Digital Vandalism at Shafrazi Gallery

If you relish blithe provocations and peppy cynicism, this fascinating show’s the ticket


This aesthetic mindfuck requires a backstory: In 1974, struggling Iranian artist Tony Shafrazi spray-bombed Picasso’s Guernica with the doggerel “Kill Lies All.” Variously described by the perp as a Vietnam War protest and/or a way to bring the 1937 mural “absolutely up to date,” this egotistical intervention did nothing for the victims of My Lai or for Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece. However, Shafrazi did manage to parlay his notoriety into lucrative art-mongering for the Shah of Iran; after the ayatollahs made that untenable, he peddled graffiti artists in Soho. Fast-forward to a recent show in Shafrazi’s Chelsea gallery, which reprised such ’80s stablemates as Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, and then add an intervention by gallerist Gavin Brown, artist Urs Fischer, and a high-resolution camera, and you get vandalism updated for our digital age.

Brown and Fischer photographed Shafrazi’s exhibition of the graffiti gang in situ, transformed the results into trompe l’oeil wallpaper replete with the shadows of frames and reflections in glass, then pasted the images back up on the walls in the exact same positions as the original show. The topper is works by artists from other generations displayed over the hi-res knockoffs: A Malcolm Morley painting of crashing planes and ships hangs athwart a photo of one of Haring’s radiating cartoon canvases; an exuberant John Chamberlain sculpture fairly leaps from in front of the towering facsimile of a Donald Bachelor collage painting. Particularly striking is a gray, untitled Francis Bacon portrait, half obliterated by vertical brushstrokes, which smolders like cremation ashes atop the digital remains of Scharf’s colorful, gibbering biomorphs. Lily van der Stokker has painted flat acrylic waves and blubbery curves over the photographic wallpaper, her confectionary blues and pinks adding a third layer of imagery; a fourth dimension appears when a guard stands next to his digitized doppelgänger. So, if you relish blithe provocations and peppy cynicism, this fascinating show’s the ticket — too bad you missed the opening, where two hot babes dressed as cops presented Shafrazi with a cake sporting Guernica icing.

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?”
A show conceived by Urs Fischer & Gavin Brown
May 9 – July 18, 2008

Peter Beste

This is the music that Tipper Gore warned us about during those ’80s Senate hearings: A phalanx of severed lambs’ heads line the stage in front of longhairs clad in leather and studs. For seven years, Peter Beste has been photographing purveyors of Norwegian black-metal music, a witches’ brew of Satanism, paganism, stage blood, and pummeling beats born amid the Norse country’s winter darkness. Despite the subcult’s penchant for arson, suicide, and murder, it’s the less sensational shots that capture the willful marginalization of its true believers: The driver of a tiny car is confronted by a skinny grim reaper toting a massive scythe; passersby stare at a musician’s zombie-style makeup. One striking image evokes curdled Nordic myths in the corpse paint and black leathers of a paunchy dude rambling like a troll through a moss-encrusted forest. Steven Kasher, 521 W 23rd, 212-966-3978. Through June 7.

Peter Schjeldahl: ‘Let’s See’

A master of stacking dead-on adjectives atop descriptive nouns (“antic brawn” and “majestic brain” for Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, respectively), Peter Schjeldahl avoids the jargon that lends so much art criticism the charm of a physics dissertation. This collection of his reviews for The New Yorker includes the usual suspects, such as Vermeer (whose “silence-drenched paintings, mostly of unremarkable domestic scenes,” are “blatant and ineffable, like the Sphinx”) and Pollock (“the artist’s last major drip painting [was] Blue Poles (1952), whose eponymous forms snarl like overloaded lighting rods”). Yet some of Schjeldahl’s most bracing prose is found in his broader essays—one on the Whitney’s collection notes that Americans “lack sacred ground except by expropriation from the Indians. We skitter about this beautiful continent like drops of water on a hot plate.” When discussing individual artists, he distills what the body senses on confronting a work of art: A group of Brice Marden abstractions inspired by Chinese landscapes seem to “use up as much energy as they impart.” His concision often veils a complicated thesis. For instance, I couldn’t understand why he and the painter John Currin were rapturous about the Met’s wolf-hunt canvas by Rubens’s workshop — an illustrational pastiche of finely wrought animal hides by the studio’s worker bees, with some daubs by the boss — until I accepted that the article centers on Currin’s penchant for second-rate classicism as the underpinning for his prurient updates of the old masters. Like any critic of long duration, Schjeldahl has contradicted himself: Marsden Hartley is “shrunken and stale” in a 1999 group show, but receives his true due during a 2003 retrospective, in which the “violent compression” of his “jazzy Cubist compositions” created “something new that stayed new.” A scintillating review of the artistic milieu surrounding Hitler—”Nazism’s blend of dash and malice, its brilliant technology and skulking atavism”—ends with what might be a summation of this critic’s clear-eyed philosophy: “We must remain vigilant against malevolence, and we should resign ourselves to the truth that beauty is fundamentally amoral.” 256 pp., $29.95,