Housewife: Jennifer Rubell’s Conceptual History of the Modern Woman

Jennifer Rubell’s Housewife, an installation at the Sargent’s Daughters gallery on the Lower East Side, attempts a conceptual history of modern femininity. In the simplest terms, the show is a meditation on the seeming universality of white, middle-class femininity. However, to critique Rubell’s stark visual vocabulary in this way fails to acknowledge that her work nevertheless touches a certain comprehensive psychological experience, which is both explicit and all-inclusive. From the 1950s housewife to contemporary dating and the difficulties of being a modern woman in the workforce, Rubell’s four pieces ­­– Pedestal, Vessel, Partition Paintings, and Threshold ­– visualize the precarious nature of a femininity defined and circumscribed by others.

Jennifer Rubell, Pedestal, 2017. Photo courtesy of Sargent’s Daughters.
Jennifer Rubell, Pedestal, 2017. Photo courtesy of Sargent’s Daughters.

Three steps into the gallery space and the viewer is confronted by Pedestal, an industrial-quality vacuum cleaner placed next to a polished pair of red patent-leather heels fitted atop a heavy square platform. The glaring absence of the female form (the immediate assumption being that the empty space is, in fact, female), registers instantaneously. The effect is an invitation for the viewer to come closer, to slip on the heels, to grip the vacuum and fill that empty space. Although no apron or string of pearls is provided, the associations Rubell creates resonate with clarity. The piece references the commodified feminine ideal of the 1950s housewife who vacuums in her heels, has a hot meal on the table by six pm, and is ready for romance every night. However, because Rubell empties out that visual space, the viewer subconsciously fills it with her own form, which in return highlights the falsity and psychological dangers inherent in such mediating feminine perfection.

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Sondra Perry: Resident Evil

Resident Evil, Sondra Perry’s first solo institutional exhibition, fills the second-floor gallery of The Kitchen with a handful of video works made in the past year. Each is “immersive” in one way or another, deploying tactics of spatial activation and coercive, embodied viewing to force visitors into visceral engagement with the screens and their troubling content. These strategies of discord and discomfort mirror the works themselves, which center themes of police brutality and other racialized violence, examining how images and narratives of these issues circulate, distort, and abstract in the digital realm.

Installation view of Resident Evil at the Kitchen, New York, 2016. All works courtesy the artist. Photos by Jason Mandella.
Installation view of Resident Evil at the Kitchen, New York, 2016. All works courtesy of the artist. Photos by Jason Mandella.

The first work one encounters in the exhibition is netherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr 1.0.3 (2016), set into its own tiny black box. In the video, Perry draws a provocative parallel between the “blue screen of death”—the infamous error screen in Windows operating systems—and the “blue wall of silence,” an unwritten oath among police officers not to incriminate one another in cases of excessive force, brutality, or even murder. At one point in the video, footage of Bill Gates and other Microsoft executives dancing on a convention stage is dubbed over with a deadpan, computerized description of the unwritten officer’s code of conduct (perhaps a double entendre with the computer code that later scrolls by). Another passage features images of women killed by police set to the same voice describing the blue error screens in banal terms. Though intentionally ambiguous, the video uses montage to suggest that capitalist systems and their technological agents are intimately connected with, if not responsible for, the violence wrought against black bodies in neoliberal America.

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Cecily Brown at The Drawing Center

Tucked away in SoHo, New York, The Drawing Center is a small museum founded by Martha Beck in 1977, explicitly dedicated to the medium of drawing. For the last few years, the creative minds behind The Drawing Center’s events and exhibitions have been working towards pushing beyond the traditional understanding of the term drawing, and opening it up to various applications and interpretations. Cecily Brown: Rehearsal, organized by the chief curator of the museum, Claire Gilman, is one such exhibition. It calls the viewer to contemplate the medium of drawing; from its materiality to its role in the artistic process of an acclaimed artist, Cecily Brown, which as a result creates a sense of intimacy throughout.

Cecily Brown, Untitled (after Bosch and Boldini), 2015. All photographs by the author.
Cecily Brown, Untitled (after Bosch and Boldini), 2015. All photographs by the author.

Brown is a British artist known for her tactual paintings, for which she draws influence ranging from old masters to the expressionism of the 50s. Drawing is a lesser known part of Brown’s practice and has not been seen before in the scale and context of a solo museum exhibition. The works on display inform on Brown’s practice by giving the viewer the opportunity to observe how the artist visits existing drawings again and again, each time unpacking something new until, as she notes, she understands it completely. In a talk that took place in the museum, Brown discussed how her drawings are fairly independent of her painting practice, serving a purpose of their own. The works in Cecily Brown: Rehearsal were selected, among other reasons, so as to accentuate this special role in her overall practice.

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The James Gallery: The House of Dust

CUNY’s James Gallery at The Center for the Humanities ushers in the fall semester with an exhibition based on Alison Knowles’s 1967 conceptual work The House of Dust. The show seeks to encompass the many limbed and generative nature of Knowles’s artwork by showing how it continues to stimulate other artists to explore its themes of translation, permutation, intentionality and inclusivity, bringing to light the work’s enduring relevance.

The House of Dust is a computer generated poem written in the programming language FORTRAN, which generates verses by randomly combining elements from four lists pre-determined by Knowles: each verse consists of four components including, and always beginning with, “a house of,” followed by a location, then a material, and finally a category of inhabitants. The poem repeats after 400 verses. In 1969, based on one of the verses, “A HOUSE OF PLASTIC/ IN A METROPOLIS/ USING NATURAL LIGHT/ INHABITED BY PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE” Knowles constructed an actual “house” in Chelsea. The house was moved to Burbank, California when she took a teaching position at CalArts in 1970. Knowles also orchestrated several other projects using computer programs, involving students and community members with her house as the nexus.

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The Limits of “No Limits”

Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55) 1955 Oil on canvas 76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm) Private collection, Switzerland ©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard
Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (Homage to Chu Yun—05.05.55)
1955
Oil on canvas
76 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8 in. (195 × 130 cm)
Private collection, Switzerland
©Zao Wou-Ki ProLitteris, Zurich. Photography by Dennis Bouchard

At the entrance of the exhibition floats Zao Wou-ki’s painting Hommage à Chu Yun—05.05.55 (1955), a large canvas cloaked in fluid patches of startlingly limpid aquamarine, rust, and warm cream. The abstract work appears to conceal something underwater. Perhaps it is the ancient Chinese poet of the title, who, after being exiled, drowned himself in the Miluo River. The concentration of reddish color in the center hints at an object, yet the iridescent ripples make it difficult to identify.

No Limits: Zao Wou-ki, currently on view at the Asia Society Museum, is the artist’s first-ever retrospective in the U.S. Zao (1921-2013) is perhaps best known as the Chinese painter who moved to Paris after World War II, where he worked alongside the French Informel painters, while also maintaining a dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Zao was not singular in his global career: many post-war painters enthusiastically communicated with an international network of artists and traveled around the world. The exhibition curators Dr. Melissa Walt, Dr. Ankeney Weitz, and Michelle Yun characterize modern abstract painting as defined by this “dynamic cross-cultural circulation of ideas and images.”

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Alma Thomas: In Space, In Time

In lock step with a series of cross-country exhibitions showcasing the marginalized work of African American abstract painters (Sam Gilliam at David Kordansky and Norman Lewis at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, to name two) The Studio Museum in Harlem has mounted a much needed, if small, monographic show titled, simply, Alma Thomas (on view July 14 – October 30, 2016). Alongside urgent contemporary debates spotlit by Black Lives Matter, such a recasting of (art) history challenges the hermeticism of academic discourse, art magazine glosses, and white-walled galleries; indeed, a New York Times feature story brought the trend to the attention of a broader public late last year. Timely, even-keeled, and sensitive without descending into hagiography, Alma Thomas presents the paintings of an artist who has emerged as a latter-day star, with her tangerine and carmine Mars Dust featured alongside Elizabeth Murray and Cy Twombly in the Whitney Museum’s inaugural downtown exhibition, and with a sunny mid-1960s circle painting on view in the White House dining room. As such, she exemplifies the latent power of repressed or silenced narratives.

Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photograph by the author.
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem. All photographs by the author.
Installation View 2
Installation view of Alma Thomas at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

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Performing Intimacy: Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A soprano’s voice echoes through the museum’s quiet halls. Inside the Metropolitan’s main gallery for contemporary art, the singer stands before a large, rapt audience but performs only for one. Moments earlier, she approached an unsuspecting viewer with an offer of the “gift of song”; now accepted, the soprano delivers a moving rendition of a Franz Schubert lied—a short operatic solo derived from German poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—to the chosen visitor seated several yards away. In deference to the intimacy of the performance, onlookers quietly move towards the periphery of the gallery. The visitor, seemingly lost in the soprano’s stirring song, begins to cry. After three brief minutes the lied ends and the palpable bond between performer and visitor is broken. What remains, however, is the memory of an experience that transcended mere recital or performance art to strive for something deeper and more consequential: a meaningful, if fleeting, moment of communion between strangers.

Sonic Blossom performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ® Julia Cervantes for The New York Times, 2015
Sonic Blossom performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ® Julia Cervantes for The New York Times, 2015

Organized through the Metropolitan Museum’s Concerts and Lecture series, this brief exchange was one of many—each incorporating new vocalists, audiences and one of five different lieder—enacted over the course of ten days in November 2015 as part of Lee Mingwei’s performance art piece Sonic Blossom. The work has been presented several times before, including at museums in Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and, most recently, in the United States at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Yet it strikes a particular cord in New York, a city known for its skepticism, impatience and toughness. New Yorkers have learned from experience to be wary of those approaching them wearing odd clothing with promises of ‘gifts’. Staged elsewhere in Manhattan, say in a local park or subway terminal, the performer would have been met with considerable distrust. But in the cultural setting of the Metropolitan, the only museum in the city to house both a fine art and musical instrument collection, visitors are primed for just this kind of unusual artistic behavior.

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When the Signal Becomes the Noise

To get to the Whitney’s 8th floor exhibit Laura Poitras: Astro Noise, I stood in line for about twenty minutes, taking note in the museum’s glass exterior of my reflection and those of other visitors waiting in line to see the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. I thought about Poitras’s past documentaries, including the Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR, and wondered how her exhibition would reflect on her chief topic – the United States in the post-9/11 era – in ways that her documentaries could not. Watching my reflection slowly inch forward proved to be a fortuitous entrance to the immersive exhibit, which, according to the program, “asks viewers to actively consider their position and responsibility in the ‘war on terror.’” Indeed, Astro Noise implicates and arranges viewers in “immersive media environments” that compel active looking and embodied contemplation.

I stepped out of the elevators and into the first “immersive media environment” (the program’s reinvention of the word “room”). The space is split in half by a single screen, onto both sides of which are projected videos that respond to 9/11. Titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016), this two-channel digital video bifurcates the room, a setup that divides viewers into opposing groups that face each other as they face the central screen, as if an audience reflected in a mirror. Playing on side A of the screen are slowed images of the faces of New Yorkers as they look upon the remains of Ground Zero days after the attacks. Here viewers confront, and perhaps even remember firsthand, the emotions of that terrorist event: disbelief, shock, fear. These same feeling could be registered on the faces of viewers looking at the other side of the screen, where uncovered U.S. military interrogation videos of two prisoners in Afghanistan, Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdam, represent the Bush Administration’s response to the attacks.

View from “second” side of O’Say Can You See.  Photography: Connor Hamm
View from “second” side of O’Say Can You See. Photography: Connor Hamm

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Painting, Blind

Tucked amidst a spate of current shows featuring work in a particular vein of modernist painting—Stella, Olitski, Noland—Paul Barlow’s paintings, primarily of colorful frames, might seem little more than over-literal riffs on the medium’s ontology: canvas, stretcher bars, paint. And they are, undeniably, all those things, but close scrutiny reveals something else besides.

Linne Urbye, Untitled (1), Untitled (4), and Untitled (12), all 2015, Flashe (vinyl) and oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. All photographs by the author.
Linne Urbye, Untitled (1), Untitled (4), and Untitled (12), all 2015, Flashe (vinyl) and oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. All photographs by the author.

Blind Spots (on view January 14 – February 20, 2016) at Ana Cristea Gallery is a thirteen-work show of modestly-sized canvases by two painters: British artist Barlow and Norwegian artist Linne Urbye, both of whom are exhibiting in the United States for the first time. Urbye covers her canvases with repeating, often empty, abstract forms—chevrons, overlapping arcs, fleurs-de-lis, quarter-moons—in cool blues, greys, and whites. Often, her paint application discloses a prior composition below, laying bare the material’s twin function as both veil and window while simultaneously marking the support as a palimpsest of gestural maneuvers. These operations entail a certain resistance of vision on the part of the viewer, who must double down to visually excavate the logic of the marks beneath the uppermost layer. Through the interlocking arches, filled in to varying degrees in Untitled (12) (2015) we catch a glimpse of process, and wonder if we are seeing the work in an unfinished state. This transports the viewer from the space of the gallery to the space of the studio, a shift in register from the optics of viewing to the haptics of making. It is Barlow, however, who seizes most productively on the exhibition’s titular blindness as an operative term. This review, then, focuses primarily on his work.

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Walid Raad Curates Art and History at MoMA

In the first minutes of Walid Raad’s Walkthrough, a performance given throughout the run of his survey show at MoMA, the artist appears approachably nervous. Dressed down in jeans, a black t-shirt and baseball hat, he prefaces his hour-long talk by confessing that he suffers from panic attacks that often lead him to pace back and forth while speaking. Vulnerability suggests sincerity, and the works in this show—full of facts and figures about topical political and cultural issues—support the viewer’s first impression of earnestness. Nearby, an elaborate, colorful tableau visualizing years of research into the history of art in the “Arab world” uncovers connections between the Artist Pension Trust (ATP), a private enterprise offering financial security in the fickle commercial art world, its parent company MutualArt.com, and Israeli military intelligence. All of this data, part of an ongoing project called Scratching on things I could disavow (2007- ) is verifiable, Raad assures us. Yet he says the links revealed are so expected and banal that they are undeserving of an artwork. Oscillating between researcher and artist, Raad not only blurs distinctions between fact and fiction, but also implies that distilling truth from storytelling is entirely beside the point: the real end is engendering a greater awareness of the means by which history is constructed.

Walid Raad, MoMA, Exhibition view. Photography: Kara Fiedorek
Walid Raad, MoMA, Exhibition view. Photography: Kara Fiedorek

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