Paul McCarthy At The Whitney; "A Member of the Wedding" At Daniel Reich

When I entered the Whitney's Paul McCarthy exhibit, a gaggle of kids was anxiously crawling around on the exposed wooden platform of Bang Bang Room (1992). After a long wait, the four walls hanging open on huge hinges slowly swung in, each with a mechanical door that repeatedly opened and then banged shut. The notions that swirled through my mind—door-slamming arguments in claustrophobic apartments, vengeful ghosts—were lost on the youngsters reveling in the breezy pandemonium. They also enjoyed the whining servo motors and groaning brakes of Mad House (1999/2008), which features a chair set inside a room-size cube, each rotating in varying directions at high speeds, like a particularly brutal astronaut-training device. There's little hint in this exhibition of the scatological deluges of ketchup, chocolate, and mayonnaise for which the artist is notorious, although the black-and-white video Whipping a Wall and a Window With Paint (1974) offers a visceral record of McCarthy slapping a ragged, paint-soaked cloth all over an abandoned antiques shop. The piece ends with the shirtless artist winded and splattered, his torso appearing flayed from his Oedipal challenge to the previous generation's action painters. Similarly, the grainy 16mm projection of Spinning Camera, Walking (1971) captures bright venetian blinds flashing by in overexposed blurs, a soft radiance that would recall the ineffable limbo of a Rothko canvas but for the anxious centrifugal pan, which turns it into a luminous purgatory. In Spinning Room, cameras revolve on a central platter, their live feed of viewers projected onto four wall-size surrounding screens. Our contemporary surveillance society may make these gyrating doppelgängers feel old hat, but McCarthy gets points for prescience: Although the installation wasn't realized until this year, the piece was conceived in 1971. Like whirling on a carnival ride till you puke, McCarthy nails the fault line between sensation and agitation, ushering us into an American funhouse where liberty is mirrored by queasy excess.

'A Member of the Wedding'

Room with a spew: McCarthy's Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement—Three Installations, Two Films, 2008
Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art

Room with a spew: McCarthy's Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement—Three Installations, Two Films, 2008

In this sharp show, Susanne M. Winterling has arranged work by nine artists into one engaging entity. Begin with the tumescent angle of Adrian Hermanides's neon sculpture, which is echoed by Endre Aalrust's photo of a slouched, chugalugging skinhead. A kaffiyeh wrapped around the youth's throat segues into another Aalrust shot, the unsettling image of a fur stole draped over a howling dog. Nearby, Dag Nordbrenden documents the political slants of various newspapers through their differing photos of Jacques Chirac as he bows to kiss the hand of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Themes of sex, relationships, and power culminate, after a fashion, with Paulette Phillips's Homewrecker (ghost), a small chiffon figure levitating in thrall to an oscillating electromagnetic current. An accompanying film loop features a woman whose luxuriant tresses blow endlessly around her face, even as her tightly buttoned white nightgown signals little hope of passionate release. Daniel Reich, 537A W 23, 212-924-4949. Through August 29.

'Quiet Politics'

In the front gallery, David Hammons's American flag—its red, white, and blue transposed to the red, green, and black of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association—hangs in sly repartee with Félix González-Torres's elegiac cascade of dim lightbulbs, 1992's Untitled (for New York). Elsewhere, Rosemarie Trockel's deadpan collection of five balaclavas, still in their boxes, forms a prelude to Adel Abdessemed's installation of 22 music stands supporting drawings of masked, stone-throwing rioters. Is the GOP right? Are such protests always orchestrated by outside agitators? Whatever, the thoughtful wit of this group show reminds us that politics isn't always a contact sport. Zwirner & Wirth, 32 E 69th, 212-517-8677. Through August 29.

Albrecht Dürer

Among the more than 100 prints by Dürer (1471–1528) on view, such works as The Archangel Michael Battling the Dragon (1498) reveal a young artist of compositional daring. By placing a distant landscape across the bottom of his page while angels and demons swirl in close-up detail through the upper portion, he creates an inversion that feels almost cinematic—an aerial shot before airplanes. In another woodcut, The Birth of Christ (1511), angels and shepherds crowd into a tumbledown stable to admire a plump baby Jesus. The end wall is missing, and the stone arches, rough wooden struts, and worn stairs plunge in one-point perspective, combining realism with formal drama. Forerunners to contemporary styles as diverse as M.C. Escher's geometric conundrums and S. Clay Wilson's horror-vacui biker comix can be glimpsed in the innovative graphics that Dürer discovered just a few decades after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway, 212-408-1500. Through September 21.

 
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