On New Album 'All My Heroes Are Cornballs' JPEGMAFIA Re-Confirms Rap Music As Cultural Criticism

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It can be mind boggling just how little Kanye West seems to know what he’s talking about when discussing politics. But despite the ludicrous nature of his public statements, there is still something refreshing about his willingness to speak his mind. In the era of publicity trained superstars terrified of being “canceled” on Twitter, Kanye’s willingness to open himself up to major criticism is, from one perspective, admirable. And perhaps because of his courage to say the wrong thing, he often is able to land on an accidental insight. For example, during the press junket for Yeezus, Kanye went on Zane Lowe’s BBC1 radio show and, in a fit of personal grievance, discussed his exploitation at the hands of the fashion industry and private equity: “I’ve got ideas on color palettes, I’ve got ideas on silhouettes, and I’ve got everyone telling me why I can’t do it, that I’m not a real designer,” he said with his palm against his forehead pulsating with anxiety and frustration. Though he framed the frustration from his personal, aggrieved perspective he still hit on something true: that corporate America is more than happy to use the names of black celebrities to sell products, but seldom will it let anyone other than a white male design school MFA recipient design those products. Even now, in his Trump phase, Kanye can occasionally allude to a political truth. He was able to point out that other celebrities, friends of his like John Legend and Jay-Z, are disgusted by Donald Trump but still totally in thrall to Barack Obama (and Obama, by any leftist measure, was a failure at best and an outright enemy at worst), and in effect presents an accidental critique of neoliberalism. 

In his column for the Independent, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, “Today’s left is in advance terrified of any radical acts.” I think this notion can also be applied to today’s superstar musicians. One certainly wishes that Kanye would learn more about politics, and the true harm of Trump’s presidency, before speaking on them. But his fearlessness to be viewed as radical, or extreme, or crazy, is commendable. We need our artists to push back on prevailing orthodoxies, to rip them open and expose their hypocrisies. Kanye does that. Scott Walker did it (RIP). And Baltimore-born rapper and producer JPEGMAFIA does it, but unlike that of Kanye West, JPEGMAFIA’s cultural critique is incisive, studied, and ruthlessly well-informed. On his last two albums, 2016’s Black Ben Carson and especially 2018’s acclaimed Veteran, JPEGMAFIA established himself as an astute analyst of American politics and culture: courageously pessimistic, sharply observational, and unapologetically direct, he rips apart prevailing orthodoxies on both the political right and neoliberal left, and also addresses how neoliberal orthodoxies have embedded themselves into mainstream rap music.

JPEGMAFIA, or “Peggy” as his fans prefer to call him, eviscerates the hypocrisy that he sees in everything: “selling art to these yuppies, gettin’ mixed offers, I’m in New York like I’m Peter Parker, Wrote a 16 then I tossed it, If I wanted bullshit then I’d just read Gawker,” rapped Peggy on the Veteran track “Williamsburg.” JPEG Mafia identifies that the neoliberal establishment that defines so much of what limply passes for “leftist discourse” in this country is often defined by centrist figures every bit as clueless as their rightwing counterparts are insane/off the deep end. He also knows that the centrist ideology that courses through mainstream media and “manufactures our consent” to put it in Chomsky-ian terms can bleed into the mainstream music press. Just look at Pitchfork’s hip-hop writer Alphonse Pierre’s backhandedly positive review of Peggy’s new track “Beta Male Strategies”: “His comedy is unsubtle, in-your-face, and extremely online—jokes for the deepest corners of Reddit, who are probably unaware that they’re the ones being made fun of.” Pierre wants to praise JPEG for his undeniable skills while also writing off the kind of web-filtered intellectual discourse that he trades in. Has Pierre actually been on Reddit lately? Because for every Reddit music thread stuffed full of depressing misogyny and idiocy, there are three threads chalk full of smart cultural analysis unfiltered by the corporate media machine. Peggy is a rapper and producer but he is also quickly becoming a public intellectual for young men that post on subReddits for hip-hop, experimental music, and critical theory alike.

On his new and arguably best album so far, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA eviscerates disappointing heroes and false prophets: the aforementioned Kanye West, the figureheads of the American neoliberal establishment, and especially himself. JPEGMAFIA appears to understand the problematic nature of having “heroes” in late capital postmodernism. On his Apple Music explanation of single Beta Male Heroes, Peggy says: “ I'm letting you know off the bat, “I'm a false prophet.” Don't get your hopes up because everybody's human. I might put a MAGA hat on one day. It's unlikely, but you don't know,” he said slyly alluding to the false hopes pinned on Kanye. Peggy has identified what Baudrillard called the “wasteland of the real” in not just culture at large, but the music industry in particular. Heroes are only simulating being heroes, and when those heroes become villains they will only be simulating being villains. JPEG is constantly telling his fans he will be “disappointing them soon,” almost like he understands that in our postmodern culture everything exists in a feedback loop of corporate advertising driven hype and consumerist disappointment. Even underground music is co-opted quickly into the logic of late capital: the “Red Bull” Music Academy, Pitchfork is owned by Condé Nast (and JPEG, at his performance at this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, insisted on calling the show the Condé Nast Festival). Peggy seems to maintain a critical distance between himself and the culture he’s now a part of: he analyzes it as much as he creates it. And perhaps the most radical aspect of JPEG’s work is that he is essentially the first rapper to double as a cultural theorist. Writing for Dazed, writer Thomas Hobbs said that “few artists channel the internet like JPEGMAFIA.” It’s true: in his lyrics, Peggy mimics the schizoid nature of 1 billion separate ideologies colliding into one another on music blogs and subReddit boards.

On “Beta Male Strategies,” JPEG raps “ain’t no real money in rap” and “only in it for the cash, I’m a gold digger” within the same bar. The lyrical contradictions highlight the web as a space of confusion and overstimulation: far from bringing you closer to self-awareness and coherent ideology, the Internet drowns us in conflicting information leaving us both over-informed and under-developed. Peggy is pushing back on hip-hop’s insistence on masculine self-assurance, and making space for confusion and existential angst in the genre. This self-lacerating vulnerability isn’t a total rarity in rap, of course; some of its greatest stars, like Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt, have used the form to boldly expose their own inadequacies from depression to drug addiction. But Peggy seems to particularly see the Internet as a toxic zone that renders humans incapable of personal growth or inner clarity. He’s not using his music and lyrics as a means of self-exploration, he in fact sees self exploration as a theme that has no place in post-digital culture. It’s a fallacy: a neoliberal lie telling us that we have any control over our lives whatsoever.

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher linked rising depression rates to late stage capitalism. JPEG would seem to agree: he sees the Internet as an entity that totally organizes our lives and belief systems. We absolutely can’t live without it, leaving us enslaved to a handful of corporations that convert our cultural and consumerist habits into predictable codes. Our souls are just advertising strategies. On new track “BBW” (or “Black Brian Wilson”), JPEG raps: "Smile at these crackers who want me dead (Ack) Fire helmets won't protect your head (Brrt) Don’t get sent to Jesus filled with lead.” JPEG seems to see the Internet as a space that is both hyper-violent and inherently pacifist. Violent threats from alt-right trolls are almost always idle. Even the never ending horrors of mass shootings and police brutality cases rarely galvanize cohesive progress. Instead, they just create more fodder for web trolls to argue about in the simulacrum of cyber-space. 

JPEGMAFIA uses hip-hop to look both inwards and outwards. He wants to push the musical style forward while also analyzing its role in contemporary culture. He seems to be rolling out a futurist hip-hop philosophy every bit as defined as that laid out by theorist Kodwo Eshun in his essay Considerations of Afrofuturism: “Inquiry into productions of future becomes fundamental, rather than trivial,” wrote Eshun. JPEG sees the deconstruction of contemporary hip-hop clichés as fundamental to the attainment of the genre’s future.  For example, JPEGMAFIA’s self-presentation has grown increasingly queered since the release of VETERAN in 2018. In an Instagram post from June 23rd, JPEG wears a skirt and coyly poses with a text reading “feeling cute.”

At the same time, his music is still charged with a hard, masculine edge. This makes one think of rap stars like A$AP Rocky or Young Thug: allegedly straight men whose obsession with fashion and narcissistic displays of grooming is made only more suspect by their hyper demeaning, misogynist sexually charged lyrics. JPEG seems to actively be commenting on this phenomenon: he comes across as both hyper masculine yet sexually ambiguous. On the provocative stunner Beta Male Heroes track “Jesus Forgive Me I’m A Thot” and its video, this sexual fluidity comes across as both jarringly conceptual and intriguingly sincere. The song opens with an unholy squall of feedback and a simple kicker drum while the video shows PEGGY in an assortment of both typical hip-hop clothes and feminized florals and dresses. In the song’s lyrics he asks an unidentified character, possibly a fellow “THOT,” to teach him how to keep his “pussy closed.” JPEGMAFIA has deftly brought absurdity, humor, and performance art theatrics to rap music in order to deconstruct its pieties and orthodoxies. With so many rap stars, your Soundcloud clout chasers and your stripper trap rappers alike, leaning into hip-hop’s worst and most capitalist clichés, Peggy’s approach is an absolute necessity to push the art form forward. He is to post-digital hip-hop what Lou Reed was to late modernist rock n’ roll: an artist who both critiques and embraces the style he works within to push the style into its uncertain future.

But don’t think JPEG’s innovations to the form are purely conceptual. On the contrary, there are few more sonically radical artists working within hip-hop today. When JPEG said on Black Ben Carson’s opening track, “Drake Era,” that he wanted to take “hip-hop out the drake era” he did not mean that he was trying to bring hip-hop back to some “mythic” golden era. Peggy is trying to bring hip-hop to a new golden era. Peggy has alluded to rap music’s past: on “Real Nega” from Veteran, for example, he used a prominent sample of the great Ol’ Dirty Bastard doing his unhinged, crack croon, “AGHHGHHGHHGHGG!!!!” Peggy isn’t celebrating the past or nostalgizing it so much as he is commemorating one of the genre’s most idiosyncratic iconoclasts and weirdos. Weirdos, JPEG suggests, are necessary to push the art forward.

The “Drake era,” in my mind, refers to a specific quality of contemporary hip-hop. Who is Drake? What does he represent? Drake is hip-hop’s most shameless proprietor of “capitalist realism.” He hit upon an accessible sound on his first album and now cranks out hit after hit using that same formula: chilly, sad melody and a combination of singing and rapping with some depressing lyrical mix of Casanova misogyny and “sensitive guy” vulnerability. Hip-hop’s mainstream has become totally infused with neoliberalism: shameless displays of consumerist materialism and an in-built fear of radicalism. Hip-hop, with its foundations in urban poverty, has always been embedded with the “capitalist realist” mentality: dog eat dog, get money get power. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher wrote of the depressing economic and social realities of mainstream rap: “The affinity between hip-hop and gangster movies arises from their common claim to have stripped the world of sentimental allusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.” But seeing the world as such a zero sum game isn’t good for artistic exploration. You can’t create something new if you don’t think it’s possible to attain a better tomorrow.

JPEGMAFIA seems to acknowledge this ugly reality at the heart of hip-hop, but rejects notions that the medium is somehow incapable of radicalism despite this philosophical strain running through it. Discussing the All my Heroes Are Cornballs track “Prong!” for Apple Music, PEGGY said the song was an attempt to make a “punk song with no instruments,” he continued, “I feel like people in other genres, specifically rock—I go back to rock a lot because rock spends a lot of time trashing rap—a lot of people had this idea that rappers aren’t talented. In my opinion, we’re fucking better than them. We’re better writers, we think deeper, our concepts are harder…”

The song’s conceptual connection to punk is resonant. Rap is getting close to the stage in its existence that rock was approaching in the mid to late-70s: rap’s mainstream, like arena rock in the 1970s, has grown bloated, over-produced, and made to satisfy commercial interests more than satisfying the personal urge to create. In the late ‘70s, initially punk and later post-punk, industrial, noise and other avant rock subgenres became rock musicians’ antidotes to the stagnations of the mainstream. Rap is now going through a similar schism between its more mainstream and outré contingencies. I shouldn’t of course discount the scores of iconic rappers who have made careers beyond the confines of the mainstream: Kool Keith, MF Doom, Company Flow and others have all devoted lives to making uncompromising and commercial shunning rap music. But even when considering this, it’s hard to deny that hip-hop is currently going through a particularly radical renaissance towards increasing sonic transgression.

JPEGMAFIA is one of a number of bold, young hip-hop avant-gardists: the abstract rap metal of Death Grips, the afrofuturist poetic industrial rapscapes of Moor Mother, the schizoid hip-hop digital dance noise of Prison Religion and others are demonstrating hip-hop as a musical genre every bit as capable of unhinged experimentation as rock, punk, dance music or otherwise. JPEGMAFIA often gets labeled “noise rap” due to his reliance on aggressive synth squeals and hissing feedback walls, but the label fails to address the complexities of his sound.

JPEG is a visionary auteur of a producer, manufacturing beats for every single song that he puts his lyrics to. The sounds of All My Heroes Are Cornballs less rely on the aggressive noise breakdowns of Veteran, and much less so than on Black Ben Carson, with Peggy placing emphasis more on tonal shifts and odd harmolodic structures. “BBW” features a laid back melody with intermittent interruptions of abrupt digital sounds. “Thot Tactics” collages a network of male and female vocal samples while Peggy processes a memorable sung hook: “I want to rock your worldddd.” JPEG’s penchant for absurdist humour has never been more pronounced; on “BasicBitchTearGas” he takes the classic hook from ‘90s R&B pop unit TLC’s “No Scrubs” and turns it into an uncanny sonic amalgam of lust and confusion (not that lust and confusion are ever separate). And on top of the bold sonic formalism, JPEG’s skills on the mic are formidable. Few young stars are so lyrically funny and thematically dense, which might explain why despite the abstraction in his sound, he’s found allies with more commercially minded but still artistically resonant MCs like Denzel Curry. While All My Heroes Are Cornballs is less aggressive and noisy than JPEG’s previous albums, it is even more experimental. Don’t mistake dialed down aggression for commercial pandering, JPEG has no interest in the market. His interest is in the art of hip-hop, and pushing that art into its evolution.

JPEGMAFIA is a bold sonic experimentalist and an authentic critic of contemporary culture. Whereas Kanye West is admirable in his rawness, his understanding of the digital landscape, and his willingness to confront harsh criticism, he is utterly frustrating in his refusal to sincerely engage with politics and culture on an intellectual level and his obsession with wealth and status. JPEGMAFIA is in many ways the antithesis of Kanye. He is every bit as radical sonically and culturally, but he also has developed a very unique ideology that addresses the ugly reality of contemporary life accurately and has no ambition to make Top 40 radio. He is sincerely making an attempt to understand his role in both hip-hop and culture writ large. With so much of commercial hip-hop having abandoned experimentation in favor of making music that panders to a reality TV and social media numbed consumerist base, he is exploring hip-hop as a genre capable of reinvention and reconfiguration. “Where JPEG falls into this diagram is as a necessary artist-as-sociopolitical pundit by default,” succinctly wrote Markus K. Dowling for the Fader. And on All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEG’s masterpiece to date, the artist dissects hip-hop clichés: whereas hip-hop runs masculine JPEG is queered, whereas hip-hop relies on commercial beats made to play in overpriced nightclubs JPEG makes odd, shapeshifting sounds, and whereas hip-hop tends to prioritize the “capitalist realist” ideology of “make money, get money” JPEG eats neoliberalism for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. What artists like Suicide, The Fall and Throbbing Gristle (a noted JPEGMAFIA favorite) did for rock and experimental music in the 1970s, JPEG is now doing for hip-hop: he is critiquing it, reconfiguring its unsavory clichés and showing us its possible radical future.


David Robert Mitchell's "Under the Silver Lake" Is A Frustrating And Fascinating Mystery That, Like The Late Capitalist Culture It Mirrors, Has No Meaning

David Robert Mitchell’s  Under the Silver Lake  might be simultaneously the most thought provoking and frustrating film I’ve seen so far in 2019. While it certainly isn’t the film I enjoyed the most (that would be Harmony Korine’s lush and hilarious  The Beach Bum ), the film that most viscerally excited me (Gaspar Noe’s  Climax ) or the film that left me most stupefied by its utter lack of clarity and cohesion (Jordan Peele’s  Us ).  But it is the film that seems to have embedded itself deepest into my thoughts and fantasies after my first viewing of it. Mitchell, who is previously known for the equally seductive, stylish and mostly disappointing horror film  It Follows , appears to be an artist so deeply invested in theory and logical ideas that he often fails to match his fascinations in narrative cohesion.  The film, which follows the scrappy, unemployed and potentially sociopathic Sam (played by Andrew Garfield) and seeks to unravel a mystery pertaining to a disappeared woman, presents a Los Angeles that is totally awash in slogans, messages, and maybe even clues that ultimately lead nowhere.  Under the Silver Lake  could be viewed in the context of Baudrillard’s fourth stage of pure simulacra. While the world is full of information, Mitchell suggests, it is utterly devoid of coherent meaning.  Garfield’s Sam is, like the fictional Los Angeles mystery solvers that came before him, a pure encapsulation of his time period’s conception of masculinity. Just like Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Mawlowe was the image of stoic, grizzled 1940s war veteran taciturn or Thomas Pynchon’s Doc Sportello was an embodiment of early ‘1970s adrift and stoned out paranoia, Sam is a manifestation of 2010s, post-digital, late stage capital confusion, boredom, and ineffectuality. He is jobless and seemingly totally indifferent towards the fact that he is about to lose his apartment. His deep knowledge of rock n’ roll music and film noir history are skills that have no tenable place in the labor economy. It’s hard not to imagine Sam reading Jordan Peterson without a shred of irony, and posting paranoiac thoughts on one of 4chan’s many alt-right pages (LA slacker division, perhaps).  Mitchell himself has conceded that Sam is very much an avatar for the treacheries of late capitalism, and the attendant male rage that brews when you are led to believe your whole life that you are entitled to success, a life, and an identity, only to find a world in which wealth is only attained by those who already have had it for generations. Like Walter White, Sam is indoctrinated in late stage capitalism thinking that says being a man means being a provider, or at least, a rich guy. Unlike Walter White, who at least fueled his intelligence and narcissism into a lucrative criminal enterprise, Sam has given up on everything other than slacking and conspiracy obsessing. “Sam could continue reaching for things,” said Mitchell, “But he’s thinking,  what’s the point?  Even being able to buy a house, for our generation, is like a near-impossible task. So how do you process that? Maybe you go looking for meaning in strange places.”  Though better at seducing women than we are initially lead to believe, Sam’s psychological profile is primarily defined by boredom and confusion punctuated by the occasional outburst of hyper-violence (25 minutes into the film, we see Sam savagely beat young boys for the rather innocuous childhood crime of egging his Ford Mustang, which he loses shortly after in an asset seizure for failing to make payments, a powerful metaphor for capitalism’s decimation of the American dream).  The mystery kicks into gear when the girl (played by an uncharacteristically bubbly but thoroughly characteristically enigmatic Riley Keough) that lives in the same Silverlake complex and whom Sam almost sleeps with suddenly disappears before being found as one of the three female bodies found along with the body of a local billionaire. Sam then drifts through the seductively photographed Angeleno landscape where we meet his odd-ball friends and the beautiful girls that tempt him.  Nevertheless, the mystery doesn’t drive the plot as noticeably as the indecipherable enigmas populating the images seem to halt that very mystery in its tracks, and Mitchell continuously distracts by populating the the film with red herrings and images of dubious fascination. Again one could draw thematic comparisons with both Pynchon’s  Inherent Vice  as well as its PT Anderson cinematic adaptation in that  Under the Silver Lake  is a Los Angeles set film noir mystery thriller that meanders and pontificates vastly more than it thrills.  Garfield’s Sam has found himself in a world that bewilders and has ceased to make sense to him. He sees codes and messages everywhere. But like most conspiracy nuts, Sam’s proclaimed knowledge of the world below, his penchant for identifying conspiracy, is really a survival mechanism (research by the psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen suggests that unstable self-esteem and control issues are the primary traits of conspiracy theorists), or even worse, a delusional distraction. Sam is off, he seems like he could have PTSD, and his quest for the truth comes off as little more than a flaccid attempt to gain control in an environment that is hostile and unknowable towards him.  In late capitalism, advertising has become an omnipresent, malevolent force. Sam wants to believe that there is deeper meaning in these messages, but meaning eludes him all the more the deeper he gets in his decoding of the mystery.  I found Sam’s age to be relevant here: 33. Sam is an early millennial or late Gen Xer. The codes of sexuality and expression of the millennials he comes into contact with in the film are utterly alien to him. I am 31, and found this to be perhaps the most resonant idea in the movie. I remember a time when the Internet was discussed in Utopian terms: that the accessibility of information would free us. What has proven to be the reality of the post-digital revolution? The more malignant cultural idiom is that, instead of wider access to information allowing the population to be more well-informed and govern itself according to these objective truths, humans tend to use digital information to further curate their own ideologies, inoculating themselves from information that clashes with their own narratives, and often using the shield of the Internet (“in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated,” said Zizek on this subject) to revel in the most toxic aspects of their own persona.  The more innocuous but no less culturally stressful phenomenon is the anxiety that develops when constantly trying to keep up with culture’s rapid forward momentum. As an artist and cultural critic I do keep up with culture: visual art, books, films and music alike. But there is a flattening of meaning when constantly pressured to experience more, and more, and more culture. The tyranny of the new: new music, new films, new YouTube videos, new products, it’s all just products, instantly available and aggressively advertised towards you in both your physical and digital environments. Every Friday on Apple Music, at least five new releases automatically upload into my cloud (if I have already added music by the artists in question in the past). The result? I absorb nothing, I find context in nothing. How can you achieve the kind of passionate fandom that say, hardcore punk rock fans in the 1980s felt, when you don’t have enough time to listen to anything more than once? And the fact that all this information is controlled and distributed by a few corporate behemoths further negates meaning in its purest sense. “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” famously wrote Baudrillard.  In many cases, the mystery that forms the crux of the movie seems to only serve the purpose of providing Sam the only clarity he can find in a world that no longer makes sense to him. The two most pertinent scenes in the film could appear unrelated to the primary crux of the narrative. In the first, Sam tries to get clues about the case at a decadent nightclub from a gorgeous former child star turned call girl (the outrageously beautiful Grace Van Patten) who explains her liberated Gen Z polysexual life philosophy to a mystified Sam. Sam is then comforted when he hears R.E.M’s “What’s The Frequency Kenneth”, a soothing relic of his 1990s alt-rock childhood, come on the speakers. He wants to dance! Suddenly, the hallucinogen laced cookie he has eaten prior takes effect, and the effects malignantly alter his perception of the reliably nostalgic alt-rock hit of his youth. The world has become so thoroughly otherworldly and unknowable that even the culture that Sam used to define his teenage identity has come under scrutiny. It can’t be trusted. Its meaning, once held close to Sam’s heart, has been obscured.  The second most notable scene in the film solidifies this concept. Sam’s investigation leads him to “the Songwriter,” who Sam finds in a surrealist nightmare vision of an oligarch’s living space. Behind a gate, a psilocybin hallucination of a mansion in a technicolor field appears before Sam. In the home, Sam finds the Songwriter playing the piano, who then begins to hammer out one pop hit after another, from Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” to The Pixies’ “Where is my Mind,” taunting Sam with his claims that he wrote all of them on spec, offering the terrible, horrifying conclusion that art does not belong to the artists or their fans, but to a corporate, oligarchical class that couldn’t give less of a fuck about personal expression. The nail in the coffin to Sam’s beliefs about himself come when the producer reveals that he also wrote Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and that it wasn’t in fact Sam’s hero Kurt Cobain.  The Songwriter, as it turns out, only put messages (resonant ideas, themes, whatever: love, rebellion, etc) in songs because it’s what people need to believe to feel that their lives have meaning, “What does it mean, that your youthful rebellion was just a sham?” asks the Songwriter. He is capital opportunism personified. The Songwriter’s cynicism reminds me of that David Foster Wallace quote, “An ad that pretends to be art is, at its absolute best, like somebody who smiles at you warmly only when they want something from you.”  When Sam learns that his rebellious slacker identity, that he deliberately cultified in opposition to what he sees as mainstream culture, is still the product of corporate control machinations, he snaps, viciously bludgeoning the Songwriter’s skull with Cobain’s guitar. Mitchell has tapped into a primal contemporary fear: perhaps all the cultural signifiers that we use to define our identities; the arts, songs, books, sports, dreams, desires; are all bullshit. A joke. The back end of a spineless advertising campaign.  Notice I’ve barely mentioned the central mystery. We eventually find out what happened to Riley Keough: something about her going underground with the actually not dead billionaire and his other beautiful brides in an underground bunker in hopes that they will be elevated towards a higher plane, like the Pharaohs, or something. The revelation lands with a thud which feels like a purposeful stylistic choice by director Mitchell. The real mystery of the film has to do with a serial murderer of dogs and a girl on a billboard. Throughout the film, there is an allusion to the mad dog killer, and halfway through the film Sam runs into an ex at a party that he had previously seen posed seductively on a billboard. It is eventually revealed that the dog killer is almost certainly Sam when a homeless man who has proven to be a guide throughout his quest finds dog biscuits in his pocket. Sam tells him that he lost his girl and the pain of losing her and her dog became unbearable. He couldn’t make sense of the loss, and transgression seemed to be the only viable rationale.   In a sense, these mysteries pay lip service to what is ultimately a philosophical treatise. Sam is adrift in a world indifferent to his failures. He will never have a 401K, he’ll never have a house, he probably will die homeless. Everything around him is devoid of sentimental value and meaning: Baudrillardian representations of representations fueling the bottom lines of the top 1 percent of 1 percent that wield all of the world’s economic and political power. Sam is of the first generation of educated white men who find themselves just as ruthlessly fucked as working class minorities, and unable to fuel his rage into productive activity (what could be productive in a country where three corporations net more wealth annually than the entire bottom half of society has ever made in the existence of the United States?), he has turned towards pointless speculation and inexplicable violence.  Mitchell, in a manner equally seductive and frustrating, is ruminating on a culture heavy on information and low on meaning. Sam is the ideal hero of a generation that can no longer connect to the world around them. They grasp for meaning everywhere, either through unraveling mysteries (Sam) or decoding conspiracy (the comic artist, played by Patrick Fischer briefly before the character is swiftly murdered), but the closer they get towards anything resembling comprehension is ultimately fragmented, abstracted, and made, yes, meaningless.

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake might be simultaneously the most thought provoking and frustrating film I’ve seen so far in 2019. While it certainly isn’t the film I enjoyed the most (that would be Harmony Korine’s lush and hilarious The Beach Bum), the film that most viscerally excited me (Gaspar Noe’s Climax) or the film that left me most stupefied by its utter lack of clarity and cohesion (Jordan Peele’s Us). But it is the film that seems to have embedded itself deepest into my thoughts and fantasies after my first viewing of it. Mitchell, who is previously known for the equally seductive, stylish and mostly disappointing horror film It Follows, appears to be an artist so deeply invested in theory and logical ideas that he often fails to match his fascinations in narrative cohesion.

The film, which follows the scrappy, unemployed and potentially sociopathic Sam (played by Andrew Garfield) and seeks to unravel a mystery pertaining to a disappeared woman, presents a Los Angeles that is totally awash in slogans, messages, and maybe even clues that ultimately lead nowhere. Under the Silver Lake could be viewed in the context of Baudrillard’s fourth stage of pure simulacra. While the world is full of information, Mitchell suggests, it is utterly devoid of coherent meaning.

Garfield’s Sam is, like the fictional Los Angeles mystery solvers that came before him, a pure encapsulation of his time period’s conception of masculinity. Just like Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Mawlowe was the image of stoic, grizzled 1940s war veteran taciturn or Thomas Pynchon’s Doc Sportello was an embodiment of early ‘1970s adrift and stoned out paranoia, Sam is a manifestation of 2010s, post-digital, late stage capital confusion, boredom, and ineffectuality. He is jobless and seemingly totally indifferent towards the fact that he is about to lose his apartment. His deep knowledge of rock n’ roll music and film noir history are skills that have no tenable place in the labor economy. It’s hard not to imagine Sam reading Jordan Peterson without a shred of irony, and posting paranoiac thoughts on one of 4chan’s many alt-right pages (LA slacker division, perhaps).

Mitchell himself has conceded that Sam is very much an avatar for the treacheries of late capitalism, and the attendant male rage that brews when you are led to believe your whole life that you are entitled to success, a life, and an identity, only to find a world in which wealth is only attained by those who already have had it for generations. Like Walter White, Sam is indoctrinated in late stage capitalism thinking that says being a man means being a provider, or at least, a rich guy. Unlike Walter White, who at least fueled his intelligence and narcissism into a lucrative criminal enterprise, Sam has given up on everything other than slacking and conspiracy obsessing. “Sam could continue reaching for things,” said Mitchell, “But he’s thinking, what’s the point? Even being able to buy a house, for our generation, is like a near-impossible task. So how do you process that? Maybe you go looking for meaning in strange places.”

Though better at seducing women than we are initially lead to believe, Sam’s psychological profile is primarily defined by boredom and confusion punctuated by the occasional outburst of hyper-violence (25 minutes into the film, we see Sam savagely beat young boys for the rather innocuous childhood crime of egging his Ford Mustang, which he loses shortly after in an asset seizure for failing to make payments, a powerful metaphor for capitalism’s decimation of the American dream).

The mystery kicks into gear when the girl (played by an uncharacteristically bubbly but thoroughly characteristically enigmatic Riley Keough) that lives in the same Silverlake complex and whom Sam almost sleeps with suddenly disappears before being found as one of the three female bodies found along with the body of a local billionaire. Sam then drifts through the seductively photographed Angeleno landscape where we meet his odd-ball friends and the beautiful girls that tempt him.

Nevertheless, the mystery doesn’t drive the plot as noticeably as the indecipherable enigmas populating the images seem to halt that very mystery in its tracks, and Mitchell continuously distracts by populating the the film with red herrings and images of dubious fascination. Again one could draw thematic comparisons with both Pynchon’s Inherent Vice as well as its PT Anderson cinematic adaptation in that Under the Silver Lake is a Los Angeles set film noir mystery thriller that meanders and pontificates vastly more than it thrills.

Garfield’s Sam has found himself in a world that bewilders and has ceased to make sense to him. He sees codes and messages everywhere. But like most conspiracy nuts, Sam’s proclaimed knowledge of the world below, his penchant for identifying conspiracy, is really a survival mechanism (research by the psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen suggests that unstable self-esteem and control issues are the primary traits of conspiracy theorists), or even worse, a delusional distraction. Sam is off, he seems like he could have PTSD, and his quest for the truth comes off as little more than a flaccid attempt to gain control in an environment that is hostile and unknowable towards him.

In late capitalism, advertising has become an omnipresent, malevolent force. Sam wants to believe that there is deeper meaning in these messages, but meaning eludes him all the more the deeper he gets in his decoding of the mystery.

I found Sam’s age to be relevant here: 33. Sam is an early millennial or late Gen Xer. The codes of sexuality and expression of the millennials he comes into contact with in the film are utterly alien to him. I am 31, and found this to be perhaps the most resonant idea in the movie. I remember a time when the Internet was discussed in Utopian terms: that the accessibility of information would free us. What has proven to be the reality of the post-digital revolution? The more malignant cultural idiom is that, instead of wider access to information allowing the population to be more well-informed and govern itself according to these objective truths, humans tend to use digital information to further curate their own ideologies, inoculating themselves from information that clashes with their own narratives, and often using the shield of the Internet (“in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated,” said Zizek on this subject) to revel in the most toxic aspects of their own persona.

The more innocuous but no less culturally stressful phenomenon is the anxiety that develops when constantly trying to keep up with culture’s rapid forward momentum. As an artist and cultural critic I do keep up with culture: visual art, books, films and music alike. But there is a flattening of meaning when constantly pressured to experience more, and more, and more culture. The tyranny of the new: new music, new films, new YouTube videos, new products, it’s all just products, instantly available and aggressively advertised towards you in both your physical and digital environments. Every Friday on Apple Music, at least five new releases automatically upload into my cloud (if I have already added music by the artists in question in the past). The result? I absorb nothing, I find context in nothing. How can you achieve the kind of passionate fandom that say, hardcore punk rock fans in the 1980s felt, when you don’t have enough time to listen to anything more than once? And the fact that all this information is controlled and distributed by a few corporate behemoths further negates meaning in its purest sense. “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” famously wrote Baudrillard.

In many cases, the mystery that forms the crux of the movie seems to only serve the purpose of providing Sam the only clarity he can find in a world that no longer makes sense to him. The two most pertinent scenes in the film could appear unrelated to the primary crux of the narrative. In the first, Sam tries to get clues about the case at a decadent nightclub from a gorgeous former child star turned call girl (the outrageously beautiful Grace Van Patten) who explains her liberated Gen Z polysexual life philosophy to a mystified Sam. Sam is then comforted when he hears R.E.M’s “What’s The Frequency Kenneth”, a soothing relic of his 1990s alt-rock childhood, come on the speakers. He wants to dance! Suddenly, the hallucinogen laced cookie he has eaten prior takes effect, and the effects malignantly alter his perception of the reliably nostalgic alt-rock hit of his youth. The world has become so thoroughly otherworldly and unknowable that even the culture that Sam used to define his teenage identity has come under scrutiny. It can’t be trusted. Its meaning, once held close to Sam’s heart, has been obscured.

The second most notable scene in the film solidifies this concept. Sam’s investigation leads him to “the Songwriter,” who Sam finds in a surrealist nightmare vision of an oligarch’s living space. Behind a gate, a psilocybin hallucination of a mansion in a technicolor field appears before Sam. In the home, Sam finds the Songwriter playing the piano, who then begins to hammer out one pop hit after another, from Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” to The Pixies’ “Where is my Mind,” taunting Sam with his claims that he wrote all of them on spec, offering the terrible, horrifying conclusion that art does not belong to the artists or their fans, but to a corporate, oligarchical class that couldn’t give less of a fuck about personal expression. The nail in the coffin to Sam’s beliefs about himself come when the producer reveals that he also wrote Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and that it wasn’t in fact Sam’s hero Kurt Cobain.

The Songwriter, as it turns out, only put messages (resonant ideas, themes, whatever: love, rebellion, etc) in songs because it’s what people need to believe to feel that their lives have meaning, “What does it mean, that your youthful rebellion was just a sham?” asks the Songwriter. He is capital opportunism personified. The Songwriter’s cynicism reminds me of that David Foster Wallace quote, “An ad that pretends to be art is, at its absolute best, like somebody who smiles at you warmly only when they want something from you.”

When Sam learns that his rebellious slacker identity, that he deliberately cultified in opposition to what he sees as mainstream culture, is still the product of corporate control machinations, he snaps, viciously bludgeoning the Songwriter’s skull with Cobain’s guitar. Mitchell has tapped into a primal contemporary fear: perhaps all the cultural signifiers that we use to define our identities; the arts, songs, books, sports, dreams, desires; are all bullshit. A joke. The back end of a spineless advertising campaign.

Notice I’ve barely mentioned the central mystery. We eventually find out what happened to Riley Keough: something about her going underground with the actually not dead billionaire and his other beautiful brides in an underground bunker in hopes that they will be elevated towards a higher plane, like the Pharaohs, or something. The revelation lands with a thud which feels like a purposeful stylistic choice by director Mitchell. The real mystery of the film has to do with a serial murderer of dogs and a girl on a billboard. Throughout the film, there is an allusion to the mad dog killer, and halfway through the film Sam runs into an ex at a party that he had previously seen posed seductively on a billboard. It is eventually revealed that the dog killer is almost certainly Sam when a homeless man who has proven to be a guide throughout his quest finds dog biscuits in his pocket. Sam tells him that he lost his girl and the pain of losing her and her dog became unbearable. He couldn’t make sense of the loss, and transgression seemed to be the only viable rationale.

In a sense, these mysteries pay lip service to what is ultimately a philosophical treatise. Sam is adrift in a world indifferent to his failures. He will never have a 401K, he’ll never have a house, he probably will die homeless. Everything around him is devoid of sentimental value and meaning: Baudrillardian representations of representations fueling the bottom lines of the top 1 percent of 1 percent that wield all of the world’s economic and political power. Sam is of the first generation of educated white men who find themselves just as ruthlessly fucked as working class minorities, and unable to fuel his rage into productive activity (what could be productive in a country where three corporations net more wealth annually than the entire bottom half of society has ever made in the existence of the United States?), he has turned towards pointless speculation and inexplicable violence.

Mitchell, in a manner equally seductive and frustrating, is ruminating on a culture heavy on information and low on meaning. Sam is the ideal hero of a generation that can no longer connect to the world around them. They grasp for meaning everywhere, either through unraveling mysteries (Sam) or decoding conspiracy (the comic artist, played by Patrick Fischer briefly before the character is swiftly murdered), but the closer they get towards anything resembling comprehension is ultimately fragmented, abstracted, and made, yes, meaningless.


A Look Back On The Art That Influenced Me, Inspired Me, And Fucked Me Up In 2018 (an introduction to the blog of artist Adam Lehrer)

As a writer, I have become slightly perturbed by the state of corporatized digital media. It is becoming increasingly difficult to express any opinion that might diverge from the prevailing narratives of our time. So, this blog will serve as an outlet for my observations, my tastes, my experiences, my anxieties, my habits, and otherwise.

2018 was a year of conflict for geopolitical, sociological, and personal reasons. But if I had to boil the year down to a single notion, that notion would be outrage. Outraged when I watch CNN and see white, middle aged fascistic Trump talking heads lie to my face that what I’m seeing right in front of my face isn’t actually happening. Outraged at the death of nuance and the further corporatization of the flow of information and ideas. But more than anything, I’m outraged over the death of intellectualism.  Outraged at the right wing’s cult worship of an objectively horrible president and morally bankrupt human being. I also have at times been outraged by the left’s outrage: cancel culture, de-platforming, Twitter freak outs. I feel a bit out of phase with the culture, to be honest. Superhero movies are suddenly worth the kind of critical praise normally associated for auteur-driven cinema. Mind-numbingly simplistic television series warrant more cultural discussion that transcendent works of literature. It can be a drag to be a cranky, youngish but aging, intellectual snob living in this era.

Nevertheless, 2018 was a magnificent year for art. Art can carry you through, and help you achieve a relation of yourself, your being, to the world around you. Susan Sontag once wrote that a photograph can be “a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” I’d wager that this assertion can apply to any work of creative energy: a text, an object, a film, whatever. This year, I found myself engrossed by the new records that I listened to, the new films that I watched, and the new books that I read. In many ways, I found more power in culture in 2018 than in any other year that I’ve been alive. But of course, contemporary art is my cultural domain. The area in which I develop my most cohesive opinions. I share here the exhibitions, the art, that most challenged me  and appealed to my personal understanding of what great art is (note, all exhibitions took place in New York, my home city).

Fall programming at New Museum (Sarah Lucas: Au NaturelMarianna Simnett: Blood in my MilkMarguerite Humeau: Birth CanalDan Herschlein: The Architect)

by Marguerite Humeau I found myself making repeat visits to the New Museum over the last few months when the institution hosted exhibitions by some of my favorite artists currently working. But even more pleasurable is that if one strived to see them, one could detect thematic connections between all four of the artists that had work on view at the museum. The much (deservingly) lauded Sarah Lucas retrospective that populates the majority of the museum’s primary space “Au Naturel,” the emotionally challenging video projection of British artist Marianna Simnett’s  Blood in my Milk  installation, the overwhelmingly sensory confusing of French artist Marguerite Humeau’s  Birth Canal  installation of sculpture, sound and scent, and the storefront window featuring New York-based artist Dan Herschlein’s anxiety-inducing sculptural installation  The Architect , certainly all varied differently in style and approach. Nevertheless, all the shows carried themes related to cultural and personal angst, eroticism, the corporeal, the blurring of the beautiful and the grotesque, and contemporary surrealism. Anyone of these exhibitions on their own would have brought me out to the museum to see them, but together I was able to cross-reference ideas and thoughts between the individual shows. The coiling distorted limbs of Lucas’ ‘NUD’ sculptures imbue in me a similar disturbance related to the fragility of the body to that elicited by the varicose veins shot in close-up and featured in Simnett’s film  Blue Roses . Humeau’s sculptures, the result of a process of intensive research merging with vibrant imagination and fantasy, and Herschlein’s installation, an examination of horrific memories projected onto interior space, both highlight a contemporary surrealist art’s quest to deconstruct reality.  In the  Surrealist Manifesto,  André Breton wrote, “We are still living under this reign of logic.” This is no longer remotely true. We are living in the time of conspiracy theories being reported as news. Opioid epidemics. Humans with diseases being unable to heal their bodies due to the tilting of a global economy that has placed all the power into the hands of a few oligarchs. We are living in an age of anxiety, of chaos. All of these fantastic artists that the New Museum hosted this fall forced me to confront the blurred realities of living now. And amidst all this confusion, we still have bodies. Bodies that get sick, bodies that get old, bodies that are conflicted by sex and desire and hunger, and bodies that entrap the immensity of our psyches.

by Marguerite Humeau
I found myself making repeat visits to the New Museum over the last few months when the institution hosted exhibitions by some of my favorite artists currently working. But even more pleasurable is that if one strived to see them, one could detect thematic connections between all four of the artists that had work on view at the museum. The much (deservingly) lauded Sarah Lucas retrospective that populates the majority of the museum’s primary space “Au Naturel,” the emotionally challenging video projection of British artist Marianna Simnett’s Blood in my Milk installation, the overwhelmingly sensory confusing of French artist Marguerite Humeau’s Birth Canal installation of sculpture, sound and scent, and the storefront window featuring New York-based artist Dan Herschlein’s anxiety-inducing sculptural installation The Architect, certainly all varied differently in style and approach. Nevertheless, all the shows carried themes related to cultural and personal angst, eroticism, the corporeal, the blurring of the beautiful and the grotesque, and contemporary surrealism. Anyone of these exhibitions on their own would have brought me out to the museum to see them, but together I was able to cross-reference ideas and thoughts between the individual shows. The coiling distorted limbs of Lucas’ ‘NUD’ sculptures imbue in me a similar disturbance related to the fragility of the body to that elicited by the varicose veins shot in close-up and featured in Simnett’s film Blue Roses. Humeau’s sculptures, the result of a process of intensive research merging with vibrant imagination and fantasy, and Herschlein’s installation, an examination of horrific memories projected onto interior space, both highlight a contemporary surrealist art’s quest to deconstruct reality.

In the Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton wrote, “We are still living under this reign of logic.” This is no longer remotely true. We are living in the time of conspiracy theories being reported as news. Opioid epidemics. Humans with diseases being unable to heal their bodies due to the tilting of a global economy that has placed all the power into the hands of a few oligarchs. We are living in an age of anxiety, of chaos. All of these fantastic artists that the New Museum hosted this fall forced me to confront the blurred realities of living now. And amidst all this confusion, we still have bodies. Bodies that get sick, bodies that get old, bodies that are conflicted by sex and desire and hunger, and bodies that entrap the immensity of our psyches.

'David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,' The Whitney  However late it is, it was satisfying to finally see a full career retrospective of the iconic American artist, writer, poet and activist David Wojnarowicz. Though he passed away from complications related to AIDS at age 38, Wojnarowicz developed a dazzlingly broad and yet stylistically tight body of work across various mediums. With so much to sort through, the curators of the exhibition did their best to guide viewers through a chronological journey through Wojnarowicz’s art. Wojnarowicz was first and foremost a writer, and his forays into visual art sought to place him in the lineage of other radical queer writers, namely Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Wojnaworicz’s first series of visual art works, a brilliant series of black and white photographs of Wojnarowicz and his friends wearing Rimbaud masks while engaged in activities around New York, grounds Wojnarowicz in a well-defined history of iconoclastic poet radicals that allows one to view Wojnarowicz with the kind of antiquated mystique and intrigue of a romantic poet that stood in contrast to his decidedly postmodern art making.   With Wojnarowicz, it’s always astonishing just how brilliant his work was across so many mediums. He was chameleonic in his talent, and his photography, mixed-media, sculpture, video work and painting all seamlessly blend into one another. Wojnarowicz’s large-scale paintings however, perhaps the most historically under-discussed element of his work, are particularly brilliant. A peculiar sense of symbols (elements, frogs, sex) and an organic style combine offering images that eviscerate the decaying culture of Reagan era America. Wojnarowicz was a deeply political artist, but he was also a highly inventive one. He was an artist, first and foremost. He cared about beauty, and in beauty’s power for overcoming oppression. He wasn’t a sloganeer. He placed his faith in aesthetics and culture.

'David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night,' The Whitney

However late it is, it was satisfying to finally see a full career retrospective of the iconic American artist, writer, poet and activist David Wojnarowicz. Though he passed away from complications related to AIDS at age 38, Wojnarowicz developed a dazzlingly broad and yet stylistically tight body of work across various mediums. With so much to sort through, the curators of the exhibition did their best to guide viewers through a chronological journey through Wojnarowicz’s art. Wojnarowicz was first and foremost a writer, and his forays into visual art sought to place him in the lineage of other radical queer writers, namely Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Wojnaworicz’s first series of visual art works, a brilliant series of black and white photographs of Wojnarowicz and his friends wearing Rimbaud masks while engaged in activities around New York, grounds Wojnarowicz in a well-defined history of iconoclastic poet radicals that allows one to view Wojnarowicz with the kind of antiquated mystique and intrigue of a romantic poet that stood in contrast to his decidedly postmodern art making.

With Wojnarowicz, it’s always astonishing just how brilliant his work was across so many mediums. He was chameleonic in his talent, and his photography, mixed-media, sculpture, video work and painting all seamlessly blend into one another. Wojnarowicz’s large-scale paintings however, perhaps the most historically under-discussed element of his work, are particularly brilliant. A peculiar sense of symbols (elements, frogs, sex) and an organic style combine offering images that eviscerate the decaying culture of Reagan era America. Wojnarowicz was a deeply political artist, but he was also a highly inventive one. He was an artist, first and foremost. He cared about beauty, and in beauty’s power for overcoming oppression. He wasn’t a sloganeer. He placed his faith in aesthetics and culture.

Beside Me, curated by Dan Herschlein, JTT Gallery

Art by Sedrick Chisom “The abject,” as defined by philosopher Julia Kristeva in her 1982 text  The Powers of Horror , refers to the human reaction (horror) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between subject and object or self and other.” In other words, it’s the emotion elicited when a human is faced with the realization of the impurity of their bodily functions (Kristeva believed that the repression of our bodily impurities were necessary to function as people, and if you’ve ever had to use the restroom while consuming a psychedelic substance, you’d agree with her). Artists throughout history have explored this terrain, the grotesque and the abject, from Hieronymus Bosch through Paul McCarthy. However (and I can say this as an artist myself invested in exploration of the abject and the grotesque), there is a blurry boundary when dealing in these themes between something genuinely challenging, provocative and indeed scary, and something outright goofy and stupid. Artist and curator Dan Herschlein knows this boundary well.  Beside Me , an exhibition curated by Herschlein at JTT Gallery, explores these boundaries well. An excellent survey of contemporary artists exploring anxiety and their relation to the unseen, the works in the show how this ancient artistic concept can be reinvigorated through history as cultures move forward. In sculpture by David Altmejd, installation by art duo Tarwuk, painting by Sedrick Chisom, drawing by Vanessa Gully Santiago, video projection by Elizabeth Schraeger, and even “manga” comic strips by genius Japanese comic auteur Junji Ito, Herschlein posits that the abject manifests strongest when subtly elicited.

Art by Sedrick Chisom
“The abject,” as defined by philosopher Julia Kristeva in her 1982 text The Powers of Horror, refers to the human reaction (horror) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between subject and object or self and other.” In other words, it’s the emotion elicited when a human is faced with the realization of the impurity of their bodily functions (Kristeva believed that the repression of our bodily impurities were necessary to function as people, and if you’ve ever had to use the restroom while consuming a psychedelic substance, you’d agree with her). Artists throughout history have explored this terrain, the grotesque and the abject, from Hieronymus Bosch through Paul McCarthy. However (and I can say this as an artist myself invested in exploration of the abject and the grotesque), there is a blurry boundary when dealing in these themes between something genuinely challenging, provocative and indeed scary, and something outright goofy and stupid. Artist and curator Dan Herschlein knows this boundary well. Beside Me, an exhibition curated by Herschlein at JTT Gallery, explores these boundaries well. An excellent survey of contemporary artists exploring anxiety and their relation to the unseen, the works in the show how this ancient artistic concept can be reinvigorated through history as cultures move forward. In sculpture by David Altmejd, installation by art duo Tarwuk, painting by Sedrick Chisom, drawing by Vanessa Gully Santiago, video projection by Elizabeth Schraeger, and even “manga” comic strips by genius Japanese comic auteur Junji Ito, Herschlein posits that the abject manifests strongest when subtly elicited.

Tala Madani Corner Projects, 303 Gallery

Art by Tala Madani Having been born in Tehran, Iran, there have been cases of critics wanting to understand artist Tala Madani’s paintings, illustrations and videos through the prism of Islamic culture. That isn’t totally right though, and in fact if Madani addresses the political and social structure of her homeland, it’s by drawing connections between it and western culture more than she differentiates between the two. That connection, it seems, is male dominance. In a confrontational style that brings to mind artists such as Philip Guston and the illustrative work of Mike Kelley, Madani depicts male figures almost comically concerned with maintaining power and dominance.  In her recent exhibition at 303 Gallery, Madani presents several paintings and two video projections. In these images, Madani arguably liberates the male figures from patriarchal duties presenting them engaging in acts of unrestrained desire that confront social convention. In one animated video projection, a male figure continuously attempts to ride an escalator to a floor above him where he keeps being met with a mob that viciously attacks him and sends him flying back down the stairs. An animated audience, a stand-in for the viewer, passively watches. Madani forces us to come to terms with our mass engagement with the bystander effect: we submit to societal standards that allows us attempt to liberate ourselves from social structure are beaten down until we are fragmented versions of ourselves. New to this body of work is Madani’s use of infantile figures. These babies are full of mischievous desire: one painting finds a baby holding a knife above the anus of a forward reclined male figure. Babies, in a Freudian view, are pure id, functioning purely according to bodily desire. Madani locates the freedom in this, in relation to a societal structure’s influence over, or corruption, of her male figures. Madani’s work is challenging and thrilling, demanding aesthetic engagement and psychological ponderousness.

Art by Tala Madani
Having been born in Tehran, Iran, there have been cases of critics wanting to understand artist Tala Madani’s paintings, illustrations and videos through the prism of Islamic culture. That isn’t totally right though, and in fact if Madani addresses the political and social structure of her homeland, it’s by drawing connections between it and western culture more than she differentiates between the two. That connection, it seems, is male dominance. In a confrontational style that brings to mind artists such as Philip Guston and the illustrative work of Mike Kelley, Madani depicts male figures almost comically concerned with maintaining power and dominance.

In her recent exhibition at 303 Gallery, Madani presents several paintings and two video projections. In these images, Madani arguably liberates the male figures from patriarchal duties presenting them engaging in acts of unrestrained desire that confront social convention. In one animated video projection, a male figure continuously attempts to ride an escalator to a floor above him where he keeps being met with a mob that viciously attacks him and sends him flying back down the stairs. An animated audience, a stand-in for the viewer, passively watches. Madani forces us to come to terms with our mass engagement with the bystander effect: we submit to societal standards that allows us attempt to liberate ourselves from social structure are beaten down until we are fragmented versions of ourselves. New to this body of work is Madani’s use of infantile figures. These babies are full of mischievous desire: one painting finds a baby holding a knife above the anus of a forward reclined male figure. Babies, in a Freudian view, are pure id, functioning purely according to bodily desire. Madani locates the freedom in this, in relation to a societal structure’s influence over, or corruption, of her male figures. Madani’s work is challenging and thrilling, demanding aesthetic engagement and psychological ponderousness.

Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, MoMA and MoMA PS1

Art by Bruce Nauman New Yorkers were treated to some truly excellent museum retrospectives this year, but perhaps the most necessarily creatively uplifting was the sprawling takeover of both MoMA and MoMA PS1 by iconic American mixed-media and performance artist Bruce Nauman. In an art world full of simplistic, one-dimensional, and ideologically sanitized political messages and hollow, thoughtless provocations, Nauman reminds us of art making as a practice inherently tied to self-discovery. The exhibition’s title, Disappearing Acts, is in reference to Nauman’s “withdrawal as an art form.” He fragments bodies (his own and others), spaces are suspiciously empty but haunted by the artist’s presence, and the artist “sculpts himself in absentia" (Nauman’s fascination in negative space was inspired by a Willem de Kooning quote about painting the space within objects).  Nauman’s work has often been thought of as being boring (critic Hilton Kramer wrote it off as such in 1973). And certainly with the repetitiousness of movements in his performance videos that sometimes go on for 60 minutes at a time it is at times hard not agree with that sentiment. But one must always consider Nauman’s oeuvre in relation to himself. It may be trying to watch him endure monotonous movements in his early videos, but the artist is clearly trying to gain some kind of new awareness for himself. In some ways, he is a very selfish artist, and I mean that positively. This selfishness has led Nauman to being notoriously averse to being pinned down. The exhibition looks at Nauman’s grotesque disembodied figurative illustrations, his large-scale sculptures, video, performance, and even speculative architecture. A blurb about this show feels a bit faux and wrong-headed so let me just say: you don’t have to like every piece the artist produces, it’s not the point. And indeed as much as I love Nauman’s illustrations and pornographic and literary neon installations, I don’t have the patience for a 3D film that finds him limping across a floor back and forth. But Nauman’s work is supremely thrilling to an artist simply because his philosophy dictates that everything he produces in-studio is an art work. It’s hard to overstate the freedom that belief imbues in other artists, and partly explains Nauman’s vast influence.

Art by Bruce Nauman
New Yorkers were treated to some truly excellent museum retrospectives this year, but perhaps the most necessarily creatively uplifting was the sprawling takeover of both MoMA and MoMA PS1 by iconic American mixed-media and performance artist Bruce Nauman. In an art world full of simplistic, one-dimensional, and ideologically sanitized political messages and hollow, thoughtless provocations, Nauman reminds us of art making as a practice inherently tied to self-discovery. The exhibition’s title, Disappearing Acts, is in reference to Nauman’s “withdrawal as an art form.” He fragments bodies (his own and others), spaces are suspiciously empty but haunted by the artist’s presence, and the artist “sculpts himself in absentia" (Nauman’s fascination in negative space was inspired by a Willem de Kooning quote about painting the space within objects).

Nauman’s work has often been thought of as being boring (critic Hilton Kramer wrote it off as such in 1973). And certainly with the repetitiousness of movements in his performance videos that sometimes go on for 60 minutes at a time it is at times hard not agree with that sentiment. But one must always consider Nauman’s oeuvre in relation to himself. It may be trying to watch him endure monotonous movements in his early videos, but the artist is clearly trying to gain some kind of new awareness for himself. In some ways, he is a very selfish artist, and I mean that positively. This selfishness has led Nauman to being notoriously averse to being pinned down. The exhibition looks at Nauman’s grotesque disembodied figurative illustrations, his large-scale sculptures, video, performance, and even speculative architecture. A blurb about this show feels a bit faux and wrong-headed so let me just say: you don’t have to like every piece the artist produces, it’s not the point. And indeed as much as I love Nauman’s illustrations and pornographic and literary neon installations, I don’t have the patience for a 3D film that finds him limping across a floor back and forth. But Nauman’s work is supremely thrilling to an artist simply because his philosophy dictates that everything he produces in-studio is an art work. It’s hard to overstate the freedom that belief imbues in other artists, and partly explains Nauman’s vast influence.

Art and Conspiracy: Everything is Connected, Met Breuer

Art by Jim Shaw The most quintessentially American exhibition of the year was at the Met Breuer.  Art and Conspiracy: Everything is Connected , curated by Doug Eklund and Ian Alteveer, is dedicated to the late Mike Kelley who often intertwined anxieties and desires of the self with social corruption. The exhibition’s exploration of American conspiracy theory begins with the assassination of JFK. JFK’s probable (but perhaps not only) assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald’s definite assassin Jack Ruby, are depicted side by side in artist Wayne Gonzales’ painted portraits. Here, the work and the exhibition argues, is where conspiracy theories entered the lexicon of American culture.  The exhibition is broken into two halves. The first half of the exhibition finds artists, in a sense, acting as citizen journalists and detangling convoluted webs of evil, greed, and corruption. Projects such as these prove that some conspiracy theories are in fact with merit, and that sometimes the corruption that appears so brazen as to be false is in actuality truth and uses conspiracy as its shield. Hans Haacke’s spectacularly researched project  Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971  (1971) revealed how a family had used shell companies to dominate New York real estate and inflate its value (surely resulting in the removal of working class families). This project, as well as other in this section, reveals how truth is most certainly stranger, and often so much more insidious, than fiction.  The next half of the exhibition focuses on the fantastical elements of conspiracy and interrogates the unique surrealism attained when conspiracy bleeds into reality. Jim Shaw, inspired by a tabloid story claiming that lizard people were living inside humans, sketched over photographic portraits of friends to depict them as the lizard versions of themselves, and rephotographed over the sketches to make it look more realistic. The aforementioned Kelley’s sculpture “Education Complex” redesigns architecture plans for a school that found itself embroiled in the false scandal accusing educational facilities of widespread Satanic child abuse, commenting on national hysteria. And the incredible works by Sarah Anne johnson examines her grandmother’s memories of being made victim to MK Ultra Tests at a mental institution. MK Ultra is a shadowy CIA program that studies the potentials of forced LSD use, and rumor (or, conspiracy) has it that these tests were used on Ted Kaczynski and Bobby Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sohab. Johnson presents her grandmother’s image stamped, or corrupted, with blotter designs, and in a sculptural dollhouse miniature recreates the asylum where the viewer can peer through windows and view the grandmother’s hallucinations.

Art by Jim Shaw
The most quintessentially American exhibition of the year was at the Met Breuer. Art and Conspiracy: Everything is Connected, curated by Doug Eklund and Ian Alteveer, is dedicated to the late Mike Kelley who often intertwined anxieties and desires of the self with social corruption. The exhibition’s exploration of American conspiracy theory begins with the assassination of JFK. JFK’s probable (but perhaps not only) assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and Oswald’s definite assassin Jack Ruby, are depicted side by side in artist Wayne Gonzales’ painted portraits. Here, the work and the exhibition argues, is where conspiracy theories entered the lexicon of American culture.

The exhibition is broken into two halves. The first half of the exhibition finds artists, in a sense, acting as citizen journalists and detangling convoluted webs of evil, greed, and corruption. Projects such as these prove that some conspiracy theories are in fact with merit, and that sometimes the corruption that appears so brazen as to be false is in actuality truth and uses conspiracy as its shield. Hans Haacke’s spectacularly researched project Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971) revealed how a family had used shell companies to dominate New York real estate and inflate its value (surely resulting in the removal of working class families). This project, as well as other in this section, reveals how truth is most certainly stranger, and often so much more insidious, than fiction.

The next half of the exhibition focuses on the fantastical elements of conspiracy and interrogates the unique surrealism attained when conspiracy bleeds into reality. Jim Shaw, inspired by a tabloid story claiming that lizard people were living inside humans, sketched over photographic portraits of friends to depict them as the lizard versions of themselves, and rephotographed over the sketches to make it look more realistic. The aforementioned Kelley’s sculpture “Education Complex” redesigns architecture plans for a school that found itself embroiled in the false scandal accusing educational facilities of widespread Satanic child abuse, commenting on national hysteria. And the incredible works by Sarah Anne johnson examines her grandmother’s memories of being made victim to MK Ultra Tests at a mental institution. MK Ultra is a shadowy CIA program that studies the potentials of forced LSD use, and rumor (or, conspiracy) has it that these tests were used on Ted Kaczynski and Bobby Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sohab. Johnson presents her grandmother’s image stamped, or corrupted, with blotter designs, and in a sculptural dollhouse miniature recreates the asylum where the viewer can peer through windows and view the grandmother’s hallucinations.

Saul Fletcher: Four Loom Weaver, Anton Kern Gallery

Art by Saul Fletcher From the not exactly represented in the art world locale of Northern England, artist Saul Fletcher has been producing pioneering photography with a notable peculiar, almost cult appeal since the mid-‘90s. His work draws in the gaze with a profound sense of psychological anxiety. It’s the artist’s anxiety surely, as his work with human subjects is both intimate but removed; he reveals little about his subjects, and the work hints Fletcher may have trouble getting to intimately know other humans altogether. The approach imbues Fletcher with a haunting melancholy. Meanwhile, the formal aspects of the work take on elements of assemblage and painting, with Fletcher pre designing his visual world before delivering the images to the public.  Fletcher’s recent exhibition at Anton Kern found the artist presenting 16 new images made outside his homeland in in his new (and decidedly more art world hip) home of Berlin. As is often the case with Fletcher’s oeuvre, the artist uses photography as the mechanism to cohesively tie together a larger artistic practice: Fletcher paints his studio walls and uses found objects as props (though formally the artists are vastly different, the use of photography to bring together various mediums of Fletcher mirrors those of Roger Ballen). The images in the show seem to address Fletcher’s personal history as well as the nature of the modern industrial city. Sometimes, paintings combine with sculptural found objects as flattened assemblages, and when human subjects appear the paintings and objects appear to accentuate the subject in question. Fletcher is deeply invested in exploiting as well as pushing back against classical notions of both photography and portraiture. If portraiture indeed says more about the artist than the subject, Fletcher accentuates the notion by forcing his visual perspective, via paintings objects, into each image. In an era when photography is constantly undermined as a medium, Fletcher’s insistence on photography’s ability to do things that no other medium can fascinates and reassures me.

Art by Saul Fletcher
From the not exactly represented in the art world locale of Northern England, artist Saul Fletcher has been producing pioneering photography with a notable peculiar, almost cult appeal since the mid-‘90s. His work draws in the gaze with a profound sense of psychological anxiety. It’s the artist’s anxiety surely, as his work with human subjects is both intimate but removed; he reveals little about his subjects, and the work hints Fletcher may have trouble getting to intimately know other humans altogether. The approach imbues Fletcher with a haunting melancholy. Meanwhile, the formal aspects of the work take on elements of assemblage and painting, with Fletcher pre designing his visual world before delivering the images to the public.

Fletcher’s recent exhibition at Anton Kern found the artist presenting 16 new images made outside his homeland in in his new (and decidedly more art world hip) home of Berlin. As is often the case with Fletcher’s oeuvre, the artist uses photography as the mechanism to cohesively tie together a larger artistic practice: Fletcher paints his studio walls and uses found objects as props (though formally the artists are vastly different, the use of photography to bring together various mediums of Fletcher mirrors those of Roger Ballen). The images in the show seem to address Fletcher’s personal history as well as the nature of the modern industrial city. Sometimes, paintings combine with sculptural found objects as flattened assemblages, and when human subjects appear the paintings and objects appear to accentuate the subject in question. Fletcher is deeply invested in exploiting as well as pushing back against classical notions of both photography and portraiture. If portraiture indeed says more about the artist than the subject, Fletcher accentuates the notion by forcing his visual perspective, via paintings objects, into each image. In an era when photography is constantly undermined as a medium, Fletcher’s insistence on photography’s ability to do things that no other medium can fascinates and reassures me.

Art by Tau Lewis (sculpture) and Cheyenne Julien (painting)  Ever since I saw her mesmerizing showing of sculpture at the Cooper Cole booth at Frieze New York, the work of Jamaican-Canadian artist Tau Lewis has been a constant fascination all year. A particularly strong showcasing of the artist came this past summer at Chapter NY alongside the figurative paintings of astonishingly young wunderkind artist Cheyenne Julien. Rooted in portraiture, the exhibition focused on imagined environments that examine how personal traumas fit into larger collective traumas. Lewis exhibited two sculptures both indicative of the artist’s practice of incorporating found objects into doll-like horrific assemblages. “Pet Rock” finds a fabric-based doll falling in the arms of an abstracted but noticeably figurative assemblage of tree stumps and a wooden head punctured with metallic objects. The image is disquieting; brutal in its subtlety.   Julien’s paintings achieve a similarly disquieting effect in a far more direct manner. Dreamlike and bordering on surrealism, Julien’s figures respond to oppression in a multitude of ways that feel realistic: with resolve, with strength, with vulnerability, with embarrassment. She achieves a stunning array of emotions in her work.  While I’m on it, I’d also like to point out that Lewis’ solo installation at Shoot the Lobster gallery in New York was similarly great.

Art by Tau Lewis (sculpture) and Cheyenne Julien (painting)

Ever since I saw her mesmerizing showing of sculpture at the Cooper Cole booth at Frieze New York, the work of Jamaican-Canadian artist Tau Lewis has been a constant fascination all year. A particularly strong showcasing of the artist came this past summer at Chapter NY alongside the figurative paintings of astonishingly young wunderkind artist Cheyenne Julien. Rooted in portraiture, the exhibition focused on imagined environments that examine how personal traumas fit into larger collective traumas. Lewis exhibited two sculptures both indicative of the artist’s practice of incorporating found objects into doll-like horrific assemblages. “Pet Rock” finds a fabric-based doll falling in the arms of an abstracted but noticeably figurative assemblage of tree stumps and a wooden head punctured with metallic objects. The image is disquieting; brutal in its subtlety.


Julien’s paintings achieve a similarly disquieting effect in a far more direct manner. Dreamlike and bordering on surrealism, Julien’s figures respond to oppression in a multitude of ways that feel realistic: with resolve, with strength, with vulnerability, with embarrassment. She achieves a stunning array of emotions in her work.

While I’m on it, I’d also like to point out that Lewis’ solo installation at Shoot the Lobster gallery in New York was similarly great.

Art by James Ensor For what it’s worth, the fantastical and grotesque imagery of Symbolism, Dada and Surrealism has had the longest and most enduring influence on my own work (I tend to think of my photographic works as approaching the human bodies similarly as did the surrealists, and my mixed media digital collages I think fo as being connected to symbolism, because, well, they use symbols) so it should be no surprise that I was blown away by one of the boldest gallery exhibitions I’ve seen this year,  Endless Enigma  at David Zwirner. The show created a dialog with the pioneering 1936 MoMA exhibition  Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism , and like that exhibition not only introduced the dreamlike and fantastical aesthetics of surrealism and dada to a larger public, they also placed that kind of imagery into a larger historical context. That exhibition and this one both demonstrate how artists as early as the 15th century forward have been drawn to imagery of monsters, dreams, distorted bodies, the unconscious mind, and the supernatural to evoke themes related to desire, subversion, angst, and radicalism.  The range of artists in the exhibition is breathtaking. Old masters such as Bosch and Titian share space with surrealists like René Magritte and Max Ernst. Symbolist painters like Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch form dialogue with modernists like Louise Bourgeois and Alberto Giacometti. The exhibition’s organizer Nicholas Hall, a specialist in the field of Old Masters and 19th century painting, even saw fit to include contemporary works by artists like Robert Gober and Kerry James Marshall. One can surmise that the use of fantastical language will never become obsolete because it inherently allows the artist to examine his/her inner world. These symbols become universal emblems of angst. No matter what is going on within culture, how we relate to the world will be marred by angst, confusion, and desire.  I will also mention that an artist who is heavily featured in this and the original MoMA exhibition, 20th century painter Leonor Fini’s exhibition at the Museum of Sex (of which conflict of interest prevents me from fully reviewing) is stunning.

Art by James Ensor
For what it’s worth, the fantastical and grotesque imagery of Symbolism, Dada and Surrealism has had the longest and most enduring influence on my own work (I tend to think of my photographic works as approaching the human bodies similarly as did the surrealists, and my mixed media digital collages I think fo as being connected to symbolism, because, well, they use symbols) so it should be no surprise that I was blown away by one of the boldest gallery exhibitions I’ve seen this year, Endless Enigma at David Zwirner. The show created a dialog with the pioneering 1936 MoMA exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, and like that exhibition not only introduced the dreamlike and fantastical aesthetics of surrealism and dada to a larger public, they also placed that kind of imagery into a larger historical context. That exhibition and this one both demonstrate how artists as early as the 15th century forward have been drawn to imagery of monsters, dreams, distorted bodies, the unconscious mind, and the supernatural to evoke themes related to desire, subversion, angst, and radicalism.

The range of artists in the exhibition is breathtaking. Old masters such as Bosch and Titian share space with surrealists like René Magritte and Max Ernst. Symbolist painters like Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch form dialogue with modernists like Louise Bourgeois and Alberto Giacometti. The exhibition’s organizer Nicholas Hall, a specialist in the field of Old Masters and 19th century painting, even saw fit to include contemporary works by artists like Robert Gober and Kerry James Marshall. One can surmise that the use of fantastical language will never become obsolete because it inherently allows the artist to examine his/her inner world. These symbols become universal emblems of angst. No matter what is going on within culture, how we relate to the world will be marred by angst, confusion, and desire.

I will also mention that an artist who is heavily featured in this and the original MoMA exhibition, 20th century painter Leonor Fini’s exhibition at the Museum of Sex (of which conflict of interest prevents me from fully reviewing) is stunning.

Frida Orupabo: Cables to Rage, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York

Art by Frida Orupabo Norwegian sociologist and artist Frida Orupabo, to paraphrase artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa, has the most “mesmerizing Instagram [see her account at @nemiepeba] account in existence.” “This is nothing short of a mobile repository,” wrote Jafa on Orupabo’s Instagram account. “A litany of residua, a voluptuous trail of black continuity, pyramid schemata as densely inscribed as any book of the dead, not so much an archive as an ark, a borne witness to the singularity that is blackness.”  He’s not kidding. Orupabo has revealed Instagram posting as an artistic medium ripe for exploration. A long, continuous collage that when properly curated can achieve a singular mood and aesthetic and express a distinct visual ethos. But would the artist be able to translate this idiosyncratic vision into salable art works? Jafa certainly believed so, and encouraged Orupabo to print her digital collages at large-scale, which resulted in her doing so for Jafa's exhibition at Serpentine Galleries in London. That show made Orupabo realize she was able to make singular objects based on her techniques (she had previously been worried that the low resolutions of her digitally appropriated images would render physical prints impossible) and she had her first solo show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprises this year. For the most part, Orupabo focused on black female figures for this exhibition. She built female forms from various images sourced on the internet, nails them together into singular forms, and presents the cut-out distorted portraits onto the walls of the space. The result is surprisingly more in line with art history than one might think, simultaneously recalling the grotesque figurations of Francis Bacon, the implied violence of Kara Walker’s prints, and the haunted but vivacious beauty found in black life in the black and white photographic imagery of Sabelo Mlangeni. Orupabo claims to mostly source her images from "colonial pictures" bringing a fascinating conceptual conceit into her practice. These images, used to present racial differences as "otherness," are dismantle in Orupabo's collages and the resulting images exude power and radiant beauty.  All I can say about Frida Orupabo’s work is that it both liberated me and validated something that I had been pondering in terms of my own interests in art making. It validated the idea of digital research and digital collage as a new medium. It verified that Jpegs, like printed matter, could be re-contextualized and altered and presented as new images. And this is the exact exhibition that I needed to see in 2018.

Art by Frida Orupabo
Norwegian sociologist and artist Frida Orupabo, to paraphrase artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa, has the most “mesmerizing Instagram [see her account at @nemiepeba] account in existence.” “This is nothing short of a mobile repository,” wrote Jafa on Orupabo’s Instagram account. “A litany of residua, a voluptuous trail of black continuity, pyramid schemata as densely inscribed as any book of the dead, not so much an archive as an ark, a borne witness to the singularity that is blackness.”

He’s not kidding. Orupabo has revealed Instagram posting as an artistic medium ripe for exploration. A long, continuous collage that when properly curated can achieve a singular mood and aesthetic and express a distinct visual ethos. But would the artist be able to translate this idiosyncratic vision into salable art works? Jafa certainly believed so, and encouraged Orupabo to print her digital collages at large-scale, which resulted in her doing so for Jafa's exhibition at Serpentine Galleries in London. That show made Orupabo realize she was able to make singular objects based on her techniques (she had previously been worried that the low resolutions of her digitally appropriated images would render physical prints impossible) and she had her first solo show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprises this year. For the most part, Orupabo focused on black female figures for this exhibition. She built female forms from various images sourced on the internet, nails them together into singular forms, and presents the cut-out distorted portraits onto the walls of the space. The result is surprisingly more in line with art history than one might think, simultaneously recalling the grotesque figurations of Francis Bacon, the implied violence of Kara Walker’s prints, and the haunted but vivacious beauty found in black life in the black and white photographic imagery of Sabelo Mlangeni. Orupabo claims to mostly source her images from "colonial pictures" bringing a fascinating conceptual conceit into her practice. These images, used to present racial differences as "otherness," are dismantle in Orupabo's collages and the resulting images exude power and radiant beauty.

All I can say about Frida Orupabo’s work is that it both liberated me and validated something that I had been pondering in terms of my own interests in art making. It validated the idea of digital research and digital collage as a new medium. It verified that Jpegs, like printed matter, could be re-contextualized and altered and presented as new images. And this is the exact exhibition that I needed to see in 2018.

Art by Heji Shin Heji Shin is perhaps best known to a wider public for her stunning fashion photography. She has shot portraits of celebrities like Isabelle Huppert, has contributed fashion campaigns to the likes of Purple and Dazed magazine, and received widespread attention for her Eckhaus Latta campaign that was totally devoid of clothes (Shin instead photographed real couples of all races, sexualities and gender during the act of lovemaking). What not many realize however is that Shin’s commercial work is only one facet of a fascinating and genuinely fine art photographic practice.  Shin likes to transgress notions of acceptability in photographic representation, or “make images of images” as she describes it. Her 2016  Baby 1-7  series consisted of several close-up photographs of babies emerged from their mothers’ wombs that were equally horrifying and beautiful (considering artist Carmen Winant’s deserved attention for her installation of appropriated photographs of childbirth at MoMA’s New Photography exhibition, I’ve always been a bit surprised Shin didn’t get more attention for this series). More recently, Shin’s current solo exhibition at Kunstalle Zurich features x-ray self-portraits alongside portraits of Kanye West. I can only imagine Shin’s elation at the outsized rage of the art world elite against her inclusion of the portraits, but Kanye is Shin’s ideal subject: a contradictory symbol of both black artistic genius and alt-right, Trump supporting liberal anathema.  And that brings me to Shin’s under-covered and brilliant solo exhibition at Reena Spaulings gallery. Using an old school gay pornographic trope, “the hot cop,” Shin brilliantly upends notions of what a heterosexual female photographer is allowed to photograph. Shot in her signature edgy high contrast and heavily saturated style, Shin framed highly explicit images of gay law enforcement officers lost in homosexual embrace. Shin’s spectacular talent is by provoking the viewer into questioning what kinds of identities are allowed to shoot certain kinds of identities. Shin is a true libertine, and she will shoot who she wants.

Art by Heji Shin
Heji Shin is perhaps best known to a wider public for her stunning fashion photography. She has shot portraits of celebrities like Isabelle Huppert, has contributed fashion campaigns to the likes of Purple and Dazed magazine, and received widespread attention for her Eckhaus Latta campaign that was totally devoid of clothes (Shin instead photographed real couples of all races, sexualities and gender during the act of lovemaking). What not many realize however is that Shin’s commercial work is only one facet of a fascinating and genuinely fine art photographic practice.

Shin likes to transgress notions of acceptability in photographic representation, or “make images of images” as she describes it. Her 2016 Baby 1-7 series consisted of several close-up photographs of babies emerged from their mothers’ wombs that were equally horrifying and beautiful (considering artist Carmen Winant’s deserved attention for her installation of appropriated photographs of childbirth at MoMA’s New Photography exhibition, I’ve always been a bit surprised Shin didn’t get more attention for this series). More recently, Shin’s current solo exhibition at Kunstalle Zurich features x-ray self-portraits alongside portraits of Kanye West. I can only imagine Shin’s elation at the outsized rage of the art world elite against her inclusion of the portraits, but Kanye is Shin’s ideal subject: a contradictory symbol of both black artistic genius and alt-right, Trump supporting liberal anathema.

And that brings me to Shin’s under-covered and brilliant solo exhibition at Reena Spaulings gallery. Using an old school gay pornographic trope, “the hot cop,” Shin brilliantly upends notions of what a heterosexual female photographer is allowed to photograph. Shot in her signature edgy high contrast and heavily saturated style, Shin framed highly explicit images of gay law enforcement officers lost in homosexual embrace. Shin’s spectacular talent is by provoking the viewer into questioning what kinds of identities are allowed to shoot certain kinds of identities. Shin is a true libertine, and she will shoot who she wants.

Art by Carroll Dunham  Artist Carroll Dunham rose to prominence at a time (1980s) when painting re-entered the center of art world discussion. And yet, Dunham’s painting never fit nearly into neither of the prominent movements that rose in tandem with his career. His paintings are too conceptual to make sense in the context of the neo-expressionism of Basquiat, Schnabel or Eric Fischl, and too expressive to be compared alongside the postmodernist paintings of Julia Wachtel, Christopher Wool or Walter Robinson. Dunham has always deftly balanced figuration and abstraction, surrealism, pop art, graffiti and cartooning and his aesthetic is so mutable that he has perhaps reinvented himself as art history has moved forward better than any of his contemporaries.  Despite a career primarily (though certainly not only) obsessed with the rendering of the female form, Dunham looked at the male figure in his most recent solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery. Playing with visual tropes related to the mythological depiction of wrestling. Dunham skillfully manipulated a similar set of images. In the paintings, wrestling appears playful, and at other times sexual, and occasionally full of brutality and violence. The power of body language is explicit here. Dunham implies how much emotion, whether desirous or vengeful, is betrayed by our bodies.

Art by Carroll Dunham

Artist Carroll Dunham rose to prominence at a time (1980s) when painting re-entered the center of art world discussion. And yet, Dunham’s painting never fit nearly into neither of the prominent movements that rose in tandem with his career. His paintings are too conceptual to make sense in the context of the neo-expressionism of Basquiat, Schnabel or Eric Fischl, and too expressive to be compared alongside the postmodernist paintings of Julia Wachtel, Christopher Wool or Walter Robinson. Dunham has always deftly balanced figuration and abstraction, surrealism, pop art, graffiti and cartooning and his aesthetic is so mutable that he has perhaps reinvented himself as art history has moved forward better than any of his contemporaries.

Despite a career primarily (though certainly not only) obsessed with the rendering of the female form, Dunham looked at the male figure in his most recent solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery. Playing with visual tropes related to the mythological depiction of wrestling. Dunham skillfully manipulated a similar set of images. In the paintings, wrestling appears playful, and at other times sexual, and occasionally full of brutality and violence. The power of body language is explicit here. Dunham implies how much emotion, whether desirous or vengeful, is betrayed by our bodies.

Huma Bhabha: With a Trace, Salon 94, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Met’s Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Roof Garden

Art by Huma Bhabha Up on the rooftop of The Met, Pakistani-born and New York State-based artist Huma Bhabha installed two of her massive figurative sculptures. One, a 12 ft ambiguously gendered body that slightly recalls a less cartoonishly evil version of  The Predator , and the other, the 18-ft long huddled and obscured by apparently a large burqa entitled  Benaam.  A smaller version of that piece ( Untitled , 2006) appeared at the artist’s concurrent exhibition at Salon 94 that elaborated on the rooftop’ installation antiwar themes with a series of sculptures, photo drawings, and works on paper.  I’ve always loved Bhabha’s work for how it seems to evoke such a specific idea while still remaining utterly averse to easy explanations. The artist draws on diverse high and low sources: science fiction, arthouse cinema (Tarkovsky’s  Stalker  is a particularly potent reference point here), and B movies merge with modernist sculpture, Egyptian reliquary, and Greek kouroi. Bhabha's figures are grotesque and anatomically off, but nevertheless appearing neutral. Bhabha depicts nothing threatening in their body language and expressions. She makes profound statement on the nature of otherness here, and how culture applies fear to that kind of otherness. But as always, Bhabha doesn’t make the narrative easy for anyone. Her aesthetic guides the viewer, and the viewer applies his/her own interpretation.

Art by Huma Bhabha
Up on the rooftop of The Met, Pakistani-born and New York State-based artist Huma Bhabha installed two of her massive figurative sculptures. One, a 12 ft ambiguously gendered body that slightly recalls a less cartoonishly evil version of The Predator, and the other, the 18-ft long huddled and obscured by apparently a large burqa entitled Benaam. A smaller version of that piece (Untitled, 2006) appeared at the artist’s concurrent exhibition at Salon 94 that elaborated on the rooftop’ installation antiwar themes with a series of sculptures, photo drawings, and works on paper.

I’ve always loved Bhabha’s work for how it seems to evoke such a specific idea while still remaining utterly averse to easy explanations. The artist draws on diverse high and low sources: science fiction, arthouse cinema (Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a particularly potent reference point here), and B movies merge with modernist sculpture, Egyptian reliquary, and Greek kouroi. Bhabha's figures are grotesque and anatomically off, but nevertheless appearing neutral. Bhabha depicts nothing threatening in their body language and expressions. She makes profound statement on the nature of otherness here, and how culture applies fear to that kind of otherness. But as always, Bhabha doesn’t make the narrative easy for anyone. Her aesthetic guides the viewer, and the viewer applies his/her own interpretation.

Kandis Williams, Eurydice, Night Gallery

Art by Kandis Williams I first came across Los Angeles and Berlin-based artist Kandis Williams in 2017 when a few of her utterly disorienting and fascinating collages appeared at a group show at Shoot the Lobster gallery. So much of mixed-media and paper collage work now is so haphazard, a way for an artist to randomly throw a slew of found photographs onto a piece of paper and quickly make a visually provocative image. Williams’ collages, however, are deeply considered, tackling violence, eroticism, race, bodies, and objectification with a meticulous sense of placing and framing. She has become one of my favorite emerging artists.  Williams is primarily known for her aforementioned collages and performance work. Both of these practices were on display at the artist’s brilliant 2018 exhibition at Night Gallery. Entitled  Eurydice,  Williams presented collage, sculpture, video and floral arrangements that explored the Myth of Eurydice (look it up) and American literary critic Hortense Spillers’ analysis of black culture as a “curricular object.”  The collage works, applied to mirrored objects, explore Israel artist and philosopher Bracha Ettinger’s notion of American culture’s tendency “estrange and absorb” its subjects. Ettinger believes that American culture tends to diminish the consciousness and inner experiences of a human, while appropriating those humans' various cultures into its lexicon. Williams applies this to the experience of black American life. Williams’ work is deeply engaged with literature and philosophical thought, but the academic and research aspect of her practice is in service of a powerful and provocative image.  The videos confront the myth of Eurydice. With music by cellist Patrick Bellaga and Alex Zhang Hungtai (a musician well-known for his project Dirty Beaches, which deftly balanced the amphetamine rock of Les Rallizes Denudes with 21st century experimental electronic music, and who in 2018 released a stunning solo album of digitally manipulated saxophone compositions entitled “A Divine Weight,” I’m a fan obviously, but I digress, this isn’t a music post) a choreographed dance places the myth onto contemporary issues surrounding race. In the myth, Orpheus as “the perennial artist,” frees his wife Eurydice from the underworld by playing his lyre for Hades. The catch is that he must guide Eurydice back to the living realm without looking back at her, he just needs to avoid gazing back at her. He fails, looking back at Eurydice who is permanently rendered towards the realm of the immaterial. The metaphor here is particularly potent: Williams looks at how artistic and academic fetishization minimizes the personal weight that those who belong to the studied or aestheticized group must carry. We apply so much visual attention to cultures that we fail to acknowledge an individual's humanity.

Art by Kandis Williams
I first came across Los Angeles and Berlin-based artist Kandis Williams in 2017 when a few of her utterly disorienting and fascinating collages appeared at a group show at Shoot the Lobster gallery. So much of mixed-media and paper collage work now is so haphazard, a way for an artist to randomly throw a slew of found photographs onto a piece of paper and quickly make a visually provocative image. Williams’ collages, however, are deeply considered, tackling violence, eroticism, race, bodies, and objectification with a meticulous sense of placing and framing. She has become one of my favorite emerging artists.

Williams is primarily known for her aforementioned collages and performance work. Both of these practices were on display at the artist’s brilliant 2018 exhibition at Night Gallery. Entitled Eurydice, Williams presented collage, sculpture, video and floral arrangements that explored the Myth of Eurydice (look it up) and American literary critic Hortense Spillers’ analysis of black culture as a “curricular object.”

The collage works, applied to mirrored objects, explore Israel artist and philosopher Bracha Ettinger’s notion of American culture’s tendency “estrange and absorb” its subjects. Ettinger believes that American culture tends to diminish the consciousness and inner experiences of a human, while appropriating those humans' various cultures into its lexicon. Williams applies this to the experience of black American life. Williams’ work is deeply engaged with literature and philosophical thought, but the academic and research aspect of her practice is in service of a powerful and provocative image.

The videos confront the myth of Eurydice. With music by cellist Patrick Bellaga and Alex Zhang Hungtai (a musician well-known for his project Dirty Beaches, which deftly balanced the amphetamine rock of Les Rallizes Denudes with 21st century experimental electronic music, and who in 2018 released a stunning solo album of digitally manipulated saxophone compositions entitled “A Divine Weight,” I’m a fan obviously, but I digress, this isn’t a music post) a choreographed dance places the myth onto contemporary issues surrounding race. In the myth, Orpheus as “the perennial artist,” frees his wife Eurydice from the underworld by playing his lyre for Hades. The catch is that he must guide Eurydice back to the living realm without looking back at her, he just needs to avoid gazing back at her. He fails, looking back at Eurydice who is permanently rendered towards the realm of the immaterial. The metaphor here is particularly potent: Williams looks at how artistic and academic fetishization minimizes the personal weight that those who belong to the studied or aestheticized group must carry. We apply so much visual attention to cultures that we fail to acknowledge an individual's humanity.

Artwork by Benedicte Glydenstierne Sehested  If I had any bias towards any kind of visual art, it would be towards sculptors who photograph and photographers who sculpt and those artists who use the two mediums to emphasize and interrogate the other: Auguste Rodin, Hans Bellmer, Sarah Lucas, etc.. Photography allows sculptors to emphasize, re-contextualize, and fetishize the objects they will into existence through imagination and skill.  Berlin-based artist Benedicte Glydenstierne Sehested’s 2018 exhibition at Greenspon Gallery presented five figurative sculptures, three photographic prints, 6 coffee mugs emblazoned with photographic images, and one appropriated image of a 1980s Dutch advertisement. The ad finds three children engaged in crafts-like activities being supervised by their father. The mother on the other hand is towards the back and reviewing correspondences and holds the viewer’s gaze; her physical gestures betray a kind of idiosyncratic streak that she holds onto to maintain autonomy against the sterilizing aspects of the nuclear family. That attention towards physical gesture is explored throughout Sehested’s sculptural work as well. The five figures, made of materials like pinkish wax, starched cotton, and latex sheets, are without faces and instead suggest humanity and identity through physical gesture. A photograph, ‘Untitled (YBY),’ shows several of the sculptures huddled together, either tenderly showing affection or desperately clinging for attention. Sehested’s use of photography and sculpture belies a visual fascination with physicality and its connection to self-identity.

Artwork by Benedicte Glydenstierne Sehested

If I had any bias towards any kind of visual art, it would be towards sculptors who photograph and photographers who sculpt and those artists who use the two mediums to emphasize and interrogate the other: Auguste Rodin, Hans Bellmer, Sarah Lucas, etc.. Photography allows sculptors to emphasize, re-contextualize, and fetishize the objects they will into existence through imagination and skill.

Berlin-based artist Benedicte Glydenstierne Sehested’s 2018 exhibition at Greenspon Gallery presented five figurative sculptures, three photographic prints, 6 coffee mugs emblazoned with photographic images, and one appropriated image of a 1980s Dutch advertisement. The ad finds three children engaged in crafts-like activities being supervised by their father. The mother on the other hand is towards the back and reviewing correspondences and holds the viewer’s gaze; her physical gestures betray a kind of idiosyncratic streak that she holds onto to maintain autonomy against the sterilizing aspects of the nuclear family. That attention towards physical gesture is explored throughout Sehested’s sculptural work as well. The five figures, made of materials like pinkish wax, starched cotton, and latex sheets, are without faces and instead suggest humanity and identity through physical gesture. A photograph, ‘Untitled (YBY),’ shows several of the sculptures huddled together, either tenderly showing affection or desperately clinging for attention. Sehested’s use of photography and sculpture belies a visual fascination with physicality and its connection to self-identity.