Fall Guide: Ingrid Calame Finds Beauty in the Grime

James Cohan Gallery hosts the artist's Swing Shift

An empty asphalt parking lot rates pretty high on the ugly scale, so it would seem rather improbable that a painter had chosen just such a spot—in the city of Buffalo, no less—for its beauty.

Mind you, Ingrid Calame, kneeling on the tar, wasn't exactly admiring the location. She was too busy peering down, as she often does, at the rough, dirty surface, where she was methodically tracing the outlines of grooves, cracks, spills, and stains. The "marks," painstakingly recorded on sheets of Mylar by Calame and her assistants, would become a set of diagrams for another series of the artist's signature paintings—abstract, glowing with a pop chromaticism, and derived from the accidental palimpsests that lie under our feet (on view in her show "Swing Shift" at the James Cohan Gallery starting September 10).

"The things I trace are generally completely abject," Calame admits. "No one would stop and look at them twice." But removed from their context, those unnoticed details—which have included tire imprints on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and graffiti covering the L.A. River's concrete banks—form intriguing networks of irregular shapes, striations, and sinuous paths. For each painting, Calame overlays several (sometimes dozens) of tracings from different locations, then transfers the complex composite onto a white aluminum panel. "It looks like a coloring-book drawing," she says, explaining how, as she paints, certain preferred sections emerge into the foreground. Because she treats the lines as boundaries, isolating her vivid colors within the enclosed areas, a completed panel often resembles an intricate, specially coded map. It's as if her close-up examinations of surfaces have revealed a microcosm of coasts, seas, and archipelagoes.

The new work, from tracings made during a residency at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery, speaks more than ever to Calame's reverence for her sources. From the cracked bottom of an abandoned public-housing pool, "bizarre, beautiful marks" resembling cellular structures will stretch 20 feet across the gallery's wall—memorialized there as a simple chalk outline (transferred by old-fashioned pounce drawing). The paintings, marking a shift toward more recognizable forms, feature sets of blocky numerals, which came from tracings she made of stencils painted (many times over) on a steel plant's shipping dock. Prominent and brightly colored, the figures—symbolizing the working class—are enshrined like pop icons. "They really moved me," says the artist, her voice a little dreamy. "They were very human. There were a lot of layers of history in the numbers."

For Calame, 45, that sense of time—of things passing away—is a central theme. It was about 20 years ago, right after learning that her grandmother was dying, that she first went outdoors to trace. "The things that happen on the ground embody loss somehow," she says, describing how connecting with L.A.'s streets helped her cope with death. She lets the idea spin outward. "If the world ended, how long would this concrete last? Would nature come back through it? I think about those things a lot."

But for the immediate future, Calame has her eye on a surface that supports plenty of life, a playground near her Los Angeles studio. The choice seems particularly appropriate for an artist whose interests—and daily habits—bring to mind a child's ground-level obsessions with what adults never see. "I look at my feet when I walk," she confesses, "and I notice things. It's funny: My daughter does, too. She picks up all sorts of trash and stuff." She laughs at her three-year-old's curiosity, then seemingly makes a connection to the art. "I love those treasures of nothingness."

Ingrid Calame: 'Swing Shift,' September 10 to October 9, James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, jamescohan.com

Fall Art Picks

'Künstlerplakate: Artists' Posters From East Germany, 1967–1990' September 7–December 4

Prefiguring the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German posters in this collection—from artists advertising their own shows—strike an anxious mood, like the 1982 design by Horst Peter Meyer, who shrouds a gloomy cityscape with dense and heavy cross-hatching. Everywhere in these vibrant, rarely seen works, hurried scratches, scribbles, and streaks suggest a pent-up anger that even the most repressive Communist regime could not contain. Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, nyu.edu/greyart

'Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen'
September 15–March 14, 2011

With all the retro chic on display in this survey of the 20th-century kitchen, scouts from Restoration Hardware might have a field day. Among plenty of gadgetry, there's a portable Italian unit from 1968 (stove and cabinets fold out) that could be perfect for that constant rearranger. You can also see a full-scale version of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's 1926 design for public housing—influenced by mentor Albert Loos, it's an efficient space of clean lines with an intriguing art deco touch. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, moma.org

Dana Melamed: 'Black Tide'
September 16–October 23

Gritty urban tableaux, reminiscent of the Ash Can School, undergo dream-state convolutions in Dana Melamed's busy, multilayered drawings. On mounds of glued-together plastic strips, burned and melted with a torch, Melamed etches strange, black-and-white scenes verging on chaos. In a typical work, Mechanism of Deterioration, a jumbled city perched on a giant turbine seems to be collapsing. Melamed's visions are darkly alluring. Priska C. Juschka Fine Art, 547 West 27th Street, priskajuschkafineart.com

'Alternative Histories'
September 24–November 24

Just as revolutions need meeting halls, radical art relies on those galleries at the fringe run by mavericks on a shoestring. Given little consideration in most chronicles of New York's avant-garde (glory goes to the artists), these alternate spaces and their founders are finally getting the attention they deserve. This exhibit, covering a 50-year span and more than 130 galleries, examines landmarks like Food and Artists Space, along with plenty of 21st-century newcomers. Exit Art, 475 Tenth Avenue, exitart.org

Tony Oursler
October 7–December 4

In his 1970 theory of robotics, Japanese researcher Masahiro Mori states that when a machine comes too close to resembling a human, we find it repulsive. Renowned installation artist and cultural critic Tony Oursler, who often gives sculpted forms a creepy human presence, is applying Mori's ideas to the Web. Combining video, laser projections, and LED-illuminated drawings, Oursler's latest effort suggests that, as he says, "the Internet itself is an epistemological mirror of human consciousness." Indeed, Googling yourself is just another symptom of existential dread. Lehmann Maupin, 201 Chrystie Street, lehmannmaupin.com

'Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968'
October 15–January 9, 2011

While pop art's stars—all men—were glorifying mass culture, the movement's women were looking at things with a more humanizing eye. The neglected or forgotten pieces here include Rosalyn Drexler's Home Movies, a painting of gangster-film figures contained in disconnected TV-like boxes; an amusing portrait of actor Jean-Paul Belmondo that's a visual mash note from Pauline Boty; and Martha Rosler's biting photomontage of first lady Pat Nixon, who stands underneath a framed picture of the My Lai massacre. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, brooklynmuseum.org

'Art/Sewn: Innovation and Expression'
October 16–December 12

Laura Splan makes doilies shaped after nasty human viruses; Annette Tacconelli attaches beaded structures to metal objects found on the street; and Cheryl Yun's fashion line includes lingerie printed with images of disaster and war. These artists, among several others in this show, take the needle and thread far beyond the comforts of craft. FiveMyles, 558 St. Johns Place, Brooklyn, fivemyles.org

Damien Hirst: 'Medicine Cabinets'
October 28–December 11

Whether you consider Damien Hirst a brilliant conceptualist or a shrewd businessman, here's a chance to see how the world's richest artist got his start. In 1989, for his graduation exhibit at London University's Goldsmiths College, Hirst presented four medicine cabinets filled with carefully arranged pill bottles and boxes, and later made a dozen more, naming them after Sex Pistols songs. Slicker versions, churned out for big bucks ever since, are little more than products, but the originals—together for the first time—bear a genuine spirit of cultural satire. L&M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, lmgallery.com

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein
November 4–October 9, 2011

Painting with his fingers or with brushes made from his wife's hair, working in fever-state single sessions, the self-taught Eugene Von Bruenchenhein produced hundreds of wildly colorful, extraterrestrial visions, often given titles mimicking sci-fi pulp (Fringe of Atlantis, A Future Majestic). Focusing on works of botanical influence, this exhibit also includes the artist's delightful towers made from painted chicken bones. American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, folkartmuseum.org

Hiroshi Sugimoto
November 5–January 8, 2011

Touch the silver sphere of a Van de Graaff generator and your hair will literally stand on end. You may feel the same effect when viewing the astonishing images from Hiroshi Sugimoto's Lightning Field series—produced when the artist applied the generator's voltage to blank sheets of film. What results is otherworldly: ghost-white forms resembling deep-sea creatures, baby nebulae, or glowing centipedes. Also here are the artist's black-and-white photographs of calm seas; austere but tonally rich, they're like the late work of Rothko. The Pace Gallery, 545 West 22nd Street, thepacegallery.com

Charles LeDray: 'workworkworkworkwork'
November 18–February 13, 2011

Welcome to the Smallville world of Charles LeDray, who meticulously miniaturizes the familiar—men's suits, a toy box, a magazine rack—into dioramas that might appear, at first, like sets for some animated children's story. But stare down long enough at the three scenes here of secondhand clothing shops—no higher than your knees—and they begin to feel like distant memories of unsettlingly exact detail. Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, whitney.org

'On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century'
November 21–February 7, 2011

Drawing doesn't get much credit for helping to push the boundaries of modernism, but as this wide-ranging collection demonstrates, the old-fashioned line not only remained the backbone of expression in the last century, it often emerged as a statement of pure art: geometric studies (Kandinsky, Nasreen Mohamedi), sculpted sketches (Calder, Eva Hesse), and gestures in film and dance. It's all here, in a big celebration of that basic urge to make a picture. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, moma.org

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