Each summer seems to be shorter than the last one in the New York art world, and now we’re back. Hundreds of galleries have opened new exhibitions around town over the past three weeks. The best show of the young season? Setting aside “Picasso Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art, which is in a class all its own, my vote is 76-year-old Ron Nagle’s electric debut outing at Matthew Marks Gallery, “Five O’Clock Shadow.” Nagle is offering up more than 20 sumptuous abstract ceramics that almost make the work of Ken Price, his late, great peer, look austere. They are tiny, topping out at around 7 inches tall, but they deliver formidable doses of charisma, slapstick humor, and radioactive terror.
In 2015’s Urinetrouble (Nagle hails from the John Chamberlain school of outré titling), a gargantuan bright-yellow egg yolk seems to be melting over a flat silver stone as a gun-metal-colored worm snakes over it and a slice of fried American cheese hovers in the background. It looked, to my eye, grotesque, then psychedelic, then uncomfortably erotic, and then all those things at once. Slick, shiny surfaces glide over rough lunar terrain and neon gradients threaten to clash, but Nagle always buoys his mayhem with a steady elegance. He has been in the game for more than half a century, and he is in his prime.
Almost as exciting as a season-opening triumph is a season-opening disaster, which has arrived in the form of Will Ryman’s latest show at Paul Kasmin. It is titled “Two Rooms,” and it is a ponderous affair. The first room features 12 unremarkable sculptures of stone–faced children sitting on stools, each cast from a different material (iron, titanium, salt, and so forth, some bearing a suspicious resemblance to Katharina Fritsch’s work, whom I hate to even mention here). At best, it is a rather production-heavy means of making a commonplace point about the assembly-line nature of so many educational systems today.
But then Ryman seems unable to restrain himself from going big with even the most painfully obvious ideas. The second room contains The Situation Room (2012–14), his meticulous sculptural re-creation of the notorious photo of President Obama and his national security team in the White House watching as soldiers took out Osama bin Laden. The figures are cast from resin and covered in—wait for it—black coal dust. “I knew I wanted to explore this because I was seeing propaganda right in front of me,” Ryman recently told the New York Times of that photograph. But we don’t gain any new understanding of that carefully orchestrated photograph by seeing it as a sculpture. After the initial shock—“wow, that’s Hillary Clinton covered in coal”—faded, I just felt embarrassed that Ryman reportedly spent three years on the thing. Thinking about it now, though, turning a complicated moment of national vengeance and political theater into pure kitsch is a kind of achievement, so there’s that.
On a happier note, two of our greatest midcareer painters, Dana Schutz and Keltie Ferris, have come out swinging with very strong efforts that show their art confidently developing in intriguing new directions.
Show by show, Schutz’s handling keeps getting smoother and looser, which makes her tangles of bodies and environment all the more impressive. My favorite work at Petzel is the exhibition’s namesake, Fight in an Elevator (2015), in which famous hands, feet, and heads fly in a space bounded to the sides by tranquil patches of white and green. In the show’s largest work, Shaking Out the Bed (2015), which is almost 18 feet long, reality has fractured into near-complete abstraction, with enlarged bits of body parts and faces floating about the canvas, cartwheeling here and there. The feeling is both traumatic and thrilling. Just about the only thing that looks fixed in the frame is a wooden table at the bottom in the center, à la Les Demoiselles. Sitting mysteriously atop it is a hammer, either the agent of that destruction or the tool that we are going to have to use to piece the scene back together.
At Mitchell-Innes & Nash, meanwhile, Ferris continues to stake out her position as one of today’s finest abstract painter with ever larger, ever more exuberantly colored pieces, where shifting blurs compete with crisp, thick pointillist passages. Vibrating with punchy oranges, purples, and pinks, these paintings look like aerial views of futuristic cities, acid–inspired quilts, or glitch-laced JPEGs. Frankenthaler and Gilliam are forebears, but Ferris pushes, with great aplomb, beyond those influences, forging a style that feels bracingly, thrillingly fresh, and one in which space ambiguously slips and slides. In Marksman and re(lays) (both 2015), Ferris throws on swirling black graffiti-style lines, whipping the patchy forms on canvas into strange new configurations. I highly recommend picking up the show’s catalogue ($10), which includes a probing conversation between Ferris and German critic Isabelle Graw that begins with the latter making the highly unusual admission that she has only ever seen the artist’s paintings as digital reproductions. Someone get Ferris a gallery in Deutschland!
Downtown, Eli Ping (who, like a sizable percentage of interesting artists these days, also runs a gallery) has opened a gem of a show at Ramiken Crucible’s relatively new off-the-grid basement space deep on the Lower East Side. Ping has lined one tall cement wall with five small gold-colored metal paintings. Each has been cast with deep depressions that somewhat resemble bellybuttons. A thin line of indentations stretch from each hole to the edge of the work so that it resembles an abdomen that has been torn open and then sewn or stapled back together. They are fearsome but alluring memorials to violence, and they have had me occasionally gripping my stomach for the past few days.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.