Wonder Women

A season of old masters, Gumby, biomorphs, and cell phones

In the visual arts, the avant-garde is always about 30,000 years behind the times: The Chauvet caves in France contain sophisticated paintings, drawings, and engravings of animals; perfect stencils of the human hand; abstract dots and stripes; and even found art in the form of a bear skull placed atop a boulder by an unknown Paleolithic designer. Still, there's always room for new voices, and this spring it's women who have a lot to say. Kathleen Gilje is a skilled art conservator with an amazing ability to mimic old-master techniques that allows her to pull icons of the past through wormholes of deconstruction and art theory to create alternate-universe replicas. In 1997, she "restored" a "lost" Caravaggio "copy" of The Musicians, one of the baroque genius's masterpieces at the Met. Accompanying X-rays reveal that the boy holding a love madrigal in the original version is actually stroking his erect penis in the "newly restored" alternate. Gilje has applied such sleight-of-hand effect to artists ranging from El Greco to Artemisia Gentileschi, and in a new series (at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 22 East 80th Street, 212-472-6800, opening April 5), she will present portraits of current art-world scholars grafted into the objects of their study: Linda Nochlin, feminist art critic, becomes the full-frontal barmaid in a knockoff of Manet's 1882 Bar at the Folies-Bergere.

Also in April (opening on the 14th at Zach Feuer, 530 West 24th Street, 212-989-7700), Nathalie Djurberg will be updating a more recent art form: Claymation. It ain't your father's Gumby, though—this Swedish-born filmmaker's short videos are filled with rollicking humans and animals and occasional combinations thereof: A still from 2004's Tiger Licking a Girl's Butt delivers more truth-in-advertising than most Hollywood fare. The three-and-a-half-minute Florentine tells the story of two young girls ultra-violently turning the tables on a man who spanks them. Whatever Djurberg is working out through her art, the tiny sets are charmingly askew, the costumes colorfully flamboyant, and the action comically grotesque.

Eva Hesse (1936–70) also explored the grotesque with her achingly beautiful sculptures: large globules in distended net bags, boxes filled with tiny plastic filaments all pointing and gathering inward like geometric sea anemones, suspended matrices of strings gloppily coated with fiberglass or latex. But rather than outrageous humor, Hesse, who died at 34, an age when most artists are still stylistically and emotionally callow, sought to imbue her era's minimalism and "process art" with a warmth that encompassed not only the physical facts of her materials but also the organic forms that inspired her oeuvre. On May 6 the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, 212-219-2166) will unveil 150 works on paper by this woman who was at the vanguard of her moment, including 50 never-before-seen working notes and drawings, which should help our own time rediscover the accomplishments of a seminal and influential artist.

Eva Hesse explores the grotesque in this untitled piece.
Tony and Gail Ganz Collection, LA
Eva Hesse explores the grotesque in this untitled piece.

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    And what could be more seminal to our moment than cell phones? (Or, with their Top 40 ringtones and celebrity wallpaper, more crassly commercial?) The art world knows from crass commercialism, but in early June, Zone:Chelsea Gallery (601 West 26th Street, 212-255-2177) will showcase a globe-girdling project that aims to counter the profit motive by inviting artists from all over the world to donate digital audio/visual content, games, and—shades of John Cage—"silences wherein the callers can express themselves," which will be accessible when the hoi polloi dial a special number. Big deal, you may grouse, it's not hard to get artists to donate their time—they're used to being underpaid. But Jennifer Bahng, the project's originator, has convinced electronics giant Samsung and other global corporations to donate cell phones and minutes to designated sites worldwide, plus give 1 percent of the generated phone bill to the Vox Populi Foundation, which has been set up to distribute the money to local charities in participating countries. Anyone can call the number, interact with the software, and literally get his or her two cents in.

    The project will be physically manifest at the gallery through sculptures (also with direct-to-charity price tags) using colorful arrays of cell phones encased in paper molds made from reprocessed food waste and cannon shells discarded by U.S. troops in Korea. Joseph Beuys once said, "Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler"; Vox Populi confirms that, indeed, "Everyone is an artist," and gives the public a chance to put corporate money where its mouth is.


    Listings by R.C. Baker

    'Women's Work'
    March 22–April 15

    Greenberg Van Doren, 730 Fifth Ave, 212-445-0444

    Large-scale works by 10 women painters, including the patterned figuration of Jennifer Bartlett, Joan Mitchell's and Helen Frankenthaler's brushy abstractions, Moira Dryer's moody visions, and the shaped, exuberant canvases of Elizabeth Murray.


    Markus Hansen
    March 23–April 29

    Virgil de Voldere Gallery, 526 W 26th, 212-343-9694

    This German-born photographer approximates the clothing of his subjects, then mimics their postures and expressions, becoming, in the resulting side-by-side photos, not a twin or a replica but a doppelg When he teams up with a woman or a person of a different race, his underlying empathy easily trumps any surface differences.


    Amy Sillman
    April 7–May 6

    Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 W 22nd, 212-929-2262

    Sillman's imagery has long fluctuated between abstraction and goofy, even cartoonish, characters. And then there are her bright, often garish clashing colors. Yet when she nails the balance of such high-risk elements, she's one of the most compelling painters around. This new work strips down the compositions to starker figures in sparer environments; the best ones always like to work without a net.

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