"Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself"

Curator Linda Norden reminds us that art is as real as life gets.

“Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself”

“Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself” Photo: Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Whether or not you made the June “grand tour” of European art fairs and festivals, New York City offers its own seasonal phenomenon: the summer group show. Linda Norden, who organized Ed Ruscha’s exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale and is a curatorial advisor of the 2008 Whitney Biennial, has put together one of the best in recent memory, the museum-worthy “Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself.” Borrowing its title from an essay by the poet Charles Olson, the show includes 13 artists and offers a polyphonic chorus of visual correspondences and thematic affinities. If the show has a through-line, it’s that each work, whether representational or abstract, conveys a sense of emotional necessity.

The first work you encounter upon entering the gallery is Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas, U.S.A.) by Irish artist John Gerrard. A flat screen displays a prairie landscape with a massive, charcoal-grey cloud roiling on the distant horizon. The nearly motionless image is a computer simulation based on sources that include photographs taken by the artist in the Texas panhandle and archival photos from the Dust Bowl. The monitor can be swiveled by the viewer and the image shifts with it, tracking a 360-degree panorama of dry grassland with rickety fences, telephone poles, windmills and farm houses, all under threat of the ominous approaching cloud. The image suggests both ecological catastrophe wrought by global warming and the distant thunder of the current war in Iraq.

Current events also resonate in John Wesley’s painting New Work. In his signature cartoony style, Wesley depicts a curtained window through which the silhouettes of three airplanes are seen flying over a city skyline. Despite its Pop-Art evocation of the attacks of September 11, the canvas was actually made in 1990, uncannily presaging the disaster to come.

While Gerrard’s and Wesley’s contributions may suggest that Norden’s show has a strong political slant, the inclusion of several abstract works in the same room complicates such a straightforward reading. Four monochrome paintings by Rudolf de Crignis are rendered in quiet hues of blue and gray. Multiple underlayers of thinned pigment register as barely perceptible veils of color—almost like afterimages—created by intersecting brush strokes that form intensely meditative grids. In Static, a 1966 Op Art painting by Bridget Riley, an arrangement of small, black ovals turned in different directions on a white background creates an intense visual buzz. The grids in both artists’ paintings play off the windowpane in the Wesley, which itself plays off the panes of the real windows between which it hangs.

Two additional works in the room add another set of concerns to the mix. Charles Ray’s miniature self-portrait corked inside a glass bottle presents identity as a constraint. By contrast, Pierre Huyghe’s video portrait of the woman who sang Snow White’s songs in the French version of the Disney classic presents a sense of self that is mutable and fleeting. Both takes are relevant to British artist Steve McQueen’s Warholesque wall, papered with repeating black-and-white posters featuring a portrait of the artist in shackles.

Two performance-based video projections accompany McQueen’s wall in the gallery’s last room and continue Norden’s contrapuntal orchestration of form and content. Bruce Nauman’s 1968 video Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square is just that, a portrait of the 27-year-old artist stepping heel-to-toe along a taped square in his studio. As he moves forward and backward, then clockwise and counterclockwise, each step is marked by a stylized, hip-thrusting action (choreographed by Meredith Monk) putting a Monty Python spin on avant-garde experimentation. David Hammons’s 1995 video Phat Free opens with a percussive racket caused, we learn when the image appears, by the artist punting a metal pail down the Bowery at night. It’s hard to know whether to take Hammons’s “kicking the bucket” as Dadaist wordplay, racially charged provocation, a Zenlike call for mindfulness or simply cryptic action. As with the exhibition itself, the meanings multiply the longer you look at it.

Marian Goodman Gallery, through Jul 28 (see 57th Street Area)