Fightin’ Words: Hugh Walton’s Totally Fucked, Merlin James’s Yellow House


“To get attention I used to bite and punch” is one of five abject phrases that Hugh Walton, using the sides of his paint-covered hands, spells out on a sheet of glass in the video Kung Fu (2007). In this tightly edited nine-minute loop, Walton’s pink face bops from side to side and around the corners of the frame as his hands hammer the clear surface, each individual letter flashing by like Bruce Lee’s nunchuks, the slammin’ blows adding a catchy tom-tom soundtrack. The artist grew up with dyslexia and struggled mightily in the education system; like mediocre draftsman Jackson Pollock, who achieved graceful fluidity through flinging paint, Walton has turned weakness into insight by making letters into visceral objects. (As in Kung Fu, Pollock’s process was captured in a film shot from beneath a glass plate, the Abstract Expressionist’s craggy visage darting about behind splattered paint and scattered collage materials.) In the video Pissed, Walton used his own frozen urine to form the titular block letters, hung on a cement wall where they look like a yellow radiator. As this piece of visual verbiage begins to melt, the time-lapse frames record the dripping. The last remaining letters melt serendipitously—at the end, all that’s left is what looks like an abstracted face. After a sudden gush, the whole thing collapses like a drunk in an alleyway. Two more high-def screens display what look to be puddles of red vomit; as the video runs in reverse, they jerkily coagulate into the phrase “Totally Fucked.” They’re sculpted from frozen alphabet soup—it’s like watching a food fight coalesce into concrete poetry.

Lori Nix

A station wagon rests at the bottom of a frozen pond, the gleaming headlights and shattered ice imparting a tale of recent tragedy; a pair of unconcerned deer grazes nearby in the snowy twilight. In other photographs, a body floats facedown in a reedy swamp and the interior of a grand museum has been overrun by bees, whose huge, shapeless hives cling to the marble arches. Nix uses varying focuses and moody lighting in her shots of carefully crafted miniatures, conveying not just crime-scene frisson but also the quiet torpor of decay—a richly colored world where nature, patient and uncaring, will eventually erase us pesky human beings. Jenkins Johnson, 521 W 26th, 212-629-0707. Through January 12.

‘Bridging East and West’

This two-part show centers on traditional brush paintings and calligraphy by members of the Chinese diaspora, who fled the invading Japanese forces during World War II and the postwar communist revolution. The 20th-century works in the exhibit were collected by the noted scholar Lin Yutang and include a 1970 scroll by Zhang Daqian, painted with wet-into-wet colors to convey Mountains Clearing After Rain; elsewhere, Zhao Shao’ang’s wristy flourishes of black ink wonderfully animate Chirping Bird (1978). The antecedents to these flowing strokes are displayed in side vitrines: 17th-century rubbings of scripts carved in stone a millennium earlier yield white calligraphy on black grounds, the surfaces festooned with scarlet stamps. Sublimely beautiful, these ancient works feel amazingly fresh. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710. Through February 10.

Merlin James

Rarely more than two feet on a side, James’s paintings depict various structures absent any activity—a stone viaduct traverses a gorge, muggy light blurring the heavy arches; a twilit office building casts a triangular shadow into a vacant lot. In 2007’s Yellow Roof, the bright colors of what might be a carnival attraction have been dryly dragged across the canvas, finding harmony with the gray sky. James achieves real drama by sometimes shifting hues over rough textures, the colors implying one shape, while the underlying surface suggests another form already occupying the space. For inspiration, this Glasgow-based artist uses small-scale models cobbled together from studio detritus, passages cribbed from other painters’ backgrounds, and buildings glimpsed in old photographs. Like Albert Pinkham Ryder (or, more recently, Albert York), James paints scenes that remain compellingly elusive even when you’re looking right at them. Sikkema Jenkins, 530 W 22nd, 212-929-2262. Through January 12.

Adam Parker Smith: ‘Bold as Love’

As you wander through this installation of battered heads spitted on pikes, you may feel a bit like Captain Willard approaching the lair of Colonel Kurtz—except that the erupting eyeballs and tentacles of blood are, like all the sculpture here, fabricated from brightly colored felt. Smith was inspired by the combination of horrific violence and passionate love story in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and was assisted by a group of teenagers who used troubled celebrities, friends, and family members as models for this grotesque convocation. The disconnect between the thing depicted and its cuddly conveyance lampoons a consumer culture where even death has become a plushie. Priska C. Juschka, 547 W 27th, 212-244-4320. Through January 19.

Ernesto Burgos

With the raw energy of a turnstile jumper, Burgos uses fluorescent spray paint to create livid volume around flatly collaged pyramids on dark grounds. A strip of bright pink runs like neon through Ruin (2007), bisecting swathes of galumphing black and cloudy reds; a bulbous oasis in the middle of the painting is edged with colorful striping, like the awnings of some dilapidated café. Despite the spray- bomb effects, Burgos isn’t making graffiti art— these are abstract paintings that burn the joint down and then reanimate the ashes. Cynthia Broan, 546 W 29th, 212-760-0809. Through January 19.