Best in Show: Lee Bontecou at Freedman Art

Plus: Sue de Beer at the High Line; Eija-Liisa Ahtila at Marian Goodman

For more than half a century, Lee Bontecou has been peering into the cosmos. Her famously imposing three-dimensional vortexes of the early 1960s—grungy swaths of canvas stitched onto spiraling armatures—grabbed your attention with the gravitational strength of black holes. From the same period, in drawings and lithographs, spherical objects appeared as wayward moons or space capsules. Later she rendered odd creatures or weird plant life, and at MOMA last year, she introduced a spectacular structure of arcing filaments and porcelain knobs, suspended in space like a golden satellite.

Now, at age 80, she's launching starships. Hung from the ceiling, several fish-shaped forms sail through the universe with curved bows that resemble wind-filled spinnakers. Bontecou made them by stretching small squares of old canvas between wire ribs, then covering the surfaces with white, NASA-like cladding (porcelain). Various features—rudders, landing gear, antennas, portholes—are charmingly abstracted with bits and pieces. If you look close enough at the center of one ship, you'll find a cylindrical, Star Trek–ish engine. Elegant as mobiles, these voyagers also happen to be pretty good metaphors for the artist's long, imaginative journey across the years.

On the floor below, like glimpses of a fertile planet, two sandboxes hold strange flora, assembled from a variety of material—spindly and spiky stalks, brittle gray flowers, geometric ferns, translucent pods. Throughout the gallery, graphite drawings demonstrate a longtime fascination with the swirling void. Never easy to categorize (which might account for a period of neglect, now happily corrected), Bontecou's work keeps taking you to the outer limits.

Star date: 2011? Bontecou's Untitled.
Jayne Park
Star date: 2011? Bontecou's Untitled.

Details

Lee Bontecou: 'Recent Work: Sculpture and Drawing'
Freedman Art
25 East 73rd Street
212-249-2040, freedmanart.com
Through February 11

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Sue de Beer: Haunt Room

If you found Carsten Höller's funhouse gimmicks at the New Museum nothing but child's play, head over to the High Line, where Sue de Beer's 14-sided chamber, Haunt Room, will mess up your body and mind, possibly conjuring ghosts. Step inside the empty space and listen to a kind of roaring, interrupted every so often by booms and buzzing. Your brain, eyeballs, and other organs will start to vibrate. Dizziness might follow, and then—for the particularly sensitive—apparitions.

Known for video installations of esoteric horror, de Beer is doing something simpler here, more direct. She's pumping recordings of wind, thunder, and electronica through special speakers that envelop you with infrasound—low-frequency pitches below the human ear's range but powerful enough to disturb the senses. Reported effects from researchers (one of whom inspired the artist) include odd chills and spectral visions. Conspiracists will talk about the Nazis and the CIA using such sonic waves for mind control. You might feel, in fact, as if you've emerged from some transformational sci-fi machine, like William Hurt in Altered States (one of de Beer's favorite films, by the way). Without representational or conceptual guidance—except, perhaps, for the warnings posted outside—the art here is pure sensation, literally touching (and likely unnerving) your core. 14th Street Passage, the High Line, 212-500-6035, thehighline.org. Through December 4.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

A sweet contemplation on divine and personal faith, Eija-Liisa Ahtila's 33-minute quasi-documentary, The Annunciation, follows a women's support group acting out the moment in the Gospel of Luke when Mary learns from an angel God's intent to impregnate her. Three surrounding screens, each showing a different view, place you in the middle of things. An earnest gal with dreadlocks, who has confessed her belief in immaculate conception, rehearses Mary's astonishment at the news, while the angel tries on her wings and giddily practices flying in a harness. In the end, when everyone appears to become the characters they play, the biggest miracle is cinema itself.

Elsewhere, the artist examines nonhuman existence with video of a giant spruce. By presenting the tree on the horizontal and dividing it into six independently filmed segments that stretch across a wall, Ahtila lends surprising intimacy—and distinct spirituality—to an immense living thing we all take for granted. Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, 212-977-7160, mariangoodman.com. Through December 3.

 
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