Enjoy Every Scapula

Recommendations by R.C. Baker

It was a glorious afternoon—light breeze, sunny, the slightest bite in the air. Autumn in New York. One doesn't usually whistle and skip through the Chelsea warrens, but even those austere blocks felt like the backdrop for a musical. Still, we should know better. We took the elevator up to the Sara Meltzer Gallery (212-727-9330) for Stephen Dean's Grand Prix, a 2006 video of garishly painted cars hunkered together at a dirt starting line, engines throbbing. Then come the close-ups of spinning wheels, as the automobiles tear off and crash into each other, grinding and huffing like bellowing bulls. During the carnage, one station wagon slams another against a wall, then backs out of the frame and plows into it again, then again, jagged shards of metal blossoming from both. Quarter panels and doors, festooned in swirling graffiti and checkerboard war paint, are soon rent and flopping like flayed skin; shattered vehicles lurch through clouds of steam and flames. This is Pollock's unconscious, Bacon's accident, and Bosch's Hell mashed up into a kinetic action painting of the profligate waste and blind, slashing rage of Bush's America. The anxiety continues three floors below, at Mixed Greens (212-331-8888). I once had a photography instructor who welcomed his classes with the admonishment "The camera lies like a motherfucker," and Aida Millett's off-kilter interior shots prove his point. Using shallow focus and bedraggled props, her images read at first like rooms in a surrealistic SRO hotel, but the paint chips on the bare walls are too big and the wood grain is likewise out of scale. Pass through a curtain into the back gallery and your instincts are validated: The sets Millett shoots are roughly one cubic foot in size (half as wide as the photographs) and perched on pedestals. As your eyes roam these vacant dolls' precincts, it's not much of a stretch to picture Barbie's jilted ex, Ken, sprawled in that tiny, claw-footed tub, a spike jutting from his lifeless arm. Equally arresting (and even more of a bring-down) are Jean-Pierre Roy's apocalyptic cityscapes next-door at Rare (212-268-1520). In these oil paintings, riotous jungles claw at skyscrapers, gaining purchase on shattered balconies; crevices vomit flames across charred rubble heaps; and glass towers glow like charcoal briquettes. Global warming? Nuclear terror? Hollywood FX? Whatever, these well-wrought vistas inform us that the future is toast. (521-531 W 26th; all three shows close October 6.)

But hey, the sun was still shining, and, refreshed by the crisp air, we headed south, only to wander into Joseph Zito's horror-show playground at Lennon Weinberg (514 W 25th, 212-941-0012, through October 27). Snugglies fabricated from toxic lead droop from the wall, limp embodiments of current Chinese manufacturing scandals; a powdery orange stain hints that a pair of swimmies lying in a desiccated wading pool are actually made of cast iron (shades of Jeff Koons's confounding bronze aqua lung). In the rear alcove, a seesaw teeters, a live current arcing from one end to the other with loud, hissing snaps. Elsewhere, a hand winch plays tug of war with red jammies—like all these grotesqueries, the piece captures a strain of imperiled innocence.

We spent the next two days (amid intermittent downpours) staggering in and out of galleries in search of a darkness visible. Sure, there are other worthy shows, but those scribbled notes are for future columns covering alternative zeitgeists. Right now, we're hell-bent on searching out mortality's beautiful sublime. Which takes us to Brooklyn's Front Room Gallery, where Mark Stilwell has filled the space with a Transformer battle created for what appears to be one-millionth of Michael Bay's $150,000,000 movie budget. Sublime it ain't, but this cardboard-and-masking-tape Coney Island sprawls across the floor as energetically as a 3-D episode of Ultraman. Subway cars have been knocked askew by robots that reach to the ceiling and bristle with water-bottle tentacles, paper-towel-roll Gatling guns, and juice-jug missile launchers. All around them, tiny figures pursued by soda-straw aliens run screaming between shoebox-size amusement rides, further amping up this recycled Armageddon (147 Roebling St., 718-782-2556, through October 14).

The end of the line is reached at Cheim & Read, with "I Am As You Will Be: The Skeleton in Art" (547 W 25th, through November 3). Jenny Holzer's 1994 Lustmord Table features an antique, wooden drop-leaf table covered with bones and teeth, some encircled by silver bands engraved with the thoughts of the perpetrator of this "rape slaying," plus those of the victim and an observer. The rows of bones carefully arrayed over the scarred wood are reminiscent of Rome's Capuchin Crypt, where mosaics, altars, and chandeliers fashioned from human remains thrust the brutal fact of mortality past consciousness's usual protective barriers. Churchgoing Catholic Andy Warhol bequeathed us a danse macabre with his repeated photos of upright skeletons jammed together like straphangers on the 11:59 to Hades. The skulls in Adam Fuss's mirror-like daguerreotypes become visible only when something is reflected in them, an unexpected ghostly sensation. Wim Delvoye's Suck 1 is even eerier: an X-ray of someone performing an X-rated act, its sharp delineation of teeth and knuckles managing to be clinical, frightening, and hilarious all in one stroke. More lyrical is Alice Neel's enigmatic 1928 watercolor Requiem, all slanting, misty sun rays cast upon distant sailing ships tossed on dark waves; on the beach, death's-heads lie in thrall to an undulating serpent. Louise Bourgeoisstretched nylon over thick wires and bones to create her feral Arched Figure No. 2; drawings and etchings by Paul Delvaux, Ensor, Dalí, and others add graphic grit to the proceedings. As usual, Picasso has the last word, this time with his 1946 lithograph of a black pitcher communing with a stark skull. The composition is as solid as an anvil, with every swipe of the litho crayon exquisitely textured, a record of whatever ineffable force separates the living from inanimate bones.

 
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