In our time, art has seen more questionable uses than baby wipes. Recently, there has been, among other hot messes, art as propaganda (Russian artist Alexei Sergienko’s pop portraits of Vladimir Putin), art as entertainment (Brooklyn Museum’s survey of the young Keith Haring), a wave of conspicuously artless art as attitude (through June 12 at the Whitney Museum), and a dangerous tsunami of art as investment (see the copycat auction patterns of the world’s superrich). Like the dotcom bubble, this last development will probably illustrate quite soon why certain financial tides sink, not raise, most boats.
Still, examples abound of art that challenges viewers, quite literally, to stop and ask hard questions about normal life. In good times and especially in bad, artists have proved particularly adept at confronting their own realities. This kind of art invites conflict rather than avoids it. The real difference between work that encourages addressing the world and that which refuses to can be summarized pretty simply: It’s often what distinguishes artists who believe that they have something to say from others who, for whatever reason, feel that they have to say something.
One artist with plenty to say—about how the other half lives—is the sculptor Vibha Galhotra. On view at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, Galhotra’s first solo exhibition outside of her native India features CNN narratives from the booming subcontinent relayed in a fresh and artful guise. Moving way beyond Wolf Blitzer schmaltz and Slumdog Millionaire kitsch, this artist examines the dynamic upheavals affecting her homeland today—the effect of runaway economic growth and globalization—through a visual vocabulary that is resolutely and impressively her own.
An artist interested in finding correspondences between what takes place within her New Delhi studio and the 1.2 billion–person ferment without, Galhotra eschews formal consistency for a grab bag of materials (including actual waste and other people’s idea of garbage) that vary wildly from subject to subject and (frequently) from artwork to artwork. This young artist makes idea art for a postconceptual time. Although a few works in her debut exhibition fizzle—specifically, her more minimal-minded experiments—Galhotra’s best efforts supply layered, incisive visual metaphors for a whole host of global social, cultural, and economic clusterjams.
Take her sculpture Altering Boon, for example. A theatrically lit wire-and-glass-bead hammock tucked into a corner of the gallery, the stretched metal network displays a glittering mapa mundi on its surface: Its shadowy outline appears below, inviting reflections about fragility and the perilous nature of idealizations. Another work, the bluntly titled Sediment, takes on the look of a tar-colored painterly abstraction. The fact that it’s made with muck that Galhotra scooped up from the filthy Yamuna River—this tributary of the Ganges becomes a sewage drain once it reaches New Delhi—turns what at first sight reads like a macho Franz Kline painting into something approaching an environmentalist’s manifesto.
And then there are Galhotra’s ghungroo works. A set of large-scale tapestries and sculptures the artist fashions from the tiny metal ankle bells women use in India to advertise their marital status, these pieces display a cumulative nature that mirrors the unregulated but weirdly ordered buildings littering New Delhi’s dirt-poor neighborhoods. These works assume the shifting form of one of the artist’s enduring obsessions: the beehive. Just as the metropolis’s dystopic shantytowns emerge from a welter of insect-like activity, a few of Galhotra’s gallery sculptures are fashioned from a parallel artistic process. Take her lumbering, floppy Dead Monster, for example: A life-size earthmover, it’s painstakingly sewn together from thousands of little ghungroos.
A second New York exhibition to query the blind spots between appearance and reality features the work of veteran Canadian filmmaker and photographer Stan Douglas. Long a sleuth of the codes and patterns that make up social constructions, Douglas has spent a career investigating the cultural and technological biases that shape our world. His strength—for which he is widely celebrated—lies in finding deep visual and philosophical insights hidden in plain sight. Like Galhotra, Douglas operates like a smart gumshoe: His discoveries can quickly turn the easily overlooked into teeming crime scenes.
For “Disco Angola,” his new exhibition at David Zwirner gallery, Douglas presents eight new large-scale color photographs of two seemingly disparate historical locales: 1970s New York and liberation-era Angola. Assuming the role of photojournalist—while in reality playing expert set designer and stylist—Douglas meticulously re-created “snapshots” of New York’s disco counterculture, as well as striking images of a time that kicked off decades of political violence in Africa. Placed side by side inside the gallery, Douglas’s pretend period pics draw hot parallels between two cool faux locations. (The pictures were shot in Los Angeles, adding more layers to the onion.) There’s the music (the African saxophonist Manu Dibango is often credited for writing the first disco hit); there’s the fashion (bell-bottoms and flared collars crossed the Atlantic); finally, there’s the cold war that once pitted a tiny nation against the world’s greatest superpower. (Anyone remember that?)
The pictures are fascinating. Drawing equally on the nostalgia for ’70s utopian ideology and the visual swank of films like Carlos and Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Douglas has concocted what amounts to fake narratives based on real history at a time when interpretations of both the past and present appear as locked down as Tim Gunn’s libido. The metaphorical possibilities opened up by Douglas’s photographic inventions—as evidenced in the colorful black-power portrait A Luta Continua, 1974 and in the glittery disco number Two Friends, 1975—throw brand-new light on a long-ago revolutionary and dystopic age. Although way too digitally crisp to be 40 years old, Douglas’s pictures cast the historical imagination in HD resolution. No wonder they look like stills from a new HBO series.
Douglas’s counterfeit photographs call out for more reality in art, not less. The same can easily be said about Galhotra’s empathetic sculptures. For these two artists and their clued-in contemporaries, applying art to life’s trials and triumphs remains the essential condition for actually saying something.