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Virtual is Not Better than Reality

But it’s much, much better than nothing

Kathe Burkhart, Shit Happens: from the Liz Taylor Series (NightWatch) (2007)

BY Christian Viveros-Fauné
art and culture critic

In Must See

“Human beings are not virtual; we are sensory beings. We are only sustained if our physical, mental and spiritual needs are met. Escaping into virtual reality is an escape—better to learn to live real life authentically.”

The above is taken from the comments section of a December 2019 post. That was then: when people could still stroll inside art galleries and museums and shops without a care in the world. This is now: when covid-19 has forced two thirds of the planet indoors to live like city chickens inside heated and air-conditioned coops.

Presently, the idea of a day of actual gallery-and-museum-going is a non-starter, much like Wisconsin’s July Democratic National Convention. Enter “the interwebs”, as Dubya dubbed them. Newly mobilized by galleries, museums and independent curators, they have moved from parallel reality to the only available option for seeing and experiencing art beyond your own walls.

New York City decreed all non-essential businesses closed on 22 March. Liquor stores and laundromats made the cut; galleries and museums didn’t. How should the art world cope with the new normal? The answer is at everyone’s fingertips: by mounting virtual showrooms for a variety of displays, from art fairs to gallery shows to museum exhibitions. The following is a round-up of some of the web’s best online shows in an already crowded field. Virtual may not be better than real, but it’s much, much better than nothing.

“How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?” (Ongoing)

Carlos Motta, Self-Portrait with Death # 1 (1996-2018)

An online exhibition, co-organized by independent curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen, as “a platform for the exchange of ideas at this time of crisis”, this show without walls rolls out individual artist presentations several times a week. Among the contributions: Deborah Kass’s red, yellow and blue acrylic-and-neon painting titled Emergency (2019); Ai Weiwei’s photo of a doctor reviewing the data of a roomful of intubated covid-19 patients in a Wuhan hospital; Dread Scott and Jenny Polak’s retro rainbow poster demanding the world Redistribute Health (2020), and Janet Biggs’s photos of life as lived inside a spacesuit.

The site’s “About” button provides its generous raison d’être: “This project is not a 501 (c)(3). It is not a commercial website, nor is it a fundraiser. Works will not be for sale through this website. It is not sponsored by a corporation, teargas distributor, or pharmaceutical company. It is purely a place of exchange, a place to vent or cry, share anxieties or plan a revolution.”

“Material Matters” (7-21 April) at Pace

Lee Ufan embraces the possibilities of ceramics with Untitled (2016) in “Material Matters”© 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An exhibition staged by one of the gallery pioneers of virtual space, “Material Matters” tests the limits of what’s visually appreciable in online displays. Curated by Andria Hickey in collaboration with Joe Baptista and Danielle Forest, the show underscores material as experienced digitally in the work of 11 brand-name artists.

Robert Rauschenberg, the inventor of the “combine”—a signature mash-up of painting and sculpture—presents Quorum (Bones and Unions) (1975), a “rag-mud” wall work made from paper pulp, ground tamarind seeds, copper sulfate and other materials. The Dutch art collective Studio Drift furnishes a chess-board-like sculpture made from materials found in the iPhone 4S (it includes glass, stainless steel, graphite, copper, tungsten, cobalt, arsenic and gold).

And Lynda Benglis, Arlene Shechet, Richard Tuttle, and Lee Ufan embrace the possibilities of ceramics, that most pliable medium, in artworks that, alternately, appear to be made of sticky taffy and shiny metal. Lovingly detailed video pans of objets d’art drive the “materialist” ideal home.

“Gerhard Richter: Painting After All” (Ongoing) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau (2014) © Gerhard Richter 2019

Thanks to The Primer, a digital channel the museum originally rolled out for online presentations, loads of online material exists to relay the vastness of the current Gerhard Richter survey—the last show scheduled at Met Breuer, the museum’s short-lived Madison Avenue extension.

While the Met’s current digital presentation may not contain all 100 works in the Richter show—paintings, glass sculptures, prints and photographs among them—it does feature, among other gifts, an exhibition preview, Richter’s gnostic commentary, footage of the artist in his studio and a horizontal scroll of nine images that represent various stages of a single painting from the artist’s “Birkenau” series.

The picture moves from the realistic representation of a black-and-white photograph of a Nazi death camp to the scene’s gradual obliteration: a heavily impastoed, squeegeed and ruptured abstract surface. Lest we forget why Richter’s canvases matter, the online presentation relays the artist’s message in his own words: “Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.”

“Radical Optimism” (7-20 April) at Kavi Gupta

Inka Essenhigh’s Living room 2600 C.E. (2019), from her exhibition “Uchronia”, imagines a “what if” universe in which humanity and the ecosphere are one

A cheery salvo against 24/7 dread typified by the stock phrase “these uncertain times”, “Radical Optimism” looks to a post-pandemic future with a display of life-affirming art.

Drawn from this Chicago-based gallery’s international stable, the exhibition avails itself of some serious uplift: dirty jokes “tiny revolutions”, juicy Technicolor palettes, beaucoup egalitarian content and no small measure of pride (of the feminist, ecological, Native American and AfriCOBRA variety).

Among the works on view: paintings from Inka Essenhigh’s 2019 exhibition “Uchronia, which imagine a “what if” universe in which humanity and the ecosphere are one; Wadsworth Jarrell’s classic acrylic on canvas portrait of an African-American blues musician juxtaposed with the faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo and the title I Am Better Than Those Motherfuckers and They Know It (1969); David Gibson’s disco-inspired, kaleidoscopically-patterned ceremonial drums; and Tony Tasset’s ingenious Brancusi-totem-meets-stack-of-bipolar-emoticons Mood Sculpture (2018). Feel-good art for feel-bad times, indeed.

Louise Bourgeois: Drawings 1947-2007” (Ongoing) at Hauser & Wirth

Louise Bourgeois, The Family (2007)

Though something of a latecomer to the digital sphere, Hauser & Wirth has gone big with its inaugural online exhibition. Coinciding with the Voorlinden museum’s show, “Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment”, the global gallery’s first effort at an online show showcases 14 drawings by the late feminist icon plus a short film of the artist in her studio.

Wispy yet intense, the drawings seize on archetypal imagery Bourgeois consistently recycled from her childhood: “there are rooms with fissures as big as manholes, butterflies that suggest splayed female forms, bodies grappling messily, and scissors that refer back to her family’s tapestry restoration business.

“Drawings are thought feathers, they are ideas I seize in mid-flight and put down on paper,” the Franco-American wrote in reference to her regular practice. Daily meditations, they propose, among other things, a way for art lovers and artists alike to keep their mental houses in order.

“Platform: New York” (3 April-1 May) at David Zwirner

Zsófia Keresztes’ The Failure (2020) is featured in “Platform: New York” courtesy of Elijah Wheat Showroom. Photo: Philip Hinge/ Dávid Biró. Courtesy of the artist and Elijah Wheat Showroom

The first giga-gallery to colonize virtual space, David Zwirner has been putting together smart, uncluttered online exhibitions for its artists since 2017. This new project, “Platform: New York”, is the same but different. A viewing room featuring works by artists who exhibit at 12 smaller New York galleries, “Platform” kicks off an important campaign of gallery-to-gallery co-operation smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic (future editions of “Platform” will focus on London and global galleries).

Among the works on view are thickly brushed, cartoony oil paintings by Keegan Monaghan (his canvases were standouts at the Whitney Biennial), courtesy of James Fuentes; large curvilinear sculptures by Zsófia Keresztes done in grout, foam and glass mosaic, courtesy of Elijah Wheat Showroom; pattern and declaration collages of ink, paper, photographs, textiles and found objects by Troy Michie, courtesy of Company; and an institutional critique as an audioguide by Park McArthur (the work debuted at MoMA), courtesy of Essex Street.

A virtual monument to enlightened self-interest, the project promotes collaboration as a vaccine against present and future troubles.

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