A figure costumed in blue plush tends a fire under a highway overpass, soft red knobs sprouting from his beach-ball-size head. His companion’s rainbow dreads droop over her purple face as she forlornly observes his labors. Amid the concrete pillars, similar creatures slump; nearby, a garbage bag overflows with gathered bottles and cans. Beijing-based Cao Fei’s series of beautifully composed photographs transports these cartoonish characters, who normally frolic in the lush groves of the BBC children’s show In the Night Garden, to the outskirts of modern China’s jaggedly distributed economic miracle. Each tableau is hung with a twin that contains subtle compositional changes, enticing you to look closely, like a child playing “Spot the Difference.” But instead of mismatched whiskers on a kitten, Cao pairs troupes of homeless playthings pushing shopping carts laden with refuse.
This theme of adulterated childhood continues in the video East Wind, which follows a dump truck with a facsimile of Thomas the Tank Engine’s face bolted to its hood. The rig is loaded with debris and rumbles down crowded highways, eliciting smiles from young and old all the way to the dump. In the background, huge cranes create angled geometries in the sky, a motif echoed in the animation Shadow Life (2011), where the black silhouettes of hands and bent arms dig into an undulating horizon. Cao deftly shifts scale—are these shadowy forms strip-mining paradise, or is this a psychic surgeon dipping into a writhing patient? Fluttering wrists and fingers conjure birds, monkeys, and waving branches, while stiff palms outline bridges and form a bulldozer that flattens everything in its path.
Kids love animated costumes and anthropomorphized machines, and adults are happy to lose themselves in their children’s whimsy. Cao’s sharp-edged imagery cuts off such escape routes by lashing the candy colors and bulbous contours of the kiddie-industrial complex to narratives that uncover the rot intrinsic to excess.
John Chamberlain once said, “The presence of sculpture disturbs people’s space,” but these 13 large works disturb in the way of good stand-up comedy—you may be flummoxed, but you’re still having a blast. Now in his mid-80s, Chamberlain has lost none of his corporeal touch, and in the roughly 10-foot-square AWESOMEMEATLOAF (2011) he loosely stacks chrome bumpers and streamers of white sheet metal atop rusty auto bodies to exuberant effect. For more than half a century, Chamberlain has been fabricating wrecked-car mash-ups, and it remains one hell of a ride.
A few blocks south, you’ll find a more serene, though every bit as thrilling, selection of objects. These nine anodized aluminum boxes by Donald Judd (1928–94) were all made in 1989 and are each waist-high and about six feet across. They’re open at the top, and most have colored dividers placed inside, the hues smoothly shifting as they reflect off the silvery aluminum like sfumato, the Renaissance painting term meaning “turned to vapor.” The result is deeply contemplative, imparting to the viewer a heightened awareness of tiny details—recessed bolts, perfectly milled edges—and the boxes’ uncanny occupation of the gallery space. Spend time with these works as the brightness of the skylights shifts between clouds and sunshine and you’ll realize why Judd despised the term “minimalism.” Chamberlain at Gagosian, 555 W 24th, gagosian.com, 212-741-1111. Through July 8. Judd on view at David Zwirner, 525 W 19th St, david-zwirner.com, 212-517-8677. Through June 25
How many bills and receipts do you generate each year? Impossible to figure? In obsessively detailed drawings re-creating his every bank statement, ticket stub, and credit-card bill, David Shapiro reveals his exact output for 2010. Using pencil, gouache, and ink, the artist has faithfully re-drawn every corporate logo and row of figures, down to the decimal point. The lines of text on a Pearl Paint receipt easily fool the eye, but close observation reveals the fastidious handwork. Equally fascinating is seeing the record of a year in a life—letters from lawyers, plane tickets—outlined through numbers, itineraries, and legalese. At least Shapiro won’t have to worry about proving his art expenses to an IRS auditor. Sue Scott, 1 Rivington St, suescottgallery.com, 212-358-8767. Through June 19