Davina Semo has filled the raw confines of the Lyles & King gallery with concrete slabs, each a few feet square, a few inches thick, and shot through with brightly colored glass nodules. Like deadfall traps, the perforated flats are propped precariously on stubby steel pipes, the pointed ends of the colorful deck prisms (used on boats to allow sunlight below decks) poised to ensnare even as they shatter should the supports be jerked out. Titles such as She Stands With a Static Around Her, Like Space Is Crisscrossed With Gray Lines (2015) — cribbed from Don DeLillo’s novel Libra, about the Kennedy assassination — add to the jagged ambiance, conjuring that slipstream literary style in which fact, speculation, and varying levels of fantasy entwine into alternate — or perhaps ultra-insightful — realities.
Semo has focused blindingly strong work lights on the heavy slabs to create shadows spotted with faint colors, like pixels on a dying screen. Zigzagging patterns cross the pitted floor to rough-hewn stairs, glare and shade segueing into form: the virtual infiltrating the temporal. Five box cutters that had been wrapped in duct tape and then cast in stainless steel lie under a row of seven folding chairs lashed together with zip ties, furtive discards in a world partitioned by security checkpoints. Are the two missing weapons more worrisome than our blunted liberties?
A wall piece made of leather-encased concrete crisscrossed with chains recalls the nihilistic joy suffusing the ripped and crumpled black canvases of Steven Parrino, who died young (at age 46) in a motorcycle crash. Like that hard charger, Semo can’t avoid exposing a harsh world, nor reveling in its haggard beauty.
Davina Semo: ‘Where Life Is Happening’
Lyles & King
106 Forsyth Street
Through November 15
For Mel Kendrick, air and concrete prove interchangeable. The artist uses a hot wire to carve lithe forms out of foam blocks and then casts the shapes — and the shells left behind — in concrete. Some of the more open rectangles are stacked atop the extracted volumes, succinctly solving the age-old conundrum of pedestal vs. sculpture. These riveting constructions, where the guts underpin the carcass, entice the eye with their visceral grace while flummoxing the brain, which struggles to fit the parts back together.
One piece, white as a sepulcher, this time with the weighty volume atop the void, is titled Clear Ideas (After Magritte), referencing the surrealist’s painting of a boulder and a cloud hovering above ocean waves. Like that master, Kendrick asks us not, “What is reality?” but, more crucially, “What is possible?”
Mel Kendrick: ‘sub-stratum’
527 West 29th Street
Through December 5
When visiting a Catholic church in Italy, it’s not uncommon to come across the knucklebone of a saint or the bloody shroud of a martyr lovingly displayed in a reliquary for the faithful to pray to. In the U.S., our gods have arrived more often than not on cheap newsprint in the form of Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and other superheroes embodying supreme powers. So, does the typewriter upon which Jerry Siegel, as a young writer, cranked out many a Superman story while commuting between his native Cleveland and New York City count as a holy relic? Certainly it’s mesmerizing to gaze upon the round, widely spaced keys, angled return lever, and thick rubber rollers and realize that this boxy machine, along with the pencils and brushes of Siegel’s artistic collaborator Joe Shuster, gave birth to an endlessly expanding pop-culture behemoth.
“Superheroes in Gotham” focuses on how the comic-book industry burst from the existing infrastructure of writers, illustrators, printers, and production staffs working for New York newspaper and book publishers in the late 1930s, bringing along with it a generation of youngsters weaned on comic strips and pulp magazines and eager to break into the garish new medium.
Superman, featured here in a rare copy of “Action No. 1” (June 1938, his inaugural appearance), set the superhero template by battling villains amid soaring skyscrapers. Although the skyline of his adopted hometown of Metropolis was based on Toronto, where Shuster had lived as a kid, New York landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge would occasionally pop up in the backgrounds.
But while Superman, Batman, and their fellow Detective Comics Inc. (later DC Comics) stars operate in fictional cities that stand in for New York, Marvel Comics never had any qualms about situating its pungent brand of heroics and mayhem in NYC proper. Peter Parker was a high school student in Forest Hills, Queens, when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Steve Ditko’s propulsive Spider-Man layouts include a spiderweb portrayed from an angle that gives it the dynamic heft of a suspension bridge; displayed in vitrines here, these original boards have never before been seen outside their permanent home: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
In the 1970s, a teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx (attended by comic-book luminaries Will Eisner and Stan Lee decades earlier) encouraged his students to try their hand at this homegrown medium, and a number of their characters, including “Afro Kid” and “Ray and the New Kevin and Sylvia,” battle bad guys throughout the cosmos and within abandoned tenements. Queens native Darryl McDaniels (of Run-D.M.C. fame) brings the exhibition up to date with his 2013 comic (drawn by longtime Incredible Hulk illustrator Sal Buscema), set in 1985 and featuring the superhero D.M.C. — adorned in Goliath glasses and Superstar sneakers — subway-surfing on an outer-borough elevated train, the twin towers standing proud in the background.
The comic book belongs to world culture now, but its beating heart remains embedded in the Big Apple.
‘Superheroes in Gotham’
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West (at 77th Street)
Through February 21, 2016