Louise Nevelson's 'Dawns and Dusks'; Aimé Mpané at Skoto Gallery; The Bruce High Quality Foundation

Louise Nevelson: 'Dawns and Dusks'

Every year, on the campus of MIT, freshmen discover "Transparent Horizon," Louise Nevelson's towering work of angular black steel, and every year, demanding its removal, they hurl paint at the thing. Nevelson's work, they've learned, is rarely welcoming.

The impressive survey at PaceWildenstein is another chance to see some of the most formidable sculptures you'll ever encounter—and to marvel at how Nevelson assembled all of them from junk. Consider the large, untitled work from 1964—open crates stacked on their sides and packed mostly with wooden blocks and decorative posts. As she did with much of her work, Nevelson painted everything black, removing the objects' household associations and making us see something wholly different. In this case, the tapered shapes eerily resemble a shadowed collection of limbs. The crowded and compartmentalized darkness—present elsewhere—is like an abstracted version of Rodin's The Gates of Hell.

But three years before her death in 1988 at the age of 89, in a series of assemblages, Nevelson left her objects bare. Without the homogenizing black, a broken chair, a broom handle, and gas cans suddenly evoke an individual grace—it's as if Nevelson were finally revealing her affection for all the scrap that brought her fame and fortune. PaceWildenstein, 534 W 25th, 212-929-7000. Through March 14.

Aimé Mpané: 'Faces/Recent Works'

Aimé Mpané, a professor of sculpture who works in a folk-art style, is back at the African-themed Skoto with more work reflecting the harsh life in his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Into small squares of painted plywood, Mpané has carved a series of stark portraits with an adze. The traditional tool brings real and figurative violence to his youthful subjects, gouging, scarring, and disfiguring their faces. Mpané has also broken through the thin wood to leave jagged holes in cheeks and foreheads and, in some places, chipped away the features entirely. Surrounded by vibrant colors, these wounded souls, all unnamed, appear lost in forces they can't control.

There are photographs, too, shot with a similar approach. Through a shattered, muddy window placed in front of the camera, we see naked boys in a sad river or a desolate, ramshackle cemetery. The trick is leveling, making you look at these scenes not as a moneyed voyeur, but as the indigenous poor. In Mpané's hands, beauty is grim. Skoto Gallery, 529 W 20th, 212-352-8058. Through March 21.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation: 'Empire'

Among the satirists of art and culture regularly roaming the city, the six Cooper Union grads who call themselves the Bruce High Quality Foundation lay claim to some of the sharper pokes in the Establishment's eye. Most notoriously, they pursued Robert Smithson's overhyped "Floating Island" on a skiff, which displayed a miniature version of Christo's overhyped orange drapery.

Now, they're riffing on utopian visions of New York. Or so they say. It's all a little unclear, even for these master mockers of art-speak convolution. A rough 3-D model of the city sits on a giant, mocked-up pizza. Plaster casts of ATMs, arranged in a phalanx, stand before an enlarged photo showing members of the group dressed as the homeless and encamped on Robert Moses's massive New York panorama. The best piece is a faux documentary on the notions of empire, which is narrated, it seems, by a historian on mescaline. If the humor sounds weak, it's not much better in person. The effort feels like the product of a late-night bull session that never really gelled. But, hey, for comedians, the occasional dud freshens the edge. I'm still cheering for Bruce. Cueto Project, 551 W 21st, 212-229-2221. Through April 11.

Becky Yee: 'More Than a Woman'

Commercial photographer Becky Yee has taken her skills in shooting rock stars to a computer engineer's drab Tokyo apartment, where she's uncovered a prevalent but well-hidden Japanese subculture: the collecting of sex dolls. These aren't your inflatable bachelor-party gags, but silicone gals of human weight, who can fetch as much as 10 grand.

Somewhere between photojournalism and a fashion shoot, Yee's softly lit images play up the erotic fantasy, but also hint at misogyny. The unmarried engineer—so dedicated to his rubber harem that he wears a wedding ring—assumes various poses with his vixens, sexual and pathetically tender. In one candid moment, Yee catches him drinking orange juice as he caresses the shoulder of a brunette. Other, harsher images show the dolls dismembered in storage. More disturbing is the shot of the guy leering in his kitchen at a schoolgirl figure—she looks, from Yee's high-angle view, genuinely frightened. In the hands of an amateur, all this might have been exploitative kitsch, but Yee's smart eye turns it into an artful creep show. hpgrp gallery, 32-36 Little W 12th, 212-727-2491. Through March 15.

Village Voice art maven R.C. Baker is off working on a special project. Robert Shuster has been kind enough to step in for him for the next few months of "Best in Show."

 
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