Laugh Till You Cry

John Waters has done superb work debasing our culture


“My Ass Is Haunted!” blares a striated blue screen shot. Charlie Manson as a dwarf with a come-hither sneer proves catnip to a crawling, pint-size Michael Jackson (with a backdoor flap on his pink pj’s) in the sculpture Playdate. Enlarged covers of Jet and Town & Country reveal Barbara Bush and Ike Turner, respectively, as subscribers. The jokes are sub-brow, but when was the last time you laughed out loud in a gallery? (I mean, when you were meant to.) John Waters has done superb work debasing our culture (remember 1972’s Pink Flamingos closing with the mountainous tranny Divine—featured in two of the show’s photo collages—eating poodle poop to secure her title as Filthiest Person Alive?). Comedy’s doppelgänger, tragedy, also lurks: A diptych grainily reproducing the title cards of A Knight’s Tale and Dr. Doolittle 2, the in-flight movies for United and American airlines on 9-11, is this filmmaker’s poignant reminder that Hollywood’s happy fantasies are mere respite, never escape, from life’s theater of cruelty.

John Walters
Marianne Boesky
535 West 22nd Street
Through May 20

‘Nick Brandt: African Elegy’
Created with infinite patience, a large-format camera, and no telephoto lenses, Brandt’s close-up portraits of wild animals seem more communion than documentation. A cheetah cub peers curiously from between its mother’s legs; a lioness casts an unperturbed glance over her shoulder; chimpanzees lounge, as thoughtful as monks. Warm sepia tones consciously recall an earlier photographic era, conveying an ominous sense that encroaching humanity may soon relegate these irreplaceable creatures forever to the past. Staley Wise, 560 Bway, 212-966-6223. Through June 3

Long-Bin Chen
In One Buddha, Two Systems, Chen has stacked dozens of copies of two books—The Basic Archive of China and Taiwan Under War—and carved them into a foot-high Buddha head. The spines of the books provide a stair-stepped gash that bisects the deity’s face, a metaphor for divisions between the two countries and perhaps, since these deceptively solid-seeming sculptures are made from paper, a meditation on the impermanence of states and religion. Frederieke Taylor, 535 W 22nd, 646-230-0992. Through June 3

‘Veronese’s Allegories’
The Choice Between Virtue and Vice, one of five allegorical paintings by the Renaissance master (1528–88) on display here, depicts a young man’s preference for Virtue, swaddled in a sumptuous emerald-green gown, over the sharp-clawed Vice. The girder-like strength of the embracing couple’s arms (while spurned Vice’s droop flaccidly from her beautiful, fleshy back) and bravura brushwork (orange crisscrossing folds enliven lush blue fabric) reveal a framework underpinning these 450-year-old paintings that’s as fresh as one of Terry Winters’s abstract grids. Frick Collection, 1 E 70th, 212-288-0700. Through July 16

This smart group show of collages includes Ray Johnson’s bold juxtaposition of an Aztec-style abstraction with a simple, cutout skull; an appropriated Marilyn Monroe photo (the icon is surrounded by makeup and hair stylists) into which May Wilson has inserted her own sixtysomething visage; and Al Hansen’s primitive fetish figure constructed from overexposed film. Pavel Zoubok, 533 W 23rd, 212-675-7490. Through May 27

Mel Bochner
In a two-gallery show, four decades of Bochner’s work reveal the consistency of his obsessions—systems and language—and the breadth of their expression. Downstairs, the drawing 3/5/4 (Hinged) features a triangle, pentagon, and square joined in a rough network of black charcoal dots and rusty crayon lines on a smudged gray tempera ground. In a later piece, Bochner layers white numbers into dark lacquer, creating syrupy brushstrokes that belie the supposed solidity of accounting. Upstairs, five recent “Thesaurus” paintings offer regimented tiers of colorful, painstakingly spaced, and impeccably painted capital letters forming dozens of words and phrases that gain intensity as they are scanned: Contempt (2004) starts in the upper-left corner with the eponymous opener, then moves through “scorn” and “sadism” and on to “bad blood” before ending “Go fuck yourself.” Bochner tempers the humor of these works by finishing each word or phrase with a comma implying, perhaps, that such escalations of language can become, physically and literally, “fighting words.” Drawings at Wynn Kramarsky, 560 Bway 507A, 212-966-6601, through June 24; paintings at Peter Freeman, 560 Bway 602, 212-966-5154, through July 1.

Harold Haliday Costain
In these Depression-era photographs of salt mines, workers are dwarfed by 60-ton boulders of rock salt that they must carve into manageable blocks with yard-long drill bits. Others wield long poles to place dynamite charges, their ladders casting angled shadows down sheer, iridescent cliffs of the mineral; massive machines are blurred under coarse white coatings. These dramatically lit compositions are an elegant amalgam of the Precisionist and Socialist Realism schools of painting, but the photographs confirm that working in a salt mine is one hard dollar indeed. Keith de Lellis, 47 E 68th, 212-327-1482. Through June 17