Inside a Kansas detention center, a 12-year-old boy sits alone in a cinder block cell, completing a homework assignment on Old Yeller and trying to make it through a two-week lockup—punishment for expressing pent-up anger to a parked car. In Nevada, a barefoot eight-year-old, arrested for being violent in school, stands in a bleak, empty room and waits all day for his mother, who can't immediately pick him up for fear of losing her job. The two startling portraits belong to a series of photographs—all shot by Richard Ross—that document the imprisonment of American youth.
The understated display here (the unframed images are simply pinned to the wall) pulls you close, face-to-face with troubled kids. Their own words, recorded by Ross in interviews, appear on text panels—stories of family strife, confessions of guilt, and a doleful resignation to a vast, often harsh system that doesn't offer anyone much chance for rehab.
Ross's compositions capture that quiet misery. The high-angle shot of a teen in court-ordered seclusion amplifies his submissive state and, at the same time, reveals a decrepit room flooded in depressive tones of blue. Color often creates an ironic tension. Peering through the window of his cell door, the desperate eyes of a young Seattle man are bordered by a steel frame painted in a soothing lavender. In a New Orleans jail, the day after a big fight, the red shirts of 23 inmates—all emblazoned with the word "juvenile"—suggest both a simmering resentment and, on this August afternoon without air-conditioning, the unbearable heat.
Other photos survey methods of severe control, using a cool formality to mirror the sense of cruelty. Blank, pastel-hued isolation rooms resemble those impersonal constructions of Donald Judd. Beds and chairs designed for restraint, seen one after the other, conjure visions of torture. Ross also defines the scale of this incarceration, showing us, from the outside, an immense detention center in Chicago—a white, modernist behemoth that sprawls across the frame like some dystopian factory. An image from a Miami facility, a "wall of shame," disturbingly sums it all up: mug shots of almost 50 adolescents who'd been released and, some time later, shot to death. Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer Street, 212-226-3232, feldmangallery.com. Through February 16.
The comedian, actor, and proto-performance artist Andy Kaufman—whose reputation for pranks still convinces hopeful fans that he faked his 1984 death—gets a heartfelt tribute with a career's worth of quirky stuff, assembled with reverence in Maccarone's cavernous space. Peruse his virtually unknown novels, including The Hollering Magoo, with its hilarious staccato opening of non sequiturs. Guffaw over the priceless letters from women challenging Kaufman to rip-roaring fights—received by the dozens after he tauntingly proclaimed himself the "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World." Meet Knuckles, a grinning puppet and co-star of Kaufman's 1979 children's-show spoof, Andy's Funhouse. Watch videos of his boyishly earnest absurdity. Read his sad little will.
Got questions about this wild-eyed nut? Like: Was Kaufman actually lampooning existence itself? Well, you can talk to his friends, family members, and cohorts—Carol Kane, Bob Zmuda, and his brother Michael, to name a few—who will all make appearances throughout the course of the show, recounting the peculiar antics of their favorite clown. Maccarone, 630 Greenwich Street, 212-431-4977, maccarone.net. Through February 16.
Narrowly escaping associations with handicraft, embroidery keeps emerging into the realm of fine art, this time in the lovely work of Natasza Niedziolka. The Berlin artist draws with thread, stitching together primitive pictures reminiscent of Dubuffet: teetering stacks of dish-shaped objects in yellows, blues, and greens. Next to them, stripped-down versions of the same arrangements—outlines only, bearing just a few touches of color—reflect the show's title, hanging on the wall like the originals' ghosts. Horton Gallery, 55-59 Chrystie Street, 212-243-2663, hortongallery.com. Through February 3.