Head in the Clouds

Recommendations by R.C. Baker

Even as the Industrial Revolution was consigning much of the English countryside to Blake's "dark, satanic mills," John Constable (1776–1837) was eschewing the somber tonalities of classical landscape for nature's gaudy kaleidoscope. Decades before the Impressionists, his bright clouds are piled in azure skies, billows of white and chromatic grays bulging with sublime tumult, unconstrained by the metaphorical weight of the Old Masters' heavenly light shafts. Although he termed them "sketches," these small oil paintings are fully realized land- and seascapes that weld material to depiction: The thickly knifed white waves of 1828's Stormy Sea, Brighton expressionistically evoke foamy undulations even as vertical brush-swipes of black conjure distant rain squalls. Like Monet half a century later, Constable was stubbornly true to what he observed in his plein-air masterpieces; the 7 x 12 inch Dedham Mill is flecked with white highlights, a technique many in his audience derided as "Constable's snow." To our own image-saturated eyes, this nearly two-centuries-old painting rather amazingly borders on abstraction even as it lovingly captures leafy trees and heaving clouds reflected in muddy water, a more true and rewarding pastoral vision than any summer-vacation jpeg.


Gregory Amenoff
One of Constable's unruly descendants is a quick stroll away. Amenoff's Morning at Le Cannet (2007) locates the sun amid three blue shards, a prismatic sky cornrowed with yellow clouds. A beautiful scrim of pale light hovers above terra firma, which consists of pink blots atop a deep violet ground; such captivating color contrasts give an operatic heft to these medium-size oil paintings. In Light Trellis, the viewer seems to be gazing through a bright-red, geometric grotto filled with black dots bunched together like grapes, the structure framing a sky of irradiated yellow. This composition highlights a theme running through all of these powerful canvases—landscape as architectonic force, providing both inspiration and shelter for art. Alexandre, 41 E 57th, 212-755-2828. Through May 31.

Making waves: Constable's Stormy Sea, Brighton, 1828
Yale Center for British Art
Making waves: Constable's Stormy Sea, Brighton, 1828

Details

John Constable
Salander-O'Reilly
22 East 71st Street
Through June 16


Walter De Maria
One of the most intense shows in the city right now at first feels rather stoic—a collection of stainless-steel objects arrayed across this vast gallery's floor. But it takes only a few moments for a fascinating pattern to emerge: Three triangular rods begin the procession, each a meter long and placed a meter apart; then come four square rods, ditto on length and placement, followed by five pentagons and six hexagons, until the tenth and last row, which contains a dozen 12-sided rods. Those first two missing rows (pretty tough to express sculpture in two dimensions, never mind one) set off an imbalance that makes the title of this 1986 work, A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the World/3-12 Polygon, seem ironically prescient. While it may not solve any world problems, the luminous aesthetics of De Maria's thought machine may help you forget your own for a bit. Gagosian, 522 W 21st, 212-741-1717. Through May 5.


Orly Genger
A stew of chemical odors hits you as you enter this darkened gallery. Walking over uneven surfaces, you are surrounded by conical mounds of gnarled nylon rope that has been sprayed and rolled with black paint, a mélange of materials that accounts for the industrial smell. Genger crochets her thick coils into floor-covering mats and topographical heaps that convey a sense of lava flows, or maybe a tire dump. Yet there is something engaging about climbing over this writhing mass, as if it is dumbly alive; with the word "Boo" scrawled on one wall, it's hard not to think of those sci-fi golems that rise up from ecological disasters to avenge nature. Larissa Goldston, 530 W 25th, 212-206-7887. Through May 5.


Stephen Shames—'The Black Panthers'
In a 1970 photo, a shirtless Huey Newton, handsome as any matinee idol, pulls Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited from its sleeve; in another picture, from '71, a young boy revels in new threads from the Free Clothing Program in Toledo, Ohio. Shames's black-and-white photos capture the Panthers' domestic lives and community programs in intimate detail, but he was also on hand for the rallies (young girls loft posters decrying "Racist Dog Policemen") and the funerals (a wide-angle shot details the massive, multiracial crowd of mourners and quasi-military pageantry for one slain leader). This large show chronicles the fire that time in all its righteous hope and bitter anguish. Steven Kasher, 521 W 23rd, 212-966-3978. Through May 26.


Antoni Llena
I want to be a fly on the wall when a gallerist tries to sell these surpassingly slight sculptures to some bottom-line collector. No. 1 (2006) features a thin reed of wood jutting from crumpled paper and bent slightly by an imprisoning length of what looks to be flypaper. Barely 19 inches high, this pathetic structure conveys a sense of soaring height attempted but never achieved, leaving us with an improbably moving relic of graceful duress. No. 7 is made of two rough-hewn wooden wedges that act as columns for a battered foam-rubber beam studded with broken glass. Nine inches tall, this abject Stonehenge is attached to a torn sheet of paper lightly pierced by a standard staple, an echo of post-and-lintel construction. Llena, a Catalan artist born in 1942, understands that while beauty is forever at hand, it is fleeting and fragile. Bortolami, 510 W 25th, 212-727-2050. Through April 28.

 
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