Riding out the summer doldrums with a guest-curated group show is standard practice for name-brand galleries. Handing over the exhibition-making reins to an outsider—preferably a bleeding-edge tastemaker—allows for some quirky deviation from familiar pair programming. And the game of mix-and-match can, when the chemistry is there, cast selector and selections in a revealing new light. Three current examples of this appealingly unpredictable subgenre—all organized by men-about-the-not-for-profit-art-world for established Chelsea powerhouses—represent divergent approaches to the task. But while varied in their ambitions, all set an easy-going tone—too high-minded to be trashy beach reads, they’re still page-turners.
Matthew Higgs, director of the downtown alternative space White Columns, intended his richly formal exhibition “Everyday Abstract—Abstract Everyday” to be part of this year’s Berlin Biennale. Happily for New Yorkers, his proposal was rejected, and now occupies James Cohan Gallery. The show’s premise, that non-representational art and everyday life are in continual and intimate dialogue, is outwardly simple but contains multitudes—including established Higgs favorites like B. Wurtz, Kim Gordon and Oakland-based collective Creative Growth. Characterizing the works on display as united by a schism from high modernism’s more programmatic approach to abstraction, Mr. Higgs loosely groups paintings, sculptures, mixed-media works and the odd drawings and photographs according to material and method.
Among the delightful juxtapositions that elevate “Everyday Abstract” above the textbook exercise it might have been is the pairing of Michel François’s Bleu Ciel, 2010, a large sheet of crumpled blue paper that signifies an expanse of sky, and Ann Cathrin November Hoibo’s Untitled #06, 2012, a bronze cast of a block of instant noodles. Each takes something utterly familiar and makes it strange. There’s also a lovely sequence of works made from or referencing fiber that gathers together Bill Jenkins’s Bed with Rope and Fence, 2012, with Alexandra Bircken’s Wärmegitter, 2011, a multicolored web of wool stretched across an aluminum frame, and N. Dash’s Untitled, 2012, a black-and-white photograph of a fuzzy heap of yarn.
“Marxism,” curated by Jens Hoffman, director of San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, along with his brother Jacob, threatens initially to be an altogether less comfortable affair. Viewers of the exhibition, at 303 Gallery, might be forgiven for expecting the likes of Alfredo Jaar’s The Marx Lounge, 2010, a library of political theory that formed the forbidding centerpiece of the Kitchen’s recent rabble-rousing group show “Creative Destruction.” Instead, we are presented with a treatise on Marxism tendance Groucho, as the Hoffman brothers investigate the pervasive cultural influence of the Marx Brothers. Specifically, they juxtapose a collection of genuine artifacts related to the legendary comedic team—everything from movie stills, posters and lobby cards to one of Harpo’s signature curly blond wigs, and even a pair of collectively attributed oil paintings—with a selection of artworks by Jack Goldstein, Rodney Graham, Tim Lee, Richard Prince and (naturally) Marcel Duchamp that hinge on a similarly pranksterish wit.
Unfortunately for the curators, the antics of contemporary artists tend to look more than a little nerdy and self-conscious next to the sublime absurdities of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo and Zeppo. Duchamp’s addition of the initials L.H.O.O.Q. to a print of the Mona Lisa in 1919 became the prototype for a thousand subsequent provocations—pronounced out loud in French, the letters sound like the words for “She has a hot ass”—but You Bet Your Life, 2010, Mr. Prince’s reframing of Groucho’s iconic features as a set of quasi-abstract components open to endless recombination, feels plodding when compared to the anarchic Groucho-hosted quiz show after which it is titled. (Perhaps one of his classic “joke paintings,” alluded to by the Hoffmans in an accompanying text, would have cut the ice more effectively.)
In one or two cases, however, the show’s comedy-art face-offs are, if not hilarious, at least satisfyingly neat. In a spoof on the roaring lion of the MGM logo, the Marx Brothers appear in place of the animal, each imitating the original roar until the mute Harpo’s turn rolls around. Initially at a loss, he ultimately replaces the roar with a honk on his bulb horn, gaping along with great gusto. Installed directly opposite this is Mr. Goldstein’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1975, an appropriation of the same logo in which the familiar sequence is looped repeatedly into a hypnotic two-minute film. Here the deadpan mode of the art is a coolly effective counterpoint to the overt fun of the comedy—a straight man to its fool. Mr. Graham’s and Mr. Lee’s own measured variations on the cinematic sight gag in their video and film installations add complexity but little else.
Finally, if the Hoffmans’ title toys with the idea of an ideologically slanted project only to flip it on its head, the title of Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer’s summer group show at Metro Pictures turns on an even more groaning faux-political pun. “Dogma” is concerned not (or at least not overtly) with systems of belief but with, well, dogs. Yes, as the creative community reels from the Walker Art Center’s recent announcement of its inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival, Mr. Jetzer has elected to focus on man’s best friend in a show pitched for the you-know-what days of summer. The results are, as one might expect, pretty uneven, but fun to be around.
The good times start before one even enters the gallery, with a neon text by the Parisian collective Claire Fontaine that quotes a Bertolt Brecht quip, referenced by Theodor Adorno, which translates as “Culture is a Palace Built of Dog Shit.” Inside, the association of dogs with mischief and mess continues with a 1992 painting by Christopher Wool stenciled with the evocative phrase “BAD DOG” and a 2012 pair of photographs by Rosemarie Trockel showing her Pinschers slathered in mud. Best in show, if you’re lucky enough to catch it, is Nina Beier’s Tragedy, 2011, in which a canine performer lies on a Persian rug, convincingly playing dead.