A couple of years ago the American band Vampire Weekend were interviewed, and when talk got around to footwear, as it will, one of them noted he’d seen “that guy [Marina Abramović] went out with” wearing Crocs, and admired him for being “an old European artist who doesn’t give a fuck”. Ulay deserves better, and is finally receiving it. This career- spanning show at MOT is underpinned by his globetrotting, since the man born Frank Uwe Laysiepen in a German bomb shelter some 72 years ago was not only a pioneer of body art but was also among the first post-studio artists, operating nomadically from New York to Ljubljana, Amsterdam to Australia. (The exhibition’s centrepiece, a pair of 7m scrolls featuring drawings and paintings, relates to Chinese travels during 1982–7.) Also emphasised, alongside duelling performative collaborations with Jürgen Klauke from the early 1970s, is Ulay’s photography-driven Conceptualism – particularly in his Auto-Polaroids, self-portraits with an explicitly existential bent; various explorations of split-personality drag and self-mutilation; and his Anagrammatic Body Series (2015). The body here feels perpetually at risk, patched together, double-sided, a vessel for bold adventure. Seen after Ulay’s, much other art looks timid, low-stakes. The Crocs? Forgiven.
Nicole Eisenman, Laurie on the Train, 2015, oil on canvas, 208.3 x 165.1 cm. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York
Let’s now rewind – or fast-forward? – to the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which featured 45 monotypes conveying 45 moods by Nicole Eisenman, positioning her as an elder states-person and signal inspiration to emerging artists. The French-born American artist and, lately, MacArthur ‘genius grant’ awardee is indeed a lynchpin for today’s figurative painting, and particularly for its insouciant freedoms. The most recent show of hers that ArtReview saw, last year at Barbara Weiss in Berlin, set up dynamic interplays between butch female swimmers, sombre bears and politicos tussling over flags. This, though, may be no guide for her solo show at Anton Kern, since Eisenman – a painter and sometime sculptor who can echo George Grosz, Edward Hopper, Paul Cézanne or George Herriman (among others) when she wants – shuffles her emphases regularly between the cartoonish, the neomodernistic, the erotic, the melancholic, the queer-political, the absurd, the enflamed and the abstract. And given the current prevalence of artists who paint but are not really painters, those who do and are matter very much.
Maria Lassnig, Self-portrait with Stick, 1971, oil paint and charcoal on canvas, 193 × 129 cm. © Maria Lassnig Foundation
Turning to an influence on this particular influence, not to mention painters from Martin Kippenberger to Dana Schutz: ArtReview tends to focus on living artists, but we’re making an exception for Maria Lassnig (1919–2014), whose work is deathless and who, at Tate Liverpool, receives an unmissable first UK retrospective. The Austrian painter and sometime filmmaker called her approach, which she initiated in 1948, ‘body-awareness painting’. She embodied it in portraits conveying bodily sensations: a fusion of rainbow palette, gestural expressivity, unflinching focus on physicality and weakness, and consoling absurd humour that, even when she was painting in her late years, looks like the work of a brilliant young artist. (Lassnig lived, taught and exhibited until she was ninety-four.) The 40 paintings here span the 1940s to the twenty-first century, synthesise a variety of modernist movements into originality and, if you are the type who messes around with brushes and canvas, will inevitably school you.
Alice Maher, Chaplet, 2003. Photo: Kate Horgan. Courtesy the artist and EVA International, Limerick City
It’s hard to imagine a curator who, tasked with organising a biennale in Ireland in 2016, would ignore the centenary of the Easter Rising. And yet, for Limerick’s EVA International, Koyo Kouoh... no, we jest, of course the connection is made, with a smart widening of the lens. ‘Ireland, which I consider the first and foremost laboratory of the British colonial enterprise, has always been a fixture in my thinking on the psychological and political effects a system designed to humiliate and alienate can have on peoples’ souls,’ the Cameroonian-born, Dakar-based Kouoh says of her show Still (the) Barbarians, an exploration of the continuing aftereffects of colonialism that places Ireland at its centre. The 50 artists selected, who are delivering both a variety of new commissions and performances, include Kader Attia, Mary Evans, Liam Gillick, Alfredo Jaar, Uriel Orlow and Tracey Rose, and are divided across nine venues, including the sonorously titled Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory. We would say something here about the cream of recent art but we’ve already done our allotted fooling for one preview, so that’s that.
Simon Boudvin, CONCAVE 04 (Gagny), 2007, photographs. Courtesy Steirischer Herbst 2015, Graz, and Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Something we might prefer to forget – something we are literally burying – is espoused by Riddle of the Burial Grounds at Extra City Kunsthal: the fact that, as a species, we’ve been shoving radioactive matter into the ground on a daily basis since the close of the Cold War, as if sweeping dust under the rug, albeit fatal dust that will sit there for millennia. (Plutonium, for example, is thought to have a hazardous lifespan of at least 240,000 years, with some of its isotopes far hardier than that.) Here, 20 artists, including Dorothy Cross, Mikhail Karikis, Sam Keogh and Lucy Skaer, tackle this dour condition in diverse ways. They’ve acquired – at great effort – the private ownership of mineral rights and photographed what lies beneath the ground; made parquet out of lead acquired from decommissioned power plants; composed choral works dedicated to ruins; filmed one of the world’s largest stalactites; and, of course, more, putting a homonymic ‘seen’ in ‘Anthropocene’.
Folkert de Jong, Doctrine of Salvation, 2015, acrylic glass, stainless steel toilet, evacuation stretcher chair, plastic, metal, 200 × 460 × 100 cm. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij. Courtesy the artist
Folkert de Jong is no doubt best-known for his melancholy theatrical tableaux featuring ghostly militaristic and fairytale figures, characterised by lavish use of polyurethane foam and explorations of the themes of power, capitalism and war. But the Dutch artist has switched up his aesthetic a few times in recent years, moving into bronze in 2012 and, more recently, interring figures and objects in coloured Plexiglas vitrines – as if, one might think, suspending them between imagined past and retro-future. His new show, And Nothing But The Truth, locates another new wrinkle, or sheds fresh light while retaining the artist’s downbeat outlook: de Jong’s fascination here, we’re told, is with man’s drive for self-improvement and the uses, in this regard, of morality and science as ways of conquering death. Suddenly those antiseptic cases make a lot more sense.
Public Fiction, The Poet and The Critic, and the missing, with images of work by Nevine Mahmoud and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, 2016. Courtesy MOCA, Los Angeles
Moving from nothing but the truth to Public Fiction feels a bit easy, but this column prefers not to break a sweat. First up, definitions: Public Fiction, formerly a project space, is now a kind of roving if Los Angeles-based exhibition project, run by Lauren Mackler and inviting artists and collectives to ‘use exhibitions as a way to distribute ideas’. Elusive by design, it’s variously taken the form of a comedy club, a restaurant, a church and more, become something of a shadow LA institution, and now it’s occupying MOCA’s storefront. The themes this time are The Poet and The Critic, and the missing, they’re being unpacked via performances, lectures and ‘artist-driven interventions’ (from artists and writers including Lynne Tillman, Mungo Thomson, Isaac Julien and Quinn Latimer) and a literary aspect – short, meditative texts – is accruing online at publicfiction.moca.org.
Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore (still), 2016, video, 9 min 20 sec. Courtesy Rodeo, London and Silberkuppe, Berlin
The first works this writer saw by Shahryar Nashat, at London’s Studio Voltaire – during his first UK solo, in 2011 – were a suite of lusciously fabricated benches and plinths, some quietly erupting with weird ornaments and giant screws, and a loose-limbed video of a dancer rehearsing and resting. Later, watching Hustle in Hand (2014), a crisply shot video closing in on body parts (hands during eating, necks), money being counted and money being exchanged, it was initially hard to resolve the artist’s different manners of working. But Nashat, one might say by way of bridging, is interested in art as kind of hustle, one in which the exhibition space (or editing within an aesthetically pleasing video) starts to confer meaning even when it’s barely there, to sweep the viewer into confidence. We’re propelled, then, by the maker’s certainty even as he points to himself pulling the strings – and in this sense, while we have no clue yet what he’s planning for Portikus, we have an inkling of the transactional mechanics that’ll undergird it (and we’re willing to bet it won’t be scruffy).
Duke Riley, Fly By Night, 2016, performance, pigeons. Photo: Will Star/Shooting Stars Pro. Courtesy the artist and Creative Time, New York
Before we take off, one for the birds: Duke Riley’s Fly By Night is undoubtedly the finest pigeon-utilising artwork to be seen in New York this season, even if Dan Colen is showing his birdshit paintings somewhere. At dusk on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, Riley will whistle to call a giant flock of pigeons from a historic boat docked in Brooklyn, and they’ll loop over the river while throwing out a light show via tiny LEDs on bands round their legs. The work, organised by Creative Time, in turn loops back to the history of pigeon keeping, a venerable tradition in New York – cinephiles will remember, for example, the pastime’s pivotal presence in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) – and, more largely, serves to mark the distance between an old New York, particularly old Brooklyn, and today’s transformed city; and, arguably, between old means of conveying messages and the hi-tech ones of today. Marginal communities pinned to the waterways fascinate the Boston-born Riley. In the past, in the name of art, he’s organised clambakes on the Brooklyn waterfront, launched a wooden submarine and got arrested for it, and staged a gladiatorial sea battle in a reflecting pool in Queens. The ships went down. The pigeons, no doubt, will stay up.
This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of ArtReview.