'Eternal Ancestors,' Pierre Dorion, and Charles Searles

Recommendations by R.C. Baker

"Their faces are strong, quiet and reflective. They are thinking about our problems and how to help us," is how one village elder described ancestral images created in Africa's equatorial rainforest in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few of the 130 sculptures gathered in this Met exhibit are shown next to similar figures from the West and Far East: A 12th-century Virgin and Child, the wood grooved with undulating patterns, is placed near the elongated curves of a Fang people's wooden figure of a woman with a small twin riding her shoulders and grasping the arc of her carved hair. Other juxtapositions reveal parallels with Buddhist ancestor worship. By exposing our universal desire to remember the dead, this show brings context to artworks once seen in the West as mere primitive abstractions. (Although Picasso clearly felt a spiritual gravitas, noting in 1917, "These works of religious art, which are both impassioned and rigorously logical, are the most beautiful of all the products of the human imagination.") God knows the masks carved by the Kwele people for use in ceremonies seeking ancestral guidance are as gorgeous an anthropomorphization of animals as you're ever likely to see. Antelope horns form a diamond shape that is subtly flattened when translated into eyes and ears, all joined by a sinuous curve of snout; a gorilla exudes regal aggression through a jutting triangular forehead echoed by a proud nose and anchored by sweeping fangs. A head element from a Fang people's shrine glistens with a century's worth of palm-oil anointments—the eyes, made from nickel-size mirrors, capture flickers of light, creating a sense of something ineffable nearby. Like the Greek and Roman fragments in nearby galleries, some of these sculptures feel more human for their wear. The deep-set, heart-shaped eyes in one wooden head are pulled nearer to the surface because a once-protruding nose has been abraded by a century of veneration. The specifics of the individual are worn away, leaving a hauntingly beautiful specter for the ages.

Pierre Dorion

Although these paintings are oil on linen, they might just as well be formica—Dorion's surfaces and subject matter are that shiny and utilitarian. The images of a frosted white window and the two plastic seat lids of an outdoor latrine form a pyramid of perfect squares; a steel partition door in a restroom swings inward toward an unseen toilet, defining a warm rhombus of space against a creamy, blank wall. Through precise compositions, Dorion reduces such über- banalities to abstract totems that elide their sources. Less interesting are his iconic views of neckties and basketball hoops, but small gouaches of a copying machine and an Op Art–like detail of an institutional building wittily conflate their shared mundanity. Jack Shainman, 513 W 20th, 212-645-1701. Through November 10.


Ancestral remembrance: an African reliquary
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ancestral remembrance: an African reliquary

Details

'Eternal Ancestors'
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue Through March 2

Andreas Feininger

Shot in the '40s and '50s, Feininger's photos capture a crenellated New York skyline shrouded in smoke and steam, with men playing baseball on cobbled streets amid the geometric shadows of endless loading docks. He also documents the postwar fault line, where ragged tenements form a decaying architectural loam at the foot of sparkling new glass-and-steel towers. A 1949 shot of a dray horse and a truck trailer awaiting their loads and a vertiginous fish-eye view of a Billy Graham rally in Times Square—taken from a skyscraper in 1957—feel generations apart, one seemingly unaware of the atomic age, the other already mired in the dynamic chaos of the American Century. Alan Klotz, 511 W 25th, 212-741-4764. Through November 3.


Maira Kalman

The first three pages of Kalman's new book, The Principals of Uncertainty, cover the dodo bird's extinction, Spinoza's cogitations, and Pavlov's dog (stuffed and on display in Russia). This show, of the hundreds of delightful gouaches that illustrate her poignant tome, includes paintings of a discarded sofa, as plush and comfy as your grandmother's; a woman in a bunny costume (who claims to be British despite her thick Brooklyn accent); and a wintry scene of a dead man in the snow, arm flung out as if searching for his wayward hat. Beyond working as components of her wide-ranging narrative, each scene conveys a compact drama of its own—a sad and funny, sweet and melancholy one-woman salon. Julie Saul, 535 W 22nd, 212-627-2410. Through November 24.


Charles Searles

"It's a jazz percussion beat," Searles (1937–2004) once explained. "I used to play percussion with a group, and that music is reflected in all my art." Indeed, vibrant contrasts of oranges and blues, enveloped in flowing forms that recall animal horns and ritual masks, weave with the smooth precision of a seasoned rhythm section through the painting Portrait of the 3. Searles studied in Nigeria early in his career and combined African art forms with European modernism and American Social Realism—a synthesis of influences that shaped a broad and inclusive oeuvre. The three-foot-high sculpture Black Butterfly (1982), with its elegant cutouts and orange highlights, hovers on the wall with all the graceful insouciance of its namesake. Searles's sketches convey both the dancing distribution of weight he sought for his large sculptural forms and a lithe mind dashing out flourishes of ink with the confidence of a venerable jazz improviser. G.R. N'Namdi, 526 W 26th, 212-929-6645. Through November 30.

 
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