Unbecoming @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 works (47 photographs, 5 videos, 3 sculptures, and 1 artist book, variously framed) by 9 artists exhibited in 2 rooms around 8 walls in the westernmost gallery. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Dannielle Bowman: 10 archival inkjet prints, black-and-white, 2017-2018, various sizes ranging between 8×10 and 31×25 inches (editions of 5 with 2 APs)
  • Jennifer Calivas: 6 archival inkjet prints on paper (4 black-and-white, 2 color), 2018, various sizes ranging from 20×16 to 37×30 inches; 1 two-channel video, color, sound, 2017, 4:13 min., (edition of 5 with 2 APs); 1 sculpture with taped sound (ceramic, polymer clay, foam, raisins, synthetic hair, aluminum, headphones), 2018 (edition of 3 with 1 AP)
  • Penn Chan: 5 inkjet prints on paper, color, 2018, 31x41x2½ inches framed, with one 41x31x2½ inches (editions of 3 with 2 APs)
  • Jillian Freyer: 5 archival inkjet prints, color, 2018 (editions of 5 with 1 AP)
  • Kathryn Harrison: 8 archival pigment prints, black-and-white, 2016-2018, various sizes ranging between 8×10 and 30×24 inches (editions of 5 with 1 AP)
  • Lacey Lennon: 3 archival pigments prints, black-and-white 2016, 2018, 23×29 inches (editions of 5 with 2 APs); 1 single-channel video, black-and-white, sound, 2:12 min., edition of 5 with 2 APs
  • Luke Libera Moore: 4 archival pigment prints in artist’s frames, color, 2016-2018 (edition of 1 with 1 AP); 1 sculpture (cardboard, metal, concrete, inkjet print, glass lens, and found objects, 2018, 29x15x11 inches (unique); 1 sculpture (concrete, wood, metal, latex, toner suspended in acrylic polymer, 2018, 23x14x3 inches (unique)
  • Evelyn Pustka: 3 archival pigment prints with Plexiglas, color, 2017-2018, sized 40×32 inches; 1 single channel video, color, sound, 3:18 min. (edition of 4 with 1 AP)
  • Dan Swindel: 3 pigments prints, color, 2018, sized either 28×20 inches or the reverse (editions of 5 with 2 AP); 2 single channel videos, color, sound, 2017, 2:30 min., and 2018, 5:08 min. (editions of 5 with 2 APs).; 1 two-channel video, color, sound, 2017, 4:13 min., (edition of 5 with 2 AP)

Organized by James Welling, the exhibition will travel this fall in a reduced version to the ltd Gallery in Los Angeles. It is accompanied with a downloadable essay by A.L. Steiner titled Unbecoming: A Formal Plan B. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Pop-up group shows by recent MFA graduates have become familiar items on gallery menus in New York and Los Angeles during the early summer months. CalArts debuted its freshly diplomaed artists at the Box Gallery last month in downtown Los Angeles, while RISD’s latest MFAs in photography can be seen now at ClampArt in Chelsea.

These affiliations between school and gallery are marriages of convenience, not conviction. For several years, beginning in 2008, the Yale School of Art eased its MFA graduates into the New York art world through the Danziger Gallery. Last year the venue changed to the Ana Tzarev Gallery; in 2018, it’s at David Zwirner, which also happens to represent the show’s organizer, James Welling.

Disporting unseasoned talent in commercial spaces has its dangers. Young artists can be led to believe if their work doesn’t sell, when many still don’t know which direction to go, they’re on the wrong path. Rapacious collectors have been known to swoop down on touted prospects, trying to buy up the next Matthew Barney in bulk and on the cheap. For critics and the public, though, these arrays offer a privileged angle on what’s happening now in some of the country’s top schools—which styles and artists (living and dead) are guiding the practice of the next generation.

All of the nine artists here—Dannielle Bowman, Jennifer Calivas, Penn Chan, Jillian Freyer, Kathryn Harrison, Lacey Lennon, Luke Libera Moore, Evelyn Pustka, Dan Swindel—were born between 1984 and 1991 and so grew up with digital culture.

One of the surprises about their work collectively therefore is the absence of the internet as either subject or source. With no obvious photos of photos here, appropriation continues to be out of fashion at Yale. Other conspicuous lacunae: no urban street photography and no examples of overtly political art protesting against Trump.

Instead, as in the far larger CalArts thesis show at Box, performance is ascendant, especially in video. Styles range from Swindel’s droll comedies (one with his classmate Calivas) about corporate culture and shopping mall architecture, to Pustka’s raucous satire of American consumerism as an inducement to patriotic, candy-colored nausea (Party in the USA), to Lennon’s sexy and menacing portrait of Whitney, a wet-haired woman who stands with her back to us in a dark raincoat, as if hiding something or teasing us with her inscrutability.

Black-and-white is almost as plentiful as color. Harrison describes her series on drug addicts and the mentally ill in Sarasota, Florida as “family work”—whether her own or another’s is unclear. Less ambiguous is her sensitivity to the gray vicissitudes of indoor and outdoor light, and her respect and care for the people who have allowed her to photograph them. A man sitting on a plastic tub and giving himself a haircut looks down at the driveway, not at us. A woman who opens her bathrobe to expose her breast-to-belly button surgical scar doesn’t have to show her face. For a student, finding a proper role model as you grope toward answers in your work can be invaluable. Harrison seems to have found a good one in former Yale MFA  and sometime visiting professor, Mark Steinmetz.

To quote from artists’ statement may seem unfair in a review. Making art for some students is burdensome enough without adding the weight of explaining it. Nonetheless, the disparity here between images and words is vast. Shouldn’t Yale’s professors be required to teach their students to write (and think) in plain English instead of jargon-ridden cant?

Chan’s photographs glow in that twilight between the staged and the spontaneous. A half-naked, be-goggled man stands inside a cage of blue light, for either a tanning session or cancer treatment. In another tense scene, within a much darker cage, a woman is holding a docile wolf/dog on a leash. At the top of the frame, a disembodied arm and hand dangles a piece of meat, while a nosy onlooker peers through the bars from the back. On a town riverbank, two children in swimsuits wade through muddy water as a man with a hose on a huge truck prepares to either suck up or discharge liquid.

All of these pictures are designed with narrative hooks that snag the viewer, in the manner of di Corcia’s and Crewdsen’s fictions. They just don’t seem to be fulfilling Chan’s claims of “exploring modern nuances of domestication, kitsch, and cultural appropriation, questioning how these human tendencies have been transformed beyond their original intended designs.”

Bowman’s prose is just as baffling. She is “interested in how different landscapes and the materials derived from them have been utilized and weaponized throughout history. Her work poses questions about privilege and power gained through access to land, resources, and information.” This cloudy example of militant art-speak (“weaponized” is now part of its boilerplate) is hard to reconcile with the fragility of her black-and-white series—of crepuscular archaeological sites, hands dusting off classical portrait busts, and a Greek amphora that looks like a sonogram of a fetus.

Calivas’s self-portraits—extreme close-ups of her saliva-dripping mouth—are deliciously icky and bring to mind the oral fixations of Ann Mandelbaum and Jeanne Dunning. I was disappointed to learn therefore that, accordingly to Calivas, they are about “the complexities of having a female body in a patriarchal society. Themes of encumbered speech and attempted transformation come from her own struggle to break from internalized gender expectations and institutionalized thinking.”

Freyer’s portraits of women—middle-aged as well as young, seated and staring at the camera as well as cropped to just a torso in a sports bra—are “staged performances” that “along with witnessed events and personal experiences serve as an entryway to new intimacies between Freyer and her subjects. These interactions work to derail inherited beliefs around misogyny and expectations concerning gender. Texture and surface play important roles in relaying subtle information about the conditions of the individuals, whether a physical or psychological state.” Admirable though these artistic goals may be, hasn’t a teacher pointed out to her that psychological states are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convey reliably in a still photograph?

Intent and execution are more securely joined in Moore’s plaintive question about the shoddy state of the world—“what might it mean to live amidst the dust, to subsist and persist with a queer and defiant smirk in the face of ostensible doom?”—and his funky assemblages of metal rods, rice paper, cloth, and plaster, which he lights for the camera with intricate theatricality. Following the lead of Isa Genzken, Rachel Harrison, and Annette Kelm, he seems to see his role as performing salvage jobs, putting incongruous household junk into some kind of order, whipping it into tenuous shape despite eventual—or almost immediate—ruin.

The crowd favorites (and mine) are likely to be Swindel’s photograph of a printer sabotaged with yellow pencils (an homage to the insurgent anti-corporate spirit of the movie Office Space?) and his video Mirror. In a throwback to the low-tech explorations of time and space common in 1970s video and performance art, he stands outside the glass walls of an office building and holds up a large mirror that, as the sun hits it, both reflects the exterior and reveals interiors that would otherwise be hidden, a deft trick of physics that proves mirrors and windows can sometimes mysteriously do the same thing.

In an age of image overabundance and compassion fatigue, the way forward for photography may be to look back to a time before we found ourselves in this anxious, unproductive mess—one of our own making.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $800 to $3500.

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Read more about: Dan Swindel, Dannielle Bowman, Evelyn Pustka, Jennifer Calivas, Jillian Freyer, Kathryn Harrison, Lacey Lennon, Luke Libera Moore, Penn Chan, David Zwirner

One comment

  1. ariel /

    Why so much banality of second rate snap shots ?

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