3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now

Through June 12. Alexander Gray Associates, 510 West 26th Street, Manhattan. 212-399-2636; alexandergray.com.

Joan Semmel is famous for painting the body. Of course the human body has been Western painting’s chief subject for most of its history, but Semmel insists on aspects that get overlooked. In the 1970s, she gained notoriety for explicit close-ups of sexual encounters. For the past few decades, it’s been her own aging body — she was born in 1932 — that shocks visitors from gallery walls.

That’s not to say that the body she paints is carnal, exactly. Some of the nudes in her formidable new double show, “A Balancing Act,” at two Alexander Gray venues (in Manhattan and Germantown, N.Y.) are eroticized and some aren’t; most have their faces hidden or cut off; all include just enough white hair and sagging flesh to establish that they’re not young. But Semmel doesn’t linger over their material details. In these new paintings, at least, her body is something that acts — strikes poses, casts shadows, reflects light. It’s almost on the point of coming apart into pure light and energy.

In “Touching Toes” (2019), the painter is viewed from the side and below, with one leg crossed, against a midnight blue background. It’s a static enough position, but the rosy ball of her foot seems to surge like a rocket from the green plane of her thigh. And the artist’s ringed right hand, in “Red Hand,” glows against her shadowed purple belly like a jewel.


Through June 12. PPOW Gallery. 392 Broadway, Manhattan, (212) 647-1044, ppowgallery.com.

Erin M. Riley’s show of handwoven tapestries — largely photo-based — announce her as a major pictorial artist. This exhibition gives full expression to the combination of scorching honesty and seductive openness that distinguishes her work and also to the way she uses the beauty of weaving to both draw us near and soften the blows that her compositions, aided by nearly perfect titles, deliver. Her richly variegated colors and complex, arresting scenes take full advantage of tapestry’s stitch-by-stitch autonomy.

The overall effect is both documentary and diaristic. Some tapestries quietly revisit Riley’s traumatic childhood. Others reveal her attempts at self-care (which sometimes involves webcam sex) as implied by the show’s title — “The Consensual Reality of Healing Fantasies.” Many of the works are incredibly intimate yet restrained: We see Riley’s nude body, lavishly clothed in tattoos, but never her face. We’re in the past with four tapestries that reproduce the stained covers of 1970s pamphlets about domestic abuse, which affected her mother.

A tapestry titled “An Accident” conjures such abuse with a monumental close-up of an injured hand while its title echoes the excuse that battered victims, and batterers alike, typically use to deflect scrutiny. Riley’s teenage composition notebooks appear in “The Rose” and “Beauty Lives Here,” signaling her artistic instincts with their elaborately collaged and decorated covers. One of the most riveting pieces here is “Anxiety,” which depicts the artist’s naked breasts and the scars and scabs of self-mutilation. Beneath them is an opulent tattoo, the word “Treasure” in implicitly “girlish” cursive. Functioning as both a noun and a verb, it admonishes either way: Our life is a gift, value it.

Good art is wondrous stuff that I can’t imagine living without. But I have to admit that, for all its glory, there’s something inescapably rotten about it. With so many people struggling for the basics of life, deluxe objects that end up appealing to the rich, and belonging to them, can make you hold your nose.

I’ve rarely seen work that speaks to the magic and rot of art as perfectly as the Brobdingnagian sculptures of the New Yorker Kathleen Ryan, on view in a show called “Bad Fruit” that fills both Karma spaces in the East Village.

Ryan presents cherries the size of bowling balls, gleaming and glossy wherever they’re not covered in mold. She displays lemons as big as a beer keg that are sparkling-fresh on one side, green and fuzzy on the other. A jack-o’-lantern that would fill most NYCHA bedrooms evokes a sight from the days after Halloween: outside, a smooth orange skin; inside, a mass of decaying squash-flesh. And Ryan has rendered all this blown-up produce, in its health and putrescence, entirely in beads of different sizes, colors and materials. The effect is almost trompe l’oeil. The healthy parts of a lemon are captured in subtle gradations of yellow, orange and amber, brilliantly realized in glass and acrylic; where the fruit has gone moldy, a chaotic mass of greens, whites, grays and browns is reproduced using beads made of such semiprecious stones as malachite, smoky quartz, citrine and serpentine. The more putrefied the flesh of Ryan’s produce, the more precious the materials it gets made from and the more irresistible it is to the eye, like something Fabergé might have made for a prince.

Irresistible rot for the oligarchy? In 2021, Ryan’s trompe l’oeil might just yield a vision of art.


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