The ’70s. President Ford tells a crime-ridden, broke New York to “Drop dead”; soon after, the Bronx is burning and the demimonde gleefully descends into punk purgatories and disco infernos. But this was also an era when photography, long viewed by fine-art pooh-bahs as fit only for tabloid journalism or advertising, was gaining respect via adventurous curators. In 1972, the Midtown Y Photography Gallery opened under the direction of photographer Larry Siegel and began exhibiting artists who were capturing Gotham in all its raw splendor: A bicycle stripped to its frame lies flat as a fossil on a Second Avenue sidewalk; a short-order chef fries burgers at a battered grill, his face obscured by greasy smoke. The work in this large show spans the Y’s inaugural year to its 1996 close, and much of it focuses on the grit and fatalistic excess that dwells just beneath the city’s cyclical waves of bland gentrification. A woman’s large breasts, barely constrained by her bathing suit, literally broil at the beach—grotesquely crisp and shiny, they embody the B-52’s “Rock Lobster”: “Bakin’ potatoes/bakin’ in the sun!” In the ’80s, the Plasmatics turn the Palladium into smoke-machine hell, while in another shot, the flashbulb’s glare transforms the guitar necks, splayed limbs, and tilted mics of some anonymous band into a medley of diagonals. The Y specialized in group shows of emerging artists; 1973’s “Women Photographers Part II” included Wedding—Lorraine and Frank—Long Island, a portrait of an undoubtedly doomed couple, both sucking cancer sticks, she glaring daggers at him from under her white-veiled cascade of big hair, while his own Keith Moon mop contrasts a suffocating ascot. A happier, though equally hirsute, pair smooch in the middle of a Third Avenue devoid of traffic and heavily littered, as if a parade has just petered out; the seat of her jeans sports a bumper sticker advertising a disco station. An especially sharp image from a 1983 show celebrates the 100th anniversary of our town’s most glorious landmark—if, in this picture of a ravaged Chevy hunkered down on naked hubs beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, its windows shattered and hood gaping, you can discern a beautifully zigzagging composition of suspension cables, twisted bumpers, and fat road stripes, then welcome to New York.
“I don’t pay for metal. I find it, refashion it,” Linus Coraggio has said. His ethic of using the deadfall of the city as loam for art has long given this sculptor a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers of a certain age. In the mid ’80s, you could mosey down to Avenue B and 2nd Street and take in his rusted architectural fantasia of towering gates and welded arches surmounting an abandoned gas station. Like artists from time immemorial, the last thing he needed was neighborhood improvement—he called a 1984 sculpture about gentrification The Decline of the East Village—and he gave up the site when the rent increased eightfold. This show focuses on smaller sculptures and includes numerous variations on the theme of choppers, many parts cannibalized from junked motorcycles. But it’s the work that moves furthest from its source—such as a rocking chair fabricated from gas tanks or a bench with elevator buttons for a seat—that is most arresting. Recent paintings done on corrugated plastic capture a fluid hand working over an industrial surface, an engaging continuation of Coraggio’s street-level aesthetic. Michael Steinberg, 526 W 26th, 212-924-5770. Through September 15.
All of the work here is delicately wrought and filled with slow-burning complexity, digital in that ancient sense of the fingers of an artist’s hand. Ken Solomon glued hundreds of ostensibly identical postage stamps onto envelopes mailed to the gallery (one way to cut down on art-transport fees), exposing wide color variations in their print runs while creating entertainingly labyrinthine mosaics. Fred Sandback’s simple structures of colored cords and spring steel colonize two corners of the gallery, the curving wire creating emphatic shadows that complete his ephemeral sculptures. Yayoi Kusama’s 1953 First Life Story No. 2 presents a lime-green orb emitting an orange halo; this pastel and tempera painting is only a foot square, but it glows like a moldy sun. Perhaps the last word for this show (and for everything else) would be Barry Ratoff’s layered cherrywood-veneer plaque—at first, it appears blank, but then cartoonish letters hand-cut from the same wood grain coalesce into the phrase “Everybody Dies.” Josee Bienvenu, 529 W 20th, 212-206-7990. Through September 15.
‘Substance and Surface’
Bozidar Brazda’s 2007 Idle Idol is as mischievous as its title: A big, boxy TV set hangs inside a net of steel cables suspended from a metal armature. Spray-painted bright orange, it hovers dumbly above the floor, shorn of its original purpose but still as metaphorically loud and blunt as much of the content it once conveyed. Quieter drama is slowly revealed in John Armleder’s sheet of pegboard painted a wan shade of green. Beige dots appear in some areas, where the perforated masonite is affixed to a wooden frame; elsewhere, the holes reveal subtly shifting shadows in the space between the surface and the wall. Whether it’s Jim Lambie’s mattress swathed in duct tape or Paul Lee’s black bath towel, roughly cut out of its edge seams to form a ghost of itself on the white wall, all of the works in this fascinating show prove that, indeed, beauty may be only skin deep, but sometimes that’s more than enough. Bortolami, 510 W 25th, 212-727-2050. Through August 31.