Automatism, embraced by the surrealists as a direct path to the subconscious, has often seemed like a conceptual gimmick, but for André Ethier, spontaneity is a practical necessity. The Canadian painter mixes his oils with a varnish-like solution that dries quickly—so fast that he’s acting, he says, on little more than urges. This may explain the artist’s recurring nightmare imagery: psychedelic visions and lurid portraits of half-human beasts. Here, among a dozen such works, there’s a shaggy creature looking morose, a shoe sprouting a Van Gogh–ish swirl of flowers, and a bearded harlequin of Rabelaisian perversion. Ethier combines the grotesquerie of underground comics (à la Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers) with the front-and-center composition of the album cover, and paints it all in dark, vivid hues, which—thinned out in his solution—mix with watercolor-like blurring, enhancing the unreal. It’s no surprise that red dominates, for Ethier seems to be channeling demons.
To call Tacita Dean’s short 16mm films avant-garde would be to imply that they’re enigmatic or dazzlingly complex. They are nothing of the kind, but what makes them unconventional is Dean’s supreme devotion to her subjects, conveyed by the use of meditative and masterful long takes. In the 28-minute Michael Hamburger (one of three films screening here), Dean presents the renowned poet and translator (82 and frail at the time) through simple vignettes: pocketing apples in his rustling orchard, hunching over his desk, napping. Dean’s camera remains at a certain distance, seemingly unnoticed, peering at Hamburger like a shy stranger through windows, apertures, and doorways, and recording what a less patient filmmaker might miss: how the sunlight shifts from ominous to angelic; the way steam rises and fades like evidence of the spectral. When Hamburger speaks, haltingly, of cultivating apples, Dean films him backlit as a darkened silhouette. The camera’s lingering and watchful presence, you begin to realize, might be that of Death itself (Hamburger lived only another few months after this filming).
There’s an Old Master sensibility to Dean’s films—an intense interest in capturing all the details of her subjects, lending them a kind of super-realism. This is exemplified by Prisoner Pair, essentially a still life with the tiniest of movement: Two pears, shot in a series of close-ups, sit inside bottles of the liqueur known as Poire William; bits of the fruit slowly rise and fall in mausoleum silence, while light flickers through the thick glass. The view is gorgeous and otherworldly.
Elsewhere, Dean achieves similar but more somber effects with photography. Highly textured black-and-white pictures of ancient burial stones, enlarged in giant sections, appear to float in a void—Dean meticulously brushed black paint around their forms. On the opposite wall, an enormous photogravure print, created from four old photographs, displays a haunting landscape, not unlike the artist’s eerie chalk-and-blackboard works of maritime doom. In Dean’s serene work, you’re never far from considerations of mortality. Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 W 57th, 212-977-7160. Through April 29.
R.C. Baker: ‘. . . and Nixon’s coming’
Renowned experimenter Kirby Holland, a former comic-book illustrator who once helped repatriate Nazi treasure, gets a lively retrospective here. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s because he’s the protagonist of R.C. Baker’s sprawling in-progress novel of 20th-century art and culture, which takes in (among other history) Stalin’s show trials, Göring’s taste for schlock, and the shooting of Andy Warhol. At regular intervals, as a parallel progression of the character, the book includes Holland’s (Baker’s) art, which the gallery displays next to short excerpts from the prose. Baker, who knows a thing or two about painting and writing (he’s the regular guy for this column), works a brush like a pro, too. He’s given his hero a wide-ranging oeuvre, including skilled drawings in the styles of old masters, comic books, engaging gouache “defacings” of Warhol’s mug shots, and lush collages of wild Kandinsky color and movement. Impressive, too, are the larger paintings that layer streaks, splatter, and a kind of artificial craquelure on top of Barnett Newman–like stripes, and a spooky monoprint of bluish ovals against a curtain of red. Holland is fictional, but his art is the real thing. Zone: Contemporary Art, 41 W 57th, 212-255-2177. Through May 30.