Spoiler Alert, "The Masked Portrait," and Amanda Ross-Ho

Man, maybe we do need Obama. For sure, we need change—something, anything, because it's nasty out there, cold, with a slashing Chelsea wind. Everything I responded to this week was bleak, cruel, or tragic—which fortunately doesn't preclude beauty or dark wit.

Let's start with the mother of all terrors, the Bomb. "The Masked Portrait" (Marianne Boesky, 509 W 24th, 212-680-9889. Through February 9) surveys 30 Japanese artists who worked from the 1940s to the present, with Shomei Tomatsu's 1961 photo, "Atomic Bomb Damage," Wristwatch stopped at 11:02, August 9, 1945, providing a touchstone. Beyond mere documentation, this silver print portrays a moment in history that has receded into apocalyptic banality: the detonation of the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, which seemed merely a strategic follow-up to the fantastic destruction of Hiroshima three days earlier. And perhaps that's why this scorched watch is so poignant—the war was all but over, but its ruinous momentum couldn't be stopped in time to save thousands of civilians from incineration. And while a 1965 painting of a huge, red word-balloon by Sadamasa Motonaga at first looks comical, runnels of blue and green pigment and a gash across the top—as if a head has been scalped—add a sardonic menace that prefigures such present-day works as Takashi Murakami's saucer-eyed cartoon creeps. Another contemporary piece, Yuichi Higashionna's 2005 Untitled (Chandelier VII), combines dozens of round fluorescent lights into a gorgeous, if unsettling, sculpture, its cool luminescence cast upon black-and-white-striped walls and snarled wiring. Stark and numinous, the piece channels the terrible majesty of Harold Edgerton's stop-motion photos of atomic blasts.

Also represented are artists from the mid-century Gutai movement, who adhered to the mottos "Paint pictures we have never seen before" and "Never imitate others." Kazuo Shiraga's eight-foot-wide oil painting feels like an explosion that has been interrupted mid-burst, then coagulated into a brown, black, and red wound. Shiraga achieved this weird energy by suspending himself over his canvas and painting with his feet, which evokes the Bomb's legacy of birth defects in the generations born after the fallout. The Gutai group's fascinating performances paralleled the Happenings in American art of the time, yet, unlike Claes Oldenburg's plaster 7-Up can sold from a storefront or Rauschenberg on roller skates, the Japanese events feel more desperate about the human condition. A 1956 photo of Atsuko Tanaka draped in fluorescent lights, her arms spread as if in supplication, gives off an irradiated glow, though whether she's a victim or an angel may depend on your mood.

Alex Hubbard's films and collages lighten things up at Nicole Klagsbrun (526 W 26th, 112-243-3335. Through February 16) even as they traverse ragged and abject landscapes of the mind. The short, single-take video The Collapse of the Expanded Field I(2007), in which a sheet of plastic covered with smashed flowers and puddles of water has been spray-painted black, then swiped at with a flailing wooden cane, is a slapstick recalling of Joseph Beuys's shamanistic art actions. In Cinéopolis, a movie screen is slashed and layered with Mylar balloons, which are in turn burned, tarred, and feathered. These semi-comical ordeals have been crystallized in a collage of a burned balloon flattened out over drippy paint, like the desiccated remains of a clown.

Amanda Ross-Ho and Kirsten Stoltmann work in the same studio building in L.A., and their joint exhibition, "Vaginal Rejuvenation," is fraught with all the intimacies and betrayals conjured from collaboration (Guild & Greyshkul, 28 Wooster, 212-625-9224. Through February 16). In Stoltmann's 2007 It's Over No Really, the title is spelled out in flower decals pasted over photos of American Indians and wildlife—a failed marriage, or an epitaph for native cultures and the environment? It's the personal as political, for sure. Stoltmann uses snippets of pornography in her work, imagery that Ross-Ho sometime nabs, such as in Flipped Nude, in which she cut a curvaceous silhouette from one of Stoltmann's men's-mag castoffs, revealing a portion of bare ass and slim ankle within the lascivious contour. Doubled, such cheap titillations feel even sleazier. When the artists work directly on the same piece, the results can be startling, as in the photo of a heavily pregnant Kirsten defaced by Amanda's pink, drippy, upside-down text, "You Can't Handle the Truth." The decals, candles, and emotional outbursts (a rug is spraypainted "Jealousy Is a Bitch") put you in touch with your inner BFF.

Cristina Lei Rodriguez's sculptures are anything but friendly: They're like the Swamp Thing swaddled in bling (Team, 83 Grand, 212-279-9219. Through February 16). Overrun (III) towers above the viewer, with gold chains and plastic foliage slathered in epoxy hanging down from purple struts encrusted with shiny tiles. The jewelry and colorful baubles entwined with the ersatz vegetation might be the decayed remnants of a nightclub after global warming has put paid to humanity.

Anyway, after watching Luis Gispert's Smother, you may be glad of humanity's passing (Mary Boone, 541 W 24th, 212-752-2929. Through March 1). This 26-minute film begins with a vertiginous pan through tropical trees leading to a young boy in a wading pool, who begins to drown in his own voluminous urine. It's a dream, of course, from which he awakes in a sodden bed. Mom is pretty, pink, and blonde, and they live in nouveau-riche luxury, but she also sports a hideously scarred foot and psyche, perhaps courtesy of the absent father of her son—she alternately coddles and cruelly berates the dark-skinned boy, her "little brownie." The kid lugs around a pretend boombox, and the round speakers echo the wading pool and other elements of the film. (Gispert's sometimes blunt visual parallels are nonetheless painterly and absorbing.) In his travels, the son witnesses the slaughter of a squealing pig and is coerced into a ride by its handsome-gone-to-seed butcher, who is intrigued by a picture of Mom. Next comes flirting and an incontinent German shepherd that (spoiler alert!) ends up in a boiling cauldron. Although a cut to over-the-top video-game graphics signals that no pets (as opposed to livestock) were harmed during the filming, the scene caused an exodus of viewers every time I was in the gallery. Undergirded by rumbling bass beats, it's nightmarish stuff, the cycles of cruelty and cartharsis conveyed with imagery that dogs you well after the screen goes dark.

 
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