Through Oct. 30. Skarstedt, 20 East 79th Street, Manhattan. 212-737-2060, skarstedt.com
The art stars of the mostly denigrated 1980s persist. David Salle’s latest show, “Tree of Life,” indicates that diligence has yielded some of the best and most beautiful paintings of his career. As usual this erstwhile Neo-Expressionist/Appropriation artist layers together images from high and low culture (mostly low this time) and different eras and styles of painting (usually abstract).
In most of the works here, the grisaille forms of well-dressed men and women from Peter Arno’s New Yorker cartoons fill the background, providing a quiet imaginary audio of squabbling couples, inappropriate remarks and unexpected quips. On top of the Arnos, the simple outline of an innocent tree (maybe from a children’s book) dominates the center of the painting; its trunk and (sometimes) falling leaves are painted different pastel colors. The tree is often the pedestal for an overly large S-curve caterpillar whose lines and colors add to the visual salad.
The best paintings are those with separate predella-like panels, attached below. Sometimes the trees’ roots continue into this domain, but usually a horizontal stretch of abstract painting ensues — dripped, stained or smeared in the manner of various postwar painters — with fragments outlined over them, maybe an angular modern-looking head. Salle is a wry, unemotional painter, which doesn’t hamper him; a skillful draftsman (especially with a projector) and a brilliant colorist and tonalist. His tangled compositions seem to have been compressed, which gives them new tensions and bounce. In a dreary time that has more than its share of dreary art — or maybe just dreary-eyed curators — these paintings are a bright spot, encouraging artists to make things that are cause for optimism — and to make them better.
Through Oct. 24. Ashes/Ashes, 56 Eldridge Street, Manhattan. ashesonashes.com.
The weeds protruding from Michael Assiff’s saturated, materially dense canvases in his show “Volunteer Flowers” will be familiar to anyone who has looked down in New York City, particularly in the boroughs outside Manhattan, where plants poke insistently through cracked concrete and persist admirably in a hostile environment. (Gardening has its own deep well of euphemisms: Assiff prefers the term “volunteers” to “weeds.”) Assiff’s five paintings here are composed of hundreds of these specimens, each leaf, petal and stem individually sculpted with tinted methacrylic plastic pushed through a syringe and fixed in monochromatic assemblages. They give canny new meaning to the idea of “color field.”
Specifically, the meticulously rendered purslane, creeping Charlie and ragweed are translations of those Assiff observed last year at All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, where the particularly robust overgrowth flourished under negligence. (The cemetery’s board of directors is the subject of a 2019 embezzlement suit brought by New York’s attorney general; the groundskeepers have accused the board of withholding benefits.) Assiff’s paintings become a picture of the labor movement, a devotional act honoring those workers’ struggle.
They’re also a nuanced allegory for our darkening climate future. The choice of monochrome tethers the paintings to an art historical continuum, all the way back to Malevich’s “Black Square,” an effect artists appreciate for its spiritual purity and ability to distill the natural sublime. The death of painting, declared every few years, has yet to fully hold. Painting, essentially, is the weed of art making, which continues to triumph in defiance of cataclysm. Our days might be numbered as our atmosphere swells with carbon dioxide, but the weeds are sure to remain.
‘Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians’
Through May 8. Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue, Manhattan. 212-288-6400; asiasociety.org.
“Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians,” which originated at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum and arrives here at the Asia Society after a stop in Houston, isn’t just art in all mediums from 23 Iranian and Iranian-descended artists, famous and emerging, at home and abroad. Most of the work is also about being Iranian. Such single-minded curation, by Fereshteh Daftari, is understandable in a show meant to introduce one of the world’s great civilizations to an audience that may still think of Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” But it makes for a somewhat claustrophobic overall effect, despite the works’ variety.
The best approach for a viewer may be to focus on a single piece, whether it’s Mohammed Ehsai’s flamboyant red and silver calligraphy; a shimmering collage of mirror fragments by Monir Farmanfarmaian; or Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s gorgeous pink-bordered screen print of himself as a “terrorist.” For me, the piece that lingers is Mahmoud Bakhshi’s “Tulips Rise From the Blood of the Nation’s Youth,” a searing take on the trauma, and propaganda, of the Iran-Iraq war, in which three red neon “tulips” — stylized renditions of the word “Allah,” as it appears on the flag of the Islamic Republic — spin atop metal canisters that look like enormous bullet casings.
‘The Collective: Chosen Family’
Through Oct. 23. Martos Gallery, 41 Elizabeth Street, Manhattan. 212-560-0670; martosgallery.com.
After exhibiting at MoMA PS1’s “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” that closed in April, the seven previously imprisoned artists in this show present new work, continuing conversations around criminal justice reform.
At the entrance of the exhibition, “The Collective: Chosen Family,” are five ink drawings by James “Yaya” Hough set on the backside of prison cafeteria menus and office documents. Dark, stark, profound, Hough’s work illuminates the for-profit nature of the U.S. prison industrial complex with pictures showing naked and sometimes anonymized bodies bound in chains and processed like raw material by machines.
These complement Jesse Krime’s “The Myth of the Golden Legend,” a 70-inch-by-130- inch handsewn fabric with a collage depicting dystopian scenes — lanterns grow into outsized spiders, chairs taller than buildings, people in Ku Klux Klan capes, dragons.
Tameca Cole turns inward, even solemn, with collages of Black male subjects on empty backgrounds, like vortexes. On Gilberto Rivera’s densely painted canvases, a jumble of societal issues contrast with the calm sadness of his female figures.
Perhaps this sadness is even more potent in the photographs by Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter a.k.a. Isis Tha Saviour, whose miniature images reimagine Thomas Eakins’s print of an unknown prepubescent Black girl posed in the nude. Baxter Photoshops herself into each scene, protecting the girl by covering her body.
Most noteworthy is the materiality of the show, best embodied by Russell Craig’s “Louis Vuitton,” an installation of Louis Vuitton bags with a zip drawn open by a dog, and Jared Owens’s “Panopticon” — a painting/plinth pair featuring a pig feed burlap sack, steel cables and hooks, reclaimed dunnage, and even soil from the prison yard of the Federal Correctional Institution Fairton in New Jersey.