Underworlds: Jan Müller at Lori Bookstein and Elizabeth McAlpine at Laurel Gitlen

  • We all live in the constant presence of death, and if we’re lucky we can draw from it a kind of existential clarity. But for most of us, this presence is rather more hypothetical than it was for Jan Müller. After an artistic childhood in Hamburg, the removal of his socialist father to a concentration camp for several years, a long, slow flight through Europe, a rheumatic fever that gravely weakened his heart, study in New York at the Art Students League and then with Hans Hofmann, and a number of mosaic-like not-quite-abstract paintings—paintings intriguingly suggestive of where Mondrian might have ended up if he’d lived longer (and been German)—Müller underwent surgery, in 1954, to implant a plastic pacemaker with an audible tick. And an audible tick, to judge from the evidence assembled in Faust and Other Tales at Lori Bookstein Gallery, calls forth a more visceral response than existential clarity—it calls forth a manic, narrative, compulsive fascination in which it is impossible to disentangle fear from desire.

    Müller’s abbreviated squares of color lengthened into jagged, overlapping strokes and those overlapping strokes formed figures. And as is not surprising for figures constructed from such oracularly abstract beginnings, they’re figures with eerie emotional resonance and literary names, in vivid but archetypically still poses. (One naked demon in The Temptation of St. Anthony does the backstroke against a rainbow sky like the Egyptian firmament-goddess Nuit.) The panoramas they inhabit have the ragged and seedy but fully loaded, claustrophobically seamless quality of dreams.

    The 10-foot-wide Walpurgisnacht—Faust I, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, shows Faust and Mephistopheles in the garish, morbidly colored company of nine naked witches. There’s lots of black; the witches’ flesh is rendered in bloodless paper-white over icy, inhuman gray; and greens and yellows are tilted toward blue and red, respectively, as if to suggest that the sun itself has been extinguished. (A rosy burst of fuchsia in the center shows where its energy has been redirected.)

    In dreams, exposure doesn’t always mean clarity. Faust’s vague brown outfit, or Mephistopheles’s sharp black habit, are simple and easily read, but the witches’ naked bodies, partially outlined in black, with well-modeled legs but blocky chests and arms, and breasts tacked on like Mr. Potato Head pieces, get at the unsettled ambiguity of the human condition—not only the provisionality wrought by constant ticking, but the tense fear that removing our social roles and masks would reveal neither clearer spiritual truths nor even starker animal truths, but only amoebic incompleteness. One featureless witch crouches in the corner holding a green face away from her at arm’s length; above her, two mad witches share a single broomstick, their arms and bodies impossible to tell apart.

    But if it doesn’t always mean clarity, exposure can be counted on, at least, to lead to further exposure: Another system of divination that assembles meaning from jagged fragments is psychoanalysis. WalpurgisnachtFaust II, Untitled (The Temptation of St. Anthony) (borrowed from the Whitney), The Concert of Angels and several other pieces all rage alongside Faust I, but there are three bits of Freudian nightmare in the gallery’s back room particularly worth looking at.

    In Search for the Unicorn, a white-faced figure sits on a black horse rearing back over a naked woman lying supine, with her knees bent, on the grass. Similar figures appear in Phantom Riders (Study for The Search for the Unicorn) and Untitled (Rape of Europa). The unicorn bait has no sexual organs, her breasts are afterthoughts, and a tree seems to grow up out of her knee; while the horse’s forelegs curl back like a ballerina’s toes, and its face is drastically foreshortened, so that it suggests a punitive amputation. The ghostly rider sits uneasily on its equine flesh. Müller’s pacemaker lasted about four years; Faust and Other Tales is up till June 23.

    There’s the psychological impossibility of plumbing our own depths, and then there’s the mathematical version, in which the sheer profusion of information available in the world threatens to overwhelm any but the steadiest and most decisive mind. For “The Map of Exactitude,” her new show at Laurel Gitlen, Elizabeth McAlpine used black tape to mark off rectangular segments of wall, corners and moldings in another artist’s clean, white studio. The intended rectangles mutate against the room’s geography—on a projecting corner, for example, a rectangle becomes a peaked keyhole shape—and then, in six handsome photos, are flattened out again. Ms. McAlpine also cast curved, hollow, plaster reproductions of these segments of shape, built them into wooden cases, pierced every acne-like irregularity of the plaster and lined the inside of each wooden case with a single sheet of appropriately shaped and folded photo paper. The resulting pinhole photographs—a single state to match each sculpture, although not all the photos and sculptures produced are in the show—are unfolded, flattened out and framed in thick black frames, while the sculptures themselves are displayed on steel legs that put them at exactly the heights they happened to be sitting at when they were used to photograph the studio.

    What makes all this work is the severity of Ms. McAlpine’s restraint. Beginning with a concept that could easily veer into the preciously self-referential, she prunes it back ruthlessly, so that far from purporting to say anything about the larger world, it’s barely allowed even to investigate itself: the handsome form dominates the discreet content so completely that it achieves a kind of artistic version of that Buddhist aspiration, awareness without object.

    editorial@observer.com