What to See in N.Y.C. Galleries in May

What to See in N.Y.C. Galleries in May

This week in Newly Reviewed, John Vincler covers Lucas Arruda’s sprawl of jungle on diminutive canvases, Emi Mizukami’s paintings that keep a secret and Lubaina Himid’s whimsical portraits of street sellers.

Through June 15. David Zwirner, 537 West 20th Street, Manhattan; (212) 517-8677, davidzwirner.com.

The Brazilian artist Lucas Arruda’s recent paintings at David Zwirner recall an aspect of the collective wonder we experienced with the solar eclipse last month, which, for a moment, seemed to stop time so people could gather merely to look up and perceive how our humble planet fits into the greater celestial order.

Arruda evokes a similarly profound feeling of lightness and dark. This big and impressive show features 42 works from the last five years, all paintings ranging from monochrome abstractions to landscapes of jungles, deserts, clouds and sky. The most elemental works are included in a site-specific installation of three pairs of stacked rectangles: in each pair, one is painted directly on the wall, the other created via the projection of light. (Stare closely to see if you can tell which is which, before approaching and letting your shadow reveal the answer.)

Arruda manages transcendence at a modest scale: Most individual works are as small as a sheet of letter-size paper. His painterly appeal triangulates characteristics of Mark Rothko, the late works by J.M.W. Turner and most notably Vija Celmins. His scratchy treatment of starry skies are the rare misstep, with this expansive subject (mastered by Celmins) depicted by Arruda as claustrophobic and deadened.

This weak spot only makes more apparent the small miracle Arruda performs in rendering the complex sprawl of jungle on his diminutive canvases. As in “Untitled (from the Deserto-Modelo series)” (2019/2020), where the mist of the horizon invades the scene, overtaking the tangles of foliage in a sublime dance of textures. A narrow band of horizontal strokes delineates the bottom of the composition before the trees begin. This helps organize the picture while suggesting clear cutting and nodding to man-made environmental destruction. Unmissable.

Through May 25. King’s Leap, 105 Henry Street (Store 5), Manhattan; kingsleapfinearts.com.

Emi Mizukami makes objects, not images, through her paintings. They are alive with texture and all but beg to be touched. Recalling an eclectic mix of artists, with direct reference to Philip Guston’s caricature figures, bits of the surrealism of Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, and the watercolor dream world of William Blake. Each surface — from smooth and waxy to gritty with sand and paste — is a palimpsest paused in a moment between creation and scratching away. They feature dragons, snakes or swans’ necks, cartoonlike arms and hands, legs and feet, as well as circles and orbs that are sometimes suns and moons.

These are some of the most original paintings I’ve seen anywhere recently. All the works in the New York debut of this Tokyo artist are paintings on linen, with two exceptions. There are two framed Blakean drawings on overlaid semi-translucent paper, taken from vintage books to create minuscule scenes of depth and elegance. Some works, like “But you have a light” (2023), allow excess linen to protrude from the sides of the paintings like a drapery or skirting. Other works can be removed and turned around, by the gallery attendant, to reveal a companion work on the reverse side. As if — as they hang there — they keep a secret.

Through June 15. Greene Naftali, 508 West 26th Street, Ground Floor, Manhattan; (212) 463-7770, greenenaftaligallery.com.

Walking through Chinatown before heading to Chelsea, I passed a man standing on the sidewalk beside a sheet of cardboard on which three large fish were resting, so fresh their gills seemed still gasping for air. A few paces away, another man used a pair of tongs to keep live blue crabs from pinching one another in the plastic tray he presented in his other outstretched hand to passers-by.

“Street Sellers” like these feature in Lubaina Himid’s oversized portraits and provide the name for the show, which renders the space of the gallery as a surreal street scene. Before each of the 10 portraits that tower at eight feet tall, a cardboard sign presents a phonetic rendering of words that the merchants might shout out to sell their wares. The effect is whimsical without being cloying, and most importantly the paintings are all lively.

The 69-year-old artist is having a well-deserved American moment. Born in Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa and based in Preston, England, Himid has a solo show concurrently at the Contemporary Austin in Texas through July, having received the 2024 Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize.

The best works here incorporate collections of depicted small objects, making whole universes out of the scenes, with numerous details to focus on. Take for example, the pale prosthetic hand stretching out from the “Talisman Seller” who is holding a ribbon while presenting a box containing various shells. The exhibition also includes two works of ceramics — a plate and serving dish — embellished with paintings of a molar and a tongue (both 2024), as well as two portraits painted in profile within two otherwise empty drawers affixed to the wall. A scavenger hunt of looking.

Through May 11. Andrew Kreps Gallery, 22 Cortlandt Alley & 394 Broadway, Manhattan; 212-741-8849, andrewkreps.com.

Not many people have the balance of Beau Dick (1955-2017). An activist and artist, he was a devotee of the wealth-redistributing feast known as the potlatch, which he called “the best form of resistance we have” against Western capitalism. He made masks for ceremonial dances within his Kwakwaka’wakw community in Pacific Northwest Canada and restored the practice, long discouraged by Western anthropologists, of burning them after use.

But he also sent his masks out into the gallery system, and the 23 examples now at Andrew Kreps, made between 1979 and 2016, are one of the most beautiful exhibits I’ve ever seen. As is often the case with ritual implements, Dick’s masks bring with them a sense of life, a vividness and allure, that conventional art works, made only to be bought and sold, can hardly compete with.

But they’re equally stunning even if you pretend they’re just sculptures. They stand for traditional characters, like the wild woman of the woods, but the artist’s inspired carving makes them as supple, as particular and as expressive as living actors. Without being flashy about it, the masks’ sharp lines and bright acrylic colors also illustrate Dick’s awareness of all the other currents of 20th-century art.

In a mask titled “Wind,” a white-painted face purses bright red lips, and its cheeks sink in with perfect anatomical fidelity. The eyeholes, one inch deep, are outlined in black, but their white inner surfaces, coming in and out of view as you move from side to side for a closer look, seem to be blinking. WILL HEINRICH

Through May 11. Mrs., 60-40 56th Drive, Maspeth, Queens; 347-841-6149, mrsgallery.com.

The prolific painter Meghan Brady’s latest body of work fills two galleries, one in Maspeth, Queens, and one at Dunes Gallery in Portland, Maine, a couple of hours from her home base in Camden. You may not get to both (I only made it to Maspeth), but in either you’ll find striking, paper-cut-like patterns rendered in oil over acrylic in an alluring range of scales, from nearly pocket-size to over six feet tall.

Brady’s distinctive, milky palette is bright but nonconfrontational, so that her canvases have the mellow splendor of a beloved 1960s concert poster that’s been hanging in the sun. (They also remind me of the printmaker Corita Kent’s winsome hand with blocks of bold color.) The action is very much in the surface, which means that even a small amount of visible painterly texture — or just placing one layer of shapes like a stencil over another — produces a tremendous increase in the sense of depth.

In “Wrong Number,” a small canvas on which two tulips emerge on either side of a small lavender sun, a thin layer of white sitting over a block of teal looks formidably complex. “Nothing Fixed” is full size, but feels more compact; circles, flowers and stripes, peering out through a butterfly-shaped grille of muddy, grade-school orange, feel eager but just out of reach. Sometimes the rough, intuitive quality of Brady’s paintings can come across as a little hasty and undercooked — but when they work, they’re wonderful. WILL HEINRICH

Through May 11. Artists Space, 11 Cortland Alley, Manhattan; 212-226-3970, artistsspace.org.

Marian Zazeela died on March 28 at age 83. A central figure of the New York avant-garde since the 1960s, Zazeela worked with light, paint and sound, often in collaboration with her husband, the minimalist composer La Monte Young. By coincidence (or resonance), a show at Artists Space called “Dream Lines” provides a rare concentrated view of her delicate and deep abstract calligraphy.

Moving clockwise around the gallery, you can see her technique grow. In pieces from 1962 and 1963, blocks of flared squiggles recall the holy pictorial lettering of Islam, ornamental strokes molded into bold shapes and replete with magnetic detail. The early drawings have the casual flair of studies. Pencil sketches underpin the compositions. One example, a rectangular congregation of serpentine blots, is inked on a paper towel.

By the late 1960s (one imagines, with devotional practice), Zazeela’s marks are so saturated and clean that they don’t feel drawn so much as placed. The lines curl into dense molars and concise arabesques, like visual mantras, repeated to form airy mandalas. The most seductive pieces include designs in colored ink; one square constellation of ruffled lines reminiscent of a Gothic chapel’s floor plan steps from indigo to yellow. In another, rings of unerring green curls accent a hot pink page.

In 1963, Zazeela and Young moved into a TriBeCa apartment two blocks from Artists Space. On the third floor of their building is a 1993 iteration of their “Dream House,” a public installation rigged with lavender light and a deep, droning raga — a total calligraphy. TRAVIS DIEHL

Through May 18. 303 Gallery, 555 West 21st Street, Manhattan; 212-255-1121, 303gallery.com.

I was showing someone an image on my phone of the titular canvas in Tanya Merrill’s “Watching Women Give Birth on the Internet and Other Ways of Looking” at 303 Gallery and they asked, “Is that a thing?” (i.e., women giving birth on the internet). Well, of course it’s a thing: Everything’s on the internet, just as for thousands of years, painting was the clearinghouse for representing human experience, from the birthing of babies to memorializing deaths.

Nine paintings are here, and they offer astute, playful depictions of how we look at the world today, through art history and newer digital means. There is a painting of a woman on the couch with a laptop; another with a Venus-like pregnant woman taking a selfie; and a zany composition of human and animal skeletons hovering over a village that harks back to pictures of people confronting death or pandemics.

The show’s title feels important, too. “Ways of Looking” conjures, for me at least, John Berger’s seminal book, “Ways of Seeing” (1972), based on a BBC television series. Berger looked at the social and political systems that produced, for instance, a Dutch portrait, rather than merely marveling over its surface.

Merrill is more lighthearted than Berger, but the laptops and computer keys lined up like tiles in her paintings remind us that ways of looking are determined not just by social and political elements, but also by the technology that surrounds and conditions us. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Through June 8. Alison Bradley Projects, 526 West 26th Street, Manhattan; 646-476-8409, alisonbradleyprojects.com.

The best photography show in town is also the American debut for the Japanese photographer Tamiko Nishimura, who is in her mid-70s. Her exhibition, “Journeys,” organized by Pauline Vermare, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, serves as an excellent introduction to this artist, who graduated from the Tokyo College of Photography in 1969 and has had a full career in Japan but is less known abroad.

The photographs in “Journeys,” mostly from the 1970s, feature sharply oblique angles, grainy surfaces and subjects — largely women and children — turned away from their viewers. Telephone wires cut through urban landscapes, and roads lead to places outside the picture frame. There are echoes of the French master Eugène Atget, with his uncanny shop windows, and the Surrealists who distorted their pictures. However, the photographs fall very much in line with the radical Japanese Provoke movement and artists like Daido Moriyama, who offered a sharper, more critical view of Japan than what was seen in the mainstream media.

Most of the photographs here are vintage prints, and several photography books display a medium in which Japanese artists historically excelled. (Nishimura’s first photobook, “Shikishima,” was published in 1973 and captured her journeys around Japan.) This show is important for photography experts as well as for anyone who wants a window into the art and craft of Japanese photography in the 20th century, and particularly with a sly, insurgently feminist perspective. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Through July 14. The Hispanic Society Museum & Library, 613 West 155th Street, Manhattan; 212-926-2234, hispanicsociety.org.

There are places you can’t easily return to, like childhood or, for many migrants and refugees, the country where they were born. This was true for Enrique Martínez Celaya, who was born in Cuba and relocated with his family to Madrid when he was a young boy. Martínez Celaya, now almost 60, returned to Cuba only in 2019, but he has found a way of retrieving both childhood and homeland in this impressive exhibition at the Hispanic Society.

Large canvases by Martínez Celaya include blown-up snippets from his childhood notebook, surrounded by interpretations of waves and seascapes. In a stroke of kismet, the notebook from which these early drawings were copied was given to him by his mother and featured a reproduction of a painting on its cover: Diego Velázquez’s “Portrait of a Little Girl” circa 1638-42, which is in the collection of the Hispanic Society. That painting is displayed at one end of the room.

Objects and their historical hierarchies are irreverently jumbled in the show: Velázquez, the great Spanish painter, sits alongside Martínez Celaya’s childish doodles. In another series of paintings by Martínez Celaya, the “Little Girl” holds objects that he coveted as a boy. The exhibition also includes work by other artists, like the 1971 notebook of Emilio Sánchez, an artist born in Cuba in 1921 who never went back to his homeland after 1960. In the end, the subject of the exhibition is really an immaterial poetic thread in which memory is fleeting but art, in its various forms, connects people, places and history. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Through May 31. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 100 11th Avenue, Manhattan; 212-247-0082, MichaelRosenfeld.com.

Richmond Barthé, the great African American sculptor, gets kudos for his realism, but that’s faint praise that damns him: In the 1930s, when his career took off, there were hundreds of artists who had as fine a technique; there are still lots in Times Square, sculpting tourists’ faces in clay.

Looking at the 16 busts and figures in the Barthé survey at Rosenfeld — it’s curated by the British artist Isaac Julien, who has a stunning video in the Whitney Biennial — I realized that it’s best to ignore technique and to think of them as three-dimensional photographs, or as much as you possibly could before the age of 3-D scanners. The sculptures look forward to our technology, not backward at traditional realism.

The best of Barthés’s figures make his Black sitters as directly available as possible to our eyes, the way a photo seems to. There’s no interfering dose of modernist style, which was imbued with stereotypes about Blackness and “primitive” African art that invoked ideas of the “savage” and the “primeval,” or, calling on an opposite set of clichés, of the “Edenic” and “authentic.” Those were applied to African Americans in Barthé’s era, forcing them into cultural pigeonholes.

He gives his subjects more room to breathe.

“African Woman,” from 1935, shows someone whose hairdo may distance her from 1930s America, but she’s not exotic or ancestral. She’s another person of today who happens to come from far away.

The male head in “The Negro Looks Ahead” enacts its title by just being there and looking out onto the world.

Three portraits of Black boys are just three children waiting to grow up, into a world they still imagine might treat them fairly. BLAKE GOPNIK

Through July 7. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.

My favorite clock of all time is a video: A camera looks down onto two skinny mounds of garbage, maybe 20 and 15 feet long, meeting at one end like the hour and minute hands on a watchface; for the 12 hours of the video, we see two men with brooms sweeping these “hands” into ever new positions, at a pace that keeps time.

The piece is by the Dutch designer Maarten Baas, and it’s among the 80 works in “Life Cycles: The Materials of Contemporary Design,” a group show now in MoMA’s street-level gallery, which has free admission.

The “materials” of today’s most compelling design turn out to be ideas, even ethics, not the chrome or bent wood that MoMA’s title would once have invoked. This show’s ethical ideas center on the environment and how we might manage not to abuse it.

Baas’s “Sweeper’s Clock,” is perfectly functional — could I view it on an Apple Watch? — but it also works as a meditation on the Sisyphean, 24/7 task of dealing with the trash we generate.

All-black dishes by Kosuke Araki look very like the minimalist “black basalt” china designed by Josiah Wedgwood way back in 1768 (it’s some of the oldest “modernism” claimed by MoMA) except that Araki’s versions are made with carbonized food waste.

Food not at all wasted, but consumed — by cattle — goes into making Adhi Nugraha’s lamps and speakers, as explained by the title of the series they’re from: “Cow Dung.” BLAKE GOPNIK

Through July 31. 101 Greenwich Street (entrance on Rector Street), Manhattan; seestoprun.com.

The dilapidated 19th-floor office space hosting Christopher Wool’s recent sculptures and paintings could not be more simpatico with them. In its state of abandoned tear-down, the venue offers melodious visual rhymes: electrical cords dangling from the ceiling ape Wool’s snarls of found-wire sculpture; crumbling plaster mirrors the attitudinal blotches of his oils and inks. Scrawls of crude graffiti or quickly penciled notes left by workmen emulate the tendril-like lines dragged through Wool’s globular masses of spray paint. The space is a horseshoe-shaped echo of Wool’s work — raw, agitated — and the restless elegance he wrenches from a feeling of decay.

Wool said he started to think about how environment affects the experience of looking at art when he began splitting his time between New York and Marfa, in West Texas. Photographic series he made there, like “Westtexaspsychosculpture,” depict forlorn whorls of fencing-wire debris that look like uncanny mimics of Wool’s own writhing scribbles, and which inspired scaled-up versions cast in bronze. (The Marfa landscape is fertile ground for New York artists. Rauschenberg made his scrap metal assemblages after witnessing the oil-ruined landscape of 1980s Texas, what he called “souvenirs without nostalgia,” a designation that’s appropriate here, too.)

Place has always seeped into Wool’s work. His photographs of the grime and trash-strewn streets of the Lower East Side in the 1990s — compiled as “East Broadway Breakdown” — aren’t included here, but “Incident on 9th Street” (1997), of his own burned-out studio, are. The chaos of those scenes repeat here, the wraparound floor plan and endless windows letting the city permeate the work, just as it did in their making. MAX LAKIN

See the April gallery shows here.

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