You’ll probably learn a thing or two by studying the text of Ward Shelley’s complex timelines—which depict (among other topics) the developments of science fiction and Judaism—but this show’s real pleasure lies in the engaging graphic design. A cartographer of culture, Shelley maps connections between people, places, and ideas with a cartoonist’s eye. Annotated pathways, painted on Mylar with a comic-book palette, snake across vertical segments of time and crisscross, split, and loop to form delightful tangles of linked events.
True to life, the chronologies are messy. A history of teenagers, with numerous vein-like threads emerging from the Industrial Revolution, resembles the human circulatory system. Christianity’s growth in House Divided suggests a plumbing diagram for a home whose owner can’t stop adding bathrooms. Most chaotic, the evolution of Fluxus sends a flotilla of speech balloons (identifying particular developments) swirling around the central current of George Maciunas. Emphasizing those forms over function, Shelley displays each painting next to a copy with the labels removed.
The show’s title might be a kind of caveat to discourage factual nit-picking, but even hard-nosed scholars might find the evident research impressive. The freewheeling style, too, disguises techniques borrowed from 19th-century diagrams. In a nod to Charles Joseph Minard’s 1869 statistical view of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, Shelley varies the thickness of all his strands to reflect their relative importance. Still, Shelley never gets so serious. He gives knowledge structure but keeps things playful and wry, an approach exemplified by History of Science Fiction: citations for everything from Johannes Kepler’s Somnium to the latest version of Battlestar Galactica, all crammed inside a tentacled monster.
For Ryan Sullivan, art is an experiment with fluid dynamics. After layering a large horizontal canvas with half-dried applications of oil, enamel, and latex paints, he tilts the plane to make the viscous mass flow toward one edge. The result is a striking, richly textured abstraction, so thick with mounds and ripples it sometimes warps the surface. The colors, mostly muted tones of earth and sea, either bloom into one another with gentle diffusions or repel chemically, forming islands and forking tributaries. Nature is a frequent association. With contours highlighted in spray paint, several pieces here resemble topographic maps or landscapes photographed by a satellite.
But Sullivan deals, too, in the ominous. On a reddish-brown background streaked with sulfuric yellow, two ovals containing repeated undulations are like a pair of diseased lungs. Elsewhere, fissures and cracks reveal the undercoat’s color along their ridges, as if sutured incisions were splitting. The medium is paint, but the work edges close to sculpture. Maccarone, 630 Greenwich Street, 212-431-4977, maccarone.net. Through March 17.
‘PERIPHERAL VISIONS: ITALIAN PHOTOGRAPHY IN CONTEXT, 1950S–PRESENT’
In that famous last sequence from Antonioni’s 1962 film L’Eclisse, the camera essentially dismantles our idealizations of Rome. Expecting the reappearance of the story’s two lovers, we wait in vain, staring only at the emptiness of their promised meeting place: a depressingly bland construction site at the edge of the city. Bleak urban locations—a frequent backdrop in postwar Italian cinema—also made their way into photography. Nowhere in this elegant little survey is the vision of industrialization more devastating than in Gabriele Basilico’s 2004 portrait of Naples. A vast stretch of factories leads your eye through smog to Mount Vesuvius, once majestic but now issuing smoke like just another part of the landscape’s machinery. Likewise, from Massimo Vitali, a gorgeous diptych of a beach appears idyllic until you notice, in distant haze, a looming chemical plant.
Several pictures inevitably bring to mind Fellini. In grainy, overexposed black and white, a lonely dog standing before an abandoned caravan looks like a gritty scene from La Strada. An empty amusement-park ride, ghostly bright in a dilapidated courtyard, seems to exist in that weird dream state of 8 1/2. Capping the blunt, anti-romantic aesthetic is Vincenzo Castella’s dark conceptualism: staid cityscapes focusing on rather ordinary locations of fatal accidents and murder. Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College, 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, 212-772-4991, hunter.cuny.edu. Through April 28.