I had been sitting on the floor of the darkened main space of Luhring Augustine for a little while when I noticed the branch. It was slender, with a few knobby buds—the sort of thing a little kid would brandish on the sidewalk, maybe, and then discard in a Chelsea gallery her parents dragged her into on a wet, raw mid-March Saturday.
So strange to see organic detritus in these hulking nowhere-spaces—but it sort of made sense tucked into a corner of “The Waning of Justice,” a collection of videos by Charles Atlas conceived in large part around sunsets he filmed while at the Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island, Fla. Blown-up, color-saturated, overwhelming scenes of nature covered the walls, the kind of drenched, vibrant sky and seascapes you want to sink into forever (or, in tedious 21st-century fashion, take selfies with); maybe the little branch crept in itself, to get some warmth.
The name Charles Atlas doesn’t immediately conjure images of suns melting into oceans. But I do think of him as an artist in frequent love with juxtaposition—recall his longtime collaboration with Merce Cunningham—and here it was a major engine. Over spliced-together footage of sunsets, words formed in pairs—GLITTER UTOPIA, HISTORY SHADOW, PSYCHE GLACIER—their blocky letters revealing themselves individually like those on “Wheel of Fortune,” and sliding away once the words were complete. At the center of the space was a freestanding digital clock, counting up rapidly to 18:00, then going back down to zero. Everywhere, time and language intruded as bodies disrupting space.
And then there was the smaller back room, whose contents troubled those in the front (as always, the margins complicated the center). I heard the piece first, its insistent, almost querulous litany—a rush of word and song—cutting into the gorgeous visuals in the main space. A close-up video portrait of the drag artist Lady Bunny, Here she is . . . v1 (2015) is as overwhelming in its own way as those sunsets, especially coming on the heels of them.
Everything was synchronized visually and aurally in “The Waning of Justice,” lending the show (Atlas’s second solo exhibition with Luhring Augustine, following his 2012 inauguration of the gallery’s Bushwick space) a rich theatricality. The 25-minute loop included built-in downtime, the house going still and dark between saturations, broken by the elegiac strains of a bagpipe.
What are we mourning? Everything. Done up in full tacky glory, Lady Bunny sings, lacerating herself for screwing up a relationship. But mostly she talks, fulminating—and vulgarly cracking wise—about the world going to hell in all the ways we know it is. I wanted desperately to flee that maniacally blonde bouffant wig (again thoughts of “Wheel of Fortune,” Vanna White meets Divine), especially when the comedy routine slid into familiar misogynistic grooves, and sink back down into the sunsets.
But there’s no escape. The day is waning, along with anyone’s sense that things will come out right in the end. Atlas periodically cuts Lady Bunny’s sound, building in breathers and underlining the impotence of the angry citizenry. But she gets the last word: “No one is talking about peace.”