Spirit Level at Gladstone Gallery

Walking into the Spirit Level, on view through April 21, at Gladstone Gallery’s 24th Street branch, one passes through a hallway of Ann Craven’s large, dark paintings with taffy-colored off-white holes in the middle. The floor is lined with Latifa Echakhch’s “Frames”: rectangular rugs with the centers removed, so that only thin edges and fringes remain. The pairing sets the tone for the exhibition, and it’s testament to Ugo Rondinone’s curatorial dexterity: the simple combination evokes prayer, death, infinite, cycles, and detritus which inevitably fills up empty space. - Read more from Whitney Kimball after the jump!

Anne Craven | Moon, 2012. oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches.
Photo courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

In the following room, Sarah Lucas’s four-foot-tall penises, which appear to be doused with Pepto Bismal, stand matter-of-factly in the middle of the gallery, as though they mysteriously sprouted up overnight. They’re ultimate gauge of potency, and they’re melting like popsicles.

Sarah Lucas | Oboddaddy 1, 2, and 3. 2010,  plaster, rubber, wire mesh, fibreglass armature, Approx. 44 3/4 x 14 3/4 x 10 3/4 inches. Photo courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

In the next room, decrepit reclining nudes by Hans Josephsohn are brass, but they look like dull, dried mud. The figures, pocked by fingermarks, lie on their sides, on dirtied pedestals which look like victims of a basement flood. Pyramids of canvas, in a natural dye palette, hang on the walls with circular patches sewn on, by Alan Shields. The back wall contains a mural-sized suite of Amy Granat’s photograms of flowers; this room in particular might elsewhere verge on decorative cliché, but here imparts a genuinely sacred significance.

Beyond that, on a wall leading into the far space, is Kim Jones’s “Mop 3”-- a mop head unwrapped and tacked to the wall so that it resembles a human scalp. The mop head is some sort of synthetic or animal hair; the skin of the scalp is painted yellow, pink, and blue, and resembles a brainy sinew. Its presence is least explainable, but in the context of the surrounding works, its bizarre treatment, and the allusion to peeling open a skull, feels like a revelation.

Kim Jones | Mop 3, 2009, mixed media, 24.5 x 18 x 1.875 inches
Photo Courtesy Pierogi Gallery

Andrew Lord’s series of hand-textured ceramic vessels are the next item one sees in the next room. Women’s heads open up to the sky, with braided handles folding in toward the skull. In one elevated platter, a small figure wades onto the plate, clutching onto a handle as though it’s a swimming pool handlebar. Like the hole in the head, the platter’s surface becomes an entrance into another realm.

The 21st street space feels much more like a garage, where things have been left to rot. In the entrance of the 21st space, where the show continues, are paintings of what look like primitive mummy dieties by Hans Schärer. Here are several variations, in off-whites, blacks, and dirty, natural hues, all with pebbles for teeth. The paint is caked and cracking, as though the process of applying it were excruciating. On one of their mouths, nails are tacked in a circle around the lips.

Install shot | Photo courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

Most of the work in the 21st street space is much larger- like Peter Buggenhout’s looming, 13-foot-tall, dust-covered sculptures, which look as though a tornado has swept up shanties and locomotives, and those wreckages calcified, and wore down to their frames. Sam Gilliam’s “Wall Cascade” and “Close to Trees”- two 19-foot-long, multi-colored swaths of fabric hang down from the ceiling, the size of small waterfalls- the material looks as though enormous vacuum cleaner bags had been emptied and hung to air out.

In the far corner of the gallery is a chair and bucket for Kim Jones’s “Mudman.” Since the 1970s, Jones’s shamanistic “alter ego” Mudman has appeared in a nylon mask, a web of sticks, and coated himself with mud from a bucket- a response, some have indicated, to his own experience in the Vietnam War.

The upstairs gallery is absurd pain-- photographs by Vienna actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler-- depict bandaged and bloodied bodies, along with Al Hansen’s cigarette-butt Venus torsos on panels.

Ugo Rondinone, who injects mundane subjects with the utmost significance (scholars’ rocks, olive trees, lumpy, oafish heads, and phrases like “Hell, Yes” and “Dog Days Are Over”) is similarly uplifting mundane-looking work. The 21st street half is a bleak and uncompromising aura of death, and the other feels like an answer: cognitive openings, passageways, and unlikely wonders. Is Rondinone playing God here? Definitely. But if he’s enforcing anything, it’s only a lesson on what art can do.


Whitney Kimball is a New York-based painter and art writer.