Top 5 Monday, May 13–Sunday, May 19
Sally Saul is married to painter Peter Saul, with whom she shares a wacky aesthetic, and while her work isn’t quite as well known as her husband’s gonzo-satirical canvases, her ceramic sculptures have been attracting increasing attention. Borrowing equally from Folk Art and Surrealism, Saul’s objects depict historical personages (Presidents Eisenhower and Roosevelt), animals (dogs, vultures, beavers) and other figurative subjects that resist easy interpretation (a UFO stuck in a tree). The show represents the artist’s first retrospective.
Twenty years ago, Chris Ofili caused a sensation in a show by that name at the Brooklyn Museum. A survey of the so-called YBAs—Young British Artists—who were taking the art world by storm back then, Ofili's contribution was a painting of the Virgin Mary with a ball of elephant dung attached to one breast—a material Ofili frequently used during his early career to reference his Nigerian roots. The news media, however, decided to characterize what was really an homage to the Holy Mother as an “excrement covered” Madonna, which brought down the wrath of both the NY Catholic Archdioses and former Mayor, current Trump toady, Rudolf Giuliani (who threatened to cut off the city's funding for the Museum). Ofili weathered the ginned-up controversy, going on to win Britain’s coveted Turner Prize in 2003. Over the years, dung has largely disappeared from his work—which, while always fancifully ornate and exultantly primitivistic, moved away from subjects that were, strictly speaking, Afrocentric to scenes of figures rooted in visionary landscapes. In the case of this show of canvases and works on paper at Zwirner’s uptown space, that mostly means vistas of undersea life—and love—as mermaids and mermen court and spark in fantastical surroundings under the waves.
When he wasn’t abusing the many women in his life, Pablo Picasso painted portraits of them that were to become some his most recognizable works. His attitudes towards the opposite sex were, to say the least, unenlightened, even for the period. He once describes women as “machines for suffering” (especially, it would seen, at his own hands); he also noted that they were either “goddesses or doormats,” and while his renderings of various wives and mistresses elevated them to the former, they more or less reverted to the latter once they left the studio. More than any other paintings by Picasso, these images raise the thorny issue of whether or not world-beating talent excuses awful behavior. Viewers, however, can judge for themselves by checking out these paintings, which still command your attention however problematic they may be.
Ceramics used to be considered more of a craft than a fine art, until, that is, the 1950s, when a group of West Coast artists began to treat it as the equal of more traditional methods of sculpture. Ron Nagle played a key role in the California Clay Movement, as it was called, with objects that were part Pop Art, part Surrealism. Irreverent yet oddly impenetrable, these works were also influenced by Nagle’s interest in surfing, rock music and hot rod culture, and while they alluded to the functionality associated with ceramics, they were mostly abstract. His latest show follows suit with a selection of new pieces that are small in scale (measuring no more than six inches in any dimension), yet mighty in impact.
With 75 artists spread over four floors, you’re bound to find works that make you go Meh and others that make you go Wow at the Whitney Biennial. For our money, you should keep a lookout for Nicole Eisenman’s monumental sculpture blowing smoke out of its ass, Josh Kline’s photos that literally weep over the current state of America, Calvin Marcus’s slacker-primitive paintings, and Diane Simpson’s sculpture exploring the heretofore little-known connection between art deco and samurai aesthetics. As to what you might get out of the show as a whole, your mileage may vary depending on your tastes.