries hidden away from street level behind CRG Gallery. Some solid ceramic work by Leah Tacha that looks competent in craft in a way that the wave of late 2000s ceramic work sadly did not, and it is paired well with the mosaic-like paper collages of Josh Slater. But the star of the show is a large new painting by Lauren Portada. The Brooklyn-based Portada makes something very rare now-a-days especially in Bushwick, abstract paintings that aren’t intentionally sloppy or overly rigid, in other words, compelling. Her brushwork is skilled but loose and oscillates between solid and light swipes of color that breathe in the lightness of spring. The palate is very contemporary and could feel trite if it wasn’t for how subtly the color is displayed. It appears to bleed through the canvas while simultaneously floating above it, allowing the viewer to relax potential cynicism and enjoy looking.

Through June 10th

Jen Hitchings, Ctrl+alt+reality @ Ideal Glass

I haven’t been camping since I was a little child, and I’ve been told by loved ones that my memory is less than reliable, but I am certain Jen Hitchings’s paintings depict how I remember camping was as a child.  The campground basks in a sunset haze of translucent lights, fluctuating from a golden orange to a terrifying darkness punctuated by metallic reds and purples.  Hitchings’s color palate is undeniably attractive and very effective at ascribing a fantastically romantic mood to these familiar little family camping areas, nestled at the edge of rivers, which at first sight might not seem like the most stunning examples of nature, but become undeniably authentic as you settle in and the sun goes down and the branches rustle and bugs make noise and you become very much aware that you are part of the natural world.

Through May 17th

Mark Steinmetz, South @ Yancey Richardson

It is very enjoyable to get to see this much Mark Steinmetz in one place. I am not sure I remember him getting such a Chelsea showcase before. He is a legend for photographers of a certain bent, especially after the series of books on the south published in the late 2000’s. His work paints the world, and as the case may be, the south, in a light that seems right out of a more sedate David Lynch or Coen Brothers movie.  There are landscapes, still lives, storefronts, all sleepy and waiting for something to happen. Often that something is one of Steinmetz’s many portraits of people feel at ease in how interesting they look, young teens becoming aware of their own sexuality, men looking like the weight of existence is pushing down on them and, surprisingly, in the current show, more children. There’s even a sweet picture of a toddler wrapped in a blanket resting under a tree in some delicate dappled light.  Steinmetz’s pictures of the world are photography as I’ve loved it. They make me feel that I am not out in the world enough, that I am not spending enough time wandering, talking to strangers and experiencing the life around me. The world as brought to view by Steinmetz’s lens is a compelling yet familiar world that I can almost imagine I have experienced and I hope to come across again. It is also just a pleasure to see a couple of pictures that have for the last decade lived with me mostly in a history of photography slide lecture that I give once a semester.

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Eva O’Leary, Spitting Image @ Crush Curatorial

It seemed a good indicator of O’Leary’s subject matter that the first picture in the show is of a young woman whose face is painted with an image of her profile facing in the other direction. A commentary on the state of young women in our much-heralded age of abundant imagery that no doubt doubles down on the pressure young woman (and everyone else) have felt for generations to live up to the standards of beauty in popular culture.  And pairing the picture with a barrage of looping selfies projecting at rapid fire with the flash blowing up in the center of the frame seems to encapsulate a fair critique of the current social media landscape.

After that, the show gets into more interesting, or trickier ground, there is a series of video portraits of young women reacting to their own reflections in a two-way mirror. Watching this array at a crowded opening without the benefit of having read the press release, the work looked like video portraits, in which the subject matter didn’t strike me as any more comfortable than most people feel in front of the camera, especially at that age. The concept is wonderful, and I am sure a longer, more thorough viewing might prompt compelling insights, but my first pass was that the video was okay but not amazing. This was followed by a room of headshots of young women against a strikingly bright blue background that looks like it would be used for some digital process to place an unrelated backdrop behind their heads. The images are visually stunning and certainly suggest a universal, almost sociological connotation, on the portraits but the women’s expressions are elusive and, in my memory, start to bleed together.

O’Leary is coming off a body of just stunningly well-made pictures that take on a lot of the telling little moments that tend to make up life. Spitting Image is clearly a step in a different direction. The work is more conceptually focused, and the content and point of view is more pronounced. But there is something a little tamped down visually about the new images in relationship to the earlier photographs. In the striped-down work, it seems that O’Leary is taking a conscious artistic risk, and one worth taking. I am not sure I am completely in love with the new work, but I am certainly excited to see where it is going.

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