As we amble through our corporately sanitized town, it’s sometimes hard to remember that Gotham wasn’t always so serene. We refer the youngsters to Pauline Kael’s 1971 review of The French Connection: “New York–made movies have been set in Horror City. . . . It is literally true that when you live in New York you no longer believe that the garbage will ever be gone from the streets or that life will ever be sane and orderly.”
Monya Rowe Gallery’s sharp-witted group exhibition “Vintage Violence” (curated by Rowe and George Rush) features work dating from 1981 to the present, illustrating that violence, like wine, is subject to epochal vagaries. Some of the images provide aesthetic ripostes to Kael’s outrage, seeming to ask: Who in their right mind comes to New York looking for sanity and order anyway? Certainly not Carroll Dunham, whose 1998 ballpoint drawing of apartment buildings come to life, screaming at each other and brandishing shivs, nails those scintillating interactions we’ve all had with the upstairs neighbors. The artist’s postcard scale adds squeamish intimacy to the scene.
Judging by a four-foot-tall inkjet print he enlarged from a letter faxed to a redacted recipient, sculptor Tony Matelli, who fabricates hyper-realistic primates murdering one another (among other compelling grotesqueries), had a breakdown in his Brooklyn studio in the spring of 2000. “I am running out of money and rent and other bills are now past due. I am extremely frustrated and simply want to cancel all my future plans,” he typed beneath his studio letterhead, adding, “America is killing me. . . . My proximity to rich people, it fills me with greed and self-doubt.” If not for transmission striations and electronic timestamps, this textual self-portrait might have been taken from a letter Vincent van Gogh penned to his brother in 1889: “The money painting costs crushes me with a feeling of debt and worthlessness.”
Elsewhere in the show, staples bisect Tommy White’s small untitled canvas from 2013, one half a corpse-white visage, the other an abstraction with a crooked red square that recalls the Joker’s rictus. Although this piece, like others in this show of 18 works by 12 artists, is not necessarily New York–centric, its compositional brutality summons lyrics by that quintessential New Yorker, Lou Reed: “Harry looked in the mirror thinking of Vincent van Gogh/And with a quick swipe lopped off his nose/And happy with that he made a slice where his chin was/He’d always wanted a dimple/The end of all illusion.”
In ’71, Kael grappled with that perpetual cultural conundrum of whether illusion can inspire action, writing, “You feel that the violence on the screen may at any moment touch off violence in the theatre.” We saw a recent example of this in the mass shooting at a Batman movie, but is it psychosis that has increased in our speeded-up age, or simply available firepower? Is violent art a call to action or a safe outlet for the Mr. Hyde who inhabits even the fairly well-adjusted among us? Perhaps a simmering psychotic would be aroused by the bloody smears over a Grace Jones album, a boxing glove, and other objects in Lyle Ashton Harris’s large Polaroid print Memoirs of Hadrian #34 (2002), but an art lover will enjoy the formal entwining of the red runnels with the drippy photo emulsion that frames the image.
And how many times has a clueless slasher-film protagonist started down the cellar steps to what the audience knows will be death by power tools? This probably accounts for the apprehension one viewer expressed while descending into the gallery’s gloomy, low-ceilinged basement to view Nayland Blake’s spare installation, Jewels of Glory (2014): “You’ll slam the door and I’ll be chopped into little pieces.” But as low-wattage bulbs slowly reveal clues — a snarl of hair in a specimen bottle, shiny baubles strung on a wire, a zebra-print bag, a severed blond braid — you might wonder if you’re inspecting evidence from a murder scene or relics from a forgotten family trunk. Horror, in other words, or simply loss? Ascending the steps, the same viewer said, admiringly, “The piece is darker than the room.”
This is the perfect summer show: The sun will still be up when you leave.