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

This week in Newly Reviewed, Martha Schwendener covers Tamiko Nishimura’s arresting black-and-white photographs, Tanya Merrill’s playful portraits and Enrique Martínez Celaya’s link to a Spanish master.

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.

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.

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. 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 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 Celaya’s childish doodles. In another series of paintings by 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.

Through May 4. White Columns, 91 Horatio Street, Manhattan; 212-924-4212, whitecolumns.org.

As other writers have noted, the Scottish painter Carole Gibbons has an extraordinary gift for color. The dozen still lifes and one self-portrait in her imposing, and belated, American debut (she is 88) at White Columns favor complex earth tones offset by searing hot pink and turquoise. These unlikely combinations are bolstered by an awkward way with form, tables that tilt and vases whose upper lips float away.

What photographs don’t capture so well is the imposing internal scale of Gibbons’s compositions, which makes most of the paintings here larger-than-life still lifes. Everything about them projects forward and gives the show a startling jolt in person. Gibbons’s influences include Gauguin, Bonnard and Picasso. (Note the pink Picassoid gaping compote in “Still Life, Pink Bowl and Fruit” (from around 1996-98). But it’s also possible to see these works as filtering the domesticity of the School of Paris painting through Abstract Expressionism’s often raw boldness.

While Gibbons applies her heated pastels in relatively flat and thick layers, elsewhere she often varies color and brushwork, creating forms that feel light, even hollow. We see through the artist’s right shoulder in “Self-Portrait With Muse” while her face is another kind of hollow: an empty-eyed mask not unlike the visage in Matisse’s “Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg” (1914, Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Another jolt is simply Gibbons’s obscurity. Her work has not been shown much outside of Scotland. It could have easily been included in the Royal Academy’s “The New Spirit in Painting” show in 1981, which signaled the return of various sorts of figurative painting to the mainstream. But worry not, Gibbon’s art will find its place in history. ROBERTA SMITH

Through May 4. Blank Forms, 468 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn; (347) 916-0833, blankforms.org.

Candace Hill-Montgomery’s remarkable résumé includes everything from runway modeling to babysitting Count Basie’s daughter while she was growing up in Queens. She exhibited at Artists Space in 1979 and created installations devoted to Black activists like Fred Hampton and to cuts in federal assistance. However, she’s been absent from the New York gallery scene since the early 1980s, and her current show of textiles made between 2016 and 2023 at Blank Forms offers a strong reintroduction.

A majority of the works in “Pretty Birds Peer Speak Sow Peculiar” are small weavings created on a handmade loom. Like jazz musicians improvising, Hill-Montgomery goes way off the grid of the loom, piecing together different sections and attaching non-textile elements. One work is dedicated to “the Carters” (that is, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Jay-Z and family) and has foam earplugs dangling from its threads. Another has a 3D-printed chain, while a third has a skirt of little pendant weavings that echo the patterns on afghans. Other works are dedicated to Kanye West, Richard III and a secret trip to Afghanistan that Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California took in 2019.

From the famous Bauhaus, where women who wanted to paint were sent to the weaving workshop, to the Black female artists in Alabama making Gee’s Bend quilts, fiber arts have proven to be a powerful vehicle for some of the most canny and talented artists in the last century. Hill-Montgomery’s weavings add another entry to this field. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Through May 6. Venus Over Manhattan, 39 Great Jones Street, Manhattan; 212-980-0700, venusovermanhattan.com.

Through May 24. 56 Henry, 56 Henry Street, Manhattan; 646-858-0800, 56henry.nyc

Al Freeman makes satirical, Claes Oldenburg-style sculptures of beer cans, electrical cords and other lowly objects. She finds absurd photos on the internet to juxtapose with canonical paintings that happen to be similar. But I didn’t realize until this double show of her drawings of book and album covers that she’s basically a cartoonist.

A good drawing lets you see the world not just through someone else’s eyes, but through her mind. And Freeman’s mind, it turns out, is a homespun and jokey but curiously earnest place, where the well-known artists and writers of her parents’ generation nestle together in comfortable free-for-all. Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Joan Didion’s “White Album,” Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” — Freeman’s drawings of their covers are all the same size, their edges are all a little wonky, their spines are rendered with comic-strip Cubism as stripes on the left. Sometimes Freeman’s choice of a title — e.g., Danielle Steel’s “Daddy,” or a tattered blue Bible — seems to mean something special. Sometimes it offers the chance for her deft, charming line to “cover” someone else’s art, like Andy Warhol’s flowers, the blood vessels on the “Gray’s Anatomy” textbook, or Quentin Blake’s unforgettable illustration of the Twits.

But sometimes, as with a Japanese edition of Paul Simon’s single “You Can Call Me Al,” the only obvious significance of the subject is its very mundane specificity. It’s a grain of human experience that artist and viewer, by means of the drawing, can share. WILL HEINRICH

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 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 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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