Art

Beate Gütschow at Sonnabend Gallery; ‘Chance Encounters’ at Ludlow 38; MOMA’s ‘Polish Posters, 1945-89’

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When you consider all the sculptural excesses and mirrored glass
towers that today’s master builders keep foisting on us, the Brutalist
architecture of the 1960s and ’70s begins to seem rustically
appealing—which partly explains why Beate Gütschow’s large
black-and-white photographs of concrete monoliths are so eerily
beautiful. But Gütschow hasn’t simply portrayed individual sites;
instead, she’s digitally assembled images of different buildings and
plazas, many reminiscent of designs by Le Corbusier, into elaborate
dystopian panoramas—fictional but nearly believable scenes of
desolation suggestive of abandoned Soviet bloc wastelands. A decaying
white tower with a glass cupola stands in a vast field of cracked
pavement like a wayward lighthouse. Elsewhere, in peculiar
juxtaposition, two stark apartment towers rise from a gritty industrial
area of stunted grass, rubble, and two objects that might be
corpses.

For each work, Gütschow expertly blends dozens of photographs
(taken during her travels) in Photoshop, but uses only the traditional
darkroom techniques of dodging and burning to alter their lighting. Her
skies, usually overcast, reflect the tonal qualities of the surrounding
concrete, and if there’s a human presence, it’s tiny and fleeting.
Though these gray visions may seem, at first glance, like bleak
aftermaths of war or environmental disaster, their ominous tranquility
grows strangely inviting.

‘Chance Encounters’

Don’t ask for a menu at the Restaurante Jorge Americano,
because—like the food—it doesn’t exist. But Tobi Maier, who
co-directs Ludlow 38, a satellite gallery of the Goethe Institute, will
gladly serve you a Brazilian soft drink and discuss the show’s unlikely
mix (for art) of South America and psychotherapy. The restaurant is, in
fact, an installation by Tim Braden, who has re-created, on the
surface, a cantina he once visited. Braden has previously conjured an
idealized 1950s classroom of artificial (Hollywood-ish) nostalgia, and
here, it appears, he’s testing our ability to distinguish sanitized
ideals from the truth. Even without a single odor of cooking, the
visual details of Braden’s space—garish green walls, watercolors
of soccer teams, a folding table, various Brazilian
knickknacks—have been “authentic” enough to fool numerous
passersby.

Intended by Maier as a conversation area, Braden’s work feels more
like a front for the backroom operation: the 16mm projection of Pablo
Pijnappel’s serene and tender Walderedo, a 26-minute
quasi-documentary about his grandfather, who worked as a psychiatrist
in Rio de Janeiro, and his lost-soul father, an artist who left the
filmmaker’s family to start another in Japan, where he sank into
depression. Like other work from Pijnappel, the film frequently shifts
time and location, leaving you grasping for logical associations as if
in a session with a shrink—and then delivers a satisfying
epiphany just before the time’s up. Ludlow 38, 38 Ludlow,
212-228-6848. Through June 21

‘Polish Posters, 1945–89’

Abandoned for the Web’s glitz and neglected long before that,
graphic design in this country has reached such a despairing state of
utilitarian blandness that, with few exceptions, it now seems little
more than an afterthought. A reminder, then, of what might be the art
form’s most brilliant period—the Polish poster
movement—should be cause for celebration. The trouble is, MOMA
has crammed this exhibit into a corner, displaying many of the posters
far above eye level and presenting the excellent documentary on the
subject, Freedom on the Fence, at a virtually inaudible
volume—only confirming the lowly status of graphic design.

But the genius manages to shine anyway. Forced to work under
Communist censorship, Polish designers distilled their ideas for film,
theater, and opera advertisements into biting metaphors that often
doubled as political protest or reflections of the collective anxiety.
Jan Lenica’s hallucinatory poster for Alban Berg’s intensely charged
opera Wozzeck features a screaming mouth lost in a red vortex;
Andrzej Pagowski wraps Macbeth’s head in a brick castle, while Wiktor
Gorka’s bold composition promoting the American western The Tall
Men
places the shimmering silhouettes of dueling cowboys against a
sky of desert orange. Mieczyslaw Gorowski, another great designer,
remembers the posters, ubiquitous at the time, as being “flowers in the
empty space.” Even after the fall of Communism, they’re still blooming.
MOMA, 11W 53rd, 212-708-9400. Through November 30

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