Malevich Cocktails and Bullet Holes: William Kentridge at Marian Goodman, Nate Lowman at Gavin Brown

Soho Eckstein, South African artist William Kentridge’s self-portrait as beneficiary of white privilege, is feeling nostalgic for the clarity of a well-turned lie. Eckstein, as always, remains in Johannesburg, but Mr. Kentridge’s latest stop-motion animated portrait of him is playing at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.

Onto the film’s title, “Other Faces,” fall two fuming black rectangles–a modernist terrorist’s Malevich cocktails–followed by a circle, and then the dissolve into a verdant gray landscape. On a hill in the background, a lonely white movie screen is still standing, but small black animals are moving through the grass in the foreground. Mr. Kentridge makes his animations by erasing and reworking–the drawings he used for this one fill the rest of the gallery–so it’s sometimes hard to tell a shadow from a shape from an erasure. When a small bird crosses the sky, following a billowing red ledger line, it leaves behind it a smudgy trail.

Eckstein is leaning against a window but he can’t see out; his very heaven is only a page from an account book. But against this safely inhuman material sky forms the profile of a dying older woman; black marks like raindrops or inkblots fall around her brow, forming a crown of thorns. And then we move, to the sound of traffic, down from the empty white screen on the hilltop to the city, where one black face after another poses, immobile except for shifting eyes, against another white screen. (Those shifting eyes look like a technical limitation turned to advantage, like rigid masks used to suggest the wary hostility of immobile faces–which makes it an even better trick, since there is no such limitation.)

Somehow the simple black rectangles of the past have turned into cars, and the clear lineaments of colonial reason into a tangle of highways. Eckstein tries to navigate them–where else can he go?–but is stopped dead against a black doppelgänger trying to go the other way. They scream at each other in profile, with a noise like howling crowds, while Mr. Eckstein’s thoughts turn back to better days. Once he was a happy child in a stroller, with a black nanny who loved him. But the child is gone, and the nanny, freed or deprived of her charge, has turned into something else. Once Eckstein went swimming at a country club with the woman who’s now dying–but only snapshots remain, and Eckstein can only read beside her hospital bed. The night sky is dotted with stars and lines, and her face forms against it like a constellation. We see fragments of text: “That Which Is Not Drawn,” “Healing to All Global,” “You Fucken [sic] White Man,” “Just Get Out of Town.” Another, from an early Marx essay, could be either the hidden boast of the oppressing class or the rebel motto of the class defined by opposition: “I am nothing and should be everything.” A thumbs-up. A revolver. Eckstein cradles a dying animal in his arms.

Mr. Kentridge’s starkly smudged animations are so thoroughly black and white that they seem to be missing gray­–but there’s also no white that hasn’t been drawn on or black left unerased. Apartheid has been dismantled, and so has much of the triumph of its defeat, but you can’t remove only one term of a dialectic. (As Marx also says, “If I negate powdered pigtails, I am left with unpowdered pigtails.”) If you do, the hidden structures endure and fester, and you get a leveling down, not a leveling up. In the end, we see Eckstein shoveling dirt for a grave, and then a solid-black figure dancing with two spades. The lonely white screen falls, its ramparts dissolved. The dancing figure turns into a bird. We can only hope that chaos will be fertile: A flower grows from the top down, out of nowhere, on top of the grave.

“I am nothing but should be everything” also encapsulates the grandiose insecurity of naked young ambition. Nate Lowman’s enormous new show “Trash Landing” fills both Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Maccarone Gallery with half a dozen different kinds of art that looks like art. There are large canvases “painted” with sugar and dirt, giant air fresheners and Apple logos, a bank window perforated with bullet holes, collages and silkscreens of images from the news, ranging from the clever to the trite, a suite of obsessively repetitive deconstructions, and sculptures made of plaster and plastic bags and horseshoe pitches. Trying to do everything is the same as committing to nothing, and the size of this show does a severe disservice to the parts of it worth looking at, because it makes it all seem interchangeable. The only discernible reason for showing so much is that it’s all expected to sell–which is fair enough, of course, but no better.


Malevich Cocktails and Bullet Holes: William Kentridge at Marian Goodman, Nate Lowman at Gavin Brown