A high sun paints a receding chevron of blacktop with light; the title of this 1938 silver print, The Road West, by Dorothea Lange, adds resonance to the flat, desolate horizon in the distance. One destination in this collection of photos traversing America is William Eggleston’s Store Parking Lot—shot through a car’s windshield, a pair of shoppers seems targeted by fluorescent lights that plunge in perspective, the diagonals echoed by reflections in the shiny hood and painted stripes on the macadam. Robert Frank uncovered ’50s existentialism in his images of a Brylcreemed cafeteria patron somberly surveying his half-eaten meal, and a cityscape in which massive tail fins poke over the wall of an elevated parking garage—these angular flanks of Detroit steel are mirrored by vertical concrete supports that glow like a Precisionist cathedral. Reversing Eggleston’s view, Lee Friedlander got in front of a pickup truck to photograph a man gripping the steering wheel, his grim expression as hollow as a rural serial killer’s.
All the artists here have that gift for aligning objects in the viewfinder to bring dramatic geometries to their compositions, and for snapping the shutter at the exact moment when their subjects’ postures convey complex narratives (such as the young girls sprawled across the hood of a car in an RV park, where photographer Mitch Epstein’s own shadow joins them). The cumulative effect is less a lost highway than one paved with schadenfreude. Joel Sternfeld’s color print of an “exhausted renegade elephant” could be one of Jeff Wall’s theatrical stagings, but the abject animal, collapsed in a country lane surrounded by listless onlookers and vehicles with gaping doors, seems too contrived for fiction. Danny Lyon’s great shot of a biker astride his Harley, lank hair whipping as he twists to peer over his shoulder, was photographed on a bridge. Is he speeding across state lines? Does he even care what lies ahead? Probably he should’ve heeded Satchel Paige’s quintessential American adage: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
‘Projects 85: Dan Perjovschi’
Although they are writ in Brobdingnagian scale up MOMA’s soaring atrium, this Romanian artist’s cartoons exude the wonderful nostalgia of ’60s gag panels. Mischievous as bathroom graffiti, the simply outlined characters are engaged in witty confrontations: Protesters loft placards that are the same size and shape as the riot shields and batons wielded by advancing cops; a bent figure peeps under Lady Liberty’s skirts; a man pulls at the stripes of Old Glory, turning the flag into a venetian blind through which he can spy on his neighbors. It’s not surprising that Perjovschi, who lived under the odious dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, would take such a biting view of today’s U.S.A.—he’s seen how rule by fear can twist and enervate a society. He also takes a swing at our current economic disparities with a drawing of a lone figure, headed “Capital,” next to an image of a milling throng, labeled “ism.” A similarly themed cartoon features a figure who’s been stabbed in the back by a hammer and sickle facing another impaled on a ninja-star-like credit card. And good old-fashioned Eastern European despair is succinctly updated through a man in an exhausted slouch under the caption “You have 420 messages.” Still, the artist’s vision of a puppet that has reversed its strings and wrested control from its master contains the hopeful implication that we the people can’t be fooled forever. Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd, 212-708-9400. Through August 27.
‘Project for a Revolution in New York’
Curated by Mitchell Algus, this broad exhibition offers an alternative to a postwar history that places American abstraction, minimalism, and conceptualism über alles, reminding us that the Europeans had their own obsessions during the ’60s and ’70s. Colored by surrealism and laced with eroticism, these works have an alluring freshness: Agustin Fernandez’s six-foot-high painting portrays a gelatinous grid studded with razor blades; the multiple faces jutting from what might be a floating potato in Felix Labisse’s canvas The Wanton prefigure Tony Oursler’s anthropomorphic blobs by decades. A selection of stills from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s movies revel in nudity, bondage, and such titillations as a naked girl kneeling with a gun in her mouth; also included is a 1971 letter and sketch sent to the filmmaker-novelist from the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (he of the ominous, classical nudes), and a stylishly inked and lettered shooting schedule from Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express. Matthew Marks, 523 W 24th, 212-243-0200. Through August 17.
Our second travelogue of the week ranges through a quirky twilight zone. Like escapees from an Area 51 souvenir stand, Don Porcella’s alien dolls, crafted from green pipe cleaners, stare bug-eyed from plastic bags pinned to the wall. In Amy Stein’s color photos of stranded motorists, the people appear as broken down as their vehicles: A little girl tucks her arms inside her pink shirt, the incongruous bulges giving her the aura of a limbless sideshow freak; a prone man’s wrist and elbow twist uncomfortably, mimicking the contortions of the exhaust pipe he is inspecting. Elsewhere, Eric Payson’s photos explore America by night. Outside the luminous cone of his headlights are colorful flashes of neon, blurry snatches of humanity (a fallen homeless man, two women bathed in blue light), and the roiling dark of a continent. Jinkee Choi uplifts the proceedings with his “Autistic Optimism” project, transforming mass-produced detritus into clever sculptures—a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup gets sliced and folded into a doughnut shape. Sweetly poignant is his photo of a dead groundhog on the shoulder of a wooded road: Choi cut a McDonald’s cup into wings and placed the round bottom rim on the animal’s head as a halo, transfiguring the pathetic into the poetic. We should all be so lucky. Mixed Greens, 531 W 26th, 212-331-8888. Through August 10.