On View Now: Four Shows in Tribeca on Reimagined Figuration

The fall art season is buzzing and galleries have opened new shows coinciding with the most recent Armory fair.

In Tribeca, four exhibits of work by contemporary artists explore the power of representation in paintings, sculpture and installations. They question our assumptions of beauty and who gets excluded from mainstream narratives, as Ugo Rondinone, Michael Rakowitz, Jesse Mockin and Roberto Lugo offer fresh perspectives on iconographies and how we relate to them.

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Ugo Rondinone, the mask and the masked 

Ugo Rondinone, from ‘the mask and the masked’. Image courtesy of Farah Abdessamad

The Journal Gallery, through September 21st 

Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone presents eight stone sculptures. The rocks hang in the manner of ancient masks, a perception that is reinforced by the presence of pin holes located where eyes would be. At first rudimentary and minimally shaped, the stones quickly show multidimensionality as the pin holes expand or shrink (depending on how you walk the room). They form a cycle—eight masks like the eight lunar phases—and a clock, a movement that contrasts with their individual immobility and bulkiness.

Their physicality channels philosophical reflections on the first forms of work, but also distinctions we might place between prehistorical and other forms of art, as well as the attributes we assign to sophistication. Are these stone sculptures ritualistic, totemic or decorative? They capture the elusiveness of icons and the expanse of an indefinite human face. As nonliving things, they paradoxically guide us as landmarks and forebearers. When does a mask conceal and when does it reveal?

Michael Rakowitz, The Monument, The Monster, and The Maquette 

Michael Rakowitz, ‘The Monument, The Monster and The Maquette’, 2023, site-specific installation at Jane Lombard Gallery, September 2023. Image courtesy of the artist and Jane Lombard Gallery. Photo by Arturo Sanchez.

Jane Lombard Gallery, through October 21st

Michael Rakowitz disentangles historical overlays and unspools legacies of violence in his latest New York City show. His enquiry seems simple at first: what’s in a monument? Hierarchies, nation-building and cultural-aesthetic choices that honor some figures—sure. But quoting Robert Musil, Rakowitz lingers on the evocative suggestion that “there’s nothing more invisible than a monument.” A monument is a material but it’s also an incarnation of erasure and domination in ways that the contemporary eye may not always discern unless it concerns well-known symbols of white supremacy.

With research assistance from Annie Raccuglia, Nick Raffel and Derek Sutfin, Rakowitz excavates the not-so-noble and quirky stories behind selected monuments that illustrate the notion of spoils and transformation. For instance, a statue of Columbus was removed from a Chicago Park in the late 19th century to be melted and recast as President William McKinley, who contributed to dissolving the sovereign status of several indigenous tribes (the statue still stands today). Rakowitz presents other examples across different periods and locations.

Crowning the show is when the archival work meets the conceptual proposition. “I started to think about monuments as monsters,” the artist said in Art Journal Open. The creature-like sculpture American Golem interrogates the complex aesthetics of monuments and its presence stands in the way of reverting to more palatable narratives. To create it, Rakowitz gathered materials sprawling from a mantelpiece and graffitied each constitutive piece to mark its origin. Confronted with such provenance—an assemblage of stolen, looted, unethically appropriated materials benefiting from the labor of enslaved people and indigenous resources—we are left with a changing gaze.

Jesse Mockrin, The Venus Effect 

Jesse Mockrin, ‘Works and deceits’, 2023, Oil on cotton, 78 x 54 in., 198.1 x 137.2 cm. Courtesy James Cohan.

James Cohan, through October 21st 

Mockrin playfully challenges our visual fantasy of Venus, the goddess of love. Through Venus, masters have represented the feminine ideal—voluptuous, seductress, irresistible. She’s a concept, a projection and a body. Mockrin pastiches famous paintings from the Western canon and includes her own 21st-century twists. For instance, Works and deceits (2023) exudes a scene similar to Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863). A naked woman sits on a bed while an attendant in the background carries items for her. In Olympia, a Black servant brings her a bouquet. In Works and deceits, a white servant brings her a robe, as she rushes to leave her bed and the gaze of those who feasted on her displayed nakedness. Both stare at us, breaking the fourth wall and the distance that separates them as subjects from us as lurking spectators.

Her paintings are vignettes of the historical gaze placed on women. Mockrin features diptychs and references to Old European Masters. The details invested in her subject’s hand and fingers elevates the works. Stylistically, Mockrin smooths over her application of paint. The skin of Venus is spotless, seamless, plastic and near-photoshopped. She becomes an uncanny figure, her silhouette almost strangely unreal. Venus needs to aesthetically please; her function is to meet our needs. The mirror she carries isn’t a mark of vanity but rather a reflection of our unrealistic quest to reach an unattainable beauty ideal.

Roberto Lugo, The Gilded Ghetto 

Installation view of Roberto Lugo, ‘The Gilded Ghetto’. Photo by Joe Kramm, courtesy R & Company

R & Company, through October 27

Roberto Lugo’s debut solo show in New York City packs a lot of energy and echoes the distinctive voice of the ceramicist-activist. His Afro-Latino heritage and his upbringing in North Philadelphia are front and center and reclaimed in conversation with other artistic contexts. For instance, Lugo re-interprets James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room at the National Museum of Asian Art in a wall-mounted monumental installation, Pigeon Crib. There, objects depict Puerto Rican scenes, motifs and animals in vibrant hues, on glazed stoneware and china.

The show takes a breathtaking turn in his “Orange and Black” series, in which Lugo imaginatively expresses personal narration via classically-inspired amphorae. The title of the series nods to black-figure Greek pottery painting, which peaked between 7th-5th century BCE. Lugo’s large amphorae are divided into multi-tier segments like comic strips. His Black figures narrate different stories. In School to Prison Pipeline (2022), we see children becoming adults in an ascending reading. From pupils carrying backpacks to the racialized convicts line up with their food trays. The Day We Fought W.T.O. (Whites Taking Over), 2022, incorporates visual elements related to hip-hop culture and his childhood neighborhood. On the amphora’s handles: an afro comb, a knife and fire hydrants. Some of these symbols point out pain, others simple forms of joy for children who didn’t have much else to play with. “This is a very personal exhibition for me, the first time I’m predominantly sharing stories from my life,” he said in an artist Q&A, adding, “I’m communicating in a more direct and literal way, whereas before, it was about my role as a potter and commemorating others.” The result is riveting.

On View Now: Four Shows in Tribeca on Reimagined Figuration