Beate Gütschow at Sonnabend Gallery; 'Chance Encounters' at Ludlow 38; MOMA's 'Polish Posters, 1945-89'
When you consider all the sculptural excesses and mirrored glass towers that today's master builders keep foisting on us, the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and '70s begins to seem rustically appealing—which partly explains why Beate Gütschow's large black-and-white photographs of concrete monoliths are so eerily beautiful. But Gütschow hasn't simply portrayed individual sites; instead, she's digitally assembled images of different buildings and plazas, many reminiscent of designs by Le Corbusier, into elaborate dystopian panoramas—fictional but nearly believable scenes of desolation suggestive of abandoned Soviet bloc wastelands. A decaying white tower with a glass cupola stands in a vast field of cracked pavement like a wayward lighthouse. Elsewhere, in peculiar juxtaposition, two stark apartment towers rise from a gritty industrial area of stunted grass, rubble, and two objects that might be corpses.
For each work, Gütschow expertly blends dozens of photographs (taken during her travels) in Photoshop, but uses only the traditional darkroom techniques of dodging and burning to alter their lighting. Her skies, usually overcast, reflect the tonal qualities of the surrounding concrete, and if there's a human presence, it's tiny and fleeting. Though these gray visions may seem, at first glance, like bleak aftermaths of war or environmental disaster, their ominous tranquility grows strangely inviting.
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Don't ask for a menu at the Restaurante Jorge Americano, because—like the food—it doesn't exist. But Tobi Maier, who co-directs Ludlow 38, a satellite gallery of the Goethe Institute, will gladly serve you a Brazilian soft drink and discuss the show's unlikely mix (for art) of South America and psychotherapy. The restaurant is, in fact, an installation by Tim Braden, who has re-created, on the surface, a cantina he once visited. Braden has previously conjured an idealized 1950s classroom of artificial (Hollywood-ish) nostalgia, and here, it appears, he's testing our ability to distinguish sanitized ideals from the truth. Even without a single odor of cooking, the visual details of Braden's space—garish green walls, watercolors of soccer teams, a folding table, various Brazilian knickknacks—have been "authentic" enough to fool numerous passersby.
Intended by Maier as a conversation area, Braden's work feels more like a front for the backroom operation: the 16mm projection of Pablo Pijnappel's serene and tender Walderedo, a 26-minute quasi-documentary about his grandfather, who worked as a psychiatrist in Rio de Janeiro, and his lost-soul father, an artist who left the filmmaker's family to start another in Japan, where he sank into depression. Like other work from Pijnappel, the film frequently shifts time and location, leaving you grasping for logical associations as if in a session with a shrink—and then delivers a satisfying epiphany just before the time's up. Ludlow 38, 38 Ludlow, 212-228-6848. Through June 21
'Polish Posters, 1945–89'
Abandoned for the Web's glitz and neglected long before that, graphic design in this country has reached such a despairing state of utilitarian blandness that, with few exceptions, it now seems little more than an afterthought. A reminder, then, of what might be the art form's most brilliant period—the Polish poster movement—should be cause for celebration. The trouble is, MOMA has crammed this exhibit into a corner, displaying many of the posters far above eye level and presenting the excellent documentary on the subject, Freedom on the Fence, at a virtually inaudible volume—only confirming the lowly status of graphic design.
But the genius manages to shine anyway. Forced to work under Communist censorship, Polish designers distilled their ideas for film, theater, and opera advertisements into biting metaphors that often doubled as political protest or reflections of the collective anxiety. Jan Lenica's hallucinatory poster for Alban Berg's intensely charged opera Wozzeck features a screaming mouth lost in a red vortex; Andrzej Pagowski wraps Macbeth's head in a brick castle, while Wiktor Gorka's bold composition promoting the American western The Tall Men places the shimmering silhouettes of dueling cowboys against a sky of desert orange. Mieczyslaw Gorowski, another great designer, remembers the posters, ubiquitous at the time, as being "flowers in the empty space." Even after the fall of Communism, they're still blooming. MOMA, 11W 53rd, 212-708-9400. Through November 30
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