‘Looking Back / The 7th White Columns Annual’ at White Columns

Courtesy White Columns
Courtesy White Columns

2012 is over, but “Looking Back,” which opened on Thursday, presents a compelling case for a bit of nostalgia. The exhibition features work shown in New York during the past year. Selecting is curator Richard Birkett of Artists Space, whose recent work includes fall’s fashionable Bernadette Corporation retrospective.

“Looking Back” opens with portraits of artists by artists: Alice Neel’s magisterial 1964 painting of the actor and civil rights leader Hugh Hurd commands the room. (The painting was included in David Zwirner’s excellent Neel retrospective.) Next to it is Alex Israel’s As It Lays (2012) the video series in which the young L.A.-based artist, speaking in a deadpan monotone, interviews D-list celebrities. The pairing emphasizes a formal rhyme between the subjects’ poses. Jason Simon’s collection of films, books and ephemera by the French filmmaker Chris Marker, on display in a vitrine, presents a more abstract form of portraiture, as does Kaucyila Brooke’s starkly lit photographs of the deceased author and punk feminist icon Kathy Acker’s worn clothing (lots of Vivienne Westwood).

But “Looking Back” also looks forward—the best works here were made for the exhibition space. Sam Pulitzer and Bill Hayden’s Korean tattoo-parlor dragon, an adhesive vinyl cut-out wrapping around White Columns’ storefront glass, greets visitors to the show; at night, its eyes are illuminated by tactical laser sights. Yuji Agematsu has created a sizable installation in one room, Not Yet Titled (2011). On one wall, painted a murky gold evoking both Japanese screen painting backgrounds and Warhol’s silver factory walls, are pinned hundreds of sad, pretty, bedraggled bits of trash and detritus the artist has collected from New York’s streets since the 1980s: little nests of matted hair, bits of glittering unidentifiable material, melted plastic and asphalt, lint felted by the street. The stuff is organized according to formal as well as more historical qualities (time of day, season and place found were suggested to me as systematizing principles), but a dominant archival strategy is not apparent: instead, the loose taxonomy of flotsam and jetsam, pinned to the wall like so many urban waste butterflies, is hung in a way that evokes the process of discovery that resulted in the pieces being preserved in the first place.

Much of the work in the show has been similarly repurposed from the major contemporary exhibitions of the last year. Sites include Gareth James’s “Human Metal,” his Vertigo-like meditation on a spiraling scribble found in a photograph of French philosopher Louis Althusser (from Miguel Abreu), Sam Lewitt’s terrific installation from the Whitney Biennial, Martin Beck’s monochromes pieced together from polygons of white fabric from his solo show at 47 Canal, and Liam Gillick and Henry Bond photographs from Mr. Gillick’s collaboratively oriented retrospective at CCS Bard. It wouldn’t be a summary of 2012 without a piece by Bjarne Melgaard, the year’s most omnipresent figure, represented here by his interview of venerable queer theorist Leo Bersani (first screened at The Kitchen in April). Because the works at White Columns are fragments of their original installations, their insertion sometimes feels homeopathic, a repurposed fragment pointing toward a larger whole.

If there is a fault to Mr. Birkett’s curation, it is that there’s something low-stakes about a show stacked with material pre-vetted by so many of-the-moment galleries like Bortolami, Alex Zachary, Real Fine Arts, Reena Spaulings and Essex Street. The display exemplifies an extreme tastefulness that borders on being too correct, as if the curator were gunning for an “A” from some imagined audience. Mr. Birkett, here, seems less concerned with discovering underrepresented work or presenting new ideas than with lending his ear to just the right people. On the other hand, if you were out of town for much of 2012, or just don’t get out much, Mr. Birkett has done a commendable job of assembling work from the shows you probably should have seen (or pretended that you did).

And there is plenty of pleasure to be had in this exhibition. Three of essayist and art critic Tan Lin’s colorful books are nailed to the wall in one of the funnier text/art moments in recent memory; Moyra Davey’s hourlong video Les Goddesses (2011), a sustained meditation on the relationship between literary and personal history that I missed at both Murray Guy gallery and its screening at the Whitney Biennial, gets its own room here. A sole example from Harry Smith’s historical knot collection is a mystically oriented take on geometric abstraction in the form of a complex cat’s cradle.

The show’s ratio of déjà vu to discovery will depend on what you saw this past year. The ideal viewer of this exhibition might well be someone who missed all these works the first time around, spent 2012 deep in the studio or abroad, and is discovering them here. But these artworks are also absorbing if you’re looking back. (Through Feb. 23, 2013)

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