At the Galleries
The most extravagantly praised exhibition of the winter was “Charles Ray: Figure Ground” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a survey of the work of the California-based sculptor, on view until the beginning of June. Gorgeously, generously, but not altogether chronologically installed, nineteen exhibited works document Ray’s journey from photographs of early performance pieces to massive figure sculptures made in 2021. The recent works dominate, most of them much larger than life, made of gleaming stainless steel or aluminum, with slippery, highly refined surfaces that distract us from the real weight of these massive works.
The staccato retrospective begins with “self-portraits” from the early 1970s, photographs recording Ray lashed full length to a tree branch or pinned against a wall by a plank, his body becoming a sculptural element. Next, we encounter more or less minimalist objects designed to disrupt our trust in what we see, followed by figurative challenges to our sensibilities. Frighteningly near-lifelike, painted and bewigged fiberglass people disturb our conceptions of perception and scale, especially the uncanny, somewhat repulsive Family Romance (1993), in which the adult parents and their two young children, hand in hand, are all presented nude and uniformly about four-and-a-half-feet tall. The kids seem inflated, the adults read as weird miniatures.
Ray’s recent figures are somewhat more sculptural, less like illustrations of ideas. Two, in stainless steel, refer loosely to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The nine-foot Huck and Jim (2014) confronts us with the runaway pair, both nude, on the raft; Huck bends, Jim stands. His hand, hovering over the boy’s back, creates a charged space that may be the most eloquent aspect of the exhibition. Cued by this interval, we notice how the figures’ limbs embrace the space around them. Something similar obtains in the slightly smaller Sarah Williams (2021) —Huck’s alias when he disguises himself as a girl to go ashore to seek news. Jim kneels behind the slim, erect “Sarah,” hemming her skirt. The deep vertical dress folds, which turn “Sarah” into a fluted column, and the profile of the space between the two figures demand that we slow down and pay attention in slightly subverting our usual nonstop journey across the sleek expanse of the stainless steel.
Ray has said that “space is the sculptor’s primary medium,” an idea that animates the Huck and Jim sculptures and enlivens Archangel (2021), a response to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, in Paris: a slim young man in rolled up jeans and flip-flops balanced precariously on a box, arms extended, declaring his presence by slicing into the void. A foot lifted from the flip-flop has some of the resonance of the space between Huck’s back and Jim’s hand. We are engaged by the pale surface and unstable poise of the thirteen foot work, carved in cypress by Japanese master woodworker. Yuboku Mukoyoshi. Like all of Ray’s sculptures, Archangel results from a long technologically complex process of capturing images of the model, turning them into three-dimensional elements, and having the final product made—not by Ray himself, whose icy, ironic version of Neoclassicism depends upon anonymous facture and, apparently, the effort of others.
The large size and aggressive physicality of his works notwithstanding, Ray is primarily a conceptual artist determined to subvert our assumptions. We are alerted to this from the start, when we meet the artist in a color photograph not of the man himself, but of a clothed, polychrome replica, complete with wig and glasses. Ray’s chilly, oversized works relate to figurative sculpture the way Gerhard Richter’s all-over canvases relate to abstract painting. Both are simulacra constructed to question the nature of the discipline. I wish I didn’t feel that Ray’s questions were more compelling than his answers.
While “Charles Ray: Figure Ground” sent art writers into tailspins of adulation, painters saved their admiration for “Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing” at the Whitney Museum. Packer, born in 1984, belongs to a very different generation than the sixty-nine-year-old Ray and brings a different set of assumptions to her work. Ironic detachment is not part of her arsenal. She clearly means what she says. Packer’s paintings pulse with feeling, transubstantiated into saturated color and a range of virtuoso paint applications from sheer washes and fragile drips to meticulous strokes and sweeps. Packer tells us that her work is provoked by her experience of present-day events, but her responses are never literal. She often paints her friends and family, tenderly and distinctively characterizing each individual, fusing observation, memory, and spontaneous improvisation, often filtered through her knowledge of art history.
At the Whitney, we immediately encounter the monumental—more than fourteen-foot-wide—Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020), a citrus yellow tribute to Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman senselessly slain by the Louisville, Kentucky, police. Packer’s painting is an oblique meditation on the horrifying story, taking as its starting point images of Taylor’s home from the media. A young Black man, wearing only shorts, lies on a tufted sofa, head thrown back in despair? Exhaustion? Abandonment? Mourning? The subtly varied acidic expanse becomes a room punctuated by a delicately drawn electric fan, an iron, the hint of a kitchen counter. Packer keeps us engaged equally by her expressive handling of her materials, her lush color, her casual suggestion of the quotidian, and her allusion to the tragic event that generated the image. In A Lesson in Longing (2019), a near-monochrome raspberry interior, layers of transparent paint threaten to drown the protagonists, one prudently masked, and the scattering of everyday accoutrements—a bicycle, plants, a cat—that accompany them. A few crisply rendered elements—a picture frame, leaves, the male figure’s shorts—break free of the pools of washy color, syncopating the space.
The decade covered by the show allows us to watch Packer’s growth. Earlier paintings of single figures are often less about paint, more dependent on drawing, and less ambiguous. Still lifes of bouquets, intended as commemorative tributes, we learn, are exquisite demonstrations of ability but dangerously saccharine in comparison to the multivalent figure paintings. Interestingly enough, one of the earliest works in the show, the thirteen-foot-wide The Fire Next Time (2012), is one of the strongest, an interior firmly constructed with a slowly unfurling progression of robustly painted planes, with a sliced corner that activates the space. The confrontational painting at once points toward Packer’s recent works and suggests that she might have developed into a different kind of equally impressive painter. We’ll have to keep watching to see what happens next.
A high point of the past season was a large group of works by James Castle (1899–1977) at David Zwirner Gallery, Chelsea. Born profoundly deaf in rural Idaho, Castle spent his entire life in the region. Since he was not sent to a school for the deaf until the age of ten—too late, according to experts in teaching the hearing-impaired—Castle never acquired speech or learned to read. The closest things to “art” that he experienced in his silent world were newspaper and magazine illustrations, cartoons and advertisements, and decorations on commercial packaging, yet image-making was his lifelong preoccupation and his main means of communication. Castle spent all of his time making art. Exempt from farm chores (he refused to participate), he retreated to his “studio,” first an unused chicken coop, later a trailer, to draw haunting landscapes and interiors notable for convincing perspective and sensitive tonality, to make constructions of animals, stylized people, and objects, and to create hand-drawn “books” and “photo albums,” adopting, first from necessity and later by choice, scavenged paper and homebrewed mediums, mainly saliva and soot. He relied mainly on memory, but also copied photographs, comic strips, and the like, sometimes repeating motifs several times but changing them slightly each time.
The selection at Zwirner emphasized Castle’s interiors and farmyard scenes, plus a few of his stitched-together birds and figures. Unlike that of many self-taught artists, his powerful work demands no special pleading or categorization. Rhythmically drawn boards, rafters, screen doors, and other architectural details become rich patterns. Elegantly rendered views of farm buildings are seasoned with enigmatic geometric “totems.” Some interiors house “exhibitions” of Castle’s drawings and rows of ambiguous personages that are either extremely stylized people or representations of his constructed figures. The moody, layered, tonal interiors and outdoor scenes are as evocative as the figures are schematic, but economical “portraits” of buildings, based on real estate ads, with rectangles of homemade color floating against bands of sky and ground, verge on abstraction. Whether or not we know anything about Castle’s life, his intimate, mysterious work compels and rewards close looking.
A few blocks farther uptown, Thomas Erben Gallery showed recent work by Harriet Korman. She has long been one of the most thoughtful, often surprising abstract painters of her generation, preoccupied with the tension between the implicit regularity of geometry and the vagaries of the improvisation. In recent years, Korman’s compositions have depended upon what, at first acquaintance, seem to be Euclidean shapes described by a hand uninterested in tidiness or perfection. Her current exhibition’s vibrant, generous canvases, made between 2019 and 2022, continue and expand this investigation, ringing changes on a deceptively straightforward format of nested horizontal rectangles. As Korman has taught us to expect, while there is a strong family resemblance among the works, each is a stubborn individual with a different personality, different proportions, a different balance. The more time we spend with these apparently simply organized paintings, the more compelling complexities we discover. The full-throttle, slightly acidic palette turns out to be a little “off”—in a good way; Korman’s hues are never nameable. Seemingly pure reds, yellows, and oranges are subtly altered, either intrinsically or by adjacent colors. The width, proportion, and rhythm of the bands forming the rectangles vary, sometimes dramatically, as do the intervals between bands and the shape they surround. Sometimes the center shifts a bit. Sequences of clean edges are punctuated by warpings, swellings, and even, on occasion, shattering. Broad brushmarks announce themselves. In one sizzling painting, a loose swipe of ochre floats against an expanse of orange surrounded by brick red and vibrating blues, crisply framed with green and yellow. Korman presents what initially appears to be a set of uncomplicated propositions and then disrupts our assumptions. Her recent paintings are immensely satisfying for their merits, at the same time that, by making us question just what is before us, they make us think about the nature of perception itself.
A few muscular, speedy oil stick drawings offered an intimate glimpse into Korman’s thinking. They are not studies for specific paintings, but instead, independent explorations of the generating impulse for a group of works, seemingly rapid declarations of possibilities. Korman says she values them as highly as the paintings. It’s easy to see why. As in the paintings, nothing is quite what it seems. Concentrate and the images become increasingly ambiguous and richer, the tug of war between ideal geometry and the refreshingly “imperfect” hand more visible and expressive, the color more intense and unexpected. There’s a great deal to look at in both Korman’s paintings and drawings.
Farther downtown, Betty Cuningham Gallery, on the Lower East Side, presented a wide-ranging overview of Rackstraw Downes’s masterly drawings. A group of twenty-two recent works was accompanied by nine earlier works made between 1975 and 2006. The earlier works recorded Downes’s scrutiny of the places and phenomena we have learned to associate with him: the often improbable geometry of the urban infrastructure and of eccentrically shaped interiors, the emptiness of West Texas, unremarkable and remarkable buildings, and more. No one but Downes could have made an arresting image of a cellphone tower and sand dunes crossed with dirt bike tracks in Presidio, Texas, a nondescript border town where Downes painted and drew for many winters, relishing the minutiae and the open space of the seemingly uneventful setting beside the Rio Grande. With minimal notations, the background of Presidio Cell Tower (2005) somehow suggests that we are seeing across the river into the distances of Mexico. A radically different kind of space is conjured up by the intricate beams of the dramatically cropped Bull Barn Interior, Marfa (2006), a tour de force of complex, completely rational layering that reads like a Renaissance painter’s demonstration of his mastery of perspective. The large, ambitious, early Drawing for a Soft Ground Etching: Scaffold Round the South Tower of Saint John the Divine (1984) is an instantly recognizable portrait of the well-known, forever-in-progress Episcopalian cathedral, but with close looking, it dissolves into a flurry of frail, floating strokes that then resolve themselves into bare tree branches, fire escapes, and details of architecture and scaffolding before once again asserting their autonomy as eloquent marks.
The recent works, a numbered series all titled In the Artist’s Studio, were made in 2020, when the pandemic restricted Downes to the loft he has inhabited and worked in since the 1990s. He turned his attention to his immediate surroundings, focusing his scrupulous, inquiring gaze on the long, narrow space and its economical, distinctively varied furnishings. Sometimes he surveyed the living end of the loft from the studio end, sometimes vice versa. Other times he concentrated on the particularities of individual elements, reporting on the opposition of the curves of a sturdy wooden armchair and the parallel verticals of an armless chair with slatted back, or the conversation between a pair of wooden settees and an upholstered sofa, or the cacophony of the splayed legs of easels, folding chairs, a walker, and the like. The In the Artist’s Studio drawings are small—sketchbook size—and done, somewhat atypically, in soft pencil on rough paper, which allowed Downes to call up the telling details of complex forms, such as a radiator, precisely but broadly, with judiciously deployed smudges of tone and repeated lines. The looseness and delicacy of the recent drawings give them a sense of intimacy, as if the variety of touches with which they are constructed were forming recognizable images as we watched. The In the Artist’s Studio series is tender, inward, and fragile, as if the pandemic and confinement had made Downes think about both mortality and the reassuring presence of familiar things. Whatever the impetus, the In the Artist’s Studio drawings are further evidence of Downes’s ability to work magic—to turn the seemingly commonplace into poetry.