If even just a few more of today’s artists had the guts of Anicka Yi, often-repeated complaints about the moribund, listless state of contemporary art would disappear in an instant. Yi uses a wild panoply of materials to make sculptures that are unstable and strange. She has simmered powdered milk, antidepressants, a watch, and other ingredients on an electric burner, slipped tempera-fried flowers through the top of a turtleneck, and set petri dishes in gelatin soap and resin. She makes quiet, poetic work that is concerned with the body and politics, and dashed with pathos, humor, sex, and anxiety.
Yi has become a masterful sorcerer, experimenting madly, twisting and turning, steadily getting better, and her current show at The Kitchen, “You Can Call Me F,” sees her talents cresting to a new height. She has cloaked the gallery in darkness. Near the entrance, a Plexiglas shelf in one of the black walls glows a tangy yellow-orange. Its surface is scratched, grimy, covered with mold, the result of Yi swabbing it with bacteria from 100 women in her art circle. The words “YOU CAN CALL ME” are visible on it. I have visited twice, two weeks apart, and sample grew far funkier in that time. The show runs through April 11, and by then it will no doubt teem with even more life.
A few feet away, a light points down to the black floor, illuminating the air in between. Take a whiff. I sensed hints of citrus, cleaning products, maybe leather—it was a little sterile but also slightly dread-inducing. As it happens, it is the scent of the Gagosian Gallery (“the ultimate patriarchal-model network in the art world,” a news release states), which was captured and manufactured by Yi with the aid of artist Sean Raspet, and is pumped into the air in The Kitchen’s main gallery through three rotating scent diffusers, each adorned with a motorcycle helmet on top. Those machines are housed in three of the five tent sculptures that are the core of the show, which was curated by The Kitchen’s Lumi Tan. Each has thick, somewhat transparent vinyl walls. They look like quarantines.
Curves of neon and bright lights illuminated those tents from within. Peeking in between the slices of scuffed vinyl, there were bowls filled with hydro-gel beads or plastic alphabet letters inside. Dried shrimps are scattered about in one. Bottles of a neon-blue liquid sit in another. (Reading the checklist reveals other peculiar objects.) The interiors resemble construction sites or experimental laboratories, the workers or scientists eerily vanished. There are precedents for these structures—Mark Dion, Tobias Rehberger, and Isa Genzken come to mind—but only in the very loosest sense. Yi has gamely, ingeniously engineered something that feels entirely new. Her interrelated sculptures form a tense, ghostly ecosystem in which genders skirmish, uneasy viewers hunt for clues, and unseen organisms are on the march.
Yi is currently in residence at MIT, working with scientists to develop new projects. It would seem wise to brace for the results.
Sascha Braunig’s new paintings, which are on view at Foxy Production through April 18, share with Yi’s constructions an uncanny, spectral sensibility, but they are, in contrast, immaculately polished. Braunig repeats sui generis patterns—spheres, undulating folds, piped lines—on her canvases, conjuring featureless faces and bodies, or just fragments of them. These apparitions defy any rules of anatomy. Rendering her abstractions with fulsome shadowing, she makes the figural traces bulge so that they take on erotic weight. Thomas Bayrle and Konrad Klapheck are clear forebears, and like them, Braunig displays a preternatural ability to make major art out of ultra-tight, self-imposed restrictions.
Braunig is at her best when she is at her most sinister, as in Feeder (2014), in which a thin arm emerges from a wavy profile of a woman (though gender, as ever, is uncertain) and bends around to her mouth, so that it resembles nothing so much as a force-feeding tube. In a back room, a bronze mask, originally molded from an undulating tube of clay, hangs from the ceiling. Braunig used it as a maquette for one of the show-stealing paintings she contributed to the New Museum triennial. It is a chilling reminder that even her most fantastical, disturbing paintings have their roots in reality.
Finally, two throwback painting shows deserve notice.
One is an exhibition of works from the 1970s and ‘80s by Carmen Cicero at SoHo’s June Kelly Gallery through Tuesday, April 7. Cicero, who turns 90 next year and began his career as an Abstract Expressionist, was in those decades making quick, colorful cartoon paintings with touches of Neo-Expressionist grit. A few stun, particularly The Surprise at the Window (1981), in which Dracula appears to interrupt a smoky party, the guests’ white eyes going Guston-wide in terror.
The other is a group of paintings by the great Bay Area painter Joan Brown (1938–1990) from the 1950s through the 1970s at the George Adams Gallery in Chelsea. Most are from that final decade, and among them are a number of tall self-portraits, which are intimate, and often very witty. In a 1970 piece she poses in front of a red backdrop with a gargantuan fish wrestled under one arm and a paint brush hanging in her other hand. Her jacket and pants are covered with the splashes of the brushier style she was leaving behind in those years. In another, from 1971, she is a young girl looking a bit lost in front of a menacing Chinese dragon ornamented with gold glitter.
Even when posing with her son or her husband, loneliness prevails on her face. But while these paintings are, in a sense, about desolation, they are not desolate. They are about being alone, and about the comfort that art—viewing it and making it—can provide. In Woman Waiting in a Theatre Lobby (1975), which is a masterpiece, the empty, patterned floor that surrounds her takes on a hypnotic, humming presence as it keeps her, and us, company.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.