Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / As “Ass Backwards,” the title of David Humphrey’s new show of paintings at Fredericks & Freiser, suggests, they are less in-your-face than much of his recent work. But they remain as busy, visually precise, and narratively provocative as ever, suggesting that it is not Humphrey’s approach to painting but rather his apprehension of the world and his place in it that have changed.
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Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / This is a little late, but just in time for the Oscars. Filmmaking in the time of Covid is looking healthy, so no epochal disquisition is needed – just the usual caveat that these picks are inevitably subjective and, in some cases, perhaps eccentric.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / There’s a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, annoyed by the knowing ellipticality of a New Yorker cartoon caption, marches into the august magazine’s offices and confronts the editor – portrayed to preppy-geek perfection by the late Edward Herrmann – about its meaning. After offering several generic, pretentious, and abjectly unconvincing interpretations, he admits that he has no idea what the hell the caption is supposed to mean. Jeff Gabel – whose elaborately narrated drawings and paintings, a few site-specific, are presently on display in a solo at Spencer Brownstone Gallery on the Lower East Side and a group show at Jennifer Baahng Gallery on the Upper East Side – runs no such risk, abjuring obscure glibness for mordantly wise, sourly penetrating bloviation.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Rob de Oude’s exquisitely painted geometric abstractions, on display at McKenzie Fine Art on the Lower East Side, at once resist and invite scrutiny. Though wholly handmade, they are all composed of small squares that appear so perfect, calmingly symmetrical, and plain beautiful as to discourage a closer look: there’s nothing more to see here, and what you see is fine enough. But his patterns – both over the expanse of the canvas and within each rectangle – are so intricate and their variations so subtle that a hard look turns out to be compulsory and in fact rewarding.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / On one level, in “Flex, Rot, and Sp(l)it,” a penetrating and conceptually cohesive show of paintings at Nathalie Karg Gallery, Heidi Hahn visually chronicles the tension between the unavoidable confinement of the body and the irrepressible expansiveness of the mind. While the so-called mind-body problem is as old as philosophy itself, to Western audiences it is perhaps most resonant in René Descartes’ exercise of systematic doubt, concluding with “I think therefore I am.” In terms of value, this ingrained formulation privileges the mind over the body. While philosophers are left to connect mental processes with gray matter, for painters and others it can be discomfiting to realize that although thinking is supposed to be the essence of being, a person’s mind is often prejudged on the basis of their body’s characteristics.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin is darkly comic — invariably mordant and occasionally hilarious. But the situational modesty and outward sardonicism are subterfuge. This is a stealthily grand film with weighty political and existential themes, framing McDonagh as contemporary cinema’s wisest bad-ass.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / “Dream Opera,” Mary Shah’s solo show at Rick Wester Fine Art in Chelsea, presents suavely dense abstract narratives that still unfailingly meet the visual priority of beauty. While the notion of an abstract narrative may seem paradoxical by its terms, if representation and abstraction are part of a continuum and not a stark dichotomy, the paradox isn’t too daunting to resolve. Abstract Expressionism, spiritual abstraction, and lyrical abstraction have long certified emotional and spiritual content in abstract painting, and opened the door to narrative as well. Shah confidently marches through it, and in fine style.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / In writer-director John Patton Ford’s grippingly lean and gritty thriller Emily the Criminal, the audience is immediately thrust in scene with Emily Benetto, who works for a caterer without benefits. Absent exposition, she simply seems petulant and put-upon, not unlike many young adults trying to make their way in an increasingly forbidding world. Forced to quit art school, Emily is saddled with $70,000 in debt and no marketable credentials. But thanks to the dark nuance of Aubrey Plaza’s terrific performance and Ford’s crafty screenplay and cold-eyed direction, it remains clear that something ugly and ingrained lurks behind Emily’s immediate circumstances. Despite early appearances, this film is not a didactic contemplation of the false seductions of the middle class in twenty-first-century America, and only incidentally concerns female empowerment. It is centrally about character and how immutable it is or isn’t.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Tom Bills, for decades primarily a large-scale sculptor, has recently translated that vocation into riveting compact-yet-monumental wall-mounted pieces now on display at 57W57 Arts in midtown Manhattan. Rectangles of modest size, their highly wrought finishes and elliptical narratives invest them with an improbably kinetic presence and stern gravitas that leave the viewer both sobered and assured.
Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / While a degree of pandemic fatigue is understandable, there’s no denying that lockdown was an extraordinary fact of daily life whose ripple effects have far from dissipated. And insofar as it left artists with more time to think and work, it has yielded an abundance of resonant art. Jillian McDonald’s and Kate Teale’s drawings, now on view at Undercurrent Gallery in Dumbo, are sterling examples.