The Braille edition of Playboy, a church in Kentucky used for urban-warfare training, a pig head and rotting fruit heaped together on a table in the “Contraband Room” at JFK airport: Simon has traveled many unbeaten (not to mention classified) paths for her color photographs. Some subjects, such as a white tiger with a mangy hide and squashed face, are haunting even without her annotated wall labels: The portrait of “Kenny” gains further pathos from the explanation that an Arkansas breeder achieved that white fur through inbreeding, resulting in multiple mental and physical defects. While the captions often add significant content (orange tubes in a nondescript room are actually transatlantic cables capable of handling 60 million simultaneous conversations), all the images are meticulously lit to bring out texture and detail, and smartly composed to offer clues to their enigmatic narratives. A blue glow punctuated by black dots could at first glance be an old Lite-Brite board, but its plunging perspective indicates a much greater scale—submerged rods of lethal nuclear waste. A white-on-white image of a squat cylinder with a ribbed-dome cap is revealed to be a cryogenic preservation unit coated entirely in frost, the grim reaper on hold in a Michigan freezer.
‘CCCP–Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed’
Name-checking the defunct Soviet Union’s Cyrillic initials, French photographer Frederic Chaubin traverses the old Imperium and bags architectural photos right out of The Jetsons—a circus auditorium in Kazan in the shape of a flying saucer; a Lithuanian sanitarium with bulges and ribbons of concrete that flow like May Day banners; a Tbilisi archaeological museum as stolid as an artillery bunker. A timeline on the floor provides historical context—”1969: Women’s Wear Daily endorses ‘hot pants'”; “1989: Berlin Wall falls”—while the photos’ saturated colors convey the retro charm of ’60s magazine spreads. Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare, 212-431-5795. Through May 26.
Stephen Wilkes: ‘China’
If Simon delves into America’s perpetual weirdness, and Chaubin mines Soviet surreality, Wilkes delivers a contemporary China that’s all about the Benjamins. His photos of skyscrapers rising like rockets out of weedy vacant lots and rows of regimented workers manning gleaming assembly lines capture both the giddiness and grind of nascent capitalism. Often his lens finds a lone worker looking up from her task or a solitary figure leaning over the railing of a soaring, spiral atrium, existential quirks amid the regimentation. A fascinating shot of the jagged Guilin Mountains features a tiny, long-stemmed plant in the foreground, a fragile repoussoir standing in for an environment under siege. Clamp Art, 521–531 W 25th, 646-230-0020. Through May 12.
Cal Lane’s three shovels are propped against the wall, their steel blades plasma-cut into doily-like patterns. Next comes Laurel Nakadate’s photo of snagged, floral-print panties snapping in a wintry wind. From her series “Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind” (a wittily cruel title), this image is every bit as hard-edged as the feminized spades. Fourteen other artists attack the flower motif, including Adam Fuss, whose photogram of an embroidered tunic with symmetrical layers of diaphanous petals reads like an undersea Shroud of Turin. And don’t miss Rene Burri’s photo of a young Castro, whose sharply bent elbow keys a composition of harsh angles that embody both the verve and the rigidity of El Comandante’s reign. Danziger Projects, 521 W 26th, 212-629-6778. Through May 24.
Here is the baby Moses, all quick pink daubs for arm and face, a blue cone for the servant bending over the tarred basket, lithe orange flourishes for bulrushes, and a gray column for Pharaoh’s imperious daughter. Elsewhere, a dark interior frames a sunlit opening, these rectangles locked together by a blocky brazier with orange flames that echo nearby palm fronds. Two bodies lie in the gloom—a few deft strokes contrast a father’s stumbling shock with Moses’ stern, upright carriage as God’s messenger. These 14 biblical scenes, painted with a drippy, Abstract Expressionist brio, are devoid of both fundamentalist didacticism and secular snarkiness, while beautifully evoking the imperfect humanity underlying the divine. 55 Mercer Gallery, 55 Mercer, 212-226-8513. Through May 19.
The form is canonical, yet remains startlingly fresh: a portable wooden box standing on one edge that presents banal objects which become players in surrealist dramas. In Sand Fountain (1957), a broken wine goblet holds rich yellow pigment that also fills the bottom of the box up to a couple of inches, engulfing the glass stem; in contrast to this frailty, a thick white column seems to vie against mysterious and massive pressure from above. A 1940 work features a negative plate of three women in flowing Victorian garb floating above three shiny balls encased in accordion folds of yellowing paper. Painted black and barely five inches high, this assemblage limns a tale of desire constrained even while the spheres are as dissolute as fallen stars. Pavel Zoubok, 533 W 23rd, 212-675-7490. Through May 26.