exhibition reviews

Kati Vilim, 3D-2D, 2011, oil, canvas over panel, 48x48 in

New Jersey is dirty. [A garbage truck groans.] That’s a fact. If you want purity, go see Kati Vilim’s series of modest new paintings. It comes with a price. Her geometric abstractions declare themselves like a smack in the face. I’m no masochist, but I need a wake-up call from time to time.

Working in the tradition of Russian Constructivism, Vilim makes paintings of vibrant geometric shapes that float above pristine white expanses. The look is spartan, but the mood is light.

Kati Vilim, Straight Up!, 2011, oil, canvas over panel, 24x24 in

In Straight Up, a series of geometric forms come together as a cadre of “V” and “L” shapes. To the lower left-hand side, short and deliberate bands of color huddle at edge of the canvas. In Movement, a series of colored bars zigzag above a white field as a jumble of trapezoids–demarcated by thin contour lines–bandy about.

3D-2D presents a three-dimensional network of cubes, which evoke the pyramid from Q*bert. Overhead, a colorful assembly of floating, irregular quadrilaterals rises and falls. Crossing Beyond presents a sequence of interlocking planes of pure color, which intersect in odd, often unexpected moments. A sharp red triangle pops its head up like a prairie dog. A thin band of magenta acts as a DMZ between larger geometric bodies.

Vilim restricts her palette to red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow. The colors are what they are. Nothing more. Nothing less. There is no subtext.

Shapes range from squares and rectangles to parallelograms and irregular polygons. The lines are crisp but not perfect (she does not use tape to mask sections). Though restrained, the paint has been applied to give the suggestion of the artist’s hand. At first glance, the white backgrounds look pure and unruffled. On closer inspection, the surface is warm and creamy like a thin spread of butter. Hints of pencil marks begin to reveal themselves.

When you see them in person, the colored shapes are constantly advancing and receding on the picture plane, allowing your imagination to play. In your mind’s eye, the shapes may conjure up Christmas lights flickering around an artificial tree; in another, agitated teenagers bouncing off the streets after school; elsewhere, unruly commuters shifting from side-to-side on a crowded subway platform. I think of crude computer games for Atari 2600: Pong, Berzerk, Breakout. I detect banners, flags, emblems, and vintage travel posters from the 1960s.

A light installation by Vilim.

I imagine it is easy to dismiss Vilim’s paintings. (Colored shapes on white canvases do not scream: Look at me.) To behold their quiet visual aplomb requires time–minutes, not seconds. In the room adjacent to the gallery, Vilim installed a set of 10 fluorescent lights to the wall. Though the lights vary in length and color, they hang upright, with small gap between them. Like Dan Flavin, these lights inhabit the space, bathing the room in light and color.

Kati Vilim: Luminous Angle was up at The Kedar Studio of Art from October 21 to November 19, 2011.

Privacy Please! A.I.R. Gallery (Photo: Jeanette May)

Privacy Please! A.I.R. Gallery (Photo: Jeanette May)

What can notions of beauty and grooming rituals tell us about women? To address this question, Erin Riley-Lopez and Annette Rusin, the curators of Privacy Please! at A.I.R. Gallery, have selected 14 artists who range in age and professional experience. The result is a small but smart show, with unexpected flourishes of whimsy.

At first, I did not think this show would interest me, and I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism. I don’t care how women make themselves pretty, as long as they’re pretty. If I want to see how women behave in the boudoir, I’ll look at Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of his beautiful but crazy wife. To keep abreast of the latest beauty tips, I scroll through the pages of Fleshbot or Egotastic. To see the latest fashion disaster, I don’t have to go far; I live in Queens.

The artists, according to the exhibition statement, “use a wide range of media to examine notions of beauty and grooming rituals, questioning ways that women see themselves today.” Privacy Please! is neither a protest nor a f*ck you aimed at the man. There are no Molotov cocktails flying in the air. Nothing is burning down.

Despite the small exhibition space, the show does not feel crowded. The installation gives all of the art room to breathe. Though the work on view ranges from video-based performances to works on paper to sculpture, the objects work well together. Many artists in the show turn a critical (or favorable) lens toward how current notions of beauty—often perpetrated by their cultural background—affect women today.

Betsy Odom - "Bulldog" Molded plywood, fabric, foam, tooled leather, ribbon 2009

Betsy Odom’s sculpture, “Bulldog 30,” is an exquisitely crafted pair of handmade shoulder pads, which rest on a wooden display case. Her work is informed by her Southern upbringing, women’s athletics, and queer lifestyles. At first, the shoulder pads resemble the protective gear worn by NFL football players, save for their floral accoutrements, hand-tooled leather, and blue ribbons. On closer inspection, “Bulldog 30” has more in common with the decorative armor used by samurai clans in Tokugawa-era Japan than American football. Physical protection is not their purpose, but power and prestige is.

Firelei Baez - "Untitled" (Natural Grooming Series) Gouache and Ink on Paper 2009

Firelei Baez’s drawing, “Untitled” (Natural Grooming Series), is as delightful as a daydream. The drawing is based on a snapshot of a woman she encountered online in black natural hair care forums. Here, women exchange beauty and grooming tips. In this work, a trio of colorful birds perch and preen on top of a woman’s head. With her eyes closed, lips slightly parted, and hand clasped behind her head, au naturel, she is the image of contentment. With a foot firmly planted in magical realism, Baez seamlessly interweaves the real and the fabulous.

Jessica Lagunas "Para Acariciarte Mejor" (The Better To Caress You With) Photo: Roni Mocán

Not all the artists look to the outward. Several artists use their own body as a site to explore grooming rituals and the female body. Jessica Lagunas’s video-based performance, “Para Acariciarte Mejor” (The Better To Caress You With), is part of a series of works where the artist investigates the pressures that woman fall prey to in contemporary society. The grooming ritual showcased in this video is of the artist applying fire-engine-red fingernail polish. This act goes on for approximately one hour and forty-nine minutes. (At this rate, she’s never getting out of the house.) This work, more than any other work in the show, captures the unbridled mania that propels certain women to meet our culture’s impossible beauty ideal.

Rosemary Meza-Desplas, "Personages" Hand Sewn Human Hair on Canvas 2011

Equally affecting is Rosemary Meza-Desplas’s embroidery “Personages.” In this work, a montage of nine women’s breasts has been hand-stitched onto white canvas. (The artist’s own hair serves as the thread.) At first glance, the hirsute forms resemble yams or swollen burlap sacks. On closer inspection, thin wisps of dark hair sprout from a pristine surface like wild strands of grass shooting between sidewalk cracks. These shaggy protuberances are as engaging as they are repellent. Like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, the work screams: “SUCK MY LEFT ONE!

Anjali Bhargava - "Bare" (Am I Beautiful Yet Series) Digital C-Print 2011

Anjali Bhargava’s digital self-portrait series “Am I Beautiful Yet?” mimics the before and after pictures often found in beauty makeover spreads. In the first photo, the artist is barefaced, with her hair pulled back. In the last, she is a stunning glamour girl. Between the two stages, she plucks and threads, conceals blemishes, and applies makeup and accessories. To complete the transformation, she digitally removes all her physical “imperfections.”

The one element missing in the show is social media. I wonder how social networking applications, such as Fashism and Fit or Fugly, increase or subvert traditional notions of beauty. With the click of the mouse or touch of the screen, Fashism provides instant fashion advice and beauty tips; Fit or Fugly tells you if you are a repulsive or not.

I approached Privacy Please! with my guard up. (As soon as I spied Odom’s shoulder pads, I was ready to don the protective gear myself.) I never thought I would be able to connect to the art on view in this exhibition. How wrong I was.

What sparked the change?

Ellen Wetmore - "Erasing" Single Channel Video 2011

Ellen Wetmore’s performance-based video about body image was the first work I saw in the exhibition; it struck a nerve. In the video, the artist wrestles with her stubborn jelly belly. To appear thinner, she applies and reapplies opaque coats of black paint to the protean mass. By the ending, Wetmore resembles a skeletal anorexic or person on hunger strike.

Though the ending image of the artist is grotesque, I longed for a can of black paint to make my own spare tire disappear. Like Wetmore, I too am confounded by my own expanding waistline, which seems to increase day by day, if not hour by hour. I am three years shy of forty, and thirty pounds over my fighting weight; it makes me crazy.

Notions of beauty and grooming affect all of us, not just women, and not just me. Beauty Pays, a new book written by an economics professor at the University of Texas-Austin, argues that attractive men and women not only earn more money than their less attractive colleagues, but receive added perks too, such as party invites, business travel, and office perks.

Beauty is a fucker.

Privacy Please!
November 2–November 26, 2011
A.I.R. Gallery, 111 Front Street, #228 Brooklyn, NY