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The New Museum displays “After Nature” and Moments of Black Humor

“After Nature,” the big new show at the New Museum, is a strange, lugubrious, wildly uneven dream of an exhibition. Inspired partly by the book-length poem of that title by the German writer W. G. Sebald, it exudes a distinctly European spirit of ruminative pessimism relieved intermittently by moments of black humor and otherworldly fantasy. It lurches from transcendentally thrilling to portentous to kitschy.

Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s director of special exhibitions, the show fills all three of the main floors with more than 90 works by 26 artists. Many of the artists are better known in Europe than the United States; most are living. No stylistic trends prevail, but many of these artists will be familiar — in some cases, overly familiar — to followers of the international avant-garde.

The exhibition opens on the second floor with a looping version of the 1992 film “Lessons of Darkness,” Werner Herzog’s hair-raisingly beautiful look at the burning oil fields of Kuwait after the Persian Gulf war. Taking its cue from the film, the exhibition sets out to evoke a metaphorical landscape of death and destruction. “It is a land of wilderness and ruins,” Mr. Gioni writes in his catalog essay, “that exists in an imaginary time zone between a remote past and a not-so-distant future.”

A polemical thrust emerges on the third floor, which is dominated by Robert Kusmirowski’s full-scale reproduction of Theodore Kaczynski’s famous cabin. This is the show’s most unfortunate inclusion; the Unabomber’s cabin has been exhausted as a motif in American art, if not in Europe. (Mr. Kusmirowski lives in Poland.) On the wall just behind the cabin hang terrifically vivid paintings from the 1950s by the outsider artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, who used a technique similar to finger painting to create luminous and luridly hued improvisations suggestive of cosmic explosions.

Mr. Gioni’s vision is most vividly realized on the fourth floor, where the elevator doors open onto a stunning tableau. To the left stands an old dead tree held upright by cables and metal stanchions, an arboreal Frankenstein’s monster; to the right, a full-size bay horse hangs by the neck in the air, its head seemingly buried in the wall. It’s as though the horse had been left there by receding floodwaters.

Together these two sculptures — the tree by Zoe Leonard, the horse by Maurizio Cattelan — form a scene that seems at once tragic and absurd, like a stage set for a play by Samuel Beckett. Nothing else in the exhibition is so powerfully economical; the other floors seem cluttered by comparison.

There are works of metaphorical resonance. A sculpture by Berlinde De Bruyckere, enclosed in an old glass vitrine like a natural history specimen, is a pale gray wax figure of a naked man whose head and shoulders have been engulfed by tree roots and branches also cast in wax. Something similar is happening in William Christenberry’s photographs of houses and trees overwhelmed by kudzu in the American South.   

Videos, on the other hand, are among the show’s most intriguing works. Artur Zmijewski’s riveting film of two naked men — one has had his leg amputated — walking in tandem up and down stairs and in the woods, ends on a funny-sad note: they lie on a bare wooden floor and perform a silly dance routine to the accompaniment of their own whistling.

A video by Klara Liden is oddly soothing. Running on a cheap TV in a cardboard hideaway off the stairs between the third and fourth floors, it shows the artist moonwalking slowly and hypnotically through the New York streets at night.

The New Museum

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July 21, 2008 - Posted by | Art Exhibitions, Artists, Books and Magazines, News, photography, raw art gallery | , ,

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